Like Grass Before the Scythe: The Life and Death of Sgt. William Remmel, 121st New York Infantry
edited by Robert Patrick Bender, University of Alabama Press, 2007, 177 pages, $39.95.
What makes a collection of a Civil War soldier’s letters worth reading? The reasons might vary. Perhaps they’re exceptionally vivid and well written, or maybe they describe significant battles. In some cases the person writing them was an important historical figure.
The letters of Sergeant William Remmel of the 121st New York Infantry fall into none of these categories. Instead they are clear, concise but rather prosaic accounts written to his upstate New York parents and siblings that mostly recount the numbing daily routines endured by countless thousands of soldiers, blue and gray, during their tours of duty: days living in a series of temporary camps, countless hours of marching and countermarching and moments of sheer terror under fire. Remmel’s letters are important precisely because they are so typical. He represents an observant and relatively eloquent enlisted “everyman,” an inexperienced country youth eagerly answering the call of duty who matures into a seasoned veteran after seeing the elephant and then disappears into the mists of history, recorded simply as missing in action.
We know about William Remmel because descendents lovingly preserved his wartime letters and donated them to the Special Collections Department of Mullins Library at the University of Arkansas, where they were discovered and sensitively edited by Robert Patrick Bender. In addition to presenting the letters, Bender includes endnotes that provide interesting information about the many people Remmel mentions in his epistles, enabling the reader to put the young sergeant’s life into context, both at home and as part of the Army of the Potomac’s famous VI Corps.
At age 19 Remmel mustered into Company I of the 121st New York in Herkimer, N.Y., on August 23, 1862. His regiment soon came under the command of Colonel Emory Upton, a brilliant young West Point graduate whose discipline made the 121st a strong, cohesive unit. Blessed with a healthy constitution, Remmel thrived in the military and was unscathed in the regiment’s first real battle, at Salem Church in May 1863. His luck ran out at Spotsylvania Court House on May 10, 1864, when he was wounded. After treatment in Washington, D.C., and convalescing at home, he rejoined his regiment in time to participate in Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Sometime during the chaotic Battle of Cedar Creek, Remmel disappeared. His family believed he had been captured and sent to the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia. Despite years of trying, however, they could never confirm their suspicions. His body was never recovered.
Through his letters, Remmel speaks eloquently about many issues important to the men in the ranks. Writing to his brother Charley in March 1864, for example, he presciently related: “The boys are quite jubilant over the nomination of General Grant as commander of all the armies and none cherish a doubt of his entire success, if he is let alone by the political generals at Washington and newspaper dictators abroad.”
In his early letters, Remmel was enthusiastic and full of optimism. By 1864, though, his tone had changed, and he soberly infused them with religious overtones. In April he wrote to his parents, “And we pray that it will be God’s Will to give us strength to crush the rebels, who are trying to enslave four millions of human beings to save their own necks from labor and to lead the lives of Lords and Masters.”
After being wounded at Spotsylvania, Remmel seemed fatalistic about his continued service. “I am willing to battle another year,” he confided to his parents in a September 1864 letter from Berryville, Va., “for when, if I live, I hope to see this bloody war closed and an honorable peace declared.”
Understandably, Remmel omitted from his letters any real description of the fighting he experienced. Many soldiers did likewise, unwilling to worry their families and not knowing how to adequately express the obscenities they had witnessed. Remmel instead chose to discuss less frightening subjects such as his sightseeing while convalescing in Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institute, for example, “where all kinds of animals, birds, and snakes, and many other things may be seen.”
He unfailingly expressed interest in the activities of his many siblings and advised two of his brothers not to enlist. Nevertheless, his youngest brother, Caleb, did join the 121st. Remmel later proudly observed, “Caleb is looking well and, so far, has stood soldiering first rate…I think he will stand it well, for he is strong and healthy.”
The pleasure Remmel felt at soldiering with his brother was short-lived, however. Three days after his October 16, 1864, letter, he went missing.
In the book’s epilogue, Bender recounts the activities of the 121st New York at the Battle of Cedar Creek and speculates that Remmel was “wounded and captured during the regiment’s desperate rear-guard action prior to the successful Union counterattack. He adds: “In an attempt at closure, the family held a memorial service for him in the fall of 1865, and in the decades after the war his parents received a small government pension. But the fate of Sergeant William Remmel, like thousands of men who wore blue and butternut, remains lost to the pages of history. Fortunately, his letters have survived, allowing him to speak across the tides of time.”
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.