Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Methinks I see the last campfire
Blaze up against the sky.
The angel adds the last great name,
To the deathless roll on high.
They're gone! But still in vision fair,
I see the ranks of blue
That march in glorious columns in
Jehovah's grand Review!

The day is not so very far distant when the survivors of the civil war will become, like angels' visits, "few and far between." Instead of being the majority of almost any assemblage not so many years ago, a new generation has grown up since the grand review, which was held in Washington in May, 1865, and it is not at all strange to get in a crowd of grown-up people, some of whom know less of the war, its marches and prison-pens, than the small boy of eight or ten years of age did a quarter of a century ago. All this goes to show that the period covered by the four years of that mighty contest, are rapidly receding, and the next generation will know as little about it as all of us do at the present moment of the Mexican war. Thus history is rapidly made but soon forgotten. There is one thing, however, to keep the army and the tread of its mighty hosts in remembrance, and that is the literature founded on the civil war period, as well as its numerous histories, among the latter a large number of real merit and of intrinsic value. These will remain with the people of this country and be preserved in public as well as private libraries. The number of stories-some of them excellent as stories go-some of them excellent as stories go-is already away up in the thousands, while the number of fragments of poetry, good, bad and indifferent, could scarcely be counted, they are so numerous, with perhaps more to follow.

About the middle of November, 1863, the troops under General Sherman left Bridgeport and marched up the Tennessee river with Chattanooga as the objective point. On reaching a place called Shell Mound, from which point we left the river, marching up a deep cleft in Sand mountain, known as Nickajack Cove. Shell Mound, a station on the railroad, no doubt received its name from the wonderful and vast accumulations of shells that were unearthed in the construction of the Nashville and Chattanooga railroad at that point, which evidently had been gathered there by the Indians at a remote period and afterward covered with an alluvial deposit, requiring many centuries to bury them so deeply as was found to be the case. Our division left the river at the latter place, and moved up Nickajack Cove, a deep gorge, the road through it winding up Sand mountain, near the top of which was located "Castle Rock Coal Mines." Those who are reading these "memories" and who have never been in a mountainous country can scarcely form a correct idea of the difficulty of constructing a wagon road that would be safe for team or teamsters. Always on one side or the other of the road, after the ascent, is begun, will be insurmountable cliffs and on the other a deep plunge almost straight down to the running stream below. This road that had won its way up the mountain side had been dug and blasted from the mountain's face, and was just wide enough for team and wagon to move forward, with an ever-present danger on the side down which the deep ravine descended almost perpendicularly. Night overtook the troops in the ascent of Sand mountain and when darkness came it became too dangerous for the teams to proceed and the drivers were ordered to lock the wheels of their wagons and await daylight, as two wagons had already plunged down the declivity.

During the Creek Indian war, General Jackson led his Tennesseans up this same road, and this was perhaps the first time that troops of any kind had either climbed or descended by that winding and dangerous road since the days of "Old Hickory." On reaching the summit of Sand mountain, I found a gray-headed and gray-bearded coal miner, an Englishman from Cornwall, standing near the main entrance to the mine. He had been working in the mines before the war came and these were the first "Yankee" troops the old gentleman had ever seen. He was quite reticent at first, but by speaking to him politely and gentlemanly, he soon thawed out and I spent a half-hour with him very pleasantly, even if he did throw about his "h's" and "o's" so promiscuously that they were half the time in the wrong place, and in the other half the wrong ones were used nearly all of the time. Nevertheless his heart was in the right place; he was evidently of a religious turn of mind and believed the South had espoused the wrong side of the question and as slavery was so utterly wrong that the South could not maintain herself for any length of time, even though she won her independence-a statement in which there was much truth even though it came from an unlettered man. While I was talking to him the cook of my headquarters' mess came up with his coffee pot and whatever else he could carry in his haversack, he having been on the hunt of me and aware that I had not breakfasted. He soon had a fire, and had spread out his "poncho" on the ground on which he placed some coffee, bacon and a dish of fresh beef's liver and the usual "hardtack." When all was ready I invited the old Englishman to take breakfast with me. He politely declined, but I could see the fragrant aroma of the coffee was having its effect upon him, and therefore I insisted on his joining me. After he had taken his first sip of the coffee, he informed me that it was the first he had tasted on the genuine article since New Year's day 1862. "Of course," he said, "the people have substitutes for coffee, but any or all of them were far away from the pure coffee." He was so pleased with his breakfast that I whispered to the cook to roll up about a quarter of a pound in a paper and when I left I gave it to him telling him that maybe his "hold woman would like a taste." It is not often that one observes or hears an expression of gratitude over a trifle more genuine than came from that old Englishman in Northern Alabama, and very near the point where the State of Tennessee, Alabama and George join together and during that day we passed into all three of the above named States.

