The President moved the last and final letter closer to the lamp and read it for the third time. He was excited but cautious and prayed that this was the man he had been seeking for the last four years. Time and time again hope had turned to despair as his military appointments failed to produce an end to the hostilities. He had tried, over and over again, to find a General who was not tentative, who was not overly cautious and who would drive FORWARD! Every change he had made in leadership had resulted in more of the same old inaction. The man sitting in the hall outside of the oval office was, he could only hope, the one!
He finally place the letter on the writing desk and arose. He motioned to his military aide to leave the room and walked slowly to the door. He opened the door and found himself looking directly at the man, the man on whom he would place all his hopes for an end to the hostilities, seated in one of the modest chairs that lined the far hallway wall. The man, in rough, wrinkled military clothing quickly stood, although rather clumsily, and tried in vain to brush the heavy dust from his coat. The President, more embarrassed than the man, quickly stood to one side and invited him into the oval office. As they settled into the huge wingback chairs Abraham Lincoln was not at all sure he was making the right move.
It was March 9th, 1864. President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses Simpson Grant to the position of General in Chief of all of the armies of the United States. Now, finally, the tide of the mighty war would change and, for better or for worse, the Union Army would move aggressively forward. It would take the war to Lee. Now, until the end of the war, Lee would be forced to fight defensively.
On the first week of May, the Army of the Potomac, over 100,000 strong, began the Overland Campaign. They crossed the Rapidan River and headed toward a confrontation with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, composed of 61,000 men. The two great armies met in the Battle of the Wilderness and in three days the Union Army lost 18,000 men. The Confederate Army lost 11,000. It was to get worse…..much worse.
Company K of the 10th Virginia Infantry was now down to less than 200 men. The fighting during the last three days alone had cost them 50 men, killed and wounded. They had seen Colonel Warren and their favorite, Captain Sellers, go down and had heard they were dead. Many other officers and men were also dead, wounded or missing. And now they were moving again, unaware that they were marching toward an even deadlier battle. A battle at a place called Spotsylvania Courthouse.
Ben Barham and the company had been marching for six hours. They were tired; tired of walking, tired of fighting and, most of all, tired of seeing their comrades die. The last three days had been enough to make a man want to just walk away…go home…go anywhere where he wouldn’t have to fire another rifle. The place they were leaving was called the Wilderness, a vast stretch of forest that had been logged-out years ago by the ironmakers in the area. Fuel for their furnaces required enormous amounts of wood and they had stripped the land to get it. Nature was trying to re-establish the forest but the trees were not really trees at all…they were more like scrub growth that was now thick and nearly impenetrable. Fighting there had been fierce and movement was impossible. Men had died there who would never be found. They simply vanished; dissolved into the dense growth.
Ben had seen many friends go down those three days but that was really nothing new for him or his comrades. There wasn’t a man in the company who hadn’t lost many friends and, in several cases family members, during the last three years. They had become so hardened to the killing that they simply thought of it as routine. They had all seen comrades killed in the most horrible ways and they now looked at it in a strangely detached way. Mostly they had only a single, abiding fear, a fear that they all hid from their comrades; a fear that they would be next in the long line of fatalities.
Ben was a stocky man of 5”10”, but he weighed only 135 pounds. He had enlisted back in ’62, the same week he turned eighteen. He'd been just another young man who wanted to get away from a small town and find adventure. His parents hadn’t tried to stop him. They were proud Virginians and wanted him to be a part of the trouncing of the North. He had weighed 140 back then. He felt it strange that he was now taller and more muscular but weighed even less. Maybe it was the lousy food they ate, when there was lousy food to eat. He was luckier than some. He had good boots, well broken-in, and his coat and blanket were in good shape. He had gotten through the winter in good health and that was more than a lot of them could say.
As they marched he looked over at Old Ike. “Where’re we going, Ike? You s’pose them Yankees are runnin’ again? I hope so…..I hope they’re heading back across the Potomac for the last time”.
Ike looked over at Ben with an amused expression, “If they’re goin’ home they’re goin’ in the wrong direction seein’ as how we’re headin’ east. Anyhow….I heard plenty that we’re gonna see worse ahead. Ben, I swear to God, if we see more of the last week I’m quittin’, just givin’up! I think we’re all gonna die this time….I really do!”
Ben looked uneasy “We ain’t gonna die, Ike!, but the plain truth is I wouldn’t mind gettin’ caught if it would get me a warm bed and some decent food. I won’t light-out but I sure will just throw-up my hands, I swear I will. I can’t go through that kind of fightin’ again. No Sir! I just can't!” Several of his comrades shook their heads in nervous agreement. He adjusted his rucksack and felt a great need to add, “Mind now, I’m not serious ….I don’t think I’d ever quit, not after what we been through”. Embarrassed by the thought of quitting he stood straighter and took longer strides as they continued in silence, each in his own thoughts.
