12/25/2013

The Grim Christmas of 1863

This cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly on December 26, 1863, was perhaps the earliest depiction of now-classic Christmas images.

The warm, cozy images we associate with Christmas likely began in December 1863, when Harper’s Weekly published three elaborate drawings by cartoonist Thomas Nast. The two-page spread, a sort of Christmas triptych, included now-familiar, sentimental images – a bearded Santa Claus with a huge sack of gifts, a soldier on leave being welcomed home with a small Christmas tree in the background, and children playing with toys on Christmas morning.

But Christmas 1863 was quite different for many Americans than Nast’s feel-good images portrayed. Family members were missing from firesides and Christmas celebrations across the divided nation as the start of a third year of bloody civil war approached.

My great-great-grandfather Allison Dry and his family faced such a cheerless Christmas on their farm in Cabarrus County, North Carolina 150 years ago. Two of Allison’s sons – Thomas and my great-grandfather, William – would endure the brutally cold winter of 1863-64 in a Union prisoner-of-war camp in Maryland, living in tents with only a blanket and an occasional few sticks of firewood to keep them warm.

Allison did not own slaves. But his family had nevertheless become deeply invested in this war that had erupted because of slavery. Besides Thomas and William, Allison had another son as well as brothers, cousins, and nephews serving in the Confederate Army. And as Christmas 1863 approached, the awful reality of the American Civil War had come home to his doorstep.
Thomas, a member of the 5th North Carolina Infantry, had been taken prisoner on July 1, 1863 during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. A month later, Allison learned that his brother, Henry Dry, who was serving in the Confederate Army in Charleston, South Carolina, had died of typhoid. Then came the news that William, serving in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry, had been captured on October 14 at the Battle of Bristoe Station in Virginia.

Allison’s son Daniel was serving with the 8th North Carolina Infantry. In December 1863, Daniel’s unit was sent north from the relative safety of Raleigh to the frontline battlefields near the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
From Gettysburg, Thomas was sent to Fort Delaware, a massive pile of bricks on an island in the Delaware River about 45 miles downriver from Philadelphia. The fort, completed in 1859, was intended to protect Philadelphia from enemy warships. But in 1863 it was being used as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers.

The conditions Thomas encountered at Fort Delaware were far from comfortable, but they could be endured. “Things here are not quite as bad as I expected to find them,” Henry Berkeley, a captured Confederate soldier from Virginia, wrote in a letter home in the late summer of 1863. “They are, however, bad, hopeless and gloomy enough without any exaggeration.”
For the first couple years of the war, the Union and Confederate governments operated POW camps as temporary holding pens. Prisoners were detained until they could be “exchanged” for prisoners from the other side.

But that relatively civilized system fell apart because Union leaders became reluctant to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government, and because Confederate military officials refused to exchange captured black Union soldiers. So POW camps in the North and South became steadily more crowded. And the crowded conditions steadily increased the death toll among prisoners in both Union and Confederate camps.
On July 20, 1863, Union military officials decided to establish a POW camp at the tip of a peninsula in Maryland where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay. It was called Point Lookout. The federal government had already built a large military hospital to treat Union soldiers near the tip of the peninsula, and the POW camp was built just to the north of the hospital.

The exposed location of the camp made it very hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter. General Gilman Marston, a political appointee who had represented New Hampshire in the U.S. House of Representatives before the war, was put in charge of the camp.
Like all POW camps on both sides in the Civil War, it would become a hellhole.

On August 15, Marston notified his superiors in Washington, D.C. that he was ready to receive 1,000 prisoners. Union officers responded by sending 1,300 Confederates to Point Lookout.

When the first prisoners arrived, it turned out that the Point Lookout commander had exaggerated the readiness of the camp. The 15-foot-high wooden fence to contain the prisoners had not been completed. So Union soldiers with bayonets fixed to their rifles guarded the Confederates. A few tried to escape. They were shot and killed.

By late September, nearly 4,000 Confederate soldiers were imprisoned at Point Lookout. On October 7, with fall’s chill in the air, Marston sent a recommendation to Washington suggesting that a wooden barracks be built to house the prisoners.

But the request was denied. Instead, with winter approaching, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered 10,000 tents sent to Point Lookout.
A week later, William Dry was captured at Bristoe Station and sent to Washington, D.C., where he was held in a building that had served as a temporary capitol after British troops burned the city in 1814.

While William was being held in Washington, his brother Thomas was transferred from Fort Delaware to Point Lookout on October 18. By now, the population of the 40-acre camp had more than doubled to almost 9,000. And the new prisoners brought a problem that would be exacerbated by overcrowding.
During the fall of 1863, smallpox killed 860 Confederate soldiers at Fort Delaware. Marston complained that every group of prisoners sent to Point Lookout from Fort Delaware included men suffering from the highly contagious and potentially deadly disease. It is an illness that thrives in crowded conditions. By late October 1863, Point Lookout was becoming more crowded by the day.

On October 27, 1863, William and other prisoners in the old capitol building in Washington were herded aboard a train. Their destination was Point Lookout, where they would become part of the shivering, ragged horde being held behind the high walls near the tip of the chilly peninsula.
There’s no record of whether William knew that his younger brother was already at Point Lookout. But it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t eventually find each other.

In November, Dr. W.F. Swalm, a medical officer with the 14th Brooklyn Regiment, was sent to inspect the prisoners at Point Lookout. Swalm was an odd choice to make the inspection.
During the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Swalm and another Union medical officer had been captured by the Confederates and sent to Richmond as prisoners of war. But rather than being confined, they were allowed to move freely about the city. They became minor celebrities in the Confederate capital, where they were entertained in the homes of the city’s gentry. They responded to their captors’ hospitality by loudly denouncing President Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause and vowed that when they were exchanged, they would settle their affairs up North and move back to “Dixie’s Land” as permanent residents.

Perhaps their comments were sincere. Or maybe they realized that their harsh criticism of Lincoln and the Union war effort earned them extraordinary privileges in the capital city of their enemy. Whatever their motivations, their comments became public record when they were published in the Richmond Dispatch, and later in the New York Times.

Eventually Swalm and the other doctor were exchanged, and in May 1862, while testifying before the House Committee on the Conduct of the War, the doctors accused Confederate soldiers of “inhuman acts” and “terrible monstrosities.”

