Civil War Through the Eyes of a Common Soldier
As Told in the Letters of Joseph Travis Fincher
by Linda Fincher Wood
(This paper is fully documented with endnotes. Clicking on the footnote number in superscript will carry you to the appropriate endnote. After viewing the endnote, you will need to click on your "back" button to return to the previous screen.)
The paramount importance of officers in the American Civil War is undisputed. Tactics and organizational skills of these officers, poor or superb, determined the movements of many tens of thousands of common soldiers. Often officers sent their immense armies into desperate and untenable situations. They called on their armies to perform heroic, "Jasonian" feats, sending them into heavily fortified and defended positions with instructions to "take that hill" or "turn the flank." More crucial, however, to the outcome of the war than the great planners and tacticians were those who were sent, those men who actually did the fighting. It was their spirit and stamina more than their leaders' skill that lengthened the Civil War into four long years of fighting. Sam Watkins of the First Tennessee Maury Grays said in his memoirs, "I always shot at privates. It was they that did the shooting and killing, and if I could kill or wound a private, why, my chances were so much the better." 1
Millions of words have been written about the well-known leaders of the Civil War. They are portrayed in diaries, letters, official reports and records, as well as in biographies and histories. The average student of the Civil War, however, knows less about the common foot soldier who fought. One of these soldiers, Joseph Travis Fincher of Pike County, Georgia, along with other members of his family, kept up a wartime correspondence for approximately twenty months during 1863-1864. Joseph and his son Thomas served in the Second Regiment, Georgia State Line, and participated with the Confederate Army in the Atlanta Campaign. As a prosperous farmer who had little formal education, Joseph today might be termed semi-literate because of his inconsistent, phonetic spelling and poor grammar. In their letters, however, Joseph and Thomas expressed affection and anxiety, counseled the family about how to carry on during the absence of husband and son, and encouraged wife and children in steadfastness and faith. The words of Joseph and his family open a window into their world, providing the student of history insight into the life of the common soldier of the south, as well as into the sequence of events encompassing the Atlanta Campaign.
The Finchers served in one of two regiments of the Georgia State Line, a unit that was raised for the purpose of protecting the state of Georgia, especially its vital railroads. The units were formed in February 1863 and served until Georgia's forces were surrendered in May 1865. The men were sent first to Savannah to help support the Confederate garrisons there. From May 1863 through May 1864 they acted primarily as bridge guards and construction crews on the Western and Atlantic Railroad in northwest Georgia. They were fused with the Army of Tennessee in June 1864 during the final four months of the Atlanta Campaign, and served under Lieutenant General William J. Hardee during Sherman's March to the Sea. 2
Thomas Fincher, at age eighteen and the oldest of Joseph's ten children, joined the Second (Story's) Regiment at its inception. The regiment assembled at Camp Wayne 3 near Griswoldville, Georgia, on February 16, 1863, instructions having been given for each man to bring a quilt, blanket, or counterpane and at least two days rations. Now a sworn-in member of Co. D (Upson County, "State Volunteers"), Thomas wrote to his parents at home, explaining that he was on his way to Savannah on the "Cars" and excusing the brevity of his letter because he had to "stand up in the Car and write on a box."4 He reported the election of officers for his regiment: Richard L. Story was elected colonel, Beverly D. Evans lieutenant colonel and Drury W. Womble major.5
In February 1863 the men of the State Line were stationed at Camp Young in Savannah.6 They were not issued clothing as were their counterparts in the Confederate Army but instead were offered a small sum of money to purchase clothing. The funds were sent home so that relatives could make or purchase whatever clothes the soldier needed. Consequently, the dress of these state troops was eclectic, more often than not "country made, not supplied."7 The men began instruction in warfare there in Savannah. They stood guard duty, learned the use of new rifles, and drilled, drilled, drilled. Adjustments to army life and discipline could not have been easy for an active farm boy like Thomas. After a visit to Savannah in March 1863, perhaps to deliver new clothing, food, and other necessities, Joseph was obviously concerned about his son and admonished him,
Thomas I hardly feeal satisfide I did not talk to you as much as I wanted to I want you to obey your officers respect thir orders and do your duty without murmering of complaint I seead one feler with the ball chaned to him I do beleave it would kill me to see you in that fix I know how you are about standing still you can walk dont sit down for fear you go to sleeap8 As to a change of companys I dont think I wold do or say any thing more about it for fear some of your company might think you was dis satisfide as to your ofisers from what you told mee and what I see I am well pleas with them all as to your Capt I have falen in love with him Thomas I want you to give my love to your company to your Mess and your Sergent your officers especialy Capt Worel and Mager Womble 9
Perhaps due to warm weather in Savannah, Thomas had insisted that Joseph take an overcoat home with him. Worried about leaving his son without a warm coat, Joseph pleaded, "Thomas when you are out on guard of a night you must borry a over coat or ware one of you[r] blankets I am sorry I did not leave you your over coat tho I found it very comfortable to ware it home." With apprehension and love Joseph ends his letter,
if I never see you anny more on this earth O prepare to meeat mee whare parting will bee no more remember you have friends in the land of rest O prepare to meeat them and may the god of peace and love bee with you in every trial may he sustain you in affliction and finily may he save you in heven is my prare Jos T Fincher your Affectionet Father to his loving son W T Fincher.10