As the sun dipped below the horizon and dusk settled over the countryside Major Anderson rode back to Captain Grayson. Both men stepped down from their horses to talk excitedly. Captain Grayson then passed the word to Lieutenant Mauck that they were to move to the west to dig in. The Yankees were pressing hard over there and the line had been breached. Company K double-timed down the dusty road for two more miles and turned down a narrow farm lane that ran for several hundred yards to the south. They came to a halt and were told to begin cutting trees for breastworks and digging into the damp soil.
Ben and his comrades were quickly hard at work, burrowing into the leafy soil to make trenches. Meanwhile, others were felling smaller trees, stripping the limbs and piling the trunks along the edges of the trenches. By dark they were entrenched and, feeling safe, if only temporarilly, and busily scrounging for water, food and tobacco. Ben lazed back in the soft soil with a blazing fire not 10 feet away and thought “We must have been crazy, talking about quitting….Hell, them Yankees are in for a surprise when they face us again. Tomorrow we’ll lick ‘um for sure…lick’um good. ”…then he paused for a moment and thought, “Lord, I want to go home so bad”.
The next morning was cold but clear and spirits were high. Ben finished eating his hard biscuits and was smoking his pipe when Noah Price came over. Noah was another Page County boy who was liked by everyone. His attitude was always good, even though he was big and tough enough to beat most men in the company he was always jovial and easy with a joke. Today was different. “Ben, I think we’re going to lose this one. I hear all along the line that the Yankees are breakin’ through. Why they ain’t hit us I don’t know but I’m afraid it’s gonna be worse than the last one”.
Ben relaxed and settled into the dirt and leaves smiling, ”Noah, look at these here works. Ain’t we seen about anything them Yankees can throw at us? We’ll hold ‘em and sooner or later we’ll drive ‘em back up there to Washington. Ol’ Lee can still handle anything they can throw at us.”
Noah was unconvinced but soon they were joined by John Tobin, John Walters and several others and the joking and story-telling lasted for hours. As always, the danger faded away as they talked and laughed, forgetting where they were and how deadly the battle was, raging just a mile away. The day passed and the night was welcome. They had spend another day without firing a shot and that was always something to celebrate.
The next morning however, dispatch riders were everywhere and Captains Parks and Grayson rode along the line alerting everyone, “Be ready, boys! Be ready for 'em! It won't be long now, boys!” The sounds of battle began early and were ominously near. The cannonading now seemed to be within yards instead of miles. The noise was growing in intensity and the smoke gave the sun that strange hazy orange glow they had all seen in nearly every battle. The air was thick with the smell of dust and gunpowder as the union cannons seemed to be closer and closer. They were concentrating their fire nearer to the 10th Virginia and many of the men were looking from side to side, hoping to see a place of safety from the shells. The officers walked among them, trying to reassure them, “Stay down, boys. Don't be moving around. One place is as good as another.”
Ben lay flat behind the breastworks, trying as hard as he could to become part of the soil and peering out through a six inch opening between a tree trunk and the earth. He glanced to his right and Lem Alger was looking at him, a crazy grin on his face. Ben couldn’t help but laugh out loud as he thought about the coming battle and the look on Lem’s face, “My Lord, Lem, It ain't funny”.
Ben checked his rifle, his cartridge box and his canteen and then nervously slid his ramrod up and down along the underside of the rifle barrel. “God, it’s cold and I’m sweatin’? Come on, come on now….. get here…just get here!”
The distant ridge and treeline were now nearly invisible, so thick was the dust and smoke. Ben thought, “How're we gonna see 'em in all that dust?”. But then, across the clearing and over a small rise, perhaps 500 yards away, the Yankees slowly becoming visible through the dust, faded blue against the soft green-brown of the fine early spring day. They seemed to be ghostly apparitions, coming forward in a perfect battle line, and many of the men felt a shiver run through his body. They poured over the rise in an ever-increasing horde and the 10th Virginia thought they were looking at all of the Union Army at once. Company K had never seen an advance like this. At that moment almost every man along the line knew, he knew in his heart that they were about to die. They knew that the Army of the Potomac would not be stopped this time.
Captain Parks was shouting “Don’t fire yet, boys! Wait for the order! Don’t fire!” But many of the men were now terrified and began firing…firing and hitting nothing. The range was too great.
The Union officers were hard at work too. As the endless columns came within 300 yards they ran in front waving their swords and yelling for their men to charge! The front lines began running, faster and faster, and their colors waved along the line as they ran. They closed fast and it now became obvious that they were not going to stop to form a battle line. They began screaming and shouting almost hysterically as they charged faster and faster and Ben thought, “My Lord, they sound like us!”.
