Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

The silky grass is long and green
Upon the rampart old,
The farmer turns the rusted shell
Up from the dewey mold;
And war no longer shakes the skies
That smite above the South;
The robin woos his sweetheart in
The cannon's brazen mouth.
---T. C. Harbaugh

As the years come and go it seems to me that the minds of the survivors of "the great war" more and more drift back to the exciting days through which so many of them in the very heyday of youth or more vigorous young manhood, passed their younger years. What great, grand days they were when a whole nation arose in its might to preserve its own life! The great majority of each regiment was composed of young men in the first flush of entering upon man's estate, and how patriotic and true were they all, whether young or old. The principles included, too--besides the saving of the Nation's life --appealed to the purest and best in manhood, and it is no wonder that the veteran of the War for the Union, as he drifts over the dividing line that brings with it gray hairs and advancing age, his thoughts very naturally turn back to that period when he felt the call to assist in saving the country from destruction that appealed to him as a personal matter. How true and how lasting were the friendships formed at that early period in the lives of most men composing the Union army; and I am not the one to deny the same feeling to those who were opposed to us on many a bloody field. Mistaken they were, as many of them now freely admit, yet they were as brave men as ever fired a musket on a "stricken field." Then, too, the friendships alluded to, have been as lasting as the rocks. They played their part in the most stirring years modern times have known, and played them well, too, and while it is a solemn thing when a man approaches the end of a long road, and sees the turning which leads him into the unknown future. Hence it is not strange that the surviving veterans of the civil war very often calls to mind the stormy period through which he passed and allows his memory to linger for a while with the friends of other years.

Those who have perused the history of the War of the Rebellion close-up will remember that all of the arrangements for the surrender of Vicksburg to the Federal forces under General Grant were concluded in the afternoon of the 3rd of July, 1863, though the papers passing between General Pemberton and General Grant bear date of July 4th. It was generally understood in Grant's army that this event was hastened by the arrival of an immense fleet of steamboats from the North laden with ammunition, and the added fact that the 4th of July was to be ushered in by a salvo of thirty shots at sunrise from every gun bearing on the doomed town and as there were over two hundred of these in position any reader can easily conclude what a rain of destruction the firing of that many guns thirty times each, loaded with shells, each one of which would cause an additional explosion, making two from each gun. If the beleaguered enemy did hear of this arrangement --and it is not at all improbable that it did, for it was quite well understood that each army had a sort of grapevine communication, one with the other --it certainly may have had the effect to induce the Confederate General Pemberton to hasten to accept General Grant's terms for immediate surrender and thus prevent the proposed storm of iron hail. At any rate the 4th of July, 1863, was a great day for the Union cause, for besides the regular celebration of the 4th as the memorial of the birth of the nation, it had Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the victory of the colored troops over General Marmaduke --all of them occurring on the same day, to add to the already noted 4th as a day for glad rejoicing.

After the arrival of the troops with which my regiment was connected in the vicinity of Vicksburg, as already stated, we were camped at Oak Ridge. We were quite idle, no doubt awaiting the course that the Confederate General Joe E. Johnson would pursue, it being well known that he was moving up from directly east of Vicksburg with the avowed purpose of attacking Grant in the rear. During those days of tedious waiting Grant's army had received another reinforcement consisting of the Ninth, known as "Burnside's corps," the latter officer then being in command at Knoxville, Tennessee. This was then commanded by General Park, known as an excellent competent officer, and his coming put it in the power of Grant to turn on General Johnson and drive him eastward across the State of Mississippi, or defeat him in the field, if he could be caught. The days preceding the fall of Vicksburg were tedious to the troops and officers as well. The army lying in loose order, not having gone into regular camps, for the reason that orders to march against Johnson were hourly expected, and it was during this time of idleness that a soldier found an iron key at an abandoned and dilapidated old blacksmith shop not far distance, that was about the awkwardest and most ill-shaped specimen of handiwork one sees in a lifetime. It weighed considerable over a pound and was made by a Negro slave who had turned his hand to blacksmithing on a plantation. It was evidently intended for a big door key and was out of shape in every conceivable way.

