Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Let the flowers forever fair
Bloom above our fallen braves,
While the angels guard them there
Glory lingers o'er their graves.

The reader of today, in all probability, has never thought that the march of an army could be traced through the country by the graves it leaves behind its traveled course; yet such is the fact. Many men were lost by the "advance guard" --as the usually small party that leads the oncoming host is usually designated--these again by the more numerous skirmish-line, providing the foe is near, to say nothing of the greater number who lay down their lives in the greater battles of which the two parties mentioned were only the precursor.

Even when there is no enemy in the immediate front death occurs on the march from illness or previous wounds. All the regiments of the Union armies were supplied with ambulances for the purpose of carrying the sick and disabled of the command to which they belonged and it was frequently the case when either the wounded, or soldiers disabled from illness died in them while on the march. In such cases their remains were interred by the roadside, if they died in the country, or if near a town or village, they were interred in the "God's Acre," usually known as the graveyard or cemetery. Hence it is a fact that directly following the war and before the generous government, in the preservation of which they had laid down their lives--had provided for the gathering of the remains of the fallen in cemeteries, the grounds for which were purchased and set apart for the purpose, and not only providing for the re-interment of those who had perished in the holy cause; but did the same thing for the remains of those who had lost their lives while fighting against the government and where is the Federal soldier today who'd have it otherwise? In all cases the graves of the dead were marked as well as it could be done at the time that death came; but very often this was rudely (crudely) done, and sometimes so hastily that the name of the soldier dimly penciled on a fragment of cracker box, or a bit of board, the box of which had been a receptacle for cartridges. Great pains had been taken on the part of those who had been detailed to gather up the remains since the war to ascertain the correct names of those whose remains were to be interred in the government cemeteries--these generally being located near where some great battle of the war had been fought--but when it was impossible to decipher the names, they were gathered and located in a body in a section of the grounds, and labeled "unknown." It is a fact however as I said in the beginning that the "march of an army could be traced by the graves of its dead immediately following the war, scattered all along the line of marches the army made all through the country.

Following the brief stay at Society Hills, as recorded in my last article, and the decision to at least follow the retreating enemy towards Darlington, at about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the little command of 546 men, actual count, started in the direction of that place, having first gathered all possible information from the negroes and the few whites we encountered at that village and the little band had not proceeded more than a couple of miles when the advance guard of about twenty men in charge of a Captain of the Twenty-seventh Missouri Mounted Infantry, sent back word to me that he had come up to the rear guard of quite a force of the enemy. I accompanied the man that brought back the information and rode rapidly forward to see for myself the situation of affairs--for having only a third of the number of troops that had been expected when I assumed command of the raid, I keenly felt the responsibility of pursuing an unknown number of the enemy with the small number at my command. The captain of the advance guard referred to informed me that he was confident that there was infantry in the lead of the body of cavalry, judging by the tracks made by the soldiers' feet in the soft soil of a road over which there had been but little previous travel for a few days past. These tracks were quite plain, even thought they had been partially defaced by the feet of the horses that was acting as the rear guard of the enemy. If there was infantry in the Confederate party it was only all the more necessary for me to observe the greater caution, an so I remained with the advance guard until a scope of country was reached that was free from intervening trees, and gave a view of the road the enemy was traveling for perhaps a couple of miles, and sure enough a body of infantry could be plainly seen. The captain of the advance guard was certain that the enemy was aware of the pursuit, for although he had prevented his men from firing at the time when he first discovered the rear of the enemy, he was confident that my party had been discovered from the accelerated speed the enemy had adopted since he had first come in sight of them.

