How My Family Was Affected By The US Civil War: War and Collapse in American History – Chapter 2

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on January 23, 2018


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This is really the story of two young guys, and how they joined the army and went to war together. One of them died young in battle, probably on his very first day of combat. The other made it through the war and lived to great old age. Both these men had families, and I am a descendant of both of those families. The one who died in battle was my great-great grandfather. He was in his early thirties, and left a widow and four very young children behind. The other was his wife's brother.

Original Plantation House

This story is not in any history book. I have pieced it together from a few odd remnants of the past. Obituaries, tombstones, a couple of military reports, some history books and some Civil War websites. I never knew these guys and nobody who did know them is left to tell us anything about what happened to them. What I'm telling you is completely true to the best of my knowledge, but a lot of it can only be inferred, and not known with absolute certainty.

I'm not going to write a book about the US Civil War. I'm not a real history scholar, and even if I were, the events of that conflict have been more than adequately documented by hundreds of good writers. For the few people who might have missed it, I'll mention the Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War", the best piece of film about the war, and one of the best shows ever aired on TV. I could listen to those interviews he did with the late Shelby Foote, who WAS a great scholar, for hours. My wife fell in love with Dr. Foote, thanks to Mr. Burns. Foote wrote a lot of books, and some of them are on audio if you can find them.  His soft Georgia drawl was epic, and he even looked a little like he might have been a reincarnated Confederate general. I'm sorry he's gone.

I do think a little bit of context is helpful in understanding the story of these two guys, and what happened to their country and how we were plunged into war, and the way things worked out for regular people. Bear with me, I'll get back to the real story, I promise.

Wars are never started by regular people, but by powerful elites who usually think they have something big to lose if they don't go into battle. The simplified version of history that says the US Civil War was started over slavery is only partially correct. It's more correct in my view to say that the war was fomented primarily by a few angry, arrogant, rich southern men who wanted to see their slave-based economy  continue to be sanctioned and allowed to spread into the West, where more and more new states were being added to the Union. Ironically, it was the American and the French Revolutions, with their flowery promises of liberty and equality for all men, that changed conventional thinking world-wide and swung public opinion against human bondage. The point of view of these angry southern men was perhaps best articulated by Edmund Ruffin of Virginia. Historians would call these rapid secessionists the Fire Eaters. They wanted a war and they got what they wanted, and dragged the entire South into a war that would affect generations to come.

In the first half of the 19th Century, the intellectual capitol of the world wasn't any American city. It was Paris. In those days, young men from affluent US families flocked there to study medicine and art. There were no rock stars, but the best American writers, like the highly successful James Fenimore Cooper, moved to Paris to live. One of Cooper's best friends, a very good artist named Samuel Morse, spent years in the Louvre, often on self-constructed elaborate scaffolds, carefully copying the works of the European masters, which was deemed the best way to learn art. Although Morse was a far better painter than most of his contemporaries, real success eluded him, and he eventually turned his attention more to one of his hobbies, which was the perfection of a device to transmit written messages over great distances using electricity and wires. In 1840 he patented the telegraph, which would make him very rich, and in the process, unleash a round of disruptive technology that would make the world a much smaller place.

Now….I took American History in college like everybody else, and I had a good professor. We read a few of those Catton books that were so good. But that was over forty years ago, and I remember very little of it now, frankly. When I realized my ancestor actually died in the war, and that the date of his death was recorded, I went to whatever online archives I could find, to find out what I could about his military service.  When I was visiting my son in Chicago, I stopped in at one of my favorite bookstores, Myopic Books, and picked up a good used paperback about Lee's first Maryland campaign, and I began to re-educate myself.

One important thing to remember is that when wars begin, soldiers with experience from the last war are always in great demand. I learned that in the US Civil War, many if not most of the military officers called into service on both sides, had seen service in the land grab we call the Mexican-American War, which was fought in 1846-1848. That war was staged primarily from the brand new State of Texas, under general Zachary Taylor, and so many Civil War soldiers had been to Texas. One of our young soldiers, the older of the two, served in that conflict, and that's where the Texas connection begins in our story. The generals in the war were mostly graduates of America's fairly new elite military college, West Point. In the 1850's there was a technological revolution going on. Across the West, everywhere, railroads were being built, and telegraphs. Most of the generals who served in the Civil War had been participating in that boom, working as civil engineers.

