A Beginning 

Gold shimmering buttons

Under an overcast sky in the deep forests of Michigan, a small circle of worn, brown metal popped out of the ground at my feet. The button, unearthed using a metal detector in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, had on its face the image of a shield superimposed on an eagle, which in turn was holding in its talons an olive branch and a trio of arrows. Nearby, a second, larger button surfaced; gold shimmering through a thin layer of dirt to reveal the letter “A” emblazoned in the center of the shield.  

Without cell phone service I was unable to research these buttons, but on returning home, I quickly learned that they were, respectively, a General Service button and an Artillery Officer’s button, issued by the Union Army sometime during the American Civil War. How they managed to find their way to this deserted patch of woods so far from any region of the conflict – who brought them there and how they were lost – was, and likely will remain, a mystery. However, it was at this moment in that my interest in the American Civil War was deeply renewed in a tactile and unexpected way.  

“In commencing, these series of incidents of my personal experience in the United States Army as a soldier during the war of Rebellion are from notes kept while in the army.” 

We often think of the Civil War as a dry old story told in history textbooks rather than as a living timeline, a section of the continuum of human existence that we are all a part of. Like any average public-school student, I remember learning and memorizing key dates and names of the conflict, only to forget them as soon as exams were over. In spite of the intensity of the events I was studying, they always felt… empty to me, somehow. Physical objects such as the buttons I brought to the surface a few years ago hold the power to connect us with the past in a way that written histories, regurgitated in textbooks, often do not.  

But what about a physical object that also contains a great deal of information; one that can provide a wealth of valuable insight into the time in which it was created, while also serving as a tactile link to the person who carried it?  

James Waxler, who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War, left behind a handwritten memoir titled Incidents of the War of Rebellion. This remarkable document was passed down through his descendants until being transcribed and brought to my attention by his great-great-grandson, Matthew Koller, the current artistic director of Fort Myers Symphonic Mastersingers. Matt had conceived of a new choral work that would hold the experiences of his forebear at its core, and, knowing about my series of works that utilize historical documents in the creation of their libretti, asked me if I would be interested in composing the piece.  

I immediately said yes. In addition to his incredible attention to detail, James Waxler provided testimony to events that shaped our history, and that continue to affect our country to this day. He documented everything from troop movements to battle details, from building shelters to foraging for food. As a cavalryman, he reveled in the friendship he shared with his beloved horse, Jim. He wrote about his fears, he shared his hopes, stating his purpose in joining the Union cause thusly:  

“By this war we kept the country from being divided and freed a large race of people from bondage.” 

As with all things historical, particularly those that involve armed conflict, the Civil War was not as clear cut as it is sometimes presented. James details desertions and military executions, boredom juxtaposed with the cries of the injured and dying, the failings of his superiors and his own occasional foolhardiness. There are times when his account is so dark that the reader is left wondering if there will be an end to the horror. The crux of the journal is at the very heart of this darkness – the abrupt murder of an innocent young slave girl at the hands of a drunken Union soldier.  

In spite of this darkness, it is my true belief that there is a great deal of hope contained in these pages. It is easy to spiral into despair when reading such things. It is harder by far to find hope. Hope that grows from a dark place until it reaches to the sun again; like two small buttons, lost in time, until finally unearthed once more.  

In the coming months, I will be sharing my findings with this audience as I explore the story of James Waxler and begin composing a new extended choral work. The task ahead is a challenging one. How do we honor the breadth of James’ experiences, along with the others who fought beside him? How do we honor that nameless, faceless little girl, and all that she represents? What parallels can we draw between the events of their time and our own? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we apply this knowledge in such a way as to ensure that the circumstances surrounding the American Civil War never occur again? 

“In conclusion, I, as one of the participants in it, hope the like may never again occur in this our noble country, America.” 


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