When Swalm inspected the prisoners at Point Lookout in November 1863, he reported that the hospital for sick prisoners consisted of 18 unheated tents, and noted that the weather was turning very cold. The winter of 1863-64 would be one of the coldest on record.

Swalm also noted that the sick men were in a “filthy” condition, and that the entire POW camp was similarly dirty. The prisoners were ragged and did not have warm clothing. Three men had to share one blanket in the tents.

The cold was brutal on the thinly clad prisoners. “In winter when a high tide would flood the whole surface of the ground, freezing as it flooded, the suffering of the half-clad wretches, accustomed to a southern climate, may be imagined,” Anthony M. Keiley a former prisoner at Point Lookout, wrote in a memoir after the war. “. . . So severe was the cold that even the well-clad sentinels had to be relieved every thirty minutes, instead of every two hours, as is the army rule.”

The conditions at the camp appalled Frederick Knapp of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. He suggested that the Commission send food and clothing to the Confederate prisoners. “I know that they are our enemies, and bitter ones, and what we give them they will use against us, but now they are within our power and are suffering,” he said in a report to the Commission.

But General Marston, the commander of the Point Lookout POW camp, had little sympathy for his Confederate prisoners. And Swalm’s earlier, well-publicized comments in Richmond gave Marston a convenient excuse to dispute the accuracy of Swalm’s report on conditions in his camp. After all, how could anyone trust the word of a man who had denounced his country and commander-in-chief in the heart of enemy territory?

In a December 4 letter, Marston denied that the conditions described by Swalm existed and said the prisoners’ woes were largely their own fault. “That they are a dirty, lousy set is true enough, but having afforded them every facility for cleanliness the duty of the Government in this regard  ... is accomplished,” he wrote.

Union officers prevented Swalm’s report from being released. Still, either a copy of the report or a description of its contents found its way to Dr. Montrose Pallen, a Mississippi physician who was involved in Confederate intrigues in Montreal, Quebec.
Pallen sent a letter to Union Major General E.A. Hitchcock describing the conditions. “Many of the prisoners are without the necessary clothing even to hide their nakedness, and during the late cold weather several absolutely froze to death at Point Lookout, where they are living in tents, and more than half of the 9,000 and more confined there have not even a single blanket for covering or bedding and sleep on the bare ground,” he wrote.

But Union officers seemed determined to keep the prisoners at Point Lookout in enforced misery.
The prisoners weren’t allowed to receive a new article of clothing without giving up a similar article of clothing, Kieley wrote in his memoir. “(S)o literally was this rule enforced that prisoners who came in barefooted were compelled to beg or buy a wornout pair of shoes for exchange before they were allowed to receive a pair sent to them by a friend.”

And when the Union Army added black soldiers to its ranks, the African-American troops replaced white guards at Point Lookout. The black guards, many of them former slaves, often took great delight in tormenting their former masters.

And the food, what there was of it, was terrible. “For my part, I never saw any one get enough of anything to eat at Point Lookout except of the soup, one spoonful of which was too much for ordinary digestion,” Kieley wrote.

By Christmas 1863, the smallpox problem had become so severe at Point Lookout that officials had set up a separate hospital about a quarter-mile from the main compound for prisoners suffering from the disease. The prisoners admitted to the hospital were cared for by Catholic nuns belonging to the Sisters of Charity from Emittsburg, Maryland.
The nuns, in their unusually wide and tall white cornettes and black habits, added an air of dignified solemnity to the wretched conditions in the camp.

The late-December weather became so bitterly cold that five prisoners froze to death on New Year’s Eve 1863. “We all suffered a great deal with the cold and hunger,” Sergeant Bartlett Malone, a member of the 6th North Carolina Infantry, wrote in his diary. “Two of our men caught a rat and cooked it and ate it.”

That same night, Thomas Dry was admitted to the smallpox hospital. He died on January 29, 1864. Somehow, his older brother William would survive another year at Point Lookout until POW exchanges finally resumed. He was exchanged in February 1865. Still, there would be more bad news -- much more -- for Allison Dry and his family before 1864 ended.
Sources consulted for this story included Point Lookout Prison Camp For Confederates, by Edwin W. Beitzell; Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, by Lonnie R. Speer; exhibits at Point Lookout State Park in Scotland, Maryland, and documents from the National Archives.

12/07/2013

Two Tales of Tragic Irony at Pearl Harbor

Ernest Davenport, left, and Austin Jackson. Both photos were published in the weekly Roanoke Beacon of Plymouth, North Carolina soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
On December 7, 1941, two young servicemen from eastern North Carolina were in the middle of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attacks on American forces that plunged the United States into World War II.

Neither U.S. Army Private Ernest Davenport nor Navy Seaman Austin Jackson would survive the war. And although thousands died on that long-ago Sunday, Davenport’s and Jackson’s deaths were touched by irony.

Davenport, a U.S. Army medic from the Washington County town of Creswell, was aboard a merchant ship that probably was the first ship sunk by the Japanese attacks in the Pacific. Jackson from Jamesville in adjoining Martin County was aboard a U.S. battleship docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Davenport was only two years old when his father was killed in an accident in 1920. His mother remarried, and Davenport grew up on a farm. Times were tough during the Great Depression, and he left school to go to work after finishing the eighth grade in 1934.

In 1939, Davenport joined the U.S. Army, in part to earn money to send his half-sister, Olean Clifton, to college.

On December 7, 1941, Davenport was one of two Army soldiers aboard the SS Cynthia Olson. The privately owned transport ship had been chartered by the Army to haul a load of lumber from Tacoma, Washington to Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Olson was approaching Hawaii on the morning of December 7. But the crew did not know that a Japanese submarine, the I-26, had been following it since the previous day, waiting for orders to begin the attack on U.S. forces.

On the morning of December 7 the commander of the I-26 received coded orders from Tokyo for all Japanese ships to commence the attack. He immediately surfaced and his crew fired a warning shot across the bow of the Cynthia Olson indicating that the I-26 was about to attack the American ship.

The crew of the Olson lowered lifeboats into the water and abandoned the ship. The I-26 crew then opened fire with the submarine’s deck gun. Eventually, the Olson sank and the I-26 left.