A short time afterwards the troops came to quite an extensive plantation, where quite a number of negroes showed themselves in the large lawn that led up to the mansion house. I had ordered the head of the column to halt at this point until I had interrogated the colored people as to the number of troops I was pursuing, and they united in saying the force was three times the size of my own. I also ascertained that the passing troops were firm in the belief that Sherman's army was coming by that road on its way to Charleston, this idea being greatly in my favor all the way. After leaving this plantation home I directed the Captain of the advance guard to push the enemy to a small extent as soon as he caught up with them and endeavor not only to ascertain how large the force was, but to do everything in his power to substantiate the belief in the minds of the enemy that the advance of General Sherman was really on the way to Charleston via Darlington and Florence, the belief being already fairly well fixed in the minds of the Confederates. the advance guard quite frequently came in touch with the rear of the retreating enemy and finally along before dark captured two prisoners, and after they were "pumped" of everything they knew and as the troops were nearing another large plantation, where I intended to camp, so that I could enter Darlington by daylight instead of darkness, if I kept on much farther. I paroled the two men feeling sure that they would follow the retreating troops into Darlington and there repeat the fact that my force was the advance guard of Sherman's whole army going to Charleston--a fact that had been repeatedly impressed upon them, and which I am still confident, as I was then, did us a good turn, for it was afterward discovered that their number was more than double my command, and had they put up a fairly strong fight, it would have been my command doing the retreating instead of the Confederates.

The place where I intended to stop was a beautiful one indeed and the plantation was in better condition than any other I had seen for weeks. We were then in a region entirely free from the footsteps of marching armies of either side, and no destruction of any kind whatever could be discovered; every rail of the fences were in place and, as far as the eye could reach, the scene was most peaceful. I placed the soldiers in camp, using the ten-acre lawn in front of the mansion for their resting ground, and, of course, with my limited staff and a few other officers, took up quarters in the house after a proper guard had been established with the strictest orders to be watchful and careful, for they were far away from help should anything serious occur. At this period of the war the men had learned to be vigilant on their own account and it was easy for them to understand that watchfulness was a necessity, as this band of half a thousand was well into a region where they would have to depend on their own strong arms, as help in an emergency was out of the question. There must have been a hundred colored people on the place, all of them under a fearful state of excitement. The lady of the house had pointed out a very old darkey who would be the one for me to see for anything I wanted, and I called him to me. He informed me that there was not a white man on the plantation; that some of the younger ones had gone away a few hours before--riding one and leading all the horses and mules the plantation owned and was going to hide them in the Pedee "bottoms," that river being near by--in fact, it lay not far to the east of my force ever since it left Society Hills. I asked him if he could serve about five or six of us with a good supper if I would furnish the bread and coffee? "Oh c'se we kin, massa; and if you'ns has got coffee, hits sumthin' mo' dan we'se had for two year or mo'." I told him to get the "Old Mammie"--every slave plantation in the South had an old "Mammie" before the war, whose coming was conceded to be unsurpassed. I told him we would like to have friend chicken and either a few slices of ham or bacon. "Yes, sah," we would like to have fried chicken and either a few slices of ham or bacon "Yes, sah," he said "you shall have bofe and, and chicken, too." And sure enough within an hour or something less myself and staff sat down to the best meal of victuals I ever ate in the South during the war time, and although I have been all over it since the "great unpleasantness," I have never yet at the first-class hotels--and there are many good ones of the latter--ate a meal so keenly relished as the one of which I am speaking.

Of course, we gathered up a good deal of information at this place during the night. It was only four miles from Darlington, and I ascertained to a certainty that the force we were pursuing was composed of a brigade of infantry and a regiment of cavalry; that they were fleeing from Sherman's army that was coming right along; and better than all, it may have been for my command, they intended to push on through to Florence during the night, which information was the main point in my desire to push on to my destination--Florence, also--for I reasoned that if I would release any of our prisoners confined at that place, it would have to be done before they were removed--something that under the circumstances, was sure to be done, owing to the belief that they would be recaptured by Sherman's army if any delay was made. My orders were to destroy everything that could be used in sustaining the Confederate army, cotton, food of all kinds, roads and bridges and especially tressle-work, and this I was to do on the way down. I asked General Logan why this might not be better done on the way coming back? He replied by saying: "Colonel Williams there may be such a thing occur that your might not have time to do so on the return trip!" an inkling; even then, that he, too, had heard the report that there was quite a force of the enemy between Cheraw, the starting point and Florence the destination. Already the troops assigned to the work had destroyed a few short tressles over ravines on the railroad and had burned them down, but they came to one that had just been built with new and green pine timber. This would not burn and a detail was sent out to the cabins and farm houses and all the axes on each place were brought in and the men chopped it down, to which I refer to show the shifts which soldiers are required to make at times. At early daylight the bugle sounded and it was only a short time until all of the command had breakfasted--for my party, at least, a duplicate of the supper was set before us and thoroughly enjoyed. With my small force, I felt as though I was taking a very great risk in going forward where I was sure to meet an hourly increasing force of the enemy, and putting more miles between my command and any assistance, but I finally decided to go to Darlington at any rate and there decide as to whether I would proceed the other ten miles to Florence, and so the troops were mustered.

