I found this column and article by Wayne Greene of the Tulsa World, Tulsa, OK fascinating. After writing Mr. Green, I was given permission to use the article in its entirety, with my thanks to Mr. Greene and the Tulsa World paper.
The Tulsa World
By WAYNE GREENE Editorial Writer
Last Modified: 9/14/2008 3:48 AM
On April 10, 1865, Thomas Roberts, a chaplain in the Union Army and my grandfather’s grandfather, wrote in a letter to his cousin Lizzie: “Yesterday was the Sabbath. It was spent as many of our Sabbaths are — upon the march. It was also my birthday… .
“I can hardly realize that I am 32 years old. My life has so far accomplished very little… . I have looked forward to a life of usefulness after a while. But I fear that my anticipating will never be realized.”
When my great aunt Miriam Roberts died in 2006, his family found a box of Thomas Roberts’ papers in her effects. Miriam’s son-in-law, Notre Dame physics Professor James Kolata, recognized the 35-page letter from Thomas Roberts to Lizzie as something special. He has lovingly transcribed it, and he shared it with me.
The letter was written while Thomas was a member of an extended raiding party led by Gen. George Stoneman into Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia. During the expedition — the final Union cavalry raid of the war — the men would hear rumors of Lee’s surrender, Lincoln’s assassination and Jefferson Davis’ capture.
He deals with those major events, but also with day-to-day Army life — finding food for man and horse;
finding a warm, dry place to sleep; finding a way home.
As a chaplain he also takes the time to think about greater issues: How North and South, so bitterly and bloodily divided, will ever reunite, the nature of political wickedness and the ethics of war.
On March 30, near the beginning of the raid, he tells this story: “Last night as we were coming in, a woman stood out in the road clapping her hands and shouting God Bless the Yankees. At first I thought she was crazy. But she told us that the Rebels took out one of her sons and shot him because he would not fight the Yankees. When the history of this war is impartially written, it will appear that the chivalry and heroism of the South is found among the poor … who are willing to suffer exile or even death rather than fight against their country.”
Brutality and fatalism: As to the raid’s actual business — destroying the South’s means of continuing the war — he writes surprisingly little.
He describes troops burning a stretch of railroad and talks about plans to possibly burn a cotton factory, and wonders at one point: “How can we expect to reconcile the South if we go around like a band of robbers.”
Another time he describes the execution of a soldier for brutally stealing jewelry from a Southern woman.
But he spends much more time on the ordinary soldier’s complaints of soreness, wetness and confusion.
He constantly describes camp speculations about where they might be headed next. They have as little idea about their destination as the Confederate troops that sometimes trail behind them — too weak to attack, but too strong to go away.
On April 15, the day that word arrives of Lee’s surrender, he writes, “We shall have to go wherever we are ordered. We soldiers have to be like fatalists in our feelings. What is to be, will be. We have no control over it. At least this is so as far as our movements are concerned.”
Heartsick: Word of Lincoln’s death struck Thomas hard.
“I’m tired of the Army as I never was before,” he writes. “I feel heartsick and homesick… . The assassins of the South have triumphed. Ought we to forgive them and treat them gently and put guards around their houses to prevent the boys from taking their chickens and bacon? The cruel, proud rebels will rejoice. And we will not dare to look them in the face. We will not be able to speak with them but with pale face and trembling voice and grieving lip. We shall pass them with our heads hung down in disappointment and chagrin and sorrow. We are a nation of orphans.”
The next day, he writes: “Very many of our soldiers would like to take revenge for Lincoln’s murder. If the war should continue, I fear that it would be waged tenfold more cruelly than it has been before. I don’t want to see any more of it.”
Civilized life: His letter ends on May 23. He says there is word in camp that the unit will be headed to a town, where he says he looks forward to daily newspapers “and other things pertaining to civilized life.” With those words his letter stops abruptly.
Thomas would live the rest of his life in the South.
He spent years as a circuit-riding preacher in Tennessee. I inherited a collection of his hand-written sermons from my grandfather, who was a preacher himself.
The sermons lack the specificity and the introspection of the letter to cousin Lizzie. He never speaks of the war or of politics.
Later, he would teach mathematics at the University of Tennessee and serve as a county surveyor. Eventually, he immigrated to Fort Smith, Ark., where he is buried in a military cemetery.
Unrecorded is whether he considered he had managed a “life of usefulness” when he died, but from what we know, we can conclude it was not an unconsidered life. It was a life of ethical introspection, occasional regret, and a strong desire to do right, when the right can be determined.