One Rebel's Dramatic, Unsentimental Memoirs
Stamps, Robert J., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Recently, I chanced on a copy of "Rebel Private: Front and Rear" by William A. Fletcher - the memoirs of a Confederate soldier from my home county in Texas. Reading the afterword by Fletcher's great-granddaughter, Vallie Fletcher Taylor, convinced me that while this soldier's story might not appear to differ from many others - I will show how it does - Fletcher himself was certainly a notable warrior, as much for good after the war as for mischief during it.
His enduring legacy in southeast Texas is not that of a Civil War hero, but rather a baron of the timber industry and a philanthropist. For many decades after the war, numerous Civil War veterans, such as Bill Fletcher, sat down to write their remembrances. Historian James McPherson says that, although these memoirs from decades out have some historical significance, they are the least reliable for a strictly accurate record. He insists that, because they were written for publication (for a readership nostalgic for champions) and, by implication, for profit, the memoirs were prone to exaggeration.
But by 1908, Fletcher was a millionaire and a notable civic figure. He had little need to embellish his war stories and never wrote for an extended audience; his memoirs were privately printed for family and friends.
Fletcher was born in western Louisiana in 1839, the son of a slave runner and overseer. His family moved to Texas in the 1850s, to Jasper County first, then to Beaumont in Jefferson County, where, except for the war years, he spent the rest of his life. He grew up on the bayous and in the thickets of what was then "the near frontier." Fletcher's story records the way he managed the wilds of war and its privations; this reflected his origins, for only one who had never known the comforts of prosperity would be so comfortable without them. Fletcher keeps the reader amazed at the venturesome ways he could redeem the best from the worst.
Fletcher's homespun origins and limited education belie the capable writer he would become. His great-granddaughter tells us that, as a child, he was never without something to read - which doubtless contributed to his literate manner. He keeps the narrative moving.
Perhaps, as Vallie Fletcher Taylor suggests, this is because he instinctively knew how to space his scenes. For example, directly after relating a time of gut-tightening stress, he allows the reader to relax and enjoy a laugh before letting the tension rise again.
This is good literature, and occasionally truly grand. At the fight before Little Round Top at Gettysburg, anticipating a second charge (which never came) against a seemingly impregnable 16th Michigan, he poignantly describes his fears: "I was at that time on the dark side of life's thoughts, or in other words, hope was in a depressed condition. . . . I had a bad case of cowardly horror. It was disgrace or death. . . . I tried to force manhood to the front, but fright would drive it back with a shudder."
In April 1861, Fletcher was shingling a roof in Beaumont when someone yelled up to him the news of the outbreak of war. By August of that year, he had enlisted in the 5th Texas Infantry (John Hood's brigade). When public transportation broke down, Fletcher commandeered a railroad handcar and pumped the 40-odd miles to Houston to join up. He was then off to Virginia.
From April 1862 to September 1863, the 5th Texas took part in virtually every major battle in the East, from Seven Pines on.
Fletcher had not enlisted simply out of a sense of duty, nor had he been overly "agitated by politics." Apparently, from his own record, he left home primarily for adventure. He certainly left with no illusions as to the final outcome of the war. His father had warned that the South would be "worn out" in the duration. His son's tale is a record of its wearing.
"Rebel Private" also differs noticeably from other memoirs, particularly the Southern ones, for its lack of sentimentality. Fletcher went to war because he "wished to be as far away from home and relatives as possible."
The reader is not told whether Fletcher heard Gen. John Bell Hood, on the second day at Gettysburg, stand tall in his stirrups and shout, "Fix bayonets, my brave Texans," and Col. Phillip Work rejoin, "Follow the Lone Star flag to the top of the mountain."
But if he did, one cannot imagine the young Texan getting misty eyed. When asked to carry the colors on two occasions, he refused. That day at Gettysburg when the colors fell, striking him on the head, then getting entangled with his feet, he says he simply "gave a kick . . . and passed on."
There is nothing here either of the typical adulation of Southern heroes. He mentions that he once saw Confederate President Jefferson Davis at Seven Pines and that he took orders personally from "the general" (Stonewall Jackson) while a scout during the Seven Days. He relates this without offering a single detail about the appearance or demeanor of either man.
At Gettysburg, he upbraids the "boasted Lee" for sending Hood's brigade against a position virtually impossible to scale: "Why this ignorance?" Also noticeably absent from these memoirs were any mention of the practice of religion in the army. Only once does Fletcher recall a public prayer being offered, also at Gettysburg, but this he dismisses as an oddity.
