Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Close his eyes; his work is done!
What to him is friend or foeman,
Rise of moon or set of sun,
Hand of man or kiss of woman?
Lay him low, lay him low,
In the clover or the snow!
What cares him? He cannot know;
Lay him low!
---George H. Baker

In a recent article I have alluded to the handsome home of General Wade Hampton and briefly--very briefly indeed-- described its surroundings. This has led me to mention the fact that most of the manor-houses the army passed in the country leading from Savannah northward seemed to have been built without any special architectural display, but comfort and convenience seemed to have been the prevalent idea of the original plantation dwelling, or farm houses as we would call them here in the North. They were often low and rambling, covering considerable ground space and almost invariably showed a good sized lawn in front of the building with a carriage way leading up to the broad porch of the main front. The chimneys to a remarkable extent were always built on the outside, as an additional means of safety, I presume, and the salient points about the dwelling was the feature already stated--the air of genuine comfort that at once suggested itself to the observer--and it was easy for the beholder to perceive that the well-to-do people of the South were faring through life very pleasantly and comfortably and the suggestion often came to my mind during the passage of the troops through what are denominated the "Gulf States" that if the owners of these large plantations, these comfortable homes, and with their often well-equipped negro quarters, that were their owners earnest and sincere in the belief in the "divine right " of slave holding--and many of them did constantly advocate such a view--and it is fair to presume they were firm in their belief that slave holding was right--the more foolish were they for inaugurating the "secession" movement, for the larger portion of them--the great majority in fact--were living like princes, and I have often wondered that, putting the question on that ground, if it were right and proper for one man to own another on account of his own color, he being a white man; that he was entitled to the labor of the blacks just as much as he was to that of his mules or horses, and living so comfortably situated as they certainly were, why on earth did they jeopardize the conditions that surrounded the labor question of the South? Certainly the firm and true believers in slavery were "living an ideal life" from their point of view, and what dunces the leaders were to imperil their "property" and the system of managing it with the generous income received each year as profits from their plantation kind of labor, ad bring on the freedom of the negro within four years, when, had they stayed their hand in Charleston harbor in 1861, such a thing would not have occurred in fifty years and perhaps a hundred--maybe never! Of course, it was the "fire-eaters" that caused this, but since the South can now perceive that it was their own course that brought on the freedom of the blacks many years before it would have come but for their one rash act. However, I do not care to argue a question that has been discussed and "threshed" over and over by men on both sides ever since the Declaration of Independence, and hence I will proceed with the story that I have been endeavoring to relate in these columns.

Those who have been "keeping tab" on this series of articles will remember that my small body of mounted men were aroused from their slumbers at a point where they had crossed a stream, the bridge over which crossed on top of a dam, that I referred to a tremendous explosion that was so loud and of such power that the glass in the windows of the building in which we were sleeping rattled so loudly that nearly all of the troops were awakened, tired and exhausted as they were when they had laid down for a few hours before. Such was the case with myself. None of the command had undressed even to a slight degree, well aware as the men were that they would soon be called upon to resume the backward march. The window glass in the room in which I had taken up my quarters for the brief hour of rest rattled so loudly and the shock was so great that nothing else entered my thoughts other than that our pursuers had brought up some artillery and had opened on the little town where we were stopping, and nearly every one of the men with whom I talked entertained the same view except those who were on guard duty. They declared that the explosion seemed to come from some distant point, and pointed to the fact that no injury had come to any of us, nor had there been a solid shot or shell thrown into the village we were still occupying, and pointed out that even our pursuers had withdrawn from the opposite side of the stream. The discussion over the strange affair went on while the troops were getting breakfast and the peculiarity of the incident furnished the top of conversation all through the remainder of the return march of that day; but as soon as we had arrived, first at General Howard's headquarters, and soon after drew up in front of those of General Logan, I reporting to both of these officers, then we ascertained the cause of the wonderful explosion and the loss of life and property that had taken place in consequence.