Following breakfast, I called the old man who had acted as the over-seer to me and as I was still loaded with Confederate money I gave him a thousand dollars to give to his mistress and a half dozen $500 bills to hand around to the colored people who had helped him to provide for us, and particularly to give the "Old Mammie" one of these bills; and then in the way of a jest, I said to him; "Old man, you have been so kind to us that I guess I won't burn the house." the old man had spent every one of this sixty-five years on the plantation, but he replied; "Lawd God, massa, if you wants to buhn de old place down, don't stop on my account, 'kase I don't keer!" We left this plantation at an early hour, and in the suburbs of Darlington, the command was halted to receive a delegation of citizens with the mayor and town council at their head, who had come out to surrender the town. The mayor informed me that he had been chosen for the purpose, and inquired for the head officer. I was pointed out to him by a soldier and he came forward and surrendered the town to me in person. I told him that Sherman's army was following--which was hardly true, for it was seventy miles distant and marching the other way--but I was solicitous to have all the people along the road I had taken to believe that my force was only the advance guard of the main army for the reason that I expected to return by the same route. I told the mayor that I would have to destroy all supplies that could be used or was owned by the Confederate authorities, and that I expected to remain in the place but a short time. Proceeding to the central part of the town I was informed that there was about 240 bales of cotton stored near the depot; a warehouse full of hams, shoulders and side meat, and I delivered that all of these should be destroyed under my orders. There was a very vicious Confederate newspaper in the place, and the office was also destroyed so that it could not sow any more seeds of discord against the Federal government. I did not mean to remain there long. Ten miles distant was the Federal prison pens, and Florence was the objective point of the expedition. The troops moved forward for that place with alacrity, every one of the men, I feel sure, being anxious to help release their comrades who had been confined there for a more or less longer period. when within a couple of miles of Florence the advance guard came very suddenly upon a couple of companies of Confederate troops, their arms stacked in the lawn of a very comfortable farm house. Word was sent to me at once, and taking about twenty-five men I went forward and readily perceived that by letting down a fence, the Federal troops could, with a quick dash, get between the men and their stacked muskets. This was quickly done, and we had taken the two companies prisoners before they even knew there were any "Yankees" in the vicinity. From these prisoners we learned that Wilmington on the coast had been captured and that they were a portion of the Confederate troops that had escaped. They were so weary and worn out that it was scarcely necessary to place a guard over them. Consequently I had an officer parole them on the spot as I needed all the men there was in the small command for other use. The prison pens were some distance south of Florence, and the troops moved forward to that point with all possible speed and in doing so, a number of Confederate soldiers were captured, who informed us that on the morning of March 5th the Federal prisoners had been removed to Millen, Ga. This proved to be a fact, and it will thus be seen that the prisoners were being removed just at the same hour that my command started on the expedition for their relief! In approaching the prison pens, however, the Confederates put up quite a fight, but as soon as I found that they had been removed I at once withdrew my force and in doing so had to repass the town of Florence, where a force of Confederates had been assembled much greater in number than my own, but we drove them into the big depot building, which I had intended to burn, but before the torch could be lighted an orderly came dashing up to me from the rear guard that had been stationed previous to the advance on the prison pens with a written note from his offer that a big force of Confederates were disembarking from a train of cars! This, would place my command between two fires and so I determined to fall back to Darlington, ten miles distance on my way back. In making the rush on the prison pens quite a number of Federal soldiers, half starving, and some of them actually insane were picked up by the retreating soldiers. These had escaped or wandered off into the nearby woods when the prisoners were being removed two days before. They were cared for, however, and extra mules that had been captured were given to them to ride. I was well aware that if escape from the large force of the enemy that now confronted me, it would be from the fact of the belief generally understood that the head of the main Federal army was not far distant, and hence my force would not be pursued very vigorously. However, we soon arrived at Darlington on our return, where I had determined to halt, so that the men could rest, and the horses and mules could be fed. I can only say that I was just getting up from my coffee when an orderly rode up with information that the enemy was forming in the outskirts of the town, and he had hardly gone before another came from the opposite direction with a similar report. Mounting my horse I rode out a short distance and sure enough the Confederates were forming clear around to the east and south side of the town, as I could see their "guidons" in every direction from that quarter. "Boots and saddles" were sounded and my command was at once mustered to continue the retreat. In going down I had noticed that we crossed a deep and sluggish stream not far from the place at which we had camped and stayed all night. If I could make that stream and cross over I could destroy the bridge and be comparatively safe. This plan was fully accomplished and the troops being so worn out--the animals, too--I resolved to let them rest and they were just getting comfortably situated when a picket-post sent word that the enemy was crossing the stream below the destroyed bridge and soon after the same kind of word came from up the stream. It was out of the question for my small force to withstand the much larger number that the enemy now presented, and very reluctantly I issued the order for the march to be resumed. A small squad of my command that had been sent to destroy some railroad tressle-work rejoined their command here relieving me greatly for I had entertained the fear that they had succeeded in their enterprise and I was elated over their safe return.

