Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Our standards gay -War's bright heraldic page
Our uniforms with gold and silver dressed,
Now rent and torn, in battle's furious rage,
Blood-stained and marred with dust each glittering crest
The light young hearts that made a jest of life,
And laughed at death, when we broke camp at dawn--
Changed are their merry songs for shouts of strife,
As hushed where Valor mourns a comrade gone.
-- Robert J. Burdette

On arriving at Goldsboro, North Carolina, following a leisurely march to that place from the scene of the last battle at Bentonville, all the various corps composing General Sherman's army took up the location assigned them as given in the last of this series of war sketches and immediately commenced fortifying the place following the plans adopted by the engineers. These officers were generally "West Pointers," and in addition to the military information they had secured at that institution, of which the whole country may well be proud for it is considered by all the military men of Europe who have visited it--and these have been numerous indeed--to be the finest military school possessed by any nation whatever. It has only been a few weeks since the writer of these war memories perused the comments of a French military officer who, while on a visit to America, determined to visit West Point and see for himself the advantages this college for the education of the defenders of this country in war time possessed. He was perfectly captivated with what he saw and learned during his visit, and his comments were of the most enthusiastic character, closing with the remark that the superior does not exist anywhere. I have merely referred to this incident for the reason that it came to mind when I referred to the plan for the defense of Goldsboro, as mentioned above and to add that the experience gained by the engineer graduates of West Point during the war enabled them to come out of it at the very head of their particular branch of military tactics, gaining an experience covering from one to four years in the field and in actual war, was invaluable and it can truthfully be said, placed them at the very head of their profession so far as modern military knowledge is concerned. As a consequence, the plan for the defense of Goldsboro was quite elaborate and at the moment it was considered quite necessary too. The confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, with whatever forces he had left, or could gather up closed up on Goldsboro, with his army as closely as it was safe for him to do, and at this juncture he had all the Confederate troops in that section of the country aside from those of General Lee, who at that time was still holding on to Richmond and Petersburg, Va.

Of course there was danger to General Sherman's army should General Lee conclude to give up the capital of the Confederacy, and by a rapid movement join his forces with those of General Lee conclude to give up the capital of the Confederacy, and by a rapid movement join his forces with those or General Joe Johnston in North Carolina, which would give them a force far greater than that possessed by General Sherman and it was with this threatened movement in view, that the plan for the defense of General Sherman's position at Goldsboro was on an elaborate scale, although coming events --rapidly approaching, too--rendered it unnecessary for these plans to be put into full execution. Several forts were planned of the broad-gauge sort, but if I remember correctly, none of them were ever completed. I remember hearing several discussions among the heads of the various corps on the subject, the idea seeming to prevail that while General Lee might make an attempt with his Army of Northern Virginia to unite his forces with those of the Confederate General Johnston for the purpose of continuing a war that seemed to be closing on general principles, yet it was not at all probable, for the destitution of the country was so great that his army could not be fed when away from the railroad base. This view was so generally entertained that work on the elaborate plan of fortifications was never pushed with that energy that would have been the case were it thought possible that General Lee could let go his grip on Richmond, as General Grant would catch his army "in the open" where it would be placed in a great--a very great--disadvantage. The subject however, was a favorite topic of conversation in the regimental camps, the verdict generally being decided that the Confederate army under Lee would be annihilated were he to attempt to make such a move.

Such was the situation during the time the Federal army occupied Goldsboro, and all the time it lay at that point, the army was in communication with the North. Not only had the army received its large accumulation of mail here, but by way of Newberne on the coast the soldiers flooded the mail sacks with missives for the "old folks at home," and not forgetting to send one to the girl with whom perhaps the majority of the soldiers had been corresponding from their date of entering the service until that time. Of course the daily newspapers received here were some days behind their date, but they were just as eagerly perused as though they were fresh from the press, and it was always with great pleasure that the soldiers read the glowing accounts of the operations of General Sherman's army from the time he left Savannah until communications were again opened after arriving at Goldsboro. None perused the praises bestowed upon General Sherman more eagerly than the officers and men whom he had commanded so long and so successfully. Sherman was the idol of his troops, and I think I would be perfectly safe in saying that no commander--not even the first Napoleon--was even so universally beloved as was "Uncle Billy," as his men delighted to designate him. Hundreds of times I have heard them use the rough and rather unpoetical expression that "they would storm hell itself, if only 'Uncle Billy' would be present and plan the fight." At this distance from the war time, I only wish that the men he commanded--every one of them, I mean--could have heard him refer to his troops, as I did on one occasion at the Tremont Hotel in Chicago, about three years following the war. With tears in his eyes when he came to speak of the men he had led from Shiloh, the first great battle of the war, clear through to the end, he referred to them as the bravest and best soldiers that had ever fell to the lot of any man to lead and direct, and much as the old soldiers loved "Uncle Billy," it was returned to the fullest measure of his generous heart.