Although Japanese planes were on their way to Hawaii, the I-26’s attack on the Cynthia Olson happened shortly before bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor. So the Olson probably was the first American ship sunk by the Japanese on December 7. And although Davenport and the other members of the Olson’s crew reportedly all made it into lifeboats, no trace of them was ever found.

Austin Jackson’s death was even more emotionally wrenching than Davenport’s. His ship, the USS California, was among the seven battleships sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,300 American soldiers and sailors were killed that day. In the chaotic aftermath of the attack, it was difficult to determine who had died.

On December 12, Jackson’s mother, Ora Jackson Burnette, was visiting relatives in Plymouth when a stunning telegram arrived from the Navy telling her that her son had been killed at Pearl Harbor. The following day, photos of the baby-faced Austin Jackson were published in local newspapers with the news that he’d died on the “day of infamy.”

But on New Year’s Day 1942, Ora Burnette received a card from her son dated December 12 – five days after the attack. The following day, she received another message from the Navy saying that her son was indeed alive.

Her joy was only temporary, however.

In March 1942 Burnette received yet another telegram from the Navy. This time there was no mistake. Austin Jackson was dead. Then a letter dated March 21 arrived from Jackson’s commanding officer, Navy Lieutenant F.W. Purdy.

In the edgy days following the attack on December 7, military commanders in Hawaii were certain that the Japanese were going to bomb Honolulu again. So they set up anti-aircraft guns around the islands. Since Jackson’s ship, the California, was undergoing repairs, he had been assigned to the crew of one of the guns.

Around 3 a.m. on February 12, 1942, Jackson was reporting for his duty shift at one of the guns. In the darkness, he tripped. He fell onto a rifle with a bayonet attached. He died soon afterwards.

Jackson’s body eventually was returned to the U.S., and he’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

11/21/2013

That Creepy Little Man

 
The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum was tucked away in a modest, one-story house on a quiet street in St. Augustine, Florida, a bizarre sideshow to the nearby graceful antiquity of the nation’s oldest city. As you approached the entrance, you saw an eerie-but-fascinating tableau. Peering at you from a living-room picture window was a life-size wax figure of Lee Harvey Oswald hiding behind stacks of cardboard boxes, about to change history with the scoped Italian-made Carcano rifle he’d bought for a few bucks from a magazine ad.
It was a dreadfully tacky depiction of one of the most tragic events of the 20th century, and not something you’d see at the Smithsonian Museum. But that dark image of Oswald haunts our national psyche – that creepy little man with his cheap mail-order rifle who is going to blow the brains out of arguably the most charismatic president in U.S. history. And it’s seemed to me since the day I saw it that, as morbid, gruesome and tasteless as that display was, it was somehow as appropriate a comment on John F. Kennedy’s death as the most insightful essays and deftly understated museum exhibits.

Browsing through the dusty, amateurishly displayed exhibits at The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum was like rubbernecking as you drive slowly past a horrible car wreck. There was a steam whistle purportedly from the locomotive operated by Joseph “Steve” Brody on the night in 1903 when he left this world in a spectacular and legendary train wreck that came to be known as “the wreck of the old 97.” And the car that supposedly was the one in which actress Jayne Mansfield died also was on display.

But the museum’s centerpiece exhibits were artifacts from the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The displays included the dresser from Oswald’s $7-a-week rented room and the bed he’d slept in the night before his terrible deed. There was the 1953 Chevrolet in which he’d gotten a lift to work at the Texas Schoolbook Depository on that fateful day. And there was the 1962 Ford ambulance that had rushed him to Parkland Hospital two days later after he’d been fatally shot by Jack Ruby.
In the days following Kennedy’s assassination, St. Augustine businessman Buddy Hough made frequent trips to Dallas to acquire objects associated with the president’s death. In the process, he decided to open a museum focusing on tragedies that had darkened U.S. history.

 But St. Augustine’s purveyors of more traditional tourist attractions never liked Hough’s macabre collection, and Hough deeply resented the cold shoulder he received from the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum struggled to make money in a town that attracts more than a million tourists every year. Hough died in 1996, and his wife auctioned off her late husband’s unusual collection – including, I assume, that wretched wax likeness of Oswald.

So today, we’re remembering where we were 50 years ago when a troubled, fatherless drifter who’d learned to fire a rifle with deadly accuracy in the U.S. Marine Corps stunned the world.
I was in an eighth-grade math class in Richfield, North Carolina when a teacher abruptly opened the door, stepped into the classroom, and announced that Kennedy had been shot.

For days afterwards, the three television networks dropped all other programming and focused on what had happened in Texas. And the events were incomprehensible. Lyndon Johnson grimly taking the oath of office accompanied by a dazed Jacqueline Kennedy still wearing the chic Chanel suit stained with her husband’s blood; Oswald’s murder on live television; the endless line of mourners filing past the dead president’s coffin in the Capitol; and the funeral, during which I acquired an abiding respect for the somber, dignified ceremony of a military sendoff. And all of this depicted in black-and-white television images. I wonder if anyone turned off their TV in the week following Kennedy’s death.
Still, as morbidly compelling as this drama was, I think everyone craved normalcy. And eventually, the shock faded and the routine events of life resumed. But I wonder whether "normalcy" has returned since that event.

In 1964 we were handed a massive document that was the official product of the Warren Commission. It told us that Oswald, the chinless loser unable to find a satisfying place in this world, had plotted and carried out, alone, the murder of the most powerful man on Earth.
The Warren Commission’s conclusion has been debated for 49 years.  Many now-familiar phrases have been added to our popular lexicon – lone gunman, magic bullet, rogue CIA, second shooter, Castro-Mafia connection.

I keep going back and forth on whether I believe the commission’s version of events. At the moment I’m swinging back to the lone gunman theory for two reasons. I’ve read that the “magic bullet” theory is disproved by the fact that Texas Governor John Connolly’s seat in the limousine was three inches lower than Kennedy’s and thus the path of the bullet didn’t have to defy the laws of physics to hit them both. And I hear that the second shooter theory -- which says that if Oswald's bullet had hit Kennedy, his head would've moved in a different direction than the one depicted on film and therefore JFK was hit by a gunman other than Oswald -- is disproved because the movement of the president’s head is what happens when a bullet hits the brain in just the right (or wrong) way, causing brain cells to explode in a certain way.
But really, it doesn’t matter what I believe because nothing will make Oswald’s haunting image go away. And that’s why I think that ghastly display years ago in The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum was a legitimate commentary on John F. Kennedy’s shocking death. Oswald is always going to be rising from the dark, dusty, cobweb-infested depths of our collective minds’ eyes, disrupting our efforts to return to normalcy and distorting our perceptions of the world around us. Oswald is the face of this tragedy, and the face of that psychopathic piss-ant will trouble us until the day we die.

