Analyzing soldiers letters’ home gives deep insight into not only the political tensions during the time they were writing, but also the personal struggles they went through during combat. What was it like seeing a close comrade killed during a battle that was viewed as pointless? How did dreams affect soldiers’ views on the war?
While researching Henry A. Kircher of the 12th Missouri Volunteer Infantry, I found a collection of his letters written to loved ones back home during the time he served in the Civil War. Born in Illinois from German immigrants, Kircher spent much of his early years surrounded by German-Americans. Despite his social separation due to his decent, his devotion to the Union led Kircher to enlist in the 9th Illinois Infantry at the age of nineteen. While still with the ninth, he wrote to his father of an accident in camp. A young man had tripped and his rifle fired into the guardhouse, hitting another soldier in the abdomen. “Life and death are fighting,” he wrote of the experience. “Probably the latter one will win.” It did not take long for the young Kircher to be exposed to death.
After three months of service he became captain of company E of the 12th Missouri. While in command, Kircher’s demeanor and view of life begins to change and become bitter from the harsh realities of war as seen in a letter he addressed to his entire family in March 1863.
Spring seems to be coming on strong, as the sun is burning according to form, the birds are pleasantly chatty, the forest seems to be curtained with a magnificent green veil with a colorful pattern . . . But not the people, the pitiable creatures–they scuffle, quarrel, murder and plunder in winter and in summer, in autumn and in spring. The beautification in nature seems not to arouse really good thoughts in mankind; continual hate, strife, envy and dissatisfaction are what man always find in it.
But even with this dark view, he came to terms with his actions while writing. “But what good is my philosophizing? I can’t change all of humanity, and that would have to happen first before it can be different here.”
While Kircher pondered on the meaning of life and the destruction of war, the 12th Missouri moved towards Vicksburg in May 1863. The siege of Vicksburg was in the works, but General Ulysses S. Grant wanted to test the defenses by ordering an assault on the city. The 12th Missouri moved forward and suffered heavy casualties. The assault was a failure, which bothered Kircher deeply. Writing to his mother on May 26th, 1863, Kircher accepted the possibility of being wounded. Was this acceptance due to a foreboding feeling or was it from the failed assaults a few days before? He described treats that were sent to the men, stating:
Only everything would have tasted better to me if the recently and so shamefully dead and wounded friends had been in the group and the good things had all been shared. But what good is feeling troubled? We are soldiers and who the next bullet hits must accept. The past can’t be altered. Now comes an order from Grant that no more taking by storm shall be attempted. When the child falls in the well, then cover it!
As the war raged on and Kircher became more involved in combat, these feelings of accepting the future mixed with a sense of dread of inevitable doom. Does Kircher have a premonition of his future through his dreams? Only by reading his letters do we see how much Kircher’s snaking suspicions turn out to be true.
Kircher, Henry. A German in the Yankee Fatherland: The Civil War Letters of Henry A. Kircher. Edited by Earl J. Hess. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1983.
Captain Henry A. Kircher, 12th Missouri Infantry Volunteers (Union) for Circuit Court Clerk, Belleville, Ill (1864). Accessed on The Civil War in Missouri Online. Original Image attributed to Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.