Resting for about three weeks at Goldsboro the men composing the army thoroughly enjoyed the cessation from bridge building that had come to them after their wearisome tramp through the swamps of the two Carolinas' the never ending corduroy building; the lifting of wagons bodily out of the mud and mire into what they had sunk; the muscle breaking effort required in doing the same thing for the gun of some battery or other that had buried itself over hub deep into the soft soil in some river bottom, it was not at all strange that a three weeks' rest came as a god-send to the over-worked soldiers of Sherman's army. then the good things they had to eat after their reconnection with "God's country" was once more established! Why, they at once began to "take on flesh," and had become--many of them--full grown men from the time they had enlisted until now. Then too, all the indications pointed towards the end of the war, for the entire sea coast from Fortress Monroe, clear around to Galveston, Texas, was in the hands of the Federals, with only an exception here and there; Hood's army that Sherman had left General "Pap" Thomas to take care of, had been driven out of Tennessee following the two brilliant engagements of Franklin and Nashville, so that even the poorest informed soldier could easily perceive that his term of enlistment was pretty nearly fulfilled, judging from the terms of his enlisting oath -- "three years or during the war." As my own services, with the exception of the raid on Florence, S.C., in the hope of freeing the Federal soldiers confined at that place, had always been with the infantry, I think it no more than right to speak of the good work that had been done by the cavalry during the closing months of the war, some of which at least came under my observation, although only from hearsay, but which has been authenticated by the various histories of the war. The kind of warfare that Sherman was carrying on from the departure of his army from Atlanta on his wonderful "march to the sea" was of the character in which cavalry could acquit itself most creditably, if properly led with enterprising, competent officers, with that spirit of intrepidity and dash about them for which the cavalry branch of the service was particularly suited, and the efficiency of the mounted force of the entire army was never better shown than in the last and among the earliest of his successes was to recover the Shenandoah Valley, which up to that time had been "the debatable ground" between the two armies and was first in the hands of one and then the other side until "Little Phil" gained the lead of all the mounted men of the Eastern army, and after making the remark that he "would make the valley so hot a place that a crow could not fly over it without taking along with it a haversack full of rations for the entire journey," right well did he keep his word as the almost total annihilation of General Early's Confederate army most fully attested. Early in 1865, he swept down to Richmond, crossed the James river, and passing to Grant's left flank he assisted to a great extent in the great triumph for the Union cause before Petersburg, and while Sherman was resting at Goldsboro he was harassing the retreating foe rendering his escape impossible.

