Memories of War Times

Personal Reminiscences of Happenings That Took Place From 1861 to the Grand Review

by Reub Williams

"Forward!" the bugles call; ready am I;
For though my step hath lost its springing gait.
I am more prompt to march; quick to obey;
Less apt to question or to hesitate--
Yet when some belted trooper gallops by,
I lift my eyes, warned by the swift hoof's tramp,
And hail him with the infantryman's cry--
"Ho, comrade, tell me how far it is to camp!"
---Robert J. Burdette

The above lines taken from a fragment of poetry from the gifted pen of Robert J. Burnette, the poet-lecturer whom many of the readers of this paper have heard at many different points, expresses so well the difference between the old seasoned soldier and the new recruit, or an old regiment as compared with one fresh from home, that it will be appreciated by the old and tried veterans of 1861-2. The new men so unaccustomed to the duties of a soldier failed to take advantage of the situation and rest at each call of "halt," but would stand around with his most heavily weighted knapsack on his shoulders, instead of lying down for a brief moment it may be using the same knapsack for a support. On the other hand, as Burdette describes him, the "toughened" old veteran took every advantage to do as little as was actually necessary; "quick to obey" and less inclined to find fault or question whatever order he might receive. The lines brought up in my memory the many times I have known, when the bugle rang out the command to "halt," that within the lapse of sixty seconds the entire regiment--if it were an old one--would be lying down just outside the highway and their feet towards it; every man of them using his knapsack as a rest. To the veteran a "halt," even though it was for a few minutes brought rest; he made his knapsack carry him and become a support for the brief moment, while the new regiment, or a recently added batch of recruits would walk around bearing their full equipments--knapsack, haversack, gun and cartridge box--was more tired when the bugle sounded "the advance" than he was before the "halt." The lines above quoted is a mere fragment of a very fine bit of poetry, but exceedingly apt in description, and I only regret that I could not well produce it in full in these sketches. I may do so at some future time.

In my last article I left the two armies facing each other to the northwest of Atlanta, with their respective lines drawn exceedingly close together, and the daily grind of the picket firing costing both side many lives and many wounds, neither of which counted much in the final make-up of victory or defeat; but was, nevertheless, a duty which was called for and could not be dispensed with. the work was dangerous to those to whom the detail came for pickets, and, oh, so wearisome to one and all! To officers and men alike, and I presume on both sides an order to assault the enemy's lines in force would have come as a relief and glad tidings both together. The army itself was not aware of, and could not know what was agitating the head of the commander-in-chief, and it would be an unwise thing for an army, that such matters should be known to the masses. If everybody knew what was to be the next move it would be practically certain that the object in view would be defeated, and at the time I am writing about, secrecy was an absolute necessity. I have already stated in these personal recollections that with such a long line of railroad communications, General Sherman was exceedingly ticklish about his supply of ammunition. At the Palmer House in Chicago, a few years after the war I heard him say that he "never feared for his rations, because he could subsist his army for many a week, even were his communications broken, and he generally," he said, "had a large quantity of supplies close up to the fighting line of the army. But," he said, "a two days' battle would require an immense amount of ammunition, and I never could get more than enough at hand for that length of time. Ammunition could not be replaced; food for both men and horses could be secured from the surrounding country by sending foraging expeditions far afield, but there was great danger at all times in the ammunition proposition."

During all these weary, harassing days--days of watchfulness, sudden alarms and daily loss of lives--our great commander was very quietly, but energetically, vigorously and yet patiently working out the plan that was to give to the Union forces, Atlanta, the "Gate City" of the South, and the final result place he away up towards the head of the list of great military geniuses in the art of war, and at the same time to thrill the loyal heart of the great North with joy over the splendid victory. The plans for retiring the entire lines of the federal forces were decided upon as early as about the middle--perhaps a few days later--of August, but for prudential reasons the movement had been postponed. During all this waiting period, however a large portion of the army was not idle, by any means, a strong body of them with engineer and pioneer corps, were busily engaged in constructing heavy works back at the railroad crossing of Chattahoochie river, seven miles about from Atlanta and about five in the rear of the Federal lines. This was done so quietly that a large portion of Sherman's own army did not know it was in progress, or had been occupied until after the city fell into Sherman's hands. If I remembered correctly it was on or about the 25th of August 1864, that the withdrawal movement began, my own command being in the front line of the trenches at that time. The Fourth corps moved out to the rear and right, having first detailed a very strong skirmish line to keep up a more than ordinarily vigorous fire in order to cover the movement from the enemy; at the same time the Twentieth corps fell back to and occupied the already prepared works for its reception at the railroad crossing of the river alluded to thus presenting the appearance to General Hood in Atlanta that the Federal army was in full retreat.

