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"December 7th, 1941. Just a normal Sunday," my mother recalls. "Until Dad came home and said "better oil up your guns boys, the Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor". He had heard it on his car radio."
He might have heard something like this...
...and if he changed channels after that sudden interruption, maybe this:
He was too old to go to war himself, but that hadn't always been the case. "Dad had been in France just 23 years before, and he knew what war meant."
That's an understatement - he'd been a medic with the 307th Field Hospital, part of the 77th Division in France in 1918. They'd fought on the Argonne end of the American line in the battle of Meuse-Argonne. While his focus had been some of the nearly 96,000 wounded, to this day no single American battle has exceeded its 26,277 dead.
If on hearing that broadcast so many years later he remembered their faces, it couldn't have been long before they were replaced with thoughts of his own four military age boys. No doubt he shared more detailed advice with them later, but that day it was brief and simple - echoed elsewhere from veteran fathers to their sons: the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, better oil up your guns.
Don't mistake that for enthusiasm. "I was a 12 year old girl and had never heard of Pearl Harbor and could not understand how that would affect us." His daughter recalls now. "But soon learned while listening to the solemn conversation that followed."
A little over sixty years later she'd have a son going off to Iraq - twice. On that first tour she sent a small Christmas tree over... but I'd asked her just yesterday what it was like, to be that 12-year-old little sister that Christmas season near the end of the Great Depression. To be part of a coal miner's family whose sons were (somehow) off to college - or planning it (the oldest had already completed his degree) but were now changing plans. "Oh, I can't remember what I had for breakfast," she claims - and like having breakfast, her big brothers just did things that were typical of the day. The oldest had an essential war time job - but left it anyway. The second left college and became a bomber pilot. The third completed high school that year, but his mother had to accept his diploma on his behalf. The fourth would have to wait for '44...
"Dad and Mom had five sons ages 21, 20, 17, 15, and 7. So, yes, they knew what was ahead for their four oldest sons that day in December. The two oldest enlisted right away and the other two followed as soon as they turned 18."
"Tell me a story," I asked my mom yesterday... I'd expected an account of the world-that-was through the eyes of an innocent. What I got - what she said without saying - was a reminder that those of a certain generation (rightly called the greatest) don't much use the word "me."
"I remember how they worried," she says of her mother and father, "and how they never missed a news broadcast during the entire war..."
(Originally published: 2011-12-07 12:42:00)
Sunday, October 20, 1861: Nothing but ten miles of road separated the men of Colonel Nathan Evan's Brigade, Confederate States Army, from Brigadier General George McCall's Division of Union troops to their east. Even closer to hand was Brigadier General Charles Stone's Division - ten thousand or so more Yankees, just across the Potomac. All totaled there were six Union infantry brigades in the vicinity of one Confederate; to call the situation confronting the southerners a tight spot would be an understatement. From all indications battle was imminent, and barring some miracle its outcome predictable. "General Evans and Colonel Featherstone both gave us a short speech," Private Robert Augustus Moore of the 17th Mississippi noted in his diary that day (Evans' subordinates had promoted him one rank; rumor had it his superiors might, too), adding "The General said if we died here he would die with us."
Commanders didn't always deliver on promises, regardless of their rank - but it seemed likely Evans would fulfill that one.
Three days earlier Moore had scratched out "camp west of Leesburg" at the top of his diary entry for October 17th and replaced it with "on Goose Creek." They'd been awakened at 3 AM that day "by the beating of the long roll," he wrote. But it wasn't a call to battle. After weeks of facing off against the Yankees across the river - mostly monotony broken by occasional skirmishes - it was time to move elsewhere. Fortified with a bread and water breakfast they began their march, though "we did not know whither we were going until we arrived at this camp."
"Some" in that case were almost right. Moore's diary entry for the following day, however, was made from the same location. The widow Carter's mill on Goose Creek was about an eight mile walk south of Leesburg, though closer to five miles as the crow flies. Or as the cannonball doesn't - Stone's long-range artillery pieces on the Maryland shore were a factor in selecting this new location.
On the other hand touring historic Virginia was not, but some of the Mississippi troops took the opportunity to do so.
It was a hands-on interactive display. "Rocked in his old chair," Moore reported - adding that they left with some souvenirs of the former president, deceased three decades before: "several books a few piano keys and string."
