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In a field hospital outside Richmond in 1862, a rebel soldier tending to the fallen makes a terrible discovery: “I came upon a Union soldier with a scalp wound and while I was dressing it my attention was attracted to the cap he had with him. I recognized it by the name cut on the visor as the property of my brother. I asked him how he came in possession of it and he answered that he had lost his own and had taken this one from a dead Confederate soldier lying near him.”
That’s how Edgar Warfield finds out about the death of his brother George, “fighting in his shirt sleeves…shot through the breast, and…bayonetted in the stomach after he fell.” This isn’t the sort of flowery prose that gets hand-picked by Ken Burns and set to weeping fiddles. Just the cold, hard facts, plus a terse eulogy to a stout-hearted brother: “He was killed at the most advanced point reached by our regiment.” Sounds more like Hemingway than the proto-Harlequin fluff that made Burns’ Civil War documentary such a hit with the soap-opera crowd.
To be fair, Warfield’s unsentimental account was written decades after the events, when he finally decided to pen his adventures as a private in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Two years after Warfield’s death in 1934, his sons had about 100 copies printed, mostly for family and friends. McLean’s EPM Publications has reprinted the book in a paperback edition, Manassas to Appomattox: The Civil War Memoirs of Pvt. Edgar Warfield: 17th Virginia Infantry, available at the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site in Alexandria.
An 18-year-old drugstore clerk when the war broke out, Warfield saw action in an astounding number of major and minor battles. During the four-year ordeal he slept under only one roof, when he was bedridden for two weeks. On the final retreat to Appomattox, he recalls matter-of-factly that Lee’s ragged troops survived on a daily ration of two ears of parched corn intended for the horses.
The memoir’s sole display of anger and vengefulness is directed at an unlikely target; on the march to Sharpsburg, Md., in 1862, Warfield stops at a house to ask the mistress for some water to make coffee: “She refused to let me have any and the language she used
in doing so was about as rough as could come from
the mouth of anyone. She was simply vile. But we had some little satisfaction a moment later, for while she
was still scolding us a shell fired from a Union battery which was shelling our lines from the opposite bank
of the Antietam came over and knocked off the top of her chimney…”
After the war, Warfield returned to his native Alexandria and ran a drugstore for 40 years, eventually becoming the city’s oldest living Confederate veteran. He was also the driving force behind the erection of Alexandria’s monument to its fallen sons. Unveiled in 1889 and titled Appomattox, the statue depicts a brooding rebel soldier, defiantly facing south. It still stands in the middle of Washington Street in the heart of Old Town.