Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

But to the hero, when his sword
Has won the battle for the free,
The voice sounds like a prophet's word"
And in its hollow tones are hard
The thanks of millions yet to be.
---Fitz Greene Halleck

My last article closed by giving a very brief interview with William Gilmore Simms, and the setting forth of his views of what was to happen from the disintegration of the States, and the disruption of what was known as "the American Union" when it would be broken up into warring States. It was not at all strange that the majority of the Southern people believed implicitly in the proposition that the State was superior to the Nation at large, provided the State endorsed the laws that a National Congress might pass. The "States Rights Doctrine" had been taught for so many years that it is fair to presume that the majority of the Southern people thoroughly and honestly believed in that doctrine. From the infancy of the Republic the Calhouns, the Yankeys, The Toombses, The Davises, and "fire-eaters" of that stripe had pushed "States Rights" so steadily and for so many years that the doctrine was popular in all of the seceding States, but especially in those know as the "Gulf States." In the "Border States" such as Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia and even in Tennessee though not a border state, the sentiment that the United States was a Nation and was entitled to the support of the people in preference to giving it to the States first of all, was largely held by the voters. Consequently, when the war broke out, the Union cause had a large following in all the States mentioned, and each of them were well represented in the Federal army. The continuous and ardent advocacy of State’s rights had left Mr. Simms, and hundreds of his class of leading men in the South, to believing the doctrine so firmly that it was not so strange that such men came to believe that if the South was conquered the States forming the old Nation would go to pieces and each one form a principality of its own when the disintegration followed the defeat of the Confederate cause. Men entertaining the belief of Mr. Simms--and they were a power in the South for many years preceding the war--seemed never to have entertained the idea that this would have been the case almost certainly had the Confederacy succeeded in winning its independence; for firm in the belief that the State was the superior, and the organization to which the people living within its borders owed their allegiance first of all, it can readily be perceived that had the South succeeded the Confederacy would have gone to pieces within the first decade, so loose and weak would have been the tie binding them together. In the demand of Governor Brown of Georgia on Jeff Davis, the President of the Confederacy, that he sold return at once every Georgia Regiment then in General Lee’s army to the State for the defense of their own firesides--the demand being made not long after the fall of Atlanta--very plainly shows that if "State’s rights amounted to anything in reality, it was the Governor of Georgia who had the right expect aid in protecting the Stare form the Union army, then over-running it n every direction. Like occurrences would have happened almost as soon as the Confederacy had won its independence--were such a calamity at all admissible in the thoughts of Men! Hence the Union victory was of infinitely more value that has ever been given it credit; for had it been the other way there certainly would have been a lot of "warring states" even before the Confederacy had "got well on its feet," after winning their independence as the logical teaching of "States Rights."

But for the desolation caused by the great fire--and I insist upon the statement that the beginning of the vast conflagration could not be attributed to the Federal troops, for I was in a position to know being at the head of the marching column--that the depot buildings with their combustible contents were on fire as the Union troops marched down one of the principal streets leading to the central portion of the city, Sherman’s army rather enjoyed the five or six days rest taken at that place. Of course, as was usual all through the war, the citizens of the town did not lack of food, for all of them were fed by orders of General Sherman, and it is probably very safe to say that there were some thousands of the residents of Columbia who tasted coffee for the first time since the beginning of the second year of the war--the splendid stimulant having disappeared form use by all save the wealthy, and even these could not procure it at times for love nor money, owning to its wonderful scarcity. Rations were issued to the people during the stay of the army in that place just as regularly as they were to our own soldiers. The reader of these reminiscences of the civil war may come to the belief that their author "a crank" on the subject of coffee. Seeing what I did and knowing what I do. I am confident that a no ration issued by the commissary department is more valuable-not even bread itself-to restore the over worked, over marched soldier when the natural collapse follows, that a cup of good strong coffee, even the second one never came amiss. I can over look the hardships of the Confederate soldier in being paid in a money at the rate of eleven dollars a month when the price of a singe meal at a high class restaurant would consume a month’s pay; but when I know that the "boys in gray" were compelled to go without even the odor of coffee during the last three years of the war, then indeed my sympathies are aroused for time; and then it think that his antagonists, the "boys in blue" when ever they were in camp and drawing their regular rations, found it impossible to consume all the coffee given to them-the difference can be seen to be very great when the two armies are compared on the subject of coffee.