9/23/2013

Too Many Deadlines, Please Stand By . . .


Up to my ears in deadlines at the moment and can't even think about blogging. Hope to have a post ready for early October, when things have calmed down a bit. Please check back in a couple weeks.

8/11/2013

Take Me Out To The Ultra-Ball Game


So Major League Baseball has thrown out a dragnet again and hauled in 14 players accused of using so-called performance enhancing drugs. And the biggest catch in this batch of alleged cheaters is the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, who has long been considered a certainty to join other immortals in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

When MLB announced that Rodriguez had failed a drug test and faced a lengthy suspension, he needed just 13 home runs to tie Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s home run total of 660, which places Mays fourth on the list of all-time home run kings behind Barry Bonds (also accused of using drugs), Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. ESPN reported that Rodriguez’s contract calls for him to receive a substantial bonus when he matches Mays’s mark. That doesn’t seem quite fair to reward a juiced Rodriguez for reaching a milestone that was accomplished by players who weren't using any sort of performance-enhancing drugs to achieve their prodigious totals.
And to me, that’s the reason it matters that Rodriguez and Bonds achieved their impressive career statistics while using drugs. Baseball, more than any other major league professional sport, is tied to its history and its superstars that have been spread across more than a century of play. The statistics compiled by stars of bygone eras are part of the appeal of the game and a topic that can be endlessly discussed and debated by old fans and young fans.

“Baseball fans love to argue statistics,” Benjamin Hoffman wrote in today’s New York Times. “Mentions of Willie Mays or Ted Williams are often accompanied by the caveat that they lost time to war. Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier, would have had even better statistics had he been allowed to play before he was 28.”
Cynical fans ridicule the anti-drug sentiment and argue that drug use doesn’t matter and that players should be allowed to do whatever they can to improve their performances. It’s nobody’s business what they do to their own bodies, the argument goes.

But here’s the thing about that ultra-libertarian perspective about MLB and drugs: If you’re going to do that, you might as well close and seal the baseball record books from 1904 – when the Major Leagues as we know them began – until 1997 – the season before a steroids-enhanced Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 to become the first juiced player to set a season record for home runs.
A few years after Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa and other “enhanced” players elevated seasonal home run totals beyond anything seen since the beginning of the sport, MLB actually started enforcing its no-drugs rules. Seasonal home run totals by MLB players, which had escalated dramatically in the late 1990s, came back down to Earth. And that dramatic decline in home runs made the effect of drug use on baseball’s sacred statistics obvious to anyone who cared to compare the numbers.

So if you want to allow juiced players to play MLB, then close the record books from 1904 to 1997, declare the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown to be filled to capacity with stars of “old” baseball, and start over with record-keeping and a new league and a new game. Call it “ultra-baseball” or “extreme baseball” or “robo-baseball” or “ultimate baseball,” something to indicate that this is not a game for mere wimpy mortals but a game that’s being played by super-evolved, chemically enhanced cyber-humans.
Then, instead of arguing whether Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider was the best centerfielder of his era, you can argue about whether Barry Bonds’s home run total would have been higher if he’d avoided steroids and used a different type of performance-enhancing drug. That doesn’t seem to have the same appeal as talking about Willie, Mickey and The Duke, but I suppose it could make for a lively debate among chemists.

NOTE: The photo at the top was published by the New York Daily News on October 8, 2011 and shows Alex Rodriguez after he struck out to end the game that the New York Yankees lost to the Detroit Tigers, 3-2 in the American League Divisional Championship Series.


7/04/2013

Why I Spell My Name D-R-Y-E


As they say back home, you can’t hardly throw a rock in the southern Piedmont North Carolina counties of Stanly, Cabarrus and Rowan without hitting someone named Dry. Or Drye.
There are two camps as to how that last name is spelled. I have first cousins who spell it with the “e.” And I have other first cousins who don’t use that “e” and wouldn’t do it at gunpoint.

For the record, both spellings of the last name are a corruption of the German surname, Dörr. The Dörrs came over from Germany to Philadelphia in the mid-18th century. According to research done by one of my late aunts, the Dörrs moved from Philly to North Carolina in 1799.
Somewhere along the way, they changed the family surname to Dry. Or maybe it was Drye. Maybe they changed the family name because that umlaut over the “ö” made their name look too foreign, too Teutonic.

Or maybe somewhere along the way, some anonymous official filling out a legal document misunderstood the name and spelled it the way he heard it pronounced. More about that possibility in a moment.
As far as I know, no one knows why some of the rechristened Dörrs chose to add the “e” as sort of a decorative flourish at the end of their new name. But I guess my family in Misenheimer – which is in Stanly County – considered the “e” superfluous and maybe even a bit too showy, because we spelled the name Dry.

Sometime in the 1930s, my Uncle Joe Dry left the family farm in Misenheimer and moved west to California, presumably seeking all the opportunities for a better life that the Golden State famously offered. He married a California girl, worked hard and prospered and raised a family out there with Aunt Jean.
And he started spelling his name with the “e,” as in Joe Drye. There’s no record that I’m aware of that explains why he made that switch to the other side. Perhaps it was because the “e” gave the name a little more heft and made it look like an actual surname instead of a synonym for dehydrated.

When I was born in late 1949, Aunt Jean and Uncle Joe Drye came back east for the event. They were in the hospital room in Albemarle with my parents when a nurse came in to fill out a birth certificate.
The nurse asked – apparently of no one in particular – how to spell my last name. According to what I’ve been told, Aunt Jean said to the nurse, D-R-Y-E. My parents either didn’t hear what Aunt Jean said to the nurse, or they didn’t think the nurse would take her seriously. But, apparently, they made no attempt to correct the spelling, and that’s what the nurse wrote on the birth certificate.

I have no idea what actually happened. Although I was, of course, present at the event, I wasn’t taking notes and I have no recollection of who said what to whom, and I’m relying on what I’ve been told by older cousins.
Still, it didn’t matter too much what the nurse wrote on my birth certificate because for the first 23 years of my life, I spelled my last name D-R-Y.

