By Emma Monzeglio, ‘24
Private John R. Cates was born around 1838 in the southeastern Tennessee county of Roane. He would ultimately serve in Company E of Turney’s 1st Tennessee Regiment under Captain Ezekiel Y. Salmon. Unlike middle and western portions of the state, Cates’s home county and its surroundings were overwhelmingly pro-Union, with less than 25% of the population voting for secession. Given Cates’s Confederate service, it is likely that his life on the eve of 1861 was filled with tension and community divisions between the Cates family and his neighbors over their opinions regarding secession. 13% of the population in Roane County were slaves, most of whom worked small agricultural jobs and lived in close quarters with their masters or were rented out as laborers for specific skilled jobs. Cates himself was an illiterate laborer, owning very little land, and no slaves, but like many non-slaveholding southern whites, likely supported the “peculiar institution” nonetheless.
Cates enlisted nearly two weeks after the start of the war, on April 29th, 1861. His enthusiasm to enlist could be attributed to numerous factors: The financial lure of a soldier’s salary, a possible yearning for adventure (being only 23 years old at the time), or a patriotic zeal for the Confederacy, fueled by the desire to preserve his aspirational property rights and social position as a white male from perceived northern aggressors and so-called “Black Republicans.” Cates also may have enlisted in defense of his family’s honor; as many Civil War regiments were organized by community, he may have felt pressure to enlist if he saw friends and neighbors doing so, and may have even felt more confident or excited to be fighting alongside pro-Confederate friends and family—particularly after having grown up surrounded by so many Unionists and other political “enemies.” Cates may also have enlisted in defense of Southern slavery. Despite not owning slaves, Cates’s white skin automatically helped forge a bond between himself and the slaveholding class, as the protection of white superiority and the socio-economic privileges that whiteness granted even to the poorest man over African Americans were of prime importance to the majority of southern whites. Additionally, Cates very well could have benefited materially from the peculiar institution through hiring out slaves or through extended family or friend networks with slaveholders. Like many non-slaveholding southern whites Cates likely hoped to one day rise up through the socio-economic ranks and become a slaveholder himself–an opportunity he may have wanted to protect.
On May 17th, Cates and 1st Tennessee infantry moved out by railroad to Richmond, Virginia, where they entered training camp. Once in the ranks, John Cates’s likely romantic initial notions of war as a glorious adventure would have been challenged by the harsh realities of a soldier’s life. Camp life was often monotonous. Cates would have spent most of his time building shelter, cooking, and collecting firewood. Camps were also a breeding ground for lice and various illnesses which added to the discomfort and demoralization. Food was inadequate and mainly consisted of corn, dried peas, and hardtack. On May 18th, Cates was admitted for a two-day stay into Richmond’s Chimborazo Hospital, for diarrhea. Many Civil War soldiers were plagued by diarrhea throughout their camp life due to unsanitary living conditions and poor food and water. Given that more men died of disease than battlefield wounds during the war, the constant slew of debilitating illnesses proved enormously taxing on soldiers’ bodies and minds. Despite these and other hardships, however, Cates most likely built strong bonds with his comrades. The shared experiences and suffering of the men both on and off the battlefield was a unifying force, bringing men of all different social classes together, and forming a sometimes lifelong brotherhood. Such brotherhood would prove essential to survival amidst the harsh elements of soldiering which propelled many soldiers to seek out innovative methods of individual and collective self-care in order to help navigate environmental challenges that their officers and war bureaucrats often were not prepared or able to mitigate.
After being drilled by Virginia Military Institute cadets for fifteen days, on June 1st Cates and his comrades in Turney’s regiment moved up to Harpers Ferry, where they fell under the command of Brigadier General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s command. Jackson held his men to a high standard and relentlessly trained and drilled them, believing good discipline would bring success to the army in battle. In turn, his men were deeply devoted to him and respected Jackson immensely. Being pushed to his limits marching and drilling, Cates first began to experience the realities of a soldier’s life. Not every day would be an adventure filled with action; instead, significant time was needed to train and fully prepare for the battlefield. Cates first saw battle at First Manassas on July 21st, when his company arrived at the end of fighting to support Jackson’s line. The horror of witnessing the violence of the killing fields for the first time was undoubtedly coupled with the excitement of a Confederate victory. As was true for many Confederates that day, Cates was likely shocked by the unexpected intensity of the fight, but his pride in his new nation’s smashing victory likely would have bolstered his spirits and made the deaths of some of his comrades sacred. Cates and the 1st Tennessee infantry remained in Northern Virginia until September 30th, 1861. The regiment mainly fought in the Eastern theatre with the Army of Northern Virginia, eventually becoming part of the Tennessee Brigade on March 8th, 1862, under the command of Brigadier General Samuel R. Anderson.
