Times 2 - features
January 08, 2004
What did you do in the civil war, Dafydd?
By Brian Pedley
New research has revealed a little-known Welsh chapter in American history
A FADING photograph of ten veterans of a 19th-century war takes pride of place in a remote Welsh chapel. Stooped and silver-bearded, the men served with distinction in a conflict that eventually claimed more than 600,000 lives. The Mount Horeb chapel is in rural, southeastern Ohio. The frail Welshmen are seen gathered, in 1915, outside the clapboard church for a final reunion, clutching the Stars and Stripes and proud of their unlikely role in securing the Union through the downfall of the southern Confederacy half a century earlier. Now, almost 140 years since General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, most of Wales appears to have forgotten that the principality provided up to 9,000 of its dearest and best to wear the blue of President Lincoln’s Union army.
“In some regiments there were entire companies of Welsh,” says Dr Jerry Hunter, a lecturer in the Welsh department of the University of Wales, Bangor. “The 56th Ohio, for example, had more than 150 Welshmen. We even know of monoglot Welsh soldiers who only started to learn English while fighting the American Civil War.”
The 38-year-old academic, who was born in Cincinnati, has spent large parts of his adult life finding out why so much Welsh blood came to be spilt in another nation’s internal conflict. His findings are featured in a three-part documentary series on the Welsh channel S4C.
Hunter’s project began as a hobby when he was studying Welsh literature in the 1980s. Having mastered the Welsh language in an intensive eight-week course at Lampeter, he was fascinated to discover an early account of the American Civil War written entirely in Welsh.
“I thought that this was an isolated example,” he says. “But when I looked into the topic, I came across more and more, and I now have more than 9,000 pages of material, written by Welshmen who were witnesses to the war.”
The Welsh soldiers, most of whom came from the northern coal and iron communities of Pennsylvania and Ohio, the farms of Wisconsin and the slate quarries of Vermont and upstate New York, rallied to the Union cause. Their allegiances were driven by more than geography. This body of Welshmen, schooled as devoutly nonconformist Christians, was passionately opposed to slavery in all its forms. The Reverend Erasmus Jones, for example, campaigned fervently as an abolitionist and served as chaplain to the 21st US Coloured Infantry.
The youngest of men were prepared to give their lives fighting to preserve the freedoms of their adopted country. Lewis Lewis joined the Union army at 14, only to be captured and held at Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in southern Georgia. Of the 33,000 Union prisoners that were incarcerated within the 24-acre, open-air compound, 13,000 died from dysentery, typhoid or malnutrition, including Lewis, at the age of 17.
Others distinguished themselves through acts of extreme valour. Colonel William H. Powell, whose parents had brought him to the US as a child from Pontypool, led a regiment of Union cavalry in a vicious guerrilla war in West Virginia’s mountain wilderness. Despite sustaining serious wounds and being taken prisoner, the ironworker from Ohio survived the fighting and was promoted to Brigadier-General by the end of the war. At least one soldier achieved notoriety and fame in equal measure. The adventurer John Rowlands ran away to America from his native Denbighshire and fought for both the Union and the Confederacy, eventually changing his name to become Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer and journalist who found Dr David Livingstone hidden deep in Africa. Between 1861 and 1865, thousands more Welsh soldiers quietly did their duty, while recording their experiences in diaries, letters and poems. Hunter has a database of more than 400 Welsh-speaking combatants.
Ifan Dafis, from Wisconsin, for example, wrote poignantly of his first action at Perryville in Kentucky, where more than 3,000 men died from each side. “There, I came to know from experience what it feels like to stand and have other men shoot at me. We saw men, horses, mules and wagons moving about into a confused haste . . . and then the cannons were roaring over them, with grape shot and canister shot mowing the ranks of the enemy, and bullets of the enemy hissing past our ears and falling at our feet. We saw men deprived of arms and covered with blood, and horses without riders galloping down towards us. We were ordered to lie down for a few minutes. Oh what horrible minutes were those — lying there on our faces listening to the whizz of the shells and the hiss of the rifle balls over our heads. Yes, and listening to the moans of the wounded near us and the devilish screeching of the enemy.”
Hunter cites several reasons why the Welsh soldiers were able to bequeath such a treasure house of written material.
“The majority of the men were literate,” he says. “There was no censorship by the authorities and there was an efficient postal system.”
A steady stream of accounts reached not just the Welsh language newspapers in America, but also papers in Wales.
A Mr Griffiths of the Red Lion in Merthyr forwarded to the Merthyr Star a harrowing correspondence that his son John had sent from the battlefront in 1863.
“I thought that only a few living persons were spared on the earth when I saw so many dead men laying in their own blood,” wrote the young man. “I thank the most merciful God for his great favour in keeping me alive till this present time.”
The correspondence flowed in both directions, as Hunter discovered when he unearthed a letter from John Jones of Llanrug, North Wales, to his soldier grandson.
“You are great in my estimation and I think about you more often and at greater length than anybody else. I would have much preferred seeing you coming to visit me instead of going where you did. I would make sure that you had enough food without endangering your life at all.”
The old man signed himself “Dy drallodus Daid”— “Your worried grandfather”.
Not long afterwards, his grandson was killed in a skirmish in Louisiana.
Hunter empathises with the pain of those times.
“As an American, the history of the Civil War is close to my heart,” he says. “But it has been a revelation to find out how much impact the events had on Wales, my adopted home. The Civil War was the quintessential American experience, and these thousands of emigrant Welshmen played their part.”
The second of three one-hour programmes Cymry’r Rhyfel Cartref America (The Welsh in the American Civil War), a Cymni Da production, will be broadcast by S4C at 9pm on Tuesday January 13. Viewers outside Wales can receive the English-subtitled programmes on the digital satellite channel 184