When They Finally Went Home

June 28. 1865 – “Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, By virtue of Special Orders, No. 339, current series, from the adjutant general’s office, this army, as an organization, ceases to exist.”

Maybe on the paper of army records, but as long as one veteran of the Pennsylvania Reserves drew a breath, this organization existed and its history continued.

The mustering out of the survivors of the 190th and 191S Regiments brought an end to their official duty. From Private, soon to be Reverend, Robert E. McBride (11-D, 190-C), “We had fought our last battle, the 190th and 191st had proved themselves, to the last hour, worthy successors of the Pennsylvania Reserves.”

As the story of these two regiments is a continuation of the Pennsylvania Reserves history, so must the effects of the war on the rest of their lives. Each survivor headed home to pick-up his life where it was interrupted when he enlisted.

Source: Library of Congress. Grand Review of the Army in Washington, D.C., 1865.

Unfortunately, home was never the same for many of these veterans because they saw and did too much in this war. For some, it was hard to walk behind the plow again with only one leg. For others, it was hard to hold an ax and cut down a tree again with only one arm.  For others, it was hard to do anything while their bodies were emaciated from some disease or the ordeals of a southern prison.

For many, the scars were not visible. Some were reminded of their personal horrors by the empty chair at the family table denoting a lost father or brother. Others were not able to sit in front of a burning fireplace without remembering the odor of burning flesh mixed with wood smoke. For many, every time they walked in a wheatfield, cornfield or an east woods, memories of the war returned. A few had to deal with their best girl marrying someone else while they were “gone off to war.” One Bucktail could not deal with this fact and committed suicide.

Whether 14 or 59 years of age at enlistment, these veterans were different men.  Unknowingly, their values and priorities changed, in some more than others.

Before the war, something as simple as a glass of water was taken for granted. Now, that same glass of water was treated differently. As he drank, the veteran reflected on the times he had no water, or he drank from a muddy algae-covered pond, a rain filled wagon rut in a muddy road or a blood tinted stream. He may remember the fleeting nameless face of a smiling girl who handed him a glass of water on a hurried and dusty long march in western Maryland, southern Pennsylvania or central Virginia.

It was indescribably enjoyable to sit at the family table and eat a meal of more than coffee, hardtack, salt pork and possibly something from a foraging detail. A simple meal prepared by a loved one was now a feast fit for a king.

Clean clothes and a comfortable bed were also part of the new simple pleasures of life.

Before the war, death or injury to a friend, relative, neighbor or possible even a total stranger was emotional to some extent. Now, the same death or injury was viewed with far less emotion, possibly none at all. These veterans saw death by the thousands, carnage and destruction beyond description; all of which was beyond comprehension by those who were not there.

Some wise sage once said, “Time heals all wounds,” but that sage needed to include the word almost in his statement As time passed, most of the bad memories dimmed, some were completely forgotten, but one or two were never erased from the mind. These haunted the veteran the rest of his life.

About 20 years after the war was over, Cyrus W. Lower (13-K, 190-K) expressed how he dealt with some of his feelings. His letter was originally published in the Weekly News, New Castle, Pennsylvania, and was reprinted in the Southern Bivouac so some ex-Confederates must have had similar feelings.

“..the Union and the Confederate soldier meet and clasp hands, not over the bloody chasm, for there never was one between them after they each found out the fighting qualities of the other, but over the ashes of burned-out camp fires, over the memories of deeds of valor, over the graves of fallen comrades. If all the animosities of the war were buried as deep as that of the soldiers of both armies, this whole country would be as firmly united as Pennsylvania is on the tariff, or the Republican Party (now) on civil service reform. It seems to me that the feeling existing between the Union and Confederate soldier differs in no way from that existing between soldiers who fought on the same side. I have become intimate with several ex-Confederate soldiers here. They are just as jolly good fellows as ever lived.  We fight our battles over with as keen a zest as ever they were fought over at regimental reunions or Grand Army camp-fires. I love a Union soldier, not because he loved the Union – there are plenty of men who I know loved the Union dearly for whom I care little or nothing – I love the Union soldier because he fought; because he stood with me where bullets whistled and shells screamed; where the smoke of battle hung in clouds, and men were stricken down by scores, hundreds, and thousands; because he endured what I endured; suffered what I suffered. That is the bond of sympathy between us; and when I meet a man who fought in the same battles, endured and suffered the same hardships, though on the other side, my feelings for him are the same as though he fought on my side. It is the feeling of respect that brave men win in any cause; and while I love the Union and abhor treason just as much as ever, and admire the soldier who bravely fought for the right, yet I must look with equal admiration and respect on the soldier who just as bravely fought on the side that by his education and surroundings he believed to be right.”

As Cyrus Lower just alluded, the good times were long remembered. At the 19 reunions of the Old Bucktails Association, held from 1887 through 1905, those times, in all probability, were embellished to the extent that a non-participant would have cause to wonder, “Why did it take so long to win the war if these men fought with the ferocity being here and now described in such great and lavish detail?”

Such a statement can be said of any unit, in any war. Today, these embellishments are called war stories and naturally, they are all true. Civil War historian and writer William Davis commented that reunions are places where “truth is the only casualty.”

Amen.

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Bill is the Chief Regimental Historian of the 54th (Co. L), 190th and 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers and an avid researcher who focuses on the history of the Pennsylvania Reserves in the American Civil War.