Sunday, May 17, 2015

Let Slip the Dogs of War, Part 3

This is a tale about growing up, going from puppyhood to doghood. It begins on a hot day in eastern North Carolina.

At daybreak, April 19, 1862, the 1,952 men who belonged to Colonel Rush Hawkins’s brigade reached a small village called Shiloh, which sat near the beaches of the Pasquotank River. Several hours earlier, at 3 A.M., these Union troops had slogged their way ashore, disembarking a fleet of poorly-anchored U.S. Navy transports. Hawkins’s brigade possessed orders to reach the main road on the peninsula and march north to Norfolk, passing through the town of Camden. Somewhere beyond that point, the bluecoats expected to meet Confederate resistance, and as it later transpired, a battle did indeed erupt. At 3 P.M., Hawkins’s brigade and another Union brigade slammed against a defensive position at the  canal village of South Mills, resulting in a two-hour battle that cost the bluecoats 120 casualties.

But that is another story. As of daybreak, Hawkins’s men were still hours from their destination, seasick, and hungry. Somewhere near Shiloh village—or perhaps beyond it—soldiers belonging to Company I, 6th New Hampshire Infantry, scoured the area looking for water and forage. An unnamed soldier from that company found a farm house. Underneath the porch, in the shade, he found a dog and her litter of three-month-old puppies. The unnamed soldier coaxed the three puppies to come to him, and when one of the dogs took a liking to that attention, the soldier determined to take the little fella along. Not long after, the drums roared the call to “fall in,” and the New Hampshire soldier realized his dilemma. Somehow, he needed to carry the puppy along with his other gear. “How to carry him was a puzzle,” the soldier later wrote. “I had on a pair of boots which I wore from home; these I took off, and tying the straps at the top, [I] put the puppy into one boot, and throwing the pair over my shoulders went thus into battle, . . . puppy and all.”

Nine hours (and many miles) later, when the 6th New Hampshire struck the Confederate line near South Mills, the unnamed Union soldier and his puppy endured the ferocity of combat together (with the dog still slung blissfully on the soldier’s back). As it happened, both man and dog narrowly dodged a cannon ball. A solid shot struck the sand in front of the regiment, causing most of the soldiers to duck. The unnamed private hit the dirt, but the man in front of him, Private Curtis Flanders, remained standing, taking the brunt of the projectile, falling dead over the soldier and his canine companion. (Flanders was, incidentally, the first soldier from the regiment to be killed in battle.)

The soldier and his puppy came out of the battle unscathed, and in fact, along with three other New Hampshire soldiers, they stole a buggy from a nearby home and rode it back to the Pasquotank River during the Union retreat, taking with them a number of pilfered chickens.

After that, the dog became a permanent member of the regiment. The soldiers named him Jep, and he stood in line with the regiment every day at morning roll call, barking when the orderly sergeant called his name. One soldier later wrote, “The boys were very much attached to him, because he showed so much courage and such true loyalty to the regiment, notwithstanding his ‘Southern birth’.” No one ever specified what breed of dog he was, but the few accounts that described him suggested that Jep was possibly a mix of blood hound and Yellow Labrador retriever.

Jep served with the 6th New Hampshire for more than two years, campaigning with the regiment as the war took the regiment to North Carolina, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Virginia. The regimental historian remarked, “Dogs generally fear firearms when discharged in volleys, but this one went into battle and stuck by to the end.” Circumstances are not clear, but it appears that Jep was killed in action on September 30, 1864, at the Battle of Poplar Springs Church. The morning after the battle, Jep failed to put in his usual appearance at roll call, and as regimental historian Lyman Jackman asserted, “it was always supposed that he was killed the day before, as he was seen in the hottest of the fight.”

The veterans of the 6th New Hampshire felt tremendous sadness at the loss of their beloved dog. It needs no repeating from me a truism, that most dogs, when treated well, become like family. Dogs adore having both place and purpose. In the 6th New Hampshire, Jep had both. (Also, he had about 300 friendly soldiers who could give him a good belly rub at a moment’s notice, which is all any dog really wants.) He spent a preciously short period of time on this earth. It warms my heart to know that for his two years of doghood, Jep spent it with a good set of men. It isn’t the duration of our time alive that determines the quality of our existence, but how often we spend it doing what we love, and with whom we love.

This is "Old Jep," the 6th New Hampshire's regimental mascot. He was born in Eastern North Carolina in February 1862, but was killed-in-action, September 30, 1864.

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