Sunday, May 28, 2006

The March

I finally finished reading 'The March', E.L. Doctorow's PEN/Faulkner Award winning novel about Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's infamous swath of destruction from Georgia, through South Carolina and into North Carolina during the last six months of America's Civil War.

My wife read most of it in one sitting on an eight hour plane flight from Hong Kong to Sydney. She said it was good, but she doesn't remember much about it. I chipped away at it at the rate of an hour or two a week for nearly two months. I made a point of savoring it and I'm glad I did. I didn't want it to blur on me and I think it would have if I'd read it straight through.

It was only about three years ago that I first began to suspect that I might have a Civil War ancestor. Only a few months have passed since I was finally able to confirm my hunch through correspondence generated by this blog with relatives and inlaws in upstate Wisconsin. My great great grandfather, William Lubach, enlisted a few weeks after the March to the Sea began, but he wasn't actually deployed until after the march was essentially completed.

I'm fairly certain, though, that his wife's younger brother, William Ebert, was either on the march or would have been if he hadn't been incapacitated at Bald Hill during the Battle of Atlanta which preceded the march. His unit, the 12th Wisconsin, was part of the march. He was wounded in July, 1864, and mustered out disabled in January, 1865. The rest of the 12th mustered out in June, 1865. My guess is that if his wounds were severe enough to muster out five months early, they were probably also severe enough for him to have spent the duration of Sherman's March confined to a hospital. But I really don't know at this point.

A little less than a year ago I spent several hours in the manuscript room of the Golda Meir Library at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. I had a chance to examine some of the wartime correspondence between the Reverend Alonzo Miller and his wife, Mary Abbott Miller. Alonzo Miller served in my great great grandfather's unit, the 27th Wisconsin. He was 38 when he enlisted, the same age as my great great grandfather. They both enlisted at the same time in October, 1864. The letters he sent to his wife recount his activities going through training in Milwaukee, a train ride to Little Rock where the replacement troops joined up with the regiment, a boat ride from Little Rock to New Orleans and the staging area across the river in Algiers where they camped for several weeks, then another boat across Lake Pontchartrain and along the Gulf to Mobile Point where they disembarked and began their march through a dense pine forest on the forts north of Mobile, Alabama.

The letters tell about the battles of Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely and about the several weeks spent in Mobile celebrating victory in those battles. A ship full of armaments hit a mine in Mobile Bay while they were there, the blast breaking windows in the shops and homes along the harbor. They heard the news of Lee's surrender, participated in parades and mourned when the news came that Lincoln had been assassinated. They spent the month of May in a few miles outside of Mobile, waiting to hear if they would be mustered out when the war officially ended or reassigned for further duty.

On the first of June they sailed for Brazos Santiago at the mouth of the Rio Grande and were stationed there for almost two months until they marched on Brownsville in the first week of August where the unit mustered out at the end of the month. But by then my great great grandfather was no longer with them. He fell ill at some point in July and was evacuated to an army hospital at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis where he died and was buried in what, one year later, became one of America's first national cemeteries.

Alonzo's wife, Mary, was also getting letters from her brother, Martin Abbott, who served with the 26th Wisconsin, a unit comprised mostly of Germans that also took part in Sherman's March. Martin Abbott had one of his thumbs shot off during the war. It didn't keep him from writing letters and his letters make clear that he was there with 'Uncle Billy'.