- 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
Fletcher evidently had neartotal recall of his feelings during the war and, since he was writing only for old comrades and admiring descendants, never saw any need to soften them. The result is a long way from moonlight and magnolias: After Chickamauga, when he and a friend spotted a body of Union cavalrymen riding along beside a caravan of black civilians, Fletcher remembered, “John and I concluded to have a little fun by shooting at the mounted enemy, not caring a straw whether we hit a negro or not. …” The sight of the enemy’s dead especially delighted him. After Fredericksburg, he writes: “I saw more dead bodies of the right kind, covering broad acres, than it was ever my pleasure to see before or since. Those who have never battled often think such expressions as this are brutal. If they are correct, all courageous soldiers are brutes; for they enlist to battle, if so ordered, and as fighting is a dangerous thing, the more dead the less risk; … I saw that our part of the line had stripped the dead the most. The unacquainted would think that this work was done by the line soldier, but … [i]t was largely done … by those who made a business of it, as the clothing, when washed, was good stock in second hand stores and its benefit was that it supplied the wanting soldier and poor citizen at a low price.”
Most of Rebel Private deals with Fletcher’s day-to-day life between battles. Fletcher suffered from dysentery early on, and his greatest fear as he went into battle for the first time was not that he would be hit but that he might disgrace himself. (He was comforted afterward to find that gunfire had produced in him precisely the opposite effect from the one he’d feared.) Lice were constant companions: “Our plan [to get rid of them] was … to make a fire … and hold the garment over the blaze and from the heat they would drop off, be burned, or be ready for the next fellow. If one was well stocked with big fat fellows, it would remind him of popping corn.”
Much of his time was spent simply searching for something to eat: “‘Foraging’ was the word applied for such outings during the war—in civil life it is called ‘shoplifting.’” He devotes three pages to a detailed discussion of the best way to seize and strangle roosting chickens, one by one, without disturbing their owner. He and his friends ate well outside Richmond in the summer of 1862, he remembered, feasting on foodstuffs pilfered from passing farm wagons, followed by wild berries in milk—which the men drained from local cows until “the owners took to keeping the cattle in sight or under herder.” Peddlers ventured out from the city with delicacies too, including one man who sold them sausage that turned out to be made of ground cat; thereafter, Fletcher writes, there was a marked “slump in the sausage market.”
Fletcher had near-total recall of his feelings and, since he was writing for old comrades, saw no need to soften them.
The final eighty-odd pages of Rebel Private are especially memorable. Without a hint of bluster Fletcher recounts his capture by Sherman’s men near Rome, Georgia, his brief imprisonment—during which a Union officer threatened to have him shot for having tried to run away—and his subsequent successful escape from a speeding train near Murfreesboro. Then followed weeks of wandering through the Tennessee backcountry in winter, trying to get back to his regiment without being caught by Yankee patrols. He nearly froze to death in a snowstorm, pretended to be a Yankee officer to wangle a hot meal from one couple who favored the Union, and was turned away hungry by a pro-Southern farmer fearful of the consequences of feeding him. (In a twist that no novelist would dare to invent, this frightened man later turned out to have been Fletcher’s own long-lost uncle.) He did not see the climactic Battle of Franklin, but its sound from several miles away, he remembered, was so loud that hundreds of frantic rabbits raced past his hiding place to get away from it. Eventually he did find what was left of his outfit and fought on with it to the last.
But once peace came, he lost little time putting the war behind him. The Northern troops he found occupying Beaumont when he got home were “nice, jovial young fellows,” he said, ”… well equipped with cash, and liberal … it did not hurt our pride to take a drink with the Yanks.” After the war he went into the lumber business, married his boss’s sister, inherited the company, and built a sizable fortune selling Texas yellow pine overseas.
More than most young soldiers, William Fletcher went to war without illusions and nothing he saw at the front detracted from the cold-eyed realism his father had taught him. Even witnessing Sherman’s depredations firsthand did not move him to the kind of indignation that other former Confederates never got over: “destitution was on every hand. … But such is war, and yet … you will still hear men talk of war as though it were but a matter of killing off a few men and the satisfying of a few others by pension. They seem to have no thought of the suffering many, and I have learned that those who agitate war are mere trumpets and not fighters.”