On arriving at the headquarters of my own regiment the story of the explosion was soon told, for a good many of my own men had been in the immediate vicinity of, and felt the force, of the catastrophe that had occurred, which had been such a puzzle to my home marching command. It seemed that on taking possession of Cheraw, the troops that first reached the town captured a large amount of the munitions of war which the enemy had abandoned. There were at least a few siege guns among the number of pieces of smaller artillery that fell into the hands of the on-sweeping Federals, and large quantities of powder, seven tons of which, it was stated, had been shipped to Cheraw from Charleston, previous to the fall of that place. This, however was only a presumption, the powder being very large, a single piece of which was a large as a man's finger, and the soldiers concluded that it was for use in the siege guns referred to. Of course this was guess-work among the troops. All this artillery, cartridges and loose powder was taken possession of by one of the ordnance officers, and he was directed to destroy it for fear of just such an accident as did occur afterwards. Although the Pedee river flowed right past the town, and the seven tons of powder could readily have been dumped into that stream, very thoughtlessly the entire quantity was thrown into a ravine in the suburbs of the place. No notice had been given to the troops that were constantly arriving at Cheraw following its capture and some of them even went into camp--my own regiment, the Twelfth, among the number--that took up their quarters near this powder. The following morning while the men were cooking some of them found several pieces of this large grained powder--in fact, near the spot where it was deposited in the ravine spoken of, this combustible material was quite thickly strewn, while near the point where the men were camped only individual pieces were found at distances of a few yards apart. Some of these were recklessly thrown into the mess-fires, of course doing no more damage than to blow the ashes about and at the same time to scatter the coals or sticks of which the fire was made.

It was never fully ascertained how the fire reached the great pile that seven tons would make in the bottom of the ravine where it had been so carelessly, thoughtlessly and almost criminally cast, but the general conclusion was that in playing with this very dangerous commodity in single grains, it finally ignited that portion more thickly strewn, and from these to the main body of the explosive material. the deafening and wonderfully powerful explosion that followed the instant ignition of seven tons of siege-gun powder was what myself and troops had heard on the morning of the preceding day, and although I afterwards ascertain that my little command was twenty-seven miles distant from Cheraw, yet it rattled the loose window glasses in the houses there at the same moment the troops were returning from the Florence raid at that great distance! The reason for the great force of the explosion at that distance from where it occurred may have been for the reason that the stream that passed the little village where my stop had been made after crossing the bridge and destroying it, flowed into the Great Pedee not far from Cheraw and as water carries sound long distances I have always reasoned that this was why it seemed so near to where we were staying. The explosion was a fearful thing indeed to those who were near it and but for the fact that the bank of the ravine next (to) the troops was quite steep, while precisely opposite the one on that side was very much lower, no doubt saved many lives, for the force of the explosion swept everything before it on that side, and several houses where the force of the ignited powder had full play were swept several feet off their foundations in a body. The air was filled with boards and splinters; even chimneys rolled down off the roofs of others, and several buildings besides the ones mentioned were wholly destroyed by the fearful shock. Forty persons among the troops nearest to the point were killed and wounded and if I remember correctly there were twenty-one buildings utterly destroyed and more than double that number were seriously damaged. Of course, an investigation took place at once, and was in progress at the time I had once more reached my regiment. The way in which the fire was caused, will be one of those secrets that, like the destruction of the Main in the harbor of Havana, will never be truly known. The officer in charge of the disposition of the powder was placed under arrest, but nothing ever came of it to my knowledge. When it is borne in mind that the Great Pedee was near by one can hardly believe that a man could be so reckless as to cast seven tons of powder in the bottom of a ravine, when it could have been thrown into that stream and in five minutes have been rendered perfectly harmless.

On the 7th of March the forward movement of the army was again resumed amidst a dreary, steadily falling rain, and Laurel Hill, North Carolina, was reach the same evening. The delay that had occurred at Cheraw had been caused by the laying of the pontoon bridge across the Pedee it having been crossed at a point where the stream was quite wide, but no other convenient one was near, owing to the bluffs on each side. To one who had never seen a pontoon bridge stretched across a stream, he would be astonished at the speed with which it is done, first of all. The pontoon train consists of a large number of boats, and when it becomes necessary from any cause, that a bridge should span a stream the officer in charge receives his orders and in a very brief space of time the whole train will be found at the place selected for the crossing, all infantry troops, artillery, teams, etc., giving the pontoon train the right of way, and when everything to be used is on the ground, a good-sized, fast-running river, it may be, will soon be ready for the entire army to cross. It was one feature of the army--this crossing of wide and rapid streams--of which during the whole of the war, I never heard (a) complaint. Indeed, the pontoon corps built a bridge too quickly sometimes for the weary, tired soldiers who were waiting its completion, but would have preferred to have rested longer rather rather than to resume the march. Very often when a stream was to be crossed I would ride to the point selected and spend an hour or two in watching them with the deepest interest and admiration for the speed at which the pontoniers performed their work, and during the civil war there were many big and little streams over which the army had to pass on canvas boats.

