How a dinner plate saved Grampy's life

Among his other equipment, every Union soldier in the Civil War was issued a knife, fork, spoon, and dinner plate. My grandfather kept these items as souvenirs in a kitchen drawer and brought them out every time we lunched together at a picnic fire in the woodlot. On these occasions he would tell me again how the metal dinner plate had saved his life.

After the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the historian wrote, "At dusk the 16th Maine Regiment of Volunteers was withdrawn from the field." Then the historian adds, "If 127 officers and men can be called a regiment." Very early I wondered why Grampy and the other soldiers would carry a knife, fork, spoon, and plate into battle.

The knife, fork, and spoon were riveted into one tool that opened like a fan and was most ineffective. You couldn't hold down a piece of meat with the fork and then cut it with the knife, and if you used the spoon the knife kept sticking in your ear. The plate was huge and had no rim, so it wasn't useful with soups and stews.

Grampy said his comrades snitched watering pails from the cavalry whenever he and Frank Farrar made a stew. The buckets made good soup plates.

On our woodlot picnics, I always had civilized cutlery and lunched in civilian gentility, but Grampy would show me how the soldiers did it. That was good, because as we sat together and ate, his knife, fork, and spoon would remind him of a war story.

He told me he carried his down-Maine skinning knife during the war, and didn't rely on his Army knife. He said the plate weighed almost like a cannon ball and, with the three-way tool, was hard to pack and harder to carry. He found the best way was to roll the things in his blanket, tie them with whatever cord he could find, and wear the blanket around his neck. That's where he kept his Testament, too. They all went through the battle of Gettysburg and never got a scratch.

Now, Frank Farrar was a boyhood pal of my grampy. They grew up together, enlisted on the same day, and were tent mates all during the war. They foraged together and prepared meals for their company when the commissary failed. One of Grampy's many-told tales was about the evening after the first day at Gettysburg when Frank brought back a monstrous honker and a supply of garden vegetables he'd found and they made a well-received gander stew.

After the 16th Maine had been withdrawn from the field, the roll was called, and Frank Farrar had not responded. The company clerk marked him "deserted" and turned to other matters. In a short time, Frank had returned with his gander and veggies and everybody was glad to see him.

Nothing was done then to correct the mistake, and when the war ended Frank came home a hero, got his pension checks regularly, went to regimental meetings, and marched in the Decoration Day parades. Fifty years passed.

Uncle Sam decided to hold a reunion at the memorial cemetery and bring back the Union soldiers who had fought there. My grampy was delighted, and so was Frank. The National Tribune reported that railroad tickets would come and all expenses be paid. In due time my grampy got his tickets, but not Frank.

The date approached, and all the comrades were ready to go except Frank Farrar. Last-minute inquiry revealed that Frank was not included because the record showed that he'd deserted.

All surviving members of the company descended on the office of the state adjutant general to make affidavit that Frank Farrar had not deserted as the record showed. Otherwise, they stated and subscribed, under oath, there would have been no gander stew, and everyone had vivid memories of that treat. Whatever else happened that day at Gettysburg, the stew was reliable. Frank Farrar returned to Gettysburg 50 years later.

The service guns of the Civil War were not rifles, but smooth-bore muskets, muzzle-loaded, and with percussion caps. A ramrod was used. The bullet was a round lead ball almost the size of a horse chestnut. The impact was tremendous. One day well after Gettysburg, the 16th Maine was on the march to another function. The men strode along and the weather was kind and the day was good.

From some distance, a Rebel sniper fired at the passing column. My grandfather heard the gun go off, and then the lead ball hit him directly in the chest and knocked him sprawling into the adjacency. It turned out he wasn't hurt, but he thought he'd been killed.

He gasped to recover his wind and was somewhat surprised that the soldiers didn't break step but kept swinging by. He said that when the bullet hit him, it sounded as if a bolt of lightning had hit a bell foundry. But he soon found that he had not been "WOWN-did" (the way he pronounced "wounded") and he ran ahead two miles to rejoin his company. Later he found that the bullet had hit his blanket roll and been stopped by his dinner plate.

It had not hurt him or the other things in the roll, such as his knife, fork, spoon, "housewife" mending kit, Testament, and a package of prunes.

This explained why Grampy's Civil War plate had a dent in it the size of a teacup. I've never disbelieved this story, for in my memory I see him sitting there across from me sopping gravy from the dent in his plate with a hot biscuit.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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