In November 1972, I went into the Army. I had to provide a copy of my birth certificate when I started basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Again, I didn’t give much thought to how my name was spelled on that document.
A day or two after arriving at Fort Jackson, I was in line with the other trainees being issued clothing by the quartermaster. As I moved through the line, I was handed my fatigue shirts, fatigue pants, fatigue caps, field jackets, combat boots – and name tags to be sewn onto my fatigue shirts and field jackets.

The name tags had my last name in all capital letters. It was based on the spelling on my birth certificate – DRYE.

I thought the supply sergeant surely would want to know of this mistake. “I don’t spell my name with an “e,” I said.
“You do now,” the sergeant snapped. “Move on.”

To use another back-home phrase, I soon discovered that the Army had me by the short-hairs as far as the spelling was concerned. In order to get paid every month, I had to sign the payroll register. My name on that document was spelled Drye. If I signed my name Dry, I wouldn’t get paid.

It took me a while to get used to it, but by the time I got out of the Army, I was accustomed to seeing my name with the previously extravagant “e” at the end. Legally changing it would’ve been too much of a pain. So I’ve just learned to live with it, although sometimes I’ve wondered if my relatives think I’m putting on airs because of that “e.”
Honest, cousins, I had no choice in the matter.

Note: The photo at the top of this post shows the last surviving name tag that I was issued at the start of Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

7/03/2013

Pickett's Charge: Smoking Shoes And Body Parts

The North Carolina monument at Cemetery Ridge in the Gettysburg
National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.


It’s been reported that the duel between Confederate and Union artillery at the Battle of Gettysburg 150 years ago today was so loud it could be heard in Pittsburgh, 140 miles to the west.

The firing ceased around 2:45 p.m. on July 3, 1863, and after such an awful noise, the silence was decidedly eerie. A few minutes later, Confederate soldiers emerged from trees on Seminary Ridge and, with remarkable military precision, formed in long straight lines. Then, at a rapid, steady walk, they moved down Seminary Ridge and started a mile-long trek across a shallow valley to Cemetery Ridge.

About 12,000 Confederate soldiers were involved in this military maneuver that will forever be known as “Pickett’s Charge.” The name comes from General George Pickett, who was ordered to push about 4,000 Union troops off Cemetery Ridge. Historians have pointed out that the attempt to take Cemetery Ridge should be referred to as the Pickett-Trimble-Pettigrew Charge because the men who took part in the famous assault were from North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia, and most were led by generals other than Pickett.

But Pickett, a native of Virginia, benefitted from the presence of many newspaper reporters from his own state who wrote their stories with a decided slant in favor of their native son.

If the assault had succeeded, it could have broken the Union Army of the Potomac and given the Confederacy such an advantage that it might have been able to dictate peace terms to President Abraham Lincoln and end the American Civil War with a victory for an economic system that relied on human bondage.

Even some of the men who were going to try to kill the Confederates were impressed by the way their enemy arrayed himself. “Beautiful, gloriously beautiful, did that vast array appear in the lovely little valley,” a New York soldier wrote in a letter after the battle.

Author Shelby Foote described what happened after Union soldiers got over the dazzling display of martial precision moving toward them at the rate of 90 steps per minute. The thousands of Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge “settled down to the task of transforming those well-dressed gray lines into something far from beautiful,” Foote wrote.

Among the 12,000 soldiers making that deadly march was my great-grandfather, William Crooks Dry, a private in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry.

It took the Confederates about 15 minutes to go the first half-mile of the journey. Union cannons were firing at them the entire time, tearing gaps in the precise lines. But the Confederates still impressed their opponents. “The enemy advanced magnificently, unshaken by the shot and shell which tore through his ranks,” said General Henry Hunt, commander of the Union artillery.

My great-grandfather’s unit, the 52nd North Carolina, was commanded by Colonel James K. Marshall. After leading his men about halfway to their objective, Marshall turned to another officer and said, “We do not know which of us will be next to fall.”

After more than 20 minutes, the Confederates were nearing the crest of Cemetery Ridge. By now, thick smoke from the black powder being used in the weapons fired by both sides had created a fog

Thousands of Confederates already were dead or dying, but the survivors pushed on to the low rock wall that protected their opponents. As the 52nd approached the wall, Marshall was urging his men on. Then suddenly, two bullets struck him in the forehead.

At about the same time, a Union artillery commander screamed at his men to fire their cannons point-blank at the North Carolina troops.

Later, the commander wrote in his diary that after the smoke had cleared from the blast, the only thing remaining of the North Carolina troops was “smoking shoes.”

For a few moments, it looked like Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s gamble had succeeded. A few Confederates managed to cross the stone wall that protected the Union troops. But so many Confederates had been killed that they did not have the numbers to push Union troops off the hill. The attack was broken, and dispirited Confederate troops retreated back across the valley to Seminary Ridge.

Fewer than half the Confederates survived the charge. My great-grandfather was among the survivors.

The following day, July 4, Lee’s broken army left Gettysburg in a driving rain, moving south toward Maryland. The Union artillery commander who had fired point-blank at North Carolina troops described the ground in front of his guns as being “black, greasy, and full of body parts.”

Sources for this post included The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; research by Gettysburg battlefield guide Gary Kross; and Wikipedia.

7/01/2013

A Day Of Deadly Surprises

Confederate General Alfred Iverson sent his
troops into a deadly Union ambush during
the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg on
July 1, 1863.
Historians are still debating whether the Battle of Gettysburg was fought over shoes. The legend goes that Confederate generals in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia believed that there was a shoe factory in Gettysburg where they might find shoes for their many barefoot soldiers.

No such factory existed, and neither Lee nor his adversary, Union General George Meade, were looking for a knockdown drag-out fight in southern Pennsylvania on July 1, 1863. But with tens of thousands of Confederate and Union troops drawing closer and closer to each other in the area around Gettysburg, just such a fight was inevitable.

“The first of July is a day of surprises,” said Gary Kross, a guide who took me on a personal tour of the Gettysburg battlefield a few years ago. “You’re never quite sure where your opponent will be coming from. Men are constantly coming in throughout the day from different directions.”

