For the past week, I have been reading a very interesting new book on the history of the 121st New York Infantry. By Salvatore G. Cilella, Jr., “Upton’s Regulars: The 121st New York Infantry in the Civil War,” details the history of this famous regiment, commanded by young Emory Upton. While reading about the 121st at Rappahannock Station, and the following Mine Run Campaign, I came upon a quote that as first struck me as humorous, but then caused me to realize the horrors of war on civilians.
After three freezing cold days, opposite Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, at Mine Run, commanding general of the Union Army of the Potomac, Major General George Meade decided to call the attack off. For the men in US Major Andrew Mather’s 121st NYV Infantry (Colonel Upton was commanding their brigade at this time), which was posted in the first attacking line, it felt like the reprieve of a death sentence. John Hartwell, from Company C, aptly described the relief he felt after Meade called off the attack, writing his wife he stated, “(Meade would have been without an army and she)…would have been without a husband.”(i)
Now, getting to the quote that caused me to chuckle, followed by no little guilt when taking the civilian plight into consideration, I must provide some additional detail. After pulling back from their Mine Run line, the 121st regimental surgeon, Dr. Daniel Holt commandeered a secesh house, and its out-buildings, for a field hospital. The home’s owner, a tanner by trade, vacated his home, leaving his daughters behind. The daughters, were described as, “Fair specimens of Southern Chivalry – snuff dipping, dilapidated, lantern jawed bipeds of neuter gender.”(ii) When these young ladies were told that the army had taken their home, they promptly expressed the hope that it would burn down, “with every damned Yankee in it!” Dr. Daniel Bland, a staff surgeon, assured them it would burn down, but with no Yankees in it. Several hours later, after they were done using the house, it and the out-buildings were put to the torch.
While the quote describing the young southern ladies may be humorous, when put in context of what happened to their home, it demonstrates how deeply the Civil War affected the lives of civilians. As a student and amateur scholar of the Civil War, sometimes I find myself enamored with the fighting, often forgetting how terrible the fratricidal war was for the civilians that were randomly caught in its action. Sometimes I need to reflect on a very popular quote from US Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, “War is hell,” and remember that it was not glamorous, chivalrous or anything close to romantic.
(i) Cilella, Salvatore G., Jr., Upton’s Regulars: The 121st New York Infantry in the Civil War, published by the University Press of Kansas in 2009, Pg. 248.
(ii) Cilella, Salvatore G., Jr., Upton’s Regulars: The 121st New York Infantry in the Civil War, published by the University Press of Kansas in 2009, Pg. 248.