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A Thousand Thunders

Sgt. Jacob Shively, 89th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, poses for a Christmas portrait for his wife and children. The photo was taken on top of Lookout Mountain above the battlefield opposite Chattanooga, Tenn., in December 1864. Jacob survived the war and became a leader in his rural Ohio community. (Courtesy Photo)

Sgt. Jacob Shively, 89th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, poses for a Christmas portrait for his wife and children. The photo was taken on top of Lookout Mountain above the battlefield opposite Chattanooga, Tenn., in December 1864. Jacob survived the Civil War and became a leader in his rural Ohio community. (Courtesy Photo)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – My fifth-great grandfather’s nephew, Sgt. Jacob Shively, sat on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, for a Christmas photograph for his wife just a few months after he sustained a wound to his right cheek at the Battle of Chickamauga. He looks straight forward, rifle across his lap, at the ground he and the members of the 89th Ohio Volunteer Infantry recently traversed under fire. 

Photos like the one my family holds are priceless treasures. When I look at any historical photo of a warrior during a major military conflict and see the face of a veteran, I often wonder, “What’s going on inside his head?” Fortunately, I don’t have to wonder much about Jacob. Most of his Civil War correspondence has survived and are in my uncle’s safe. 

I’ve been transcribing those letters and researching his life for the last year. His letters chronicle the movement of his regiment from late 1862 through the Grand Review in Washington, D.C., at the close of the war. He spent 188 days under direct enemy fire. Early in the war, his letters contained a sense of bravado. But as the war progressed, his letters take on a tone of disallusionment with the progress and prosecution of the war accompanied by expressions of his own mortaility. He almost always signed his letters to his wife, “Your companion until death,” but that really didn’t seem to mean much to him until late 1863, after his regiment started taking combat casualties. 

By mid-1864, he saw more death and destruction than most of us will ever see. While his external wound from Chickamauga healed, he was clearly affected by the death of his friend, Levi Hennis. He orchestrated an impromptu burial for him on the battlefield amidst a hail of bullets, one of which struck the foot of the presiding chaplain during the committal. 

After that burial, he wrote a letter to a former chaplain seeking spiritual guidance and apparently expressing a new-found faith in God. The chaplain’s response appears to be just what Jacob needed. At the chaplain’s encouragement, Jacob was determined to receive a Christian Baptism.  He sent the chaplain’s letter to his wife with the following note: “Tell [Chaplain] Sargent that I am yet unable to comply with his instructions [to be baptized] merely for the want of an opportunity. But by the help of your prayers, I hope to eventually succeed, let it be sooner or later I shall try to do my duty.”

Jacob was able to do his duty, both to God and his country, in part because he received help when he needed it. 

One of my favorite sections in his letters is in his description of the Battle of Chickamauga (his regiment was virtually destroyed in the battle, Jacob was one of a handful who evaded capture, the hospital or death). In the letter, he wrote, “I have often heard it said that no pen could describe the battlefield in time of action, and I can now say I have experienced it and I know one can not have an idea scarcely of a battle unless they have seen one. A thousand thunders are not equal to the sound and the shouts of charging columns, the shrieks and groans of the dying and wounded – it appears like they will never cease to ring in my ears. But in the thickest part of the fight I thought upon what might be my fate. But I placed confidence in the ruling hand of God.  Willing to meet my doom – let it be as it might – feeling sure that I was doing my duty and that all would be for the best. But as the battle is over and for the benefit and gratification of my family and friends only, I thank God for my preservation.” 

After the war was over, Jacob returned to the life of a rural Ohio farmer. His dedication to the Union or to God never appears to have wavered – he was active politically in his local government and worked hard to preserve the Chickamauga battlefield while also faithfully leading in his local church as a deacon for the rest of his life.

His letters and observations about the world cease in written form after the end of the war.  I don’t know much about his thoughts after 1865, but I bet he never thought that his words would reach five generations on his uncle’s side to a military chaplain in 2018. I’m sure he never thought his words would serve as a healing balm for me as I continue my recovery from the trauma I’ve witnessed when I deployed to support Air Force Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. His simple faith and lengthy process of coming to grips with a deadly reality, coupled with the sort of honesty that is willing to lead one to raise their hand and say, “I need help” gave me the courage to do the same. Yes, even chaplains need to talk to someone about their experiences.

Don’t be afraid to seek assistance. Speak up and get the help you need. You’re not in the battle alone.