Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Then up with our flag --let it stream on the air;
Though our fathers are cold in their graves.
They had hands that could strike, they had souls that could dare,
And their sons were not born to be slaves.
Up, up with that banner! Where'er it may call,
Our millions shall rally around.
And a nation of freemen that moment shall fall,
When its stars shall be trailed on the ground.
---George W. Cutter

The capture of myself and the quartermaster of the regiment of which I was the head was only another of the many thousand of little things that can measure large results. But on the stubbornness of Colonel Marsh, in command of the post of Holly Springs in refusing to honor my requisition for rations twice in succession made it necessary for me to go along with Quartermaster McClellan to present the facts to Colonel Marsh that there was no other place for me to draw supplies for my regiment only through him, as my order stated. I had no business in Holly Springs. In fact, being in charge of a very important bridge over which all of General Grant's supplies must be taken in the campaign in which he was then engaged required me to be exceedingly attentive, vigilant and watchful, and of course, my place was with the troops guarding so important a crossing of the Tallahatchie river, and but for his quibbling at an oversight in not being notified that I was to draw on him for rations was all that induced me to go to his post to obtain what should have been granted without a word, after he had been shown my own order to secure supplies through him, even though his own notification had not been received. For five days the regiment had not drawn a single ration from the government; had consumed everything within a distance of the camp that it was safe to go and there was nothing left for me to do but go in person, and obtain supplies if at all in my power. It was these days of quibbling that had made me a prisoner for the third time, for I would not have been within twenty miles of Holly Springs at the time of General Van Dorn's raid, but for the action of Colonel Marsh whose tenacity in refusing to comply with my order under him compelled me to be at Holly Springs at that most inopportune time. On the other hand, had he let his officers know at 8 o'clock the night before that he had received the dispatch announcing the raid, Quartermaster McClellan and myself and a number of others, who, like ourselves, were only temporally in Holly Springs, all of us could have escaped; but the whole thing showed that an incompetent officer had been selected for a very important place.

So here I was a prisoner for the third time, and in all my life, looking back to that incident and period, I can truthfully aver that I was stricken with the "worse case of blues" that in the seventy-two years I have lived I have ever experienced. It seemed to me as though I were "hoodooed." I had met the enemy in the field three times and on each occasion I had been captured. I brooded over the subject to such an extent that I had fully determined to resign the position I held just as soon as I could reach a point where my papers could be forwarded, and such was the situation on the night that General Grant arrived at Holly Springs and made his headquarters there after the disaster that had compelled him to fall back on his base of supplies, and plan a new combination to reach and capture Vicksburg, that town and Port Hudson in Louisiana being the only two points on the Mississippi still held by the Confederates, and the capture of which would open that great thoroughfare of traffic to the Federal armies and fully complete the objects in view in planning the "caster-oil expedition." The next day I was again called upon to perform a most disagreeable duty. When I left the railroad bridge over the Tallahatchie, of course the regiment would be left under the command of the lieutenant colonel, the Major Kempton with whom I had made the journey from Richmond, Ky., to Cincinnati, described in these articles several weeks ago, and in which I briefly referred to some of his personal characteristics, especially at the hotel in Paris, Ky., where we two resolved to pursue a different course to reach the Ohio river than the one followed by the paroled army.

The day following the parole at about 9 o'clock Lieutenant Colonel Kempton found me on the dilapidated streets of the town, having come up from the bridge on horseback, leaving the regiment under the command of Major James H. Goodnow. From his story I learned that some of the flankers of Gen. Van Dorn's raid had made their appearance in the vicinity of the bridge that the Twelfth was guarding with no other troops near enough to send reinforcement in case the structure was attacked, and according to Kempton's account immediately following the driving off of Van Dorn's troopers, charges were preferred against him and forwarded to General Grant's headquarters signed by all the except G company, the one recruited at the home of Colonel Kempton, and his business with me was to have the charges suppressed as soon as they reached their destination. It was a sort of duty that above all others I disliked to undertake under the circumstances. I was well aware that it was no time to ask favors of the commanding officer of any army that had been compelled to retreat owing to the neglect of officers to car for his rear when so much was at stake, and which had been followed by a disaster so far-reaching in its results.

