Conveying the Horror of Battle to a Civilian

Posted: February 16, 2014 in Civil War
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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Henry Matrau, CO G, 6th Wisconsin Regiment

“We had an awful hot time at Gettysburg but it does seem that I was the luckiest fellow in existence. There were men falling in every direction around me & the best-hearted fellow in our company was killed right close to me, so near that he nearly fell on me.”

Matrau’s description is in line with most other accounts of the 1st day of Gettysburg. Nearly all literate survivors of the battle would write to someone about their experience, but few would go into gory detail.

Only a veteran can describe the real horror of combat, and every veteran needs only one shot fired at them to understand that civilians will never understand, never empathize, never see how war really is. This effect was multiplied in the days before mass media, when a propaganda song was all that was needed to convince a town that war brought all those involved in it absolute glory.

How does one sit down and compose a letter, and themselves, after spending nearly an entire day killing the enemy and watching those around them die or become maimed?

“My dear Mother,” wrote Major Rufus R Dawes to his mother on September 5, 1862. “I have tried in several ways to send you word of my safety. We have had a terrible ordeal. We were in battle or skirmish almost every day from August 21st to 31st. Our brigade has lost eight hundred men; our regiment, one hundred and twenty-five. The country knows how nobly our men have borne themselves. I have been at my post in every battle…”

Dawes, even in mentioning the losses in terms of numbers, keeps the horror of war masked behind cold figures and the gallantry of the regiment.

Many, including Dawes, would credit a higher power with their survival. Some would skim right over the details of battles, especially after having seen a lot of it, begging excuse for the omission. After the battle of Weldon Railroad, Matrau would write his parents, “… I take this opportunity to tell you that we had another battle, or, rather, a series of battles, scince (sic) I wrote to you and that your unworthy son, by the watchful guidance of Providence, is still left alive and well. I will not go into a regular detailed acct of the battles for I hav’nt (sic) the room or time…”

Although it is possible, probable even, that Matrau hadn’t the room or time, it is even more likely that he hadn’t the words to describe what he’d seen and done that day.

Sources:

Letters Home, Henry Matrau of the Iron Brigade, Edited by Marcia Reid-Green;

Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, Rufus R Dawes

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Comments
  1. I find this really fascinating. As a civilian I can easily say that I have no idea how hard battle is to live through, but what I hadn’t registered until now is that I have no idea how hard it is to talk about it afterwards.

  2. My Stuff says:

    I am fascinated by the letters and diaries that soldiers have left behind. These are a special pieces of history, they are personal and factual, not pieces of propaganda. great stuff. thanks VK

  3. authormbeyer says:

    I am nutty about the Civil War even though I am a total pacifist (a term which here does not mean that I live near the Pacific Ocean.) I am a born Yankee living in the deep south and fascinated by polarizing culture clashes. Thank you for sharing this.

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