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October 14, 2011
The Long Roll (5)By Greyhawk
October 21, 1861: Perhaps he was too small to be seen - perhaps he was an unremarkable sight, or perhaps the bloody corpse carried on a stretcher he was accompanying drew the full attention of the men going the opposite way - toward the battle. Whatever the case, when John Adams wrote of his experience at Ball's Bluff he didn't mention Ithiel Johnson of Oxford, Massachusetts.
Johnson was serving with Colonel Charles Deven's 15th Massachusetts - that morning, as he later remembered the story, he'd been awakened by the long roll...
On the 21st of October, 1861, occurred the battle of Ball's Bluff, and we were awakened at two in the morning by the beating of drums and the regiment was ordered out and told to march to Conrad's Ferry, nine miles away. We reached the banks of the Potomac river in the early morning. I had been told not to cross the river, but when I heard the firing of guns, boy like, I was anxious to go and watched for a chance to cross...The 15th had abandoned him in Maryland - but soon enough Colonel Baker arrived with his California Regiment...
While Col. Baker was waiting to cross I saw his staff gathered about him, and I listened and heard him say that Stone had ordered him to move his troops to the island, and to remain there until fighting should begin at Edwards' Ferry, and for him to then cross and take Leesburg so as to cut off the rebels' retreat. He disregarded this order for I crossed over in the boat with Baker, and after landing on the island, he walked over to the opposite side and I followed him, here he ordered his troops transported by small boats to the Virginia shore, but I remained on the island. While I stood there I saw the troops cross amid a shower of bullets from Col. Evans' Confederate troops...Though vividly described, Johnson's memories of that day might have become clouded over the years - but Colonel Baker, who was also a US Senator, certainly didn't have to worry too much about any fallout from disobeying orders from a General. For different reasons, Johnson, too, could get away with disobeying orders and going wherever he might choose. He was 12 years old when his adventure began, and though he was wearing a uniform like the big boys he wasn't a soldier - the only reason he was there at all was because he'd disobeyed his parents' orders and run off to war.
He was a determined boy - but eventually something drove him from his hiding place: "In Philadelphia the citizens fed our regiment and I chose to come out of hiding, suffering from a powerful hunger...."
Once in camp near Washington the officers of the 15th had time to turn their attention to their young stowaway. By then, "I must have been a sight to behold," he later acknowledged, "still bare foot and wearing my tattered overalls."
I was brought before the officers, consisting of Capt. Charles H. Watson, 1st Lieut. Bartholomew, 2nd Lieut. Bernard Vassal, to decide what to do with me. ...Lieut. Bartholomew asked me if I wanted to be a soldier, and when I told him I did, he said, "Well, if you are to be a soldier you must be dressed like one," so he took me into the city and bought me a boy's soldier suit...
In the meantime they sent word to his parents, assuring them their boy would be well cared for, and "escorted home at the earliest possible date." Such opportunities must have been rare; when the 15th moved west along the Potomac Ithiel was still with them, performing odd jobs for the officers who'd adopted him as their mascot, and generally enjoying his grand adventure.
And then came October.
"About 3:40 p.m.," he recalled, "I saw Col. Baker's staff rowing his body back to the island" from Virginia - and Ithiel Johnson realized he'd had enough of war. He would return to Maryland the same way he departed, at Colonel Baker's side.
The survivors took stock in the days to come. "Our ranks as a company, had been so decimated that Sergeant Shumway was ordered back to Oxford to enlist recruits. As soon as I heard this, I asked permission to return with him, and that permission was granted."
Once back in Oxford he found himself with a final duty to perform. "When I landed in town I was beset on every hand by mothers, lovers, sisters and wives, all asking for the latest news from their men at the front. To some I was obliged to recount the death of a loved one, and to others I had to tell of hospital beds, and of some who were known to be prisoners." That sad task accomplished, he soon reached his journey's end.
(Part six is here...)
The Story of my Life: or, Forty Busy Years (1912) Ithiel Town Johnson
Ithiel Johnson: Civil War Boy Soldier, Bowdoinham, Maine Historical Society
Posted by Greyhawk / October 14, 2011 3:00 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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