Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Tuesday, March 25, 1862

The Unbearable Lightness of…Nothing

A slow day. There’s no combat, aside from those never-ending flashes here and there of pickets and scouts popping off at each other. In Washington, President Lincoln visits the Navy Yard. In Tennessee, Federal reconnaissance missions crisscross Tennessee, which is beginning to slip away from the Confederates.

In southwestern Tennessee, Grant is still thinking about a pre-emptive strike against the Confederate forces gathering a few miles away at Corinth, Mississippi. He is wondering where Buell’s reinforcements are. Buell’s Army of the Ohio is moving ever so slowly in Grant’s direction. In St. Louis, the ever-anxious Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck is trying to savor his expanded span of control, which is most troops west of the Appalachians. He, too, worries. Among forces on both sides there’s a sense that something is going to happen—but when? And how?

With Gen. Lew Wallace’s division a few miles from Pittsburg Landing, Pvt. Andrew Altman of the 68th Ohio begins scratching out, with difficulty, another letter to his family in Henry County, Ohio. “We are expecting a battle,” he writes. “A [Secesh] gave him self up [and said] “they are getting a little down in the mouth.”

After complaining about a lack of mail from home “(I want you to wright to me as son as posible,”) Altman took note of the local weather: “It is very warm and the peach trees are in blossom.”

It was very different in the hills and valleys of western Virginia, where the occupying Ohioans are suffering from boredom and bad weather. No battles seem imminent, although there is hope of aggresive leadership from John C. Fremont, who is taking command of the newly christened Mountain Department, formerly the Department of Western Virginia. The only military activity here is the slow, hard, dangerous search for bushwhackers. The quality of the soldiers' food has degenerated: “Our living is hard, the grub I mean,” Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rd Ohio writes. “and not likely to improve. Salt pork and crackers [the almost inedible hardtack issued by the army]. “The armies have swept off all fresh meats and vegetables. A few eggs once in a great while.”

The weather—blamed on the “equinox,” marking the change from winter to spring—is getting tiresome as well. Hayes notes that it has been snowing since the previous Friday afternoon. On Saturday, it was “still snowing. What a snow-storm is blowing. Whew!” On Monday, “It is snowing still. What a climate!” In a letter that day to his uncle, he adds, “We have had about enough of the snows, winds, and rains of the mountains.”

The snow will end by Thursday, and then the deep mud season will begin. More delays, more tedium. The desperate search for something—anything—to enliven the day as a subject for conversation and letter writing. Fortunately, regimental surgeon Dr. Joseph T. Webb, Lucy’s brother and Rutherford’s brother-in-law, brings back a good story, one that will probably be told and re-told to the accompaniment of much thigh slapping.

Dr. Webb loves children and always stops to talk them and, according to Rutherford, “generally manages to get them on his knee.” Stopping at a farmhouse and spying a three-year-old, he approached the child, who, he soon discovered, could not speak very clearly. “Come, my fine little fellow. I want to talk to you,” the doctor said. The little boy turned, saying something the doctor did not understand. “On a second approach,” Colonel Hayes wrote his uncle, “the doctor made it out ‘Go to Hell, you dam Yankee!’ This from the little codger was funny enough….”

And that, for several days, was the high point of life in the mountains for Colonel Hayes.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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