Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

To drum-beat and heart-beat,
A soldier marches by;
There is color in his cheek,
There is courage in his eye.
Yet to drum-beat and heart-beat
In a moment he must die
---Frances Miles Finch

I cannot look back to those closing days of the war save with more than ordinary regret for those who were killed or died at that period. They had passed through many battles; skirmishes almost innumerable, dashes on picket posts and the constant danger to which the soldier is exposed at all times, when the enemy is near, and at the same time were never safe from the accidents of war times, whether the enemy was near or not, so that when the time came that even the most poorly informed solder on either side could perceive that the was nearing the end, that it seemed to me that a life lost along about the time of which I am writing was almost uselessly ended in view of the nearness of the close of the war, and to me it seemed so pitiful that the young man who had enlisted away back at the very beginning of the war was not to be returned to his home and loved ones; his waiting parents and perhaps one more dear than either father or mother, after his long absence, and the bright anticipations then entertained both in the army and at home that the son, brother or lover was not to reach home after all, and that the boy veteran was yet called upon to lay down his life in the very closing days of the long drawn out struggle as a sacrifice. At the same time it should be remembered that if this phase of the war came home to those serving in the Union army, how much more pitiful would be the home-coming of the Confederate, who may not even have been in the possession of a furlough to visit his home from the firing on Ft Sumter in April 1861, until he was given the opportunity to do so by General Grant, following General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox! Many Confederates had no home to go to; no friends to receive them after their long marches on foot from the vicinity of Richmond away back to the farthest extreme of the Gulf States. After the passing of three and four years of soldier life, it seemed all so uncalled for to have those men lay down their lives for a cause already lost, and this latter feature of the great cost of the war comes home to me many times, even yet, and it is a mistake for any one to think that the Union soldier did not fully sympathize with the defeated Confederate veteran when the war was over.

On the morning following the all night march referred to in the last one of these sketches, the troops that had come up after a rest occupied some hastily improvised entrenchments that had been built by whatever troops had previously arrived at that point. The re-enforcements that had come up during the night consisted of many more than our division and in consequence of the severe labor they had undergone, followed by the all night march, we were permitted to rest during the early part of the day, always with the understanding, of course, that emergencies did not arise to interrupt their rest. Knowing that General Mower’s division of the seventeenth corps intended to push the enemy in the early morning, Major Baldwin and myself of the twelfth Indiana, had, during the night, determined to follow up the attacking force, so that after a brief rest we were up fairly early in the morning and rode over to the point where we knew that even then preparations were in progress for Mower’s division to push the enemy and, if possible, to compel General Sherman, and the latter was determined, if possible, to bring on a general battle and, if successful, of which General Sherman was very confident, to end the war right there so far as a victory would go, with Lee’s army of the Potomac still confronting General Grant at Richmond and Petersburg, Va.

Major Baldwin and myself arrived just a few moments before the skirmish line was directed to advance. Neither of us, of course, had any command, nor any business there except that of curiosity, and to prevent either of us from getting in the way, I notified the officer in charge of the skirmish line of our presence on the ground and asked his permission to accompany the advance this being readily granted. Just the evening before a Confederate division had been driven pell-mell over the ground on which the contemplated charge was to made, and it was only a short time after the bugle had sounded the advance of the skirmish line until we came up to and passed over the same ground that both the defeated and victorious troops had fought over only a few hours previously. Major Baldwin and I came across many of the dead of the last night’s contest, nearly all of them being Confederates. In places the bodies of the dead were thickly strewn and the ugly feature of this strip of ground was that the pine needles strewn on the ground very thickly, had taken fire and as this material burns rapidly it is not at all strange that we came across quite a number of the bodies of the enemy, who having first been wounded, had been burned to death by the on sweeping flames that had flashed across this battle-field. Indeed, we passed several dead Confederates whose hands had been held above their faces where the excessive heat had cooked their fingers until they dropped and hung down from each joint. Two men were found who had at first been seriously wounded, but whose bodies were still squirming, although they were unconscious from the heat of the burning pine needles. Certainly and surely a "foughten field" is a horrible place to view after the men have passed, who had made one necessary. The skirmishers, as has been stated, had just passed over this "stricken field," they having no leisure to observe its horrors, as they were busily engaged in compelling the Confederate line to fall back, while Baldwin and myself having no special duties to perform, took occasion to look about us, and I can most truthfully aver that the sight within view was horrible, ghastly, indeed, the dead ranging from the gray headed veteran down to boys of fifteen, and it may have been even under the latter age.

