Reconciliation: An Idea Takes Shape (Battlefield Series, Part IV)

October 7, 2018

One of my favorite Civil War historians was a man named Shelby Foote, a native Mississippian with a wonderful, very patrician, very slow Southern drawl and an encyclopedic knowledge of the war –not just the military events, but also the “people history.” He read thousands of soldier diaries and civilian letters from the Civil War era and could recount the stories he had picked up for hours on end.


One of my favorite of his tales centered on two grizzled old veterans, one Northern, one Southern, who had become acquainted many years after their service. They talked about the things only those who were there could understand: the long marches on terrible muddy or dusty roads, the exposure to extremes of weather, the poor food, the ill-fitting clothing and shoes, and, too often, the poor leadership they endured.


One day the Northern veteran asked the Southerner the question that had baffled most Northerners during the last year or so of the war and still continues to be debated today. The question was: Why did the Southern soldiers keep fighting so hard when they were ill-equipped, starving, wearing ragged clothes and, often, no shoes, and when it was fairly evident that the handwriting of Confederate loss was on the wall? According to Shelby Foote, the Southern veteran answered (and I will try to add the flavor of his accent with my spelling): “Because you all wuh down heah!”


Truly, the hardest thing for Southerners to forgive and recover from was the invasion of Southern territory by Northern armies, particularly in the form of Sherman’s March to the Sea, which did so much damage to Southern infrastructure and individual property and which inflicted so much misery on so many Southerners, many of whom were not strongly dedicated to the Confederate cause.  


It took a lot of time and a lot of generosity for Southerners to begin to feel less angry about those terrible events. The irony is that the Southern veterans of the War seem to have been among those most willing to do so. Perhaps they understood that only severe tactics could have ended the carnage and forced surrender; perhaps they had just seen so much that they were more accepting than regular citizens. But in any case, soldiers began to come together to honor each other, to remember their experiences and, eventually, to wield a little political power.


The smaller photo (below) accompanying this article shows a group of men, some in Confederate uniform, all very old. They were all that was left of Company A, the 61st Georgia Regiment, also known as the “Irwin County Cowboys.” (Irwin County is the next county south of Fitzgerald, about which I wrote several weeks ago). The 61st was one of the first companies in the state to get organized and leave for basic training prior to entering the war.


My great-grandfather, Daniel A. Tucker, can be seen standing on the back row, third from left. He didn’t see much, if any, fighting. Like a lot of the troops who left home in such high spirits, he had lived on a farm all his life and had never been exposed to the diseases of close civilization. He caught measles early in the war, very nearly died, and was left disabled. So his service was limited, but, as you can see from the photo, he remained proud throughout his life of having been part of this endeavor. As far as I can determine, he never owned a slave, although some of his near relatives did. But the idea that the North might invade his homeland began to be floated early in the war, and that lit the fire of ordinary folk like Daniel Tucker.


Actually, he was lucky to have gotten sick early in the war and to have been declared unfit for service, as the boys who went in with him didn’t fare so well. A good number of them never saw Irwin County again. His wife, my great-grandmother lost two brothers in other area regiments.

If you are interested in researching a Civil War soldier, you need to know about a free website that the National Park Service runs called the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database. You can research by the soldier’s name, learn about where his unit fought and how they fared and much more. According to this site, the 61st Georgia, like most Georgia outfits, was shipped off to Virginia to fight. (It’s amazing how few Georgia boys fought in Georgia until late in the war.) They arrived at Petersburg, Virginia, with 1,000 officers and men. They served under John B. Gordon; future governor of Georgia, who been a Dade County businessman and nearby resident of Alabama in the 1850s and was involved in the Cole City area (before it was so named) at the Raccoon Mines and other mining operations owned by the Gordon family.  


The 61st Georgia was involved in some of the most terrible fighting in the Eastern Theater—basically Virginia—with battle names even non-Civil War buffs recognize: Cold Harbor, Second Manassas/Bull Run, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and more. By Gettysburg, the unit was down to 288 men and of those it lost 37 percent in that battle. The 61st, or what was left of it, was present at the surrender at Appomattox.  At that time, it consisted of no officers and 81 men. Of those, only 49 were armed. This was not entirely due to casualties. For the last several months of the war, the desertion rate for Southern soldiers was tremendous.  Men were getting letters from home indicating that their families were starving and many left to take care of matters there.


When you think of the horrors of the battlefield, for instance the tragedy of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, when thousands of Confederate men marched across an open field to almost certain death because of a poorly thought-out order, how could anyone who witnessed that think anyone else could understand it but another veteran? This is why they met and remembered.


After a few years of meeting with their old units, some larger organizations began to take shape and spread further. There were groups such as the Army of the Tennessee Veterans Association, the Confederate Cavalry Association, and many more throughout the former Confederate States. In 1866, Union veterans formed anassociation called the Grand Army of the Republic which became very politically powerful and pushed for pensions and medical care for the vets. In 1889, former Confederates formed the almost-as-influential United Confederate Veterans (UCV) which, among other things, sponsored the compiling of the first military history of the Civil War.


These groups met in what were called encampments for days at a time to socialize, listen to speeches and hear about benefits available to them, few though they were at the time. As more veterans died out, especially in states from which both Union and Confederate soldiers had gone to war, the Union and Confederate veterans increasingly met and mingled together. They seem to have enjoyed it thoroughly. In reading about some of these crossover gatherings, I found accounts of long hours of storytelling, “speechifyin’ ” (a fine descriptive term coined by Jim Ogden, historian at Chickamauga Battlefield), singing the old songs of the war, and clapping and hollering in enjoyment of all the above.

It was at one of these gatherings that the second photo here was made. It could have been at Chickamauga or at a lot of other places—we don’t know. But seeing a bunch of old soldiers lined up earnestly shaking hands, Union on one side, Confederate on the other, is one of the most touching things I can imagine.


Over time, it was these gatherings and the interest and support they generated which led to the establishment of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.


But that is a tale for another article.


 (Note: If you have any interest in learning more about the folk history of the Civil War and would like to become acquainted with Shelby Foote, the best way is get hold of a copy of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” probably the best view of the overall war ever done. You can buy it from PBS on CD, or it can probably be streamed from somewhere. Also, I’m sure the library has a copy.)

--Joy Odom





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