In June the Second Regiment was sent north to Kingston, Georgia, described in a Confederate enlisted man's diary as "a small woe-begone looking place, at the junction of the Rome road,"11 The regiment set up Camp Whitaker in Bartow County, just north of the Etowah River, where they did guard duty on the Western and Atlantic Railroad bridges until July 19. For this duty the regiment was supplied with one thousand Austrian rifled muskets with bayonets and scabbards, along with twenty thousand cartridges and caps. This gun was "despised because of its unwieldiness and ineffectiveness." Evidently a soldier's method of firing it was to "take a tight grip, brace himself for the shock, draw an uncertain bead, shut his eyes and pull the trigger."12 In addition to guard duty the soldiers were to take daily instruction in tactics and army regulations and to perform martial exercises three and one-half hours per day. They were to be furnished with fresh and salt beef and pork, bacon and mutton, along with flour, corn meal, hard bread, and loaf bread. Molasses, lard, salt, sugar, vinegar, and coffee as well as candles and soap were issued.13 The men usually were grouped into "messes" of from four to eight men who built a hut or shared a tent as well as food and cooking duties. The rations for Company D seem similar to that "enjoyed" by soldiers in that area who were part of the regular Confederate army. Private Hiram Smith Williams of the Pioneer Corps assigned to General Bragg's Army of Tennessee described his Sunday dinner in a northwest Georgia camp:
Had a very good dinner to-day for camp. I will give a bill of fare
White peas boiled
Piece of Bacon boiled in peas
Bread made out of corn meal
Not much of a variety, but very palatable I assure you to a hungry man. Then we have the very best water to wash it all down with. 14
Joseph Fincher's feelings about service in the Civil War were certainly ambivalent. He owned a large farm, had bought a male slave in 1859 for $1450,15 but there is no indication that this slave was still a part of Joseph's property in 1863. At various times Joseph also served as guardian for free blacks who helped him with farm work. A mature man, aged 39, Joseph was the father of five children by his first wife (deceased) and four more by his second wife, Martha, who was expecting her fifth in September 1863. His oldest son Thomas was already serving, while his other sons, fourteen-year-old Alva and five-year-old George were too young to serve.16 In addition, Joseph had strong feelings about the question of Georgia's secession from the union. According to Thomas S. Wilson in his "History of Pike County, 1822-1933," "Uncle Joe Fincher" was one of "a few of the substantial citizens who opposed secession from a sense of principle, and, as they thought, humanity's sake. They were men of the highest honour and integrity. No more loyal people to right, as they saw it, ever lived in Pike County."17 In spite of his disquiet about the future welfare of his family, his opposition to the establishment of the Confederacy, and his revulsion to war, Joseph Fincher enlisted as a private in the summer of 1863 and left home to join his son in Company D. At this time the Second Regiment was engaged in protecting railroad bridges across Chickamauga Creek in Catoosa County, Georgia. The months of training for warfare by the State Line troops was about to be tested as Georgia now came under the threat of a formidable invasion from the north. General Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee were poised to tackle General William S. Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland near Chattanooga. The Western and Atlantic Railroad was the major supply and communication line of the Army of Tennesee and was sure to come under attack.18
On August 27 Joseph was given a twenty-day furlough pass issued by Captain R. L. Warrill.19 Joseph must have been overjoyed to be at home for the birth of his seventh daughter, Lizzie, on September 8. Upon his return to camp on September 17, Joseph found his regiment had moved southward from Chicamauga Creek to Resaca on the Oostanaula River. Arriving at 3:00 in the morning, he found that the men were without their tents which had been sent to Cartersville, evidently in anticipation of another move. He wrote that the men were "all a ling about in piles like hogs." Although a devout Methodist, Joseph showed that he was not averse to a little homemade whiskey and found some humor in sharing it in order to receive better accomodations in his journey to north Georgia. He wrote,
I had no trouble in geting up her I did not have to show my papers a tall it cost me one dolar to com from grifin to Atlanta I got in with the bage master . . . I lay and slep fine the Conductor came in to see me I gave him a dram he went out and never ast for no pay next the transportation reader came in he ast me for my pass I pould out my bottle he sed that would do so it cost me but one dolar to go through. 20
Two days later the Army of Tennessee was engaged in the colossal Battle of Chickamauga. Afterwards, Braxton Bragg, stunned by his 17,800 casualties in the two-day battle, failed to pursue the greatly discomposed Union army, and "finally took up positions on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain overlooking Chattanooga, and prepared to beseige Rosecrans."21
In a little over a month Bragg's army was routed from Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Apprehensively Joseph wrote about the battle,
I have no doubt but the ingagement is began the fiering is incresing I expect wee will have hot times up her now soon and I dont care how soon I Commit my little efects in your hands you must do the best you can I Comit you and all of my family in the hands of god almighty . . . tell Mary to set down the Babys name and age with the rest of the children I have gust herd that the yankes has taken lookout mountain the fight began last night the wounded is now laying down at the train while I am writing Toma [his name for Thomas] is now sitin on a stool reading as unconserned as if thir was no ware nor fight a goin on a tall. 22
Again he described the confusion and the Confederates' headlong retreat into north Georgia, along with his own anticipation of battle,
every thing is Confusion here now Brag's army is faling back we have met with reverses on the left wing of Brags army . . . meny ded . . . Children to you all I have tried to advise you the best I could now if I fall in the fight or eny other way remember what I have sed to you I am not excited a tall tho I mae fall I submit myself in the hands of the Lord . . . I think the ball is in motion and I hope it will continue to role until this ware is brought to a close . . . if I never see you any more I say fare well . . . good by to my wife children and friends and negroes. 23
He ended with a postscript, "Since I have close the guns ar fiering awful we expect to be in it soon."24
During that fall and early winter of 1863 the men of Company D labored at constructing pontoon bridges across the Oostanaula River and guarding the railroad bridge at Resaca, about sixty miles north of Atlanta. Resaca was considered to be a particularly vulnerable point on the railroad. The bridge, which was over four hundred feet long and approached by six hundred feet of trestle, was protected by four companies of men and five pieces of artillery. The men did construction work on the bridge itself, building flooring to facilitate the crossing of soldiers and artillery. They also constructed stockades, earthworks, and movable barriers to block roadways. Pikes were provided to be used as a defense against possible raiders who might attempt to climb over the bridge walls. On the 15th of December the Second Regiment left Resaca and moved further south to Camp Ruff at Bolton on the Chattahoochee River, about seven miles north of Atlanta and almost mid-way on the Western and Atlantic line between Marietta and Atlanta.
