Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Though many and bright are the stars that appear
In that flag by our country unfurled.
And the stripes that are swelling in majesty there,
Lie a rainbow adorning the world--
Their light is unsullied as those in the sky,
By a deed that our fathers have done,
And they're linked in as true and holy a tie,
In their motto of "Many in one."
-------George Cutter

The last one of these articles closed with our arrival at Fortress Monroe, on our way to Baltimore on our homeward-bound trip. General Wool, a Mexican war officer, was in command of the Fortress and gave us a most generous reception. The big steamer that was to convey us to Baltimore was there and arrangements were made for the returning prisoners to go on board of the vessel and make it their home as long as they remained in Hampton Roads. Of course, all of the enlisted men were entitled to and did receive their rations on board of the big steamer, and also had the advantage of the fact that the wisdom of its officers in charge had arranged to have their rations cooked for them, and served in the large dining-room of the vessel in detachments, as all could not be served at once. The orders for the boat were to start on its northward journey through the Chesapeake Bay at about 6 o'clock in the evening of the day of arrival, so that all of the prisoners had nearly a full day to examine the great fortress--great even in those days, but nothing to be compared then to its present size, strength and up-to-date equipment.

The whole day, therefore, was spent in examining everything that came in view, for a great many of the returning prisoners, both officers and men, had never been inside of a fort before. Besides, away back during President Jackson's administration, it had been determined to build an island well out from the fort, on which to mount an independent battery, and from his time until the breaking out of the war, each succeeding administration to a greater or less extent--according to the means provided by Congress--never entirely ceased in sending ship-load after ship-load of stone, which went to the creation of the proposed island called the "Rip-Raps," for the reason that the stones were dropped in by whole cargoes, one on top of another and allowed to find their own location at the bottom. It was a herculean task, but when the prisoners visited the place on their homeward-bound journey, the stone had begun to show above the water to an extent that I heard an officer who had been stationed there for a long time, say, had formed an area of about the size of a big town lot, was then above the water. After the civil war broke out the work of forming the island was greatly accelerated, and in the fall of 1862--six or eight months after our visit, those who peruse the war news at the time will remember that a big gun cast at Pittsburgh and said at the time to be the biggest cannon ever before manufactured by any nation was placed in position on the "Rip-Raps." It was called "The Union," and if I remember correctly, its weight was 90,000 pounds.

After a most interesting day spent in looking about and in making the acquaintance of many officers of the Fortress, a large number of whom belonged to the regular army, and attending a reception given by General Wool to the returning officers among the prisoners, we went aboard our steamer for the all-night run to Baltimore, arriving there at about 8 o'clock the next morning. There was little sleep on board the big steamer, as men and officers were so overjoyed at being released from prison that sleep was out of the question, the night being spent in a social way, the memory of which no doubt comes pleasantly back to many of the survivors of that genial, merry company as it does to me. Alas, there may be few, very few, indeed, of that happy company still living, for nearly all of the battles of the war--all of the great ones, at least--were still to be fought, and consequently the havoc of war and the loss of life that so swiftly followed the first year, has doubtless thinned that merry party, at that time, so full of youth and vigor; so enthusiastically patriotic, and so earnestly enlisted, heart and soul, in the great cause for which they were fighting, that I doubt if a corporal's guard of that whole ship's load are alive today!

With quite a goodly number of them especially of those with whom I had formed a more perfect friendship during our prison confinement I kept in touch through correspondence, even during the war period, and with a few others for some years after it closed. Among these were William C. Harris, the young man whom I had induced to continue writing his prison experiences, and have them published after the war, and which the readers of this sketch will remember I succeeded in getting the manuscript out of the Confederacy safely. For two or three years following the war we kept up a disjointed correspondence; then I ceased to hear from him ________ published in several of the Philadelphia dailies inquiring for his whereabouts, but no response ever came to these inquiries. Previous to the war, he had made several trips as "purser" of one of the vessels of a line of steamers that ran from New York to Havana, Cuba, and as he was a splendid scholar and very competent, no doubt situations were readily open to him, and somehow or other I have conceived the notion that he returned to his first love--that of a situation on board of some steamer, and may have lost his life at sea. At any rate, I am sure that if living, he would not have broken off our correspondence, for we became quite like the Siamese twins in our private life as well as we were together, and afterwards we kept up our letter-writing from about 1863 to 1867.