On the next night, August 26th, the right wing also withdrew, a line of breastworks having previously been constructed for the protection of the troops that were then withdrawing from the main line the Federal forces had held ever since the battle of Ezra church. With the same view of inducing the enemy into the belief that the whole Federal army was in full retreat, these troops marched in the direction of Sandtown, where there had been a bridge and was still a ford for crossing the Chattahoochie river. The feint of General Sherman was pre-eminently successful in deceiving the Confederate General, who could only construe the movement of the Federal army into a full retreat back to Chattanooga, and the abandonment of the Atlanta campaign. So badly were the Confederate General and his officers deceived by the movements of Sherman that General Hood officially declared that General Sherman's army had retreated across the Chattahoochie river, and it is a fact that the citizens of Atlanta, joined by the officers of Hood's army, held a jollification ball over the retreat of the "Yankees" the same night. A reconnaissance in force in the direction the Twentieth corps had taken, only led the Confederates to confirm the first report, and that the Federal forces had all been withdrawn in the direction of the original starting point of General Sherman's army--Chattanooga. What an awakening General Hood, his whole army, and the citizens of Atlanta was to come, instead of "The sound of revelry by night."
At the coming of the morn! Instead of a retreat, nearly the whole of Sherman's army--all but the Twentieth corps--was at that moment south of Atlanta and were engaged in tearing up the railroad to Macon, the only railroad left to General Hood! At Fairburn a few miles southwest of Atlanta the road had been thoroughly destroyed for a distance of twelve miles. The rails were placed in such a condition that they never could be used again. In the beginning of the war in tearing up a railroad it was the usual practice to make log heaps of the ties, set them on fire and then lay the rails over the heated logs until they could be bent around a stump of a tree or anything else that came handy for the purpose. It had been ascertained through prisoners and spies that these rails were gathered up and there were some rolling-mills left in the South that could and did straighten them as fast as they could be hauled to the mill. Some ingenious sort of a blacksmith in the Union army had invented clamps that put an effective stop to the straightening of railroads from the beginning of 1864 forward. It required two men and two clamps, one at each end of the rail, turning them in opposite directions, when at the hottest point the rail would have more of the appearance of an auger after it was manipulated by these clamps, than anything else. There was no machinery within the Confederacy that could straighten a rail thus twisted, and that was the plan pursued at Fairburn.

It fell to my lot on the swing of the troops around to Jonesboro of Sherman's army, to be ordered to report with the troops of my command to General Belknap, who then commanded a brigade in the Seventeenth corps and both brigades were to proceed to a deep cut in the railroad, and to destroy all of the rails possible until further orders. General Belknap, it will be remembered, was an Iowa soldier and after the war was over, he was made Secretary of War by President Grant, and readers of the newspapers of Grant's second term period will remember that his wife got into a suttlership scandal. He was a high -minded, patriotic man and would have scorned to stoop to a dishonorable act. He had, after the war, married a Kentucky woman whose family stood high in that State, but who found it rather difficult to live on the $8,000 a year furnished to cabinet officers, especially as in this case, her husband paid precisely $8,000 a year rent for the house he occupied. She had some money coming to her in her own right, so that the General never suspected that she was engaged in selling suttlerships until the proof came with crushing bewildering force, compelling him to resign his position. He could have proven himself clear by "laying it on the woman," but he scorned to do so, and thus as brave a man as the army contained, and as high-toned a gentleman as ever lived, went under a cloud rather than tell who was the guilty one, when she was his wife.