At the beginning of the war, southern volunteers rushed to sign up for a military campaign many thought would last less than three months. In contrast, by the end of the war the Confederacy was conscripting boys and old men and those who were formerly deemed unfit. This is why nobody in Texas got off light, even though not that much actual shooting occurred on Texas soil. It was hard to escape conscription, although you could buy your way out of it. There were also forms of alternative service, which I had never heard of, but it comes up much later, at the end of this story. That impacted my Dad's great grandfather, and I'll talk about what happened to him too, in a short footnote at the end of the main story. I still don't know much about what really happened to him.

So, my direct ancestor went to the war with his brother-in-law, who had been in the Mexican war, and who was mustered into the Confederate Army as a Captain. He eventually rose to the rank of Major. The older man was responsible for writing reports during the war, and a couple of them do endure as a part of the real record of the war.

One of the most interesting campaigns of the war was Lee's first raid into West Virginia and Maryland. He knew he was vastly outnumbered by the Army of the Potomac led by a stodgy old military academician, General McClellan, who was thought before the war to be a fine administrator and an expert trainer of soldiers.

As it transpired McClellan always stayed far from the front lines in a position of relative safety while his subordinates fought battles under heavy fire Lincoln soon sacked him and replaced him with Grant. Afterward, McClellan became extremely active in politics, and he came very close to defeating Lincoln in the election of 1864. The election was only saved because Sherman delivered the city of Atlanta by defeating the legendary Hood's Texas Brigade in July of 1864. This was a major turning point in the war. Had Hood been able to hold Atlanta, the war might have ended in a negotiated peace under President McClellan. That day, July 22nd, the current course of today's American Empire was set, and
the course has never really shifted.

But Lee went to war against McClellan. He knew he was greatly outnumbered, and he wanted to pick the spot where he could best defeat McClellan. It appears he decided that it be in the difficult terrain of some mountainous country in northern Maryland.

I found out that my two guys mustered into the army together in the late winter of 1861, in Columbia South Carolina. They were among the very first volunteers. The older of the two, the army veteran, is said to have formed up a company from his local area. Their regiment numbered about eleven hundred men. They would go on to fight in major battles in virtually every theater of the war. They were with Lee when he surrendered at Appomattox . That is, the 11 officers and 77 enlisted men who were left. The rest perished.

So….my great great grandfather went to war under his commanding officer, his brother-in-law. The date of his death is exactly three days before the battle of Antietam. The battle that day was a skirmish action, an attempt to wear down the Union troops marching west from Washington DC as they tried to get through three narrow Appalachian passes. It is known as the Battle of South Mountain. Lee had just successfully carried out his bold attack on the Union Armory at Harper's Ferry West Virginia. He had split his troops, sending some of them ahead toward Antietam ahead of his main contingent. Lee had all  his men on a forced march north for a week, and many of them were ill-equipped. Some were barefoot. The only thing they had to eat was green corn they picked out of the fields. Most of them had diarrhea.


There is a great debate to be made about this strategy of Lee's. History says that the Union Army found a "lost dispatch" in a hastily abandoned Confederate encampment, detailing the Confederate plan, which allowed McClellan to anticipate Lee, leading to his subsequent defeat at Antietam. It might be more likely, and some modern scholars now think, that Lee deliberately leaked his plan to encourage McClellan to approach the Antietam battlefield through the mountain gaps, which would give him a good place to winnow down the Union Army's twenty-five thousand man advantage. No one really knows for sure. Lee never said.

On September 14th, 1862, three pitched battles took place between the Army of the Potomac, led by McClellan, and Lee's forces, under the command of General James Longstreet. On that day Longstreet and most of his command had traveled further north to reconnoiter and when the Union army was sighted, he had to hurry back toward the encampment to provide reinforcements.

McClellan knew Lee had split his forces to go after Harper's Ferry, and  he desperately needed to breach the Confederate defending positions in the three  strategic mountain passes near Boonesboro. If he could rapidly push through with his 75,000 man strong army, he could beat Lee to northern Maryland and take on the two much smaller Confederate forces one at a time. If it had worked according to plan, Lee's army might have been destroyed then, in late 1862.

