Found in the attic? A cowardly soldier's diary of Gettysburg

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With the recent fuss about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I was all the more excited by a surprise while cleaning out the attic the other day.

Beneath the Honus Wagner baseball cards and next to the Andy Warhol high school journal containing doodles of soup cans was the Civil War diary of ancestor Rutherford B. Rotstein, a private in the 999th Pennsylvania Regiment and reluctant combatant at Gettysburg. He wrote better than he fought, which wasn't saying much.

Here are some excerpts:

July 1, 1863: Well, this was a fine day. My feet were dog tired from the march from Pittsburgh and I was looking forward to catching up on my sleep when a commander yells at me and my buddies, "You men go seize the high ground! We need to get atop Little Round Top, Big Round Top, Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, all of it! Now get going!"

What, run uphill after marching for days from Pittsburgh? Lord almighty, what do these generals think we're made of?

I was starting to yell, "Yessir, officer, why don't you get down off your fine steed there and loan him to me and I'll be happy to do that," when old Caleb (he's a friend from Allegheny City -- good boy, though a bit thick in the head) whispers I'd best keep my trap shut.

What bothered me even more was those names they give to the places -- Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge. All it took was hearing those and my spine went to jelly, like usual, from imagining the grim reaper laughing himself hoarse while standing over my mangled body on the battlefield.

Anyways, me and the boys move along like we're supposed to, good soldiers that most everyone but me is, except that we're lost about half the time because you can't see anything through the blasted smoke. Plus, we're city kids, and every hill and every copse of trees looks like just about every other one to us.

"What a plain place for a battle -- where are we gonna get a drink when it's over?" I says to Caleb at one point. He shushed me again just as some blasted Reb's bullet whistled about 3 inches past my ear. Boy, them Rebs know how to handle a rifle. I wish my dad had taken me hunting more as a boy instead of reading Shakespeare by the fire so much.

July 2: We did so much running and fighting yesterday that I thought sure we'd get today off, but noooo. Seems like the generals on both sides all want their names in the history books forever and have decided to make this THE battle of the war. The folks down in Antietam are going to be pretty durned mad about that, but hey, war is hell.

So today there was plenty more Rebel screaming and charging and us recharging and them re-recharging -- I never realized a few hundred yards of grass and dirt could be so important, and I tell you what: I'm glad I'm not the one to get the bill from whichever farmer owns the property for all the damage. I'll bet no one asked him if he wanted THE battle of the Civil War on his front porch.

July 3: Usually I'm more blase than most about this whole war thing -- if I'm awake the next morning, the day before must have been a good one, I usually figure. But I'll admit I got charged up a bit myself about today's events and am about as delirious with joy as I can be while sober.

It seems that old snake Robert E. Lee thought a big charge uphill against us would be the pivotal action of the battle and war and my children and grandchildren would all be singing "Dixie" and saying "y'all" instead of "yinz" forever after. Well, the men in blue taught those Rebs a thing or two.

I'm not saying I was real happy about all the bodies on the battlefield, but if someone's got to lose, it may as well be the ones that think enslaving another human being is just as natural as loving a pan of sizzling bacon.

Caleb even says he thinks it was such a great battle that people will be talking about it for years hereafter and coming back to the scene for anniversaries, maybe even dressing up and re-enacting the whole thing. Like I said, he's a little thick in the head, just a crazy blacksmith from Allegheny City, so I try not to be too hard on him.

If my invitation to the reunion comes in the mail though, I'll likely pass. Probably seen and talked about war enough to last me a lifetime now.

intelligencer - civilwar - gettysburgstories

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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