War Papers

John C. Black, Late Brigadier General, U.S. Volunteers,
Paper Read before the
Paper read before the Illinois Commandery, June 9, 1892
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States

Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
(December 2007)

On a recent occasion I said, speaking of the men who entered the service; “They who first went forth to battle were the young, dedicated with more than Jewish fervor for the cause of the country; and after them went the stalwart fathers, whose hearts yearned for their brave boys in the field, and yet agonized for wife and children. I know of no sublimer character than the American Husband and Father of 1861-65, turning from the quiet and plenty his own industry had gathered, the home which was filled with the rewards of his toil, the summer of woman’s love, and the prattle of baby voices; away from the city, the village street, or the fragrant solitude of the farm; away from the sanctity of domestic joy, --- to the roar of the camps and the whirlwind of war; standing in battle by his veteran son; folding him, wounded, in his arms, father’s and comrade’s at once; laying him down among the slain, when the horrible day was done, to rest in the long trenches under the stars of the flag, still and glorious forever; then, while the man within him cried for his mate far away, and the young hero gone, to turn to steel in the presence of duty, and solemnly, as became a man, renew the onward march to triumph, and perchance to death! No hireling service this; no substitute work for bounty, doled by the coward to the venal; no Hessian greed that matched blood against gold, --- but manhood’s work, sweet and becoming, for the land of his love. This is the greatest character, --- The American Husband and Father turned to the volunteer. Compared with this, all others in our history are colorless and uninteresting. And as time goes on, our admiration will increase and broaden, it will take on tenderer tones, and he will appear more and more majestic. The final typical group of the war has not yet been fixed in marble and bronze. When it shall be, we will have this figure I have sketched in the hour of his parting, while around him will stand the beloved of his life, urging yet withholding, and, over all, the solemn genius of home and country pointing onward to where the flag waves in the thunderstorms of war.”

And of the truth of this statement I become more thoroughly convinced year by year as my own life shows, in its ripening relations, the awful burden laid upon the Man of Family who became a volunteer. I did not appreciate the situation while in the service, for many reasons.

I was myself a young man of twenty-two years; my brother, who served with me, was about eighteen. The company in which I enlisted was the Eleventh Indiana regiment, for the three month’s service, consisted, among others, of thirty-three college boys from all the classes below senior, who had been, in the main, members of the College Cadets. The company I afterwards enlisted for the Thirty-seventh Illinois regiment, excluding perhaps eight or ten of its numbers, would hardly have averaged nineteen years; and the regiment itself, recruited in various parts of the State, in July, August, and September of 1861, would scarcely have raised that average to twenty-two years.

We had perhaps better dispose of some statistical matters at this point. There have been records examined, as to age, of 1,012,273 of the 2,750,000 enlistments in the Union Army, --- about two-fifths of the whole number; and the doctrine of average will apply to all when such large numbers are involved. In other words, that which is true of two-fifths is practically true of five-fifths.

Now, of these 1,012,273 men, 133,447 enlisted at the age of eighteen and under, 90,215 at nineteen, and in about the same proportion up to those of twenty-five years old, of whom were 46,626; decreasing rapidly to those of forty-four, of whom there were only 16,070.

Examiners have estimated, as the results of these figures, that twelve and a half per cent of all the army were boys eighteen years old and under; nine per cent nineteen and under, and so on. Of the boys of eighteen and under we know that some few enlisted at fifteen, many at sixteen and thousands at seventeen; the pious frauds that were practiced in this operation, let us hope, are all forgiven, and the amiable perjuries all wiped away by the bloody tears that fell like summer-rain on the false records.

Thirty per cent at twenty and under; 825,000 boys in the war!

On the other side the same proportion will, upon investigation, doubtless be found true. And indeed, owing to the false statements made as to age, I suspect if we could know absolutely, that the proportion of youth on both sides was larger than my figures show. But they are vivid enough. Now, how did these “lambs of the fold,” these beloved of American households, bear themselves? Like Caesar’s twin!