It was considerably after dark when the troops resumed their return march and it was not long until it was discovered that we were followed by a large force of the enemy so that there was nothing left for us to do but to continue the march, which we did until at about 3 o'clock in the morning we reached a point where there was a flouring mill, the road bridge crossing the stream on top of the dam. here I determined that the men must have a short rest and after seeing that every one of the command had passed over, I directed that the bridge should be destroyed, or at least be made impassable. On the opposite side there was a cluster of houses--indeed quite a little village--and these the men occupied for a few hours' rest. I felt certain that the enemy could not easily cross and felt quite secure; but just about sun-up an explosion that rattled the glass in the windows of the house occupied by myself and staff, routed me out of my blankets. I felt sure that the enemy had attacked us with artillery, but this not proving so, the cause of the explosion will be related in the next one of these sketches. The enemy had followed us all the way, but as we left early in the morning , impression was at the time, that they gave up the pursuit at that point as we never saw nor heard of them any more. The backward trip continued until late in the evening of that day, and I doubt if there was ever a more weary lot of men and horses than that little command that had doubled eighty miles; fought a battle of four hours duration; had destroyed a depot of supplies at Darlington and Dove stations; burned and chopped down five hundred yards of railroad tressle-work; burned over five hundred bales of cotton, fifteen cars and a warehouse filled with hams and bacon; brought back thirteen of our released prisoners and had captured forty-five of the enemy. As the head of the command passed Gen. O. O. Howard's headquarters he came out to the road and warmly welcomed us back. Said he "You have not been gone over a couple of hours before we learned that the cavalry that was to await your coming at Society Hills was not there, and also that there was a force of three or four thousand Confederates directly south of your designated place of meeting, and to tell the truth I never expected to hear from you or your small force, except as prisoners of war, and I feel greatly relieved over your safe return." He was paying this compliment to men who sat (on) their horses, many of them, fast asleep. General Howard is one among the very few corps and department commanders of the great war still living and he was an officer universally beloved by the soldiers he commanded clear through the war.

Northern Indianian May 5, 1904

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