The speech below was written by Augustus M. Erwin, Captain, Co. E. 117 Reg’t. N.Y. Infantry. Some of his recollections of the Civil War are noted in his hand-written draft of a speech he made at the National Encampments of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) at their twenty-first meeting on September 11, 1888.
Augustus M. Erwin was born on January 19, 1843. He graduated from the Cleveland Homeopathic School of Medicine in 1882 and began an active and successful practice in Mantua, Ohio. He died in 1907 at the age of 64. He was my great-great grandfather.
Cynthia L. Kotwicki
The events of the War seem to me like a dream. I can scarcely realize that within my recollection some of the greatest battles of modern times have been fought upon our soil and that the fair land has been deluged with the blood of it’s sons - and strange seems the fact that many who are present tonight were participants in those stirring events.
I do not believe that the youth of our land, the young men and women who have come upon the stage of action since the close of the war realize the magnitude of the sacrifices made by the men who entered the army during the war of the great Rebellion. They were surrounded as we are today with every comfort and luxury that tends to make life bearable and happy. The possessions of pleasant homes, the ties that bound them to their kindred were just as strong as those which are entwined about your hearts uniting to you those you hold nearest and dearest.
But at the call of Country they surrendered every comfort - gave up home, and father and mother, brother and sister - wife and child - for what? For the monotony and drudgery of the camp - for the solitude and danger of the picket line - for the weary, weary, never ending march through the hot sand under a burning sun - for the fierce battles - for the wound - for the months of worse than death in horrible prison-pen - for the pangs of hunger - for the hospital - for the pain - the suffering - the anguish - the terrible home sickness and to a number almost innumerable for death. If the G.A.R. does nothing more than to keep alive the memories of the war it will have accomplished a noble mission and coming generations will bless it.
Now I propose to occupy the few moments that are allotted to me in relating a few incidents of the war that happened under my personal observation. Not being accustomed to public speaking and unwilling to trust my memory, I have written the thoughts which I shall unworthy and imperfectly express and I beg the kind and considerate indulgence of this audience.
The war was well under way when the Reg’t. which I enlisted was organized. Our rendezvous was in the city of Rome, N.Y. which was at that time my home. To facilitate the raising of troops, great War Meetings were held where ways and means were devised and grand appeals were made to the young men of the day to join their friends at the front in defense of their common Country. It was the work of only a few days to raise and equip one of the finest Reg’ts. of the state, and as soon as the organization was complete, orders came to move to Washington.
We were up bright and early that morning packing the few articles we wished to take with us. Would it interest you to look into a soldier’s knapsack and take an inventory of his effects? The wise man does not burden himself with any superfluous article, consequently our investigation of this knapsack will be brief. We find a woolen blanket, a rubber blanket, a change of underwear, an extra pair of socks, a few handkerchiefs, a comb, a “what not” containing a needle, thread, pins, paper and pencil, a few postage stamps and pictures of the folks at home.
After breaking camp we were formed in hollow square and a clergy man of the city commended us to the mercy and protection of Almighty God. And then we took up our line of march toward the depot - the streets on either side were thronged with people to see us off - I will not attempt to describe the partings I witnessed that day. One fact I saw which all these 23 years have failed to obliterate from my mind the white, anxious, tearful face of my Mother as she stood upon the steps scanning the face of each soldier who passed trying to catch a last glimpse of her boy -
We were soon aboard a special train rushing as fast as steam could carry us Southward. Where ever our train stopped in the loyal states, noble women were present to minister to our wants and wish us Godspeed on our way - We arrived in Washington in the night where we rested till morning and then marched to Tennallytown, Md. where we went into camp. Here we were for several weeks instructed in the duties of the soldier and prepared for the stern realities that were before us. But I will not ask you to follow this Reg’t. during the next two years, but will introduce you to it again in the Rifle pits in front of Petersburgh, Va. in 1864. The gallant army of the Potomac in conjunction with the equally gallant Army of the James have swung around from Cold Harbor and are now confronting Lee and the Army of Va. at Petersburgh.
They have driven the enemy from his 1st. and 2nd. lines and have pressed closely to his 3rd. which for weeks and months prove to be impregnable. the Union Army has erected strong earth works and in places the entrenchments are so near that Yankee and Reb often converse with each other, being always careful not to expose a head lest it be pierced with a bullet.
On the fourth day of July of this year Gen’l. Grant proposed to celebrate our National anniversary in a becoming manner. At sunrise, every gun in position, great and small belched forth its fire and poured into the enemies works such a storm of shot and shell as to appall them. If the Rebels had forgotten the fact, they were forcibly reminded that this was the Glorious Fourth and that the Government at Washington still lived. Seeming to appreciate our manifestations of patriotism the Rebels preserved a sullen silence for several days thereafter.
