A Funny Little War Story
“Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
- Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried
Throughout history soldiers have tucked countless charms and talismans in their pockets before heading into battle. From love letters and photos to Bibles and medallions, men at war have carried with them anything and everything to give them what they needed most — hope for another day.
Author and novelist Tim O’Brien knows only too well the power in these talismans. He was 22 years old when he went to Vietnam where he served in the infantry from 1968 through 1970. In his acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel The Things They Carried he tells of the weapons and the burdens American soldiers carried with them every day. The weapons they would leave behind, the emotional burdens they wouldn’t.
What brings this to mind is the fact that not long ago I happened to discover an interesting memento that another war veteran carried into battle. His name was Alonzo Miller and the year was 1864.
A resident of Prescott, Wisconsin, Miller volunteered for enlistment during the Civil War. As a Private in the 12th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 3rd Division of the 17th Army Corps., he went on to fight in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, the Battle of Atlanta, the Savannah Campaign and the Campaign of the Carolinas, twice wounded before being honorably discharged at war’s end.
Miller carried with him a ‘Daily Miniature Diary’ for each year he served; and how this all gets to me is that through my father’s bloodlines I came to inherit those diaries, each one small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, or the shirt pocket of a Union soldier. Miller faithfully filled every page of those books, recording the everyday events in fine pencil, each word crammed together like soldiers on parade.
He was 25 years old in 1864. Throughout that year he described plainly but honestly a life that any veteran of any war would understand. The endless marching (often 12 to 15 miles a day as his Regiment made its way down dirt roads through Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia), the food, the common boredom and uncommon camaraderie of life in an army camp. And, yes, the deadly confrontations of battle, though detail in this regard is quite sparse.
But what intrigued me even more was what I found folded up and hidden in a back pouch of his 1864 diary. It was a newspaper clipping, a story neatly cut out and brown and brittle as parchment, though unfortunately there was no date or name of the newspaper included in the neatly clipped story. I pulled it out and unfolded it as carefully as I could. Was this the talisman the young man chose to carry with him throughout that long perilous year? Was there some secret message here that he clung to for the rest of his life?
Entitled A Dutchman’s Complaint, it’s a short piece of satire, maybe a thousand words, told by a fifty-year-old character with the outlandish name of Gottlieb Klobberyoss. Right away one sees the intended parody of dialect and demeanor when Herr Klobberyoss slurps down another drink and says:
“I dinks much about da war. Und da draft, und da rebils, and all about dese dings. I dinks about ’em more as about anyding else….De odder day begins de draft. Dat bodders me agin…So ven I gets tired mit drinkin on my own stoop, I goes down to Hans Butterfoos’s tavern, und I drinks dere, und I tells my opinion.”
True to his word, he goes to the tavern and drinks some more and offers more unflattering opinions of “rebil sojers” and Confederate President “Sheff Davis.”
The story reaches a conclusion that is none too dramatic or humorous, at least not by today’s standards. I myself have read the story several times and still can’t say exactly what the punch line is.
But that’s not the point. The mystery here, the real story, is what about this farcical conversation made Alonzo Miller think it important enough to carry with him every single day when any one of those days could have been his last?
Maybe he pulled it out and read it whenever the dull life of an infantryman overtook him. Maybe it reminded him that there was still a world of humor and life outside of war. Or maybe he just needed a chuckle now and then — understandable enough given the circumstances surrounding his life at the time.
Whatever the reason it must have worked because Alonzo Miller’s luck held out and after the war he went on to raise a family and live a productive life for another fifty years before dying in 1917.
So while the men who once wrote and read the words on that tiny scrap of paper are all but unknown today, a very small part of who they were and what they did still remains. And the tale of A Dutchman’s Complaint has outlived that war and those who fought it by a century and a half.
Now that makes this a funny little war story.