The fighting was already underway when the 5th North Carolina Infantry and the 52nd North Carolina Infantry reached Gettysburg on July 1. My great-grandfather, William C. Dry, was in the 52nd, while his younger brother Thomas was in the 5th.
The 5th North Carolina Infantry was among the units commanded by Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, a Georgian. Iverson’s leadership on July 1 would prove disastrous for his men, Kross said.

Iverson’s men arrived northwest of Gettysburg and were ordered to drive Union forces from Oak Ridge, which overlooked the town.
But Iverson was the wrong man for that job. “At two o’clock in the afternoon, this Confederate general is drunk as a skunk and can’t sit on his horse,” Kross said. “As his men go off to battle he yells out at them, ‘Give ‘em hell, boys!’ But he doesn’t go with them.”

Still, the approximately 1,400 Confederate troops advancing on Oak Ridge thought they had a Union force of about 500 outnumbered by almost three to one. But the Confederate commanders hadn’t bothered to do any reconnaissance of the area to confirm how many Union troops were in the area.
So the Confederates were walking straight into a stunning and deadly trap.

Just behind the crest of Oak Ridge, where the ground starts sloping down toward the town, was a low stone wall about 3½ feet tall. And behind that wall, just out of sight of the advancing Confederates, crouched about 3,000 Union troops.
The Confederate troops weren’t even ready to fire their rifles as they moved toward Oak Ridge in long lines roughly parallel with the wall. They were marching with their rifles across their shoulders, as though they were on a parade ground instead of a battlefield.

The unsuspecting Confederates advanced to about 200 feet from the crest of the ridge. “That’s when the Union soldiers stand up, some four rows deep, level their rifles and fire a volley right into the faces of the North Carolinians,” Kross said. “They never saw it coming.”
The deadly fusillade struck the first line of soldiers. “Hundreds of North Carolinians went down on the first volley,” Kross said. “One Confederate indicated that there were at least 500 men going down on the first volley. If that’s true, that’s incredible. These men were shot to pieces, blown apart.”

One unlucky North Carolina soldier named Eugene Phillips was hit in the head by six bullets, Kross said.

Another North Carolina soldier survived that devastating blast because he was in the second row – or rank – of soldiers. He wrote about his experience later that day.
“He writes in his journal that night that he was sprayed by the brains of the men in the first rank” Kross said.

Somehow Thomas Dry survived the withering fire that decimated the 5th North Carolina Infantry. What he did in the face of that hail of bullets isn’t known. It’s likely that he flung himself on the ground, and perhaps he tried to fire back at the Union troops. But the odds were hopeless, and shortly after that deadly blast of gunfire, Thomas and other surviving Confederates surrendered and were taken prisoner by the Union troops.  

Between 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., the 52nd North Carolina Infantry arrived at the west side of Gettysburg, along with the 11th, 26th, and 47th North Carolina infantries. William was perhaps a mile or so south of where his brother’s unit had nearly been wiped out. The 52nd and other Confederate units splashed across a small creek called Willoughby Run west of the town, cursing at the briars and underbrush that tore at them as they began moving up a hill known as McPherson’s Ridge.

In his epic three-volume work The Civil War: A Narrative, author Shelby Foote described what the 11th and 26th North Carolina infantries encountered after they’d crossed Willoughby Run.

“As they started up McPherson’s Ridge ,,, the woods along the crest were suddenly filled with flame-stabbed smoke and the crash of heavy volleys,” Foote wrote

Soon, the Confederates discovered who was shooting at them. They were being met by the Union Army’s famed Iron Brigade, composed of soldiers from Wisconsin and Michigan. Foote described the unit as “made up of hard-bitten Westerners with a formidable reputation for hard fighting.”

But the proud Union unit had been involved in fighting earlier in the day, and was not quite up to full strength. Still, the Iron Brigade had been told to hold their ground at all costs. What followed was what Kross described as “one of the most remarkable fights of the entire Civil War.”

For an hour and 40 minutes, the 11th and 26th North Carolina infantries slugged it out with the Iron Brigade from a distance of only about 60 feet apart.

Finally, the Iron Brigade broke and retreated to a Lutheran seminary at the western edge of Gettysburg.

The 47th and 52nd were more fortunate. They were met by the 121st Pennsylvania Infantry, an inexperienced unit made up of “pretty raw recruits,” Kross said. “They do not put up a very good fight,” he said. The Pennsylvanians soon fell back to the seminary also.

The North Carolinians then were met by a tougher Union unit, the 80th New York Infantry. But the Union soldiers were caught between the 47th and 52nd North Carolina infantries. Still, they might have been able to hold their line if a drunken Union general had not foolishly ordered a charge against the Confederate positions. About one-third of the men were lost. The Union forces were forced to fall back.

Despite the slaughter at Oak Ridge, Union troops got the worst of the fighting that day and were forced to fall back through the streets of Gettysburg. But they still held high ground south of the town, and reinforcements were arriving. The second day of the battle wouldn’t go as well for the Confederates.
Sources for this post included The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; and research by licensed Gettysburg battlefield guide Gary Kross.

6/28/2013

A Long-Ago Distant Land That Looks Like Home



The first time I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in March 1988, I was struck by how much the countryside reminded me of where I grew up in the southern Piedmont of North Carolina. The rolling up-and-down terrain could have been Stanly or Rowan or Cabarrus counties. The low blue hills in the distance could have been the Uwharrie Mountains.

I wondered if my great-grandfather, William C. Dry, had similar thoughts of home 150 years ago as he tramped past the tidy farms and through the small towns of southern Pennsylvania – Greencastle, Chambersburg, Cashtown – with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

William was one of the dusty foot-soldiers in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry that marched through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. His younger brother, Thomas, was in the 5th North Carolina Infantry, which also made the long march from Virginia.

I’ve been to Gettysburg many times since that first visit, and I’ve thought that if a movie producer asked a location scout to find a perfect place to film a battle scene, it would be Gettysburg. The rolling terrain and low hills provide lots of interesting elevations and vistas – high ground to be defended to the last man or taken by daring, against-all-odds charges. Large boulders and exposed rock outcroppings dot the landscape and seem to beg for soldiers to hide behind them and cause headaches for opposing generals who must send troops to assault an impregnable natural fortress.

And I always get that haunting sense of familiarity. When I’ve stood on the summit of Little Round Top – a small mountain that was the site of a fierce and pivotal struggle on the second day of the battle – and looked down the slope at the rugged terrain, I’ve thought of the overlook at the summit of Morrow Mountain back home in Stanly County.

