Going AWOL in Springfield, 1861

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I recently completed a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the 1855 Brick House in Springfield, WV. One of the most interesting things I found during my research was a reference to the house in the book Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade  by John O. Casler. Casler was a Confederate soldier from Springfield and his book is one of the most famous accounts of the Civil War from the first-hand perspective of a private. Far from being a tale of heroics, Casler candidly describes the roguishness, ambivalence, shaky morals and harsh realities of life as a soldier.

It was towards the end of my research that I picked up Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade while working at the WVU Library. I had discovered during deed reasearch that a Michael Casler had briefly owned the lot upon with the Brick House is located and a search of the name led to John O., his son. I flipped to the index, not really expecting to find much. My heart leapt, like the history nerd that I am, when I actually saw the entry “Shouse, John W.” in the listings! I turned to the page and read the following passage. (Some background: Casler established a pattern of self-granted leave for himself while serving as a soldier. His first time going AWOL occuring in November 1861, when he decided to visit some of his friends in Springfield, which was then controlled by Yankees. Their picket lines and presence in many houses made his visit a very risky endeavor.)

There were two roads which led through the town, and they crossed in the center at right angles. There was a picket post on each of the four roads a few hundred yards out of town. As it grew dark I went down the hill, through an open field in the angle formed by the roads, until I came to the rear lot of Mr. John W. Shouse’s house, got over the fence, went through the back yard and onto the porch, and there waited for developments.

I had heard that the officers and some of the privates were boarding with the citizens, and that I had better be careful how I entered a house. I listened for a few moments and then looked in at the window, and seeing no one but the family, I cautiously open the door and went in. Mrs. Shouse raised her hands in astonishment and was as much surprised as if one had arisen from the dead. Every one in the town, both black and white, had known me from my childhood up. There were but one or two Union men in the place, and I was not afraid of them reporting me, neither was I afraid of the blacks; but still I did not want them to know I was there.

After I got in the first house I felt safe. I could then lay my plans for seeing my friends, as I intended to stay all night and run the blockade before daylight. I conversed with the family a short time and then got Miss Gennie Shouse to run across the street to the house of Mr. John Hawes, who lived in my old home, to see if the coast was clear. I then went over, for I wanted to see the house that I had spent most of my boyhood days in, not knowing whether I would ever see it again. I did not stay there long, however, for Mrs. Hawes appear so frightened for fear I would be captured; besides it made me feel sad, as the old house brought back to memory scenes of other days when there was all joy and peace. To think that I had to sneak back like an outlaw, in the night, to look once more upon the scenes of my childhood, and then depart to the distant battle-field, and, perhaps, leave my bones bleaching in the sun, was too much. I had to leave.

Both I and the Frazers, who own the house today, were thrilled to find such a vivid true story connected to their house. Every time I read Casler’s words, I am struck by the power and meaning carried by buildings with stories like this. There is no substitute for seeing, touching and experiencing the tangible environments of the past. This sentiment is even expressed by Casler himself, who was deeply affected by his visit to his childhood home across the street from the Shouses’ (unfortunately, no longer extant). His profound words convey the sharp contrast between the happy memories brought back by the house and the fear and horror of his current reality. Reading them for the first time on that day in the library was an unexpected and touching reminder of why I chose historic preservation as my career.

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Courtney is the owner and principal of Aurora Research Associates, LLC, an historic preservation consulting firm.

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