“Danger and I are brothers; twin lions whelped at one birth, and I the elder and more terrible.” For, while I claim for the family man who became a volunteer the station and dignity of the heroic, yet I know that the boys furnished forth many of the individual heroes. And this is the nature of things. Age is cautious; it reads dangerous ways with tentative steps; its visor is always down; its sword in hand. Its ranks are the phalanx knit together by the trust of years; or the Tenth Legion so long at Caesar’s side; or the Ironsides, whose yea was Cromwell’s, and whose nay was Fate’s; or the Old Guard, welded by the fire of fifteen years’ campaigns into a sentient, single mass. Age tests, and pauses on the perilous edge; it has anxieties; it judges the future by the past; and knows that in war the sunset of battle-days is the solemn pyre builded by nature for the bloody dead!

But youth! Who shall measure or describe it, when, under the flag it loves, for a cause it honors, with gay and gallant tread, It launches Its speedy attack upon the foe; who shall picture its daring, its rushing, splendid, exuberant advance; its ringing shout of defiance; its joyous challenge to the fray; its gallantry in action; its fervor in assault; its chivalry in victory! Who but youth can believe its dreams true, its splendid fancies real; that its is the champion arm, and it’s the hand that wields the omnipotent thunder of truth and majestic purpose, and that if death come it would come only as a herald of immortality.

And so thought and felt our Boys in the War. They were out in front of the picket-lines; they preceded the regular advance; they were far off on the flanks; they peered from every thicket, with curious eyes, for the first glimpse of the foe; from the craggy tops of the mountains they surveyed plain and city; and when the battle-line was formed, they were in place and obedient to orders,. They died, oh, so many of them! They lived, --- thank God for their survival! and having trodden all the mazy rounds of the mighty Rebellion, they piled their guns, sheathed their swords, turned peaceful citizens, and here they are, all about us, gray, but ready for duty! Many of them are now a bit rheumatic; they have so far compromised with treason that they have, on winter evenings, often in your hearing, borrowed the motto from South Carolina’s palmetto flag, “Noli me tangere,” or in paternal English, “Boy, keep off my lame foot!”

Ah, well, those winter evenings, and especially on the evenings the old Boys spend here, we have many communings with each other and with our comrade Boys that have gone before. We then can see again the flushing cheeks and flashing eyes of the early camp days: we see the cheeks bronzing in the Southern sun; we note the roughening beard as its curls about the face; in the manly fringe all boys aspire to; we note the deepening voice, the stronger look that puts by youth’s mirth and takes on the stern air of camps. We recall their pranks, their pleasures, our follies, our glorious call to supreme exaltation. We remember, --- O memory! thou saddest servant of the mind! --- we remember, when the rush was ended, and the fire dead, and the clouds lifted, and the thunders stilled, --- we remember the red rain on the grass, the pale face in the shadows, the still form whose animate self had flown to God and his mercies.

And what was the effect wrought by long service on the surviving youngsters? As varied as the vicissitudes of their military lives and the metal of which they were made! The sad truth is, that a vast multitude were wasted away in body and soul. Take the most gallant navy that ever sailed, and in long voyages some ships will sink; and some, beaten in hull and rigging, torn and defaced by the elements, will enter port only to be condemned, or cherished as mementos, like Old Ironsides; and while they may still carry the flag at mast-head, will never more bear the thunders of the nation in sea strife, nor be freighted with precious stores; they will be broken up for old lumber, or abandoned on the deep, and the waves will rock them, and by and by the sands will clasp them, as they sink to unrelinquishing depths, while their stark timbers for a time point to their resting-place.

Multitudes of the Boys acquired roving habits which drove them to foreign lands or to the adventurous life of the mines, or to the more perilous of civic pursuits in which they rapidly perished; some, with young natures, bent and distorted by lack of home influences during the formative period of life, kept the wild and loose practices of camps and campaigns, and are gone; and patriot silence closes and seals forever the later records of their careers. But such were a minority; the vast majority became among the most active and successful of our business men, and the account of their achievements is the story of a quarter of a century of most marvellous development in every line.

