Some things happen to you in life, those stupid little things, that make you step back in the middle of a busy day and just say, “Whoa.” As I get ready to prepare the April issue of my newspaper for our historical association, I asked my friend and the House’s chief financial officer, George Ryan, if he could offer up an editorial on something related to New Jersey and the American Civil War. With mounds of research at his disposal, for both lectures and the book he is writing, he chose to submit an article on the 5th New Jersey Regiment (which his book focuses on) that was created in the summer of 1861, in response to Abraham Lincoln’s calling of more volunteers after the first battle and Union defeat at First Bull Run. The article was very interesting, as it detailed the major battles that the regiment was apart of, including Second Manassas, being held in reserve at Fredericksburg, performing heroically at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, as well as bearing witness to Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865. The unit was comprised mostly of men from the cities of Rahway, Perth Amboy, and Woodbridge, and was captained by Thomas Godfrey and Henry Woolsey. I thought the story would end there, until I went into work the next day as a substitute teacher.
I had spoken to another teacher at our school about World War I last week, because she knew I was teaching a class on the Second World War and I told her I was going to be doing a lesson on the first one, to serve as the back-story. Her grandfather, William Reddan, had fought in WWI, participating in the battle of Verdun, among many others. Today, she brought in a few things for me, including this massive collection of newspaper article pertaining to her grandfather that had been assembled by the family, as well as a copy of the book he wrote about his experiences (one you could classify as an extremely rare book, as I cannot locate one single copy online), titled, Other Men’s Lives (1936), which presumably is in reference to the careless actions of some of his commanding officers. Though I have only skimmed the book, I can tell already that it is very personal and passionate, in the anti-war stance, because Captain Reddan lost so many men who served with him, while he emerged unscathed, save for a wounding later in the war. He carried this anger nearly twenty years after the war ended, before he wrote the book. His granddaughter told me of a time that he and his men were invited to meet the governor of New Jersey, and he refused to shake his hand, because in his most recent battle, his company was sent in and reinforcements never came, leaving it completely decimated.
From the very first paragraph of the foreword, the book proves to be an unapologetic condemnation of war and the wasting of human lives. He explains right off the bat, “The story of Other Men’s Lives has been written at the urgent requests of numerous civilians and military friends, in an effort to set forth the part played in the World War by Company B, 114th U.S Infantry, the organization it was my privilege to command during its service—then to see it annihilated and the lives of our ‘buddies’ wasted as the result of inefficiency.” Keep in mind, this was written at a time when it was very unfashionable for Americans to speak out against war or the military, though All Quiet on the Western Front was only a few years removed from making its transition from book to screen in the early 1930’s.
So, anyway, this is where the “Whoa” moment came in to play. When I was done reading the preface, I scanned through some of the newspaper clippings, one being a casualty list of the 114th regiment, where, in parentheses, it noted, “Formerly the old 5th of New Jersey”. This surprised me, and instantly I thought, “This can’t be the same group that George is writing about, that I just read yesterday?” So I called him up, right in the middle of the school-day, and he confirmed that they were one in the same. Over the course of the forty years or so since the Civil War, regiments got renumbered, so the 114th was indeed the 5th. How’s that for coincidence? How’s that for the stars aligning just right to shock the hell out of me, something that does not happen very often? I almost want to think that it was not just a coincidence, that perhaps there was a reason for both these incidents to occur literally within days of each other. If you’re not a history buff or fanatic, then I guess this is just ridiculous to you. But for people like me, this is the kind of crazy stuff (or like I said earlier, the stupid little things) that we live for.