I have already referred to the oceans of Confederate money that fell into the hands of the Union solders on the taking of Columbia. Counted in dollars no fair estimate could be made of the amount that was captured there, and I presume that there was not a single one of the Federal army, no matter what rank he may have held, but who was supplied in quantities ranging from a hundred dollars to a half million. Everybody had "stacks" of it and on several occasions I saw the men use it to light their pipes or cigars when they could obtain the latter, in doing so they never looked at the size of the bill-whether it was one or a hundred dollar note. When the town was taken a very large Palmetto flag floated from the top of what may be denominated "treasury building" for it was from this edifice that came the Confederate money spoken of. Having a peculiar look, distinct from the Confederate flag adopted by the Confederate congress following the beginning of the war, the flag especially attracted my attention, and I sent the late Marsh H. Parks the adjutant of the Twelfth regiment with a file of soldiers to take it down, and if possible to procure a garrison flag representing the "Stars and Stripes" and put up in its place. He could easily enough and did bring down the Palmetto flag, with the representation of a Palmetto tree upon it, but he was unable to find any other other a regimental flag-and this would not have been permissible -to replace, so the building went without a flag of any kind thereafter during our stay. That same flag was made up into a package and at the first opportunity it was forwarded by Lieutenant Parks and myself to Governor Morton at Indianapolis and some years ago was still in the flag room of the State House, where the tattered regimental flags of Indiana’s regiments were stored. In later years it may have been returned to South Caroline though I think not. It was a large one and the palmetto tree it contained was worked upon it in green, if I remember right. I also have now in my possession a battleflag of, I think an Alabama cavalry regiment captured in a skirmish a few days following the battle of Missionary Ridge. It has a St Andrew’s cross set on the same flag diagonally and I have no objection to returning it, if its proper owners can be found.

Although Columbia & South Carolina may be considered the original home of and head center of the secession movement, beginning, as it did, in 1832, away back in President Jackson’s time; yet during the stay of the army there I was placed in a position so that I could learn that there were many people in the city very anxious for the war to close on any terms that might be named. I even found men-rather they came to me-who openly declared that they was for disunion never did have their sanction. These were not ignorant men, swayed by the constant and dispiriting defeats with which the Confederate army was meeting with on almost every hand, but they were intelligent well informed citizens of the town. General Wade Hampton himself opposed the secession movement with all his power up till the State passed its ordinance of secession in December following the presidential election of 1860 in the previous November, nearly four months before Abraham Lincoln, President elect, took his seat, and hence before a single act on the part of the North expressed in an official way either by Congress or by the new President had given them cause for "voting the State out of the Union" It will be seen that Wade Hampton yielded wholly on the State’s rights idea, believing that the State was superior and that the United States were to be supported only when the State sustained every law whatever, passed by Congress. The ordinance of secession passed by his own State settled the question for him, and he at once became a supporter of the Confederacy, as well as a leading general officer for the Confederate cause. Previous to the war he was considered wealthy and coming as he did from an old aristocratic family, he was a leading man of the State and an efficient help to the side on which he fought. He was the owner of a very handsome property in Columbia which was not destroyed in the great conflagration of which I have been speaking. There were a good many leading Southern men who occupied a position similar to that of Gen. Wade Hampton and even General Lee himself-at the time of the breaking out of the war a Colonel in the United States army did not take sides against the government until after Virginia seceded. Following that event he resigned the position he held in the United States army and left Washington for Richmond, where he received the appointment of Brigadier General and it was his command that was sent to West Virginia to oppose the Union forces that were sent into that section of the State. Hence it is a fact that the State’s right view carried many men into the Confederate army who would have been delighted, but for it, to have espoused the cause of the Nation.

As I have no notes to aid me in the penning of these sketches and consequently have to rely wholly upon memory, I think it was either five or six days that the Federal army held Columbia after the fire. As already stated, those citizens unprovided with food drew their rations from General Sherman’s commissaries under his orders, and I remember that the principal citizens of the place became somewhat alarmed over what might happen after the Federal forces abandoned the place. There was, as there is, "tough element" among the people of a place as large as Columbia and the better class of citizens very greatly feared that this element combined with the stragglers from the Confederate army--and under the condition of affairs the frequent defeats of the forces under General Hampton and Wheeler and the constant retreat of the troops under these officers, the number of these stragglers and deserters was by no means small-might become unmanageable, indeed, was almost certain to become a menace to the citizens just as soon as the town was evacuated; consequently a large number of the better class of citizens called on General Sherman in a body to have a talk with him on the subject and for him to suggest some plan to prevent the lawless element referred to from becoming a public danger, some of them even going so far in their remarks as to say that since the fire they had received better treatment from the soldiers of the Union army than they had from their own just previous to General Sherman’s advance upon and capture of the town, as the stragglers and hangers-on of Wheeler’s command has been very annoying to the people and had invaded the homes of those unable to bear the loss and stripped them of every particle of food and even going so far as to search the homes for money and whatever jewelry they could find-in short, robbing them of every article of value it suited them to take. They very much feared that this lawless band of men-of course under no sort of discipline-would be a great danger to the city after the departure of the Federal troops than it was possible for the troops to be that then occupied the place. The subject was discussed in all of its phases, and if my memory serves me right, there were two or three hundred citizens of the town present on the occasion to which I refer, thus being a fairly representative body. At General Sherman’s own suggestion--although the citizens very freely discussed the matter-he proposed to issue to some one authorized by those present to receive them, three or four day’s rations for all the citizens of the town, and at the same time to turn over to them three hundred muskets with an ample supple of ammunition. The citizens themselves could thus arrange for a body to act as a police corps, and would be placed in a condition to defend themselves and preserve order. The meeting was a deeply earnest one, indeed. I looked in on it for a brief moment, and I thought it was no wonder that they were alarmed, even frightened, following the terrible scenes through which they had passed since the capture of the town, now that it was to be left to themselves. The order that had been preserved during the capture of the city was so perfect that I believe that it was this feature that frightened these citizens the most; for they had already learned that under the rigid discipline that had marked the arrival of the Federals, there would, in all probability, follow a dress of liberty and license on the part of the class to which I have referred that would not only be unbearable but positively dangerous. The proposition was accepted; the muskets given to an authorized person, and the rations issued in a similar way. and stored in a convenient building for the purpose, and an armed guard placed over them on the evening before General Sherman withdrew his troops and proceeded on his way.

On the day the troops withdrew from Columbia, I received an order for myself and regiment to remain until the very last of all the stragglers of the army-in all marches and in all armies there are more or less of this class of soldiers--were left behind, as it would in all probability mean the death of any one who remained in the rear and fell into the hands of Gen. Joe Wheeler’s men, or even of some of the more vindictive citizens of the place, among whom there were some, no doubt, who take delight in avenging a burned up home or the loss of a valuable building block; so on the strength of this order I sent a note to the commanding officer of every regiment and battery that had been camped within the limits of the city to see to it that when the withdrawal commenced all of the men of each command was not only present for an hour or more from the time of starting, but especially when his own command began to move, and also notifying them that the evacuation would begin, but the next day. I did this more in my own behalf than to urge obedience on the part of the troops of the various commands that had been encamped within the city limits. I did not know where all these different bodies were located, but I did feel the responsibility of getting out of town the last one of each; for as soon as the withdrawal was at an end, every individual soldier found within the city limits would be either killed or captured, for it was a well known fact that small detachments of Confederate cavalry were keeping a close watch upon the Federal troops; not only for the purpose of getting information, but to kill or capture any small body or even individual Federal soldiers they might come across, hence I felt the responsibility keenly. The beginning of the evacuation commenced at a fairly early hour in the forenoon of February 20, 1865, and continued until after the middle of the afternoon, before my command, bringing up the extreme rear, began to move.

