Accounts of War

John B. Litchard

“John B., when not yet 18 years old, seemed to think that his father’s family ought to be represented in the cause of the Union and the Consistution by all his sons who were old enough to bear arms, so he accordingly enlisted Aug. 17, 1863, and as a recruit joined the veterans of Co. D, First New York Dragoons, Second Div. Cavalry Corps, under General Wesley Merritt, and served until the close of the war. He returned to his home in time to go to school again while he was still a minor. It was his fortune to take part in twelve of the forty-four engagements in which his regiment fought, was twice wounded—first at Newtown, Ga., Aug. 11, 1864, by a wound in the wrist that laid him up for two months; and second, at Cedar Creek, Oct. 17, 1864, one week after he rejoined his company, by a bullet hitting him on the hip, which put him off duty for three weeks—and several times narrowly escaped falling into the hands of the enemy. During a raid in the neighborhood of Lynchburg he was in a skirmish on a side hill and had his horse killed. When the animal fell it rolled over him and bruised him badly. The (at that time) very inhospitable Johnnies were within forty rods of him, keeping up a lively fusillade, but he managed to escape without further injury. Several of his comrades were wounded, one fatally. The most sanguinary encounter in his experience was at Cold Harbor, June 3, 1864, where his regiment, fighting dismounted, in crossing a field raked by rebel infantry and artillery, lost 66 men in 40 minutes, yet he had here also passed through the shower of lead and iron unharmed. This was one of the bloodiest battles of the campaign of 1864, but it was not a decisive one for either side, except that it was of decisive effect on the fast vanishing resources of the Confederacy. Grant was compelled to change his plan. It was a better cause, and greater resources, that decided the four years of internal strife in favor of the Old Flag. The fighting qualities were too near alike to make any distinction as to valor.

“We in this age talk boastfully of Civilized Warfare, yet must confess with regret that at the best war is still unrefined Cruelty. It is still the infliction of suffering and destitution on the innocent, want and hardship on the aged and infirm, misery and sorrow on defenseless women and children, mutilation or death on the men bearing arms, and it can never be conducted that triumph will not be decided by cruelty and destruction. When the hostile spirit is once awakened by bloodshed it justifies the destruction of life and property, until the enemy surrenders, or his country is laid waste and he is destroyed. John B. remembers well how Sheridan, his chief commander, felt obliged to ravage the territory through which he marched, how he destroyed the grain and forage, barns stored with wheat and hay, and farming implements, burnt grist mills, seized the horses, drove off the cattle and sheep, and made the country as worthless to the Confederate army as he possibly could. Our kinsman relates an incident that illustrates one of the evils of war, and a practice that too often disgraced even the Old Flag. A member of his regiment when foraging had a peccant for appropriating silverware and silk dresses to send home to his people. One day when J. B. was out with a company foraging for the army he entered a house and found this secretive comrade, who was foraging on his own account, in a very unenviable predicament. He had just been searching a large chest for the things he coveted, when the plucky woman of the house suddenly dropped the lid on him and jumped on it and held him there, and would have held him until he died if J. B. had not pulled her off and saved him.

“Our kinsman saw enough to satisfy him that it will be a bright day for humanity when war shall cease, and hopes that its final extinction in the civilized world will not be postponed for another century. Why indeed cannot states and nations settle their differences by arbitration and law, the same as individuals, corporations, and town communities? If the world is to become Christianized, then surely the time will come when nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and learn war no more. The great slaveholders’ rebellion should not have been possible in this enlightened age, and would not have occurred if the calmer and more Christian people of the South had been heeded, but it was the selfish ambition of their desperate and unscrupulous political leaders that plunged them into self-destructive insurrection. They drew the sword, and they perished by the sword. They fought to perpetuate slavery, and they caused slavery to be abolished. The fought for disunion, political power, and hoped to extend slavery. Their Northern brethren fought for the UNION and the CONSTITUTION, and to RESTRICT SLAVERY to where it was—and even after the nation was plunged into civil war, the government forts and arsenals had been seized, proposed not to interfere with slavery where it existed if the insurgents would lay down their arms. It is well for humanity that the seditious states rejected the offer of peace on that condition. They who fought for the ‘Lost Cause,’ therefore, may be said to have unconsciously fought for a Good Cause—for Freedom—even for Emancipation.

“Let us hope that no descendant of Heinrich—and no others of the sons of men—will ever hereafter be obliged to go to war, but that the thirty-three of our kindred who have fought under the Old Flag will be the last compelled to engage in a cruel carnage for the rights of man. War is a relic of animalism and barbarism. It is one of the ‘evils of the flesh.’ The fruits of the Right Spirit are Love, Mercy, Meekness, Law, Order and Peace—the hope and promise of the future!” (from Heinrich Gernhardt and His Descendants, pp. 237-240).

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