Even the best of men, including those who are normally kind, moral, spiritual beings, and respectful of laws, are at risk of those traits and values being diminished when hardship, privation, personal suffering, and the suffering of others all around, as occurs in war, is thrust upon them. It doesn’t mean they become forever cruel, that their humanity is stripped away, or they’re reduced to a state of permanent barbarism by their experience on the battlefield. Even at their worst, when the blood flows deepest, men are capable of great feats of compassion or later, in reflection, shame and remorse.
When you are footsore and hungry, when you have seen your comrades die at the hands of men intent on tearing apart “the best form of government ever created in the history of mankind,” and you come to a farm owned by a father who probably has sons who stood beneath the Stars and Bars on the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg, and you eye his sheep, his cows, his smoke and hen houses, you do not do what you would have done in Wrentham, Massachusetts before the war. You do not honor the sanctity of the man’s property. You kill twenty-six of his sheep, his hogs, his turkeys, his ducks, and all but two of his cows and carry the bounty away with you as you continue your march away from Manassas Gap toward Warrenton on a cool breeze swept Saturday morning. If you have a pang of conscience like Joshua Wilber, you enter the house afterward, ask the father and his two daughters for a meal and pay them a quarter for their hospitality. If you are Wilber, walking away with a satisfied stomach, you do not see the youngest of the girls spit in your direction.
Pious men, men who two years earlier sat reverently beneath a tall white steeple in Pembroke, Massachusetts and praised God from whom all blessings flowed, now scrawl their names on the sanctuary walls of a small rural church, breaking up pews to fuel fires for their coffee, somewhere between Linden and Hume. Then as quickly as they have come, they move on like locus, the mud sucking at their brogans, while those horses that are used up are abandoned to the locals as fair trade for their losses.
At 4:30 and sixteen miles from their starting point, the 18th Massachusetts spied another wild blackberry patch on the outskirts of Orlean. In camp one wrote to his wife, “I ate until I got almost tired of doing so” and predicted they would be in Warrenton with one more final long push. The earlier portion of the day’s march went without mention.
In case you haven't guessed it, Orlean is a small town, a very small town. Just how small is it? According to Wikipedia: "The Orlean Post Office is purported to be the smallest post office in the United States."