James Marten is professor and Chair of the history department at Marquette University.
I first blogged about James “Corporal” Tanner about a year-and-a-half ago. I was maybe half way through a book manuscript about his long and eventful life. As an eighteen-year-old he had lost both feet at Second Manassas, but the native New Yorker recovered to become a nationally famous lecturer, Republican operative, and advocate for veterans’ pensions. I’ve since finished the book, which will be published by the University of Georgia press next spring under the title, America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace.
That blog led to one of the more serendipitous phone calls I’ve ever received. Late this summer a very nice young woman named Sabrina Ramoth called my office. She was from New Jersey and had found among her recently deceased grandmother’s effects a letter from Tanner to a man named James Jaycox, along with a typescript of a 1916 article about Tanner’s experiences in military hospitals written for the American Red Cross Magazine. She had no idea why they were there; although she did have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War, there was no known connection between her family and Tanner. A google search led to my blog about Tanner (it’s the fifth or sixth on the list when you enter “Corporal James Tanner”—who knew?), and she called in hopes that I could help solve this little mystery. I couldn’t, unfortunately, but despite the baby I could hear fussing half-heartedly in the background, she talked to me for fifteen or twenty minutes. Sabrina eventually sent me scans of the typed, two-page letter (see the excerpts below), and I added two paragraphs to the last chapter of the book just before the final version went to press.
This was extremely interesting to me because, despite the fact that Tanner no doubt wrote and sent thousands of letters during his life, virtually none have survived—at least none known to me or available in archives. I’d obtained copies of perhaps a dozen letters between Tanner and a close friend, but that was it. Even more interesting is that fact that this particular letter, written in 1926, less than a year before Tanner died, was to an old comrade in the 87th New York who had been among the five men who carried the grievously wounded teenager off the battlefield more than six decades earlier. Jaycox was a fellow Schoharie County native (from Jefferson, about fifteen miles from Tanner’s home town of Cobleskill).
Tanner’s letter was chatty (he mentioned his two unmarried daughters, who both worked in the US government and with whom he lived in a big house on Du Pont Circle, as well as his sons, an army officer and lawyer, and his only nephew) and cheerful, beginning “I had one of the surprises of my young life” (he wrote this at the age of 82!) when he had heard that Jaycox was still alive. He had been mistakenly informed twenty years earlier that his friend had died. The old Corporal recounted that hot day in Virginia, when the five frightened soldiers had made sure Tanner had a full canteen and was safe in the farmhouse-turned hospital filled with bloody, groaning men, and then fled just before the Confederates arrived.
The characteristics that I had associated with Tanner through his few surviving writings and through the extensive press coverage of his long career came through clearly in the letter: his good humor, his gregariousness, his gratitude to people who helped him—and his understandable inability to stop thinking about that hot Virginia day when he lost the bottom third of both legs. The most poignant part of the letter was his account of a trip he had taken earlier in the fall, a little detail in his life that I had not known. “Well, Jim,” he admitted to his long-lost friend, “it will sound rather strange to you, and it seemed strange to me when I did it.” He and two carloads of “friends of modern times . . . some [former] Confederates among them,” had driven from Washington to the battlefield at Manassas, where they looked for familiar landmarks. They found the old Van Pelt farmhouse, the building that had served as the makeshift hospital where he and over a hundred captured, wounded Yankees had suffered for ten days in stifling heat and humidity and with virtually no medical care. There, he “walked into that same room and sat down with my chair exactly on the spot where you laid me down that night.” He went on, “you can easily imagine that a great many thoughts surged up in my mind; it was a soul-stirring time to me.” He promised to send Jaycox a copy of his Red Cross Magazine article. “I had a horrible experience as you will easily imagine when you read it.” He hoped that in the spring his old friend would come down to Washington so they could make the same journey together “and live over the old days to a considerable extent. I can hardly believe that these things have come to pass myself.”
That’s really all there is to it; Tanner added a few remarks about hometown politics and then signed off. It’s quite unlikely that the two ever got together, since Jaycox still lived in upstate New York, far from Washington, and Tanner’s health declined throughout the spring and summer of 1927 before his death in September.
But, aside from the small details that helped provide a fitting end to Tanner’s story, the letter provides hints of many of the issues that I address in America’s Corporal and that historians of the Civil War have been confronting for years: how this most costly of all American wars affected the men who fought it, the ramifications of disability and memory, and reconciliation between the North and the South. But in addition to offering one man’s remembrance of a life shattered by wounds that never physically healed, the letter provides a bittersweet reflection on the passage of time and the ways in which the past, as the writer William Faulkner wrote, “is never really dead.” For Tanner that idea was literal: a split second of blood and terror led to sixty-five years of walking awkwardly on two prosthetic legs, constant pain, and sleepless nights. For historians it’s more figurative; since we can never know everything about any historical figure or event, it remains alive, at least to us, as we continue to search through archives, public documents, newspapers—and, once in a blue moon, letters found by perfect strangers in faraway attics!