In December Joseph received a letter from fourteen-year-old Alva which proudly boasts of his care of the farm stock: "I havent lost nary hog nor nary sheep Since you left they look better every body els has lost part of thir hogs but us we havent lost any yet one is sick all of my Stock looks well. ." Attached to Alva's letter was one from his seventeen-year-old sister Mary in which she described a horrifying incident in the vicinity of Joseph's younger brother, William (aged nineteen),
Dear Father . . . Mother has writen to you and she spoke of the accident that hapend at Charlstown ner wher Willy is he Saw it it was the Magazine of the Powder that caught on fier and blowed up and kild 10 I think 48 wounded Dr Ford was burned up it was a Sad affare Willy wrote aboaut it he Sed wher it taken place the yankes commence shelling then What a world is this26
On Christmas eve Joseph wrote to his mother and daughter Mat,27 who lived near him in Pike County. He instructed twelve-year-old Mat,
I requested the rest of the children to some time also to keep away from those frolicks that will be in the setlement when you would think of frolicks just remember how I and Toma and Brother William are a living wors than hogs there was two of our beefs would not eat so the quarter Master ordered them ciled the beef makes me sick to eat28
On the same day Joseph wrote to his wife about his anxiety for Thomas, "Toma is not well he was taken last Sunday night he had a hot fever from then until late Monday evening he is not confined to his bed tho not able for duty he is very puny cant eat mutch he talks about sausage and how you all live at home." He continued with a description of his living arrangements, "William Broner (one of his mess mates) has gon home wee three are her together we have a snug little house with a good chimney to it we had a hard time before we got our house don it was wet and cold."29 Joseph also showed concern about his farm,
I want to know how the Corn is holding out and how the wheat looks and how the oats looks how our next to ken is I want to here how all of the stock looks I want to know if the Orchard fense is don or not . . . have you got the house logs hald up . . .I want to know how many plows jim has fixed up for Alva to plow with.30
In the next few days Joseph became very alarmed about Thomas. Disgusted by the restrictions of army life and frightened by his responsibility should his son's illness become critical, he wrote to Martha,
I am in trouble Toma is sick he has bin sick a weeak today or last nite today is the eighth day while I am tring to write Toma is liing there with a fiever on him William green is very sick he is goin to the hospitle I expect Toma will be sent there soon. . .pore feler he wants to come home but they wont let him the hospitle is 42 miles from here and we are only 48 miles from griffin31
Tender-hearted Mary expressed her solicitude for Thomas, asking if either she or Joseph's mother could get to the men with food, "Granma seys she will come if she knowed how she could get to you from Atlanta and maby she could bring Tom hom with her." She continued sadly, "I feel like I would give all this world that I have to see you and Tom this morning when I read your letter when you spoke of Toms talking about how wee was living at home and eating good vituals it mad me feal like I could not stand it just to think about it sick an such victuals it is anuff to brake my hart." She replied to Joseph's admonishments about "frolicks" with her own opinion about the holiday, "I cant tell you much about the folks that is left here or of all the frolicks they have had this Crismas I havent ben to one I just here of them they had a ball at Tom Barets last night This Christmas has ben a sad time with us I havent ben no where but to granmas." Her letter concluded with the plea that "you must write soon an tell me if granma can get to you with a trunk."32
And so a sad Christmas passed for all the Fincher family. Thomas recovered from his fever, and he and Joseph remained at Camp Ruff during the winter and spring of 1864. Joseph wrote to Martha of talk about the possible move of the regiment to Savannah and about the rumors that Lincoln had called out a million men. He cautioned his family about being frugal with the food that they had and complained about the cost of meal at $14.00 and peas at $16.00 to $25.00 per bushel. The fact that Alva had sold their oats worried Joseph who was afraid the family would run short of food. He told the family to remind Eli (a free black man for whom he had been appointed guardian) that he was depending on Eli's "doing write" and that he would "pay him well." He warned his wife that he had dreamed she was smoking a pipe and that she "had beter let that a lone." He scolded, " you know wether it is so or not."33 Martha replied that she did smoke "Polifer" bark and rosemary for the toothache. She explained that her jaw was swollen from toothache and that she could not get tobacco to smoke even if she wanted it.34
Joseph recognized the few men in his company who were like-minded about religion and wrote, "Thir is 9 men belong to the Methodest Church and 9 batist in our Comany of 90 men." Again, in a later letter he bemoaned the lack of religion in the army,
thir is a fiew of us that have prare meeting Wednesday night and Sunday night very fiew attend ther is very fiew member of the church her the last thing we can here before wee go to sleepe is curseing and swareing and the first thing we her of a morning when we a wake35
A constant affront to the wholesome, devout husband and father was the poor conduct of men (and women) around him. He confided, "I see so mutch bad Conduct I beleve the wimen is a Curse to the land," and in embarrassment, "but enouff of that."36 Again he stressed, "when I think of the Conduct of some people it makes my hart blead."37
The severe cold of winter, combined with poor food and exposure, affected Joseph dangerously. He received a pass to go home for 20 days in February which stated that he was "laboring under Pneumonic Inflamation of left lung complicated with involvement of left lobe of Liver. . .His physical strength very weak The Disease above named will be difficult to conquer."38 While dealing with his own ill health, Joseph also had to be concerned about the health of family members. An epidemic of often-deadly measles hit his neighborhood, and that spring at least one of Joseph's children contracted the disease.