I was once at Annapolis, Md., an inmate of the Hospital at that place when a fleet of vessels arrived from Charlestown Harbor having on board several thousand exchanged prisoners from Salsbury and other Southern prisons. The ships anchored in the offing and a smaller vessel plied all day long between them and the dock transferring their human freight to the shore. First came those that could not walk. They were hollowed eyed, emaciated, dirty, covered with vermin, and clad in garments that were tattered and torn. They were brought, in strong willing arms, those who were by hunger and disease reduced to such a condition that they could not walk. Scores of them with reason dethroned, complete imbeciles. And then followed the bodies of those who had died upon the passage. Released only to catch a glimpse of the old flag and permitted to die in its shadow. These men who suffered so much were the real heroes of the war. They were noble martyrs in a righteous cause.
The living were conveyed in ambulances to Burruks, a mile or so distant where they might be nourished and partially restored to health. A companion of mine in the Hospital was Lieut. Benj. F. Miller, of Utica, N.Y., a brave fellow who was recovering from wounds received in battle. His youngest brother, a boy 16 years of age had enlisted, and in his first engagement was reported “Missing in Action” and since then no tidings had been received from him. They supposed him dead, but thought possibly he might have been captured. I
went with the Lieut. the next morning to the barracks where he proposed to ask the prisoners if they had ever known such a person as his brother - We happened to visit first the building that contained those unable to help themselves. We found the men laying upon the floor in two rows. Miller preceded me and carefully scanned the faces as he passed, now and then stopping to question the strongest. After proceeding slowly nearly the entire length of the building and while the Lieut. was asking a poor fellow on the right if he ever knew in prison a boy from Utica by the name of Willie Miller, I noticed on the other side a pale, thin faced boy life himself upon his elbow and gave with an eager wishful expression upon him. I knew then that the brother was found. The poor boy crawled upon his hands and knees to his brother and clasping his wasted arms about him cried with all his strength, Ben! Ben!
I have lately noticed that men arise in the halls of our National Legislature and pronounce and eulogize upon Jefferson Davis and hold him up to the gaze of the youth of our land as a noble man and patriot. To those who listen to me tonight, I want to say that it was with his full knowledge and consent that these horrid barbarities were practiced upon our captured soldiers. It was Jefferson Davis that removed Gen’l. Winder from the Command of Andersonville for the reason that he was human and kind. It was Jefferson Davis that put in his place Capt. Wirtz who he knew to be worse than a beast and I believe that the greatest error committed in the settlement of the war was that our government did not bring the traitor Davis to an ignominious death.
It might be supposed that the scenes of Grim Vissaged War - in which these men were constantly engaged would blunt their finer sensibilities and drive from their hearts every humane impulse but I have in mind an incident that happened about the time of the 4th. of July Celebration that will disprove such an idea. At the close of a hot, sultry day during which the fighting had been unusually severe, our ears were suddenly greeted by the sound of music from a band stationed in the Rebel Rifle pits just opposite our own Regimental position. We were not long in recognizing the air as that of the Bonny Blue Flag. The effect of the music upon the Rebels seems to be exhilarating while upon our own troops it produced an entirely different effect.
The General commanding our Division hearing the music hurried the band stationed at his H’d. Qtrs. into the Rifle pit and they were in position and ready to play as soon as the Rebel band had finished their selection. Before the Rebel yell had fairly subsided the Yankee band commenced to play the Star Spangled Banner. The enthusiasm it created among our troops was immense. Men threw their hats high into the air. Officers waived aloft their swords. The old battle worn, bullet pierced flags were hastily unfurled and defiantly waived above our works in the face of the foe, while cheer upon cheer burst from our excited soldiers. The tumult lasted some minutes and before it had entirely died away the Rebels began Maryland My Maryland. Our band responded with Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean. Then the Rebels played Dixie and were answered with Yankee Doodle. Thus they alternated until the shades of night began to settle upon us and as if wearying of the contest and desiring to retire, the Confederate Musicians began to play Home Sweet Home. Immediately catching the inspiration our own band joined with them and the two bands played in unison that dear old tune.
A solemn hush settled upon both lines. The desultory firing which had not ceased for many a day stopped. The tender cord had been touched and could the Soldiers have settled the war then, hands would have been stretched toward each other across the bloody chasm. I saw men weep who were unaccustomed to shedding tears. I am not ashamed in these maturer years to say that boy that I was, I buried my face in my hands and throwing my self upon the ground I wept bitter tears for home.
Home! To the weary traveler wandering among strangers in a far away clime, to the mariner tossed hither and thither upon the billowy ocean, to the soldier engaged in mortal combat with his foe, there is no other word that expresses so much of security, contentment, comfort, peace and love as that fond word HOME!