The war was a great educator in many particulars. It awakened the spirit of exploration, and indefinitely widened the horizon of youth. The Boys became Explorers, familiar with all pioneer wisdom, and ready to enter the trackless waste of the great West, with the result that might States, whose population was all but solidly ex-soldier arose beyond the Mississippi. They became Geographers who knew how many States it took to constitute the Federal Union; they thoroughly understood that it was impossible to make two out of one, or to stop the rivers by artificial boundaries; they became statesmen who believed that in union was the only strength of this great people, --- that we were so interlaced by belief, tradition, history , and the possibilities of a great future that our destinies were inseparable; that on the lines of their march would be the connecting railroads of the future, and on the battle-fields where they fought would rise great monuments and splendid cities, and that from border to border there would be peace and prosperity, and the arena in which would be room for the development of the highest possible type of free citizenship. Yet these Explorers, Geographers and Statesmen never could learn the difference between tame meat and game; and as illustrative of this, I remember, upon one occasion a mess of the Boys invited me to take a game dinner with them. I went. I sat down to their sylvan feast. Trees were our canopy, and gurgling river near by furnished our attenuated drink. A rubber blanket spread upon the grass was our festal board, and on it was spread the flesh of the wild boar, deer, wild goose, prairie chicken, and such like dainties as would have pleased Nimrod or a British sport in Colorado. Long before I had learned the apostle’s injunction, to eat what was set before me, “asking no questions for conscience sake;” and although at times, I did fancy that some neighboring farmyard had furnished forth that ample repast, I banished the base suspicion!

Another thing these lads could never learn was the difference between a political right wrapped in a black skin and a white skin. They could never learn that the constitutional government formed for a “perfect union, to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” contained within itself the elements of dissolution and provided for its own destruction. They never could learn that the Fathers intended to make a perfect government, dissoluble at the whim and caprice of any disappointed politician!

As I turn from these generalizations, some individual careers and incidents of the Boys in the War occur to me, and I believe I can interest you in them, and in the magic of their lives and deeds.

Sylvanus Strang was an orphan boy of seventeen years who lived with his grandfather, in the spring of 1861 had taken “on shares” the framing of forty acres of corn land not far from Chicago. He was under that strange spell of fife and drum, however, which stirs more men to action than the noblest orchestras; and in August he turned over his work and its promise, and told the fond old man that he was welcome to all he had done, but the he, Sylvanus, was off for the wars. And to the wars he went, and in them he served gallantly and well, until, in 1865, at Barrancas, the white sands, like piled snow in their dangerous beauty, impaired his vision. Gradually through the year his eyesight grew dimmer, and last winter he came to me, abandoning the long and manly struggle in this climate, and bade me farewell as he took his way across the continent to try for rest, and easy stages on through life, in far California. At the close of the war, and on his return, he found that the little estate his father had left him had been dissipated beyond retrieval in his absence. He had his uniform, his manly heart, and his industrious purpose, and he sought what he could find to do, and did that well; but never more for him will there be any act equal to his recollections of the big wars. And so, under a sunny sky and a peaceful tide, he drifts to the ocean.

I wish you could have seen the grizzled old man, with his resolute face, with its hawk nose, its deep set eyes and introspective look, who seated himself near me a few days since, and with the Yankee accent, modified by many years of service afloat, told the story of his life as a sailor. I cannot give it to you in the vivid, earnest fashion in which I heard it, but it is worth repetition.

“I was born in 1830. In 1845 I entered the navy of the United States, on board the old ‘Cumberland,’ and served three term enlistment, leaving her in 1858 to settle in Chicago. I married in the forties, and have had five children born to me. In 1861, when the call came ‘to arms,’ I entered the navy again, leaving my wife and children; and as I had become accustomed to her, I entered again upon the ‘Cumberland,’ because I knew her and her ways. They knew me, and they made me captain of a gun.” Here the retrospective look on the old man’s face grew stronger. “I tell you, General, that half our men were killed that day by shot in spar and mast. Nine men were killed by my gun. Signal was sent from the flagship, and the officer received it. Our colors was nailed to our masthead. He came on deck., his speaking-trumpet in his hand,” --- and I noticed that the old man was only touching the salient points of his story, not fully giving all the details, --- “he raised it to his mouth and says, ‘the order is that we are not to give up the ship. Possibly there is not any chance that one of you will go out with your life, but we must fight until we go down.’ I tell you, I could see the despatches going back and forwards. We stripped off our shirts, tied our life-line about our waists, took off our shoes, and went at it. I tell you, if the ‘Merrimac’ had been fought right she would have cleaned the whole coast. She was covered with railroad iron that lay like this,” interlacing his fingers, “and it lay mighty smooth. Well, she licked us, and we went down, and I was saved, and the next day I was on board the ‘Minnesota,’ and we saw the ‘Little Pumpkin’ come in, and did not think she could whip the ‘Merrimac’; but the ‘Merrimac’ went at her. She struck her. I thought she had capsized her, but she righted again, and then she run at the ‘Merrimac’ amidship, and she lifted her so that I thought she got in under her water line. Biz – Biz --- she took twice, and after that the ‘Merrimac’ went off upstream like she had a fire under her tail.

