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.
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.”
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.”