So when you walk the battlefield with these thoughts in mind, it’s easy to get caught up in schoolboy reveries and family stories of valor and glory and forget what this furious fight was all about. Something about this battle and the climactic event on July 3 that came to be known as Pickett's Charge has buried itself deep in the Southern psyche. As William Faulkner wrote about the Confederates’ ill-fated attempt to storm Cemetery Ridge in Intruder in the Dust, “For every Southern boy 14 years old ... there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” And that 14-year-old boy and lots of people much older can think, as Faulkner wrote, “Maybe this time . . . ”

The courage Confederate soldiers displayed that day is remarkable, and we can only hope that all American soldiers show the same bravery in the service of their country. The cause for which those brave Confederates were fighting – which included the preservation of slavery – was not, in my opinion, worthy of such valor.

A few years ago, I hired Gary Kross, who’s been a licensed guide at the Gettysburg National Military Park for nearly three decades, to take me on a personal tour of the battlefield. I asked Kross to focus on the movements of the 52nd and the 5th North Carolina infantries.

During our tour, I told Kross about that odd sense of familiarity I felt when I visited Gettysburg, and wondered if similar thoughts had crossed my ancestors’ minds.

Kross smiled. “I’ve heard that before from a lot of North Carolinians who come up here,” he said. “I get that a lot.”

Many of Lee’s soldiers from other parts of the South also were impressed by the lovely countryside.

“Pennsylvania is the greatest country I ever saw in my life,” Lieutenant John B. Evans of the 53rd Georgia Infantry wrote to his wife, Molie, back in Jackson, Georgia in June 1863. “Molie if this state was a slave state and I was able to buy land here after the war you might count of living in Pennsylvania.”

For the soldiers who came to Gettysburg, the bucolic beauty and haunting familiarity of the land probably evaporated once they were fighting for their lives. The tour Kross led me on – and the horrific details about the fighting that he described – conveyed to me at least an inkling of the tragedy that happened between July 1 and July 3, 1863. And what happened was this: for three terrible days, around 160,000 men furiously hurled themselves at each other and did everything they could to kill each other. When the awful slaughter was over, any sane person forced to look upon the carnage would have been shocked and disgusted and sickened by the sight.

And civilians far away from Gettysburg got an unusually graphic depiction of the bloodbath when Alexander Gardner’s photos showing bloated, swollen corpses were publicly displayed in the North shortly after the battle.

Lee's army began moving north from Virginia in mid-June 1863. By late June they'd crossed into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, a Union army under General George Meade had been shadowing Lee's movements, trying to stay between the Confederate army and the vital cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

Carlton McCarthy, who made the trek to Pennsylvania in a Confederate artillery company, later wrote about the extreme discomforts the soldiers endured during long summer marches. “In the summer time, the dust, combined with the heat, caused great suffering,” he wrote. “The sun produced great changes in the appearance of the men – their skins, tanned to a dark brown or red, their hands black almost, and long uncut beard and hair, burned to a strange color, made them barely recognizable to the home folks.”

By June 29, 1863, after more than two weeks of marching, William C. Dry probably resembled the soldiers McCarthy described when the 52nd North Carolina Infantry stopped at Cashtown, not quite eight miles from Gettysburg.

It was poetically appropriate, perhaps, that they got paid the following day in Cashtown before setting off for Gettysburg.

Lee came to Pennsylvania 150 summers ago looking for a fight that he hoped would end the war on Southern terms. But the epic three-day Battle of Gettysburg wouldn’t turn out as he’d hoped. And that battle, arguably the pivotal battle of the Civil War and undoubtedly one of history's seminal events, would be the beginning of a terrible 18 months for my great-grandfather and his family.

This is the third in a series of posts about my family's experience in the Civil War. Sources for this post included Lee Moves North, by Michael A. Palmer; Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life, by Carlton McCarthy; Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War, by Alexander Gardner; research by Gettysburg battlefield tour guide Gary Kross; and exhibits in the museum at the Gettysburg National Military Park. The painting at the top of this post is by artist Mort Künstler and shows General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia on their march to Pennsylvania in June 1863.

6/22/2013

Roy Sievers Was A Hall Of Famer In My Book


Roy Sievers was a good player on some not-so-good Major League baseball teams from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1949, and was named to the American League All-Star Team five times before his career ended after the 1965 season.

He didn’t make it into baseball’s Hall of Fame, but when I was a kid he did something for me that I think makes him one of the greatest players of all time.

In 1959 Sievers was playing for a perennially hapless Washington Senators’ team that inspired comedians of the day to quip that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

The Senators, who had a Class AA Southern League farm team in Charlotte, were scheduled to open the 1959 season on April 9 against the Baltimore Orioles. On April 6, the Senators played their final spring training exhibition game in Charlotte’s old Griffith Park against the Chicago White Sox.

I was in the third grade. I had a classmate named Keith Douglas whose father was a professor at Pfeiffer College in my hometown, Misenheimer, about 40 miles from Charlotte.

Keith and his parents were from New England, loved baseball, and were passionate Boston Red Sox fans. Keith’s dad got tickets to the Senators-White Sox exhibition game, and Keith invited me to go along.

The game was on a Monday afternoon, so Keith and I had to get permission to miss school. That request went to the principal of Richfield School, C.P. Misenheimer, who was such an avid baseball fan that he’d spent part of his honeymoon with his new wife watching a New York Giants’ game at the old Polo Grounds in New York. I don’t think he had a problem letting Keith and me duck out of school to see a big league game in Charlotte.

 Keith’s dad got us to the ballpark well ahead of game time, and then turned us loose to seek autographs from the players. Recordings of Broadway show tunes were playing over the Griffith Park public address system. To this day, when I hear Judy Garland singing “Meet Me in St. Louis” I see the grandstand and feel the sunshine on my face and the grass under my feet as Keith and I set out at a dead run to chase players.

Most of the players were cooperative when asked for an autograph, and many of them were mingling with the crowd. Keith and I recognized them from their baseball cards.

We spotted Nellie Fox, the White Sox second-baseman, getting a drink from a water fountain beneath the grandstand. He was holding his trademark chaw of chewing tobacco in one hand while he drank. He was glad to sign for us.

