Thursday, January 07, 2016

`A Gallant and Much Loved Officer'

The Civil War Letters of Joshua K. Callaway (University of Georgia Press, 2014), edited by Judith Lee Hallock, collects seventy-four letters written by a Confederate junior officer to his wife between April 1862 and November 1863. Callaway was a schoolteacher, husband and father of two in 1862 when, at age twenty-seven, he enlisted in the 28th Alabama Infantry Regiment. He served with the Army of the Tennessee and campaigned in Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia, including the Kentucky and Tullahoma Campaigns, and at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. Dutifully, Callaway wrote letters twice a week to his wife Dulcinea.

Callaway’s prose is admirably uncluttered. He is observant, boyishly curious and eager to reassure his wife that he is safe. In April 1862 he writes, “I am enjoying myself finely. I had much rather be here than teaching school.” Anxious to experience combat, on May 10, 1862, he writes Dulcinea that he “saw the elephant.” Hallock explains that nineteenth-century Americans used this expression to mean “see the real thing firsthand.” By July 20, he has changed his tune. Soldiers, he writes, “are hardly allowed to sigh at the fall of [their] friends and relatives and if we do happen to shed a tear secretly, it is soon dried up to make room for one for some one else.” He writes:

“We never will have time to contemplate and comprehend the horrors of this war until sweet, delightful peace is restored to us, & we can take a retrospective view.”     

By early 1863, Callaway is thoroughly tired of war. Though not wounded, he was often sick. Callaway started the war as an ardent Confederate idealist, though never a slave owner or overt defender of slavery. He was a patriot. After a year of fighting, he declares that he “would love to be a citizen—a school teacher.” The only pastime war permits him is reading novels, including some of the bestsellers of the day – Mary E. Braddon’s Aurora Floyd, Hugo’s Les Misérables, Edward Bulwer’s A Strange Story and Timothy Shay Arthur’s The Withered Heart. Sometimes Callaway surprises us. Near the end of the volume, in a letter written at Chattanooga on Aug. 2, 1863, he describes the sounds of a Sabbath evening, “the eternal hum of the army and the incessant creaking of the July flies, together with the lowing of the cows and the barking of a dog.” He feels “lonely even in the midst of the army,” and adds: “My thoughts run to my far off home, to dear and perhaps sick & suffering children. Then he adds four anonymous lines of verse, presumably written from memory:      

“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
         The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the [lea],
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
         And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

He says nothing of the passage, the first stanza of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and goes on to describe to his wife his futile effort to secure a furlough. In a letter written Nov. 19, 1863, Callaway and some friends climb to the top of Lookout Mountain. From the height he observes a man step out from a house. Callaway speculates he may be a general, “but he looked so small, a mere speck, that I could not tell he was there at all if he had not moved. And when I compared him to the mountain and then to the universe, and thought of his pride and ambition, I could not help smiling at his impetuosity and sighing at his insignificance. He reminded me of an ant trying to shake the earth, and my ambition cooled off and I would be perfectly content to be at home with my wife and never be thought of after I die.”

That was 2nd Lt. Callaway’s final letter. On Nov. 23, Gen. Grant began his offensive against the Confederate-held heights around Chattanooga. Grant’s objective was to capture Orchard Knob, a steep, tree-covered hill between the two armies. The outnumbered Confederates fought across the breastworks with bayonets. The 28th Alabama Infantry Regiment lost 175 men in that single engagement. Between Nov. 23 and 27, Brig. Gen. Arthur M. Manigault’s brigade suffered 558 casualties. On Dec. 5, Lt. W.F. Aycock wrote to Dulcinea Callaway:

“It now falls to my unhappy lot to write you a short letter letting you know what has become of your much beloved and Devoted Husband Lieut. Joshua K. Callaway who fell in the late Battle on Missionary Ridge, mortally wounded while rallying his Company he was shot through the Bowels with a miney [sic] Ball. We picked him up, started off the field with him when he asked us to lay him down and let him Die. We laid him down. We were then compelled to leave him. I don’t no [sic] that he is dead but feel satisfied that he is dead. In his Death the Country lost one of her Bravest sons, the Company to which he belonged a gallant and much loved officer. Never can his place in the Co. be filled.”

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