Wednesday, April 6, 2016

On Shiloh's 154th anniv., an ode to a fifer who was there and a note about social media

Veteran W.Y. Jenkins plays his fife (Courtesy of R. Serroels)

Shiloh National Military Park this week is marking the 154th anniversary of the epic contest in the Civil War’s Western Theater. Visitors are tromping through fields and woods for hikes and tours that are bringing the battle to life.

Many more people are following activities through the federal site’s “aggressive” social media, which provide real-time updates for certain programming, such as today (April 6).

That outreach can elicit responses that add richness and context to the story of the two-day clash in southern Tennessee on April 6-7, 1862. Such was the case last weekend after the park posted photos of a whiteboard filled on both sides with the names of soldiers and their units.

Rangers had asked visitors to list ancestors who fought in the Civil War. They, like the men who fought here, tend to be from the Midwest or Deep South.

Richard Serroels, who has not been to Shiloh in about 30 years, was among those responding to a park Facebook post showing the whiteboard.

“My maternal great-grandfather, Warren Young Jenkins, was a fife player at Shiloh,” the Marietta, Ga., resident wrote. “The family donated his fife to the museum and it was put on display along with other battlefield instruments from the war. He was with the 9th Illinois Infantry.”

Jenkins' fife is on display at Shiloh (Courtesy NPS)

The Picket spoke to Shiloh ranger Chris Mekow and Serroels on Tuesday, curious about the impact of social media and the story of Jenkins, who survived the war, was married for more than six decades and ended his days in Canon City, Colo.

In later years, Jenkins wrote a riveting account of the carnage at Shiloh, which saw more than 23,000 casualties and, eventually, a Union victory.

The 9th Illinois, part of Hurlbut’s division, suffered enormous losses as it bore the brunt of Confederate assaults throughout April 6. Some 103 men were killed and 263 wounded, one of the highest rates for a unit at the battle. (Interestingly, the 9th Illinois was positioned not far from where Confederate commander Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston was mortally wounded.)

Like other musicians, Jenkins, a private, served as a medical orderly when bullets and artillery rounds started flying. After one Rebel shell landed, the Company H fifer carried two wounded soldiers to the rear and went back for a third and found him sitting behind a large stump.

Jenkins, then age 23, wrote later:

“I said, ‘Come, now, and I will take you to the field hospital to have your wound dressed.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, I am mortally wounded; see here!’ and he opened his clothing, uncovering his wound. The shell had torn out three or four ribs on his left side and I could see his heart throbbing. He took out his watch and handed it to me, telling me to send it to his girl (I suppose his intended wife, a German name that I cannot remember). I wrote his name on a small bit of paper and closed it up in the back of the watch and later gave it to his captain with the written instructions to send it to the lady at Belleville, Illinois.” (Jenkins was from Hillsboro, Ill., about 50 miles south of Springfield.)

Jenkins came across the soldier’s remains three days later while on burial detail.

Whiteboard filled with soldiers' names at Shiloh (NPS)

He provided other details of the fighting, including his attempt to fire a weapon belonging to a killed comrade. He asked another soldier for a cap to prime the gun.

“He looked down to get a cap and a ball from the enemy passed through his cartridge box and blowed the cartridge box all to splitherines with 30 or 40 rounds of cartridges right up into both of his eyes and my left eye,” recounted the musician. “The injury to Arthur's eyes turned out serious in after years. He went totally blind. My left eye was injured for life.”

Later in the evening, Jenkins cared for more wounded at a steamboat landing and helped build a makeshift coffin and bury an orderly sergeant who had suffered intensely.

Today, Jenkins’ fife, which he was known to proudly play throughout his life, is on display at Shiloh’s museum. The family donated it in the early 1990s, Mekow told the Picket.

The ranger said the whiteboard, which was labeled “Find Your Park” as part of the National Park Service’s centennial celebration, is part of an effort to get more interaction with visitors, whether in person or via social media. Many interested in the battle – such as Serroels -- cannot get to the remote location. “You have got to make a trip to get here,” said Mekow.

The park is active on five platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr. 

“Shiloh has the most active and so far most engaging Facebook page of any Civil War park in the Southeast,” said Mekow. “We have been very aggressive. We are a daily poster. We follow live events in real time.”

“(This) actually gets our programs to people who will never be able to step foot on this battlefield.”

Two comrades in arms, music (R. Serroels)

Posts and video’s aren’t just about the military action, though there is plenty of that. Some look at the park’s natural features, or music. Readers really like the behind-the-scenes stuff, Mekow said, such as remodeling or work on a park feature.

An example was then-and-now photos of a monument dedicated in 1913. “That one went off the charts.”

Shiloh National Military Park has several activities planned to mark the NPS’s 100th birthday, including a summer concert series. In November, memorial luminaries will be placed in the park’s Corinth, Ms., unit and around that city.

Shiloh and other NPS sites regularly tell the stories of men such as Jenkins, who served a couple stints before mustering out in August 1864. (Jenkins tells a sweet story of visiting home a few months before he got out, playing “Home, Sweet Home” on the fife to his mother.)

Jenkins described the scene as he and other boys returned home.

“Nearly every one of the 29 men that arrived at Hillsboro August 29, 1864, had been absent since April 17, 186(1), 3 years, 4 months and 12 days. When we left there were 110 of us marched to the depot. Where were the 81 missing boys? Why most of them were sleeping the sleep that knows no waking. Some of them in unknown graves.”

9th Illinois monument (background) at Shiloh cemetery (NPS)

The 9th Illinois went on to take part in the Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea, and seeing further action in the Carolinas before mustering out after war’s end. It listed 417 men having died from wounds or disease.

A few months before the farmer mustered out, Jenkins had married Susan – a union that produced numerous children and lasted 62 years until her death in 1926. They lived in Illinois and Kansas before moving to Colorado in 1899. Jenkins was active in the Grand Army of the Republic and assisted a fellow veteran in receiving benefits. He would occasionally play his fife, a wooden flute that produces shrill notes. He passed away in 1929 at 90.

A member of a GAR lodge in Colorado a decade before adapted a seven-stanza ode to honor Jenkins’ “historical fife,” which he continued to play on Memorial Day. The verse concludes:

Now worn and gray like the comrades brave,
Who faced the bullet and screaming shell,
It sounds no more in the camps or field
The old commands in a thrilling swell.

When Jenkins answers the last roll call,
And departs from this mortal sphere,
I am sure he would rest more peaceful all
If he knew his old fife was near.

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