Death All Around
I reenact as a Union soldier with the
17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Company E. Our group comprises
approximately 30 military (all men) and 30 civilian (several men but
mostly women and children) Civil War reenactors. Members come and go as
schedules, health, and age dictate. But at the core is a fairly close
group with friendships forged through years of traveling, camping, and
working together. To some, the 17th has become like family.
The reenacting is fun. It is a glorious
experience to participate in national events with tens of thousands of
fellow reenactors. You cannot imagine the experience of marching into
battle by the thousands -- the neat lines, sharp uniforms, and flags
waving in the breeze. Then there is the deafening roar and pounding
percussion of the artillery followed by the rolling waves of musketry. The
smoke is thick, we move forward to the battle, the lines fall apart, the
officers scream, and men begin to drop. Thank God it's all make believe!
There's more to this insane hobby,
however, that brings us together. Much more goes on away from the
pageantry and thrill the spectators see. We've endured the cold of winter
drills, torrential rains, one tornado near-miss, and countless days of
intense summer heat. We've also paid for and dedicated monuments to the
original 17th, performed ceremonies honoring one of the 17th's Medal of
Honor recipients, paid for the preservation and restoration of the
original 17th flags, and contributed to countless other Civil War
preservation efforts. In short, we are a dedicated group -- dedicated to
our history and to one another.
mid-April, two of our members lost parents unexpectedly and another lost
his brother to a heart attack. That was a rough week for the 17th. At the
end of April yet another member lost his dad. April was a rough month for
As I reflected on our
unit's loss and grief, it occurred to me that our modern experience very
much reflected the era we reenact. Death stalked the landscape in the
1860s. Life was rough enough without the war, considering the average life
expectancy was little more than half what it is today. Most families lost
at least one child to illness or disease. Add the war to the mix and no
household was spared the pain and mourning of lost loved ones.
Men in the armies were surrounded by death
and destruction. A Civil War soldier had these odds working against him:
1 in 65 died in combat
1 in 13 died from disease
1 in 10 were wounded in combat
1 in 7 prisoners died in captivity
Most units went into battle at one-half to
one-third of their full strength due to the ravages of war and disease.
Burial detail was a regular part of army life.
The typical soldier served a three year
enlistment with men from his surrounding community or county, including
relatives. The original 17th Michigan Company E, for example, primarily
consisted of young men attending college in Ypsilanti, Michigan at the
Michigan Normal School (now Eastern Michigan University). The men shared
the hardships of military life and endured the horrors of combat together.
If they weren't family already, they quickly became family.
Imagine going into battle only to return
later and find that 20% of your comrades are dead, wounded, or missing!
Sometimes the casualties exceeded 50% and in a few cases were near 100%.
Death was part of life for the Civil War soldier. They dealt with it and
Captain Michael P. Spessard of the 28th Virginia is an exceptional
example. He participated in the famed "Pickett's Charge" on July 3, 1863
at the Battle of Gettysburg. In this battle, the Confederates suffered 50%
casualties out of 13,000 men in less than an hour! As the 28th Virginia
advanced toward the Union lines, Spessard's son, Pvt. Hezekiah Spessard,
fell mortally wounded by his side. Capt. Spessard stopped to tend to his
son, gave him a drink, cradled his head as he died, laid out his body, and
went on with the charge. He dealt with it and went on. Now that is
remarkable dedication to one's duty.
It is the same with the 17th
Michigan in April 2004. We've dealt with the loss and everyone moves on.
What is around the corner, we do not know. We press on.
When I consider the suffering of the Civil
War generation, and my fellow comrades today, I am truly thankful for
God's gift of life. Let us all resolve to live for Him and make the most
of our lives for His purposes and glory.
May 1, 2004