About these times the newspaper correspondents had been having much to say of the "Key to Vicksburg." One of them would have it that such a point was "the key" to the situation, while that of some other journal was just as emphatic in asserting that some other point was "the key" to the stronghold. In fact, Northern newspapers had something to say about "the key to Vicksburg" every day, almost. Major Baldwin, of the Twelfth --a well informed and intelligent officer, was as thorough-going a wag as the regiment contained, and most regiments had many of these witty fellows who were found to be so valuable as the war progressed, in keeping up the spirits of a regiment or company. He was shown the homemade key by myself, and at once he conceived the idea of sending it to General Grant. Consequently he had it neatly made up in a package, using an official envelop and directed it to the "Commander-in-Chief for the Union Forces Surrounding Vicksburg." He had pasted a label on its long and wide stem, bearing the legend, "The Key to Vicksburg," and of course the package went up through the regular channels, via brigade, division, and corps headquarters, and thus to its destination. From an officer belonging to General Grant's headquarters, I afterward learned that he received it with a broad and appreciative grin when he perused the sentence pasted on the handle of the key, and the entire staff enjoyed the joke to a great degree, the correspondents about headquarters --there were always quite a number --being thereafter unmercifully twitted over the "Key to Vicksburg," some of them, it was known to the staff officers having used the expression several times in their respective journals. These were plagued to such an extent that one or two of them became quite restive under the constant "nagging" and complained to General Grant about it--the General only laughing at the jest.

This, however, was not the first jest of a similar nature that was played upon our commanding officers, for only about a week previously a soldier found an old shoe, such as were worn by the Negro slaves in the Gulf States. These shoes were manufactured on a large scale at Boston, and were purchased at wholesale by the planters of Mississippi, preceding the war. They were of very coarse leather, of a tan color, and the sole was of wood, sometimes oak and sometimes hickory, but manufactured with the one idea uppermost that they must be made strong enough to last for years. I saw a number of that particular kind of shoes while in the vicinity of Vicksburg; but this particular one was 14 ½ inches in length and broad in proportion. In fact, it was its immense size that induced the soldier to bring it to my headquarters as a curiosity. And so it was, indeed, for when set upon the ground it took on the appearance of a canoe, with a "raise" in the stern. When the Major saw it he at once proposed to me to play a joke on General Sherman, and I entered into the spirit of the jest after he had it put into a package similar to that of the key already mentioned first for it was the first joke of the kind we perpetrated. Right across the wooden bottom of the seven-inch-wide shoe the Major had pasted a label bearing the inscription, "The identical shoe worn by the foot that kicked Sherman off this bluff." As we were occupying, just at that time, a bluff near Chickasaw Bayou where Sherman had met a severe repulse from the rebels a couple of months previously, the point to the joke can be readily seen. I was just a little suspicious that General Sherman might be a little touchy on the point, but I finally permitted it to go and a few days thereafter, when meeting one of his staff officers, I asked him how General Sherman took the big-shoe joke. "Oh," said he, "the General laughed a little over it, but the staff fairly yelled with delight when they saw that Noah's ark of a shoe, and the duty it had been made to perform --but," said he, "if I were you and Major Baldwin, I would never perpetrate a similar joke on the old gentleman," and we didn't.

Late in the afternoon of the 3d day of July the division to which we belonged received marching orders and what was more it was to be an all night march. The skies were threatening and the indications pointed to a heavy rain; but a soldier never consults the weather, but takes just the kind that is sent; grumblingly, perhaps, but nevertheless, in obedience to orders, he performs the duties assigned him. The rear of Vicksburg was made up of a succession of ridges with deep depressions between them to such an extent that it reminded me of an old-fashioned washboard that our pioneer mothers knew so well. In forcing the Confederate army into Vicksburg this sort of ground was very favorable to General Pemberton, as all of these ridges had to be taken, one after the other, and in some instances the tops of some of them were tunneled thus forming a covered-way for teams to take ammunition to the besiegers and thus avoid the artillerists. On our side these grew to be very expert shots and I remember of hearing some of our soldiers grumbling at a gunner for putting a shot right through the face of the town clock that occupied quite a tall tower within the city of Vicksburg. They were particularly lamenting the fact for the reason that the infantry soldiers had become accustomed to change guard by the time kept by this clock, and now that its works were out of order it had become wholly unreliable for that purpose.

