Following Portage County soldiers in Civil War

By Kelly Maile | Staff Writer Published:

Of the some 2 million men who fought for the Union during the American Civil War, more than 2,000 of them hailed from Portage County.

In a new documentary to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, "The 'Sojer Boys' of Portage County," Kent State University's Fred Endres reveals the innermost thoughts and feelings of seven young men who were involved early on in the conflict.

The production will premiere at 10 p.m. Sunday on Western Reserve PBS (WNEO 45/WEAO 49).

"It's not a military history, or even a cultural history," said Endres, a professor-in-residence in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications. "The documentary follows seven young men through the war, from their enlistment, through their rudimentary training, to the boredom of camp life and to the horrors of the battlefield."

A number of soldiers referred to themselves as "sojer boys," hence the title. Some were enlisted for a period of three months, and some for three years. Some were married with children and others were single. Some of them were blacksmiths and teachers and the rest were farmers. Some survived the war, and some didn't.

"I have always been a student of the Civil War, but most of the early histories focused on the important generals or national politicians," Endres said. "Some of the recent books and documentaries looked more closely at the individual soldiers, but not enough. So, I wanted to do a real micro-history."

Endres used letters and diaries of soldiers, photographs they left behind as well as writings and reminisces of their friends and families to take a more personal look at the war.

"The program involved a lot of planning and research," Endres said. "From finding out about the lives of soldiers, to finding their letters and diaries, to fitting them into the chronology of the war. Then finding hundreds of photographs, musical pieces and sound effects, plus all the editing and production."

Endres admitted that after two years of producing the documentary, it became a very personal and emotional project.

"I got to know my seven soldiers very well," he said. "It's probably the most emotional story I've ever tried to tell."

Endres recalls one story that stood out to him the most.

"Adam Weaver, a young man from Franklin Mills, now Kent, survived a bloody, five-hour battle at Franklin, Tenn. in 1864," Endres said. "Thousands of men were killed, wounded or captured. After the battle, he was sent out onto the battlefield to look for the wounded. His reactions are extremely realistic and emotional. After surviving that major battle, he ends up marching through a swamp in North Carolina and he is shot in the thigh. Surgeons wanted to amputate his leg, but he begged them not to do it. He survived, walked with a limp the rest of his life, but kept his leg. His great-granddaughter, Jackie Weaver Woodring, lives in Brady Lake, and tells that story in the documentary."

Endres said he wants people to see the Civil War through the eyes of the soldiers.

"I want them to understand what it was like to be a common soldier in this long, unusual war," Endres said. "The highs and lows, where they acted bravely and where they acted, perhaps, inappropriately."

Students from Kent State and the University of Akron were also invested in the documentary. They helped with research and planning, uncovered photographs and recorded comments from the soldiers and nurses' diaries and letters.

One of the student researchers was Philip Shackelford, a history student at KSU.

"Initially, I was involved primarily as a researcher, hunting down sources, tracking events and people and searching for the necessary evidence that would support observations made in the film," Shackelford said. "We also studied historical records to obtain information about various questions, like muster rolls, regimental histories and newspaper articles from the 1860s to place our observations in historical context."

Shackelford said being involved in the documentary has been a surreal experience.

"For 150 years, these stories have, for the most part, been preserved only in the family accounts passed down through the generations," he said.

Shackelford said he didn't expect to know the soldier as well as he does now.

"They hated leaving their homes and families, worried about their first battle experience and complained about the food and the long marches," he said. "Like our soldiers today, they were conflicted about the war itself and felt that having to kill other human beings was repulsive, but felt a strong sense of duty to protect and fight for the Union they loved so well."

Shackelford said his research for the documentary has given him a newfound appreciation for history.

"Instead of having to see the big picture all the time, the personal stories of local players in such an important event are often the most compelling," he said.

Shackelford said he hopes the audience will set aside any pre-conceived notions and misconceptions that surround the Civil War History and listen to the personal testimony of the soldiers themselves.

"I hope they take away what the characters themselves have to say," Shackelford said. "The Civil War was an event that changed the course of American history, yes -- but it was at the same time a very tragic, intense and life-altering struggle. One can hardly imagine the resolve, dedication and bravery that characterized the people who fought the war, both North and South."

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.