Warning: racial stereotypes
First of all, I need to tell you that I’m an avid collector of antiques and old documents. I live in Washington, DC, working for the federal government. However, and on one particular weekend, I was meandering through eastern Tennessee and hunting for antique stores in small towns to browse. On the outskirts of Jonesborough, I pulled into the dusty parking lot of a shop with a sign in the front—Winslow Antiques. Surely, I thought to myself, I might be able to root out some “treasures” here to add to my collection. Or, perhaps, to amuse myself for an hour or so.
I started to poke around in the front of the store after greeting an elderly man sitting by the cash register in the front who, I assumed, was Mr. Winslow. I then sauntered down the central aisle and got to the back where I found an old wooden crate, nearly hidden in a back corner. Digging through it, I pushed aside stacks of dusty, old magazines, newspapers, and a few mildewed books. At the bottom of the crate, I discovered a small, tattered, leather-bound diary that I immediately glommed onto in excitement.
I opened it up and found that it had been written by a Civil War soldier named Peyton Orr. The name was inscribed on the first page in elaborate script. I also knew that the Orrs were a large clan in this part of the state so that added to its local authenticity. I scanned the contents and found the entries to be unique and historically rich. I thought that perhaps the owner of the store was not even aware of its existence so I decided to be cautious when bringing the item to the front. Carrying the diary and humming, I returned to the front, gesturing gently to the proprietor.
“I discovered this old, dusty diary in a carton at the back,” I said to the old guy. “Probably of little interest. What would you take for it? Maybe $15 or even $20?”
“Oh, really,” he responded with his eyebrows raised. “You must have only skimmed the contents. It’s a diary of a young Civil War veteran. Lots of interest in the item from the folks who stop by. For some reason, people seem to be discovering it on a regular basis. I need to put even more junk on top to make them work harder to find it. I am asking $400. Fixed. No bargaining!”
OK. I got suckered into this but I was not in the mood to negotiate. It had it in my hands and I wanted to own it. I’m a Civil War buff. If it panned out to be as historically important as I thought it might be, it was worth at least ten times that amount. I nodded briefly in agreement as to the price, took out my wallet, and handed the owner of the shop four, crisp hundred-dollar bills.
He saluted me and said: “Enjoy the item, sir. Thanks for dropping in.”
I hurried outside to my car, clenching my prize diary, sat in the driver’s seat, and opened it gingerly. I was ready to be immersed in the day-to-day life and travails of a young confederate soldier. I found the narrative to be remarkable. This was a treasure that I would never part with. I will read some of the key passages to you to see if you agree. It was totally mesmerizing.
“Greetings to you, whoever you are. Thanks for takin’ the time to read my diary. I guess that you’re either a member of my family or a stranger who happened on it. I had asked my comrades to send this diary back home in the case of my death. In either case, I am indebted to you for taking an interest in my life. I hope you are moved by my stories.
“My name is Peyton Orr. I was born and raised on a small farm in eastern Tennessee. My early years were not unusual for the area—we had plenty to eat, being farmers and all. I tended to the hogs and chickens. Also, and not to brag, I was a good shot so I added a few squirrels each week to our dinner menus. Lookin’ back, I also think that I was eager for some adventures in the world beyond the farm. Hence, the foolish decision that I made.
“The War Between the States began in April, 1861. As I’m sure you know, the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. East Tennessee was mostly pro-Union during the War because the region’s farms were small like ours. Cotton wasn’t king and slaves were rare. We and our neighbors were too poor to own them and we were also not inclined to do so. East Tennesseans actually voted by more than 2 to 1 against secession in 1861. Some 31,000 Tennesseans joined the Union army. The state sent more white soldiers to fight for the North than any other Southern state.
“I must admit that I was young and chompin’ at the bit to get off the farm. Anyway, I enlisted in the Confederate Army early in 1863 when I was 17, lyin’ about my age. The minimum age to serve was 18 but this rule was largely ignored. I didn’t give a hoot about protecting slavery but was just plain bored. I wanted to get away from our farm and see some of the world. In fact, I was able to see some of the world outside Tennessee but at the cost of having bullets constantly whizzing around my head.
“It turned out that I was ultimately about to see all the action I needed in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. It took place in my own state of Tennessee on November 30, 1864, and was called the Battle of Franklin. It was said to be one of the worst disasters of the war for the Confederate Army. Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s was in command and he ordered numerous frontal assaults against the Union forces. We suffered major losses of men and equipment and found ourselves marching straight into a lead blizzard from the Yankees.
“This was my first major military slaughter and I decided that I did not appreciate all the mayhem and bloodshed surrounding me. And, after all, I had no particular love for slavery or the plantation gentry. During one of the assaults on our line, I decided to hide myself in a ditch adjacent to a picket fence.
