Thursday, May 24, 2007

Faded letters and tattered flags

The Iowa Memorial at Shiloh (

I visited Vicksburg at dawn once, on a May morning when great flowering trees were in bloom. This was toward the end of a long overnighter downriver from St. Louis to Natchez and in another world --- before Vietnam and AIDS, middle age, the Internet, September 11, Afghanistan and Iraq. Life seemed as full of promise as the day ahead.

The guide who met us as the sun was rising spoke of war and death, courage and lost causes. He told improbable stories of nightfall during the siege when undeclared truces brought Confederate and Union boys from behind their lines to play together before dark, then return to camp, sleep, arise and kill again.

I could not fathom death then; none of us, except the guide, were over 30. I did not think of James Rhea, dead in his 30th year and buried here among the Union unknowns, his grave marked by a small block of stone inscribed with a number related to nothing more than the order of burial when his unidentified body was brought from its temporary resting place near the division hospital where he died.

Eleven thousand of those gray blocks climb the hills in sweeping curves, fill wooded glades and cover terraced slopes. None of us could comprehend, in the utter green silence, that this beautiful place had once been shattered by war and spattered with blood.

James M. Rhea, whose life ended on the battlefield at Vicksburg 144 years ago, was my uncle. He left behind only a penciled letter to his little sister, Lucinda, headed "tenasee camp pitsburg," written on 2 April 1862, two days before the carnage at Shiloh began. There are no photographs, fond family memories or great-great-grandchildren.

That letter is beside me now, the writing badly faded, barely legible.

A record page from the family Bible tells me that James was born on the 17th of February, 1834, in Island Grove Township, Sangamon County Illinois --- Lincoln country. My family knew Lincoln. He was their lawyer.

James was only 5 when his father, a Baptist preacher and farmer named Richard Rhea, died during November of 1839 at the age of 31. His older sister, Elizabeth Rachel, was my great-great-grandmother.

When James was 8, his mother --- Eliza --- married the widower Thomas Etheredge and they brought their blended family to Iowa about 1848.

As a young man in Lucas County, James farmed and worked in a grain mill. Who knows what dreams he had?

When the Civil War began, he enlisted on 10 August 1861 in Co. I, Eighth Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry, and was mustered on 17 September at Davenport. He was 27, profiled in his company's descriptive book as 5 feet, 10 and a half inches tall with a light complexion, blue eyes and sandy hair.

After several months of service, the Eighth Iowa moved between 11 and 21 March, 1862, from Sedalia, Mo., to St. Louis and then on to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee.

And so it was that James came to be camped at Pittsburg Landing on the evening of 2 April when he took pencil in hand to write a letter to his sister, Lucinda, who had celebrated her 18th birthday a few days before.

"tenasee camp pitsburg
aprile the 2, 1862

"dear sister: it is with pleasure that i take the opertunity in leting you know that i am well and harty at present and tolerable well sadisfied and i hope these few lines may find you and the rest of the folks well and doing well. i have ben well sense we have been here with the except a bad could. there is a heap of sickness here for there is so many here. there is one out of our company at the hospitle. there is a few that is not able for duty. the wether is warm and nice. the timber is green nice. in a few days catle can liv. we have plenty of hard crackers to eat and meat. it is geting late and i must go and eat some of the hard crackers. i am very lazy this evening. tell demcy to not hurt the oald blu hen and so also no more at present.

"James M. Rhea
lucinderia etheredge"

Four days later, the hideously destructive Battle of Shiloh began. Fatalities totaled 23,746, 13,047 of them Union and 10,699, Confederate.

"Brave of the brave," begins an inscription on the Iowa monument at Shiloh. "The twice five thousand men who all that day stood in the battle's shock, fame holds them dear, and with immortal pen inscribes their names on the enduring rock."

Although James was neither wounded nor captured, he was ill enough after the battle to merit leave. His company's May and June muster roll lists him as "absent" and contains the note, "sick at Monroe Co., Iowa, since April 19, 1862."

He rejoined his unit during late June and was listed as "present" on its muster roll to 18 August. On 15 August, the Eighth moved to Danville, Miss., where its headquarters remained until the Battle of Corinth.

The death toll at Cornith was 7,197, 2,359 of them Union and 4,838, Confederate, and James was among wounded.

Treated at the U.S.A. General Hospital in Mound City, Ill., he was listed as "present" on muster rolls for November and December of 1862 and January and February of 1863.

It was during James's time at the hospital that his stepfather, Thomas Etheredge, died on Christmas Eve, 1862, back home in Cedar Township, Lucas County.

By March, 1863, James had rejoined his unit and between May 2 and 14, the Eighth moved to join the siege at Vicksburg. Surely James must have had a heavy heart.

His younger half- brother, Robert Etheredge, only 16, had lied about his age the previous summer and enlisted as a private in Co. F, 36th Regiment, Iowa Infantry, on 9 August. He was plagued by illness almost from the time he was mustered, however, and on 20 February 1863, Robert was discharged for disability at Helena, Arkansas, and made his way home to Lucas County where he died on 9 April, the same day the Eighth was ordered to Louisiana en route to Vicksburg. He had just turned 17.

It was at Vicksburg, that James' life ended, too. He sustained a gunshot wound to the knee on the 22nd of June, and while a patient at a division hospital nearby his leg was amputated, perhaps after gangrene set in. On the 25th of July, 1863, he died.

Following James’ death, his personal effects were claimed by his mother and forwarded to her at Lagrange on or about the 9th of August --- A forage cap, a uniform coat, a flannel sack coat, a pair of trousers, 2 flannel shirts, 2 pair of socks, a testament, a memorandum book, a portfolio and $5 in bank notes.

Elizabeth had given two sons to the Union cause. Somehow it seems that there should have been more.

We have learned little since, hundreds of thousands more have died and in Iraq, more will die today.

Faded letters and tattered flags and one day, each year during May, set aside to honor them.

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