Making history, one march at a time
Louis Leon is not, like many famous generals of the Civil War, a household name. That’s because he wasn’t one of them. In fact, it was the profusion of officers’ memoirs that moved this Carolina infantryman, late in life, to publish the diary he had kept from his enlistment in April of 1861 through a final, bitter entry four years later, when he “took the cursed oath” and rejoined his family.
I know that my diary is truly the life of the man behind the gun, therefore I make bold to publish it.
“Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier” (Charlotte: Stone Publishing, 1913) tracks Leon’s transformation from raw recruit into hardened though by no means humorless combat soldier.
The first action of the “Charlotte Grays,” soon to become Company A of the First North Carolina Regiment, was to seize the U.S. Mint in their hometown.
In high spirits, the young heroes arrived in Raleigh, where they were dismayed to find themselves quartered in horse stalls, with straw for a bed.
Near Yorktown, they were shocked to learn that soldiers were expected to dig earthworks – “the indignity!” – before retiring to their tents (which, Leon admitted, could have been greatly improved by some of that Raleigh straw).
Soon after, he found himself on a woodcutting detail. Leon was no pampered son of a planter, but this was unfamiliar work and he did it so badly that his lieutenant rewarded his efforts by making him waterboy for those who had some vague notion of how to use an axe.
Chopping aside, Leon was nothing if not adaptable. Dug in near Bethel Church in Virginia, the men longed for a change of diet. But foraging was strictly forbidden. So?
Bill Stone, Alie Todd and myself put on our knapsacks and went to the creek to wash our clothes, but when we got there we forgot to wash. We took a good long walk away from the camp, and saw several shoats. We ran one down, held it so it could not squeal, then killed it, cut it in small pieces, put it in our knapsacks, returned to the creek, and from there to camp, where we shared it with the boys.
That was the first of many times Leon would “run the blockade” – go AWOL. Most often it was to seek out “the ladies,” wherever they might be. But whenever an unapproved day off was rewarded with food, some of it made it back to “the boys.”
Big Bethel, the first land battle, provided a first taste of war. Afterward, despite a lopsided victory, Leon’s notes took on a somber aspect. Henry Wyatt, a member of their regiment, had fallen. Leon and friends, exploring the battlefield, “saw several of the Yankee dead – the first I had ever seen, and it made me shudder.” It also made him grateful:
From now on I will never again grumble about digging breastworks. If it had not been for them many of us would not be here now.
Eventually, his six-month enlistment was up and Leon went home. But five months away from the war were all he could take. By April of 1862 he was a soldier again, signed up for the duration and quick, as always, to volunteer as skirmisher or sharpshooter.
Little is offered to explain that depth of commitment. At his reenlistment he noted only that he “again took up arms for the Old North State.” He occasionally wrote of having signed up “to fight the Yankees.” But the nearest thing to a detailed explanation, a single line in a single entry, held that the South had to secede to show that it had the right to secede. Nevertheless, he was an implacable Yankee-hater, with the worst of his anger directed at African American troops.
What stands out above all else, though, is how little this fairly typical grunt understood about the course of the war and many of its bloodiest battles. Even Gettysburg, where Leon, at Culp’s Hill, was in some of the hottest fighting in the costliest and arguably most important battle of the war, got less attention in his diary than the fruitless siege of Union-held “Little Washington” in North Carolina. Most engagements got none.
That shouldn’t be surprising. The infantryman’s job was not to run the war. It was to march: March here, march there, turn around and march back to the place you just left. And, once every few score or few hundred miles of marching, he was expected to fight. So Leon’s diary reads nothing like a Civil War chronology. It reads like a scorecard – 17 miles today; 20 miles today; 22 miles today – because that was the day’s work.
It was only when he came close enough to his enemies to marvel at their numbers that his optimism was shaken. And only after months in Union prisons – Point Lookout, Maryland, and then Elmira, New York (where killed and dressed rats sold for 25 cents) – did he join two critical puzzle pieces: However well or badly any given battle went, the North could offset its losses; the South could not.
We are losing heavily, and have no more men at home to come to the army. Our resources in everything are at an end, while the enemy are seemingly stronger than ever.
I shall now close this diary in sorrow, but to the last I will say that, although but a private, I still say our Cause was just, nor do I regret one thing that I have done to cripple the North.
Some things it takes more than an oath to overcome.