Monday, July 29, 2013

Now Or Never

"Sir: You are hereby notified that you were, on the 20th day of May, 1864, legally drafted in the service of the United States for the period of three years, in accordance with the provision of the acts of Congress...You will accordingly report, on the 1st day of June 1864, at the place of rendezvous, in Taunton, or be deemed a deserter, and be subject to the penalty prescribed therefor by the Rules and Articles of War."

Lysander Heald was 37 years old, married, and a successful businessman in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. Five of his seven brothers had volunteered for military service. Two had died. One, in October, 1862, of disease, having been taken prisoner of war and held captive in Richmond. Another, three days before Lysander was drafted, of gunshot wounds received near Spotsylvania Courthouse.

On June 11, he paid a commutation fee of $300, thus obtaining exemption from military duty. For those of means, it was a common practice. Today, that amount would approximate $6,000. On August 9, in a surprising turn of events, he volunteered and was enlisted for one year in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, Heavy Artillery, Co. G. He was paid a bounty of $100. There is no indication that his commutation fee was refunded.

Why did he do it?

Perhaps—his brother Frank having died just days before he had been drafted—he felt remorse. Remorse for having not fulfilled his duty, a duty five of his brothers had fulfilled and, in so doing, two had sacrificed their lives.

Perhaps it was because, in August of 1864, northern morale was at a low ebb. After the massive blood-letting of the spring campaign in the Wilderness and beyond, Union forces were stalemated before Petersburg, Atlanta, and in the Shenandoah Valley. Many Republican leaders were advising the president to give up on emancipation and sue for peace. Lincoln himself had conceded that it was “exceedingly probable” that he would not win reelection in the autumn. The Union cause was teetering at the edge of a precipice.

It was now or never.

Whatever the reason, whatever soul-searching had transpired in those intervening weeks, he volunteered, leaving behind his wife, Margaret, a three-year old child, Arthur, and a thriving leather business. He went south to Washington, to the forts encircling the capital city, and manned the big guns. He was honorably discharged ten months later, in June, 1865, “by reason of Close of War.

Photo: Soldiers of the 3rd Massachusetts Regiment, Heavy Artillery, in Washington, D.C

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