“My plan was to wait until the fighting ended about a day later as the Union soldiers were combing the battlefield to retrieve their dead. As some of the Union boys approached, I stood up quickly, waving a white handkerchief. I was taking a risk that they could have easily shot me dead on the spot. However, I reckoned that they were in a pretty good mood, having won the battle and all.
“It turned out that all’s they done was just to tie a rope around my wrists with my hands behind my back and quick-stepped me to the provost. They then put me in the makeshift brig near the battlefield. A few days later and after the end of the hostilities, I was conducted with other prisoners to Fort Delaware. It served as the Union POW camp on an island in the Delaware River.
“I was placed in a cell with nine other Confederate troopers who, it turned out, were a greater threat to me than the rifle and cannon fire of the previous days. Also, and while in the cell, I was stupid enough to complain to the other confederate troopers about their cause. They was all as poor as me but they identified with the Southern cause.
“I’m sure that they would have killed me except the guard happened to notice what was going on in the cell and pulled me out in the nick of time. He brought me to his sergeant. My life was probably saved one more time. I also suspect that the guard was on the lookout for troopers like me in the brig who might be willing to change sides. There weren’t that many of us, however, but we did stand out.”
“Boy,” the guard said, away from prying ears, “you don’t seem to be too popular with your fellow cell mates. They got some beef with you? They seem to be disposed to meet out to you some serious punishment. What you done to offend them?”
“Sarge,” I replied, “them boys are serious Southerners and support slavery. I don’t want no truk with them or the slavery cause. They was about to kill me in the cell. I was safer on the battlefield.”
“He rubbed his head, pondering my situation. Then he responded in a way that surprised me. Here’s a deal that I think will benefit you, boy, and get yourself out of this jail hellhole. How about you changing sides and fighting in the Union Army. It will immediately relieve you of the current danger in your cell.”
“I had heard about this opportunity previously. About 5,000 former confederate soldiers enlisted in the United States Volunteers, called the USV, during the course of the Civil War. These “new in blue” troopers were called galvanized Yankees. This reference to the fact that these new troopers were being coated with ‘zinc’ for protection.
“But there were problems about their ‘protected’ status. The Union generals didn’t trust them to kill confederate soldiers in the heat of battle. But there did exist one group of enemies they were happy to have the galvanized troopers kill—red Indians. So, I did have an inklin’ where I was now headed.
“My orders were cut straightaway and I was placed on a train with some other southern boys in a similar situation. We headed West. We were bound for the U.S. Army outpost at Platt Bridge in Wyoming. We were told that a force of about 3,000 Sioux and Cheyenne Indians had gathered on the west side of the bridge that connected the territories of Oregon and Montana. Waiting to attack, they were.
“Our job was to kill all of the red critters that we could. We were only 120 in number for the battle with a commanding officer who was also viewed as disposable. Difficult odds against a bunch of savages. But let’s face facts. We were not held in high regard and there was the possibility that our actions might be recognized in some way if we lived to the end of the War.
“After a week of travel, we got off the train, and set up our encampment consisting of rows of pup tents near the planned battle site by the river. We were told to get some sleep after our long train journey. We were also told that we would attack the injuns early the next morning. I bedded down but, in the middle of the night, I was suddenly shaken awake.
“I felt a warm, foul breath blowin’ over my face. I began to stir and was astonished to find two red savages in my tent, holdin’ me down. One held my shoulders tight and the other pinned down my legs. Not sure how they were able to sneak into our camp. Our sentries must’ve been asleep. More bad luck for yours truly.
“Both of them savages were peering directly at my face and seemed to be smiling. They were also injun-talking between them. Probably discussing what they would do with me. Finally, one quickly pulled out the knife from this belt and stuck it right into my belly. Not exactly sure why—they could have just as easily slit my throat and I’d have been an instant goner. Anyway, they then hurried out of the tent with me lying in a growing pool of my blood.
“I was too weak and shocked to call for help but it would have done no good. My breath was slipping away from me quickly. I understood that I would be crossing over soon. However, I was able to slowly crawl over to my pack, grab my diary, and write these, my dyin’ words. Perhaps readers of my diary in the future will take them to heart and benefit from them.
“I regret that I have not had a long life. I’m only now 21 and ready to meet my maker. I could have made something of myself if I had just stayed put on our farm. I also don’t exactly know how I got into this particular predicament. Just a case for me of being in the wrong place and wrong time.
"The Confederate boys hated me and those in Blue didn’t trust me. I might even have met a similar fate if I’d stayed on home, perhaps stabbed or shot by someone in a bar jealous about me flirting with his old lady.
"But here’s my advice to all of you if you happen to read my diary: Stay away from the haters and spend more time with those who are willing to give you elbow room and listen to what you have to say.”