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Whittling away on a stick, his gravely voice at times dropping to an emotional whisper, James, a 90-year-old Confederate veteran, transported a crowd of 30 back in time to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the Civil War.
Owen County storyteller Bill Watson portrayed James at the historical society meeting Thursday; and life for the common soldier was revealed in all its complexities. Although hunger and exposure to the elements were constant concerns, James was affected most by the carnage he witnessed and the utter loss he felt at his inability to somehow stem the tide of war. The slavery issue was not the reason most young men joined. Some wanted excitement, others just wanted to teach the opposite side a lesson.
Battle after battle was described: Antietam, Manassas, Perryville, Shiloh. Even after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox in 1865, seven more battles were fought. James conjectured: “Maybe they (the soldiers) hadn’t gotten word the war was over, or maybe they just didn’t want to give up.” Three million men fought in the war, with an estimated 625,000 dying from wounds or sickness. The women who were left behind had to deal with keeping families together, running households or farms, and trying to prevent the confiscation of their food and animals by armies on both sides of the conflict.
The audience chuckled as James paused in his story to interject a funny incident to lighten the mood. James claimed that from a young age his marksmanship was so accurate that when he shot a squirrel (pronounced “skurl” by James) he only shot close to the varmint’s head. This resulted in death of the squirrel by shock from the concussion, and gave the opportunity to retrieve an intact musketball to be used once again.
Among the audience were descendants of Civil War soldiers. Bobby Gibson’s great-grandfather fought for awhile with John Hunt Morgan, but had a “falling out” with him. Great-grandpa was captured and confined on a prison ship in Virginia, but while being transported, he made an escape near Monterey and hid along Eagle Creek for a year. “That,” Bobby concludes, “is how my family came to Owen County.” Carol Wooten, fifth-grade teacher at Owen County Elementary, came with one of her students, Grant McMillen. Carol is very knowledgeable in Civil War history and is sharing that love of history with her students.
A hush fell over the room as James concluded his story with his last battle. On that smoke-filled battlefield he met his brother who had been forced into service by the Union Army. Just as they recognized each other, a Confederate minie ball found its way into his brother’s heart; and as James crawled to him over ground saturated with the intermingled blood of both Confederate and Yankee soldiers, he desperately searched for answers to justify this war. Not willing to talk anymore about that tragic day, James abruptly got up from his chair, leaving the audience, too, with a sense of loss on how to explain a war in which families fought against one another, and a land, especially in the South, that was left in utter devastation.
Perhaps as Bill Watson tells the story of James, people everywhere will exhibit renewed determination that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” Our history is a vital part of who we are, and we can change where we’re going only when we know where we’ve been.