We kept fairly close up to our skirmish line which thus far had been a continuous advance, the Confederates not having been able to stay the oncoming skirmishers for a single moment, but fell back steadily before it, and we were wondering why the Federals did not meet with a more stubborn resistance. All at once, however, there was a momentary check; then again a forward movement and then again a check. It seemed to myself and Baldwin, both of whom were well mounted, that we could see a number of mounted men in the rear of the Confederate skirmish line, but at the time we were uncertain. An any rate, the Confederate line had received re-enforcements of some kind, of quite suddenly the Federal line was brought in a standstill that lasted for several minutes, and the rifle fire of the enemy grew more fierce that had before been the case. I rode forward to see if I could discover the cause, but to no purpose. I perceived, however, that the enemy’s fire was more vigorous; but the officer in command of the Federal skirmish line about that time had his bugler sound a charge and in obedience, the live pushed forward rapidly, the enemy retiring. by this time the Federal line was advancing so rapidly, and was using its "Springfields" so vigorously that the enemy retied before his first onset so rapidly that the pursuers could no not keep up. Of course the latter died not nor could not know the lay of the land over which the enemy was retreating until they passed over the same ground them selves and in doing this the discovery was made that the little village of Bentonville lay on the opposite site of a small stream the crossing of which partially caused the delay, while the re-enforcements alluded to were sent to assist in making the passage of the bridge and stream and many Confederates waded the latter, the main body, however, assembling at and crossing the bridge into the little "tar and turpentine" town.

The little village of Bentonville had been all this time-that is for a day or two past-the headquarters of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, and while the Federal troops were coming up to occupy the village, the whole Confederate army was in full retreat, a detachment of cavalry having taken the place of the line of skirmishers the Union troops had been pursuing with orders to check the advance of the Federals until the Confederate skirmishers that had been endeavoring to hold back General Mower’s similar line, could regain their respective regiments of infantry. Major Baldwin and myself pushed into the town, the first two horseman to enter the village. Quite a large building on one side of the only street, had been taken as a Confederate hospital, and we two concluded to visit it. We found fully a hundred wounded men in the two or three good sized rooms that were occupied and among them we found four or five Union soldiers who had been brought in from the surrounding fighting field of the day before from another point of the line-that occupied by the Fourteenth corps, the first one of the Federal army to feel the full force of General Johnston’s Confederate attack already alluded to at which Major Ferd Boltz, of the Eighty-eighth Indiana, acquitted himself so credibly in holding back the first onset of the Confederates by the splendid stand he made, until troops could be rushed to his assistance. In talking with the surgeon in charge of the hospital-he ranking as a major in the Confederate army just the same as was the case in the Federal organization told us that the Union soldiers were brought into Bentonville from the point where General Johnston’s troops first engaged the Federal forces, and then went on to talk about the incidents that had come under his view in the last two days and that for forty hours neither he nor any of his assistants had been able to take even a short nap and that all of the hospital attendants were completely worn out. Then very quietly he remarked to me that the troops with which you crossed the bridge in the edge of the town been pushed hard the war might have been ended right there and then, "for" said he, "General Johnston with thirteen other Generals were engaged in holding a ‘council of war’ in that building right across the street," pointing to it as he spoke.

Continuing his remarks he said; "When your troops got so near General Hardee was compelled to send out his own mounted bodyguard to strengthen our skirmish line and this hold the enemy in check until the men composing the council of war could gather up their papers and have their servants and orderlies bring around their horse" The reader will perceive that it was this body guard that Major Baldwin and myself saw at the time our own line was brought to a stand, or at least checked, as already related I have ever since lamented the fact that we were not possessed of the knowledge that the surgeon had given us a half hour sooner, for had we known the situation we would have pushed that skirmish line "for all it was worth," in the hope of capturing such a crowd of prominent officers. And, indeed, had these fourteen Generals fallen into our hands, it might, sure enough, have ended the war a few weeks sooner than the end came; for it would have left all of that Confederate army without a head. We told the surgeon our side of the story and when we informed him of the slight check to General Mower’s skirmish line he replied by saying; "That was the very time that the bodyguard of Hardee reached and re-enforced the skirmish line. I know because I saw them move out and heard General Hardee tell the Captain in command of the guard to hold the enemy back until General Johnston and the remainder of the officers could get started." The old poetical quotation of "How near and yet how far" often comes to my mind when I think of this incident that occurred at Bentonville early in 1865. General Johnston and his staff were certainly quite near to those who would have had no scruple in "taking them all in," but the end showed that less than a short quarter of a mile was as good to him and his officer as fifty-all through ignorance, it must be remembered, that, such a body of officers were so near at hand.