What Fletcher's tale lacks in sentiment, it makes up for with raw bravery. Indeed, here are some of the most startling accounts one will find. Historian Shelby Foote quotes a resident of Chambersburg, Pa., as Gen. Robert E. Lee's invading army passed by: "Those from Mississippi and Texas were more vicious and defiant."
Other historians note that nearly half of the soldiers from Texas had witnessed shots exchanged in anger before the Civil War. We do not know if Fletcher was one of these, but when it came time to look the enemy in the eye and pull the trigger, he did so without regret.
WOUNDS AND CURSES
Several times when the 5th Texas was held in reserve, the young scout asked to be sent to the front, a request usually granted. It wasn't only that he "enjoyed getting in front when opportunity afforded" or that he was just "hunting a scrap." Fletcher believed his chances were better when he could match the enemy eye to eye and shot to shot. He loathed the prospect of falling to cannon fire in his own rear lines.
He was severely wounded twice. The first time, at Second Manassas, when litter bearers who came to help ran under enemy fire, leaving him on the field. He cursed them ("it didn't hurt as badly when cursing"), got up and walked to the rear, holding his stomach wound shut with his hand.
Again at Chickamauga he was wounded, this time in the foot. Fortuitously, he tumbled into a rut in the ground, which afforded him natural protection. Yet he refused to lie there, for fear his comrades charging past would think him a coward. As he did the first time, he got up and hopped to the rear . . . still cursing.
After recovering in a hospital in Augusta, Ga., and being transferred to a cavalry unit (8th Texas, Terry's Rangers) assigned to destroy the communication of the enemy (Gen. William T. Sherman's Army), he was captured and removed to Rome, Ga., and then Chattanooga, Tenn.
While detained in Rome, in the presence of a federal officer, he was discovered to be in a Union soldier's boots by the original owner: Fletcher had captured the soldier a week earlier and, after relieving him of his footwear, released him. No such magnanimity would be extended to this thief. He was immediately unshod and ordered shot.
Fletcher tore open his shirt and shouted into the Union captain's face, "When you have shot me, you will have committed a crime, one that . . . [the] Terry boys will liberally revenge [so] go ahead and shoot, you damned Yankee, shoot!" The officer was taken aback at his contempt, and never carried through on the order.
Later, with ruse and ingenuity, Fletcher escaped by jumping from a moving train. After rejoining his unit in the closing, cold spring of the war, he found himself under federal fire with his back to a river. He threw his clothes onto a boat about to make the crossing, and swam his horse across for cover. He redressed in view of the neighbors across the river - "too cold to blush."
DEFIANCE AND PITY
The war was ending at Bentonville, N.C., in late March 1865, but the Rebel private was still on his horse, charging the enemy with quixotic fury, screaming, "Surrender! Surrender! Surrender!" If this was not the last time a federal unit heard that command in the Civil War, none would ever hear it uttered again with more defiance.
Fletcher wrote that America has produced only a single generation of warriors - the generation that fought the War Between the States. Whether or not he was right, his own conduct in battle leaves no doubt that he was one.
For all his manifest "viciousness and defiance," this young warrior also had a milder side. When his company decided to publicly whip a man for cowardice, Fletcher showed pity, convinced the men otherwise, and arranged for the man to be transferred to wagon duty. He demonstrated mercy, as well, to a captured black soldier, whom he quickly released, knowing that the man could suffer considerable grief at the hands of the Rebels, but with the caveat that "in future, [he] keep well behind his line of blue."
Another time, when visiting a hospital tent full of Union prisoners, many grotesquely wounded, he stated, paradoxically, that while he would feel no sorrow for these men dead, "it was the reverse to see [them] suffer."
`GONE WITH THE WIND'
Fletcher's book profoundly influenced a famous fictional account of the Civil War. While researching her novel in the 1930s, Margaret Mitchell attempted to find soldiers' personal descriptions of the rout and pillage in and around Sherman's March to the Sea. She found what she was looking for in Fletcher's book, then stored in a collection of rare, unpublished works at the Library of Congress.
Although Fletcher's unit (then Terry's Rangers) never participated directly in the Battle of Atlanta, it was relentlessly engaged in harassing Sherman's flank and rear as he moved south and eastward through Georgia and South Carolina. Some of the most poignant scenes from "Gone With the Wind" appear to be lifted by Mitchell directly from Fletcher's book: His father's prophecy of the South's blockade and ultimate defeat are transferred to the mouth of the spoiler, Rhett Butler. The sacking of Tara is here (though it is not called that), the scavenging Yankees shot dead in the yard (with throats cut, too, as Fletcher tells it), even the looting and burning of Atlanta (Columbia, S.C., in Fletcher's account).
