Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Esto pertetua! ever enduring.
Still may our National glory increase;
Union and harmony ever securing
Prosperity, freedom, religion and peace.
---George W. Young

My last article brought the writer and his small party to Memphis, only to discover that the command which we were so anxious to join had already left that place along with an army of from 25,000 to 30,000 men under General William T. Sherman, that was to act as General Grant's right wing in the advance he was already making direct from Holly Springs, the intention being to close in on Vicksburg from the east and attack that strongly fortified point from the rear. Grant had collected a large amount of supplies and ammunition at Holly Springs and at about the time that Sherman left Memphis, going directly southeast and then following the line of railroad that led in the same direction and bout the same time that Sherman with his forces had left Memphis, and whose army was to constitute General Grant's right wing --as already stated--upon its connection with the forces under the commander-in-chief. The troops forming the latter's command had gone several days previous to the arrival of myself and party at Memphis, and what was worse, General Washburn, who was in command of Memphis and Fort Pickering could not be induced to permit our party to take up the line of march followed by the main body that had left two or three days before our arrival in the city in order to join our regiment. He declared we could not get a half-dozen miles out of the city ere we would be surrounded and perhaps captured by guerrillas and it was out of his power to give us an escort, as his forces had been stripped of all its cavalry, leaving him much too short himself of that arm of the service.

General Chalmers, whom readers of the newspapers of late years will remember as a Representative in Congress from what was known as the "Shoestring" district of Mississippi--called so because it was composed of a string of counties clear across the north part of the State--was at that time at the head of a body of troops, which us northern soldiers always designated as guerrillas, for the reason that they generally operated independently of the main body of their forces and after the passage of Sherman's troops through the territory covered by General Chalmer's Confederates, they had become more and more vigilant and had captured a good many soldiers, who, like ourselves, were making an effort to catch up with the main body under Sherman. General Washburn declared that if he permitted us to follow up the rear of General Sherman we would again be captured to "a dead certainty." He also told us that the only way for us to do was to take a return steamboat back to Columbus, where we could take the cars from that point direct to Holly Springs, and from thence join our respective regiments for it must be remembered that we found a good many officers and soldiers at Memphis belonging to other regiments in the same dilemma as ourselves. As this was the only course at our command, General Washburn furnished us with transportation back to Columbus on a boat and also over the railroad alluded to, for the reader should bear in mind that all lines of transportation of this kind were operated by the government itself.

Fortunately we did not have long to wait but put in our time in sight-seeing about the place. The city of Memphis stands on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi river, and by the way, the eastern shore of that river is very flat and what is known as bottoms reaches from the stream from one to five miles to the bluffs, and at one or two points much further. At Columbus the bluff-banks of the river reach clear out to the stream; so they do at Fort Pillow, Memphis, Vicksburg and one or two other points, and it was from the commanding positions of these bluffs that every one of them was strongly fortified previous to the general advance southward of the Federal army. When Memphis was captured by the Union forces some of its citizens won the ill-will of our soldiers engaged in the fight by shooting some soldiers who were endeavoring to swim ashore from a wrecked gunboat in mid-stream, and several were shot through the head as they were endeavoring to reach the shores from the burning wreck, and as a consequence for a time the officers had to keep a constant lookout to keep some of our men from retaliating. This I was told while in that city and is given just as I got it and not from my own recollections. Memphis also contained at that period --and I learned that it does so yet--a centrally located square surrounded with a high iron picket fence, containing an immense number of gray and black squirrels, so tame that they would come right to any person and take nuts or any kind of food that this animal would eat from the hand. The square was quite small, but it contained over a thousand squirrels in the fall of 1862. Comfortable boxes for nesting purposes were fixed to the native trees that thickly studded the park, and as dogs and cats were prohibited from entering the enclosure I was told they increased in number at a rapid rate.

The second day after the arrangement was made for us to return to Columbus, Ky., and rejoin our different commands by that route a steamboat passage was secured and on our arrival at that point we soon afterward obtained a train going in the proper direction. Troops were scattered all along this line of road as a guard and it required at that time the greatest of vigilance to keep it intact, for squads of rebel cavalry were constantly trying to destroy culverts and bridges and the Union soldiers were compelled to be unusually watchful. In fact, an attempt, partially successful, to derail the train that just preceded the one we were on had occurred, but fortunately the engineer discovered something was wrong and stopped the train in time to prevent any further damage than derailing the front wheels of the engine, which were soon replaced on the rail. The party arrived at Holly Springs where they ascertained as best they could the point where their regiments then were. I learned that the Twelfth was at a place called Wyatt Bridge, an important crossing of the Tallahatchie river, myself and other members of it having had to walk about 15 miles to join it.