Soon after the troops got stretched out upon the road that it was intended they should take, the threatened storm burst upon the marching columns, and I can truthfully say that neither before nor since have I ever witnessed a more fearful storm than the one that prevailed that night. There had been quite a drouth preceding this storm and the roads were dry and hard, so that at first the men trudged along in the rain in fairly good humor, as the night was hot and the falling rain was rather cooling, but as the storm continued it became frightful. The roads led through a timbered region, and after the first deluge of rain a fearful hurricane followed. Trees were crashing and falling in every direction. The lightning was vivid and incessant, and at times it seemed to crackle along the ground right under the feet of the men, and an occasional riderless horse, frightened until it was almost frantic, ran wildly through the troops, having broken loose from or thrown its rider, and in its mad fright it would dash at headlong speed right into the moving ranks. The deluge of rain was so great that all at once the head of the column came to a halt and the entire body just stood still and took the rain just as it was poured from the clouds above, interspersed with the crashes of thunder, the ripping of timber and the fierce flashes of lightning that seemed scarcely to have a moment's intermission between them. It was while the pealing and reverberations of this wild storm was at its height that some soldier away up at the head of the column started up at the very top of his voice, that old army song of "John Brown's body lies moldering in the grave."

It was caught up all along the line and within a few minutes it was taken up by 5,000 voices, and I can truthfully say that it was never before rendered with such an accompaniment of thunder, lightning, tempest and the crashing of falling trees, as on that night of the 3rd of July, 1863, in the rear of Vicksburg. The storm lasted for something over an hour; the weather cleared away, the moon showed its welcome face once more, and the army took up its line of march really refreshed by the drenching it had received.

The sick and disabled men of the various regiments had been left, when the march began, at the hospital that had been established on top of one of the numerous ridges already referred to, in a beautiful pine grove, and the next morning we learned that it had suffered terribly from the effects of the storm as a pine tree had blown over by the hurricane and, falling across several of the tents, killed four or five men outright and wounded enough more to make the total of killed and injured about thirty. Among the killed was Major Parrott, of Lagrange, this State, a member of the One Hundredth Indiana, and at that time a prominent citizen of Lagrange county, he having served, if I remember correctly, in the State Legislature as the Representative for that county. He was a noble, patriotic gentleman, and as I had made his acquaintance only since my return to the regiment, I had formed a warm attachment for him during the short time I had known him, and as he had hobbled out to the front of his tent to bid me good-bye as my regiment passed the hospital, I was greatly affected on hearing of his death so soon afterwards. Such, however, was the life of a soldier! There is safety nowhere in war-times, and thousands of men met their death by accident--of which this is only an instance--instead of being killed, if such was to be their end, in the fore-front of battle.

The Ninetieth Illinois regiment of the same brigade to which the Twelfth belonged was composed wholly of Irishmen from the Colonel down to the smallest drummer-boy among the ten that carried that instrument. Even their Chaplain was a priest from the "Old Sod." There had been a serious friction of some months' duration between Colonel Tim O'Meara and Captain Pat Flynn. The latter had just received a commission as Major of the regiment from governor Yates, promoting him to the vacancy of that position in the regiment. Colonel O'Meara was determined that Flynn should not be mustered into that position, and he could prevent it by withholding his signature to the papers required by the mustering officer. Of course, Flynn grew sulky, and had refused to accompany the expedition we were then making unless it could be in the rank to which he had been promoted. The appointment being but recently received, the men in the regiment had not generally heard of it. Following the storm, I was riding at the rear of the Ninetieth regiment when one of the men said to a comrade:

"Jamie, did you know we have a new Major?"

"I do not," said Jamie. "Who is the lucky man?"

"Pat Flynn," was the response.

"I don't know of a man that deserves the promotion more," said Jamie, "he minds his place so well in the rear!"

When the reader bears in mind that the proper place of the Major is in the read of his regiment, and Pat Flynn was then thirty miles behind, the ready wit of Jamie can easily be perceived, prompt as it was, and as I told the story the next morning it was a long time before Pat Flynn heard the last of it. He received his promotion, however, for Colonel O'Meara, who was killed at Mission Ridge in the following November, thus removing all opposition.

Warsaw Daily Times June 20, 1903

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