Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Great God of Nations, thy goodness has crowned us.
A land and a people peculiar to thee'
Let thy wisdom and power still mantled around us,
Preserve what that goodness has taught to be free.
---George W. Young

My last article closed by recounting the preparations made for the fleet of nine steamers, big and little, which was required to return the paroled prisoners of Holly Springs to their respective rendezvous in the North. These consisted of about 1,800 men, as near as I can recollect; but there were fully that many more of a miscellaneous sort--composed of discharged and furloughed soldiers, officers going home on leave of absence; others on orders transferring them to other portions of the army, composed of surgeons, aides de camp, commissaries of subsistence, their retinues, etc., in all enough to about equal those paroled by General Van Dorn. It had been estimated by those who knew the length of time it would require to go from Memphis to St. Louis that it would take seven days at the farthest, and so supplies were drawn for that many days for the number of men on board of the boats entitled to government rations. Besides the rations, a large amount of forage was required, for there were fully a hundred head of horses scattered all over the fleet belonging to officers and of course they had to be cared for also.

I have already stated that this was the gloomiest period of the war and have also alluded to the discontent that prevailed among some of the troops both officers and men. This was to come upon me with full force during the trip I was about to undertake, for on going on board of the particular boat that was to be my headquarters during the journey, I honestly believe that every man who was not in his heart opposed to drinking, had already imbibed a sufficient amount of intoxicants to either compel him to show up his more brutal instincts or to excite his risibilities to a degree that made him almost as obnoxious in his familiarity and his disposition to excite mirth and to hug his comrades. This was the case to such a degree that I at once ordered the captain of the boat to close his saloon, and as similar conditions prevailed on all the other eight boats, I got a couple of rowers and a small boat to take me to every vessel comprising the fleet and delivered the same order to each captain of the vessels comprising the flotilla.

Surviving veterans of the war can readily perceive the predicament in which I found myself in command of such a motley body of men, when they understand that there was no armed force on either one of the nine boats to assist in enforcing orders. Besides I was totally alone, there not being a soul on board with whom I had any acquaintance, and even the officers--especially those who had been paroled--did not render a particle of assistance in keeping and preserving order--in fact, for thirty-six hours, if the majority of officers did anything it was rather to promote than to prevent disorder. Of course, I could only be on board of one boat at a time, but I had also taken the precaution to appoint some one officer to take charge of the men on each particular boat and cautioned him to do the very best he could and to surround himself with a number of other officers to assist, so far as moral ussasion could do in preserving order --a matter very essential, for on the Missouri side of the river there were numerous bands of guerrillas, stationed at points where the channel of the river compelled all boats to come near the river bank on their side, making it an easy matter for them to pick off men with individual shots, or to fire a sweeping volley just as occasion might suit them.

For the first thirty-six or forty-eight hours pandemonium reigned; discipline counted for nothing; as I have said, there was no armed body of men to enforce an order after it was given. A dozen different men at various times threatened to throw me overboard, and it sometimes looked as if they intended to do so. On the third day a number of officers perceiving the difficulties under which I labored, one by one came to my assistance and rendered whatever aid they could under the demoralized condition that prevailed among these men who belonged to the same command as did these officers and bout the fourth day the disorderly ones themselves began to feel ashamed of the course they had pursued, as well as from the fact that the supply of whiskey they had on hand in bottles when the voyage commenced had given out, and a new supply could not be had at the saloons --which were a feature of all Mississippi river boats--and better order prevailed from that time forward; but the first three days was an ordeal for me through which I would not willingly pass again for much money.

The water in the Mississippi river was exceedingly low and on two occasions, two of the larger boats grounded and stuck so fast that it was impossible to pull them off the bar by attaching another vessel to them with a tow line. Both of them were relieved from this position, however, by bringing up other boats to their sides and having all of the men transfer themselves temporarily to these. Thus lightened and with the assistance of the tow-lines referred to, they were gotten off the bar. This was not done too soon either, for the fleet had not much more than got into line in mid-stream before we discovered a body of cavalry hastening to the point where the boats had been stuck and as the place was not far from the Missouri side, and the men would all have been within easy musket ranger had the guerrillas arrived in time a good many might have been killed or wounded. This incident, I am confident, very much helped to restore at least a portion of the discipline without which a body of men becomes a mob, and even a whole army, without it, is inefficient. The enlisted men on board of all the boats began to get it through their heads that it was better to obey orders and to see that without some one in authority there was great danger that the voyage might end in disaster rather than otherwise.

It was during the "lightening" of the two boats spoken of that I took occasion to visit all of the officers I had appointed at the start to see how they were getting along in the management of unarmed but at the same time unruly men. And after receiving the respective reports of the eight that had been appointed. I was satisfied that we had fared just as well on board of the headquarters boat, for every one of the eight declared that they would not go through another scene of the kind for any money, as was enacted on board of each boat after the journey began. One officer declared that he had been twice seized to be thrown overboard, and would have been, had it not been for a sergeant and two men coming to his assistance in time to prevent him from being cast into the river, and this and similar incidents occurred on all of the boats composing the fleet. The day following the "lightening" of the stranded boat described above, a similar incident occurred, although on this occasion no boat, very fortunately, had run on to a sandbar; but a large company of guerrillas had gathered at a point where it was absolutely necessary for all of the boats, in order to find water of sufficient depth to float them, were compelled to come very near the Missouri bank. The sharp eyes of the pilot on the leading boat discovered them in time to warn the men standing around on deck to see cover and by so doing they escaped a volley that could not have helped but prove very destructive at the close range in which the boat was compelled to come in order to keep in the channel.

