Civil War Profiles – ‘You’re in the Army Now,’ Mr. Locke


Eufaula, Ala., native William Herrod Locke wrote his wife from Fort Barrancus near Pensacola, Fla., on May 10, 1861, that he anticipated combat against Federal troops would soon begin. Locke was a member of a militia unit the Eufaula Minute Men.


Locke wrote, “If there is a fight here it will no doubt be a bloody one.” As a citizen soldier or volunteer, he was of two minds about the evolving conflict between the Northern and Southern states: “If … Hostilities does not [soon] Commence … I will probably leave for Home as I cannot leave My business so long.”

This informal mindset about taking time for personal business during wartime ended when the Eufaula Minute Men incorporated into the Confederate Army 4th Alabama Cavalry Battalion. Locke learned joining the army required complete dedication until the conflict ended.

William Herrod Locke was the great-great-grandfather of Sherry Jackson Billig of Owings Mills, Md., and the Bayside community in Selbyville. She donated several of his letters to the University of Virginia for research purposes.

These letters provide a view of the military from the eye of an ordinary soldier, including mundane, as well as serious, concerns of everyday life. From Fort Gaines, Ga., on New Year’s Day 1862, he informed his wife that he and another soldier “made a Bed stead to sleep on yesterday … a great improvement on sleeping on the floor.”

Also, in January 1862, Locke learned he “will be stationed [at Fort Gaines] for six months in the Confederate service.” This was extended; because, by January 1863, William was located “in a larger two story building one Hundred and fifty feet long with some dozen Rooms in it which easily accommodates our Company and about Eighty Negros.” Rebel military units impressed slaves into service to perform non-combat chores, such as cooking and manual labor.

In February 1863, Locke curiously informed his wife that, while walking along the bluff where their artillery battery was located, he met “lovely and neatly dressed young Ladies” with whom he “had a most excellent and animating time.” Locke disclaimed “enjoying myself with the Young Ladies … or that I am looking for a second wife.” His wife’s reaction to this letter is unrecorded.

The following year, 1864, Locke observed “this War is causing very many men to turn from their wicked ways and are now serving their God in an acceptable manner. Vice in all its forms has been strangely checked … soldiers once noted for wickedness of Every Kind and character are now eagerly securing religious reading and are urgent to procure and read the word of God.”

Ominously, in July, the unit chaplain requested the soldiers to register on a list in case any were killed. The chaplain planned to forward the names stating how, where and when they were killed.

Locke reported meeting Yankee prisoners along their route to the infamous Andersonville, Ga., prison camp — nearly a thousand on one train. When they complained of hunger, Locke supplied them biscuits from his haversack.

Conditions became more hazardous in May 1864, when Locke’s unit arrived near Richmond, Va., where Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was campaigning. Locke optimistically wrote he expected that Lee would defeat Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army before long. Nonetheless, he implored his wife to “Pray for me.”

On May 29, in a clash between Union and Confederate cavalry, when his unit withdrew at full speed to avoid entrapment, Locke’s horse stumbled into a hole and threw its rider. Although considerably muddied, Locke avoided injury.

The mundane aspects of warfare had vanished, as Locke’s eyes “fill with tears” as he viewed the destruction of homes and farms as the armies trample the “beautiful and … charming Country … and nothing but War, War, War is to be seen or heard.”

Locke’s last surviving letter, dated June 28, 1864, informed his wife “My Health still continues good. Can Eat anything and sleep in a mud Hole if I Could Not find a dry place.” He had seen or participated in the battles in Virginia at Travilian Station, Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, Cold Harbor and Malvern Hill.

The popular World War I and II song “You’re in the Army Now” applies, as William Herrod Locke fulfilled his commitment to the Confederacy, survived the war, and kept his wife informed about his health, activities and campaigns. Having volunteered for military service, he learned how to survive the tedious, as well as the precarious, aspects of deadly combat.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.