As a farmer with a large family to feed, Joseph realized the urgency of keeping the farm running smoothly. The family's basic welfare depended on their ability and skill in the performance of seasonal and daily chores on the farm. Thus in February 1864 he counseled young Alva about his responsibility to see that all the farm work was done in a timely manner,
I want to here how the barly look how the ry is if they ar Cild or not is the wheat thick enouff and what forwarder the bottom land is in and one thing is I want you all to be carful about fier dont burn up the plantation you ast me about braking up the stalk land go a head brake it up as soon as you Can set out as meney peach trees as you can clean up the orchard good all of the briers around the fences and plant the orchard in coten if you can get seede see to that Coten in the old rume and see that it dont leak on it and cause it to rot you had beter notice the wheat in the barn the Rats may ruin it some plank ought to be nailed acrows the bones to Ceep them out and notice that in the wheat house it may leak on it I want Tomas sadle put away and not used a tall be carful about fier March is Coming Alva I dont want you to founder I want you to be very saving with the Corn when grass Comes dont feed mutch to the Colts how maney lambs how maney old sheep how maney hogs living yet fix up the Crop fence gaps Ceep them up Alva I shall depend on your writing every Sunday Ceep all my leters and when you read them remember mee tho fare apart wee be39
To add to his other problems, the free negroes of the county, including Eli, were conscripted by the government to work in Atlanta for ninety days.40 He cautioned Alva again, "if you was to miss making suport it would ruin you all."41
Worry about his family's having enough provenance on which to subsist became a constant companion for Joseph. He wrote often about being frugal and taking care to extend provisons as long as possible. Yet he felt that being home with family in peace was actually more important than having the best of material blessings. He wrote to Martha, "I am very sorry to here of our hogs ding so bad tho if wee can all live tho the hogs die I feeal if wee can get bread to eat it will be as mutch as meney Can do I had rather live upon half rashions of bread only and be in peas so I Could be at home with my family than to have all the Confederate money that has bin made."42 He cautioned,
be sure you ceape your meat hid dont let no body know how mutch meat you cilled nor dont let no body have no corn nor wheeat except Mother if eney body comes and ses they are agents for the goverment you tell them to go to some body that has got sutch things to spare and not to take from sutch a family as yours
His opinion of government and the war were obvious,
I am afraid your meat corn and wheat will be taken from you and the money will soon be no acount. . . but when I feeal you are her in the hands of those foolisth men that want to deprive you all of the last thing you have got I say when I think of these things I can not tell how I feeal Tho I feeal bad I am fearful you will see the resons they have bin so anshious to get me off all I can say now is you must do the best you can43
Many times Joseph reflected the despondency he felt about his situation and that of his family, as when he wrote, "I feeal tempted to desert and come home and that would be bad so I say to you and all of the children if I never see you no more on earth I want you all to so live that wee will meat where parting will be no more I fearmly beleave those that are prepared for death the sooner the beter for ther is nothin but trouble her[e]." Again he lamented,
at night when I walk my lonely post at the hour of mid night my thoughts dwell on home while I at a late hour of the night watch my post I well remember your situation at home and wonder to my self if I ever shall see my home and family a gane and then I am driven to the Conclusion that it is unsertin tho I endeaver to feeal reconsiled to the will of the lord and then agane my feealings becomes roused when wee take in to Consideration the acts of some of our people
Although Joseph's "opposition to the war was strong, his overriding sense of duty enabled him to maintain the fight."44 Despite the deprivation of home and family, Joseph was mature and steady enough to consider the consequences of desertion. He informed Martha that "ther was sixteen men shot in Doltan day before yestarday some of them was not ciled ded at first shot they had to lode and shoot agane shot for deserting."45
Joseph was a devoted husband and father who clearly desired his family to know of his love for them. Many letters ended with loving expressions such as his words to his young son George,
Gorge I want to see you very bad and ciss you so you could hug me around my necke I think of you every day and every nite while I am with Toma I and him sleepe on the same bunk I think of you by nite and by day I can see you looking through the winder in my imagination I feeal like I would give every thing I have to be with you children I hope you all will try to do write dont fret the pore litle feler but umer him for I dont think he will live long the rest of you dont know mutch about being sick and takin medisin Gorge you must be a good boy dont hurt Larah nor the Baby if I live until the ware is over I will be in a hurry to get home home the plesentest place in all this world I do wish you had some surup for them litle children to eat I think of you all every day and shed meney a tear for you
Stressing his uneasiness about his son's health, Joseph wrote, "iff gorge gets bad off I want you to get Dr Colwell to write a sertificate to me he must have the County Seal on it I want to see gorge onste more iff he was to die write to me before you have him buried him or eney of the rest." George was still ill a month later when Joseph tenderly wrote about his children, "you spoke of Lisers Curly hare49 you dont know how often I think of you and the Children I want you to Ciss gorge for me and tell him I would Come and see him if I had the Chance I love all a lik but I think of gorge how he sufers."50 In dealing with the threat of his young son's death, Joseph's strong faith sustained him: "iff it is the will of the Lord to take him let us be resined to the will of the Lord tho it is lik braking my hart." He frequently imagined himself at home lying on his "couch with the children around me and all well there looking at the roses the sedars [cedars] the butiful shades and all the seanes around home iff it was not for hope my hart would bust."51
Not only did Joseph consistently show his love for his children through words but he also stressed that their education be continued even in spite of the separation and difficulties of war time. He purchased and sent books home to the children. He found a piece of an old spelling book and sent it for the family to repair and recycle. He advised Alva to study his books and held Thomas up as a good example, "iff you will try to lern as hard as Toma you will lern in all of the bustle here Toma is sifering."52
There were further predicaments facing the two Fincher men in Company D. Lack of cleanliness and accompanying infestation by lice, fleas, and other pests became a major source of irritation for most foot soldiers. In the spring of 1864 Joseph and Thomas seemed more fortunate and perhaps more mindful of keeping clean than many in their company. Joseph wrote to Martha, "I have not got the each [itch] tho it is in our Company and some of our Company are lowsey I have not seen nary louse yet Toma found one nit on his shirt wee have a nise mess and I mostly stay in my own tent." The "each" and lice Joseph mentioned were universal problems in the armies, north and south. Bell I. Wiley quotes an Alabama soldier who lamented in a letter home, "There is not a man in the Army, officer or private that does not have from a Battalion to a Brigade of Body lice on him. I could soon get rid of them, but there is always some filthy man in Camps that perpetuats the race." The men tried ingenuous methods to rid themselves of these pests, including throwing away their clothing, singeing it over their campfires, or "executing a flank movement" by turning garments wrong side out.53
Occasionally army life seemed reasonably pleasant and comfortable for Joseph and Thomas. They described a special treat when a mess mate returned from furlough, "wee are doing very well for Broner has bin home he has brought a fine box with him a heeaps of good vituals a large fat turkey gobler baked and stufed wee are doing well to day tho wee may die to morrow."54 In other instances friends arrived from home with tasty victuals, some "colards and peas" and even a huge pound cake to share.
