Thomas H. Reeder
By Mac Wyckoff
For seven years I researched, read, and wrote about
the 1475 men who served in the 2nd South Carolina. I knew all of
them by name and some I felt that on some level I had gotten to know
these long dead human beings. Of these soldiers, the boy next door
was Thomas H. Reeder. In the late 1980's I began transcribing his
war-time letters which are at the South Caroliniana Library in
Columbia. It was a project that took several months. Reeder
eventually transferred from the 2nd South Carolina, but I continued
to type his letters to learn more about him. Finally I came to the
last letter, it was not in his now familiar hand writing. As I typed
along, I suddenly realized that this was an announcement of Tommie's
death. I noticed tears had formed and begun to roll down my cheeks.
I was crying over the death of a man I had never met who had, in
fact, died 125 years earlier.
While I don't know much about Reeder, I know that I liked him, or at least the person whose personality shown through in his letters. He was born about 1841 probably in the Charleston area. He enlisted in the famous "Palmetto Guards" on May 1, 1861 that became Company I, 2nd South Carolina. Not surprisingly his name appears on page 1 of my history of the 2nd South Carolina. A train accident occurred while the regiment was being transported from Richmond to Manassas Junction. Reeder helped with the wounded before writing his father, "Some of them are badly mangled and can't live. Legs are being cut off and arms broken, and sites to horrible to describe."
Reeder received a wound in the right shoulder during the Battle of 1st Manassas. Although it was a relatively minor flesh wound, he was hospitalized in Culpeper for six weeks. Upon his return on September 3rd, the men shook his hand so hard that the old pain came back. The sociable Reeder responded in a letter home by saying, "It was impossible for me to describe the pleasure experienced in meeting with my brothers in arms, who have been with me through hardships and pleasures...I am as happy as I can be under the circumstances."
Two weeks later, Reeder and two others voluntarily went to the dangerous picket line to "get a crack at the enemy's picket." Like most South Carolina soldiers at this point in the war, Reeder had little love or respect for the Yankees. Reaching the battle zone they sought shelter behind a house. Their pickets stood behind a barn, fifty yards ahead of the house. To reach the barn, they would have to "run the gauntlet" across an open field. Naturally, each of the three did not want to go first. They were about to give up and return to camp when Reeder decided that they had come to far to not get a shot at the Yankees. Bullets whistled around his head as he dashed for the barn. From the second story, he commenced firing, but soon quit as there was no sport in not seeing whether he hit his target.
In early March of 1862, the Confederates abandoned their camps in Northern Virginia headed for Yorktown. Reeder had mixed feelings about the move. He wrote his family, "I like the excitement of moving, the hurry, bustle and confusion. It is so different from the monotony of camp." He added that, on the other hand, it was sad to leave the comfortable cabin that contained many pleasant memories of laughing at jokes and playing games around the roaring fire. It is passages like this that most people can relate to as they bring out the human characters of its' writer. In the Spring while digging earthworks on the Peninsula, the soldier next to him accidentally put his pick axe through Reeder's hand. While the injury was to minor to result in a furlough, he did spend time in a hospital in Manchester across the James River from Richmond. Even though he had a girlfriend back home, like most young men he enjoyed the company of young women while recuperating in the hospital. In a May 24th letter, he admitted to his sister that, "There is hardly an evening that I do not find myself in young ladies society...We take moon light walks...The girls are much more sociable than they are at home but I prefer the manner of our girls...Tell mother I attend church every day but I must thank the young ladies here for it, as it is mostly on their account that I go." Two weeks later having returned to his unit, Reeder began show signs of disillusionment with soldier life. He expressed for the first time that he was thinking of transferring to a unit in Charleston so he could be closer to Emma, his girlfriend who he described as "a certain little lump of sweetness." He also noted that "the romance of camp life is pretty well played out." He described the men wearing what "could hardly be called clothes" and said they survived on a simple diet of bacon and hardtack. After the bloody and important fighting of The Seven Days Campaign at the end of June, the men received a well deserved rest. Reeder continued to flirt with a young lady he had met while in the hospital in Manchester. He occasionally had the "exquisite pleasure of running the blockade to see my pet." While he may have escaped the provost marshall, he did not escape the wrath of Emma and his sister. Tommie wrote a letter to "My dearest Pet," the girl in Manchester, but mailed it to Emma or his sister back home. His sister replied in evidently a scathing letter. Unlike modern politicians, Reeder confessed to his digressions giving that time honored male reason that the girl in Manchester was just a friend and that Emma was still his girlfriend. He admitted that he had only himself to blame "for letting the cat out of the bag." As far as I know, Reeder accompanied the army to Maryland and fought at Antietam. Afterwards, they returned to Virginia and eventually Kershaw's Brigade led the march southeast toward Fredericksburg. The regiment spent the night on November 1st neat Chester Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Reeder witnessed a sunset so beautiful he could not effectively describe it. Reeder fought at Fredericksburg and then in early January of 1863 he received word from Emma that if she didn't get a letter from him soon she would "give him a discharge." Reeder responded with another classic reason, there must be a problem with the mail. He hoped that Emma would stick with him, but the amorous young man admitted "I am as anxious (to) fall in love with every pretty face as I ever was." Three months later he transferred to the Palmetto Guards South Carolina Artillery, a unit stationed in his hometown of Charleston. We can only speculate upon his reasons. Many soldiers realized that life expectancy in the infantry was not high. It was much safer to be in the artillery or cavalry, especially many miles from the main theatre of action. While it may have been a combination of factors, my guess is that he wanted to be near Emma, a very natural desire.
On July 27, 1864 while his old unit fought at 1st Deep Bottom near Richmond, Tommie Reeder died of fever in Charleston. His colleagues paid tribute to him, "So young, so buoyant, so noble."
His letters are in Thomas and William Reeder Papers at the South Caroliniana Library in Charleston. These letters to his sister reveal Reeder's human side, both strengths and weaknesses. I got to know him and realize that in many ways he is like myself and people I have actually known. He became more than just a chess piece being moved around on some giant board by the generals or a fictional character. He was a real person whose life was tragically cut short. I wish I could have actually met him. I think I would have enjoyed the experience.