In the spring and summer of 1862, Cates took part in the Peninsula Campaign, fighting at Seven Pines and in the Seven Days battles, where the regiment reported ninety-nine casualties and at Second Manassas, where they suffered fifty-seven casualties. This more intense experience of combat, coupled with witnessing additional close comrades fall in gruesome ways on the battlefield likely taxed Cates’s mind and body, but also may have motivated him to keep up his fight to avenge their deaths. On September 29th, 1862 Cates was captured while serving as a nurse. Though a few details exist about the nature of his capture or the duration of his captivity, one can imagine that, as was true for many POWs, this experience was likely unpleasant, at best, and dehumanizing, at worst. Inadequate clothing, food, shelter, and the severe boredom of imprisonment were enormously taxing and demoralizing. Depending on how long Cates was captured, he could have been tortured by thoughts of his loved ones at home and how his fellow comrades were doing, being disconnected from any news from the front. He also may have viewed his capture as somewhat emasculating, given that he was taken prisoner not in the heart of combat, but while doctoring his comrades. However, nineteenth-century notions of the need for stoic martial masculinity, combined with his experiences on the battlefield and in hospitals amidst the continuous pain, suffering, and death induced by enemy Union soldiers may well have churned up deep longings for vengeance, further strengthening his motivations to continuing fighting. Conversely, like some POWs and battle-weary soldiers, Cates may have come to question his initial motivations for fighting, wondering, was the war worth the suffering? We may never know his precise thoughts, and he likely experienced a range of emotions during his captivity, but he was eventually exchanged and rejoined his old unit.
Prior to Gettysburg, Cates survived the brutal fighting at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. The 1st Tennessee Infantry sustained fifty-seven casualties at Fredericksburg, including Colonel Peter Turney, who received a severe wounded that prevented his return to field command, and fifty-eight casualties at Chancellorsville. Losing a beloved commander was a trying experience for Civil War soldiers; however, the Confederate army’s smashing victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville bolstered many soldiers’ morale and convinced them that, surely the end of the war was on the horizon and the future of the Confederate nation was assured. Furthermore, 19th-century beliefs in Divine Providence convinced many Southerners that their victories on the battlefield were evidence of being God’s chosen people.
Entering Pennsylvania later that spring, the 1st Tennessee was captivated by the bountiful food supplies and miles of the expansive, fertile farmland stretching out before them—a sharp change from the blighted, war-ravaged fields of Virginia. It had been a long and muddy march up to Pennsylvania; however, the idea of full bellies and finally having an opportunity to wreak havoc on northern soil after years of the Yankees’ seemingly merciless destruction of Southern land—not to mention their occupation of large swaths of his home state–likely carried Cates through those long weeks of marching. On July 1, the 1st Tennessee, joined by other elements of James Archer’s brigade, took part in the opening assaults at Gettysburg. After encountering John Buford’s Union cavalry along Herr’s Ridge, the brigade continued to press its way eastward towards Gettysburg, eventually clashing with elements of Meredith’s famed Iron Brigade along the slopes of Willoughby Run. During this action, Archer—as well as many members of the 1st Tennessee—was captured, and the rest of the brigade ultimately was removed to reinforce the Confederate right flank. This opening fighting was fierce, and at close-range, but Confederate army’s successes in driving Federals back through the town by the end of July 1 surely would have bolstered Cates’s spirits.
Over the next day, however, Cates would have been forced to simply wait and watch as over ten thousand of his comrades surged across the open, rolling farm field towards the Union line stretched along and before Cemetery Ridge. The fight was close, with multiple Confederate brigades nearly reaching the center of Cemetery Ridge itself before being driven back by the Federals. The casualties had been horrific, and now Cates knew that it would be his turn to try to take the same formidable ground the next day. Excitement, anxiety, fear, and thirst for vengeance likely occupied Cates’s mind that night as he listened to the groans of the wounded lying out in the fields in front of him. On the afternoon of July 3rd, the 1st and 7th Tennessee Infantry regiments would fight on the Confederates’ left flank during famed “Pickett-Pettigrew” Charge. The two-hour long artillery barrage and wait in Seminary Ridge wood line, hunkered down with his comrades amidst exploding shells and falling tree limbs, must have seemed a lifetime to Cates and his comrades.
As Cates emerged from the woods at last and began the march over the open, undulating fields before him, he and his comrades sought occasional shelter in the dips and swales of the farmland in between their terrifying exposure to shot and shell between the swales. However, the regiment would not begin to take severe casualties until coming within musket range of the Union troops posted atop Cemetery Ridge, somewhere near the Emmitsburg Road. The sudden slaughter and disorientating smoke were terrifying, with the sound of minie balls constantly zipping around the soldiers and the thunderous roar of cannon fire to their front and side. Sheer adrenaline and the camaraderie of fellow Tennesseans helped to sustain their forward momentum. Cates may have consoled himself with the knowledge that he had survived previous deadly battles like Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, though the circumstances here were vastly different. Thoughts of his family and home likely rushed through his mind, galvanizing him further for the fight at hand. The Union soldiers firing at Cates and his fellow Confederates likely brought back memories of the many lives of dear friends he had already lost at the barrel of Union guns, pushing him to fight that much harder under the sweltering July sun.
