Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

When war winged it wide desolution,
And threatened the land to deform
The ark then of freedom's foundation,
Columbia rode safe through the storm;
With the garlands of victory around her,
When so proudly she bore her brave crew
With her flag proudly floating before her.
The boast of the red, white and blue.
---Nelson Kneass

Continuing the practice of riding away from the regularly planned line of march for each of the different army corps, Joe Williams and myself, on one occasion, along about dinner time, rode up to one of the old-fashioned plantation houses--not only old-fashioned--but looking as if a portion of it dated back to the colonial period, and it probably did, for a century before and more, it was very often the case, when the son of a planter got married, it was the custom, instead of building him a new home, to erect an addition to the old one for the home of the accession to the family, and I have heard it stated that this custom was in such general vogue that there was a manor house in old Virginia to which an addition had been made so often to the first building in this, that it covered six generations, which made six additons to the original house, and I can readily believe the story from what I saw in marching through on the line followed by Sherman's forces. We concluded to ride up through the long and wide lawn that led to the mansion and rest for a while on the big porch that covered the whole front of the great building. Dismounting we hitched our horses and walked up to (the) porch, and after sitting down awaited results. A colored boy, who had never before seen a Yankee in all his life, very timidly approached where we were sitting and on ascertaining that the owner of the plantation was at home, I sent the colored lad to tell him that two strangers wanted to see him. Not long afterwards an old man bowed for years, made his appearance and came slowly towards the place whre we were sitting on a bench. I took him to be about seventy year of age.

I told him who we were, adding that being somewhat tired of riding, we had taken the liberty to come up to his porch and rest ourselves for a short time. He replied by telling us that we were perfectly welcome, and requested us to remain as long as we felt like it. He was, I thought, a little nervous, and pretty soon he asked us if the report he had heard only the night before was true, that President Lincoln had been assassinated. It should be borne in mind that this was in central North Carolina and off the generally traveled lines of communication, and that whenever news reached such a neighborhood, it came first as a rumor only to be confirmed by its truthfulness at a later period. Indeed, that was the way that the news of Lincoln's assassination first came to Sherman's army itself, to be aferward confirmed by the dispatch to General Sherman from Secretary of War Stanton, announcing the death of that great and good man. When I told him that the rumor of his death by the bullet of a murderer was true, he held up both hands and in the most touching manner said, "Oh, my God," then adding the remark--"The best friend the South had, has been slain--what an awful calamity!" To say that I was surprised at such remarks as these coming from an old man like the one to whom I was talking, and so feelingly expressed, astonished me greatly. The old gentleman then went on to say that from the first he was opposed to the secession of the states, and that he was known all through his neighborhood as a Union man, and though his sentiments had never changed for a single moment, like many others after the Legislature of North Carolina passed the ordinance of secession, himself and such as believed the same way, could do nothing else than obey the law, although he never had, nor had never intended to enter the service of an army whose purpose was to break up the Union founded by Washington, the Lees, the Marions, and thousands of others who had helped to win the Nation's independence. "He was sincerely glad," he said, "that the war was over, but he had most fervently hoped that the story of Lincoln's death would be contradicted by further reports." His death, he said at such a time was the severest blow the South had received, and what was more, Lincoln occupied a position that with the coming of peace would be invaluable to the southern states in arranging for the cessation of hostilities for the restoration of the Union. I listened to the old gentleman with my feelings all worked up over the sentiments that came from this old Southern gentleman, and when he went on to say that he had "watched the course pursued by President Lincoln all through the war, and from almost the first, I thought I could see that he was an honest and a just man, that the South had nothing to fear from a man like President Lincoln." and in a tremulous voice and with tears starting in his eyes, he once more repeated that it was a terrible blow to the South. I confess I listened to him almost with awe, his remarks were so impressively delivered. He insisted on us going in to dinner, but well aware of the fact that even the wealthiest people of that region had all they could do to secure sufficient food for themselves and their dependents to subsist upon, we declined, as our own supplies ample sufficient and were holding out well, and in all probability we could have set this kindly old gentleman a better dinner just then than he could have given us. Now, after forty years have elapsed since we met that kind-hearted and in his heart, loyal old gentleman away down in the "Old North State," his words, and even his features come back to me as those of a friend, and the remark the made then, within a few days after President Lincoln's assassination to the effect that "the South has lost its best friend," have come back to me so very often, and always with the conviction that the old North Carolinian's prediction has been proven a thousand times since that fatal day of the death of "That Noblest Roman of them all!"

