Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Captain's Courage, Part 2

As mentioned earlier (see July 27, 2012 post in this blog), Captain Samuel Cox of Co.A, 17th Ky. Vol. Inf.  apparently suspended the contributions to his diary while stationed in Pulaski, Tennessee in July of 1862.  Now, approximately one year later, his courage is being challenged in nearby McMinnville. General  Bragg had been driven from their native homeland, but there was little else he could point to as far as progress toward ending the war.  News, when it arrived, from back home was troubling.

John Blackburn's regimental history of the Seventeenth provides the following insight into the psyche  of the regiment and Captain Cox in particular, during the long, hot summer of 1863.

...By this time the men had been away from home a year and a half and the long separation from loved ones was having it's effect in the ranks of the companies.  Even the usually level headed Sam Cox began to feel sorry for himself.  

Sam Cox was a brave soldier and leader of men.  Though his actions in combat do not suggest it, he admitted, on more than one occasion, that he was constantly obsessed with a belief that he would not survive the war.  This was a conviction but not such a fear that he could not perform his duties.  A fear did develop though, and it was such a fear that it might well have affected his capabilities as a leader had there been occasion for conflict with the enemy before he got over the fear.  During the spring of 1863 Sam became convinced that his family, including even his mother, had ceased to be concerned about him!  This belief gnawed at his emotions and he constructed, in his imagination, a black picture.  Letters seemed to have been "too few" lately.  "Perhaps",  thought Sam, "the folks at home are much more concerned about brother Will in the Southern Army".  Sam was of course wrong in his thinking.  Letters had indeed been few but it was because Sam had been so constantly on the move that the mail seldom caught up with him.  The folks at home were concerned, and very much so, both for Sam and for Will, and the loved ones at home lived in dread that news would come of the death or injury of either of them. 

At this unhappy time in Sam's life he did receive a letter.  The letter was from his mother and sister, and it is the type of letter that has been needed for only the soldiers of the Civil War.  In America's other wars mothers and sisters did not have loved ones on opposite sides.  The portion of the letter that the mother wrote said:  "I am much concerned about you Sam, but I am also concerned about Will.  You are both my boys and I love you both to the same extent.  I pray constantly for the welfare of both of you and I pray that you will never meet in battle."  The fear of sons meeting as opponents in battle was constantly in the mind of Mrs. Cox, as it was with many Civil War mothers. Sister Jennie also assured Sam of the concern and love of the family back home.  Jennie said that her children spoke often of "Uncle Sam".  Sam Cox did not learn until much later that in the homes of both his mother and his sister very careful plans had been made for the reception of both Sam and Will in the event either or both came home wounded or sick.*

*  Blackburn, John, A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, 1972, LOC 72-93774, pages  114-116.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Captain's Courage, Part 1

"Courage", and it's cohort "Bravery" are frequently used to describe a soldier's' actions under fire.  The words are most commonly applied post hoc by third parties as they attempt to explain the heroic performances of others- actions the like of which they secretly suspect themselves incapable.  These terms are seldom used by a soldier to describe his own actions in the heat of battle.

Perhaps the best example of courage during wartime, however, is never celebrated and rarely even acknowledged by soldiers or historians.  That is the courage required to wake up every morning, year in and year out, unaware of your role in the grand symphony being orchestrated by generals and civilians in  a faraway city.  You wake up knowing only that your part for this day is to patrol a short stretch of unpaved roadway, or guard a bridge over a small stream, or maintain control of a seemingly insignificant hill, or fell enough small trees to construct a minimally defensive structure, or forage enough meat, grain and vegetables to feed your ever-dwindling regiment.  The courage to perform the duties of the common foot soldier, who spends more time wielding his axe and shovel than his rifle, while helplessly suffering the problems of his family back home is the common thread that is woven into the fabric of every flag that ever led men into battle.

That Captain Samuel Cox of Company A, 17th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry exhibited courage under fire cannot be questioned.  He had bravely led the counterattack that breached the Confederate defenses at Fort Donnelson.  He helped formed the front line of Hurlburt's defense of the Peach Orchard at Shiloh and, in the face of overpowering rebel attacks, conducted an organized retreat that led to the formation of Grant's Last Line of Defense on the Shiloh Plateau.  The next day, he led his men under Hurlburt, then McLernand and finally Sherman in the successful counterattack that swept the Confederates from the field. When a general called for help on that bloody Monday, he was likely to be introduced to the 17th Kentucky and the rest of Lauman's Brigade.

Surely, and by all accounts, Captain Samuel Cox was a courageous man when under fire.  Perhaps this was because he had made peace with his fate, and assumed that he would not make it through the war alive.  He frequently mentioned this belief in his diary and often noted amazement at his own survival when recounting particularly bloody clashes with the enemy.

Sam also exhibited that quiet courage that keeps a soldier from deserting, from running back home to protect what remained of his family, their possessions and the way of life he had known before the war. Their native Ohio County  was regularly targeted by Confederate sympathizers and guerillas. After the Russellville Convention had formed the Confederate State of Kentucky, organized units of Confederate Cavalry also roamed the area, confiscating supplies and conscripting recruits.  News of these raids always created a turmoil in camp and it was not uncommon for some men to take an unofficial furlough so they could check up on their family and friends.  Some returned voluntarily to the regiment, many others did not.  Yet Captain Cox, along with the vast majority of the volunteers, resisted this urge to flee  and they remained true to their sworn duty for the three long years of their enlistment.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Tullahoma Campaign

In April of 1863, the men of the Seventeenth Kentucky Infantry had been stationed at Clarksville, Tennessee for more than four months, having missed the Battle of Stones River and accepted the fact that their dear colonel would not be returned to them.

Their garrison duty provided a respite from the grueling tour they had endured after the fall of Corinth- across northern Mississippi and Alabama, north through Nashville to Louisville and (after Perryville) south and west to Logan County Kentucky before arriving in Clarksville.

For once the men had the luxury of time. Time to reflect on their commitment to the cause of preserving the Union and the effects it was having on their families back home.  Reports from nearby Ohio County Kentucky were of frequent harassment and public derision by the many secessionists that remained.  When Confederate troops and, more frequently, their less-civil guerrillas passed through, the Unionist families were always targeted by their foragers.  Also, many property disputes were filed and won by those who stayed behind, as the wives and widows of Union soldiers were typically unable to properly defend the claims that had been staked out by their husbands.

In addition to personal concerns, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had officially linked the war with the abolition of slavery.  Perhaps the significance of this change in mission was more significant to the Seventeenth than any other regiment from the four border states in which slavery remained legal, as it had led to the dismissal of their beloved Colonel McHenry in December.

Apparently the command of Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland decided that the battle-tested men of the Seventeenth had been given enough time to adjust to the command of Colonel Stout, and they were called to join the Tullahoma Campaign in April of 1863.  They arrived in Brentwood, Tennessee to serve again under General Thomas L. Crittenden of Russellville, who had commanded their muster-in at Calhoun, Kentucky just fifteen months prior.  Not surprisingly, they found themselves in the fight to re-take the territory of middle Tennessee that they had occupied the previous summer and abandoned in pursuit of Bragg into Kentucky.

Following Brig. General Nathan Bedford Forrest's attack on Rosecrans' communications center in March (see: the Seventeenth was transferred to Brentwood, Tennessee in April, moved to Murfreesboro in May and then marched to McMinnville in July.  During this period, the Seventeenth Kentucky was involved in limited action as they again attempted to balance the civil liberties of their neighbors to the south while they maintained order in occupied Tennessee.