A Cavalryman Under Custer: Reminiscences of the Civil War

Penfield Museum, 2005 Softcover, 125 pages, $15
Penfield Museum, 2005
Softcover, 125 pages, $15

Wartime letters, written by soldiers on the front, are the essential raw material of military history. While the memoirs of generals and politicians and the reportage of contemporary journalists help us to comprehend the long view and grasp battles and strategy, it’s the first-hand narratives of the men in the fire and fog of conflict that detail the horrifying realities, as well as the daily banalities, of war.

About 15 years ago, I transcribed letters written by my father to his mother during World War II. He survived convoy duty in the North Atlantic and finished the war as a naval officer assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, hopping from island to island in the Pacific in 1945. He was a young man when he wrote those letters, in his 20s, much younger than I was when I first read them. His experiences included endless drilling, much tedium, abominable food and a few edgy encounters with genuine peril, which I think he minimized to protect his mother. Reading his letters opened up an invaluable window into a world of which I knew virtually nothing. They reminded me in an intensely personal way of the incomparable value of the first-hand narrative.

Eighty years before my father was writing to his mother from a foxhole on Guam, Elbert Marcus Johnson, a native of the Champlain Valley, was writing to his parents about many of the same topics, from the killing fields of the Shenandoah Valley. In August 1864, barely 20 years old, Johnson enlisted in the Union Army. By the time he returned to Essex County, he had known combat and endured hardships nearly unimaginable to us today. After the war, he established a photography studio in Crown Point and married and had children, dying in 1910, a prominent member of the community. Throughout his service in the Union cavalry, he sent letters home; they became a treasured family record and have now been edited and published by his granddaughter, Janet Carson, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with assistance from the Penfield Museum of Crown Point.

After training and after finally being issued a rifle and saber and then, four days later, a horse, Johnson found himself in northwest Virginia about 50 miles west of Washington, D.C., where he first encountered Confederate troops. In describing his unit steeling itself for its first engagement, he deploys the crisp writing that characterizes all his letters: “As I looked down the line to see how the boys took it, I was surprised at the change the sight of the [Confederate] column made. Some faces were as ghastly as the dead, others flushed and still others looked as if there wasn’t a Johnny within a thousand miles. … The suspense is dreadful, we are waiting to be shot.”

Elbert Johnson was a corporal in the Union Army.
Elbert Johnson was a corporal in the Union Army.

Throughout his letters, Johnson is refreshingly candid about his own fear. Of his first picket assignment, after a comrade on duty is shot, he writes: “Did not care to go. In fact, I was never so scared in my life. He had been shot in the groin, and bled to death in a few minutes. He looked awful by the flickering fire light and it took all the grit I could muster to mount my horse and ride out into the darkness.”

His unit soon moved west to the lower, or northern, end of the Shenandoah Valley, near Front Royal, where he spent a good portion of his time foraging for food. By December, he was enduring bitter cold, freezing rain and snow: “The snow forms a soft mattress, but gets pretty cold after a while.” Men were freezing to death around him and also suffering “from fevers and rheumatism.”

At night four men slept to a tent, lying close together to try to keep warm, like spoons in a drawer. When one man wanted to turn over, he had to get the other three to do the same. Meanwhile, the horses were dying, from a combination of miserable weather and inadequate food: “The dead horses on the lines are swelling up. We shall have to move soon, as it will be easier moving camp than drawing out all the dead horses.”

These letters illustrate what every veteran I’ve known, including my father, has told me: War is mostly endless stretches of tedium. Johnson’s unit moved often, trying to forage decent food, dealing with the cold and drilling monotonously—all this followed occasionally by intense deadly fighting. Days of eating practically nothing were sometimes punctuated by a huge meal begged from (and often freely given by) a local Virginia family. On one occasion, with nothing to eat, Johnson stole from a sutler.

Absent from these pages is any meditation on the causes of the war. He acknowledges the existence of slaves but says nothing about fighting to end slavery or even about saving the Union. When he mentions African- Americans, he displays the casual, patronizing racism characteristic of most whites of his day, North or South.

Johnson with his family years after the war
Johnson with his family years after the war

But he seems committed to the war, despite his genuine suffering. In February 1865, when the temperature dropped several times well below zero, he writes, “The peace question is discussed almost as much in camp as in the papers but the fighting men favor only the peace that we shall have when we drive the rebs into the last ditch and we don’t think that will take long after the spring campaign begins.”

In early March, his unit moved east, toward Richmond: “We have burned immense store houses of grain and tobacco, hundreds of canal boats; also destroyed most of the locks in the canal and left a big job for the Johnnys to repair.” He fought in the skirmishes of the last desperate burst of Confederate resistance in early April 1865 and was part of a cavalry squad that seized a Confederate supply train at Appomattox Station on 8 April 1865, the day before Lee’s surrender. On 15 April, he received word of “our beloved President’s death.” Two months later, he was back in Essex County, where his mother, eyeing his emaciated frame, declared, “Oh, this isn’t my boy at all.”

“But I am feeling better and she will soon have her old boy again.”