The war that came after war: 150 years ago today, a Valley writer’s great-great-grandfather went AWOL at the end of the Civil War. This is how he made his way home

Last modified: Tuesday, May 19, 2015

BELCHERTOWN — One hundred and fifty years ago today, Private James Early White deserted the victorious Union Army to return home to his mother. The war had been over more than a month and he was worried. Two younger brothers and a sister were dead. His remaining brother was at the state asylum. And his father’s severe palsy tremors prevented him from running their 200-acre farm.

My great-great-grandfather stood 5 feet, 10 inches tall and was 27. He had marched 7,000 miles and fought in 28 battles. He was shot in the lip at the Chattahoochee River and in the head at the Battle of Atlanta.

Still, the government charged him with desertion, a crime that called for the death penalty. Even the governor of Illinois, a major general during the war, could not help his case.

His thousand-mile trek home in June 1865 was the beginning of a complicated, 75-year odyssey, brought to light on this sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War though pension records, interviews and a pocket field diary he kept during the war that I rediscovered.

The bounty jumper

In January 1865, my great-great-grandfather was in Beaufort, South Carolina. He had followed General Grant to Vicksburg and General Sherman on his “March to the Sea.” His three-year enlistment was over. While most simply re-enlisted, my great-great-grandfather’s commander told him to go home: his health was unmanageable, with chronic stomach pains and spells of dizziness, brought on by a piece of shrapnel that struck him in the head.

But James Early White didn’t listen. He had sent his paychecks home and was broke. So he went to New Britain, Connecticut, where the noted shirt manufacturer Isaac N. Lee paid him $500 to become his substitute in the army.

The controversial practice of substitution offered money to soldiers who enlisted for men who did not wish to fight. The army at the end of the war was desperate for men to fill the ranks depleted by death, disease and desertion.

“Most often pecuniary interests persuaded men whose terms of service had expired to seek out a new unit,” said Brian Matthew Jordan, author of “Marching Home: Union Veterans and their Unending Civil War.”

“The end of the war was a maddening hour, and one riddled with uncertainty, fear, and conflicting emotions,” Jordan wrote.

Oftentimes, soldiers became “bounty jumpers” — enlisting, taking the money and then fleeing the unit.

I suspect my great-greatgrandfather became one of the thousands of such men. He needed the money not just to return home for a few months, but to help his father. His plan failed.

The army detained him at a conscription camp in New Haven. “I wanted to get out of there because they abused me,” he told a pension investigator years later. Rumors circulated among the men of his former unit: he “was drunk or drugged” and forced into re-enlisting. The army, meanwhile, had “tied” him to a stairway to keep him from escaping. “I told them that all I wanted was to get home to my mother and then come back.” Instead, according to records, the army took his money, locked him up for 45 days and sent him to the “hot sands” of Wilmington, North Carolina. Then, he told his new commander that he was headed home and would return in a few months.

This time, the war over, the army let him.

Right on the record

By mid-June 1865, James Early White was home. There, he helped his father with the farm and comforted his mother over deaths in the family. His brothers had joined pro-Union forces and were likely victims of Southern sympathizers who terrorized pro-Union families during the conflict. One such sympathizer was William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, famous for hanging his victims’ scalps from his saddle, said Bruce Nichols, author of “Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri.”

“Some of the Missouri guerrillas were desperate men,” Nichols wrote. “Southern sympathizers who lived near the White family probably knew they were from Virginia. Some folks may have taken offense that the Whites did not feel allegiance to the South like others with Virginia or North Carolina or Tennessee roots.”

Alliances were notoriously complex in the Border States that had joined the Union but did not abolish slavery.

By September 1865, my great-great-grandfather made good on his promise to return to duty. He stopped in Illinois, the home state of the 26th Illinois, the regiment in which he had served for most of the war. Would the governor write a letter on his behalf to the U.S. Army requesting a pardon?

“The boy is quite young, has been a good soldier and is very anxious to get right on the record,” wrote Gov. and former Maj. Gen. Richard Oglesby on Sept. 28. Thirteen days later, the army ignored the governor and on Nov. 11 — what would become the national holiday celebrating veterans — James Early White was mustered out of the U.S. army with a “dishonorable discharge.”

Coffee for tobacco

I had read about a diary left by my great-great-grandfather in a handwritten genealogy. My early efforts to locate it failed. I found it last year in the Okfuskee, Oklahoma, History Center. “We had it out in a display case for some time,” said the center’s director, Wayland Bishop. “There’s never been that much interest.”

I took the diary to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Thomas G. Knoles, curator of manuscripts, said that it was comparable to a modern day planner. “They were inexpensive items at stationer’s shops,” he said. “Soldiers could write their thoughts down so that they could share with family when they returned.”