The bridge at Wyatt was built by General Sherman's Engineer Corps, and most of the troops under his command crossed the Tallahatchie at that place, and my regiment had been left at that point to guard the bridge, while the troops under Sherman proceeded southward and joined General Grant's forces at or near Oxford, Mississippi, a town perhaps half way from Holly Springs to the rear of Vicksburg, the objective point of all of Grant's forces. This was the situation and everything was progressing favorably for the federals when all at once a sudden and calamitous affair occurred that not only changed all of General Grant's plans for the reduction of Vicksburg, but compelled him to fall back with his forces on his base of supplies, Holly Springs. General Van Dorn, a popular cavalry officer, had been put at the head of all the mounted troops of the Confederate army operating in that region and was ordered to make a raid on Grant's rear; to break up the railroad, as fully as he was able, and especially to destroy all the supplies gathered in the rear of the Federal army.

Just before Van Dorn's raid -- perhaps a week --I received orders to abandon Wyatt and march to the point where the railroad leading from Holly Springs to Oxford crossed the Tallahatchie, which had already been rebuilt and cars were running between Holly Springs and Grant's army, then near at Oxford, about seventy-five miles south of the former place, where a large amount of supplies and ammunition had been accumulated for the use of the army, and which was to be taken to "the front" as fast as it was needed, and cars could be had to carry them. I had orders to draw rations from Holly Springs, twenty miles north of the bridge I was guarding, and as we arrived at the bridge without any supplies whatever it became necessary to procure rations at once, and so Quartermaster McClellan was sent to Holly Springs as soon as we arrived at the railway bridge for rations. In the meantime the Twelfth was subsisting on what the men could find in the vicinity of the camp. The quartermaster returned with the word that Colonel Marsh, the then Colonel of the Eighth Wisconsin, the old "Eagle" regiment, as it will be rememembered, that he would issue no rations to my command having had no orders to that effect from any superior officer. Of course, the Twelfth was considerably "worked-up" over the failure to procure supplies; so I wrote a note to Colonel Marsh explaining the situation and sent the quartermaster to him a second time, he taking along with him a copy of my order to draw supplies from Holly Springs. All this was to no purpose, and all the time the regiment was on short and getting sorter of rations. Some of the foragers had come in with several hogs they had found in the Tallahatchie "bottoms," and a couple of wild deer had been killed and brought in, but the supply of everything else had been used up, and meat along does not make a very relishable ration. It should be born in mind that there was only one train a day each way at that time, and to go to Holly Springs and return meant a whole day, and of course, added still another day to scarce rations, and the consumption of what little meat we could "lift" in the way already indicated.

Things were getting desperate, and so I concluded to accompany Quartermaster McClellan on his third trip, fully aware of the fact that there was more power in a shoulder strap with an eagle in the center than that of a first lieutenant with a single bar at each end and the result showed that either my reasoning or else the volubility I exercised in informing Colonel Marsh that rations I must have; that my men were almost at the starvation point, and that it was all folly for him to stand on the military quibble that he "had no orders to issue rations to my command." These remarks, after I showed him my own order to procure rations through him, and some more emphatic' were expressed to him in a way that from some cause or other must have had the desired effect, for he turned to his adjutant-general and told him to issue five days' supplies for the Twelfth Indiana Infantry. So the quartermaster and myself went to the supply depot; procured wagons to haul the rations to the railroad station, where we loaded five cars, and after several hours of vigorous labor we had everything ready to start for the bridge at 7 o'clock the following morning. By the time this was done it was quite late in the afternoon, and we began to look around for a place to get supper and to stay all night, as our train would not leave, as already stated, till the next morning.

