Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Houston, Missouri 1890

A quarter century ago a ragged group of tired old soldiers met at the home of Wilmer Mclean, and Robert E. Lee read and signed a document written in General Grant’s own hand, whereby all agreed that all confederate troops were free to return home without the taint of treason.  The Civil War was over, the Union whole, and the nation at last at peace.  This year being the twenty-fifth anniversary of that hallowed event, we've assembled today at a humble but well kept residence just outside Houston, Missouri for the purpose of visiting a genuine veteran of that horrific conflict.  Around mid-morning Mrs. Casebeer accompanied her husband down the front steps of their Ozark Mountain home and into the shade.  Mr. Casebeer is small of stature, uncommonly affable, and solid as seasoned hickory, with sharp, unblinking eyes. I shook his hand and our interview began. To begin with Mr. Casebeer, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself? 

Mr. Casebeer adjusted his galluses, pushed the brow of his straw hat back from his face, gave a gravelly but pleasant chuckle and began to fill us in.  “Well, my name is Calvin Casebeer, and I was born back in the spring of ’38 in Defiance, Ohio.  Cassie and I were married in ’62, our son Lewis was born in ’63, and over the next twenty years we were blessed with eleven children. We buried two of ‘em back in Ohio, and then in ‘85, soon after laying little Eva to rest, the rest of us pulled up stakes and made tracks for the Ozarks hoping for a fresh start.  The last five years or so I’ve been traveling the hills and hollers of south central Missouri spreading the gospel and relying on the goodness of others.  We’re poor as church mice, and the misses is darn near thin as a rail, but the Lord’s been good to us and all the kids are thriving.” 

I’m certain our readers will be pleased to hear that you’re doing well, Mr. Casebeer.  What else can you tell us about your family history? “Well sir.” said Calvin, leaning into his walking stick and smoothing his long, gray whiskers, “My great, great, granddad, along with his brother and his folks, arrived on the shores of Pennsylvania back in the autumn of 1724.  My great, great, great granddad Johann Kasebier kept a journal on the voyage over, and word has it that the thing exists to this very day in the castle archives back in Germany.  Johann passed away shortly after their arrival in this country, and the family had a mighty hard time of it back in the colonies. My great granddad, John Casebeer, was a soldier in the militia during the Revolutionary war, and served in the Continental Army with Captain Davidson’s division out of Bedford, Pennsylvania.  I’m mighty proud of my family, and I’m mighty proud that when my time come, I did my part to keep this God fearing country whole and free.”