Their history tour was not yet completed; "some" mistimed the effort but they indeed had more marching to do. Moore's diary entry the next day was made from "camp near ex-Mayor Swans" - an estate north of Leesburg owned by Thomas Swann. They reached it at the end of a longer march than the last (though "some" were right again; it mostly was a repeat of the last - in the opposite direction - which did little to sooth the souls of any soldiers desiring reason in their lives) but as a camp site it would prove especially gratifying to the most staunch Confederate hearts. Its owner was not present; after completing his term as Mayor of Baltimore the year before, Swann had declared himself a Union man and declined to return to his stately Virginia home.
"This looks to be a very fine camping place," Moore noted (though he'd only seen it in the dark of night) - but other than that, things were not going well.
"Some of the boys are a little mad," he added.
That was late on Saturday, the 19th. Moore and his fellow soldiers wouldn't see their camp site in daylight the next day either; before dawn they upped and moved again, abandoning the opulent grounds of the Swann estate for "camp in the bushes on Goose creek."
Whether believed or not, if the courier's information was accurate McCall had left three of his available infantry regiments behind when he'd moved his division's three brigades westward from Langley - but as Evans' Brigade consisted of just four infantry regiments, assorted cavalry and a few pieces of artillery the force now located just down the road a bit was overwhelming even so.
Or at least potentially overwhelming - as events (or lack thereof) would mandate the qualifier be used. Moore didn't know it, but the courier's information had also revealed that McCall's troops were not bound for Leesburg, would not even be remaining in place, but instead would return to Langley the following day. Still, the events of Sunday, 20 October 1861 were auspicious enough for Moore to make multiple entries in his diary throughout the day, eventually dedicating three of his pages to recording them - perhaps anticipating his life story was near finished, his remaining pages unneeded and destined to stay eternally blank.
"Left this morning without breakfast. Received some meat and bread about 11 o'clock. The first meat I have had since yesterday morning. When we got here Gen. Evans & Col. F both gave us a short speech. The Gen. said if we died here he would die with us...
"It is between 11 and 12 o'clock A.M. while I am writing. We are not expecting a fight today but would not be surprised if something was done to-morrow..."
Later in the day, however, Stone's troops crossed the Potomac. But for whatever reason, they returned to their side of the river before Evans' boys could give them a proper welcome.
"The enemy cannonaded us this evening but did no injury to us. Were ordered down to the Ferry at 9 o'clock to drive back some Yankees but when we got there they were not there. Camped near the Ferry for 1/2 hour when orders came to go back to our same position on Goose creek. I & (?) had gone to sleep when the orders came and were left behind. Waked up 2 hours after they left. Got lost and did not get back until 4 o'clock A.M. "
"We all thought we were going into a battle when we were going down to the Ferry," he concluded. "The boys all tore up their letters this evening thinking they were going into battle. I laughed at them."
They likely didn't join in his laughter - but their precautions would seem less humorous soon enough. The 17th Mississippi had been at Manassas for the big battle last July 21st ("It was the largest battle ever fought on the American continent," Moore wrote that day) - on the field if not in the thick of the fight. They had a better idea than most - and certainly than the men of Stone's Division they would soon confront - of what being in battle was like. Though he saw no need to enter a new date (the passing of midnight being less a requirement for acknowledging such than his as-yet unclaimed few hours sleep), Moore completed his October 20th entry on the 21st, exactly three months to the day from Manassas, in the pre-dawn darkness of what would indeed be the day of his second battle, another day that would require multiple pages of his diary to record.
He was ready for it. But even if he'd gained a few strands of historically significant piano string on the way, whatever yearning he might once have felt for the glories of war was fading, right along with the leaves on the trees and the first calendar year of the war. Previously - from in camp west of Leesburg, late in a day not long before - he'd expressed a desire in the pages of his diary that summed up his then-current thoughts on the whole great adventure:
But they would not. Rather soon some would cross the Potomac again. This time they'd meet Private Robert Moore and his fellow soldiers, tired and sore and hungry and sleep-deprived and more than a little fed up with their situation, and - complaints about food and rain and mud and their officers (most of whom they'd elected as such in the first place) aside - ready to vent their frustrations most violently on those they believed more responsible for their woes.
(More to follow...)
James Monroe's house: Moore's reference is to Oak Hill, located just south of Carter's Mill, though his visit seems to have been to a house nearby where some of Monroe's property was stored. "His residence is but a quarter mile distant from the old house," Moore wrote, adding that he wished he could visit it, "but do not know who owns it."
Piano wire, it should be noted, would be highly useful to a soldier, much as 550 cord is today.