General Mower pushed his whole division forward behind the skirmishers that had taken the town of Bentonville, and after this was done it was ascertained that had Mower’s movement been supported, the only route by which the enemy could have secured their artillery and trains would have been closed to his retreat. General Johnston had gathered up every available body of troops at his command; but now that he had to give up his left to General Mower at Bentonville, he became alarmed for the safety of is army and hastily withdrew during the night of the day of which I have been writing, taking the direction towards Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, crossing the Neuse river and destroying all the bridges on his route. General Sherman’s entire army was advanced to Bentonville, where he issued orders announcing the occupation of Goldsboro by General Schofield with the Army of the Ohio, and composed, in addition with all the men who had been weeded out of the particular force that made "the march to the sea,", who had been sent North, thence to New York, and from there to Newberne and was again to be able to rejoin their regiments, as soon as Sherman’s army reached Goldsboro. The order also announced the close of the campaign and the army was at once put in motion for Goldsboro, where it arrived on March 24th 1866. On reaching that city I find in an old order still in my possession the disposition General Sherman made of his troops after reaching that old town. General Schofield, with the Twenty-third corps and a portion of the Twelfth, which had reached Newberne by sea, occupied the city and the fortified lines to the west with the cavalry in his front several miles distant; the Army of Georgia, under the command of Major General Slocum, occupied the east, and General Terry, with two divisions each of the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth corps held the line of the Neuse river, and General Logan with the Fifteenth corps, occupied the northeast, the entire force making perhaps 80,000 men in all.

It may be well before closing his sketch and disposing of Bentonville, to state that it is considered among the last battles of the war of any size. Certainly it was the last one of that army that set out with General Sherman in early May, 1864, had passed through the Atlanta campaign. " the march to the sea, " the march through "the two Carolina" and was at the time of which I am speaking awaiting orders to go to the assistance of General Grant, who was holding the army of the Confederate General Lee in his clutches; or, on the other hand, in case Lee could escape from Richmond to march westward and cut off his army that might endeavor to concentrate west and south of General Sherman’s position and before leaving for good what is know as the battle of Bentonville, I want to relate an incident that came under my eyes the next day after Gen. Joe Johnston had held his council of war at that place. Just below the Bridge that spanned the little stream that flowed past the village, there had been stacked up on the high tank, a very large number of barrels of rosin. Some of the citizens placed the number at 2.000 and some at 2,500. Somehow or other the soldier had grown to light a fire, and wherever he stopped, or stood, there was likely to be seen fire and smoke. The one I am about to refer to was a great fire and a big smoke. Some one with no fear of shoulder straps in his make-up had set fire to this large number of barrels of rosin, and such a smoke Vesuvious or Mt Etna may have at times equaled, but I feel sure for at least several years past neither of them has turned out a great, darker, or blacker cloud of smoke that, did these burning barrels of rosin. After the fire was well started, the melted rosin flowed down the embankment on the side where the barrels were stored and when the melted stream struck the water in the little stream, it would instantly chill only to be again flowed over by succeeding torrents of rosin. This kept on until the stream, fully forty feet wide at the point where the stream of rosin flowed, was entirely bridged over and men walked over it on ice made of rosin. On occasions this story has been disputed, but if it is, in this instance, I have only to say the proof at hand to assert it to be a truthful statement. After all there is nothing strange about it. If the rosin was melted, what else could it do by harden to its original state, when the stream, ever accumulating, struck cold water? So having arrived at Goldsboro in the "Old North State,: I bid the reader good-by for a week.

Northern Indianian May 26, 1904

Back to YesterYear in Print