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. …