As the blue line closed to within 100 yards the order was finally given….”FIRE!” The breastworks shook from the roar of a thousand rifles, all firing at the same time and the air was filled with dense smoke from the exploded gunpowder. The front of the blue line wavered slightly, but only slightly, as hundreds of Yankees fell but they continued on even faster, closing to within 50 yards!
Experienced and battle-hardened men were now looking to see what the others were doing! No one wanted to run if the other were still fighting but now fear was everywhere! There were too many Yankees and they all knew it. The Captain and his Lieutenants could see the massive advance and even they knew they were seeing their own defeat but they tried hard to keep order in the face of the inevitable. “Hold, Men! Hold! Reload….Fire! We’ll stop ‘um, boys! Give ‘um Hell, boys! We'll stop 'um!”
But now it didn’t work. Ben glanced around at his comrades and saw fear and panic in all of their eyes. Almost no one had been hit yet but they knew they were all going to die! As soon as those Yankees crossed the works they would be finished.There was no escape! The Yankees were too close and it was too late to run! Several broke from the breasworks and ran. Several were struck by their officer's swords as they passed but they kept running. More and more men backed away from the works knowing that they were already defeated! Ben drove home a ball, fired the round, aiming wildly at the mass of advancing blue, and tried to load another. He did not have the 20 seconds that it would take.
Twenty thousand Union infantry poured over a mile of Confederate works that morning and there was nothing on earth that could have stopped them. The position of Company K was taken quickly. They were out-numbered five to one.
As the Yankees came over the works they began shooting for the first time. Ben watched several of his comrades shot or bayoneted as they tried to continue fighting. The trenches were quickly filled with blue Yankee uniforms and there was nowhere to run. All along the line men were simply throwing down their rifles rather than being shot to death on the spot. Ben, feeling complete hopelessness, did the same.
A young Yank, no older than Ben himself, charged at him and used his rifle barrel to shove him backward to the ground. The Yank then angrily swung the rifle at his face and glanced the bayonet blade across his right cheek, slicing to the bone, and then standing over him ominously. Like all of the others Ben started shouting “I quit, I quit!”. There were no choices. They could either surrender or try to fight and be killed. Ben and most of his comrades knew then that the war was over for them and, in spite of themselves, they felt a flood of relief. He held the palm of his hand over the wound on his cheek as a surprising calm came over him, “Lord, it's over” he thought, “it's over.” Then, as he was allowed to struggle to his feet with his hands held high, he realized that he had just surrendered and he felt the terrible guilt that only comes from “Giving Up”. It swept through his body and he felt a deep shame unlike anything he had ever experienced before. He stood there holding his arms over his head and fighting to hold back the tears.
Company K of the 10th Virginia Infantry, one of the most battle-tested, most dependable companies in the Army of Northern Virginia, was no more. With the exception of the few that ran and managed to escape they were all now prisoners of war.
The following year was a year of victories and losses for the army but the outcome was now inevitable. A day would come, April 9th, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee would surrender to General U.S. Grant at Appomatox Courthouse. Ironically, the place of surrender was the home of a family named McLean. The same family that had lived near Manassas Junction back in 1861 at the outset of the war and had been driven farther south when the Battle of Bull Run was fought so near their home. They saw the start of the war from their old home and saw the end of the war, the surrender, in the parlor of their new home in Appomatox.
Ben Barham and the remnants of Company K thought that they would live out the remainder of the war at home or, at worst, in a warm prison barracks eating hot food. They were wrong. They were marched overland under heavy guard to Belle Plaine, Virginia, and then transported by steamboat to Point Lookout, Maryland. There they would spent the next several months in swamp-like conditions with disease and privations killing over 30% of them. The survivors were then shipped to prisoner of war Camp Chemung in Elmira, New York, where they continued to suffer until the war ended.
Ben Barham survived Point Lookout and Elmira and was released under Oath of Allegiance thirteen months later, on June 27th, 1865.
He sat quietly on the train as it passed through the hill country of New York. He was finally and at last headed south to his home in little Hamburg, Virginia. The fighting was over, he was out of that hellish prison camp and there would be no more marching and no more killing. For two long years he had tramped all over Northern Virginia, returning home to Page County when he could but always longing to get back to the company, thinking, “I can’t wait to get back to the boys”. Now what was he going to do? The thought of living and farming in Page County for the rest of his life was something he just couldn't face. It was out of the question. He wanted to keep moving….to see the country…..to travel far away and to see and do exciting things. He had been eighteen when he enlisted. He was now twenty one, a man, a man who had experienced more than most men would experience in a lifetime.
The hot and overcrowded passenger car rocked gently on the rails, making him sleepy. He closed his eyes and tried to get comfortable thinking, “Lord, I miss the boys”.
As he dozed off his mind raced back to many of his comrades and he thought, “I’ll go home and see the folks but I’m not gonna stay”
And he didn’t.
Daniel Barham, Jr. © 2006