The Privates' Experience: Two Men, Two Continents, Two Invasions, 1812 & 1814
by David M. Grabitske
The experience of enlisted men throughout time has been compared in numerous scholarly books and articles. In general, most acknowledge that every enlisted man has shared or common experiences. It is therefore interesting to examine two journals by conscripted privates written later in their lives. It is even more fascinating when one considers that each was the same age at the time of service and viewed the events of their campaigns, half a world apart, with almost the same dispassionate eye.
A first glance, the personal narratives of Jakob Walter and Alexander McMullen do not appear to have much in common. Walter served in the armies of the great Napoleon, and suffered extensively during the nearly incredible disaster in Russia. McMullen served in the well-disciplined ranks of the Left Division in Canada. Both served thousands of miles away from each other, spoke different languages, yet were still remarkably comparable.
Jakob Walter, a veteran of the 1807 and 1809 campaigns, was a conscript in the 7th Württemberg Regiment recalled into service in January of 1812. Walter wrote that "I thanked the Creator that only I, and not my brother, too"1 was in the army. Walter was certain that if his brother were present during the retreat, his brother would not have had the stamina to survive. Alexander McMullen enlisted in the 5th Pennsylvania Regiment in March of 1814. He did so that his younger brother, James, would not have to serve, as James was not as healthy. Simon Snyder, Governor of Pennsylvania, ordered a draft to meet federal quotas. McMullen's brother was considered of the "first class," not being married and 21 years of age, therefore eligible.2
At the time of enrollment in their respective units, they were both approximately 23. Jakob Walter was born on May 21, 1788 in Rosenberg, Germany. McMullen does not record his birth, although he indicates that he was 23 when the draft occurred. Both did not write their narrative accounts until sometime after their service. Walter may have written his around 1830, according to Frank E. Melvin of Kansas University. McMullen probably wrote his account around the same time, as it has exaggerations in terms of troop counts typical of writing long after events without the aid of returns.
Both men were deeply interested in their pre-war occupations. Walter was a stonemason and commented that Leipzig had "beautifully hewn stones" in its buttressed walls, an improvement from his visit in 1807. He even recognized that the stone was from Bohemia, and obviously sent down the river Elbe. As a stonemason, he "noticed especially the beautiful jointing of the stones, most of which were ten feet long and three feet square." Walter visited the eastern side of the city where further casemates had been erected, "which were all, even the roofwork, built of beautifully hewn stone."3 No less passionate for his trade, McMullen saw an English cow belonging to a German family. "Some of us who were farmers had a curiosity to examine this fine animal more closely," he wrote.4 However, the lack of respect for the property of others in an invaded land, prevalent in both armies, manifested itself when another private recklessly discharged his musket breaking both of the animal's front legs. At Dover, a small Canadian village, McMullen witnessed the destruction of hogs amidst the firing of the town.
One complaint that is consistent among armies throughout time is that of the quality and quantity of food, or rather the lack thereof. Walter faced innumerably more challenges in his search for food. The Russians had burned their own villages and fields in the face of Napoleon's advance. Walter continually rejoiced in his account when he was led to any type of food. He was impressed with the kapusk (or cabbage) that could be found growing in Russia, particularly near Moscow. These were twice the size of those he was used to describing as large in Germany. Among the other types of food he mentioned were rice, rye, wheat, peas, beets, honey, calamus, milk, eggs, cheese, hempseed, horsemeat, beef, dogmeat and tallow. Food was both a source of camaraderie and contention in Walter's company. Sometimes it was shared, other times food was desperately fought over.
Food was also a source of contention within McMullen's messmates, although not between. "The flour," he wrote, "was mouldy and the beef and pork unfit to be eaten."5 McMullen believed the quality of the provisions was the source of discontentment among some of the companies at Lake Erie, and did not mention any further problems with food after this incident.