There are missing sections throughout the diary; its pages are yellowed, stained, loose or sewn together with a thread, and it is surprisingly small: 5½ inches long by 3 inches wide. What’s left is about 200 pages, covering the years 1863-64.

I am floored to think my great-great-grandfather carried the diary through the war. The muds of Arkansas, the rains in Tennessee, the swamps in Georgia, by his side while he fished the Big Black River in Mississippi, through the chaos of Atlanta, the day the shell went off by his head while he carried Sgt. William Cooper from the battlefield.

My great-great-grandfather notes when his unit gives three cheers on the first anniversary of Shiloh, when it marches and how far, when it rains, when it is hot, when the generals — Sherman, Grant, McPherson, Logan — review them, when he is covered in dirt from shell explosions, when he is shot in the lip, when they forage for chickens and hogs, when they fight and when they bury the dead.

The diary passage best showing the ambiguity of war was written during the Battle at Kennesaw Mountain, in Georgia.

Tuesday June 28 1864. Artillery was terrific all day. There was sharp musketry all day. One of our boys got shot today on the skirmish lines by a sharpshooter. The Reb’s sharpshooters get behind cliffs of rocks & conceal themselves. We can see them poke their heads out occasionally then we shoot them in the head. Our boys & the Rebs conversing to each other today on the skirmish lines, trade tobaco for coffy. We give rebs coffy & they give us tobaco in exchange.

The veteran

After the war, my great-great-grandfather suffered from the health problems that plagued many veterans and filed for a pension. He was denied; the army did not reward deserters. He hired a noted attorney who helped. On May 20, 1890, 25 years after the war ended, the army overturned his dishonorable discharge.

“It was often extremely hard for a veteran to track down former comrades and physicians to verify his claims,” said Will Hickox of the history department at the University of Kansas and contributor to the New York Times “Disunion” blog. “It was very difficult to overturn a dishonorable discharge, as the government spent a lot of money on pensions and tried to only pay those deserving them.”

By the turn of the century, James Early White had fathered 10 children. His son recalled that he sang a version of the Southern anthem “Dixie” and built fires in a “potbellied stove” early in the mornings “for when the rest of us got up.”

In a family photograph, my great-great-grandfather wears the classic long, white beard of the veteran. He is smiling, sitting in a chair surrounded by his wife and children in front of his white clapboard farmhouse.

In 1896, he suffered “attacks of vertigo, convulsions, double vision, noises in his ears.” His conversations were “disjointed and rambling.”

Neighbors reported that he “was not right in the head.” Three years later, a medical board labeled him, “Insane Invalid” — a condition likely called PTSD or traumatic brain injury today. Ten years later, my great-great-grandfather was dead. He was 72.

His wife died exactly 18 years to the day after him, in 1937. She was buried next to him, “200 yards from the front door” of the farmhouse at the Pleasant View Cemetery.

Her son wrote to the government. He wanted to be reimbursed for her casket, services, vault, dress, slip and hose including sales tax, all amounting to $279.25 — a final request for compensation from an event nearly 75 years old.

Hands of history

I held the hand of the daughter of a Civil War veteran. My great-great-grandfather’s daughter was my great-grandmother, Pearl Olive. She died when I was 9 years old but I still recall her voice: sharp and gentle at once, the accent pure Midwestern.

One day, when Pearl was 18, she went to her mother and her father, the Civil War veteran, and got them out of bed. They came downstairs into the parlor of their four-bedroom farmhouse where there was a man named Lineberry waiting. He had hired a horse and buggy and asked to marry their daughter.

The veteran looked at Lineberry and said, “You’re getting the best girl I have,” or so the story goes.

Pearl’s sister was named Hattie, for whom she named one of her daughters, my grandmother. My wife and I named our daughter Hattie as well. So when my great-great-grandfather’s diary arrived the other day, I told my daughter that a long-gone relative wrote it.

“Incredible!” she said. “What does it say?”

“A lot,” I said. “A lot.”

Michael Carolan lives in Belchertown and teaches literature and writing at Clark University.

In writing this essay, Carolan consulted the following sources:

Frederick H. Dyer, “A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion.” Charles Cadwell, “The old Sixth regiment, its war record, 1861-5.” Illinois Civil War Rosters from the Adjutant General’s Report, 26th Regiment. James Marten, “Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America.” New York Times, “Men is Cheap,” February 4, 2015. Pension File, James E. White, National Archives and Records Administration. Hattie Gertrude “Trudy” Lineberry, “These Are Your Ancestors,” unpublished. “Diary of James E. White, 1863-1864,” unpublished.


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