Somehow, Keith and I got split up and started chasing players separately. I spotted White Sox pitcher Early Wynn in the grandstand, chatting with his wife. “Mr. Wynn,” I said, “can I please have your autograph?”

Wynn seemed to be amused by a little kid with a twangy Southern accent politely asking for his autograph. He teased me a little, asking his wife whether he should sign his name for this guy. His wife, however, didn’t much care for her husband’s teasing a child. “Oh Early, stop it,” she said. “Give him an autograph.”

I went over to the Senators’ side of the field, but by now game time was approaching and they’d gone into their dugout. I spotted Roy Sievers, leaning back on the bench with the bill of his baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes.

I leaned over the grandstand railing and yelled to him, “Mr. Sievers, can I have your autograph, please?”

He pushed up his cap and looked up at me, and grinned. He motioned for me to come down into the dugout. I was astonished. “I can’t,” I said. “They’ll kick me out.”

“Don’t worry, kid, I won’t let them kick you out,” he said. “Come on down.”

I shook my head. He motioned to me again, more emphatically this time. So I climbed over the railing, jumped down onto the field, and ran into the Senators’ dugout. I handed Sievers my pad and pencil. Still grinning, he signed it, but instead of handing it back to me he called out to the other players standing around him. “Hey, guys,” he said. “Sign this.” And the pad was passed around to every player in the dugout.

I was stupefied, and I think I just stood there speechless with my mouth hanging open. Everyone, including Senators’ manager Cookie Lavagetto, signed the pad. Sievers handed it back to me. I finally managed to say something like “Wow, thank you, Mr. Sievers,” then ran up the dugout steps and scrambled back into the stands.

Sievers hit a home run over the left field wall that day, which I remember clearly, but the Senators still lost, 9-6, to the White Sox, who would go on to win the American League pennant in 1959.

That pad with Roy Sievers’s and other players’ signatures became one of my most prized possessions, but somehow, over the years, it disappeared. Still, the memory of Sievers grinning and motioning me to come into the dugout is as vivid as if it had happened a few days ago.
 
Photo: The Topps 1959 baseball card for Roy Sievers.

6/14/2013

Marching Into History

The activities of Civil War soldiers often were announced by drum rolls. So maybe a drummer pounding the call for “Assembly” 150 years ago today sent my great-grandfather, William Crooks Dry, and hundreds of other Confederate soldiers in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry scrambling into formation.

In his 1882 Civil War memoir Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life, Carlton McCarthy described the flood of questions that popped into soldiers’ minds when they were ordered to assemble to begin a march. “Orders to move?” McCarthy wrote. “Where? When? What for? – are the eager questions of the men as they begin their preparations to march. Generally, nobody can answer, and the journey is commenced in utter ignorance of where it is to end.”

By the summer of 1863, William had recovered from a wound he’d received at the Battle of Goldsboro Bridge six months earlier and returned to duty with the 52nd. The unit had been moving since early April, when they boarded a train in Kinston, North Carolina that took them to Taylorsville, Virginia. The 52nd moved again in early June, this time to take up positions on the banks of the Rappahannock River a few miles downstream from Fredericksburg.

On June 10, the 52nd was ordered to a nearby train station where they were to board a train to Hanover Junction, north of Richmond, to relieve a unit under the command of General John Corse.

But that turned out to be one of those “hurry up and wait” orders that have annoyed soldiers since the beginning of time. After sitting for hours waiting for the troop train, the 52nd’s orders to Hanover Junction were rescinded. The unit under General Corse would remain in place. The 52nd’s commanders received new orders to report to General James Johnston Pettigrew, and by nightfall they were back in their camp on the Rappahannock.

The train that never arrived would change the lives of the men in the 52nd.

While the 52nd had been traveling from North Carolina and encamping on the Rappahannock, General Robert E. Lee had been dodging attempts by the Confederate government to detach some troops from his Army of Northern Virginia to be sent west, where Union General Ulysses Grant was threatening the vital Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Lee also had been asking for more men, but he wasn’t telling Confederate leaders in Richmond why he wanted those extra troops. He was quietly formulating a plan, and that plan did not involve keeping his army sitting in encampments in and around Fredericksburg.

“As far as I can judge there is nothing to be gained by this army remaining quietly on the defensive,” he noted in early June 1863.

Lee knew that the South simply did not have the resources to fight a long war against the North. Their enemy had a huge advantage in supplies and manpower, and could win simply by forcing the Confederacy to use up its scant resources.

In Lee’s mind, the best way to relieve pressure on Confederate armies to the west would be to put pressure on Union forces in the east. And the best way to do that was to take the war to the enemy. So in June 1863, Lee started moving his army northward.

It was a high risk, high reward plan. If he could march boldly onto his enemy’s turf, draw a large Union army into a major battle and decisively defeat that army as he’d done at Chancellorsville, Virginia only a few weeks earlier, it might throw such a fright into Northern civilians that they’d demand peace talks aimed at ending the war.

If another Confederate general had proposed to march into Pennsylvania and dare his enemy to come after him, he might have been called a reckless fool. But Lee’s troops were on a winning streak, so to speak, and he was certain that his men could make his gamble pay off.

“There never were such men in an army before,” he said. “They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led.”

And after watching Virginia be chewed up by two years of war, many of Lee’s men were eager to give their enemy a taste of military carnage. “Let their bones be laid waste – their lands destroyed, their towns laid in ashes, and then they will be disposed to make peace,” said William Blount, a lieutenant in the 47th North Carolina Infantry.

So on June 14, 1863, as William and thousands of other Confederate soldiers began what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. later described as “one of those dreadful summer marches,” there undoubtedly was much speculation about where they were going. And while William knew that his brother Thomas was in the 5th North Carolina Infantry, it’s doubtful that he would’ve known that his brother’s unit was part of the same massive troop movement.

None of the men moving northward on those dusty unpaved roads in the heat of that long-ago summer knew their journey would end spectacularly at a quiet little crossroads town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.

NOTE: Sources for this essay included Lee Moves North, by Michael A. Palmer; Fifty-Second Regiment, a regimental history by John H. Robinson, Adjutant; Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life, by Carlton McCarthy; and exhibits at the Gettysburg National Military Park museum. The photo of the gatehouse entrance to a cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was made by Frank Gutekunst a few weeks after the battle in July 1863. The image is from the website The Gettysburg Compiler.