“Next ship I served aboard was at the fight at Mobile Bay, when we bombarded that fort. Farragut was in command of the ‘Hartford.’ I tell you that ‘Tennessee’ was a terrible boat, but we got her and got the fort. I was then on the ‘Mississippi’ and on the ‘Little Rebel,’ and was made to her despatches in the latter part of the war; and along in 1865, after the fight was over, we passed over to Mound City, -- the bone yard we called it, --- and I had a despatch telling me five children were dead. They died of diphtheria sore-throat. A little later I find a letter telling me my wife was sick, and I asked for a leave to go home. I went to the Captain, and wanted to see the Admiral, because I had been with him on the old ‘Constitution,’ --- Admiral Lee. And I knew if I could see Admiral Lee, he would let me go; but the Captain would not let me go.” With a little half-ashamed laugh he added, “I walked home. I would have walked home if I had had to go through the Rebel camp.”

And then he went on to tell me about the hardships of his life since that time. His wife died a little while after his arrival home, and the old man is fighting the battles of life in a great city. I asked him if there were any boys on shipboard. “Yes, lots of them.”

I saw a gallant young officer who turned and faced a yelling charge of hundreds of men in gray, that he might personally rescue his brother, whose horse had fallen upon him and held him fast, within a few yards distance of the advancing foe. Picking up a Colt’s rifle, he emptied his five shots into the mass of gray, and turned and with his brother, left the open field, only to rally within a few yards, with the command to “renew the fight,” finally made victorious. The rescuer was a lad of twenty years.

I had a boy in my command, a lieutenant and a captain. He was detailed for staff-duty with General B-----, of Missouri. During one of he engagements in the southwest, the fight being scattered over a wide area, he was despatched with orders to a distant part of the field. Riding down the field beside a tall hedge, he came to where there was a cross-road, and, peering through a breach in the hedge, he saw there seven armed men of the Rebel force who had become separated from their command and were seeking to join their comrades. What to do, was the question. An older man would have probably tried retreat; but the splendid audacity of youth was his. He drew his revolver, and shouting to his orderly, still concealed behind the hedge, as though he had been a squad of cavalry instead of one solitary rider, to “come on,” dashed upon the Rebel seven, confident, demanding immediate surrender, and that they lay down their arms. And they did. The orderly appearing, they two marched the seven as prisoners to camp.

At the storming of Blakely Batteries, which took place on the afternoon of April 10, 1865, eight hours after the surrender of Lee, and which has always seemed to me one of the most gallant exploits of the war, we captured thirty-five hundred prisoners, thirty-eight pieces of artillery, more than a mile of breastworks, and several thousand stands of arms and many colors. The charge there was over the heaviest abatis I ever saw, and over a plain filled with torpedoes. The charge began at 5.50 and terminated at 6 o’clock, and six hundred men were killed and wounded in the advance. The advance on the extreme left was under my immediate command. The first one who entered the breastworks at that point was a boy nineteen years of age. He mounted the embrasure of a forty-pound gun, before the smoke of its last fire had lifted a flag’s height above the cannon’s mouth.

Some few of the names of the youth of the war are immortal. Custer on horseback --- a flaming sword in the right hand of Sheridan--- won his greatest laurels when but a boy. And Cushing, the darling of the American navy, as Farragut was its glory and its hero, --- Cushing, with his little boat amid the swamps and sinks of the Carolina coast, taught the world that the heroic spirit of the American navy survived in all its irresistible force and splendid personal daring, and that there was no danger so great, no darkness so profound, no labyrinth so intricate, no arm so treacherous, that the Boys in the War would not attack, enter, overcome, in the name of the country.

