Hear a side story of history

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Bonnie Martland
Special to the Valley News

John Early was a 15-year-old teenager who accompanied his father on a trip to meet his uncle. His father’s brother had agreed to give the young man a job. Young John was a bit nervous but quite excited at the prospect. His parents had engaged a tailor to make John a new and splendid suit of clothes, complete with pleats and ruffles. Coming from a family of all females at home, he had to admit the fairer set had taken care of sewing all his underwear.

John’s new suit was a confederate uniform, and young John’s uncle was Jubal A. Early, a major general and division commander in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. John was to be a courier at his uncle’s headquarters. It was the first week of July 1863, and John was on his way to Gettysburg. Gettysburg was a peaceful little town in southern Pennsylvania, but its confluence of roads made it a natural gathering place for Lee’s armies moving northward into Union territory and an artery for Union troops as well.

U.S. cavalry troops ran into Lee’s vanguard, and as John, his father and the Confederate troops they were riding with approached Gettysburg, they came under artillery fire. The soldiers hit the dirt as the slightly sunken road gave a modicum of protection. When John suggested perhaps they do the same, his father admonished him to stay in the saddle. John later admitted he bent his head to his horse’s neck as the shot passed closely by.

John’s party caught up to Gen. Early on the road. Upon seeing him, John recalled, his uncle remarked on how much smaller he was then he recalled and he was afraid, “I would not do.” His uncle was also determined to keep John out of the impending battle.

“I was greatly crestfallen, but determined, so just kept out of Gen. Early’s way for the rest of the time,” he said in his memoirs.

After the incidence with the artillery, John also remarked, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Uncle Jubal was right, and I was too small and too young to be a soldier.”

As the first day of battle at Gettysburg commenced, John spent the day helping the wounded and working with the ambulance corps. As night approached, he made his way to his uncle’s headquarters.

“I walked up to the porch in which Gen. Lee, Gen. Ewell and Gen. Rhodes and others I did not know” were in discussion. “The main subject of debate was as to whether Gen. Lee should advance that night and occupy the hills, which when the fighting commenced the next morning were occupied by Gen. Meade’s army.” After some discussion it was decided the risk of trying to get artillery up the hill at night was too high. “At this point,” John said. “Gen. Early left the porch and walked out into the yard as if tired of the discussion…”

John Early wrote his reminiscences in 1911, and when I came across them, I was intrigued. These seemingly insignificant personal insights into the past are what make history come alive. They are the back stories and side stories of history’s narrative. We all know the outcome of the battle of Gettysburg. When John joined his father on the retreat, he noticed his father had been injured; a bandage wrapped around a bloody leg wound. Coincidentally, another soldier’s recollection tells of a Capt. Samuel H. Early, who he tried to warn, but the captain refused to dismount and was hit by Union snipers on the streets of Gettysburg.

The Temecula Valley Historical Society meets every fourth Monday, at 6 p.m. at the Little Temecula History Center, the red barn at the corner of Wolf Store Road and Redhawk Parkway. Presentations are free and open to the public. A social time with refreshments begins at 5:30 p.m. On Oct. 28, Great Oak Press will present authors Gregory Cumming and Stephen Sayles, who will speak about their research on the Symbionese Liberation Army for their book, “Patricia Hearst, Queen of the Revolution. For more information about the Temecula Valley Historical Society and their programs, visit www.temeculavalleyhistoricalsociety.com.