Friday, March 7, 2014

Hard service for 3 more years 'will make me a cripple'

With bounties rising for new recruits in late 1863, the Union army offered big bonuses for men already in the ranks to re-enlist for three more years, till the end of 1866. Henry B. Wetzell decided to pass.

Wetzell was a corporal in the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers. He had been in the army since August 1862. Most of his comrades took the money and re-enlisted. On Jan. 14, 1864, a few weeks after Wetzell decided not to, he and several others of like mind from his regiment were abruptly transferred to the 11th New Hampshire.

Wetzell wrote his father, Aaron Wetzell, in Slifer, Pa., to explain the situation and to express confidence that his new comrades from New Hampshire would treat the Pennsylvanians as gentlemen.

The letter was written from Strawberry Plains in East Tennessee, where both the 51st Pennsylvania and the 11th New Hampshire were serving in Ambrose Burnside’s 9th Corps. Here is what Wetzell had to say about his decision:

“You mention the reimbursement question in your last letter. Well, I have taken your advice and did not enlist. I studied the question day and night. It weighed heavily on my mind. I studied the question thoroughly on both sides. Strong inducements were held out to me to re-enlist. Good offers made to me by Officers if I would enlist, etc. etc., but I thought it to be one of the most important cases to decide that I ever had before me.

“I am going by the time my present time expires. I will be nearly old enough to start out in the world for  myself  if ever. A young man in civil life of my age can do far better than serving a military life for 3 years. In 3 years at home I may become fitted for some useful employment in life, something that may be of benefit to me and to others. 3 years more may ruin any young man of my age both morally and physically although I feel pretty well convinced that I am far healthier and have a much stronger constitution than when I left home. Yet 3 years more of as hard service as I have seen since I have been out will make me a cripple.

“These and many other reasons caused me to take a decided stand against re-enlisting and I am persuaded that I took the right course though the excitement ran very high for a few days and caused the greater part of our Reg't to enlist and many who did enlist began to see their folly.

“We were transferred from the 51st Pa. yesterday to the 11th N.H.V. where we now are all who did not enlist in our Reg't. We left yesterday morning. Our Reg’t remained in camp and on picket duty.

“Our whole camp moved here yesterday from Blair’s Cross Roads 12 miles nearer Knoxville along the R. R. so that we can get supplies handier. The cars now run from Nashville here (16 miles from Knoxville) and we are beginning to get more clothing and rations already.

“It was pretty hard to leave behind us yesterday morning many friends whom we had become united together like as if we were all brothers. And also to part from the old ragged, riddled, and battled scarred flag which we had fought under in many a hard fought battle. But we left all these cheerfully as only a soldier can do feeling that we had chosen the right course.

“There are only 5 of our Co. with us who came along. H. C. McCormick, Dave Yoder, Wm. Achenbach, R.A.M. Harner and myself. I think we will be treated like gentlemen both by officers and men for there is not a more common set of people than these New Hampshire men to be found anywhere.”

“We are in a very fine place for a camp in the woods in plenty of good wood to burn and not far from the Holston River. I do not know how long we will remain here, but by all appearances by the way they are fixing up camp we will likely stay for some time. We have not fixed up any yet, but I suppose that we will be ordered to fix up tomorrow.”

Wetzell had thought things through and made a resolute decision. How he judged this decision in retrospect is unknown. He had volunteered for three years in August 1862, and the war ended before his time was up. He was discharged on May 15, 1865. Had he taken the bonus in December 1863, he would have left the army at around the same time but with a fatter pocketbook.

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