On reaching Baltimore it was my intention to proceed to Washington City, only about forty miles distant, and procure a leave of absence to proceed to my home. At Baltimore I turned over to him his manuscript, at which he was so overjoyed that he at once went to a military store, not far away, and bought and made me a present of any officer's sash that cost him $25, and when it is understood that a very handsome one could be procured for $10 it can be perceived that it was a beautiful one. His home being at Philadelphia, he procured an ordinary pass and went to that city, but I never saw him again. He, at once went to work to get out his book, and although it was a small one, selling in bound form for a dollar, yet it was the very first book that the war subject had thus far produced. It sold rapidly, as, of course, all those who had been confined as prisoners bought a copy on sight. It was published by the late George Childs, for so many years the editor and owner of the Philadelphia Ledger, and a great friend of General Grant. He was, too, the publisher of the book known as "Kane's Arctic Expedition," a publication that came out perhaps a year or more before the firing on Sumter, and in doing which he made a fortune. Harris wrote me in one of his letters that Childs had offered him $4,000 for the copyright of the book, and he had accepted it. Pretty good pay for about six or seven months in prison--better, indeed than the great number that were to be taken prisoners in the years to follow could say or, perhaps, could comprehend when they would think of their sufferings.

The great body of prisoners arriving at Baltimore were either sent to camps to await exchange or given furloughs to their homes; the enlisted men for thirty days and the officers a twenty days' leave, with privilege of additional time unless in the meantime they were exchanged. For myself I went to Washington City. My regiment was about that time under Gen. Banks, making the first advance of the Union army into Virginia, crossing the Potomac at Williamsport and Harper's Ferry, then both bodies moving in such a way as to concentrate at Winchester, which place was taken in March, 1862. At Washington I, of course, called on Speaker Colfax of the House to thank him for so promptly complying with my request to send me a fifty-dollar gold-piece after my arrival at the Richmond tobacco warehouse. Always overflowing with good fellowship and friendliness, and having known him previously to his entry into Congress as the editor of the St. Joseph Valley Register, of South Bend, he seized me by the arm, having come in person instead of a messenger, to the entry door of the House, and hurrying me into the Congressional chamber, introducing me to everybody he met, he succeeded in getting me considerably frustrated; for every member of the House was solicitous to see and converse with one who had been in prison, and was fresh from the confederate capital. On all sides the members closed around me, Mr. Colfax would introduce me, and over and over I repeated the story, briefly of course, until it became so wearisome I discovered an egress and swiftly passed out out the House and was soon down on Pennsylvania avenue and at the hotel, resolved never to permit such a reception from the "big-guns" of the country as I did then. Why the members of Congress wanted me to go up in the Speaker's stand and tell the story of my imprisonment! Many times since, there have been crowds that have tried to get me to make a speech, but none of them have ever succeeded, and every time I have been called on since that period, I think of my escape from the capitol at Washington!

I only remained in Washington for a few days and then came to my own home, where I remained for a few weeks, and then concluded to revisit my regiment, which at that time was at Winchester, having been the very first Federal regiment to enter that place following the commencement of the war--a place that during the years succeeding and until its close, was to know all of the horrors, the cheapness of human life, the utter destruction of property, of every known description, and located in the far-famed Shenandoah valley, perhaps as beautiful, as happy and as prosperous a region as the whole country knew, and which I had seen in my passage through it when first captured, with every rail in its place, and everything on every side in good condition; not a smoke-house disturbed; but which was to become so devastated before the war closed that not a fence was in existence and even grass refused to take root. Talk _______________ knew all about it and from both sides, "and repeat," from 1861 to 1865.

