Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

O, the trees were in bloom, and the trailing arbutus
Wove a carpet of beauty o'er highland and dell,
When we stood by our guns at the dawn of the morning,
As down the long line rang the words" "All is well."
And our hearts they were light, for we heard in our fancy
The Sabbath bells chiming o'er hill top and lea;
And our homes they seemed nearer as we listened that morning,
When Sherman rode forth on his "March to the Sea!"
--War-Time Lyric

Day by Day the march of the army was only a duplicate of the preceding ones, both as to weather and the incidents that met us at every step.

The weather was bad all through the month of February, 1865. Rain fell almost in torrents at times, and for days together I doubt very much whether the clothes of the soldiers were at any time entirely dry, but in these closing days of the war, the army was composed of "veterans"--men who had withstood the hardships of war from the beginning down to that time, and were so hardy that they could withstand either the cold or oppressive heat, and at the same time do so when it was possible at almost any moment to wring water from their uniforms, even including their underclothing. Disagreeable, it certainly was, and the march through the Carolinas never brings up pleasant recollections--as many other campaigns and marches may do in other fields, and in all the wide regions through which Sherman's hardy veterans had passed. General Wade Hampton--a South Carolinian by birth--was in full command of the enemy, which included in its make-up General Joe Wheeler's cavalry, the same Wheeler who participated in the Spanish-American war of more recent date, and especially the operations which brought about the fall of Santiago, Cuba. There was some infantry in General Hampton's command, but the most of it consisted of mounted infantry and the regular Confederate cavalry. Sherman's army was at this time approaching Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, and since the start from Savannah, while there had been considerable skirmishing--in fact, this kind of fighting occurred almost every day--but there had, as yet, been no serious battle, the enemy either being maneuvered out of their position at some river crossing, or defeated by the throwing forward of an increased skirmish line, so that the principal cause of delay came from the repairing and building of corduroy roads and the rebuilding of bridges that the enemy had destroyed. The country was low and flat; the river bottoms and many of the creeks as well, were exceedingly wide, and the continuous rains had made the currents of the stream far more than ordinarily high with very swift currents. However, the army pushed ahead despite of all these drawbacks--the enemy, doing nothing more than to compel Sherman's troops to make new roads and often to supply the stream with a better bridge than the one they had destroyed in order to impede the progress of the Federal army. Thus, in course of time the army neared Columbia, where the presumption was that the Confederates would make a stand, and either deliver a battle, or defend the city to the last.

As a boy only eight years old this writer had perused "Horry's Life of General Marion" so frequently that he knew its pages almost "by heart," to use an old-time expression, and as a consequence I remembered much of the ground covered by the book referred to--a volume, by the way, that still occupies an honored place in the library of its then boy owner--and many of the scenes described by General Horry came fresh to my memory on visited the region in person. Then too, my grandfather after serving his full time in "The Maryland Continental Line," as a body of the Revolutionary troops from that colony was designated, re-enlisted in the colonial service of South Carolina, under General Francis Marion, and was along with "The Swamp Fox" on the occasion, the reader of that interesting biography will remember, when General Marion surprised and captured over two hundred British and Tories and released nearly the same number of Americans that were being conducted to the coast as prisoners of war for safe-keeping. Those who have read the particular incident will remember that "Marion's Men" found the commanding officer of the British force hidden up the chimney of the manor-house, the latter in those days being of sufficient size to have secreted at least a half dozen or more had they taken refuge in its wide expanse above the "crane," the old-fashioned fixture with which every respectable chimney was supplied in the days of the Revolution, and for many years following; but today would be a curiosity to the present generation. I could not help but wonder to myself how vividly the many incidents in the book referred to were called to mind by being on the ground in person, and besides as I had not perused the book after reaching the years of manhood, showing that the impressions made upon the young mind stay with them all through life, and it was the reading of "Marion's Life" in my boyhood days that brought back to memory the accident by General Horry at Lynch's creek, when I overlooked the scene where he came so near drowning in crossing that stream, heretofore spoken of in these reminiscences of war days.

As General Sherman's army was subsisting wholly on the country the commissary train of wagons scarcely carried anything else that hard bread ("hard-tack" with a piece of tin or sheet-iron running through the center of each square piece of "the bread")--an ample supply of coffee and sugar, and thus reduce the immense wagon trains, in order to cover an ample region for foraging purposes, spread the different corps of his army as widely apart as was possible. This was necessary, too, because the war was already in its fourth year and from the firing on Fort Sumter, the farmers and planters' crops yearly decreased in area for the reason that only the blacks were left to cultivate them, and after the beginning of the war the Confederate Congress passed what was known as "the tithing law" that provided that the eighth of one and all crops went to support the Confederate army in the field, and here in South Carolina, and in all that section of the South soldiers will remember seeing in barns and out-houses before either had been raided by the passing of the victorious army, many sacks in bundles furnished by the Confederate government and each one marked in plain letters "Tithing Sack," all of which were to be filled and forwarded to the Confederate commissary department at Richmond, to aid in the support of General Lee's army. I never knew the name or number of the crops of which the law demanded its share for the purpose, but I saw sacks filled with wheat, corn and other farm products, but what struck me as remarkable was that the Confederacy even demanded its share of peanuts. The peanut was even then a crop generally cultivated on a small scale, and since the war it has become in some sections of the two Carolinas a very important product, indeed, and is raised wherever it grows well, on a large scale. I remember once of entering a barn where my horses had been stabled during the night previous and was astonished at seeing on what is known here in Indiana as "the barn floor" a couple of dozen large gunny bags of peanuts, bearing the legal label, "Tithing Sack," That particular lot of sacks failed to reach Lee's army and was "gobbled up" by Sherman's omnipresent soldiers, and at this late day I presume it matters but little whether the raisers of those peanuts got due credit for them or not. He should have done so, however, for he had shown his obedience to the law, rigid and hard on the agriculturist as it was, for in setting aside the government sacks filled to the string with peanuts he had done all in his power to comply with the law, and to aid the Confederate commissary to the best of his ability. More could not have been asked of him, and but for the coming of Sherman, that special consignment of peanuts would have been in the pockets of Confederate soldiers rather than Federal veterans.

