In Ray Bradbury’s short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” a safari company takes visitors to any year in the past. Visitors can shoot any animal, even prehistoric ones. They can hear a Tyrannosaurus Rex’s metallic roars, smell its pungent odors, see its pebbled skin, and feel immobilized with terror. Visitors must, however, stay on a specially designed, modern pathway, lest they change the course of history.
Unlike Bradbury’s story, it’s best when we step off the modern path and see history through “the imperfect eyes of those who lived it,” according to historian David M. Potter. It also helps to find a tour guide like Samuel K. Fowler, a 20-year-old Confederate from Iowa.
Fowler wrote an unpublished 300-page diary, mainly covering the Vicksburg Campaign, from the vantage point of a private in the 2nd Missouri Infantry. His diary allowed me to walk beside him as he exalted over Confederate victories or speculated over the next destination, and we both trembled as Union mortars fired and the earth shook under our feet.
He wrote his entries, expecting that people would read them. The language may be flowery. I hope you will settle into a comfy armchair and enjoy the following excerpts.
“A quiet retreat”
One afternoon in September 1862, Fowler wrote:
I am very contentedly reclining upon the side of a precipitous slope, being a quiet retreat I gained by exercising due precaution in my descent … Our Camp is established on the top, extending to the verge of this romantic declivity, at least 100 feet above its base.
I am much pleased with the location as it affords me a place, where I can sit undisturbed and reflect upon the thousands of changes that have figured upon the vast theatre of war, and also indulge in an unbroken reverie of thought.
A retreat in the rain
About sunset the rain began to descend and soon rendered the road exceedingly slippery and difficult to travel either by man or beast. Our march was much impeded … we were soon enveloped in deep, impenetrable darkness. The rain continued to pour in incessant torrents upon our devoted heads, thoroughly drenching us from head to foot. The earth beneath our feet was converted into a vast sheet of water, and in the road the depth attained in many places was near a foot. Move forward 50 or 100 yards and fall down, roll over once or twice, and up again only to repeat the performance, seemed to be the order of the night …
The darkness was so intense that the use of the eye was of no avail whatever … Still on we went, splashing unceremoniously through mud and water, now and then being greeted with a boisterous explosion of laughter in front or near the convincing evidence that some poor unfortunate was prostrate in the mud.
We continued our march until about 11 o’clock p.m. when we were halted for the night. The rain had abated, and we rolled up in our saturated blankets and slept sweetly, however remarkable and strange it may appear to the casual reader, to those who have not experienced such exposures and hardship.
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Fowler’s unpublished diary is in the archives of Stanford University. Thank you for reading my blog. Please leave any comments and questions below.