While researching the 11th Michigan Volunteer Infantry for my Civil War novel, The Edge of Hell, I came to know many names/personalities from the ranks of the regiment. One of the most memorable and entertaining was a young man in Company E–Borden M. Hicks, or Bird, as he was apparently called by others. John Downey, another member of the regiment, described Borden as a “smooth-faced, green looking boy.” Borden may have been boyish in appearance, but by the time he left the regiment with the rank of captain three years after his enlistment he was a mature, war-weary man of twenty-one years.
It was after the war that he wrote an account of his experiences, and this was read before the Minnesota Commandery of the Military Order of the the Loyal Legion of the United States, November 17, 1907. This narrative easily reveals Bordon’s sense of humor, one that no doubt was responsible for helping him survive the horrors of Civil War combat in places like Stone’s River, Chickamauga, and the Atlanta Campaign. Borden was there for some of America’s most important crucibles, and lived to tell the tale.
This will be the first part of a series that I will be reproducing here, for the knowledge and entertainment of others, of Borden’s speaking engagement that day long ago. First-person accounts like these make the job of researching a joy. They put flesh and blood on the memories of those who preserved the country that we know today. Borden’s narrative of joining the service, told in this first part, tells a tale that was reflective of thousands of other boys, North and South, at the start of the war, including resistance from parents when enlisting as well as a naivete about what lay ahead.
Without further adieu, I give you the incomparable Borden “Bird” Hicks in his own words:
Commander, companions, and the guests of the Commandery:
I have no apology to make for this paper, but give you fair warning, that there will be no display of rhetoric, well-rounded sentences, or flights of eloquence.
I beg you to overlook the numerous repetitions of the personal pronoun, for how could it be otherwise in a paper of personal recollections, than that I should be the most important person.
CAUSES OF THE WAR
Now look pleasant, don’t heave a long sigh, and nudge your neighbor and say we are in for it again.
A certain farmer was ploughing a field with a yoke of oxen, the off ox would not follow the furrow without lots of persuasion, and finally the farmer lost his patience, and said, go where you damn please, the whole field has got to be ploughed anyway; and so on this occasion, the causes of the war have got to be given, for who would attempt the writing of a paper on war, without giving it a proper setting.
I don’t think it would be making too broad an assertion, when I say that I know as much about the causes of the war of the rebellion, as ninety out of every one hundred men who took part in it.
When the Star of the West, loaded with reinforcements and supplies for Major Anderson at Fort Sumter, was fired on in the harbor of Charleston, I was a school boy not quite seventeen. I had heard of the Missouri Compromise, Masons and Dixons Line, the underground railway to Canada and John Brown’s raid. Yet all of these events did not make me lose my head, or fire with a desire to clean out the South. I kept on with my school (my mother insisted on my attending school regularly) till the end of the term. I heard the shrill notes of the fife, the rattling of the snare drum, saw the boys marching up and down the street and heard the drill master shout in clarion tones, “Left–left–left,” then, and not till then, did I realize that our Southern brothers were causing an unholy war. My heart was set on fire with an intense desire and longing to serve my country, to go down south into Dixie land, and shoot those misguided southern “fire-eaters” back into the Union. Not a bit of it. Rather, my heart was on fire with an intense desire and longing to be a soldier. All I wanted was a chance to don a uniform, to march and fight, to do some heroic deed and come back home and be admired by the girls, as a hero. Was not that patriotism?
I have been very explicit in setting forth the causes of the war, and hope that you will pardon me for going into this much-discussed subject so thoroughly.
Before I go farther, I want to give my obituary notice, as I may not escape from this audience alive.
I enlisted in June, 1861, at the age of seventeen; was mustered into the United States service for three years, or during the war on the 24th day of August, as duty sergeant in Company E, Eleventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry, was promoted to Second Lieutenant at the Battle of Stone River, at age eighteen and to Captain at Chickamauga at nineteen; was discharged on account of expiration of term of service the 13th day of September, 1864, at Sturgis, Michigan, being then twenty years old.
After becoming so proficient in the school of the soldier that it was possible to put the left foot forward at the command march, and to distinguish between the right and left without too long a deliberation, we were ordered to join the regiment at its rendezvous at White Pigeon, Michigan, about the 15th of August. Everything had gone smoothly up to this time, and now my father stepped in and said, “I will not consent to your going,” so I arranged with the Captain to send a Corporal of the Guard to my home and arrest me. Well do I remember as we marched out of the front gate, my father saying that by this act I ceased to be a son of his, and that from now on he disowned me. But when I was made a Second Lieutenant, he was so proud of his son that he made me a visit at Murfreesboro. We were mustered into the service August 24th, 1861, for three years, or during the war. Many a warm discussion did we have over what “during the war” meant, the majority insisting that it meant if the war lasted longer than three years, we would have to stay till the end. But that interpretation of the enlistment clause did not bother us, as we were only fearful that we would not get south before the war end.
ARMING AND EQUIPPING
Here our uniforms were issued, dress coats with brass shoulder scales (frying pans as we called them), not only foraging caps, but the tall, stiff black hat. As no chevrons were issued to us we bought tape and put them on ourselves, not quite as artistic as the government issue, but they told the onlookers that we were officers, and did not belong to the common herd. Then we asked for furloughs to go home, and see the girls in our new togery, and when we got there we made a beeline for the photographers, and did not rest till we had our pictures taken in all the panoply of war. They were distributed not only to our best girl, but to all who asked for them.
Here we drew our first arms, consisting of a good heavy hickory club, to do guard duty with, and we respected those clubs in the hands of a uniformed soldier of Uncle Sam, far more than we did the Springfield rifle loaded with ball cartridge after we had been in the service a year.
Just before “entraining,” that is what they call it now, but then it was taking the cars, the Belgian musket was issued to us, the gun that we feared more than we did the rebels, as it was sure to hit us every time it was fired, whether the three buckshot and round ball with which it was loaded hit what we aimed at or not.
(Next time: “In Dixies Land.”)