Last afternoon, I stopped by the Jackson’s Flank Attack site at Chancellorsville battlefield for “coffee with the XI Corps.” As I sat under one of the trees looking east over the fields, I was thinking about the things the Union soldiers left behind when they were surprised by the attacking Confederates. This sentence from John O. Casler’s Four Years With The Stonewall Brigade started the thought train:
We ran through the enemy’s camps where they were cooking supper. Tents were standing, and camp – kettles were on the fire full of meat. I saw a big Newfoundland dog lying in one tent as quietly as if nothing had happened.[i]
The dog is unique in the piles of things left behind in the surprise attack, and I started wondering about all the other things the soldiers might have left behind that evening. Looking through other accounts of what the soldiers were doing prior to the surprise and quick forming for battle or retreat reveals more common place items. Cooking utensils, cards and dice, blankets and bedrolls (if the unlucky napper did have to time to take the items with him), tents, and personal items like letters or photographs would have been more likely lost.
While the military and camping equipment could be replaced with relative ease, losing personal items was like leaving a piece of memory or a chapter of life lying open on the battlefield for strangers to find. At least one young woman teased that she wouldn’t give a newly recruited Union soldier her photograph:
When I went to see my girl that night I felt considerably puffed up. As it was a good-by call, I asked for her picture. ” What,” exclaimed she, “and have some stranger take it out of your pocket if you are killed? I guess not.” That wasn’t very pleasant. Getting killed wasn’t in the bargain. I didn’t feel a bit comfortable at such a gloomy possibility. But when I left the house I had the picture of a very pretty girl in my pocket. The girls of those days were patriotic, and he indeed was a poor soldier who had not in his pocket a picture of “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”[ii]
If a soldier died and had a photograph with him, that image could sometimes be a way to identify him. The story about Amos Humiston illustrates this; he was killed at Gettysburg and the photograph of his three children found in his hands led to a newspaper campaign which eventually resulted in the fallen soldier’s identification and care for his widow and orphans.
Sometimes, enemy soldiers particularly enjoyed finding the personal effects. Some rifled through personal letters and delighted to write in their own letters home what the enemy thought about them. Others would send home “souvenirs ” picked up in enemy camps or off the fallen soldiers of the other side.
John Casler, the same Confederate soldier who noted the dog at Chancellorsville, wrote about another interesting incident during the flank attack. It starts off with a scene typical of disarming a wounded prisoner, turns into a possible plundering, and then takes a surprising twist in the retelling of the event:
I saw a wounded man lying beside the road and had got past him; but, noticing he was an officer, I ran back to him to get his sword and pistol. I asked him if he was wounded badly. He said he was not. He was shot through the foot, but thought he would lie there until the fight was over; that he was a Captain of some Ohio regiment. I took off his belt and sword, which was a very fine one, but I found no pistol in the scabbard [holster?]. I asked him where the pistol was, and he said he supposed he must have lost it in the fight; that he did not know it was gone; but I thought he had it in his bosom, so I unbuttoned his coat and searched him for it, but could not find it. He declared he did not have it, but he had a fine gold watch and chain. I was looking at it when he told me to take it along; but I would not do it. I told him that as he was wounded and a prisoner I would let him keep it.[iii]
Not everyone was so generous, and I wonder how many personal items like watches, photographs, and letters were left behind and then snatched or destroyed during the Chancellorsville Flank Attack.
It was something different to think about as I sat under the big tree and looked across the newly hayed fields which had been a very different scene 158 years earlier. It’s common to reduce battles to lines on a map or focus on the towering figures in history and memory from a combat moment. It’s also important to remember that the lines on the maps represent hundreds or thousands of “common soldiers” who had their own stories—often represented by the personal items they carried or left behind.
P.S. I don’t know what happened to the dog, but I hope someday we’ll find out more about the furry friend in a letter or regimental history.
[i] John O. Casler. Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade. (Girard: Appeal Publishing Company, 1906). Digital copy accessed through Google Books. Original page number 143.
[ii] Joseph E. Crowell. The Young Volunteer: The Everyday Experiences of a Soldier Boy in the Civil War. (1906). Digital copy accessed through Google books. Original page number 12.
[iii] John O. Casler. Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade. (Girard: Appeal Publishing Company, 1906). Digital copy accessed through Google Books. Original page number 145.