Monday, April 13, 2009

"Oh, why should I have to die this way . . . "


Many regiments during the Civil War were composed of men from a single locality; men who had played together as boys, courted the same girls, were friends, cousins, fathers, and brothers. Such was the case of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry, part of General John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee. The roster of the 43rd Mississippi included two sons of George Augustus Sykes of Aberdeen, Mississippi: Adjutant William Sykes and his younger brother, Colonel Columbus Sykes, (shown at right).

In late October, 1864, Hood's army made what he later called a "slight demonstration" at Decatur, Alabama. For three days, his 40,000 Confederates besieged the town, occupied initially by only 2,000 Union soldiers, although reinforcements swelled their ranks to 6,000 before the siege was lifted.

On October 26, 1864, the 43rd Mississippi was ordered into action. As the brothers in arms took their places in the line of battle, they did so on land on which William had played as a child. On this plantation near Decatur, where he had been born on January 28, 1835, William Sykes was mortally wounded, dying at ten o'clock the following morning in a house once owned by his father.

Stricken with grief, Columbus accompanied his brother's body back to Mississippi for burial. Before returning to his regiment, he penned a letter to William's two children, "one, just emerged from his mother's arms; the other, an infant, whose age is numbered only by months," who would know their father only through the reminisces of others. Columbus' prose revealed his depth of loss, his longing for better days past, his firm belief and undying loyalty to the Confederate cause, and his earnest desire that William be remembered as a virtuous, courageous man.

Sykes told of William's bravery amid "the whistling of balls and the screeching of shells; while over all floats - on one side, the white banner of the South - on the other, the hated symbol of despotism." Describing his brother as having possessed a "mind and heart which knew no guile; the intellectual and emotional nature which pulsated only to bless," Columbus expressed his anguish that "those lofty traits of character, which endeared my brother to all who knew him," would now "live only in the bosom of those who mourn his utimely loss." Recalling the sad sojourn from Decatur to Mississippi, he wrote of passing the sight of LaGrange College, William's alma mater, now "destroyed last summer, by the ruthless hand of the invader. Little did I think when he left it so young and happy - that eleven years afterward I would bring his mangled body along the road, which winds beneath the shadow of the everlasting hills - upon the summit of which rest its charred and blackened remnants."

Columbus despaired that he was unable to "give you even a partial account of his heroic endurance and his gallantry during his entire connection with the service, or do justice to his merits as an officer and a soldier." But Columbus promised that "Some future day, when you and I have grown older - and the independence for which he fought has been established - I may recount to you many interesting remembrances of him who has gone."

William's final words were recounted: "Tell Augusta," (his wife), "I loved her to the last, though she well knows, and that I wish her ambrotype buried with me. Tell my little boy - never to use profane language - never to drink intoxicating liquors, or use tobacco in any form - and never to visit improper places." Inconsolable, Columbus concluded his doleful epistle with an expression of his own grief: "My only, my precious brother - farewell. I have followed you from the cradle to the grave; have knelt by your couch and closed your eyes in death."

Columbus Sykes rejoined the Army of Tennessee near Itawamba, Mississippi on January 5, 1865, as it was retreating following the disastrous defeat at Nashville. That night, he rested with two other officers in a tent near a large, dead oak tree. At approximately two o'clock the following morning, the tree's root system gave away and the tree crashed down on the tent, crushing the bodies of all three men.

In 1922, J. L. Collins, a former private in the 43rd Mississippi, recalled the events of that tragic night. "Writhing in pain," Columbus exclaimed "Oh, why should I have to die this way - if I could only have died in battle - like my brother - I could willingly die. Oh, it is too bad, too bad." Breathing his last, Sykes asked Collins to "Tell my dear wife and children I loved them to the last."

William Sykes died a hero's death on a battlefield that once been his father's home. Colonel Columbus Sykes died in a much less glorious manner. But in a way, he too returned to his father in death. He was laid to rest in the Dr. George Augustus Sykes Square, in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, in Aberdeen Mississippi.

1 comment:

Sherree Tannen said...

Hi Tony,

I linked to your blog via CW Memory. This is a heartbreaking story that touches on many aspects of the reality of war. No doubt many soldiers in many wars have asked the question, "Oh, why should I have to die this way?" I don't know if the Battle of Greenville Tennessee is in your area of research, but my great great great grandfather was killed in that battle. Before he left for the battle, he willed two horses to two of his sons, saying in the will that he did so, in case he "did not return". He didn't return. Thanks for the post.