Who ever knew another great nation that gave its soldiers the affectionate appellation, “Our Boys?” It was Mother’s and Father’s word on the lip of humanity, and one that, more than all records and statistics, marked the estimation in which the American public held their gallant sons. “Our Boys;” that is what they called us in the long-gone days, --- the days when victory and defeat alternatively filled the hearts of the public with pride and pain, --- the days when the pillar of cloud had settled to the rear of the mighty hosts of America as they moved to the South, and none could tell how the army of the Lord was moving save by the thunder and lightning which marked its direction and progress.

“Our Boys” they were when they moved to the front; “Our Boys,” when the bulletins announced their struggles; “Our Boys,” when laid away in their unmarked but ever glorious graves.

Other lands have boasted of their trained soldiers, their mighty men of war; but the American will tell, first of all, what “Our Boys in the War” did for our country and liberty.

The saddest chapter of “Our Boys in the War” was recorded in the homes far removed from the front. We must leave to others to indite its grief; for we cannot. A very famous group by one of the old artists represents the flight of Ćneas with his family from burning Troy, --- the little son by his father’s side, pleased at the awful yet splendid conflagration whose devouring flames consume the palace of his father, and on his face the artist shows the curiousness and joy of excited childhood; Ćneas and his wife show their rage and sorrow as the enemy prevail; but over the face of the aged Anchises, the sire of them all, is dropped a veil to hide the woe unutterable of age, whose past is destroyed and whose future is overwhelmed. Such a veil falls over the faces of the mothers and fathers whose boys went down in the battle, the march, and the hospital. And from behind its sacred pall broke now the plaint of manhood bewailing its successor, as David gave it voice long since, amid Judean hills, “O Absalom, my son, my son, would God I had died for thee!” ---- and now the tender pliant of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote of the Italian mother whose boys were killed under Garibaldi: ---

“Dead! One of them shot by the sea in the east,
And one of them shot in the west by the sea,
Dead! both my boys! When you sit at the feast
And are wanting a great song for Italy free,
Let none look at me.”

She says, their mother-poet, that she has taught them to prate of liberty, just as our American mothers taught, ---

“And when their eyes flashed, …O my beautiful eyes!...
I exulted; nay, let them go forth at the wheels
Of the guns, and denied not. But then, the surprise…
When one sits quite along! Then one weeps, then one kneels!
God! how the house feels.

“On which, without pause, up the telegraph-line
Swept smoothly the next news from Gaeta --- ‘Shot,
Tell his mother.’ Ah, ah, “his,’ ‘their mother, --- not mine.’

“O Christ of the five wounds, who look’dst through the dark
To the face of Thy mother! consider, I pray,
How we common mothers stand desolate, mark,
Whose sons, not being Christs, stand with eyes turned away,
And no last word to say.”

“Dead! One of them shot by the sea in the east,
And one of them shot in the west by the sea,
Dead! both my boys! When you sit at the feast
And are wanting a great song for Italy free,
Let none look at me.”

And for them, the American father and mother, there was and is but one comfort. The Boys did not die in vain. Where they triumphed and where they fell arise the mighty spirits of Prophecy, of Righteousness, of Law and Liberty; and we can say of our land:---

“There’s freedom at thy gates, and rest,
For earth’s down-trodden and opprest,
A shelter for the hunted head,
For the starved laborer toll and bread.
Power, at thy bounds,
Stops and calls back to his baffled bounds.

“Oh, fair young mother, on thy brow
Shall sit a nobler grace than now.
Deep in the brightness of the skies,
The thronging years in glory rise,
And, as they fleet,
Drop strength and riches at thy feet.”

Boys of the twentieth century, this is what the Boys of the nineteenth century through their sacrifices and wounds and holy deaths, will leave you. To the altars of this great country we summon you. We will give to you the sword of Shiloh and of Appomattox, the land of Vicksburg and of Gettysburg; the one lustrous, the other peaceful and serene. We charge you, as you are the sons of our strength, “See that no harm befalls the Republic.”

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Black, J.C. 1892. OUR BOYS IN THE WAR. Military Essays and Recollections, Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Illinois, June 9, 1892, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Volume 2. A.C. McClurg and Company., Chicago, Illinois, pp. 443-456.

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