Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

O! the bleeding, broken hearts,
Living long their lingering death,
Pierced by countless cruel darts,
Smothered sobs beneath each breath.
When they lie there by his side,
Dearer to him than his life,
Mother, sister, sweetheart, bride,
Or his dear, devoted wife.

Nearly forty years have elapsed since Appomattox when General Grant and Lee met to arrange terms for the surrender of the troops under Lee's immediate command, and yet, after all these passing years, I seldom meet here on the streets the old friends of former days, that my mind does not revert to the loyal men and women of those days, whose heads are now whitening, indicative of the laps of time, but who at that period were in the heyday of vigorous man and womanhood, their hearts so deeply wrapped up in the cause of the Union that they were willing to give it seemed to me, all that they possessed, for the success of the Union cause and the saving of the Nation and to preserve it intact without a star blotted from the flag that has cost more blood and treasure to preserve than that--I am going to say, of any other on earth--a Nation that at the period of which I am speaking was so young that it had not yet celebrated its hundredth birthday. Every time I see and speak to these people--some whose sons and brothers were in the regiment that I had the honor to command, I have often stated in talking about the war period that those who for many excellent and varied reasons were compelled to remain at home, were to all intents and purposes just as valiantly, if not as dangerously to themselves, sustaining the cause of an undivided country, as were those in the field, and it is of such I am speaking. The men and women of the North, who remained at home did much to sustain the cause in every conceivable way. They kept the hospitals supplied with every requisite through contributions to the sanitary commission; contributed largely of their means to aid those whose husbands had gone down in the roar and the crash of battle; but over and above all, they aided to suppress the growing number of the opponents of the war here at home, which in 1864 had grown to be a grave danger with its secret organizations hostile to the government, and was steadily yet secretly arming its members nearly all through that years, though in defiance of orders to the contrary from the general government, and but for the people whom I have mentioned and the promptness of Governor Morton and the determination of the military authorities in charge of the State, would with a doubt have broken out during the latter portion of 1864 in open insurrection right her on the soil of Indiana. The present generation can scarcely believe--many of them not knowing--that at the time referred to Indiana was a seething volcano of disloyalty, ready to burst forth at any moment; as was fully shown by the sworn testimony of hundreds of witnesses cognizant of the fact. It was the men and women--for it must be understood that the women were active in very feature of the war, that in so courageously upholding the hands of the State and National government at the period referred to aided both in preventing an insurrection that would have disgraced the State as did the "copperhead riots" in New York City in the same year; selecting the time for the riots when General lee with all his army was in the vicinity of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. Hence it is no wonder that I am always glad to meet the old friends who so nobly sustained the soldier in the field, whenever I meet them; but oh how many of them are gone!

In the approach upon the city of Columbia the capital of South Carolina, the reader will bear in mind that just as the day closed, Logan's corps captured the bridge over Congaree creek, and after dispersing the enemy that formed in the open country that lay between the Federals and the town, as if he was intending to give us a warm reception but was soon dispersed, our troops went into camp in the open meadows referred to. The corps was completely worn out with the day's march, much of it having been done in line of battle, always a tedious and tiresome form of marching through the country, and as a consequence of the wearied condition of the men, they went into camp just as they had halted after driving the enemy before them, many of the troops so worn out that they did not even undertake to get their suppers. The enemy had crossed over to the Columbia side of the Congaree river, and after doing so had destroyed the fine and costly bridge over that stream to prevent pursuit. They likewise destroyed the bridges over the Saluda and Broad rivers, thus wholly giving up the region of country south and west of the city. During the night a confederate batter had gone into position immediately opposite the place where the tired troops had bivouacked, but on the Columbia side of the Congaree, of course, and all through the night this battery threw shells and solid shot into our camp, many of them falling very near the sleeping men and almost enfilading some of the regiments and brigades, the men having laid down on the grassy, rolling ground just as they had stood in line of battle. It is a very strange thing to say but during that steady shelling kept up all the night long as it was, not a single man, horse or mule was killed, and only two or three of the soldiers were slightly wounded from the fragments of the exploding shells. I remember very distinctly how exceedingly weary I was that night, for I had scarcely laid down on my blankets ere I was sound asleep. Of course, the shells as they rolled past, would arouse me at times, but want of sleep and rest would so overpower me that before the screeching shells exploded I would again drop off in sleep, and this was the experience of nearly all the officers and men of Logan's corps on the night that it lay straight across the river from Columbia. After destroying the bridges, it of course became necessary for our pontoon train to hasten to the point that had been selected for the crossing of the river so that the troops could capture the city proper. the pontoon train had to run the gauntlet of the battery that had played upon the troops al through the preceding night, and shells were poured into it as it passed in full sight of the gunners of the Confederate battery; but strange to relate the train received no injury whatever. Of course, the teamsters put their teams on the run and the train was only for a short time within reach of their guns while passing, but very shortly afterwards the pontoniers were busily engaged in laying a bridge of boats across the Saluda river--in fact similar bridges were thrown across the Broad and the Congaree rivers by the respective corps desiring to cross.