My ancestor died in the action at Turner's Gap, I believe. This was the center of the three mountain passes, and it was attacked frontally by a strong force commanded by two of the Union's best generals, Ambrose Burnside of sideburns fame, and "Fighting Joe" Hooker.  Turners Gap was defended by Confederate General D.H. Hill, who was Stonewall Jackson's brother-in-law. At the start of the battle, the Confederates only had one division of five brigades in place…about five thousand men, which Hill had to spread over two miles. The southerners fought bravely, and the South Carolina regiment was brought up to re-inforce Hill. It would have been a rout but for the terrain, but darkness fell before the Union force could completely break through the Confederate line.

One of our two soldiers, the young Captain, made a report to his commanding officer that day. No mention was made of his fallen brother-in-law. Maybe he thought his friend was among the missing and might still turn up. More likely, it just wouldn't have been appropriate, since the other man was only a private. Here is his dispatch:

[On September 14] the regiment marched from Hagerstown, Md. (Lieutenant Colonel Thomas C. Watkins in command), to South Mountain; reached there about 4 p. m. Found General D. H. Hill's division on the right of the road, engaging the enemy. This regiment was ordered to the left of the road, and marched around the mountain, then filed by left across the mountain, then by right flank forward, when we came in contact with the enemy and immediately opened on them, the enemy occupying a very favorable position against us. After engaging them for about half an hour, we were ordered to fall back, which we did some 30 yards, through in some confusion, Lieutenant Colonel T. C. Watkins calling to the men to rally to their colors and fall into line. While thus exposing himself, and, having succeeded in forming the regiment in line of battle, he fell, struck by a musket-ball in the head. Thus fell a brave and skillful officer at the head of his command, encouraging and rallying his men with the last breath of life. This misfortune caused the regiment to fall into confusion. I then assumed the command, rallying the regiment three times, but the pressure from the enemy was such that it was impossible to hold our positions, and finally fell back to the main road leading to Boonsborough, and there formed under the cover of a fence, where we remained until ordered to fall back on Sharpsburg, it now being night.

History says 325 men were killed outright that day, and a lot more were never accounted for. About 1100 men killed or MIA in all, and my ancestor was one of them. According to reports, a local farmer was paid a dollar apiece to bury some of the dead troops, and that as many as 60 were dumped into an old well. No marker exists to mark the grave of my forefather, as far as I know

Had McClellan hit the gaps again the next day it might have been a quick and decisive defeat for Lee. Instead McClellan inexplicably paused, allowing  Lee to get his troops in place on a nearby village called Antietam. On the 17th, under heavy artillery bombardment from both sides, the single bloodiest battle in all of human history took place, resulting in over 23 thousand dead or missing. I have never been to the Antietam battleground, but I'm told it is the least changed of all the old battleground sites, and looks today not that much different than it did in the fall of 1862. I hope to visit up there someday.


The ghost of Bill Kettchel still sits glumly on the bluff
Not but a few paces from where he  was fell
He has risen majestic at night from the well.

Still screaming out loud, Hey give em hell boys, give em hell

Dropped in head a foremost by the heel of his boot
Give em hell goes the echo, by god give em all  hell

The fields glistened  brightly with crimson and gore
The fighting was grisly like none seen before.
All stacked up  like cord-wood a good  ten foot high, they smote grey and  smote blue
by  the hip and by the thigh.

Give em hell boys by god, came the echoing cry.

Now musket ball splatter, now cannon grape rain.
March through the death gauntlet and line up again.
As the dying lie crying Under shade tree spread wide.

I'm a Yankee doodle dandy. Yankee doodle do or die.
A real live nephew of my uncle Sam born on the fourth of July.
Look away ,look away look away.

Dumped in head a  foremost  by foot and by heel. My self, Andy, Caleb 
Rest daily in the well. By day we lie peacefull, at night we rebell.
Especially those nights when the moon is aglow
We rise to the mouth and we holler and shout.

Give em hell boys  by god, just send them all straight to hell.

Geno Cattouse

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