I have already referred to Company K, of the One Hundred and Ninth Illinois, as remaining true to its colors when the other nine deserted and went over to the enemy in a body. This company happened to be on the third boat in the line, and as the vessel came up to run the gauntlet its captain, having had time to discover the guerrillas and to see that something "was in the wind," had ordered his men to the upper deck and placed them behind all sorts of barricades --everything that he could get that could be used as a cover --he delivered a volley as the boat passed, right into the midst of the rebels. As I was on the leading boat, which had already passed the danger point, I could discern it was effective so far as wounded men were concerned, for I could see three or four struggling on the ground evidently severely wounded and it is very likely that several were killed outright when the close range is remembered. Here and there on all the boats there were men and officers who had their revolvers with them, and as each boat passed the spot they took as many shots as their revolvers held from a safe cover as each boat ran the blockade and I know that I am safe in saying that the party on the boats escaped to a greater extent than those on shore for with the pilot's warning they had sought cover and only one man, so far as I could learn, was injured and his wound was caused from a splinter knocked into his face by the bullet from a guerrilla carbine striking the woodwork of the boat.

It will be remembered that it had been estimated that the trip would require seven days; but owing to the many impediments caused by low water, the time consumed in getting the boats off the sandbar, and with the understanding that the speed of the fleet was governed by the slowest boat among them all, for it was necessary and such were the orders that they must be kept within hailing distance of one another, the seven days were up when we reached Cairo, something more than half the way and the rations and forage were thus all consumed with a big distance yet to go. There was no other way to do than to stop at Cairo and draw supplies sufficient to take the men and horses through the remainder of the trip. By taking to a small boat I communicated with the captain of each one of the steamers as they had come past my rowboat, held out in the stream by competent rowers. I had determined to take no risks by landing and giving the men I was in charge of to take to Benton Barracks, a chance to go ashore and once more "bowl up" at the hundreds of saloons near the wharf, and thus have a repetition of the scenes that occurred when I left Memphis, and for two days thereafter.

Therefore, I had cautioned the captains and directed them to anchor every one of the boats in mid-stream, as well as to collect all their small boats on the forward deck of each boat so that they could be guarded by their crews and the men thus prevented from using them to go ashore. This done I landed, taking along with me two or three officers as assistants, and went to the headquarters, where I made the situation known. Unlike Col. Marsh at Holly Springs, the Brigadier General in command at Cairo did everything in his power to assist me and to help get the rations and forage on board the boats, even though he had no orders that I should draw supplies from him. It took about three hours to get the supplies required on board the steamboats as they had to be brayed for nearly two miles.

This done, however, I was ready to return and notwithstanding my precautions the reader can scarcely imagine my consternation when on reaching the deck of the headquarters boat to find a duplicate of the disorder and riot that met me when I first took command of the fleet at Memphis. Every man who imbibed whiskey at all seemed to be under its influence, and of course I was angry as well as nonplussed as to the way in which the whiskey had been secured. I knew that the captains of the boats had loyally obeyed the order to close their saloons as at first issued, and they themselves approved the order at the time, having no desire for a repetition of the disorder that prevailed at the first end of the trip; but how the whiskey was introduced on board the boats I was at a loss to know. It is true that I had noticed that the wharf was almost covered with barrels of whiskey when I first landed at Cairo, but it was late in December; ice was floating both in the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers and surely no one had ventured ashore from boats anchored out in midstream! Yet that was precisely what they had done, and they had procured the whiskey by some of the most venturesome as well as those among them who craved the "blue ruin" the most, had swam to the wharf and floated two or three barrels of Uncle Sam's whiskey to one of the boats in mid-stream, from whence it was distributed in canteens, coffee pots, tin cups, etc., to all who desired any of the mischief maker.

The surprise to me was very great. I had left peace and order on board, but a little over three hours previous, only to return to a rabble of intoxicated men, some of them already verging on the fighting stage, while others had passed it, and had fallen to the floor so far gone that they either knew or cared whether they were alive or not. It was there and on that occasion that I learned that when men were determined to possess themselves of whiskey they could and would do it if it was within a day's ride of them. However the barrels were found and their contents--what was left in them--were poured into the Ohio river, and as a consequence those who had imbibed recovered more quickly than they did at Memphis, for at that place they came on board with bottles filled, and in such quantities and numbers of bottles and canteens that it lasted for some time longer than that received at Cairo.

Within an hour after we had returned to the boat we got straightened up and the captain of the leading boat signaled the other eight to hoist anchor and to sail for St. Louis, where we arrived in three days afterward, marching from the wharf out to Benton Barracks, where excellent quarters were assigned to officers and men and where I can truthfully say that I never felt more relieved in my life than when I procured a receipt giving the number of men that had been safely transferred from Memphis to Benton Barracks. During the twelve days I had not slept a full hour at any one time, and had never felt safe for a single moment, and looking back at the four years and more that I was in the service, that trip--of which I have given but a meager account--was the most trying to me of any I can recollect during the war.

Warsaw Daily Times May 30, 1903

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