The two brigades tore up railroads all that night, and in some deep cuts, shells were deposited under the dirt and debris, not so much for any destruction their explosion might cause, but to scare away the Negroes that would probably be employed to repair the road. At daylight the following morning we were relieved from this tiresome duty, and I was placed in command of a train and ordered to conduct it to Jonesboro, where the troops were at that time, the army having marched all night and closed in around that place, about twenty miles south of Atlanta. In the meantime General Hood had discovered that instead of Chattanooga, Jonesboro was General Sherman's destination, and so had blown up everything in and around Atlanta including a large number of loaded freight cars, etc., had dismissed the bail in honor of the "Yankee Retreat," and set out with whatever troops had remained in Atlanta, General Hardee being in charge of the Confederate forces that were endeavoring to make a stand at Jonesboro. In connection with Hood's blowing up Confederate property at Atlanta after he found that Sherman had so grossly and cruelly deceived a man with only one leg, the detonation was so great a shock that the shaking of the ground awakened me. Just how far our troops were from Atlanta, I cannot say, but in the morning we found that we were very near to Jonesboro so that the distance from the point of explosion might have been close to eighteen miles. On both sides of the road as the train I was guarding slowly made its way, we found dead Confederate cavalrymen whose command had evidently made frequently stands against the Federal army. I remember that one man we found was just dying and another was so badly wounded that he could not stand up, and of course walking was out of the question. I turned him over to the hospital department which took him to Jonesboro in an ambulance. He was very grateful and so expressed himself many times, and I called at the hospital to see him on two occasions but whatever became of him I do not know. He was probably taken to the hospital at Atlanta, after the contest for that place was over and which was just beginning at my last visit to him.

I arrived with the train the night before the charge was made on the town of Jonesboro, and as my brigade was "off duty" and had just arrived, worn out with the long, slow motion required with such a train--a train of wagons that when drawn out upon the road in marching order covered a distance of nearly eight miles--the troops were glad to be given a rest. Knowing that they were not to be called upon for any special service I determined to visit General Sherman's headquarters which was situated on a high point to the north and slightly west of the town. The location gave a splendid view of the scene of operations and I was glad that I had gone to that point, for it enabled me to look down upon the entire field. I could easily see that General Sherman was wholly engrossed, and what was more, I could plainly see that he was greatly irritated as well, and as near as I could gather, the cause was that he was impatiently waiting for the troops he had sent around Jonesboro to the left to get into position, and like the old war-horse he was, he was similarly engaged in "champing his bit." On the north side of the town all was ready for the charge and from the position referred to, I could look down upon the formation of the Fourteenth corps, where it was waiting for the order to "rush" the enemy. I feel confident that General Sherman, tired of waiting to hear from the Fourth corps on the left, had resolved to make the charge anyhow and did so. To me, high above the men that were charging the enemy, it was a magnificent sight, and while, of course, the line was no doubt somewhat crooked, it did not look that way to me, the whole line seeming to rush forward with the Union cheer rather than the rebel yell, and it was not long until I could distinguish the gray fleeing before the on-rushing line of blue. It was in that charge that the boys of the Seventy-fourth Indiana Infantry from this county captured a full Confederate battery and received high compliments from the division commander, the leader of the charge on the battery having received a congressional medal that was bestowed in such unusual occasions for brave acts, when recommended by the officer of the division or corps to which the recipient belonged.

The enemy evacuated Jonesboro without receiving any orders to do so. In fact, the principal part of the Confederate army holding the place, left for the south on the "double-quick," the result of the charge being the capture of the place, a good many of the enemy killed and wounded and something over 1,200 prisoners, a large portion of the latter belonging to what was known as "Cleburn's division," under the command of General Pat Cleburn, who was afterwards among the thirteen officers from Brigadier General up, who were killed or wounded at the battle of Franklin, Tennessee, General Cleburn being killed right on the works at that fierce struggle, the last fight in which General Hood commanded the Confederates in a charge. The prisoners belong to Cleburn's division at Jonesboro were the sauciest and most stubborn of any I had ever seen during all the war, and on either side. They were so extremely bitter in their denunciation of their capture that they came very near provoking a riot after they had surrendered. They had carried their curses to such an extreme that very fortunately for some of them I had the opportunity to suppress a movement designed to stop it. Fully a hundred of the enlisted men of the Federal guard had made up their minds they would stand the abuse from the prisoners no longer; and fully armed and without an officer among them, unless it may have been a corporal or two, they were proceeding to the point where the largest number of the prisoners were held, determined to compel them to cease their abuse or to fire right into the crowd. It was a mere chance that I was riding towards our own men, and catching from their repeated threats what they were going to do, I finally succeeded in stopping them before they reached the prisoners, and even then I could scarcely head them off, they were so angry; but when I told them what a disgrace it would be to have the news go out to the world that the Union army had sunk so far down in the scale of humanity as to murder unarmed prisoners, some of them began to listen to me, and as these were at the very head of the marching squad, it caused a halt and the rest coming up on hearing the remarks, began to see they were engaged in a matter for which they might be ashamed of as well as severely punished, they began to hesitate. Hesitation meant, of course, the relinquishment of the intended design, and I have always been glad that I happened to be the instrument in frustrating an act that no matter how great the provocation, could never have been smoothed over.

Northern Indianian January 14, 1904

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