Saturday, April 21, 2012

Captain Morris Rees Remembers

Captain Morris Rees

Through the recollections of Civil War soldiers, we learn that they, like others who have served in combat, struggled with the haunting memories of their experience. One of those was Captain Morris Rees, the last surviving commissioned officer of the 72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

Before the war, Rees lived near Rollersville, Ohio, surrounded by a large number of his Welsh relatives. He remembered that at the age of 23, he “had the war fever so bad” that he left his wife and child “and went to Woodville alone in the night for the purpose of enlisting.” So filled with patriotism was Rees, that he recruited his friends, neighbors, and relatives to join him in fighting for the Union cause.

But the Civil War was not the glorious adventure Captain Rees had envisioned. He endured some of the conflict’s most horrific battles, disease, wounds, and months of imprisonment. Rees survived, but many of those he had recruited did not. After the war, Captain Rees wrote that he had “often looked at that long list of names and thought how soon they were all used up, nearly all gone in less than a year.”

Among the many Rees recruited was his uncle Evan, who died shortly after enlisting. He left behind a widow and three sons in a fragile economic state. Perhaps most painful for Rees was the death of his younger brother John. Immediately after Captain Rees’ release from prison, he went directly to Andersonville where his brother had languished near death for more than nine months. With the war nearly at an end, Captain Rees gained his brother’s freedom by threatening the Rebel guard with his life. But John was so weak that he died before reaching home.

When the veterans of the 72nd gathered for reunions, they rarely recounted their victories and their heroic war deeds. Instead, Captain Rees and others became pre-occupied with compiling and publishing the names, death dates, and burial places of their lost comrades. As survivors, it was their way of honoring the suffering and sacrifice of their lost comrades.

Sharing their memories of death and loss was not enough. Rees and 16 Sandusky County veterans returned to the South in 1887. Rees recorded the condition of the cemeteries and the exact number of graves in each. Perhaps in some way, seeing the old battlefields and cemeteries brought a measure of healing to the captain. However, he remained deeply disturbed by the “thousands of unidentified dead.”

In time, Captain Rees and other veterans worked to erect monuments at home and on the battlefields of Shiloh, Antietam, Chickamauga, and Vicksburg. In this 150th year of commemoration, the monuments serve as vivid reminders of the suffering and sacrifice of so many who gave their “last full measure” in the defining moment of our nation’s history.

A version of this post appeared in Lifestyles 2000.

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