Before leaving Raleigh Gen. Sherman had intended that the homeward march should be a leisurely one. His aim was to make it so easy that the men composing this army could even recuperate on the way, he having first arranged that the wagons belonging to each regiment, brigade and division should carry all the extra impediments of the soldiers thus permitting them to turn everything over to the wagons except his guns and cartridge boxes. The troops were no sooner well on the way "homeward bound," than without anyone being especially chargeable for the change, nor who was responsible for the statement that it was to be a race between the several corps as to which would arrive at Richmond first. The report having obtained credence, especially among the enlisted men, instead of being a leisurely march requiring fifteen days for the trip under the general's estimate, it was done in seven less than half the time given the army to make the trip, and in that time the troops marched one hundred and fifty-eight miles from the Neuse river at Raleigh. The army of the Tennessee reached Petersburg, Va., on the 29th day of April, 1865; the Army of Georgia arriving later on the same day. During the march from Raleigh to Washington, all foraging of whatever was strictly forbidden, all the necessary supplies that were needed upon the way, and could be procured, were purchased and paid for by the Commissaries of Subsistence. The strictest of discipline was enforced on the way home, and the rights of property were as much respected--more in fact than if the same troops had been marching here in Indiana, for in the latter case it would have been very difficult for a soldier to pass a hen-coop without taking tribute in a land where "coops" were so plentiful. The desire of one and all was to impress the citizens residing along the line of march that now the war was over, "commandeering" had been ended as well.

On reaching Petersburg, Va., the army halted for a day in order to give the marching men a rest, this scarcely being needed, owing to the great anxiety of the troops, to push on to Washington, and -----home! In addition to the rest, the opportunity was given the western army to view the numerous points of interest on the greatly extended field of Grant's operations in the surrounding and final capture of Lee's army. Following the rest alluded to, , the next day the army pushed on to Manchester, quite a town lying directly across the James river from Richmond on the south, and between the two towns the Federal army had already spanned the stream with a splendid pontoon bridge--a bridge of boats, for the information of the reader, who was not a soldier in the "Great War." General Sherman did not march with the army from Raleigh, but went down to Newberne on the coast, and thence via Fortress Monroe and up the James River to Richmond in a "dispatch boat." he was astonished to find that his army had beaten him on the trip, arriving at Richmond a day or two before the dispatch boat. General Halleck, who it will be remember, was a military officer attached to the war office at Washington all through the war, and who was responsible for the slight put upon General Grant in the early days of his military career, about the time the latter had captured Forts Henry and Donaldson (Donelson), previous to Sherman's arrival had issued an order proposing the review of General Sherman's army as it passed through Richmond, the Confederate capital, when it moved over to that city from Manchester, where it had encamped for several days. Just about that time there was an intense feeling between General Sherman and Secretary of War Stanton, Halleck and other officers, who had no experience in the field during the entire war, and on his arrival by boat he at once counter-manded the order for Halleck's review, Sherman making the remark at that time that he would "march his army around Richmond rather than suffer Halleck to review his troops" adding the remark that it was "a good deal like a visitor calling on his neighbor when he knew before hand that the neighbor wasn't at home."

It was on the morning of the 13th of May that we crossed over the James river and marched through the streets of Richmond, the capital, for four years of the now extinct Southern Confederacy, and in his "History of the Twelfth Indiana Infantry" Chaplain M. D. Gage says that it was "the last regiment of Sherman's army to tread the streets of the Confederate capital," though I had forgotten it until a survivor of the regiment showed me the statement in the book, only a few days since. From that moment the army was on ground that all the way to Washington had felt the tread of marching feet. Almost every mile between the two cities in the four preceding years of war was the scene of either an exchange of shots between outposts; of a skirmish, or battle, and one might almost say from the number of gallant men who had laid down their lives in defense of the cause for which they respectively fought--it "was hallowed ground." What is more it was a desolate region. In all that part of Virginia leading from Winchester down to Richmond, through the passes of the Blue Ridge, thence continuing to the Chesapeake Bay--covering, I should say at a guess, on-third of the entire state--the state known before the war as the "Mother of Presidents"-- there was scarcely a cultivated field. the slow step of the farmer and husbandman had grown to be the quickstep of marching battalions and after the first year of war, it can be said that on none of the great plantations had a crop of any kind been grown and one and all of them bore the impress of utter desolation. The old plantation manor-houses still stood in some instances but stood alone. Not a rail of fence remained; not an outhouse. The old house stood there lonely and deserted when it remained at all, for it must be remembered that war is terrible and hundreds of these old mansions, many of them possessed of deep historical interest of early colonial and revolutionary war days, were given over to the fire fiend and so utterly destroyed that in some instances it would be difficult to find the exact spot on which they stood. All--nearly all--were deserted; but here and there were signs of life on some of them. I remember on the second day's march out of Richmond, the army passed what had been an old time plantation, and here out in the fields were two or three white men, still clad in Confederate gray, with the emblems of their rank still on the collar and sleeves of their coats, showing that they were officers, who with from ten to fifteen negroes as helpers, were engaged in planting corn, and near the old-fashioned dwelling, a "patch of potatoes" were already up, showing that this had been done some time before, for the tubers were already pushing through the ground, giving promise of a fair crop. It should be remember that this was only a short time after Lee's army had been paroled by General Grant, and these officers, freed from further military service, had gone to their former homes and were already at work endeavoring to raise a sufficient crop of various kinds to tide them over the coming winter; and instantly I perceived the value to the defeated Confederates, the refusal of General Grant to take from General Lee's army the horses and mules, suggesting at the same time that they would become useful in helping to raise a crop, and though they were legitimate captures, all of the live- stock of the Confederate army was left with the owners, and of which I had just seen an example, as here recorded, of the great value the act of General Grant in generously permitting the live stock to remain with the men composing General Lee's army.

