“No man has seen it but all men know it. Lighter than air, sharper than any sword. Comes from nothing, but will fell the strongest armies.”
This tale is about hunger. In 1864, it killed a Massachusetts soldier in a rather strange way.
This story begins on the blustery night of December 1, 1863, amid the Union retreat from the Battle of Mine Run. That night, the weary infantrymen of the 1st Corps trudged east, vacating their entrenchments. Although the bluecoats felt the sting of defeat, a more pressing issue arose in that many of them felt the gnawing pangs of hunger due to their depleted rations. Hunger, rain, cold, and wind culminated in a night of sheer misery. Further, it was a “stop and go” march. Every few miles, the column halted in the darkness, giving the soldiers enough time to fall out and attempt to get comfortable, but only to have their brief, fitful relaxation interrupted by officers who regularly called upon the men to douse their campfires and get moving again.
This stop and go aspect of the withdrawal angered many enlisted men, but none took the retreat as badly as Private William F. Emerson of Company D, 12th Massachusetts. He was a spare man with an active stomach. As a rule, Emerson grew famished with surprising suddenness and intensity, and on this particular night, as one comrade described him, he was “wild with hunger and moaned piteously over his hard fate.” Even more frustrating, Emerson had recently acquired a pint of raw beans, but because none of the pauses lasted for any significant duration, he had no opportunity to cook them. Every time the regiment halted, Emerson immediately went to work lighting a fire, only to have his cooking interrupted by the officers. Each time, he reluctantly regained his place in ranks, his beans still raw. One of his friends, Corporal George Kimball, later related, “[The] occasional halts . . . were of short duration and offered meager opportunities for culinary operations. Emerson, however, improved each shining moment during these brief cessations of the tramp by building fires and making desperate attempts to boil his beans.”
Indeed, the scene even became comical. Kimball continued:
Sometimes the water in his dipper would merely become warm and at others it would show actual signs of boiling, but the inevitable cry of “Forward!” from the colonel would salute Emerson’s unwilling ears at the crucial moment and set him to grumbling louder than ever. Then he would pour on the water and trudge on. The boys, of course, did not neglect to chaff him unmercifully.
Finally, at one stop, which was longer than the others, Emerson got a decent fire going and his beans began to crack open. The inevitable order came to fall in, but Emerson refused to budge. He intended to sit and eat his beans, no matter what the rest of the army did. Sternly, his lieutenant reminded him of the proximity of the Confederates, while his comrades kindly entreated him to shoulder his rifle and join the column. But Emerson would hear none of it. Kimball related, “Hunger had made him desperate. He turned a deaf ear to everything and everybody, exclaiming in a tone which showed that reason no longer held sway over his mind, ‘I’ll eat them now if I have to eat them in hell!’” With that, the column trudged on, leaving Emerson hunched over his fire like a gargoyle. Slowly but surely, his lonely silhouette receded into the dark, squally night.
The soldiers of the 12th Massachusetts never saw Emerson again. The soldiers of the regiment made their back to the encampment at Brandy Station and some of them watched intently the roads as the stragglers from that arduous march ambled their way into camp, but Private Emerson was not among them. The last anyone had seen of him was his stooped form hunkered around this sullen campfire eating his beans.
Eventually, the soldiers in the 12th Massachusetts learned of Emerson’s fate. A report arrived from Georgia confirming that he had died in Confederate captivity. As it happened, Confederate soldiers captured Emerson on the night of December 4 and he became one of the first inmates to enter Andersonville prison when it opened for business in February 1864. The abnormally hungry Massachusetts soldier did not last two months in the awful prison pen, dying of malnutrition on April 7. Emerson’s comrades had to have known that given his aggressive stomach, no place on earth could have presented Emerson with more suffering than the food-scarce wasteland of Andersonville. Indeed, Emerson’s last message to his friends—his prophesy that he would eat his beans in hell, if need be—had become reality in the truest possible way.
The main point of this tale is that although Emerson died on April 7, 1864, his hunger had condemned him to death on the night of December 1, 1863. His decision to fall out and eat his beans set into motion the chain of events that killed him four months later. This concept was not lost on Corporal George Kimball, who remembered the loss of Emerson for the rest his life. Twenty years later, Kimball reminded his readers: “Let us hope that what poor Emerson did to bring about a restoration of the Union and a better order of things and what he suffered in the cause of his country and mankind, may weigh in his favor in that great day when God shall judge us all for the deeds we have done in the body.”
Sharper than any sword, hunger comes from nothing, but will fell the strongest armies.