Tuesday, October 8, 2013

One Lucky Volunteer

by Mark Meyer

On a cold day in late spring I found myself in the lobby of the History Center inquiring about volunteer opportunities. A chance encounter with Nancy McCammon-Hansen (History Center Marketing Coordinator),  who had also found herself in the aforementioned lobby,  led to an offer to contribute entries to the History Center blog. But, more importantly, the meeting also resulted in a referral to the Allen County Public Library. It is there where I had the good fortune to stumble into an opportunity at the ACPL Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection where, thanks to my favorite Lincoln librarians, I had the further good fortune to meet Mr Isaac Bevier and Mr John E. Wilkins.

Technically, I have not really met Bevier and Wilkins. Both men, long since dead, were veterans of The War of the Rebellion, now known as the Civil War. They never met. They grew up in separate states and served in regiments that never crossed paths. But they had one thing in common: a written record. For Bevier it was a series of letters home to his parents; for Wilkins, a collection of documents including a diary and several notebooks. For the past few months I’ve had the good fortune to transform the longhand script to the digitally accessible print of a Word document. At the same time, the words of Bevier and Wilkins have transformed me. Their entries have led to a voracious need to learn more of their world, their battlefield experiences, and the greatness of others whose paths they crossed.

It began with Isaac Bevier’s letters home to his parents in the Hudson Valley of New York.  In August of 1861 Bevier mustered into the service as a member of the 44th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, also known as Ellsworth’s Avengers, named in honor of the first officer killed in the Civil War. His letters home provided a glimpse of the slow deliberate move of the early Union forces when incessant drilling and training was the rule of the day. His original letters, some on stationery imprinted with his new home, Camp Butterfield, talked of living conditions, daily routines, the excitement for future battle, and always, the weather. Often the letters contained requests for supplies of clothing and foodstuffs as well as a plea for correspondence. Bevier introduced me to the “sutlers”, the opportunistic vendors who followed the encampments offering goods that were often in short supply. Their offerings of basic foodstuffs, paper, and stamps came at a highly inflated price. Bevier recalled a near riot when a greedy sutler sold a penny stamp for 15 cents!

From late summer of 1861 into the spring of ’62 Isaac’s letters take on the sameness of the daily routines of camp life and the repeated requests for items from home. But on one occasion he noted assisting Thaddeus Lowe in the launch of “The Intrepid”, a helium balloon that could be regarded the first U.S. airship. The letters often contained reference to the Rebels nearby and impending battles that failed to materialize. The reference to battles always contained excited anticipation of the real opportunity for personal glory and the chance to do one’s state proud. When Bevier finally found himself in action in the Peninsula Campaign, it was brief. He described the capture of a Rebel fortification that had used logs rubbed in tar to create the illusion of heavy cannon, thereby stalling the Union advance. But, his next letter was from a hospital. He had been wounded in the Battle of Hanover Court House, taking a ball in his right ankle. A long convalescence followed in a series of hospitals in Washington D.C. Bevier wrote of the city, often of visits with acquaintances, relatives, and other injured friends from the 44th. As he recovered, his regiment was active in The Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. In a letter dated July 2, 1863 he wrote home of the boredom of hospital guard duty, unaware that members of his regiment were fighting for their lives on the crest of Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg. Shortly thereafter he wrote of a detail to the battlefield of Bull Run where he found himself taking lunch in a landscape of countless graves so shallow bones and skulls protruded from the ground.

As I transcribed I read books in hopes of better understanding references Bevier made in his letters. I read of the Civil War campaigns on the Peninsula in 1862, the state of Washington, DC in wartime, the seeds of the Emancipation Proclamation, Antietam, and the history of the 44th New York. In May I found myself on Little Round Top tracing the name of Isaac Bevier on the brass plaque in the 44th Infantry’s castle-like memorial on the Gettysburg battlefield. I was hooked, but little did I know I was about to meet someone far more fascinating…