The army was still in the particular region so successfully guarded and rode over during the Revolutionary days by "Marion, the Swamp Fox," and the march of the Federal troops was over a highway at one time not far distant from the home of the old Tory on whom Sergeant McDonald, of Marion's Men" played the trick over the old supporters of King George that ended in McDonald euchering him out of a favorite blooded horse know by the name of Selim," an animal that the Sergeant retained till the close of the war, and whose speed on several [after] occasions saved McDonald from death or capture, and following the war was permitted to die of old age at the home of the Sergeant--a curiosity and a relic of the war, well known to all the people of the vicinity, and a "show animal" to many travelers and strangers after the Revolution was happily closed; but I have said enough of these Revolutionary incidents and have only mentioned them for the reason that everything in that "Life of Harry's " came back to my memory so clearly that I was surprised that I could recall the contents of a book whose lids I have not even opened for twenty-five or thirty years. It is a veritable truth that the occurrences and incidents of youth are remembered more vividly than any other period of a man's life-time, and this fact alone illustrates the necessity of the greatest care being taken to instill correct principles in the minds of the young, knowing that they will be remembered as nothing else will be, as the boy becomes the man and is compelled to jostle with his fellow beings in after life. How many who read these hastily scribbled "memories," when he murmurs the Lord's Prayer to himself or peruses it in a copy of the New Testament, will forget the mother who induced him first of all to commit it to memory. How quickly will his mind go back to the time when standing by her knee she read and reread that prayer until after awhile, the boy was overjoyed at the fact that he could repeat every word and line from memory and all unaided!

During all of the northward march of the Federal army, the Confederates could only guess what Sherman would do and where he would go next. The city of Charleston was still holding out against the fleet,General Hardee being in command of the city proper; General Wade Hampton at the head of the troops in General Sherman's front, and his ubiquitous General Joe Wheeler was engaged in flying hither and thither with his cavalry and all the Confederate troops in that region under the command of General Beauregard, the same officer who was at the head of the Confederate troops that fired on Fort Sumter and precipitated the war. In his advance on Columbia General Sherman had so covered the country that his opponents were kept guessing all the time as to the course he intended to pursue. In fact, Charleston was so seriously threatened that for a time the enemy concluded that town would be the objective point. Cooped up in Charleston, General Hardee was no doubt very anxious, for it was pretty plain to be seen that with his communications entirely severed, he was in a dilemma of a very unpleasant nature. Hood's army had in effect been almost obliterated at the battle of Franklin and the subsequent defeat at Nashville, and hence no help could come to the Confederates from that direction, although it was understood at the time that the remnants of his army with which he had recrossed the Tennessee, and afterwards was placed under the command of General Dick Taylor--a son of ex-President Zachary Taylor--had passed over the railroad at Branchville with quite a body of Hood's troops just before Sherman's army struck that place and destroyed all the railroads for many miles around. Such was the situation as General Sherman's army slowly but steadily crept up on South Carolina's capital briefly state. General Kilpatrick with his quick-moving mounted men, appearing here, then there, and to the enemy, no doubt, seemed to be everywhere--kept his opposing force "in water so hot," that the kettle must have often boiled over.

On February 14th--St. Valentine's day, though wholly unobserved except by the exchange of musketry firing on the skirmish line--the Fifteenth corps arrived at Sandy river, said to be fifteen miles from Columbia. The same night a dash was made upon our picket lines, stationed in a wood of considerable extent and about a fourth of a mile in front of the main line, where the command had gone into camp for the night. In making the detail, it seemed that an unusual number of the drafted men that had joined the Twelfth regiment at Beaufort had been of the number. It was about sundown or near it when I heard a volley of musketry out in front and hastened out of my tent to direct assistance to the skirmish line; but before I had uttered a word, from every company of the regiment I could see the old veterans engaged in buckling on their cartridge boxes and without a word of command from any officer whatever, hastening out to the assistance of their comrades "on the double quick." I mounted my horse and followed, and very soon heard the firing of their muskets. It seemed that two picket posts had been stationed quite close together--the two composed of probably twelve or fifteen men. The officer who had stationed them there had only left them for a few moments when a detachment of about a hundred Confederate cavalry "rushed" these two posts, and was just starting them away when the veterans who had gone to their help without anybody whatever directing them, so rapidly emptied several saddles, that the captors fled so quickly as to abandon the prisoners they already had in their possession. The pickets having been retaken, resumed their duties and at the same place that night only exercising a little more prudence and caution during the night. It was this act on the part of the enlisted men, wholly without orders, going to the assistance and rescue of their comrades that led me to make the remark many times since the war, that there was at least from one to five men in very company of the '61-'62 soldiers in every regiment in Sherman's army, qualified and perfectly competent and able to command a brigade, and I still believe so.