Along with the late Daniel Hamlin, who died in California not long since, Lemuel Hazzard, Tim Robbins and R. S. Richhart, we formed a part to revisit the regiment, although not exchanged, and arrived at Winchester expecting to find the command there; but Stonewall Jackson had been prowling about the country southwest of that town and General Nate Kimball, of Indiana, in command of the Federal forces had just been giving him a pretty severe drubbing outside of Winchester a few miles--the only time, I have heard many officers say that Stonewall Jackson was worsted up till his death, which occurred at the battle of Chancellorsville. In consequence of this fight, the brigade to which the Twelfth belonged--General Abercrombie's--had been ordered to Snicker's Gap. In the direction of Manassas, the first Bull Run battlefield, in the hope, perhaps, of getting on Stonewall's flank, after his repulse at Winchester. At any rate, the party referred to arrived at Winchester by a railroad that the army had built--rebuilt, I should say--from Harper's Ferry to Winchester, only to find the command we were seeking had been gone for a full day and was probably twenty or twenty-five miles away.

We stayed over night in the same town, where as prisoners of war, we passed a few days in an old Sons' of Temperance Hall, the December previous, stopping this time at a hotel, and paying our own bills instead of having some "stringy beef" and bread given to us as though we were dogs, for it was uncooked. At an early hour the next morning, we started to catch up with our regiment and plodded on all day long, occasionally meeting a Federal courier, evidently carrying dispatches from Gen. Abercrombie to Gen. Kimball, but out of none of these could we get any information as to how far the troops we were seeking were ahead of us. As the war went on we found it to be simply out of the question for any one to find out where his command was by inquiring, if he happened to get lost from it. Not being accustomed to marching, several of the party became foot-sore, but by almost dark we reached Snicker's Gap, after crossing the Shenandoah on a bridge, and ascending a long hill that could plainly be seen was a gap in the mountains. Just before coming to the river, we passed through a straggling village called Berryville, and this was the place where Gen. Dan Morgan, of Revolutionary fame, was operating a blacksmith shop when the Revolutionary war began, and who at once raised a regiment of mounted men, conducted them to Boston, and joined Washington directly after he had assumed command of the army at the request and by appointment of the Continental Congress, and afterwards winning undying fame as a ready and rugged fighter. I could not find a single person in the town who knew anything about or had ever heard of General Morgan, and such is fame! He was unknown at the place that had been his home for years.

Right at the summit of the gap was a small village called Snickerville, after the gap of Snicker, and as it was nearly dark, all of us were worn out, there were yet no signs of catching up with the troops we were searching for, yet fully aware of the danger, we determined to remain there all night, and for a shelter took possession of an empty two-story house. There was no strategy in selecting a two-story house, but after we did so, we perceived that it would be decidedly to our advantage to occupy the second story, for it was reached by a narrow stairway, that could be easily defended in case of attack, for all of us had revolvers. There were, if I remember aright, five of us in the party, which would suffice to put up a pretty good fight were we attacked during the night. Just after dark I discovered a citizen of the village, and in talking with him I ascertained that the troops we were seeking must be camped about ten miles further on. This was discouraging, indeed, for two of the party was already lame. Whether there really was an attempted attack upon us during the night I have never been quite satisfied, but it was certainly that quite a number of men were hanging around the building for an hour or more. During this period Dan Hamlin, who was trying to ascertain whether we were surrounded by enemies or not, and forgetting that the banisters that surrounded the upper floor of the stairway had been broken down, walked right off and fell to the floor beneath, and falling with such a crash, that the rest of us heard two or three individuals running through the brush in full flight. As we were in the enemy's country, and in the identical region that afterwards was roamed over and dominated by Mosby's Guerillas till the close of the war, it can easily be perceived that a party of some kind was arranging to attack us. Hamlin's crashing down to the floor below caused such a great noise as to frighten them away, they evidently fearing that they had been discovered, and were about to be attacked themselves. Hamlin's ankle was so severely wrenched that he was quite lame; but at daylight we started in the hope of catching up with our troops and after about ten hours' rapid marching--as rapid as could be made with Hamlin's lameness--we overtook the command, which had stopped for dinner, and about the time it was over, an order reached the colonel to retrace our way back to Winchester--over forty miles-- with all possible haste, and we retrograded to Snicker's Gap where our orders were countermanded and we were directed to proceed to Manassas Junction, the original plan to be carried out.

Warsaw Daily Times March 7, 1903

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