The Fincher men were not the only family members desirous of peace and worried about making their support. Martha's sister wrote to her in despair,
I hope that it wont be long before this war will come to a close an let them all get home one more time but I dont see no chance for it to stop now I recon when all the men gets killed up they will stop it then everybody is tird of the war that has any thing to do with it It wont take it many more years to starve out. . .if it ant nearly already very near it It dont look like we are going to make any thing for the weather is so bad an has bin that it dont look like wee ever will get to plant any thing if wee get it planted the weather is so cold that it cant grow we had a big frost here last night55
In May 1864 General Tecumseh Sherman and General Joseph E. Johnston began their game of battle chess in north Georgia, with access to Atlanta along the Georgia State Road (the Western and Atlantic Railroad) as the main objective. As General Johnston retreated and General Sherman advanced, the war began to move south toward Atlanta. In his memoirs, Sherman stated:
On the historic 4th day of May, 1864, the Confederate army at my front lay at Dalton, Georgia, composed, according to the best authority, of about 45,000 men, commanded by Joseph E. Johnston, who was equal in all the elements of generalship to Lee, and who was under instructions from the war powers in Richmond to assume the offensive northward as far as Nashville. But he soon discovered that he would have to conduct a defensive campaign. Coincident with the movement of the Army of the Potomac, as announced by telegraph, I advanced from our base at Chattanooga with the Army of the Ohio, 13,559 men; the Army of the Cumberland, 60,773, and the Army of the Tennessee, 24,465, grand total, 98,797 men and 254 guns.56
Thus the three corps of Johnston's army under Generals William J. Hardee, John B. Hood, and Leonidas Polk were outnumbered approximately two to one. Sherman also had 254 artillery weapons to Johnston's 124 pieces. Sherman repeatedly used the tactic of entrenching one-third of his army in the face of the Confederates and then sending the other two-thirds on wide flanking movements to right or left, depending on the terrain. Johnston retreated while "leading Sherman slowly into Georgia, stretching his long supply lines and picking defensive positions from which Sherman could only oust him with heavy losses."57
With Sherman steadily advancing and attempting to roll up his flank, Johnston executed several brilliant defensive retreats in which he carefully saved his men, guns, and supply wagons from being gobbled up by a far more powerful foe. Joseph seemed to understand Johnston's strategy quite well as he wrote, "there is so many yankes that Johnson has to keep falling back iff we did not fall back they would flank us and get in our rear and cut off all of our supplies."58 He explained that the men had received word that no more furloughs would be issued and that the regiment was to be put under the tightest military disipline to be ready for the campaign. He reported good news from Virginia59 and then, with a sense of humor as well as some disgust related a middle-of-the-night alarm, "when our guards fiered there gunes and the drum began to beat . . . and the call was to fall in some jump up tryin to put on there pants stuck ther foot in to ther pants pocket an they could not find ther hats some could not find ther cartridge."60 Clearly getting his affairs in order, Joseph instructed Martha to pay his debts to the blacksmith and the doctor. He wrote, "our army up her are fighting and falling back I see a good meney wounded soldiers goin down the road."61 On May 21 Joseph described the situation in his camp on the Chattahoochee,
I am now trying to write on a breastwork. . .wee have reseived a large Canon a fiew minets ago the Refugees are haring a way drivin there stock we are looking fore the wagon train now and it is thought that Johnsons army will be here in a fiew days meney believe write here where wee are will bee the blodest fight that ever has bin fought Johnson army has bin faling back for eleven days and nites meney of them have not had time to wash there fase and hands
Realizing his time on earth might be short, Joseph warned Martha not to pay out any money unless absolutely necessary because she might not receive any more from him. Not only did Joseph anticipate a fight in his vicinity, he was horrified that the war might come into his own home,
the yankes are taking this hole country they are destroying every thing throu the country I would not wish to alarm you tho I shall not be suprised iff you see thousands of yankes before you see me agane iff they come to my house treat them as I have all ways told you and I trust they will treat you kind tho I fear you all will perish I supose there is some fifteen thousand yankes that are making their way toward West Point it is likely they will pass through where you are I want you and all of the children to stay at home iff they do come and do the best you can there is so many yankes that Johnson has to keep falling back iff we did not fall back they would flank us and get in our rear and cut off all of our supplies the citizens are leaving this country in the greatest confusion Cartersville has been burned some say that several children were burned to death62
Toma has been over among the Confederate soldiers...[he] says they draw three Crackers a day for four men poor fellers they look very tired black and dirty they had been falling back and fighting for ten or fifteen days they have not had time to wash their face and hands it is now raining many of them with out tents
As the Second Regiment prepared to join Johnston's Army of Tennessee, Thomas and Joseph began to suffer from a malady that often affected Civil War soldiers.63 On June 5 Joseph wrote of their plight,
I have had a hard spell of bludy flux I am mending Toma was taken the 28 of May he was sent to the hospitle at Jonesborow last Wednesday I have not heard from him sinse he was bad off when he left here he sed he would write to me he has not yet we was both sick at onste on the same bunk wee Could not waite on each other
Joseph, the yeoman farmer who was obviously incensed at the waste he saw all around him, continued,
conserning the ware you have heard me express my opinion often I am still of the same opinion I could write a greate deal conserning the ware and the destruction of the present crop up her corn and wheat fields turn out the fences burned up I will not try to describe the trouble up here64
In the midst of the confusion of frightened refugees and ragged, exhausted soldiers dragging past, Joseph explained, "I am trying to be calm and composed I shall indever to put my trust in god All Mity to him I comit you all trusting that he will preserve you all and finily save us all in heaven."