We were directed to a boarding house kept by a Methodist exhorter with whom quite a number of officers and a goodly number of the sutlers who had been left behind when Grant's army started for the south and found rather superior quarters. both of us were tired and worn out by the worry we had exercised in procuring and seeing to the loading of the five cars of rations, and consequently we went to bed early only to be aroused by the vicious snapping of small arms right in the streets and quite near our boarding house. Of course, we were strangers in the place, but when both of us rushed to the front door to take a look at what was going on, we found it was the first onset of Van Dorn's raid, as already hinted at in this article. The town was full of Confederate cavalrymen, who had charged on the gallop right into the town and, of course, it was already in their hands, as only single individuals had made any defense. Right her occurred one of the saddest incidents I saw during the entire war. Quartermaster McClellan and myself had stepped out on the portico, so common to the residences in the South, to obtain a better view of what was going on, when a bright little girl, with curly hair and as handsome as a picture with whom I had got acquainted on the previous evening pushed her beautiful face right in between us, and she too, gazed up the street only to receive, at the moment she peeped up town, a bullet almost squarely in her forehead. I felt her little hand clutch my coat on which she pulled so heavily that it was only then that I knew she had been hit by the messenger intended, no doubt, for either one or both of us. She was dead when I picked her up and carried her to a lounge in the front room, and I shall never forget the scene when the mother and father knew that their little one was a victim of Van Dorn's raid. The picture of that scene in all its horrors comes before me even now at times, after the lapse of forty years.

It was afterward known that Colonel Marsh, as commander of the post, had received a telegram from General Grant at 8 o'clock the night before, warning him that he might expect a raid on Holly Springs, as Van Dorn, with a large mounted force, had been reported to him by his scouts as passing his own left and rear to make a dash on the railroads and supplies and for him to keep a vigilant outlook, as he would be almost sure to strike a point where there was so much of the munitions of war stored. Had the quartermaster and myself only known of that dispatch we would have escaped the great disaster. All that Colonel Marsh did to keep a vigilant outlook was to order two companies of cavalry under saddle by 4 o'clock the next morning to take a scout on all the roads leading into Holly Springs. These two companies being awake and their horses under saddle were all that escaped from the town, all the others being taken prisoners and paroled. When it is known that there are over a thousand bales of cotton in the public square or near it; that Colonel Marsh had information concerning the raid not less than seven hours before it occurred; that there were fifteen hundred infantry at hand, it was astounding that he made no preparation to meet the enemy. The four street corners could have been most effectually barricaded with cotton bales; the infantry could have assembled there and a defense of the place could easily have been made and the place certainly held until General Grant could have sent relief. The effect of the whole thing was to compel General Grant to fall back upon Holly Springs from Oxford from sixty to seventy-five miles on his way to the rear of Vicksburg and to abandon his whole plan of campaign by that route.

I saw Grant himself when along late in the evening he arrived at Holly Springs, and although I had only seen him two or three times before, it did not take a physiogomist to tell by looking at his face that somebody's head was going to be cut off in a military sense, and that evening the word went round among the soldiers and people on the streets that Colonel Marsh was under arrest. I afterward heard that he was dismissed from the service, but events were occurring so rapidly in those times that I have never learned since what really did become of him. The rebel forces nearly all day long occupied the place. The tow was set on fire several times and the ammunition that was stored in the brick buildings was discharging itself well on till in the evening. The destruction of private property as well as that of the government must have been away up in the thousands. Many of the sutlers whose goods had been stopped at that point owning to the lack of transportation, lost their all, for in addition to their goods, the Confederate private soldiers "made no bones" about robbing any one of them they came across. I remember seeing a Mr. Lash, then a resident of Goshen, and if my memory serves me correctly he was a partner of a gentleman by the name of Gortner, being compelled to shell out his money at the point of a bayonet. It was a large sum, that I know and I afterward heard that the amount was over five and very near ten thousand dollars. Mr. Lash made an effort to retain his property but all to no purpose. During all the day a Confederate officer with ample assistance was engaged in paroling the Federal troops and I remember that all at once that something occurred that stampeded their party and caused almost a panic amongst the Confederate soldiers still occupying the town, and I soon learned that the vanguard of Grant's troops was coming to the relief of the garrison, and as they marched into the place from the south the Confederate raiders went flying out at the north and east as fast as their horses could carry them. The raid on Holly Springs was a great disaster, not so much in the loss sustained, but in the destruction of his supplies causing an entire change in the apparently feasible campaign he had undertaken. My next will continue the detailing of the operations of that portion of the scenes of which I was an eye-witness.

Warsaw Daily Times May 16, 1903

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