At some point during the fight, John Cates suffered a shrapnel wound to one of his upper arms. His comrades in the 1st and 7th Tennessee continued to press onward amidst the storm of leaden hail and ultimately were some of the only units to break the Union lines before losing their colors to the 14th Connecticut Infantry and being forced to retreat in the face of a tide of Union reinforcements. The honor of breaking the Union lines was a great, yet fleeting success, as for a moment, victory seemed tantalizingly close. But, it was not to be. That honor ultimately came at a price: of the two hundred and eighty-one men who came to Gettysburg, the 1st Tennessee Infantry lost more than 60% of them. Despite the pride the men surely felt at having briefly cracked the Union lines, their enormous disappointment in not being able to hold that prize position, and losing their beloved colors in the process, was almost too much to bear. The colors represented their home, encapsulated their unit pride and Confederate nationalism, had guided them through deadly battles and flown above victorious battlefields of the past, and now they—like so many of their comrades—were gone.
Cates himself was captured, once again, by the Union Army on July 5th. It is unclear if he was immediately seized by Union forces on July 3rd or whether he lay out on the battlefield in the oppressive July heat or in a makeshift hospital until his capture. However, once in captivity Cates was admitted to the Satterlee U.S. General Hospital in Philadelphia on July 12th and then transferred to the U.S. General Hospital in Chester, Pennsylvania on July 14th. While at the hospitals, Cates’s arm was amputated. John Cates’s time at the hospitals undoubtedly was an agonizing experience. Suffering in the humid summer heat with a festering wound, far from friends and family, and in the hands of the enemy once more likely sapped Cates of his remaining physical and mental strength. Unable to read or write, he may have spent his free time dictating letters to nurses or fellow soldiers to send home, as often occurred with illiterate soldiers seeking to communicate with loved ones and convey final wishes and sentiments to family and friends. After more than two agonizing long months, Cates died from exhaustion, induced by his amputation, on September 21st. He was ultimately buried over six hundred and fifty miles from home, utterly alone, in Chester Cemetery. News of his death was crushing to his family, whose Victorian notions about the “Good Death” were challenged by the harsh realities of war and soldiering. Cates’s family and many Civil War families believed a soldier would die at home surrounded by their loved ones, whole in body and able to give their final words before receiving a proper Christian burial in a nearby family plot. Cates’s death was far from the comforting notion of the Good Death, which forced both his family and comrades to reframe former notions of death and suffering; indeed, John Cates would die a long painful death after months of being bedridden, in enemy territory, surrounded by enemies, and ultimately buried by enemies in northern soil.
Today, Cates’s and his comrades’ sacrifice and service at Gettysburg are memorialized through the Tennessee State Monument, which was dedicated on July 3rd, 1982, one hundred and nineteen years after the battle. Most visitors focus solely on the role of Virginia and North Carolina in the Pickett-Pettigrew charge, which has long created tensions and controversy amongst Tennesseans who also wished to have their state’s unique contributions to the charge recognized. Theirs was the last Confederate monument constructed and the only one to be privately funded. The monument is imbued with rich symbolism, promoting the idea of reunion and reconciliation while also conveying great pride for the Tennesseans’ contributions to the Confederate cause: The base of the structure is sixteen feet long, a conspicuous nod to Tennessee’s place as the sixteenth state of the Union which it quickly rejoined in 1866 after the war’s end—the first state in the Confederacy to do so. However, the monument proudly commemorates the valor and courage of the three Tennessee regiments who fought there. The three men on the front of the monument represent the three regiments, the 1st, 7th, and 14th Tennessee Infantry. The three stars on the top symbolize the three distinct geographic areas of Tennessee, the East, Central, and West, which are also reflected on the state flag. Virginia and North Carolina have long tended to attract the bulk of scholars’ and visitors’ attention when touring the fields of “Pickett’s Charge,” further prompting Tennessee to erect their own monument in an effort to remind visitors of Tennessee’s contributions to the battle and to the soldiers’ courage.
With its nod to the state’s place and history within the United States as a whole, the monument promotes the idea of brothers once more coming together after the death and destruction of the Civil War. However, the monument still clearly defends and celebrates the Southern honor of the Tennessee soldiers, with an inscription stating, “they died for their convictions.” Clearly, the monument seeks to justify and make sacred the service and sacrifice of the Tennesseans. But the vagueness of the wording, namely “their convictions,” consciously glosses over what the exact nature of those convictions were, thus ignoring the causes and deeper meaning of the war while deflecting attention wholly to the heroic bravery and martial honor of the soldiers themselves. The monument also paints a romantic picture of the war—one far from the horrific realities experienced by the combatants whom it honors, such as John Cates. Nevertheless, by memorializing the often unsung actions of Tennessee soldiers at Gettysburg, the monument both brings martial honor and physical ownership of a critical swath of the iconic battlefield landscape to men like Cates, who were common laborers, transformed by war into hardened soldiers, and remembered, for better or worse, as heroes.
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