From: Merle Hanson
I had doubts, like any thoughtful young man, about going to war. Shooting another man was a little bit different than any of the coons and squirrels I had found in the woods. My dad always said that when powerful men lost their sense of reason, and their emotions got in the way of thinking, the world was in trouble.
Sometimes, I think of Ma and Pa, and realize those were the last of my quiet, innocent years. All the good things about living became a memory of an ever-forgetful mind. I once thought I’d get my own farm, maybe just down the road from home.
I still miss that Old Vermont farm. Like most, I thought the war would not last and after a few skirmishes, and seeing a few friends pass I was ready to go back home, though I never set foot in Vermont again and the toll of seeing so much death wore on me as time passed.
The Fourth Vermont was the finest group of men ever assembled. The traditions of military service in Vermont extended all the way back to the Green Mountain Boys of the Revolutionary War. We didn’t think much of shooting but our state constitution had abolished slavery when it was written. We went to war, not ever having met a negro or having any understanding of the economic issues, at the heart of the divide.
By the time we arrived at Gettysburg in 1863 we were no longer boys from Vermont. We were mostly men who would spend the rest of our lives searching for a peaceful home that was forever gone. We would never find it and after Gettysburg we were the walking dead.
Nearly 50,000 souls left the earth over those three days in 1863, and most of us survivors could never wipe our memories of the smells and sounds of those people dying. Americans were so busy shooting each other, they never saw the buzzards circling until dead and lying on their backs. Knee deep in death as soldiers trampled over already dead bodies they just kept shooting. It was like nothing I had ever seen and I woke up many a night seeing life leaving this earth. So goes the story of the Gettysburg vet.
A lot of old timers say Grant drank to forget the horrors of war while Lee became depressed, haunted by the visions of dying boys. No man survived that war without deep scars and yours truly was no exception. Any old Gettysburg man will tell you there were no winners at Gettysburg. If you survived you spent the rest of your life thinking death might be the only way to forget. That battle settled in your bones and the deepest part of your mind and it would never let go.
I eventually got shot in the Battle for the Spotsylvania Court House. A bullet just grazed my leg and of course the good doctor thought we should amputate, but I had seen good men die on those surgery tables. I decided walking with a limp and using the medicinal value of whiskey was a better option. My leg stayed with me until the turn of the century and the bottle was with me until my death bed in 1920.
When we heard Lee surrendered at Appotomax we were elated to begin with but then as we looked around camp we started realizing we would not hear old Charlie laugh anymore and Tom would never play the harmonica again. I carried the memories of a lot of men with me the rest of my days. The $13 a month for soldiering we got paid no longer seemed very important.
We marched on to Washington for the Review of Armies. It was a hard time for most of us. We never felt right in social settings and it is hard to celebrate after what we had seen. The people of Washington never let us pay for a drink, but they never stuck around and it seemed as if they left the bar realizing we were not quite right. Gettysburg had become part of who we were.
The night dreams were the worst. I swear I was in the middle of battle all over again. I could hear the last breaths and cries of anguish. I could smell the smoke of guns and I could see men sweating. I’d reach for my gun and begin shooting.
Private Ives and his wife Lucy made their final home in Winona and currently reside in Woodlawn Cemetery. Grandpa Ives told me he would tell me the rest of the story someday.