John E. Wilkins was a Hoosier, born in 1836 in Vigo County. Wilkins was a bit older and more experienced than Isaac Bevier. Unlike the eastern bred Bevier, he grew up in a time and space not far removed from the days of the pioneers. He was an outdoorsman who hunted the still-plentiful game of the area and was a keen observer of his community. His father was a county official, John his assistant. Wilkins also spent time with the local volunteer fire company manning the engine Terre Haute had purchased from a Philadelphia company.  When war broke out, Wilkins was one of the first to respond to Major Lew Wallace’s initial call for volunteers to fill the request made of the state by President Lincoln. At the time, officials over-optimistically saw a short duration for the war and requested 3-month enlistments. Wilkins found himself in the Indiana 11th Volunteer Infantry on its way to the eastern theater, and fortunately, he committed to record his exploits in a near-daily diary. In its short three month existence, the Eleventh Indiana Volunteers saw action at the Battle of Romney, an initial Union success, and a deployment in Maryland near Fredericksburg. Wilkins’ detachment did not see action but that all would change quickly. The 3-month enlistment time period ended and the 11th  was sent home to Indiana where it quickly re-formed with a 3-year enlistment span.

The 11th  became a part of a Division led by Lew Wallace who had since been promoted to the rank of Major General. In a short time Wilkins found himself a Lieutenant in the Army of the West where he experienced the victories of Fort Henry and Fort Donnelson, narrowly missed the slaughter of Shiloh, walked the streets of Vicksburg the day of its surrender, transitioned to Mounted Infantry in the Red River campaign  and finished his days in the occupation of New Orleans. Throughout, Wilkins maintained his diary. Sometimes no more than a weather reference was entered but even those entries give insight to the conditions that led Wilkins to so often write, "…the boys suffered greatly”. His entries on the battles of Fort Donnelson on the banks of the Cumberland River, the battles leading to the siege and victory at Vicksburg, and the many skirmishes during his final campaign in the bayou country of Louisiana are particularly moving. The content of his entries was aided by the fact he acted as his regiment’s Adjunct from the end of the Vicksburg campaign until he mustered out in 1865. As Adjunct, he filed the daily and monthly reports required by the Department of War. This role would provide him unique access to the accurate facts pertaining to his regiment.

The transcription to a Word document was aided by Wilkins’ own efforts to accurately chronicle the war as he lived it. The original field diaries he maintained, excepting one, are not to be found. At one point he referenced destroying them, perhaps to protect the reputation of others whom he criticized. In any event, as he neared the end of his life in 1911 he transcribed the diaries to a series of paper notebooks, titled “Recollections” and numbered 1 through 4. Notebooks 1 and 4 contain recalled stories and diary entries while 2 and 3 are exclusively diary entries. These diary entries were then duplicated in a beautifully bound and labeled hardback ledger with slipcover. The Word document transcriptions of the diary and notebooks 2-4 are complete and are planned to be a part of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection’s online archive (Notebook number 1 is not a part of the collection but was surprisingly located online. I’m currently transcribing to a Word document).

As with the Bevier letters, the writings of Wilkins led to a flurry of reading. His entries on the Western campaign opened the doors to much I did not know. Soon I found myself reading about the Navy’s role on inland rivers, the Red River Campaign of Louisiana and Arkansas, the assassination of Lincoln and subsequent search for JW Booth, the trial and conviction of conspirators, and most recently, the incredible, magical life of General Lew Wallace.

But, of most interest to me in my association with Mr. Bevier and Mr. Wilkins, is my opportunity to help Mr. Wilkins share his story. To date no record of how or when the Wilkins documents came to the Lincoln Financial Collection have been determined. Nor is there any record of the material being accessed. It is likely that Wilkins' painstaking effort to preserve his diaries will be rewarded for the first time when the document scans and transcriptions are posted online. Hopefully his observations will shed new light on one of the most dramatic times in our history’s past and he’ll be remembered warmly for his efforts to record history. In the meantime I’ll be happy to be remembered as that one lucky volunteer.  

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting....thank you, Mark, for the time and energy you have put into this task. It's a well written, fascinating window into this time period. For me, history is much more meaningful when compiled by the people who actually lived it. Thanks for sharing!