There’s an old brass key in the bowels of the Minnesota History Center, once used to unlock the Confederate arsenal in Milledgeville, Ga.
Billy Bircher, a teenage drummer, carried it home to St. Paul after the Civil War. It wasn’t all he brought back. Bircher’s diary, first published in 1889, unlocks both the horror and humor he experienced from 1861 to ’65 — when his long, monotonous rat-a-tat roll led the Second Minnesota Regiment into battles from Mill Springs, Ky., to Chickamauga, Ga.
With today’s teenagers back in school, fretting about their stress and angst, a few clicks on the keyboard — tinyurl.com/p92l6tl — will provide both an online glimpse at Bircher’s memoir and a healthy dose of perspective.
Bircher actually opens his book with an apology, saying he was sorry to “add one more volume to the already overcrowded shelf” of Civil War books. Writing in 1888 in South St. Paul, 27 years after the Civil War started, Bircher said his aging fellow veterans “urgently pressed” him to share his “Drummer Boy’s Diary” to remind them of the “stirring scenes” they endured.
Born in Indiana on July 4, 1845, and following his family to St. Paul as a 7-year-old, Bircher said military recruiters repeatedly turned him away after the war broke out in 1861 because he wasn’t yet 16 and was small in stature.
Finally, Captain J.J. Noah of the Second Regiment’s Company K realized he needed a drummer and tapped Bircher. His narrative, culled from his diary, starts off with upbeat accounts of hearty riverboat send-offs and stops in Chicago and other cities en route to the battlefields.
In Pittsburgh, “we found several tables loaded down with eatables of every description and were waited on by the most beautiful and patriotic young ladies.”
Soon, his story shifts to memories of marching in torrential rain, eating sand and rice and suffering from dysentery. More than just a drummer, he served as a guard and tended to the wounded.
At the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, Bircher recalls hearing “the heavy roll of musketry and the terrible thunder of the artillery, and it came nearer and nearer, until, in less time than it takes to describe it, we were engaged …”
“The terrible carnage continued at intervals all day. At night we heard, from all over the field, the cry of the wounded for water and help.”
As they marched 20-plus miles a day through thunderstorms that flooded muddy turnpikes, Bircher “saw that a soldier’s life was not so fine as we schoolboys saw it pictured in our histories.”
Historians, he realized during the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862, would never be able to explain how war felt.
“The most terrible scenes of carnage my boyish imagination had ever figured fell far short of the dreadful reality,” he writes, detailing how he found injured comrades pinned beneath fallen tree limbs before shells ignited dried leaves and “the poor fellows had been burned alive to a crisp.
“No historian can ever depict the horrors of the battlefield,” Bircher says. “The dead lying in every direction and in every stage of decomposition. Squads of men all over the field digging trenches and rolling the dead in.”
Not all of Bircher’s storytelling is so grim. In December 1863, he recalls his company plucking lice from uniforms when a soldier named Jasper caught a big, well-fed bug between his thumb and forefinger and bet no one could find a faster louse in the tent.
Bircher promptly snared a “very large, long, rangy fellow who looked as if he had speed in him.” The bet was on. They warmed tin plates over a fire and “at a given signal, dropped our racers on the hot plates.”
Bircher’s won — “This was the first time on record where a gray-back [louse] was known to have paid his board.”
When President Lincoln was assassinated, Bircher recalled how “literally, the whole army wept. Thousands would willingly have received the fatal bullet in their own hearts, if thereby they could have saved the life of our precious leader.”
Bircher hadn’t yet turned 20 when the war finally ended. On July 11, 1865 — 150 years ago — he jotted down his feelings about bidding farewell to his fellow soldiers:
“We were then disbanded and said the last ‘goodby’ [sic] to our comrades in arms, the great majority of whom we would never, in all probability, see again,” he writes. “And a more hearty, rough-and-ready, affectionate goodby there never was in all this wide world. Songs were sung, hands were shaken, or rather [w]rung, many a loud, hearty ‘God bless you, old fellow!’ resounded, and many were the toasts that were drunk before the men parted for good.”
After the war, Bircher kept on drumming and opened a saloon in West St. Paul called “Billy Bircher’s Place.” He went on to open a grocery store and tried farming in Dakota County. According to an 1885 St. Paul Daily Globe profile, “during all the war he never was wounded or received a scratch.
“Mr. Bircher is a short, chunky man, very social and very kindhearted,” the newspaper said, “broad gauged in his generosity, and delights in narrating many thrilling scenes of the war.”
The newspaper noted both his rich sense of humor and his drumming “dexterity” with his Great Western Band — “taking the blue ribbon as the best manipulator of the sticks.”
He married his wife, Mary, in 1869 and they had three kids. During a Mississippi River flood, Billy and Mary were lauded for the “kindly, tenderly” way they welcomed flood victims into their “humble home” in West St. Paul.
Bircher died at 71 and is buried in St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery under a simple headstone that says: “Musn. Bircher,” referring to his service as a musician and ignoring his invaluable contribution as a key chronicler of Civil War history in an era when teen angst meant something.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com