Well, the quote from True Grit is at least fitting, in part… the part relating to bold talk coming from different enlistees, early in the Civil War, or suggestions that an ancestor was making a bold statement, through his enlistment, when there is nothing there to prove it. I doubt many could claim the one-eyed fat man part…
I believe that there are a fair number of folks who believe their ancestors were greater/bolder than truth would actually reveal. That’s not a slight; it’s just being realistic. Maybe some did make bold claims initially, and, at least felt that they made a bold statement by enlisting early-on. Yet, in time, I think that demeanor changed in most, and I think there are several indicators in service records that reveal this, though not necessarily interpreted/understood as such . Then too, even when reviewing service records, reading between the lines doesn’t necessarily reveal clues as to what might be contrary to an interpretation of a true and faithful soldier.
Fact is, between the harsh realities of service in the field, and most definitely on the battlefield, there was obviously a great deal that would make a man reconsider his earlier position. Was what he was fighting for really worth the sacrifices, let alone worth dying for?
In my research, I’ve come across a number of “flash-in-the-pan Confederate patriots”, but I think the most interesting is Samuel Jacob Forrer of the “Page Volunteers” of Co. K, 10th Virginia Infantry.
In the records, Forrer doesn’t look all that bad… with the exception of his being reported as AWOL from 5/12/62 to 3/15/63. In fact, for him being assigned to conscript duty (though undated, this appears, sequentially in the muster roll in the regimental history, after his period of unauthorized absence), it appears he may have been excused, and temporarily reassigned to track down others who took unauthorized leave, as well as those who needed a little encouragement to enlist. Sometime thereafter, Forrer returned to his regiment and participated in at least one major battle… Gettysburg (specifically, Culp’s Hill)… where he was wounded in the ankle. He was captured later that same day, and later paroled in Chester, Pa. There is no further mention of him in the service records. Was his wound so debilitating that he was unable to continue service? Was he excused from further service by a physician’s certificate, which didn’t happen to make it to his service records?
There’s another side of the story that doesn’t appear in the service records. This is my legwork beyond what the muster rolls told us…
The son of the local (Page County, Virginia) iron-ore magnate and… Southern Unionist, Henry Forrer (yes, Unionist… and that’s a complicated label when one knows the story behind Henry), Samuel was remembered by comrades as one who seemed the model of “joyful exuberance” in 1861, when he marched around with the colors and announced that “never should they [the Confederate colors] fall awhile a hand he had to hold them up.” Interestingly, within weeks of having enlisted, the thrill of a chance to get at the Yankees may have been diminished considerably, with an assignment to commissary duty, and service as a regimental butcher. Whether he was present, in action at First Manassas, on 7/21/61, is anybody’s guess.
Fast forward, now…
Remember that period of unauthorized absence mentioned above? Well, he didn’t get off so easily. In fact, Forrer apparently didn’t return of his own free will, but was likely brought back in chains. After being returned to the army in March, Forrer found himself in the regimental guard house “with one of his feet chained fast to a Yankee’s foot.” One local later remarked that he had been caught in Hardy County [now in West Virginia], along with a Union soldier, trying to make it into Union lines. Reflecting on this in a letter to his wife (4/9/63), another soldier, James Robert Modesitt(*), noted that Forrer had apparently “forgotten” the bold and patriotic pledge he had made less than a year before.
The best recollections, however, come from Forrer’s former school teacher, Jedediah Hotchkiss. Forrer, Hotchkiss recalled, pleaded with him to testify on his behalf, having explained that he had only attempted to go across lines to obtain medicine. Years after the war, however, Forrer’s comrades remembered that he attempted to desert not once, but twice; the second time being after his parole following the Battle of Gettysburg.
While I started off with a quote from True Grit, I’ll finish with a thought from a quote from yet another movie… “You see only with your eyes, so you are easily fooled.” I tend to believe that of those who don’t look deeper than what they see in an ancestor’s service record.
*Modesitt, in fact, happened to be a soldier who was willing to do just about anything he could to get himself out of the Confederate army, but legally. He knew, however, that no matter what he did… to include paying money for an exemption, the Confederacy would change the rules on him, and conscript him at some later point.