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home : considered comment : selected past columns May 25, 2016

3/28/2006 2:55:00 PM
Fulton County reads: Wildlife was plentiful here in 1862
President and Owner, The Sentinel

Fulton County Reads is a one-book, one-community project conceived by Librarian Jody Newton and Sue Clark, English teacher, of Rochester High School. It was inaugurated in February with A Stupendous Effort, my 1997 book about men from Fulton County and northern Indiana in the Civil War. Those participating in the project received the book to read; then followed three nights of discussion that each attracted more than 50 people. My remarks at those discussions, edited for space limitations, are being presented in a series of columns, the third of which follows:

Much later John Troutman would remember with keen nostalgia the abundance of wild game there was around his Fulton County home when he left it in 1862 to go to war as a corporal in Company E of the 87th Indiana Infantry Regiment. Here's how the book describes it:

"The wide prairie extending westward from the county seat of Rochester to Troutman's Kewanna home teemed with ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, prairie chickens and quail. There were six to 10 coveys of quail on almost every farm. Deer were almost everywhere and wild turkeys roamed in droves throughout the plentiful woods, which often resounded with the chattering of red, black and gray squirrels, the barking of foxes and the drumming of pheasant wings. In the autumn came the passenger pigeons, darkening the sky for hours before roosting in such numbers in the willow trees that branches broke from their weight. They were killed joyously and recklessly, by clubs as well as by guns, in flight or while roosting. Fish were so plentiful they clogged the mill wheels at Lake Manitou and were seined by the bushels from the Tippecanoe River.

"Troutman was not embellishing his memories. At that point in the 19th century northern Indiana had moved beyond its pioneer beginnings but still was a rural, agrarian and unsophisticated society whose development was lagging behind the state's central and southern portions . . . . Railroads did not yet reach into all counties. Wagon roads left much to be desired on the best of days and were virtually impassable in some seasons."

In A Stupendous Effort you will follow our soldiers as they assemble in South Bend for organization, move to Indianapolis and Louisville, then into the fringes of the battle at Perryville and on to Nashville. There is a perilous ascent of the mountains at Chattanooga to reach the fields where Chickamauga will be fought. Afterward comes their redemption at Missionary Ridge, daily fighting on the way to Atlanta, taking part in General Sherman's famous March to the Sea and onward through the Carolinas to war's end.

I shall not tonight describe any of Chickamauga's frightful two days; you must get the battle's full impact by reading of the 87th's courageous performances there. I shall, however, read you this from the book about Chickamauga:

"Chickamauga was the singular, most overpowering Civil War experience for survivors of the 87th Indiana Infantry Regiment. More fighting, more dying, more views of the elephant were to come but nothing would equal the fiery furnace from which they escaped near a Georgia woodland creek.

"Chickamauga proved to be the bloodiest two days of the war; some scholars of the war consider it the deadliest of all the battles. The two armies sent 124,548 men into the lines and when the carnage ended 34,624 were dead, wounded or missing, a staggering 28 percent . . . . The price paid there by the 87th was a grim one: 192 killed, wounded or missing out of the 366 effectives who came onto the field, a casualty rate of 52 percent that was the highest of all of the 42 Indiana units engaged there."

You're going to meet some interesting and articulate men among the soldiers of the 87th. Foremost are Jonas Myers and Daniel Bruce, but there's also Horace Long, Peter Keegan, George Martling, Henry Hoober, Joseph Beeber, Benjamin Franklin Brown, Peter Troutman, Jerome Carpenter and the unique Johnny Patton.

And you'll find out what many of them did when they returned home from this incommunicable experience, how they lived out the rest of their lives.

And perhaps, if you have not studied much about the Civil War, you will understand by reading this book why it continues to absorb us as no other war has. The book discusses that a bit in this way:

"There is a perpetual sense of wonderment in its study, an impression of always finding something new or unusual to marvel at, which perhaps is its greatest fascination. We yearn, for example, to understand how Americans could slaughter other Americans with such sustained ferocity for four long years. The cost of the war was frightful: 618,000 deaths, 360,000 for the North, 258,000 for the South. This total is astonishingly high, for not until late in the Vietnam War did the nation's deaths in all other wars equal it."

The title of the book arose by fusing two words from an editorial written by Corydon Fuller, editor of The Rochester Chronicle, which as the Republican newspaper of the county received and published the soldiers' letters home. The Chronicle is long gone, the microfilm of its editions faint of reproduction, but it was a treasure for me in my research.

As two Confederate armies began invading Kentucky in the summer of 1862, intent on bringing the war to Indiana and Ohio, Fuller wrote that "the government is at last awakening to the stupendous proportions of the rebellion and to the effort necessary for its suppression."

Soon after those words appeared, the 87th Indiana came into being and it seemed to me that the effort it expended to suppress the rebellion truly was stupendous. I believe you shall agree with me when reading its story.

1,262 men served in this regiment during three years. 466 were casualties, 44 percent. There were 48 killed in action, 198 wounded in action, 220 dead of wounds or disease. Of the regiment's original members, only 33 percent returned.

There is nothing civil about Civil Wars and ours was as deadly as any in history. I hope that in reading A Stupendous Effort, you will come to understand the sacrifices of these long gone men - men who would have been our neighbors had we lived here then - and how their efforts helped us achieve the magnificent nation we have today.

Next week: Introducing the war's leading killer.

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