As the division to which I was attached began to close up on Columbia the Twelfth regiment was confronted with a Kentucky brigade and for nearly a full day it, with Colonel Wood's entire brigade was compelled to march in line of battle. The surviving veterans of the war will readily agree in the statement that this was a hard way to move. The ground marched over was covered with a pine forest the most of the way, but the trees were scattered and consequently there was no danger of a surprise, as the enemy could be seen at all times in the retrograde movement that was being made by the Confederates. I remember on one occasion a soldier of my regiment brought me a common envelope which he had found sticking to a small tree at about the height of a man. It bore no address but on opening it I discovered, scrawled clear across a full page of letter paper, the words written with a lead pencil--"Beware of the Kentucky Brigade."As we had been pursuing this brigade from early in the morning until late in the afternoon when this note was handed to me, without being able to bring "the Kentucky Brigade" to a stand, the reader can easily perceive that the Federals had not as yet found anything to "beware of"--not even Kentuckians! However, a short time after receiving the words of caution referred to, the Kentuckians did make a stand at a stream called Congaree creek. This stream ran directly across the line of march, a very good bridge spanning the stream at the point where the main road passed over it. All this the Confederates, of course, knew, but the Federal troops were compelled to feel their way at all times as the whole country was now to them. The stream, while not large, possessed extremely rugged and steep banks, mostly of a rock formation and hence pretty easily defended. While the main line of Federals immediately following the brigade they had been pursuing all day, had come to a halt until the ground could be investigated, a regiment had been sent up, and another down the stream, and it was not long until it was quite plain that the enemy in my own front and near the bridge showed signs of wavering. They had begun to fear that the two regiments, or at least one of them, might find a crossing. I could readily perceive that the members of the Kentucky brigade were becoming uneasy from this movement, and therefore, I obtained permission of Colonel Wood to push them at the bridge. At that point the enemy had two pieces of artillery, and when the officers discovered that a charge on the bridge was about to be made the battery fired two shots, one from each gun, but before they could reload the company that had been directed to take the bridge, was clear over it, and it was all that the battery could do to save their pieces by flight. The company referred to had dashed across the bridge, had saved it, and as it was growing towards sundown, the corps went into camp with Congaree creeks in their possession.

That evening Sherman's troops witnessed the handsomest military evolution that had been executed during the war in presence of the enemy. After crossing the Congaree, the whole region was entirely free from trees and every other impediment that would tend to mar the movement to which I allude. A brigade of Sherman's cavalry had arrived, and at about the same time the enemy had sent out a large number of mounted men to reinforce the troops that had just been driven across Congaree creek. These mounted men of both sides were in plain view of the troops that followed the capture of the bridge, had crossed over the stream. A wide space of open country seemingly continuous meadow was spread out in full view and in every direction. The enemy continued to advance towards the position of the infantry that had captured the bridge which by this time had increased to three divisions of the Fifteenth corps and were moved out on the open space and formed in "echelon" to use a military term, that is one division behind the other; each division placed so that it could readily move forward and be formed on the one in advance, thus continuing and lengthening the line of battle on either desired flank. All this time the enemy seemed to be increasing in numbers so that it looked as if there was to be a fight worth seeing and all "in the open," too, and each in plain view of one another. It was a handsome sight to a soldier, and well worth looking at. Just about that time the Federal cavalry--only two regiments had formed in a position that would flank the Confederates the moment the infantry referred to advanced to the attack; the Federal mounted men at first being secreted in the timber along the edge of the Congaree, the infantry moved forward each division by itself, to get within rifle range of the enemy, who seemed to be awaiting the attack, something over a mile away. The sun was sinking to rest and its rays produced a most beautiful effect as its declining rays burst on the bright muskets of the infantry. After the latter had moved forward, perhaps a fourth of a mile, the Federal cavalry moved up and threatened what was the right flank of the enemy. On discovering this force of mounted men the enemy waited no longer, but at once began to retire, slowly at first, but gathering momentum as the Federals came on, it soon became a trot, then a scramble, then perhaps a panic, for apparently they never stopped till they had crossed over and into the city of Columbia and placed the river between them and their pursuers, for the handsome town lay on the opposite side of the stream where the Confederates formed their line for defense, it was presumed. the Fifteenth corps went into camp in that open meadow that night, but were annoyed all through the dark hours with a battery that continued to throw its shells into that wide open space all the night long, but doing no special damage.

Northern Indianian March 31, 1904

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