Under the circumstances, as well as to my own depressed feelings caused by being again captured through the quibbles of the same officer to recognize my order for rations, causing me to leave my own command and thus be at a point where I would not have been but for the course that Colonel Marsh pursued, I declared I could not comply with Kempton's request. With tears in his eyes he urged me to do him the favor and he pleaded so persistently, stating it meant dismissal from the service in case he was tried on the charges preferred, that I at last acceded to the request so piteously made, and went to Grant's headquarters for a personal interview. An orderly conducted me to the General's room and I broached the subject as soon as I could, that being the first time I had ever spoken to the General commanding all the forces in that region, and I readily admit that I was considerably frustrated not only at being in his presence, but on account of "disobedience of orders" as well, for that was one of the charges again Colonel Kempton. I told him the situation, of my own capture, and at his interrogations and cross-questionings related the incidents of Van Dorn's raid to the extent that it came under my own observation.

When I came to tell him about the charges preferred he listened sharply and I was convinced, as I had told Colonel Kempton, that I was the wrong time to plead for an officer under charges of "disobedience of orders" and a breach of discipline, and when I got through he said: "Very well, Colonel Williams, you can inform Lieutenant Colonel Kempton that when the charges reach headquarters they will take the usual regular course." That, of course, meant a court-martial, but as I could not tell him what had occurred after I had left the regiment three days previous, I informed him that Colonel Kempton was in town, and I had hoped that I could receive a promise that they could be held until a fuller investigation of the case, adding on my own account that I had also hoped that Colonel Kempton could be left in command of the regiment; that I had been paroled the day before; that the major who would succeed to the command if Kempton was held under arrest had no experience in military matters while Colonel Kempton and myself had had over a year's service in the Army of the Potomac. "What's that?" said Grant. "Did you say he had a year's experience during the present war?" "Yes, sir," I replied, "and while the present major is an excellent man, he has only seen about three months of service." "Well," he replied, "you can go back and tell Colonel Kempton that the charges will be held here at these headquarters; but also inform him that I shall expect of him during your absence the strictest obedience to orders, and a divorce between all his soldiers and an article that is ruining many excellent officers, as you can perceive by looking at the dilapidation visible in this once handsome town." He took that sly way to have me warn Kempton against indulging in "the article," as well as to hint that Colonel Marsh was guilty of the same thing. That, at least, was the interpretation I placed on his remarks.

When I rode back to where I had left Colonel Kempton--I had used his horse to ride to Grant's quarters, as it was in the extreme north of the town--and informed him of the success of my mission, he was overjoyed--indeed I never saw a man so highly pleased. He was so elated that I at once suspected he intended to revenge himself on every one of the officers who had signed the charges against him, and on the strength of the suspicion I exacted a sacred promise from him to do nothing of the kind during my absence, and he solemnly declared nothing of that sort should occur. He was very grateful to me, in words, at any rate, at the time, but I left with a well-defined suspicion that some of the officers who had signed the charges would be made to feel the effects in the course of time. I believe his gratitude to me at the time was genuine, for I was informed on my return to the regiment after about three months' absence that every charge and specification made against him could have been proven by many witnesses, and nothing then could have saved his dismissal from the service, and the consequent disgrace.

