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.

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