90th OVI Reunion Address
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The committee assigned to me an address, without stating the subject. I suppose that they intended that I should choose my own. I have thought over the matter, and have concluded that I would like to interest the younger people-those who have come among us since the war. I will take as my subject, "Going to War." Now, what is war? General Sherman said on one occasion, "War is hell." On another, he said, "War is civilized barbarism." And he knew.
In 1861, as you have all read, our nation was in peril. Armed rebellion was seeking to destroy the government. Troops were called for to suppress it. We had no regular army, or but a very small one. The soldiers to be, were from all the walks of life. Farmers, mechanics, merchants, teachers, doctors, ministers-all were represented.
"Going to war" meant a great deal. They did not go for the paltry sum of $13 a month. They went because they felt it a duty they owed their country; because their property, their homes, would be useless without a government to protect it. Somebody must go, why not they?
What did it mean when you went to war? It meant that when you signed your name to the muster roll and took an oath of fealty to the government, that you placed your life on the altar of your country. You said, by that act, that you would bare your breast to the bullets of the enemy. You said you would make long marches through the dust day by day, and sleep at night, with the ground for your couch and the sky for your roof. You said you would march through mud by day, and make it your bed by night. You said, by that act, that you would march over frozen ground, thinly clad, barefooted, leaving your footsteps stained with blood. That you would risk capture and confinement in prison. That you would walk your lonely beat, on picket, while those at home were sleeping soundly in their soft beds.
It meant, that if you were a husband and a father, that this act would make your wife a widow, and your children orphans. With the young man, it often meant the breaking of a heart dearer to him than his own life. In the case of the boys, it meant the tearing of the heart strings of an aged and loving mother. It meant sorrow, and weeping for those dear friends at home.
Now, I will draw you a picture of war times. In the little village, or at a country school house, may be, a war meeting is held. Drums are beating, fifes are playing and speakers are urging enlistments. The recruiting officer, perhaps the man who is to be an officer of the company, is present. You feel it your duty to go. You finally step up and sign your name. When you tell your family, what sorrow. It seems as if some of the family were dead.
The day comes when you are to go to the front. The husband, with his wife's arms about his neck, weeping, his children clinging to him, bids them a last good bye, and is gone.
Who can measure the depth of sorrow in that household?
The husband is at the front. He writes and tells his wife of his army life, of his marches, his hardships, and anxiously awaits a reply. This goes on for months. A great battle is fought. It may be Bull Run or Shiloh; Gettysburg or Stone River; Vicksburgh or Antietam; Frederickburgh or Chickamauga; Nashville or Chancellorsville-no matter. A daily paper is received at the village post-office. In it are the names of the killed and wounded. One of the neighbors glances over the list, and there finds the name of this husband among the killed. Who will break the awful news to his wife? They talk it over, and a neighbor and his wife go to the little home of the woman. She sees by their blanched faces that they have bad news. "Tell me quick," she said, "Is John killed?" They break it gently as possible, then she sits and stares, like a figure of stone, not a tear dims her eyes. Then the fountains of her sorrow break up, and she now realizes the awful situation, and in anguish she exclaims, "My God, I am a widow and my children are fatherless."
This is only one case among many thousands.
I will draw you another picture. If any of you young ladies are in love, you can appreciate it. This thing "love," is too lightly spoken of. "God is love." Young men and young women have fallen in love in all ages past, and will continue to do so, so long as there is a pair left.
A young lady and gentleman have, through a long courtship, agreed to walk together through life, as man and wife. This cruel war comes on and the young man feels it his duty to go to war. His sweetheart begs of him not to go. He still insists that it is his duty to go, that a home without a government to protect it would be mockery. She consents and her lover enrolls his name. The time comes for him to leave for the scenes of strife and bloodshed. And that last parting. It is enough to make angels weep. They each pledge fidelity to the other, no matter what comes. How eagerly she watches for his letters, and how she steals softly to her room and reads them. Then she reads again and again. How she wrestles with hope and fear for his safe return. He, as eagerly waits for her letters, and when out on a lonely picket post, he is thinking of her. He sits in his tent, or walks out to some secluded spot and reads. Then he draws from his breast pocket a tin type of a pure and noble girl, and he looks, and he looks at it, and perhaps speaks to it, perchance he kisses it.
One day this girl receives a letter from the army. It does not look like the handwriting of her lover. Her hand trembles and she shakes like an aspen. She opens it, and finds that the letter was written by one of her lover's comrades. He tells her that James, her noble lover, is dead. That he waited on him, and promised that if he died he would write and tell her. He tells her how they dug a grave beside an oak, wrapped him in his blanket and gently laid him away, and marked his grave with a piece of board with his name cut thereon. Oh, what depth of sorrow in that pure, young girl's heart. None but a Christ could fathom it.
This, too, is only one picture of many thousands all over this land. What is true of the North, as to suffering loss of friends, is also true of the South, though they were fighting on the wrong side.
Though I fear I will tire you, I can not refrain from drawing one more picture-one of these grayhaired veterans will know.
I see before me, a large army of soldiers, confronting as brave and determined an army as their own. They march and countermarch in the enemy's own country. Footsore and hungry they march, and march all day and far into the night. Hungry and thirsty, they lie down to sleep and dream of home and its comforts. They dream of frugal meals at the old homestead. They dream they have been to the little country church and have associated with their neighbors. They see the wife of their bosom and their dear little prattling children. They see their dear old father and mother. They see that dear, young lady who has promised to be their wife. It may be the angels were hovering over them, and caused them to dream, which was an oasis in the deserts of their hardships. They wake-it was only a dream. On they go next day, and next day-for weeks perhaps. They meet the enemy. A hotly contested field is fought over, and then fought over again.
Their comrades fall all around them. They know not how soon they will be numbered among the dead or wounded. Night comes on. It is dark and rainy. They grope their way over the field among the slain, amid groans, uttered with anguish tongue can not describe, looking and hunting for their fallen comrades.
They are gathered and buried in one long trench, their tomb unmarked, their names unknown.
The living go on, from one hard fought field to another, for four long years, sleeping on the cold ground, exposed to rain and snow, many times hungry and but little to eat. Some are captured and spend long, long months in prison. Many die there-but few return. These men, or boys, by their hardships, contracted disease from which they will never recover. Though they may look reasonably healthy, there is disease sapping away their lives. These men come home and resume their respective avocations in life. Just as they were good soldiers, so are they good citizens. They often think of their comrades who were left behind. They remember where they buried them. They never forget those who shared the hardships with them. Their comradeship is cemented with ties that can never be broken, for they are ties bound and cemented by the blood of their fallen comrades.
Is it any wonder then, that we make so much of each other at these reunions? I believe that the grand old 90th will keep up these fraternal meetings so long as two of them are left, and should I be fortunate enough to be one of the last two, I will endeavor to meet the other one somewhere, and when we are all gone, let us hope that we'll have a full regimental reunion on the other side of the river that marks the boundary of our earthly pilgrimage.