As Thomas began to recover in the Jonesboro hospital, he wrote to his step-mother,
I come hear to day was a weak I sat up yestarday a little to day I am trying to write Pah was not well when I left camps I got a letter from him This morning he said he was well it was the bloody flux that he had it is a bad Disease I have the flux to I think it is checked on me all though I am very weak the Ladies are very kind to us They bring me butter Milk to drink fried Chickens and eny thing you want if They have got it my Reg has gon to the front they was to start this morning they will have to march I dont know how far they will have to march nor where they are going to They will be fighting before many days I wish I was able to go with them65
On June 8th Joseph received orders to cook three days rations and move out on foot to join the Confederate army near Kennesaw Mountain. The Second Regiment, approximately 700 strong reinforced the four regiments in General Alfred Cumming's Brigade and became a part of Stevenson's Division of Hood's Corps.66 After a twenty-mile march, Joseph stated, "we have had lots of rain the roads ar awful bad when I got here I felt gust like green [Green's] old mules lookes tiered down." Ten days later Johnston realized that his army's line, extending for ten miles northeast from Lost Mountain, was too thin to defend successfully. He withdrew the army to the southeast and formed the heavily fortified and entrenched Kennesaw Mountain Line. On June 18 the men fell back from 11:00 P.M. till dawn through "chilly rain, which had fallen for days, pitch darkness, slippery ankle-deep mud."67 The men waded creeks, stumbling into holes waist deep. By the time they were dug in on Kennesaw Mountain, they were famished, covered in mud and close to total exhaustion. On this day Joseph headed his letter "in the woods two miles north of Marieter," where he said the regiment had moved farther into the center line of battle. He reported the death of General Leonidas Polk a few days before, saying that the general's division had just relieved his own when the general was killed.68 He stated that several men in his regiment had been wounded in frequent skirmishes and one was killed when his head was shot off.
On June 22 upon approaching Johnston's formidable line, Sherman decided to commence another flanking movement to the Confederate left by sending Hooker's and Schofield's two corps south to Powder Springs Road. Anticipating this movement to turn his flank, Johnston switched General John Bell Hood's 11,000-man corps from his far right to his left flank, "where he [Hood] massed on the Powder Springs Road directly in the path of the Federal flanking movement."69 In this spot on June 22, without consulting his superior commander, Hood provided a "gory preview in miniature" of the tactics he later employed in his defense of Atlanta.70 At the Battle of Kolb's Farm Hood illustrated his bold but extremely reckless philosophy of war.
Thinking he was hitting the enemy's flank, Hood mistakenly sent Stevenson's and Hindman's divisions across an immense open plateau crossed horizontally by two long ravines. The attack proved to be a frontal assault on entrenched Union corps supported by heavy artillery. All the advantages lay with the opposing force. Stevenson's and Hindman's divisions advanced in two lines. In the first line was the Second Regiment of the Georgia State Line fused with Cumming's brigade. As the two divisions of southerners quick marched toward the Union line, bursting rounds from the Federal ranks tore ragged holes in their ranks. The men advanced in a "basic line or wave formation as prescribed by tactical doctrine" which "required the men to advance side by side with an interval of 21 to 24 inches between them, to be followed by a second group disposed in similar fashion not more than 32 inches behind the first."71 This type of textbook assault tactic exposed the closely massed men to the "twin havocs wrought by rifled muskets and well-placed artillery."72 The Union artillery were carefully situated on a slope in order to create a devastating crossfire. As a member of the 123rd New York described the scene in a history of his regiment
Crashing through the long lines of the enemy go the solid shot, which every musket adds its mite to help its larger friend. Now screaming and yelling goes a broadside of shells, tearing and smashing in the solid columns, who stagger and waver before it yet the brave rebels press on. Why do they dare come further into such a hot hail of lead and iron? But hear that cracking, rattling, hissing volley from the cannon as stands of canister shot goes sowing death among the enemy. Yet still they advance."73
The rebels in the open field were mowed down by enfilade fire as they rushed across in direct line of the Federal artillery. After several attempts to storm the Federal line, the exhausted Confederates finally either "bolted for the enemy lines with their hands raised in surrender, "or retreated into a deep ravine.74 Here, on this the summer solstice - the longest day of 1864, the men waited till nightfall. Only after full dark could they withdraw from the battlefield in small groups, carrying their dead and wounded with them.
Approximately one-fourth of Stevenson's 4,700 men had become casualties. The Second Regiment, Georgia State Line, suffered 80 casualties. Thomas (who had rejoined his regiment in time for the battle) matter-of-factly reported his company's painful losses in this manner,
. . . we havent bene engaged sens 22 of this month I dont care whether I am any mor or not I was excited when I first went in but after I got there I felt no danger after I fired once or twist I was no more excited than if I had ben shooting at a gang of birds Pah is in the Hospitle I am glad of it I am in hops he will stay there 17 of our Company was wounded I gave Mary a list I dont think I gave her all the names Legg, O.S. in the hand Corp Eleby in hand private Jone shocked with a shell M.A. Grahame in thigh A. Murphy head severly J.T. Lee hand and back W. Hardaway head slight Thomas Haris Legg sens amputated Olive legg sens died Levi Middlebrooks hand H. Moris foot Brown hand Hammock shock with a bumb Thompson hand Willie Brawner shocked Dick Johnson in chind William Lyles in neck75
Joseph and Thomas' war continued. On June 27 Sherman sturck Johnston's entrenched army in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He planned to assault Johnston's center while diversions occurred on both left and right flanks. While fierce fighting was taking place at the "Bloody Angle" in the center and on Pigeon Hill on the right flank, Union General John M. Schofield pushed hard against the southern left flank (again at Kolb's Farm), confronting Hood's corps which included the Second Regiment. This fight at Kennesaw Mountain was a mistake that Sherman regretted. He discovered that well-dug-in Confederates were impervious to a frontal assault.
