“Facts” regarding the lower strata of society

One of the reasons that I began studying the Civil War era was the sheer magnitude of human passion shown by both sides.  A wonderful example of this is a recently uncovered letter written to the official Confederate Historian of South Carolina, John A. Chapman, in 1893. Around that time, the Historian’s office had reached out to living Confederate Veterans asking them to help compile rosters and rolls of each South Carolina unit that existed during the Civil War.  Apparently, the roll of Company K, 24th SC Volunteer Infantry, as sent in by R. A. Cochran, prompted some questions from Chapman; but far more interesting than those questions was the Brevet 2nd Lieutenant’s response (emphasis original):

Rehoboth S.C.

April 13th / 93

John A. Chapman Esq.

Newberry S.C.

Dear Sir: I rec’d yours of 8th inst. acknowledging receipt of Roll of Company “K.” 24th Regt. and containing several questions, which I will endeavor to answer. 1st you ask “If there were not other companies in this Regt. from Edgefield.” Ans. Yes, one other, Co “J” a very gallant Co. Indeed the favorite Co. – with our Col. Ellison Capers – of the Regt. There is one officer living of this Co. that I can recollect. I think all are dead. If you will address S. C. Cartledge Batesburg SC and enclose this letter I am satisfied he will give you the information you desire. He can get you the Roll of Co. J from Gen Capers. The 24th formed a part of S. R. Gist’s Brigade. As to the number of desertions, I have simply recorded facts. History without facts, is not History. I will state, however, that these desertions were from the lower strata of society, one was a substitute.

Wishing you success with your History,

I am Yours Truly

R. A. Cochran

Clearly, the Historian had hit quite a nerve by asking whether the high desertion count of the unit was correct.  Cochran first tried to deflect the point by emphasizing that what happened was simple historical fact. But in the very next sentence, he passed quite the judgment of opinion.  Almost thirty years after the war’s close, Cochran harshly relegated all of his deserters to a “lower strata of society”.  He even went so far as to point out that one deserter was a substitute, the implication being that the soldier took his substitute money and ran, probably en route to repeating the deceitful act over and over (who knows if this was the actual reason for that soldier’s desertion).

Of course, it must have been embarrassing for Cochran to have to admit how many in his own unit went AWOL, so the question was personal to begin with.  But in making it an issue of social strata, it is hard not to detect just a bit of that Southern Honor Code poking through, class warfare and all.  Cochran doesn’t reveal why he decided to sign up, or what he thought of the “Lost Cause”, but his words show a passionate Confederate soldier, proud of his service and his (somewhat ineffectual) leadership, and malevolent towards others who might not have been so willing to give.

{Photos used with permission from the SC Dept. of Archives & History, which is the repository of this letter.}

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One Response to “Facts” regarding the lower strata of society

  1. Pingback: Links from Good Folks | What Would The Founders Think?

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