Well Calvin, may I call you Calvin? “Yes sir.” Calvin, What do you remember today about your service to this country during the Civil War?   “Plenty!” answered Calvin, tucking his shirt in and puffing up just a tad. “I remember ever’ bit of it, just like it was yesterday.” With that, Mr. Casebeer blotted his forehead with a kerchief and began the following yarn. “Following the siege at Fort Sumter, back in ’61, Governor Morton ordered that a camp for volunteers be set up back in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and my brother John and I caught the stage and headed out. I wasn't but 23 and took the whole grievous adventure for a lark.  We spent a week or so there at Fort Wayne, bivouacked with other boys from all over the country. They rousted us out at first light on the morning of the 22nd of November and, following a physical exam, we all gathered on the square where Mayor Randall addressed the regiment and presented us with a crisp, new flag.  Once the sermonizing had petered out they swore us all in as members of the Indiana 44th Infantry with these questions: Do you solemnly promise to love this flag? We says yes sir.  Do you promise to honor it? Yes sir!  Do you promise to obey it?  Yes sir! Do you promise to sustain and defend it, even unto death?  Yes sir!  I, then, in this presence and before these witnesses, solemnly join you to the American flag: and what we have now joined together let not Jeff Davis or his minions put asunder. Then they paraded us through town.  Folks was waving and hollering and carrying on something fierce, and we all figured we was mighty fine!  Then we set off marching, and marching, and marching, and we kep’ on marching till hell wouldn’t have it!  For the first few months we didn't fight nothin’ but hunger, frostbite, fatigue, and the measles.  It seems like it snowed all through November, December, and January.  Most of us were cold and soaked and sick.  You've never seen such misery in your life.  Then, about mid February, we marched through the snow to Fort Donelson, and that’s when all hell broke loose.  Colonel Reed marched our outfit to the foot of a good-sized hill, infested with Rebs and swarmin’ like a beehive.  We formed ranks at the bottom, the order was given to advance double quick, and we ducked our heads and charged like hell, cheering and shooting into a hail of bullets. Nearing the top of the hill, the confederates dove for cover in their entrenchments, and us right on their heels.  Shells was fallin’, sabers flashin’, and most of us drawing blood for the very first time.  You can’t even imagine, unless you was there yourself! Once the Rebs were dug in good and returning fire in earnest, General Grant himself gave the order to fall back to the brow of the hill.  We dug in there on the hill that night, cold, wet and hungry, retrieving the dead and listening to the cries of the wounded.  Next morning the enemy surrendered and we searched the hill for our fallen comrades.  Two of the 44th were missing, 34 wounded, and 7 found frozen to the ground in their blood-soaked uniforms.  After that came another world of marching through hell and the battles of Shiloh and Stone River. During the night of June 10th, news reached our encampment of the fall of Vicksburg and of General Lee being routed real bad at Gettysburg.  We figured for certain the war was all but finished. That was one of the few good nights I remember from the whole campaign. By September of 1863, the Rebs had withdrawn all the way back to the northwest corner of Georgia’s confederate heartland.  The confederacy had it’s back against the wall!  Digging in along the west branch of Chickamauga Crick, them tenacious Rebs was bristled like a bulldog with a bone!  September 19th found us bivouacked at the ol’ Poe place, just northwest of the crick.  The battle had been arduous, and we’d been rode hard and put up wet.  Late that evening, a commotion in the confederate encampment across the crick signaled the arrival of the Rebels long awaited reinforcements. The arrival of Longstreet and his company marked a considerable change in the mix.  Leaders on both sides immediately began rethinking tomorrow’s battle.  For ol’ Bill Rosencrans and Braxton Bragg this was in one sense just your typical garden-variety chess game.  Each of ‘em would engage his men in a time-honored confrontation, attacking, retreating, and maneuvering, in an effort to sweep the board.  But these pawns weren't inanimate chess pieces; this was flesh and blood, and before noon the next day the Chickamauga was runnin’ red with it!  Occasional skirmishes continued through the night as each side exchanged potshots at the muzzle flashes of the other.  Then, around mid-morning of September 20th, the action began in earnest!  For several hours the Federal troops successfully turned back the confederate advances; wave after wave was repelled and driven back to the crick.  Just prior to noon the confederate forces, along with Longstreet’s reinforcements, began a concentrated assault on the Union front. At some point during this conflict, perceiving an imminent threat to Thomas’s forces to the north, ol’ Rosencrans reassigned Woods division to address this threat.  As the reassigned troops pulled back to assist Thomas, the effect was like pulling your finger from a dike! Within moments, the punctured Federal lines busted open like a saturated earthen dam, and the wall of Rebs swept over everything in their path.  The battle of Chickamauga was about the bloodiest of the war, and the casualties were overwhelming. The 44th Indiana infantry only had three men killed, but 10 men were unaccounted for and 59 were shot up pretty bad. My brother and I were counted with the wounded.  John had been run over by a runaway wagon, and I’d been shot through the leg.  The field hospitals had performed amputations, patchwork, and temporary fixes, until their medical supplies were exhausted, and then they clenched their teeth and proceeded without ‘em.  The traffic of dead and dying soldiers from the Chickamauga to points north and south was slow and steady, and the pitiful laments of the injured rose from the wagons in a low guttural moan that for many was only answered in the thralls of death. By the afternoon of the 20th, John and I were in the back of a wagon on our way to a field hospital. We slept, best we could, shielding our eyes from the glaring sun and our ears from the sounds of agony and despair.  Even in sleep, the scenes of battle repeated in my mind, and my consciousness reeled from the stench of death and war.  War has always been an enigma to me, an irreconcilable amalgamation of glory and Godlessness. Even now after my baptism of fire and a near death experience, I view it with a strange mix of abhorrence and wonder.  It’s as though, despite its revulsion and abomination, war has some redeeming quality. I can tell you this about war; if war possesses any redeeming qualities, they’re not apparent out on the battlefield where gallant young men are killing and being killed.  The redeeming qualities of war are pretty illusive to those who observe its horrid stench first hand. War’s finer facets, in order to be fully appreciated, must be polished, politicized, and refined, by some well bred, manicured, articulate, gentleman back home. Back home the less desirable aspects of war may be overlooked.  One may sip their brandy, smile benevolently, and observe, ‘Ain’t war inspirin!  In the case of the civil war, both sides sought peace.   The north was bound by the patriot’s sense of E PLURIBUS UNUM, and the south was bound by home and hearth and their ancestral way of life.  Few would argue that either was served by war.  Death and destruction may quell revolt, but they rarely result in peace.  Don’t get me wrong.  I realize that freedom requires commitment, commitment requires perseverance, and perseverance requires the will to act.  When freedom and just causes are threatened, honorable men respond.  But surely war is the last resort of those who know its grief.  Surely for reasonable people there’s a better way!  Freedom is every hearts desire and every just government’s goal, but it’s a mighty illusive concept when you’re at war. Freedom is nearly impossible when ya don’t have peace.” 

So what, in your opinion, Mr. Casebeer, is our best hope for peace?  “Well sir,” Calvin responded, briefly removing his hat and running a red bandanna over his wispy, white hair, “ol’ Abraham himself summed it up far better then I ever could.” With this Mr. Casebeer reached into his pocket, produced a tattered remnant of President Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, and read aloud, “With malice toward none; with charity for all: with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have born the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” With that, Mr. Casebeer smiled warmly, parted by offering the unfailingly compassionate hand of true Christian fellowship, and Mrs. Casebeer assisted him back to the house.  And I collected my papers and came away enlightened.  S.T.C.

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