The Civil War

A Boy's Impressions of the War

Contributed by W. H. JewelWilliam Hank Jewel - Photographer.

Printed in The Pittsburgh Bulletin
Volume 66 No 12 - July 5, 1913
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Now that there is so much talk among the old soldiers about the great re-union at Gettysburg and about the great battle fought there, perhaps it would be interesting to know what a boy of thirteen thought and felt about the war. Our home was not close to the seat of war and none of my immediate family was in the army, so that I think my impressions were, to a great extent, impersonal. My impressions are not so much of a struggle between the Southern and Northern states over questions of principle, involving the institution of slavery, as they are of War. Just war in the abstract.

There was no railroad in the Southwestern Virginia county where I lived, nor any local paper. All the county's mail was carried on one horse from the nearest railroad station, twenty-two miles distant. Hence, "the news was nothing new. My father, though a bookworm, did not think it advisable to subscribe for newspapers because newspapers gave detailed and horrible accounts of murders and such things as he did not want his children to read. To my eager mind the talk of the occasional visitor seemed inspired, and the "Circuit Rider" seemed to bring news from far countries. About 1859 our visitors began to talk about "Abolitionists." One man told of being down at Harper's Ferry and seeing some of them hanged. I remember vividly of him saying that one of them, before walking up on the scaffold, stopped and shook hands with another, bidding him goodbye. And that one of the onlookers said, "What are you telling him goodbye for, you are both going to put up at the same hotel." I did not know what "abolitionist” really meant, and not being inflamed by partisanship I felt the full ugliness of the brutal remark.

But when our young men began to volunteer and form companies and elect officers and get uniforms, I began to think that war was a great thing. Every week they went to "the courthouse" to drill and I often saw them. The drummers and fifers were the ones I most envied as their uniforms were very rich in color and their high caps beautifully tasseled. I did not see our see volunteers when they marched away to Richmond, but I remember that I was thrilled when an old gentleman asked my father if he had any late news from "the army.” The young men who had drilled and put on uniforms had risen inexpressibly in dignity - they had become "the army."

The last part of the July following we heard the startling news of the first battle of Manasses. Neighbors were hurrying about, telling news, asking questions, discussing the situation and speculating on the outcome. I went down into the fields one evening that week where an old man was harvesting. He asked me how I would have liked to be in the big fight. I told him, with a feeling between fatality and pride, that I might as well have died as any of them. He asked me if I would have died for the cause and I told him yes. I was sure I would have marched right up to the front. Afterwards an incident occurred that tested my bravery.

One evening while walking out on the State road I was overtaken by Lieutenant Clark, a young officer of our county. He was driving a two-horse wagon and at his invitation I mounted to the seat beside him. In climbing up I noticed a long suspicious-looking box and it the Lieutenant explained that the box contained the body of Colonel Lane, who had been killed in battle. He took up from under the seat the Colonel's coat and showed me where the bullet went in. The fine grey coat, ornamented with gold braid and shining buttons, all stained and stiffened with blood fastened itself on my memory and I can see it yet. I remember asking Mr. Clark if there was not a great deal of crying on the field after the battle was over. He replied in a tone between amusement and disgust, “No, no crying over dead soldiers. We all have to die." General Lee, who wept aloud over his dead soldiers left on the field of Gettysburg, was a bigger man than Lieutenant Clark.

About the end of the first year of war the Floyd county boys began to come home on furloughs. They were noticeably demoralized. From clean, well-bred, quiet-mannered boys, many of them had fallen into the ways of coarse men, chewed, spat, drank and cursed recklessly. One young man I recall in particular who went away, apparently a gentleman, came back a boisterous, hopeless moral wreck.

Then there was a second reenlistment "for three years or during the war." These boys had not up to that time had any really hard times. Some of their comrades had been killed and many more had died in camp of measles? But none of the happy-go-lucky crowd seemed to have any thought of such ill fortune befalling them. The great victory their army had gained at Manasses seemed to have drowned their judgment in a sea of optimism. But next year the ones who were fortunate enough to get furloughs were not so hilarious. They seemed a little crestfallen and sobered. They spoke a great deal of the insufficiency of food and their long forced marches through deep woods and with their clothes caked with mud. The next year was still worse. I came upon a few cavalrymen one day out upon the pike. They had been up the country on some mission or other and were on their way back down the valley to join Jubal Early. They had just eaten something and were letting their poor battered horses browse along the fence corners and rest awhile. They were armed with the "seven-shooter" carbines which I thought were clumsy looking guns. While I stood and considered their plight and asked questions they got up to go, and one of them said he would rather die right there than go back to that horrible valley. I was overwhelmed with sadness and pity and if I could have ended the war then I know I would have done it, child though I was, even at great personal sacrifice. But, of course, this mood passed and soon after, perhaps the same day, fought a mimic battle with some other boys in which our only weapon was crabapples.

But the last year of the war was very sad for everybody. I remember standing near my home one day looking across the fields. A dark gloomy pall seemed settled upon the world. The trees even looked sad. "The War" was still going on and it seemed as if it would go on forever. Want was beginning to be disagreeably familiar. Sheltered and isolated though we were, there "were many necessaries that were harder and harder to get. Salt was a luxury. There was a supply of it stored at the courthouse, but it was dispensed with the utmost sparingness according to the number in family, the amount of pork to be salted, the size of beef, etc. I remember going to town for our salt and answering the usual questions. I put the weight of our beef at 500 pounds. A bystander said, "A pretty large beef." The old man who doled out the precious article said drily, "Yes, beeves are all crackers this year." I felt deeply insulted. But just the same I was glad to get my portion and get it safely home.

As the bitter fight went on and got more desperate, almost no furloughs were given. And then there were some cases of desertion. One young man deserted because he "saw nothing in the fight for him." Not dating to sleep at his home he took bedding to a den in the woods. He was spied upon and discovered and when the detailed men came upon him he started to run but they shot him down. Carrying him to his mother wrapped in one of the covers under which he had been sleeping, they roughly remarked to her, "Here is your damned old quilt and your boy in it." In the spring of sixty-five we learned that Stoneman's brigade was headed for Floyd county and picking up all the good horses they could find. On the evening they were expected we took our horses and hid them in the woods, being careful to give them plenty to eat to keep them quiet. They did not pass our way but a few days later my mother ventured to ride up to town and encountered a detachment of the bluecoats. They accused her of being a spy, doubtless from mere wantonness, for upon her spirited denial of it the leader apologized. He told her he would have to take her horse, however, and she was forced to walk home and carry her saddle.

It was not long after that we heard of Lee's surrender, and then the Southern soldiers began to pass in large squads, small squads and even singly, but thousands passed that one road. They were great men. They had never deserted nor disobeyed orders. Some of them had fought through the whole four years of real war without furlough or respite. The end found them ragged, starving, practically penniless. They had given four years of precious youth and in many cases sacrificed health and education forever. With soiled and ragged clothes, sore feet and sad faces they trudged on toward roofless homes and graves not yet green, for death-had not confined his work to the field, the camp, nor the hospital. But they trudged home to make a New South. And they have made it. The remnant of veterans at Gettysburg represents as heroic men as ever caused the ground to tremble under their double-quick step or caused the enemy to tremble at the sound of their charging yell.

If you would like more information on the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, please check out the following resources: