Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

But you, ye heroes of that well-fought day,
How shall a bard unknowing and unknown,
His meed to each victorious leader pay
Or bind on every brow the laurels won?
---Sir Walter Scott

Little did the citizens of Columbia think when the leaders of the State met in convention in that old Baptist church in Columbia in December, 1860, and after grave discussion for several days, finally passed the first ordinance of secession that within four years the effects of their rash act would be the destruction of the handsome town in which the convention was held. Such an ending to their action in passing that first one of all the secession ordinances entered the mind of but few indeed, at that time. Yet there were men in South Carolina and in its capital who firmly believed that the act was a rash one, and that defeat would be the certain end. Of course, these men did not entertain the idea that Columbia itself would meet with such a terrible disaster, but they did predict a failure on the part of the Southern Confederacy to establish its independence, and I talked with several such people during the period that Sherman’s troops occupied the city. They also informed me in speaking about that particular period that quite a large body of the citizens of the State opposed the passage of the act that as far as words could do took South Carolina out of the Union, but while these men came from every past of the State, they were composed of a body too weak to make themselves or their opposition to the measures felt, and after it was passed, the sentiment to stand by the ordinance, now that it had been passed, was practically unanimous, at least, so far as dissension was permitted after the decision was made. I have already referred to the Englishman who was connected in some way with the building of the State House that was then under construction and his predictions of the defeat and dire disaster that would follow a war of the kind, and his boldly declaring his sentiment at the time. I regret that I have forgotten his name, but he told me that it did not take him long after the ordinance of secession was passed, to learn to keep is mouth closed. In detailing to me the scenes and excitement of the great gathering in Columbia. I could readily perceive that he inwardly rejoiced that his predictions were rapidly being fulfilled to the very letter-"for"said he, "the war cannot now last but a few months longer, and the Confederacy may fall to pieces now at any day"

That portion of the army that did not occupy the town of Columbia proper, had not been idle during the few days stay there. The work of destruction of railroads went on continually, east, west and north. The left wing had been employed in reducing impassable the line of the Charleston and South Carolina R. R., and the Seventeenth corps had torn up many miles of what was known as the Greenville R. R., and Fifteenth corps, whose troops had occupied Columbia, took good care to render impassable for many months the Columbia branch of the South Carolina road, including its passage through that city. While engaged in destroying the arsenal and removing the shells it contained a terrible accident occurred by the carelessly handled shells, the result being the killing of a Captain and number of enlisted men. While it can be said accidents of that kind were exceedingly few, when it is remembered that the means for causing them was constantly present, yet they always caused a feeling of sadness to the survivors. A soldier takes his chance in losing his life in the roar and crash of battle, and anticipates death in that way; but never counts on being killed by accident, and hence his feelings are always more depressed when death comes to comrades by the carelessness or negligence of others. the one in question shook all the remaining buildings in the city and some of the citizens were almost panic stricken. On the 20th of February, 1865, the army was again put in motion , none of the troops knowing whither, nor caring much, where they went, so that they were kept on the move. The rumors that prevailed as to its destination reminded one of the "grape-vine reports" that prevailed so extensively during the first year on both sides of the line, Union and Confederate, and which for a time operated very much in the army as "yellow journalism" does now, in these piping times of peace for they, too were as sensational and untrue then as are the vilest "yellow newspapers" of today. The right wing, of which the Fifteenth corps formed a part, moved directly northward form the South Carolina capital and two days after leaving Columbia reached the Catawha river. The left wing advanced as far north as Winsboro, where all the army turned directly to the eastward. Guesses as to the destination of the army were numerous, but this last move led the troops to believe that their destination would be Wilmington or the coast. Heavy rains continued to fall and army was delayed for sometime in effecting the crossing the streams owning to the rise of their waters.

Gen. Joe E. Johnston, Sherman’s old antagonist during the Atlanta campaign, had been place in command of the Confederate forces that could in every conceivable way be collected to oppose the march of Sherman’s army, and but quite recently had assumed command, and although he must have known very well that he was playing a losing game on war’s chess-board, yet it must have been some satisfaction to him to have President Jeff Davis appeal to him in this great emergency to take command of an army from which he had been displaced by General Hood in the preceding year. The Seventeenth corps had moved rapidly forward and captured a town called Cheraw, located on the Great Pedee river, seventeen pieces of artillery having been abandoned by the enemy falling in to the hands of our troops at that place, when compelled to cross the Great Pedee in their retreat. A short time after its capture the Fifteenth corps reached the vicinity of Cheraw and on the same evening the corps reached the neighborhood of the town and had gone into camp, I received an order from General Logan to take command of a body of cavalry and mounted infantry to make a raid on Florence, S. C. It should be borne in mind that at Florence was located one of the Confederate prison camps where there had been several thousand Federals confined, the prison having been in operation for a couple of years, perhaps more. The written order directed me to be ready to start at 8 o’clock on the following morning. As I had never had anything to do with any other arm of the service save infantry, I felt some reluctance in taking command of a body of mounted men; but as I had always reasoned that in the military service orders were issued to be obeyed, consequently I went to my blankets earlier than usual in order to have a good night’s sleep previous to undertaking a raid that I could see was-or easily might be-bristling with difficulties, and perhaps mishaps.

General Logan in person had informed me that after reaching a village by the name of Society Hills my command would consist of 1,500 mounted men. The village referred to had been before the war a very aristocratic place as is even indicted by it name. It was a very beautiful little town and its citizens when the war broke out consisted altogether of the wealthy class. The Twenty-seventh Missouri mounted infantry was nearby, and it was the intention for me to move with that to Society Hills where the Seventh and Ninth Illinois cavalry were encamped and to whom orders had been sent through their commanding officer to place themselves under my orders for the purpose of making the proposed raid. In addition to the forces mentioned , written orders had been furnished me to pick up on the way to Society Hills all the mounted foragers I met and I gathered in a good many of these men, among whom I recall Jesse Perky,at the present moment and every since the resident of Warsaw. He was, however the only one in all the "pick-ups" with whom I was acquainted and the entire command from first to last, were total strangers to me, I not having met personally a single officer among them all before the morning I assumed command of the contemplated raid. At about 8 o’clock on the morning of March 5, 1865, that portion of the force that was present was mustered for the move, General Logan came over from his own headquarters to see the start made, and it might be stated right here that the real object of the raid was the release of the Federal prisoners that were confined at Florence, S. C. This point was estimated to be eighty miles distant, and my orders were to make all possible speed and to destroy on the way down all kinds of supplies that could be used by the Confederate armies, and particularly to burn all the trestlework of the railroad that could be found or rather that lay along the route of the march.

I found myself in a dilemma just as soon as I reached Society Hills, as my entire force consisted of just 546 officers and men, including the foragers-perhaps fifty in number-that had joined the mounted infantry regiment on the way to that place, under the finding fully a thousand men there, not a trooper of any kind could be found in the place. They had been there it was ascertained, but only for a short time, and after feeding their horses had gone in what was supposed to be the direction of the main Federal army. Captain M. D. Gage, of my own regiment and a correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette by the name of Perry, who made his home at General Logan’s headquarters, were the only two men I know, except Perky, already named, and I must say that I hardly knew what course to pursue. I was a thousand men short of what the command was to be, and only a third of the fifteen hundred was present. It was easy to perceive that my own superior officers regarded the raid not only an important one, as was shown in furnishing me with completely written orders; the stress laid upon preserving discipline and in keeping the whole force together. Indeed, as I rode past General Howard’s headquarters, a few moments after command began its move, he suggested to me to keep a close watch, for a message had just reached his headquarters-probably form the identical force that was to join me at Society Hills-to the effect that a force of the enemy consisting of both mounted men and infantry were moving in the direction of Darlington. The disappointment in not finding the larger part of the force intended to make the raid on the prison-pens at Florence to me was great. I very much disliked to return having accomplished any results whatever, and I therefore resolve to make a reconnaissance in the direction of Darlington, at any rate, and in case I encountered too large a force I cold beat a retreat without any serious loss anyhow.

