In studying up on my family’s genealogy in 2017 I found ancestors who fought both North and South. They are mostly cousins. I am the direct descendant of Private Samuel Chick of Company E of the 44th Tennessee. The regiment was one I had been chasing my entire life without knowing it. I am fascinated by Shiloh. I had written a book about the first major attempt to take Petersburg and was working on a book on the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, the upcoming Grant’s Left Hook. I did some research for another book on Tullahoma. I wondered what he would think of his direct descendant writing about him without knowing he was there.
Writing about this on Facebook came with two responses. One was from my friend Terrence Washington, a stand-up comic in Los Angeles. He said he would be proud of me. The comment that followed was from an old friend (who I shall call Harvey) who said Samuel Chick would be upset that Terrence was not a slave. Such is the nature of discourse in this decade.
Harvey is a troublemaker by nature. My response was merely that I did not know Samuel Chick, so I have no judgment about him. When Harvey stayed at my apartment months later, he gleefully thought his comment angered me. It did not. It was too ignorant and embarrassing to anger me. At any rate, Harvey cut off ties to me. Such is the nature of the purity spiral and why I hardly post anything of importance online save at the Emerging Civil War blog.
I was in for a more profound shock than Harvey’s comments. Samuel Chick seemed like a model soldier. His records show he was healthy and was not a disciplinary problem. He fought at Shiloh and Perryville but deserted the day before Stones River. I can only guess why, but he likely knew what was coming the next day. Maybe he heard the bands on both sides play “Home Sweet Home.” I do not know, but I do know Samuel Chick had three children back home in Lincoln County. He ran back to Benetta and had six more children. Samuel Chick never returned to the ranks. He was stripped from the rolls in March 1863 and Benetta gave birth just after Braxton Bragg lost Tullahoma. Another was born a month before William Tecumseh Sherman started his march on Atlanta. Such are the tides of history.
I come from William Chick, born 1869. Would that have happened had Samuel Chick stayed in the army? No. Even if he had survived different children would have been born at different times. Such is the nature of biology. However, I do know the 44th Tennessee took heavy losses at Stones River. It was the regiment’s worst battle. Samuel Chick was certainly lucky.
Do I have anything of Samuel Chick, such as a picture, letter, or relic? Nothing but William Joseph Chick’s vague memory of seeing Samuel Chick’s musket above the fireplace of his Tennessee homestead. Yet, that is only my father’s vague memory from the 1940s. What I do have is myself.
In 2019 my friend wanted to go to Shiloh for the dawn patrol ranger walk to Fraley Field where the battle started. She is not a Civil War historian, but has interest in the war and the battle. Hers is in part genealogical, being related to Julia Dent and Sarah Knox Taylor, who respectively married Ulysses S. Grant and Jefferson Davis. So we drove up there, talking all the while. We rested as best we could, and got there at 4:30 a.m., the second people to arrive, the sky exploding with stars. In the pitch darkness we marched across the field on the Confederate route. I looked behind me where my ancestor was posted. He was hopefully sleeping before the hell of April 6. But who knows. He could have been awake, praying, urinating, or joking. Then dawn came and the first shots were fired and then he was on his feet no doubt, about to face the trial of his life. Luckily he was not wounded. Was he a coward? Did he straggle? Did he fight like hell? There are no letters to know what he thought and felt, at least none I know of. No random mentions I have seen in the letters and memoirs written by others. My attempts to contact the extended family, and see if there is anything, have gone nowhere.
I am always walking across the fields of my ancestors. On my grandmother’s side they lived in New Orleans since 1832. They are people I know so little about. The stories grow strained and oral traditions die off, even as letters fade or are thrown out like so much garbage. They are not alone. The mass of humanity is unknown even to their kin. I have a faded picture of a Confederate private that my father bought in an antique store. There is no inscription. The anonymous soldier merely sits there on my shelf.
The men with us on the dawn patrol (or in our case the skirmish line) talked of regiments their ancestors were in. I heard the words “16th Louisiana” and “24th Tennessee.” I would have said “44th Tennessee,” but I needed to watch my footing in the dark. One man, when talking of why the Confederates charged so hard said “They are thinking they are on our land and we are going straight ahead and get them the Hell out of here.” Yet, here is the rub. I know many who would want to curse Samuel Chick or not care. After all, he was a Confederate, and unworthy of honor or praise.
Yet, here I am. Samuel Chick may have been a bad man. I am not talking a Confederate, but a cheat, liar, rapist, or something else. He could have been kind, generous, shrewd, or something else altogether. He could have been all of the above. I do not know Samuel Chick. But I do know he survived and after that dawn patrol I walked along the woods where he stood and looked out over Wood’s Field and towards Fraley Field and imagined as best I could Sunday April 6, 1862. I am writing a book about Shiloh right now. I am writing about what Samuel Chick possibly considered the worst day of his life.
We are told do not mock the dead. For the famous mockery is fine. We have evidence of what they did and thought. To mock or praise Samuel Chick is folly. All I can do is empathize with a man torn from his family by war, who saw the worst of it at Shiloh, saw some fighting at Perryville, and decided on the eve of Stones River that it was enough.