Columbia as it lay on the opposite side of the river from the troops the morning to which I am referring presented a very handsome appearance as the sun rose and threw its brilliant rays over the scene. It was, before the great conflagration, a beautiful city, as the Federal soldiers who entered the town will readily attest, and I am informed that in rebuilding following the war that it is even still more beautiful now than before the conflagration occurred that almost "wiped it off the face of the earth." It was an old city, the home of Gen. Wade Hampton, who was then in command of all the Confederate troops in Sherman's front at that time, with General Joe Wheeler's cavalry and mounted infantry under him, and while these two officers did everything in their power to impede the progress of the Union forces northward, their efforts were all in vain. The morning following the night so briefly referred to the troops moved forward to the river and after one of two batteries were placed in position they opened on the city, of course producing great consternation among the citizens of the town, but eliciting no reply. That evening the Fifteenth corps leading the advance, moved up to the pint where the pontoniers had already, succeeded in laying a bridge of boats across the Saluda. In this way all three of the rivers referred to were spanned by pontoon bridges, and on the 17th of February, a detachment of skirmishers from the division to which the Twelfth Indiana belonged after driving back a considerable number of mounted pickets, and after doing this were afterwards wholly unopposed. Mayor Goodwin, accompanied by a number of prominent citizens, came out to meet the troops, carrying a flag of truce, and formally surrendered the city. This was in the forenoon, if I remember correctly, Colonel Stone's Iowa brigade moved forward, as skirmishers, with orders to cover all the streets with troops so as to prevent mob violence if it should be attempted and to uncover any ambuscades the enemy might be tempted to form. The remainder of the Fifteenth corps, with the Twelfth Indiana in the leads, with its splendid silver band playing "The Star-Spangled Banner," each regiment wilt its colors flying, made the triumphal entry into the city, where, in December, 1860--several months before President Lincoln was installed as President of the United States--had passed the first ordinance of secession, taking South Carolina out of the Union. The indications on that 17th of March, 1865, were that the State had not succeeded in doing so. After riding at the head of the column for about half a mile, I had stopped for a short time to converse with General Charles R. Wood, in command of the division, when on turning my horse to again ride to the front and assume my position, I discovered quite a number of citizens with new tin buckets and and cups moving along with the head of the column and presumably giving the soldiers water. However, I dashed up to the front and before I had quite reached the citizens the fumes of whisky fairly loaded the air. It did not take me long to stop that "unauthorized" issue of whiskey, or to surprise a half dozen or more citizens, who were scared almost "out of their boots." The issue of whisky ceased right there.

This incident disposed of, the head of the marching column preceded by Colonel Stone's Iowans covering all the leading streets in skirmish order moved on through the city. It was as wild and windy a day as is seldom known. The wind came in gusts and at intervals, but seemingly with sufficient strength at times to carry everything before it when suddenly there would be a lull in its ferociousness only to break out again with even added power were that possible, I am confident that a fire of some sort was in progress at or near the railroad depot as the columns marched down the street upon which it moved, for after a while I saw tufts of cotton blown by the wind high above the steadily moving troops. The streets were comparatively free from people. Of course there were some who from each side of the street gazed curiously at the steady tramping of the troops, every one of them keeping time to the music in in the lead of the men who had made "the march to the sea." the Fifteenth corps marched on clear through the city and took up its camp on the opposite side of the town in a very handsome location for the purpose. Orders were strict that the troops should all remain in their respective camps, for it must be understood that the enemy could command a very respectable army, so far as number was concerned, and at any time might make a dash on a corps or division that might be somewhat isolated. Another thing that tended to keep them closely in camp was the blustering, disagreeable weather which met them on their entry into the capital of South Carolina, and what is still more to the point, the soldiers were somewhat weary of the toilsome marches they had been making for the past several weeks, and taken altogether, the troops were willing to enjoy a daytime rest. I speak of this particularly for the reason that along in the evening of that day just after the regiment had partaken of "hard-tack" and coffee, perhaps with a cold chicken accompaniment, for there were few haversacks among the soldiers that had they been searched could not have disclosed a chicken already cooked, or a part of one at least, or a piece of park or beef, fir at this period of the war the old veteran had discovered a plan to keep his haversack fairly well supplied whether there was a commissary train anywhere near or not. Supper was over at any rate, when I received an order to move my regiment down into the city to assist in quenching what was then thought to be rather an incipient fire. The order to move down into the city was obeyed with the regiment's usual alacrity, and as major Baldwin had been an old St. Louis and Fort Wayne fire man, I directed him to take charge of the men in this fight with that sort of an enemy. When the troops arrived in the city proper they found a large portion of the down-town portion ablaze. The city was provided with eleven old-fashion hand-engines, and all of these were placed under Major Baldwin's direction and manned by the members of the Twelfth regiment. Never did men work more faithfully and with the Major's experience I thought most successfully, too, for they succeeded, in several instance, in quenching the flames on the buildings at which they were at work. It is only fair to say, however, that owing to the exceedingly high wind that had been prevailing all the afternoon and had increased in violence towards the close of the day, that their efforts to subdue the flames were fearfully handicapped in consequence. The wind carried pieces of boards, shingles and even small pieces of burning timber, that fanned by the high winds soon communicated the flames to other buildings This occurred so frequently that the men of the Twelfth towards midnight were almost worn out with their ceaseless efforts and there is not a reader of these sketches who has ever "run with the machine" but who knows that it is the most trying, nerve-breaking labor he has ever performed.