After coming to this determination I directed the troops to first of all feed their horses and themselves, as I intended to move in the direction of Darlington, and if in doing so I came across too big a force of Confederates, to face about and return to the main army. It must be borne in mind that at about this period of the war, the situation of affairs, owing to the constant defeats of the enemy and their entire disability to stem the onward march of the Union army, to which can be added the wholesale destruction of all railroad facilities, the Confederate army was very generally and greatly demoralized. At no point from the beginning of the Federal march northward from Savannah had the Federal army been checked for more than a few hours, except by the destruction of bridges and corduroys in the "bottoms." Not a single battle of any size or importance had been fought. there was every day skirmishings, of course, in front, of nearly all of the Federal corps, and I counted somewhat on the demoralization that prevailed as an aide in the course I was about to pursue with the band of about 550 men at my command. I was certain in my mind that if I fell upon the rear of a force of Confederate troops, that they would in all probability conclude that it was the advance guard of Sherman’s army proceeding to Charleston as my route lay in that direction, and after the objective point was reached the prisoners, captured, almost to a man, informed me that all of the officers were sure that it was the head of Sherman’s forces that were pursuing them. During the resting spell at Society Hills, I stopped at a very pleasant modernly built house in the suburbs of the little village--in fact, all of the houses appeared to be well built and were comparatively new so that the belief was entertained by myself and command that the town in times of peace was a sort of summer home place for wealthy people of Charleston, Wilmington, Savannah and the larger Southern coast cities. Of course my headquarters cook and his help were well supplied with the soldiers' essential rations--coffee, hard-tack, etc., the fowls and meats used usually being gathered up in the country through which the Federal army passed, that in case it was thought to be necessary to occupy one of the cottages, the means of cooking were at hand, and it thus came about that the dinner hour that day was a very pleasant one. On entering the cottage I asked the very handsome middle-aged lady who seemed to be the head of the family whether she could supply the means--fire and water, diner table, etc.--for our cook to get us a dinner, adding the remark that he had his own bread, coffee, fowls, and all that was needed was the room. Very politely she replied by saying that everything at hand was at our disposal, and so our own cook was soon installed in the kitchen, the lady of the house, of course showing him where the facilities for producing the meal could be found. During this time myself and the rather slim staff I had with me on the raid occupied the parlor, and I spent my time in looking over a large supply of pictures, autographs and books that lay on the center table. In examining a very handsomely bound specimen of one of the latter, I noticed that it was a gift to the lady whose services were being directed to overseeing the preparations for dinner. The gift was dated at Florence, Italy, though I regret that the name has slipped my memory. When she reappeared in the parlor I spoke to her about the book and its date, and she at once replied by saying that her husband during the administration of president Buchanan had represented the United States at that place, and on further conversation I found her to be one of the most intelligent ladies I had met in the South during the war. She said that her husband , then an officer in Lee's army, and from whom she had not heard in a long time, returned with his family from Italy, leaving that country soon after the firing on Ft. Sumter and reaching the city of Charleston just before the blockade became rigid and dangerous for men who were as pronounced in his loyalty to the Southern cause as was he, would have been taken prisoner by the Federals at that early period of the war. She talked more than ordinarily intelligently, and I thought I detected a tone of regret all through her conversation as she lamented the war, its hardships and especially the sundering of the ties that had so pleasantly bound friends previous to the severing of relations in the attempt to make two nations out of one.

Dinner being over, I asked the lady what her charges were. The reader must bear in mind that this incident occurred soon after the great disaster at Columbia and that my pockets--nearly all of them --were still bulging with Confederate money. She was almost offended to thank that I thought she would charge anything and replied by saying that I owed her nothing whatever, but afterwards added that if I felt like giving the servants anything I might do so, but that I and my friends were very welcome to what little service she had rendered. I called up all of the colored people about the room and I think all told there were five or six of them and handed them $500 apiece, and a more overjoyed set of colored people I had never seen during the war. Had the bills been of a denomination of a thousand dollars each, they would have been just as readily bestowed. I could see that even the lady of the house--gentlewoman, as she evidently was--also seemed delighted, and who can say that the three thousand dollars to which they fell heir for their assistance in cooking that dinner may not have been of some aid to the entire family after our departure? I sincerely hope it did for there were many cases of downright suffering among people who were wealthy at the beginning of the war, who now at the end of four years had all they could do to find sufficient food for themselves and those dependent upon them for the means to stave off actual starvation? If it did act in that way, I am glad. Before leaving the pleasant home and the kindly lady, I had my cook slip her a pound of coffee, and as he could find no paper at hand, I noticed that he poured the grains out in a large bowl and handed it to her in that way. Tears came to her eyes and who can say they may not have risen from regret that her husband, herself and family, had not remained steadfast in the support of a government that had selected the head of the family as its representative at an important station in the "Old World?"

Here the reader will find a different view. After we had started and gone a quarter of a mile a soldier of our own rode past, dangling before him a lady's very handsome gold watch and chain. Knowing that he must have captured it, and having seen such an one hanging on a nail in the parlor of the house where we had taken dinner, I at once took it from him, and on ascertaining the facts, I put the soldier into the charge of an officer to take him and the watch back to the lady and to see that it again hung on the identical nail from which it was stolen, and to see that the young man did it with his own hands. but the full amount of space for this article has been reached and the description of the raid on Florence will be carried over to the next number of "The Indianian," while the reader is bidden goodbye for a week to come.

Northern Indianian April 28, 1904

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