- Historic Sites
A Rebel Remembers
William Fletcher went off to war with surprisingly few illusions, and nothing he saw there gave him new ones
November 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 7
Ambrose Bierce was not a notably generous-minded man, and as a Union veteran who had seen action at Shiloh and Chickamauga and had narrowly survived a Rebel ball that smashed into the left side of his skull at Kennesaw Mountain, he might . have been expected to maintain a I lifelong loathing for the soldiers who I had shot at him so often. Not at all. “They were brave and courageous foemen,” he wrote, “having little in common with the political madmen who persuaded them to their doom.”
Bierce had in mind soldiers like Pvt. William A. Fletcher, Company F, 5th Texas Infantry, whose remarkable memoir, Rebel Private, Front and Rear: Memoirs of a Confederate Soldier , has just been republished (Dutton) with a new introduction (but no index) by Richard Wheeler and an afterword by the author’s great-granddaughter, Vaille Fletcher Taylor. “Republished” is perhaps an overstatement. Fletcher wrote his memoirs in his sixties and had them printed up in 1908 just for his friends and family and for his fellow veterans to read at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Austin. The rest of the small print run was burned up when a fire damaged his home in Beaumont.
A single copy had made its way to the Library of Congress Rare Book Room before then, however, and a number of writers, including Margaret Mitchell and Shelby Foote, would eventually draw upon it in the course of doing their very different work. Foote believes it “worthy of space on the shelf right next to Sam Watkins, that other “‘high private’ from the … Confederate Army.” That is high praise. There are passages in Watkins’s Co. Aytch: A Side Show of the Big Show that match Mark Twain for deadpan wit: “I always shot at privates. It was they that did the shooting and killing, and if I could kill or wound a private, why, my chances were so much the better. I always looked upon officers as harmless personages.”
But Fletcher’s book is very good indeed. He was born in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, in 1839 and raised in East Texas, the son of a perspicacious slave driver who saw early that the follies of his clients would eventually put him out of business. “His opinion was that the abuses by inhuman owners were such that an enlightened and humane people would sooner or later abolish [slavery],” his son remembered, “and he was fearful it would be war, as both North and South seemed to be swayed by the demagog. …” And when his worst fears were borne out and the war finally came, the old man was no more sanguine about its probable outcome. “William,” his son remembered his saying, ”… it is a foolish undertaking, as there is no earthly show for Southern success.” Still, father and son agreed that the younger man had no choice but to do “the only honorable thing and that is defending your country.”
Fletcher did more than his share of defending—around Richmond, at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and then in Georgia with the 8th Texas Cavalry (Terry’s Texas Rangers). He was ! badly wounded twice, first in the side and then through the foot, and somehow managed to survive it all. There is no romance in his account, nor any special affection for the leaders of the not-yet-lost cause. Fletcher saw Jefferson Davis once, and he fought under Stonewall Jackson and John Bell Hood and provides not a syllable of description of any of them; they were what Sam Watkins called “big bugs,” who had little to do with the likes of him. He wasn’t much interested in tactics either—Fletcher and his fellow foot soldiers saw the movement of great armies as merely “looking for a fight”—though he does take time out to criticize Robert E. Lee for what he saw happen to George Pickett’s division at Gettysburg: “Why were we fighting an impregnable position —was it ignorance? I guess so. It was a very unfortunate condition for … an army with true and tried men being shot down like dogs.”
Fletcher offers vivid glimpses of combat, confined always to what he saw and heard and felt. He remembered a “natural coward” who amused the boys of F Company by throwing himself headlong onto the ground whenever the guns began to go off, burying his face and stretching his arms to the front as far as he could “to ward off the shot with [his] hat”; a frantic lieutenant, his big toe shot off, hopping up and down and, “with his good sized and stout lungs, [making] more racket than I ever heard from one wounded man” during the furious fight for Little Round Top; two brothers killed by a single Union sharpshooter during the Seven Days Battles, and the personal pleasure he and a companion took in avenging their deaths within thirty minutes by shooting one Yankee, then waiting quietly until the mortally wounded man’s calls for help brought a second Northern soldier to his side and within their sights.