Civil War Dads


"Suffer hardship with me as a good soldier of Christ Jesus..." II Timothy 2:3-4


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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.


In 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 the 17th.


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 went on.


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.


Steve Braun

May 1, 2004





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