Johnston continued to delay Sherman's advance on Atlanta until he was replaced on July 17 by General John Bell Hood. This act by President Jefferson Davis was a blow to the army, especially the enlisted men who had great respect and love for Joe Johnston. Knowing that Hood would commit his men to total war, Sherman changed his strategy and began to plan a full attack. As Sherman began an earnest push toward Atlanta, the Second Regiment was involved in frequent skirmishes. On the day after the Battle of Peachtree Creek, Joseph headed his letter "in line of battle near Atlanta." Sadly, he informed his family,
we are now in a fight Toma got a miney ball shot throu his thy [thigh] tho it did not hit the bone it is a paneful wound tho not dangerous I and him was both in the fight I did not see him after he was wounded he lost his nap sack with all of his clothes I found it but I cannot take care of it . . . the fight was awful it comensed at twelve oclock the fiering is still going on did not cease all nite long a grate meney of our men are wounded several ciled it is not a gineral engagement yet . . .while I am writing the bulets are whistling all around me I feeal thankful that I was spared so fare I hope you all will pray for me76
After taking part in another major engagement, the Battle of Bald Hill on July 27, Joseph settled down to life in the trenches near Atlanta. While Sherman beseiged the city, correspondence became extremely difficult: paper, pens, and ink were almost nonexistent. The army resided in rifle pits and trenches full of mud and vermin. They had little to eat; Joseph traded for just "enouf meat and bread for one meal." He wrote, "I am black and durty and lowsey as a hog." On August 23 Joseph told his brother William what life had become "in the ditches around Atlanta." He explained, "we have heavy duty to do wee have to go on picket every third nite" and "stay on 24 hours we are on fateague or guard duty all the balance of the time." He described the destruction of some fine houses nearby "tore all to pieces" by Yankee and Confederate artillery. He continued, "where we go on picket now wee can see the yankes we are so close we have to go on at dark" and have "to stay on all nite and all day...the balls cuts us closte still the Lord has blest me and spared me through meney dangers." Yet, the now forty-year old Joseph continued, "I am nearly broke down I dont know how mutch more I can stand I have all redy stood more than I thought I could I can li down in the mud and water sleep and it araining on me."
Hoping to force Hood from the defenses around Atlanta, Sherman circled far to the south and threatened to cut the Macon and Western Railroad line south of Atlanta. Hood sent Generals William J. Hardee and Stephen D. Lee to Jonesboro with orders to attack the Federals and drive them back across the Flint River. After an all-night march from East Point, the exhausted Second Regiment, part of Lee's corps, engaged the entrenched line of Sherman's army at Jonesboro. There on August 31, 1864, the Second Regiment "met catastrophe. Out of the two hundred men sent into battle one hundred and five were killed or wounded." The regimental surgeon wrote, "Many of our bravest and best men fell in the engagement."77
At this point Joseph's wartime letters cease. He was severely wounded in the engagement at Jonesboro, later receiving two furloughs from the General Hospital of the Georgia State Line at The Rock, Georgia. He was granted thirty days leave on September 20 and another fifteen days on October 18, at the end of which time he was to report back to the hospital. This appears to be the end of Joseph's military service. Thomas apparently stayed in service until the end of the war, but seems to have been separated from the other State Line troops. In January 1865 Thomas addressed a letter from Macon to his father in Pike County. He reported that he would be staying at Macon throughout the winter, probably because he was still recovering from his wound. His regiment had already moved into South Carolina with General Hardee to meet a Union threat against the Charleston and Savannah Railroad at Grahamville.78 Presumably, Thomas finished the war at Macon.
Joseph's war finally came to an end. He continued to farm, alway prosperous, and fathered four more children. After the war he wrote several journals which describe his daily life on a busy farm. He wrote sometimes with humor about his family's or neighbors' antics. He always wrote about the farm chores accomplished by himself, his children, and his tenant farmers. He frequently told of special events in his community or his church. He also expressed great sorrow as family members passed away or moved far from home. Never in his journals does he speak of the great war. Perhaps those experiences ran too deep to talk about. As he had written to his beloved wife from the beseiged Atlanta, "I am awful tiered of the ware I wish it would end but I see no sine of peas still I hope to live to see the day when I can come home and stay at home in pease and there spend the remnent of my days with my family and friends." And so he did.
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1Sam R. Watkins, " Co. Aytch": A Side Show of the Big Show (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Collier Books, 1962), 29.
2 William Harris Bragg, preface to Joe Brown's Army: The Georgia State Line, 1862-1865 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1987), vii.
3 The camp was located about nine miles below Macon on the Central Railroad and was named for Henry C. Wayne, Adjutant General of Georgia. William S. Smedlund, Camp Fires of Georgia's Troops, 1861-1865 (Marietta: Kennesaw Mountain Press, 1994), 286.
4 Thomas is referring to the cars on the Central of Georgia Railroad.
5 William Thomas Fincher to Joseph T. and Martha Fincher, 21 February 1863, Fincher Family Papers; Bragg, 38-40, 147.
6 Smedlund, 296.
7 Bragg, 51.
8 Bell Irvin Wiley cites various punishments for those men guilty of sleeping at sentry post, including "solitary confinement for fourteen days with bread and water diet; six months at hard labor; three months' imprisonment in the guard house with ball and chain." Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943; reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), 223.
9 Joseph is referring to First Sgt. L. H. Legg, either Capt. Drury W. Worrill or Roderick L. Worrill, and Lt. C. R. Womble. Bragg, 151.
10 Joseph Travis Fincher to William Thomas Fincher, 4 March 1863, Tarvin Collection.
11 John S. Jackman, Diary of a Confederate Soldier: John S. Jackman of the Orphan Brigade, ed. William C. Davis (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990), 86.