I have taken all the precaution I could think of, for, it was not only my duty to see that none of the Federal soldiers were left behind, but I had also to look out for an attack from the Confederate cavalry that was hovering near, and whose commanding officer might take the opportunity to attack the last regiment that was moving out with some chance of success. The twelfth regiment was formed in skirmish-line order-that is in single rank, and the men spread apart more or less widely as the conformation of the streets suggested. Each company was under the command of its Captain or the next officer in rank and each was assigned to a special street with orders to scan each side closely in search for stragglers and a detail of seventy-five or a hundred in reserve and under my own command. In this way we marched out of the city of Columbia in splendid order and one and all scanning both sides of the street. Quite a number of men were picked up on the march, some of them even belonging to regiments that had been on the way for three or four hours. All of these were arrested and brought to me where they were placed with the reserve force of the seventy-five men, and an eye kept on them to prevent them from slipping away. Nothing serious occurred, and in departing the rear guard of the army was not attacked, nor as far as I knew did it leave a single man of Sherman’s army behind. The opportunity for an attack was excellent with an officer of pluck and determination in command for the regiment, marching on several streets by companies, anyone of the latter might easily have been taken at a disadvantage by a dash of cavalry pluckily delivered; but nothing of the kind happened. Taking in all the streets on which the different companies were moving, if I remember aright, about forty men were picked up, the most of whom would have remained in the town perhaps until after all of the organized Federal troops had passed out of the city. Then what might have happened to them is a mere matter of guess work, and owing also somewhat as to what kind of a man was in charge of the troops into whose hands they had fallen. If a vindictive, ill-tempered officer had been in command, an excuse might easily have suggested itself to him to kill whoever might be caught on the spot. If a genial, good-natured man, naturally he would have been taken prisoner and treated fairly well. Just at that time, however, the disaster that had befallen Columbia had assumed a deep feeling or revenge in the minds and hearts of a good many Confederates, and the chances were against any captured man being safe. The late Lieutenant Marsh H. Parks, of this city, at that time serving on the staff of Col. W. B. Wood, had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the Confederates, a body of cavalry having come into the town at one side just at the time that my regiment was passing out of it on the other side. Of course, he was placed in confinement, but as he, as a officer had done some favor to the college building while the Federals occupied the city, he got permission to appeal to one of the professor, and an officer went with him to the college, located in the suburbs of the city. The professor took his case in hand quite warmly, and finally brought sufficient influence to bear to insure the release of Lieutenant Parks, and he joined the rear of Sherman’s army on the morning of the third day after the city was evacuated.

I remember that on the street on which I and the detail I have mentioned passed out of Columbia, and were nearing the suburbs, the troops passed the very handsome home of Gen. Wade Hampton. It was not only beautiful, but was a stately edifice occupying the center of a large, beautiful-sodded, and well kept lawn, with marble statues interspersed quite generally among the trees, and a wide stone pavement leading from the street up to the main entrance under a wide and very comfortable porch-"porch" I mean, and not a veranda-the word meaning much so far as comfort is concerned. In obedience to orders, an officer and four or five men had been guarding the property during the occupation of the city. These, of course, would now join my command in leaving the city. Before doing so, the officer said to me. "Colonel, there are some works of art in the basement story of the mansion that are worth seeing, and if you desire to do so I will show them to you. I having the run of the rear door to the basement." I jumped off my horse and went along with him, but on entering the very large room that was only partly below the surface of the lawn I was not only surprised but, at first a little shocked, for my first impression was that I was in the presence of the dead. Not so, however, but there sitting on trestles, were five or six statues, sculptured from the finest of Italian marble, so life-like in the face as to cause the shock referred to. They had been imported previous to the breaking out of the war and were still enclosed in the original packing boards with only the coffin-like lid taken off and showing the face of every one. General Hampton had purchased them to add to those on his lawn, but the war coming on they had not yet been set up. All I can say of them is that they were very beautiful, were ten or twelve feet in height, on a guess, and were intended to add to the already large number that had previously been set up on the magnificent lawn. The war checked many projects and ended many more for good and all.

Northern Indianian April 21, 1904

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