After writing her novel, Mitchell notified Fletcher's children in Texas of her literary indebtedness to "Rebel Private."
A REBEL'S LEGACY
Fletcher ended his tale where it began, in Beaumont. Carpenter's tools in hand, he had an occasional whiskey with the federal soldiers occupying the city. He described them as generous (they bought the drinks) and jovial fellows. He argued with those giving him grief for fraternizing with the former enemy, insisting that he never had a personal war with the soldiers he fought against.
Since the political battle was over, should not the South heed the advice of a Tarheel soldier overheard after the surrender: "Grease and slide back into the Union!"
Fletcher, however, did not end his life as a carpenter. He entered the timber business and, exercising the inbred determination and resourcefulness that had served him so well in the war, he made a fortune.
In his last years, Fletcher's willingness to take life in war was matched by his commitment to save it in peace.
At the dawn of the new century, southeast Texas was in great need of a regional hospital. Fletcher proposed to raise the funds and build one. And it was one of his never-forgotten experiences in the war that dictated who should oversee and staff the facility. The Sisters of Charity, whom he had first met in Georgia after Chickamauga, were asked to come to Beaumont and assume the task.
They did so, and named Fletcher's monument to their wartime compassion "Hotel Dieu." The hospital served as southeast Texas' principal health-care facility until the early 1960s.
Now that "Rebel Private" has been published (a Meridian Book paperback, by the Penguin Group, New York City), the prospects are good that Fletcher's story will be required reading for the Civil War buff, as it has been all along for the serious scholar.
If this should happen, Fletcher might, at the turn of yet another century, be acclaimed a kind of legend himself, but only if the public can divine the stuff of legends from this unassuming soldier boy from the Texas frontier.
Robert J. Stamps is a United Methodist pastor in Arlington and holds a doctorate in systematic theology. He was born in Jasper County, Texas.
Tomorrow: David Birch will lecture on "Christ in Camp" in Strasburg beginning at 3 p.m. For more details, contact the Stonewall Jackson Museum in Strasburg at 540/465-5999.
July 19: Anne Carter Zimmer, the great-granddaughter of Gen. Lee, will be the honored guest as the Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee is the site of a celebration of the marriage of her great-great grandparents, George Washington Parke Custis and Molly Fitzhugh, on July 19, 1804. The celebration begins at 1 p.m. with live musical performances and tours of the house led by costumed docents. The house is located at 607 Oronoco St. in Alexandria. For more information, call 703/548-8454.
July 19: Family Sunday at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk features a lecture on Jamestown during the war. Call 757/664-6200.
July 27: Joseph Wagner will discuss the Battle of the Crater, which took place in Petersburg on July 30, 1864. The program begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Swift Creek Mill Playhouse, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway in Colonial Heights.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
July 15-18: Celebration of the African American Civil War Memorial "Spirit of Freedom" sculpture at the new memorial plaza at 10th and U streets NW. On Wednesday there will be registration and a symposium. On Thursday there will be a sunrise ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and a 2 p.m. commemoration ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. On Friday there will be a 10 a.m. symposium at Howard University and a 2 p.m. ceremony at Ford's Theatre. On Saturday, beginning at 10 a.m., re-enactors will participate in a parade and salute to "colored" troops and a 2 p.m. unveiling of the memorial and park. Call 202/667-2667.
Today and tomorrow: Living history programs showing life in Frederick during the war and a remembrance service on the 134th anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy. All activities will take place at Monocacy National Battlefield. For more information, call 301/662-3515.
July 16-19: The annual Chambersfest Civil War Seminar will be held at the Holiday Inn in Chambersburg. Activities include four tours of the Gettysburg battlefield. Speakers include James McPherson and Edwin Bearss. For more information, call 717/264-7101.
July 14-18: There will be a field study and walking tour of South Mountain in Harpers Ferry to examine the key elements involved in the 1862 Maryland Campaign in Harpers Ferry. Noted historian Ed Bearss will lead the tour. Call 804/797-4535 for more details.
Information excerpted in part from the Civil War News, Turnbridge, Vt. 05077, by permission. Information for the calendar may be sent to The Washington Times by fax to 202/269-1853 or 202/269-3419.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: One Rebel's Dramatic, Unsentimental Memoirs. Contributors: Stamps, Robert J. - Author. Newspaper title: The Washington Times (Washington, DC). Publication date: July 11, 1998. Page number: 3. © 2009 The Washington Times LLC. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.