General Stoneman, whose command went with Sherman clear through the Atlanta campaign, while the latter's troops were enjoying their well-earned rest at Goldsboro, was moving out upon the North Carolina railroad at Salisbury, while General Killpatrick was watching and occasionally picking up some of Wade Hampton's troops in our own vicinity and was at all times ready and willing to indulge in a "scrap" on the most exposed flank in our own vicinity, he and his command having made "the march to the sea" along with Sherman. Early in the war the cavalry arm of the service was considered by many people, both in and out of the army as a costly branch of the service. The cavalry always referred to foot-soldiers by the nickname "dough-boys," a sobriquet well known in the regular army before the war, while the infantry nearly always jeered mounted men when their respective regiments met or passed one another on the road. Whatever happened during the earlier part of the war, and from the time that Sherman cut loose from Atlanta this arm of service--the eye and ear of the commanding general--did most effective work and won high praise on every hand. During the stay of the Federal troops at Goldsboro of about three weeks General Johnston's Confederate army fortified itself in position at a place called Smithfield, both armies keeping a close watch upon one another, and occasionally some skirmishing would take place between the respective outposts of the combatants, but both sides seemed uninclined to do no more than outpost firing. I took occasion one day while this sort of conditions prevailed to ride out to where the most advanced post of our army was on duty, ten or twelve miles, perhaps more, and came back in the evening. On the return trip, myself and orderly in an abrupt turn in the road, suddenly came upon a couple of men clad in Confederate gray. The meeting was so unexpected that both parties were somewhat surprised, but I ordered them to halt after pulling one of my Colt revolvers from the holster, which was instantly obeyed, and in conversing with them they declared that their families lived about sixty miles below on the Neuso river and they had made up their minds to leave the army and go to their homes. I asked them if they had permission to do so. One of them spoke up and said they had not, but that anybody could see that the war was near its end and they had determined to quit, as two men would not count for much either way; "but," said I, "you are not the only two by any means that are deserting General Johnston's army, as our pickets report that a good many of the Confederate soldiers are deserting their colors." One of them --the same one that replied to my question in the first instance--hastened to say that he knew that many of the Confederate soldiers were very tired of the service and were leaving whenever an opportunity occurred, all of them believing that further fighting was useless; the Confederates were already defeated and there was no use to add more deaths to the thousands of lives already lost. I gave them what few crackers I had taken along in case they should be needed and bade them good-by, believing that the Union cause would not be in the least injured by the Confederates losing these two soldiers from their fighting force, even though both were able-bodied.

Along early in April 1865, General Terry, who had joined General Sherman at Goldsboro with all his troops, having come up from Newberne on the coast--a fairly good sized body--was placed in charge of Goldsboro, with orders to hold it as well as to keep open the line of communications back to Newborn while General Sherman's original force moved out toward Smithfield, where Johnston had gone into a fortified position, about the time that General Sherman had reached Goldsboro. In this movement the histories show that General Schoffold, with the Tenth and Twenty-third corps moved up on the south bank of the Neuso, thus becoming the right wing of General Sherman's army. General Slocum with the Twentieth--Hooker's old corps--held the center with General Howard on the right, the Fifteenth corps becoming the right of General Howard's command with General Charles R. Wood on the right of the corps and the Twelfth Indiana, the extreme right of the division to which it belonged. Before leaving Goldsboro news had reached the western army of the fall of Richmond and Petersburg via Newberne. The report having come from the latter place, was circulated by word of mouth instead of the usual way of sending it to the various headquarters officially and in writing, and this being the case the report was disbelieved probably by a majority of those who heard it, the latter believing that the news came by the "grape vine" line, so popular in the early days of the war, and generally the news so untruthful and sensational that the time came when all news received, whether true or false, was discredited. However a dispatch received from General Carl Schurz, then at Newberne, on the evening of the first day out from Goldsboro confirmed the story, but even then many men would not credit it until late at night there came official information from Secretary of War Stanton, confirming the statement of the fall of both Petersburg and Richmond; the retreat of Lee, with General Grant in close pursuit with his entire army, and General Phil Sheridan with the cavalry, sure to head him off.

When the news of Grant's triumph over Lee was at last fully believed, the rejoicing--indeed, the elation--of the soldiers could not be described, unless B. F. Taylor, the man who painted the word-picture of the "Battle of Missionary Ridge," which appeared in these sketches pretty nearly a year ago, had been there to do it. Officers and men simply went wild over the glad tidings. The doom of the confederacy was scaled; the period of wounds and deaths, of prison pens, sacrifices and sufferings were nearly over, and the rejoicing was very great, indeed. With Grant's pursuit of Lee, and the gathering of valiant Phil Sheridan's wild riders in the latter's front, or hanging on to Lee's flank like the bull-dog fighter he was; Johnston's remnant of an army only a few miles away from Sherman's "boys in blue," the confederate forces disintegrated by desertion and the abandoning of a hopeless cause; Old Pap Thomas with the heroes of Franklin and Nashville pushing his successful army into North Carolina from East Tennessee; the entire coast in possession of the Federal army and navy, it did not require the eye of a prophet to truthfully predict the nearness of the end and the glad shout of victory that would soon swell the breeze that had so steadily floated aloft the stars and stripes of which "Old Glory" is composed.

Northern Indianian June 2, 1904

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