If food brings the majority of the soldier's complaints, then pay is a close second. Money did not matter much to Walter as he fled during the retreat:
The indifference toward money was so great with me that at a point four days' journey from Vilna I did not touch a cart loaded with money which lay on the ground ... Only a few soldiers had taken any of it ... There were two reasons, though, why this money had no attraction any longer. ... I could not feel or take hold of anything with [my hands.] I also was eager to get on so as not to be captured at the rear.6
Walter did admit, though, that he still had twenty rubles in his pocket that he hoped would satisfy his future needs. The Pennsylvania Legislature in paid McMullen mid-March for three months in advance. He received $6, in addition to his anticipated United States' pay of $8 per month. He was thus compensated $10 per month, $2 better than regular pay. At Lake Erie, just prior to the regiment's departure for the camp at Buffalo, New York, a mutiny occurred among some of the men, partly because of the bad rations mentioned above, and partly because after serving three months, the militia had not been paid, except for the $6 from their state. The mutineers only asked for two months' wages for their cooperation in marching to Buffalo. This was denied, and all marched to Buffalo, except the leaders who marched off in irons to the blockhouse.7
Paid or not, the army was expected to fight. Walter describes two days of fighting at Smolensk, August 17-18. Walter wrote, "Everyone fired and struck at the enemy in wild madness."8 After his company's doctor had his arm shot away, Walter no longer paid any attention to the casualties in his already small company. Porter's Brigade, with McMullen in it, discharged spirited volleys at Lundy's Lane. The Brigade was then ordered to advance a short distance. On stopping, McMullen realized, "I had twenty rounds of cartridge in my box when I went to the battle ground, and when the firing ceased on examining my box I found the last was in my musket."9
Every campaign takes its toll on those who suffer through it. Walter remembered "there were five of us common soldiers when we marched out of Moscow," (October 18) and it was likely that he and his comrade were "the last two of these left." The day before the Battle of Smolensk, his company numbered 25 privates.10 If his company was a typical sized French company (which the Württemberg Army was patterned after), it would have begun with about 100 men, although it was authorized to have 140. Similarly, McMullen's company began with 100 men, its full-authorized strength on March 1, 1814. However, on July 26, McMullen "stood in the door and with sorrow watched the shattered remains of only twenty-five ... that had left Franklin County."11 The attrition rate was a little more severe in this case for the Pennsylvania boys, 75% loss in 5 months, as compared to the same percentage in 7½ months for Walter's company. Of course, in terms of actual death, Walter's would prove to be the greater, because a good number of McMullen's comrades mutinied along the way. Not many were wounded or killed in battle, the official report for the 5th Pennsylvania for Chippawa and Lundy's Lane reported only 14 killed, 26 wounded and 8 missing.12 Likely, Walter was one of a very few survivors, maybe only 2, of his company. And Walter, unlike McMullen, received wounds from his service.13
The military, by nature and mostly through no fault of its own, often tests the limits of endurance of its personnel. Walter perhaps suffered more than could be told. His tale of flight from Moscow to Germany is one of endless brushes with death, robbed and beaten, left to freeze in the snow, losing his comrades, finding them and losing them a second time, and so forth. McMullen, wracked with a fever, was also part of a retreat. The column was en route to Fort Erie. McMullen first tried riding in the jolting wagons of the wounded, and then tried walking. With failing strength, "I lay down in front of a house in despair, not caring what became of me."14
The greatest threat to life in early nineteenth-century armies was disease. Both men suffered from them toward the end their service. Walter, too, developed a fever that resulted in a severe nosebleed. He became delirious and was sent to a ward that housed those thought near death. He was unable to keep any food in him. He recovered, after drinking soup mixed with vinegar, and he "could attribute [his] recovery to nothing else than the bleeding, by which the corrupted blood" was taken from him. He also believed that "the vinegar ... washed off the encrusted lining of [his] body, cleansed [his] blood, and encouraged [his] appetite again."15 When McMullen finally reached a physician with his fever, the doctor told him that his disease "was the dumb ague." McMullen boarded with a widow in Buffalo and his "life was economical in the highest degree, and [he believed] was a great means of restoring [his] health."16
Veterans of the Vietnam War have often said they have not had the thanks of their peers on their return. This is nothing new in the annals of military history. When Walter finally reached and reported at Inowrazlav, the commander said, "So you are one of those Moscow bums." Walter dejectedly wrote, "that was the welcome at my return."17 McMullen, although he did not write of his return home, did tell of an incident after the Battle of Lundy's Lane:
The next thing [Lt. Patton, now in command of the company, did] was to make a speech to us. He began by saying he was surprised at us for not standing our ground at the bush fence. If the whole brigade had fled, (as they actually did) Gordon's company should have stood firm.
This was too much. We believed that we had done all that men could do, and this was our thanks.
Neither Walter nor McMullen ever question whether the overall policy of their governments was correct in invading another country. Both merely trudged along, accepting that which happened to them. Both only react to immediate events in the narrative, such as their reaction to thanks received. The nearest either of them comes to revealing just what they thought of the war in general is McMullen. He wrote, "My father was [prior to McMullen's enlistment] an advocate and partisan for the measures of the Government, and then he saw the evils of war."
During the Napoleonic Wars the soldier's lot was the same as evidenced by these two soldiers, half a world apart. However, both lived in an emerging worldwide economy where almost everyone in the western world received nearly the same things. The dawning of the Industrial Age ushered in mass produced products, and brought with it uniformity. One no longer had to leave home to discover new and bold things abroad, because he could find the same in his own hometown. Additionally, with the success of Napoleon from 1796-1809, most western nations scrambled to copy his methods in order to modernize themselves. It is little wonder then that both had similar experiences, to varying degrees. It may be assumed that private soldiers worldwide had equal experiences, both good and bad.