Young Men and WarPosted: May 22, 2016
It was going to be a long, long war.
But men from Sugar Creek continued to don the blue uniform. Many of them were naïve young farm hands eager for adventure, only vaguely aware of the swirling currents that swept them into the coming whirlwind. They traded chores for the heady perfume of glory. Their enlistment papers were tickets to a different world beyond Sugar Creek and the Wabash. A nice uniform, a gun, money in their pockets, a little taste of glory, and then back home by Christmas as laureled heroes. It would be a grand reunion with loved ones, the hero striding back into a swell of admiration.
They would learn, though, and all too quickly. And they would mourn, and suffer, and watch as life ebbed out of friends on some hazed battleground. The whirlwind they marched into would define them, taunt them, haunt them for the rest of their lives. They would learn what millenia of soldiers before them realized all too late, that the declarers of wars, old and far from a battlefield, depend on the gullibility of young men.
But those were lessons still to be learned. Nearly a thousand Vigo County men enlisted in the two weeks after Fort Sumpter. That number grew ever larger over the summer. One of them was William Ray. He was 16. William and his older brother worked their widowed mother’s farm southwest of Macksville. You can also hear his pleas echo still, just like those of other boys over the centuries. “It will be okay, Ma. Nothing will happen to me. Lee can still run the farm, and little George is old enough now to help out more on the farm. You and the girls will be fine. Besides I’ll be home before you even miss me.” He enlisted May, 1861 as a Hundred Day Man in the 11th Indiana Infantry. After he was mustered out he returned alive and well as he had promised his mother. But he would go off to war again very soon. His next return home would be very different.
William joined the reorganized 11th Indiana Infantry. The 11th had originally been a regiment of 100 day men like William. When their enlistment was up and the men mustered out the unit was organized anew as a three year enlistment regiment. The 11th was led by Lew Wallace of Crawfordsville. Long before he wrote Ben Hur Wallace was a military man. He fought in the Mexican-American War as a teenager. He styled the regiment after the Zouaves, French infantry units known for their colorful uniforms.
Wallace chose their uniform which consisted of “a grey jacket with red trimming, a grey kepi with red braiding, a dark blue zouave vest, and grey pantaloons.” William must have looked grand in the uniform as the regiment was feted in Terre Haute and en route to Indianapolis. He was in Company “D” which was primarily made up of men and boys from Vigo County. Ray and the others were soon sent to the Paducah, Kentucky area to guard against Confederate troops heading north.
But young William was not to find the glory of war that may have inspired him. On November 11, 1861 he died, not by shell or bullet, but by disease. That day William and two other men in Company D perished. The cause was typhus, which took so many during the war. William died as the majority of those killed in the Civil War. 240,000 men died of diseases, more than double the number o those killed in action.
William Ray was brought back to Sugar Creek on November 22, 1861. Several of his buddies from the 11th were there to honor him. Along with his family they silently watched as his body lowered him into his grave at New Hope Cemetery.
There are some promises to their mothers young men are not allowed to keep.