As we entered North Carolina the weather gave us no welcome whatever, and drearier marching soldiers never knew than was undergone during that period. The rain had made the roads almost impassable, and very often I have sat on my horse watching the passage of a six-gun battery and I perceived that while the ground would hold up the first gun carriage fairly well; the second one would cut deeper into the softened ground, and then the third one would reach to a depth that the wheels in revolving would bring up a think mortar, and then the fourth one would cut into the hub making it necessary to corduroy the road, the last gun mentioned having to be lifted up until rails and poles could be paced under it. This would leave two guns yet to be accounted for and the last two had to wait until the pioneer corps could corduroy the road for the passage of the hindmost guns. This was about the general run for a battery of artillery, and it is stated as a positive fact that for considerably more than seventy-five miles of corduroy were built after leaving Columbia, and before the army reached Fayetteville. Of course all the rails on each side of the road were used for the purpose to the past splinter; but as it was a thinly settled region, there was always an insufficiency for these, and then the pioneer corps would cut down pine trees of eight or then inches in diameter, split them in half and lay them down with the round side up. The same authority that estimates that there were fully seventy-five miles of corduroy built in the county referred to also states that over three-fourths of the number of miles were laid of the split pine trees. Let the reader think of the labor necessary for the passage of an army through such a country and covering every foot of the seventy-five miles with rails and the substitute for them alluded to! At an earlier stage of the war all this labor would have to be done in the presence of the enemy, and the ax would frequently have to be laid down to take up the gun; but the Confederacy at this time was topling to its fall and the end was even then nearer than even the most optimistic soldier imagined it was.

An incident occurred in the country that I am now speaking of that has come to my mind on occasions ever since the war ended. This was in the "tar and turpentine region" of the "Old North State," and such a country is always settled very thinly with a very quaint and peculiar people, and I am informed that it remains so to this day. The occasion was one in which it fell to my regiment to bring up the rear and on this particular day and night the "front" was probably thirty miles ahead with perhaps two hundred stalled wagons and batteries between the head of the army and its rear. For the past three days--from the time that the advance guard rode past the hewed log house where I was holding forth myself, waiting for the movement of the troops ahead so that mine could follow up during the time from the first passage of the house by the Federal army, all the neighbors of the family occupying the house referred to for a distance of perhaps ten miles around consisting wholly of quite old men, women, girls and children, had gathered there to see the sight of a passing army--timid at first, but after the first few hours already growing familiar with the Federal soldiers. The slow hours dragged along till well towards evening and supper time and so I asked the lady of the house if she could get us some supper if I would furnish the food. The reply was in the affirmative and I had my own cook bring in a ham, two boiled chickens--towards the last of the war the soldiers grew into the habit of boiling a couple of chickens in the morning and then warming them up in a skillet until they were brown and most excellent eating--these and crackers of course with the inevitable coffee, that the poor woman had known nothing about for some years and of course the supper was fine. As evening came on nearly all of her neighbors departed, promising to be back in the morning"mebbe" so that by the time the supper was over there were few left at the dwelling but those who belong there. The trains must have been badly stuck up at the front I thought, for it was now approaching midnight and not an order or even a sign of movement in sight. My own command arranged themselves as best they could and all who could do so in the unceasing drizzle dropped off to sleep. At about 5 o'clock in the morning there were some signs of life ahead and I hurried up the breakfast as I expected to be directed to move up in a short time. The woman at the head of the house did everything she could in helping to get breakfast and just as the "mess" was ready to sit down the order came to move up and to keep a close watch on the rear as a couple of companies of Confederate cavalry was reported as hanging about the rear of the moving army. This put new life into all the officers and men as they were anxious to be "on the go." The ambulance was loaded up with my headquarters "mess things," and as I got on my horse and gave the command to march, I saw the old lady standing by me. I suspected from the fact that the army had been passing for three days that she probably would not have a bit of food left in the house, and so I asked her if such was the case. With tears in her eyes she told me that everything eatable was gone and she added what she ate with me last night was the first mouthful of food she had tasted for thirty hours. I called the cook, told him to give her the two hams that were yet remaining; all the chickens, and whatever crackers that the ambulance contained. When the cook piled the food out on the floor of the porch she said: "You hain't goin' to give all this to me, be ye?" "Every bit of it," I replied, "and I only wish it were more." At the words she dropped down on her knees and than me and then prayed to the good Lord to preserve my life, adding the hope that I might safely reach my home. The prayer was awkwardly worded, but every sentence came from her heart I know. many of the soldiers were standing around an heard every word of it and some of them took off their caps while the woman prayed. The scene comes up before me very often just as it occurred in the "piney woods" of the "Old North State" in early 1865.

Northern Indianian May 12, 1904

Back to YesterYear in Print