During all these hours the fire had steadily grown upon the men who were making such a heroic effort to stop the ever-increasing tide of flames that swept through the narrow streets as if blown through a tunnel. Toward midnight the water gave out and after that but little effort was made to struggle with the fire demon. Without water, indeed, there was but little use even to attempt to curb a fire so well under way, consequently when I was informed that the water had given out, I directed the men, although they were almost worn out, to help the people in every possible way and this they certainly did to the utmost of their strength and endurance and continued their labors in this direction all through the long drawn out fearful night--a night such as the writer of these reminiscences hopes he may never see again, and but recently duplicated in the fair city of Baltimore. We are now forty years, almost away from the scene to which I have been so briefly calling to mind, but truth compels me to say--and the reader of the very first one of these "War Time memories" may, perhaps, remember that I declared that whatever appeared in them should be truthful and given to the reader as the scenes described came under my observation--that I have no doubt the fire was kept going to a no small extent by incendiary flames kindled in houses at the time, some distance away from the dangerous fires then in progress. Then, too, before even the water gave out, Major Baldwin informed me that several of the hoses of working engines had holes cut in them, compelling, when this could be done at all, the substitution of other lengths of hose in the place of those injured--all this requiring time that should have been given to the fire itself. I am going to give my own version of the way the Columbia fire was kept going after the flames burst forth because the origin of the fire was much discussed following the end of the war and the coming of peace.I have not a shadow of doubt that the fire originated from the burning cotton at the depot, lighted tufts of the latter having been noticed, as already stated, flying in the air as the Federal troops marched into the city. There was a large number of bales of cotton at the railroad depot at the time, and as there was ammunition near by these burning bakes were scattered by the explosion of shells which followed the fire there and in this way I feel sure that the great fire originated.

There were quite a number of Federal prisoners confined in the suburbs of Columbia, who it was said had been fed on a quart of unsifted corn meal per day for over a year. Those who had not surcumbed already to prison hardships and diet, were released by the coming of Sherman's troops and it "goes without saying" that many of these men were exceedingly revengeful and I saw a number of these recent prisoners during the fire prowling about the streets, though I did not suspect them of any wrong-doing at the time; yet I am confident it was these men who cut the hose of the engines that my men were operating, and in this way kept them from doing effective work towards the last, at least, and it may have been some of these men who started the incipient fires that on such a wild, windy, stormy night were soon of such a size that it was out of the power of any set of men to extinguish them. I talked to some of these men the next day, and while there is no proof that they either cut the hose or kept the fire going from building to building, I was then, and am still confident, that it was the revengeful ones among our own released prisoners who helped the fire along after it got started. There was also as tough a gang of young bullies-- not all of them young by any means--on the streets of the city that night as one would find in the "slums" of Chicago today. These were residents of the place, and it is quite possible that much of the plunder they secured that night was secured by the light of fires kindled by their own hands. Several of this class were arrested, but as none of them were caught in the act, although some of them were gathered in very hear to fires that had just been kindled, but proof being lacking they were discharged. It was a fearful night to me, and all who witnessed the great fire and consequent destruction--the immense destruction of property--to put it in even a mild form. Considerably over half the city was totally consumed, including all the business portion and outside of this a large number of beautiful and costly residences. the women, of course were wild with fright and many families fled in dismay from their beautiful homes with only such articles as they could carry, that were of more than ordinary value. It is simply out of the power of any one to depict the wild scene of that fearful fire, and the desolation it produced. The light of the flames could have been seen many miles away, and the crash and falling of building only heralded the nearer approach of the devastating element seeking more and more combustible materials in its onward march towards the suburbs. A great many house were saved by great exertion, and I felt prouder than ever of the men I had the honor to command through the war, when after it was hopeless to contend longer with the fire, after engines and hose had given out and the announcement made that there was no more water in the cisterns they turned their attention to helping the citizens in every way in their power, in the greatness, the vastness of their calamity, though they were enemies. The next morning I was detailed by General Sherman to act as provost marshal of the city for the time the Federal troops might occupy it, and took up my headquarters in a very convenient and central building that in some unexplainable manner had escaped the lot that had fallen to so many hundreds of other, and it is of Sherman's occupancy of the town that will be the theme of the next article in these "Memories of War Times."

Northern Indianian April 7, 1904

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