The next day all the paroled prisoners were assembled in the public square of the town preparatory to marching to Memphis, where they would find transportation to the North and there go into camp to await another exchange of prisoners. A full division of Grant's troops under the command of Brigadier General Quimby was to accompany the paroled men and officers and in a couple of days the whole party entered Fort Pickering and went into camp. I have already spoken of my determination to resign my position in the army and on my arrival at Fort Pickering I was as fully determined to do so as I ever was to do any other one things in my life. The arrival of the large body of troops at the Fort created a sort of disorder in that place, and a couple of days were consumed in arranging men and officers' quarters. The second day was just drawing to a close and I had procured stationery for the purpose of writing my resignation, which, of course would have to go through the "regular channels" --a phrase well known and remembered to this day by soldiers--when an orderly rode up to the front of the quarters occupied by myself and asked if I was Colonel Reub. Williams. Receiving an answer in the affirmative, he handed me an army regulation envelope, received his receipt on the covering, which I had torn off, and departed. On perusing the enclosure I found it to be an order signed by General Ashboth, commanding Fort Pickering, putting me in charge of nine steamboats on which I was to take the paroled prisoners consisting of about eighteen hundred men and officers and quite a large number of other miscellaneous troops to Benton Barricks, located at St. Louis, Mo. Right then and there I had to settle the question whether I would send in my resignation or obey the order to take a fleet of steamboats to St. Louis. I decided on the latter, and from that time until the close of the war, after being captured the first three times I had met the enemy "everything went my way," and I was always on the winning side thereafter, even assisting in bagging thirty-three thousand Confederates at one time. The "hoodoo," the reader will see was lifted the moment I entered the "naval service."

I was never more surprised during the war than in receiving the order alluded to, and right then I decided to defer the sending forward of my resignation, at any rate, until after I had complied with the order to take command of the fleet of steamboats on the trip from Memphis to St. Louis. Lowing back at the incident after more than forty years have elapsed, I am sure that had I known in advance of the great responsibilities I had assumed in complying with the order I am satisfied I would have declined--or, rather have endeavored in some way to shift the disagreeable duty to the shoulders of some one else were such a thing possible. This did not enter my head, however, at the time, and it was the duty of officers or soldiers to obey--strictly obey--any and all orders they may receive, loyally and uncomplainingly, and at the time I had no idea that it would prove such an irksome duty as it turned out. The period was the gloomiest that the North knew during the entire war. There had been many mishaps during the few months preceding and there was a wide spirit of complaint not only among the people at home but also among the soldiery in the field that could be accounted for in many ways, the principal one being the opposition to the arming of the Negro and permitting him, as President Lincoln wisely said, to fight for his own freedom. Looking back at this feature over the distance of forty years, the great wisdom of President Lincoln in this matter can readily be perceived. It should be remembered that about as fast as "Abraham journeyed southward," great bodies of the colored people came within the lines of the Federal army, and after doing so it became necessary to feed and clothe them whether they rendered a quid pro quo or not, and that wise man at the head of the nation proposed to arm them and let them perform military duty by guarding the forts and fortified points as well as to make pioneer corps out of them to build corduroys, bridges, etc.

The proposition however, created no little dissatisfaction at first, but every survivor of the late war will now tell you that in a short time the good sense of the American soldier sanctioned the measure to the last degree, and especially after some of the colored troops, led by white officers, acquitted themselves so creditably in battle; as at the storming of Fort Wagner in Charleston harbor; at Milliken's Bend, where they helped to add to the glory of July 4, 1863, by soundly whipping the Confederate army of 8,000 men under General Marmaduke at that point, and won a great victory to add to Gettysburg and Vicksburg, all culminating in a great triumph at each place on July 4 of that memorable year--a date that "broke the backbone of the Confederacy" by these three great contests with the enemy. Nine companies of an Illinois regiment grew so angry over the arming of the Negro that they went over to the enemy, bag and baggage, ammunition and property of very kind, only Company K remained faithful to their colors and their oaths, and this Company K was to be among the number that I was to convey to Benton Barracks, St. Louis, to await the disposition that would be made of them during the absence of the other nine companies. In the meantime, I was busily engaged in preparing for the expedition in drawing rations and forage for the journey that the officials estimated would require, and my next will contain some of the particulars of the troublesome journey.

Warsaw Daily Times May 23, 1903

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