12 Wiley, 290-291.
13 Bragg, 59, 60.
14 Hiram Smith Williams, This War So Horrible: The Civil War Diary of Hiram Smith Williams, eds. Lewis N. Wynne and Robert A. Taylor (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993), 41.
15 Receipt for the purchase of a slave, 15 December 1859, Fincher Family Papers.
16 Evelyn Davis Fincher and Ann Wilson Fincher, comps., Fincher in the U.S.A., 1683-1900 (Greenville, S.C.: A. Press, Inc., 1981), 240-245.
17 Thomas Speer Wilson, "History of Pike County, 1822-1933," in History of Pike County Georgia, 1822-1989, comps. Retired Teachers of Pike County and "Pike County Journal & Reporter" (Dallas: Curtis Media Corporation, 1989), 138.
18 Bragg, 66-67.
19 Fincher Family Papers.
20 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 17 September 1863, Fincher Family Papers.
21 Bruce Catton, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, eds. Richard M. Ketchum, et al. (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., Bonanza Books, 1982), 431.
22 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, n.d., Fincher Family Papers.
23 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha and Children, 27 November 1863, Fincher Family Papers.
24 Bragg, 68-69, 76; Smedlund, 242.
25 Joseph Alva Fincher to Joseph Travis Fincher, 20 December 1863, Fincher Family Papers.
26 Mary Hollan Fincher to Joseph Travis Fincher, 21 December 1863, Fincher Family Papers.
27 Martha (Mat) Fincher was born shortly before the death of her mother, Joseph's first wife. From infancy she lived with Joseph's father and mother. Even though she lived in a different household, Mat appeared to have a close relationship with her siblings, as well as with her father and step-mother. Fincher family oral tradition.
28 Joseph Travis Fincher to Mat Fincher, 24 December 1863, Fincher Family Papers.
29 Bell Wiley gives an interesting description of the different types of winter quarters devised by men in the Confederacy. The various types of shelters included tents with chimneys, barricaded tents with walls of logs, and flat-roofed huts built entirely of logs. Some shelters were mere open-front lean-tos made of pine branches with boxes piled up on either end to simulate walls. Wiley, 56-63.
30 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 24 December 1863, Fincher Family Papers.
31Griffin, in Spalding County, is approximately 15 miles from Joseph's home.
32 Mary Hollan Fincher to Joseph Travis Fincher, 30 December 1863, Fincher Family Papers.
33 Joseph Travis Fincher to family members, January through March 1864, Ibid.
34 Martha Brooks Fincher to Joseph Travis Fincher, no heading, Ibid.
35 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 27 January 1864, Ibid.
36Wiley writes that prostitution flourished not only in the large cities but was also a problem "when large bodies of soldiers camped for a considerable time" in rural areas. He quotes from a soldier's diary, written in north Georgia in January 1864, "almost half of the women in the vicinity of the army, married and unmarried, are lost to all virtue." Captain Thomas J. Key, entry of 2 January 1864, Wiley, 54-55; Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 26 February 1864, Ibid.
37 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 17 May 1864, Fincher Family Papers.
38 Certificate of sickness and recommendation for furlough issued by C. Gibson, M. D., 6 February 1864, Ibid.
39 Joseph Travis Fincher to Joseph Alva Fincher, n.d., Ibid.
40 Martha Brooks Fincher to Joseph Travis Fincher, n.d., Ibid.
41 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 17 February 1864, Ibid.
42 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 27 January 1864, Ibid.
43 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher 21 February 1864, Ibid.
44 Daniel Wood, "Joseph Travis Fincher: A Common Soldier" (Research Paper, Samford University, Davis Library Special Collections, 1986), 8-9.
45 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 6 May 1864, Fincher Family Papers.
46 Joseph indicates in several letters that George is ill, but there is no indication as to the nature of the child's illness.
47 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, n.d., Fincher Family Papers..
48 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 22 April 1864, Ibid.
49 "Liser" is Joseph and Martha's youngest child Elizabeth, born in September 1863.
50 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 17 May 1864, Fincher Family Papers.
51 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 29 May 1864, Ibid.
53 Wiley, 250.
54 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 26 February, 1864, Fincher Family Papers.
55 Lucy Brooks Stephens to Martha Brooks Fincher, Fayette County, 11 April 1864, Ibid.
56 William T. Sherman, "The Grand Strategy of the Last Year of the War" in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, eds. Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1887), 4:252.
57 William R. Scaife, The Campaign for Atlanta (Atlanta: Author, 1985), 3.
58 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 24 May 1864, Fincher Family Papers.
59 Joseph reported that Lee had captured thirty Yankee generals and 45,000 prisoners.
60 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 18 May 1864, Fincher Family Papers.
61 Ibid, 17 May 1864.
62 Ibid, 24 May 1864.
63 Wiley writes that "dysentery and diarrhea were the most prevalent of all camp diseases." The disease also was so debilitating that it left the soldier open to other more serious diseases. Wiley, 252.
64 Joseph Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 5 June 1864, Fincher Family Papers.
65 William Thomas Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 8 June 1864, Ibid.
66 War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), ser.1, vol. 38, 3:649.
67 Dennis Kelly, Kennesaw Mountain and the Atlanta Campaign (Atlanta: Susan Hunter Publishing, Inc., 1989), 23.
68 The Atlanta Southern Confederacy on June 16 reported "the sad loss" of the death of the "great patriot, soldier and civilian, Lieut. Gen. Leonidas Polk." The description of his death reads, "He was instantly killed by a cannon shot, at half past eleven o'clock A.M."
69 Scaife, 42.
70 Eldon B. Richardson, Kolb's Farm: Rehearsal for Atlanta's Doom (n.p., n.d.), 1.
71 Ibid, 7.
72 Ibid, 12.
74 Ibid, 14.
75 William Thomas Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 25 June 1864, Fincher Family Papers.
76 Joseph Travis Fincher to Martha Brooks Fincher, 21 July 1864, Ibid.
77 Bragg, 91-92.
78 Bragg, 104
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