Death Rides on Every Passing Breeze

For those of you who are interested in Galesburg's history, in the Civil War from an enlisted man's perspective, or have an ancestor that joined the 102nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, ''Jottings from Dixie'' is mandatory reading. The 102nd was formed from volunteers from Galesburg, Knoxville, Berlin, Wataga and other local areas and was mustered into federal service on September 2, 1862. One of those to join was Stephen Fleharty who took it upon himself to write short reports back home. These were first published by the Rock Island ''Daily Argus'' but later Fleharty wrote to the ''Rock Island Weekly Union'' as the Argus' position on the war was inconsistent with Fleharty's.

These columns have been put together, researched to help set context and detail, and published this year by the Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge ($29.95). The editors for this work were Galesburg's own Philip Reyburn and Terry Wilson.

Unlike so many Civil War works that describe the broad sweep of large units and the critical decisions made by various generals, this book provides contemporaneous writings of an enlisted man in the ''middle of things.'' Some of the early portions of the writings can, at first, appear a little boring, but in the second reading it was obvious that they were the boring times before the 102nd was thrown in to the melee. As was often said, war is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror. The book reflects both. It also reflects the role of the ''common soldier.'' He followed orders; knew little of the ''hows'' or ''whys'' and often became disenchanted with his command. Rumors ran rampant, morale ran low during periods of boredom. His world was not the scope of the war, but the woods to his front and sides. His concerns were food, water, sleep, shelter from the rain and snow and the humid heat of the southeastern summers.

The reports follow in chronological order starting with Camp McMurtry in Knoxville on September 17, 1862 and ending at the North Bank of the Chattahoochie River on September 4, 1864. In between we hear the effects of repeated relocations and internal strife created by the dissatisfaction with some of the officers and operations. We are also exposed to the sounds and sights of battles, the uncertainties of information, the confusion of the battle, so often glossed over in the ''big sweep'' treatment of battles.

We see some truths develop in Fleharty's observations. He reports that southern women seem to have a greater devotion and conviction to the South's cause than the soldiers he has met. Causes are easier to deal with in the abstract. That is, when someone is not trying to kill you over it.

Attrition was high in the 102nd.. On March 3, 1863, from Gallatin, Tennessee, Fleharty reported that of the original 912 men that started off about 6 months prior, 41 had died, 74 were discharged, and 10 had deserted. In addition, another 12 commissioned officers had resigned- a total of 137 men lost out of 912. None of the dead was attributable to enemy fire. As of March 3, 1863, the nearest to battle that Fleharty could report was:

''Ša recent skirmish between our worthy major and a noisy animal of the genus bovine. Regularly as roll call would be heard the boo-oo-oo of the major's enemy was near his tent. The major is remarkably good natured, but coming to the conclusion one day that forbearance had ceased to be a virtue, he loaded a shot gun and open the attack on his bellicose foe. Round after round was fired- the natural defense of the foe proved impregnable, and the major was reluctantly compelled to quit the field, leaving the enemy in undisputed possessionŠ.The ground upon which the battle was fought may hereafter be designated 'Major Wilie's defeat.'''

By May of 1864, the 102nd was experiencing a more somber battle. Fleharty wrote back to home:

'' I wish it were in my power to represent upon paper all the impressions received during the nine hours that we were under fire. But I cannot command words that will do justice to the subject. Yet in memory the scenes of that day are indelibly fixed. The cheers of the combatants; the roar of musketry; the groans of the wounded; the upturned faces of the ghastly dead can never be forgotten. And those who passed through the fiery ordeal will never forget the peculiar ''zip,'' ''zip,'' ''zip,'' of bullets as they barked the tress and clipped the leaves around themŠ.In a deep trench surrounded by evergreen pines fifty-one of the slain of our brigade were buried.''

After the battle, the 102nd buried the dead of both sides and collected weapons, left in the field of battle- both from the North and the South. The 102nd had finally met the keeper of the war and paid its toll. The 102nd was to become a battle-harden unit, destined to become part of Sherman's ''March to the Sea.''

However, many of the wounded and captives of both sides had to face death, at least twice: once in the form of sudden death on the battlefield and again in a hospital or prisoner camp in terrible conditions. Disease and contagious death walked among the captive, the wounded, the camped, and the marching. Without discrimination, contagious death touched those in blue, in gray, old, young, combatant and civilian. War had opened the gate to disease, to feast in the fields of plenty, to harvest the young men from farms and cities in the North and South. Death came in different dress - measles, mumps, whooping cough, dysentery, infection, starvation, as well as by cannon, shot, bayonet or sword.

Fleharty, writing on the conditions in 1864 at Camp Butler, near Springfield relied on the words of an earlier writer:

''Death rides on every passing breeze

And lurks in every flower''*

Fleharty discontinued his writings home before the end of the war, on somewhat a cryptic note. In anticipation of the question, he wrote, ''I will tell them that my reasons are weighty and most decidedly confidential.''

Each reader can decide for himself why Fleharty discontinued his writings for the newspaper and the neighbors back home. My assessment: ''death rides on every passing breeze'' and death can take many forms.


*A quote from ''At a Funeral'' by Reginald Herber, according to Reyburn and Wilson (page171, footnote 3)

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online June 28, 2000

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