From Richmond to Alexandria--the old town of colonial days, whence General Braddock, assisted by Lieutenant Colonel
George Washington, as an aid de camp, fitted out the expedition against the French and Indians then gathered at Pittsburg, Pa., and which was to cost the head of the army his life--the march of the army was nearly all the time on the ground that had been the scenes of the most important battles. Often in passing through a forest of pine, the men frequently pointed out how the limbs of the trees and even the latter themselves, were splintered and torn with shot and shell distinctly showing the fact that the woods had been the scene of a more or less severe skirmish or even a battle between the contending forces. A soldier standing near me pointed to a tree only a short distance away that had been hit with a solid shot at about the height of ten feet squarely in the middle of its body. The tree was split for a distance, I should guess, of about four feet below where it had been hit, and fully six feet above, and the cannon ball was still sticking on the further side of the tree, although protruding slightly on that side. This entire forest, or rather the trees composing it, were "fairly riddled" to use a war-time correspondent's expression, with shot, shell and musketry bullets, and seemingly the struggle had not been long past. On the same evening the troops went into camp not far from the place alluded to, and after the tents were pitched--at this period of the war, tents had grown out of fashion and few but officers used them, especially in the pleasant weather that then prevailed. After eating my supper on that evening, I discovered a hewed log-house about a half mile distant, and as smoke was coming out of the chimney, showing that it was occupied, I resolved to visit it, and on arriving at the place, I had an illustration of the "open hospitality" for which Virginians, especially, but which included the whole Southern people, had become noted the world over. On stepping into the house on the invitation to "walk in," I discovered two old people, both of them beyond seventy years, they told me, sitting on a bench. The room was entirely denuded of every article of furniture, there being neither table, chair or a single thing of home convenience whatever. The two sat on the bench and requested me to take a seat at the other end.

In this section of the country strawberries grew wild, and these two people had been out in the afternoon seeking strawberries and had secured a fairly good sized cedar-staved bucket full of berries, which was sitting on the floor beside them. At once they invited me to eat some berries; but I declined, suspecting that the old people had better not be too liberal with their berries, and as I had noted when I came up to the house--it was a two story, hewed log-house--there was not an out-house of any kind whatever, not a rail or a fence of any kind visible for miles around. I came to the conclusion that the berries were about all the poor old people had to eat--certainly there was no place in sight where food had been kept. They kept on insisting on my eating some of the berries; but still declining, I asked them finally if they were not in needy circumstances so far as food was concerned. Finally the old man acknowledged that until the wild strawberries began to ripen they were in a bad fix, but a Union soldier riding by had given them a couple of dozen crackers, and then the berries began to ripen. I could see a tear welling up in the eyes of the old lady, and I then insisted on knowing the facts in the case, and asked them to tell me if they were not nearly starving. The old lady at length replied that with the exception of the crackers given them by the soldier, they had had nothing else to eat but berries. And here were these two old people insisting on my eating a portion of the only food they had on earth! I had long before heard of the proverbial Virginia hospitality, but if ever before there had been exhibited a more emphatic illustration of its truth, I had never heard of it! I felt that I must do something for these two old people, and that at once, and so mounting my horse I rode back to camp and supplying myself with a goodly portion of every kind of food my headquarters possessed, and taking an orderly with me and a coffee pot, fearing that the old people having so long been without the delicious beverage might not even have anything in which to make it, I hastened back to the old couple, arriving the second time just as the sun went down, and when I told them what I had for them and had disclosed to them the edibles the order had in charge, tears came into the eyes of both, and the woman cried out; "James didn't I tell you the Lord would not permit us to starve, now that the war was over?" They were profuse in their thanks, especially for the large amount of coffee I had left with them. Assuredly, I am a firm believer in "Virginia hospitality" from that day to this.

Northern Indianian June 23, 1904

Back to YesterYear in Print