After reaching the summit of Sand mountain and all the troops had been gathered up, they having been widely scattered in gaining the summit, it being impossible to march in regular ranks, the order reached us to march, and we passed across the wide, level reach on the top of Sand mountain, arriving at its brow overlooking Lookout valley at a point where the road descends from the summit of the mountain into the valley referred to taking in a splendid panoramic view of the handsome little town of Trenton that laid peacefully and seemingly undisturbed in the valley below. At this point we remained for some time, ours being the rear brigade of the division on that day, the two others having descended into Lookout valley, the mountain of the same name forming the wall that hedged in the little town upon the east as Sand mountain did on the west. Orders came, however, for our brigade to debauch into the valley and this was quietly done. The two brigades that preceded our own marched some distance up Lookout valley, the first one I think, about fifteen miles, the next one about half that distance, and our own only a mile or two outside of Trenton. As the whole movement was a ruse intended to deceive the enemy who occupied and used all of Lookout mountain that lay between us and Chattanooga, every brigade and regiment was ordered to cover as much space as possible even to the extent of dividing the colors and the music so as to make each regiment appear as two to the watchful Confederate eyes whom we knew were looking at us from Lookout, but from a distance of from four or five miles. In addition to dividing the music and colors, at night each regiment built double the amount of fires that were needed, to create the idea in the minds of the Confederates, that a large force was marching southward with the intention of ascending Lookout at a point where the mountain was much lower and more accessible. That it was having its effect was plainly visible, for we could see detachments of Confederate cavalry occasionally evidently acting as observation corps, and besides I had it from several prisoners who were captured at Missionary Ridge a few days later, who asserted that they had been members of regiments who were engaged in watching the movements of the Yankees in Lookout valley, for two days, and on one occasion a full brigade had been assembled to move down into the valley and attack the brigade to which the Twelfth belonged where it lay near Trenton. I took these prisoners with me after their capture at Missionary Ridge clear to Knoxville and return, during which time they became much attached to the men under whose charge they were, and on returning to Chattanooga fully one-half the number, which was seventy, were anxious to enlist in my regiment, but I could not procure an order permitting it, as it was said that the consent of the War Department would have to be secured before it could be done. These prisoners were mostly North Carolinians and were taken along because I could find no one to take them in charge after receiving the orders to make a forced march to Knoxville following the battle of Missionary Ridge.

After making this spread of forces in Lookout valley, General Hugh Ewing, our Division commander received an order to break camp and pass with all rapidity to the mouth of Lookout valley. Just before reaching it the division was halted and a hundred rounds of ammunition was issued to each man-forty in the cartridge box and sixty for the pockets of each soldier. That made every enlisted man understand that a battle was near and it was a sign in which each one had learned they could not be mistaken. The issue having been made the march proceeded and continued until the Fifteenth corps was opposite the mouth of Chickamauga creek at a point about six miles above Chattanooga. In getting to this position the Fifteenth corps had crossed the Tennessee at Brown's ferry-all save General Osterhaus' division. The Confederates were very actively employed above the ferry in chopping down trees and felling them in the river for the purpose of destroying or at least injuring our pontoon bridges and in this they frequently succeeded. The first two divisions had succeeded in crossing when a large tree came down the already swollen stream and broke the bridge in twain despite the efforts of the pontoniers to prevent any such disaster. I was for this reason that Gen. Jeff C. Davis' division of the Fourteenth corps was assigned to General Sherman's command. Davis' division was a large one and it too, went to the point preparatory to crossing the Tennessee selected for that purpose, at the mouth of Chickamauga creek, while General Osterhaus' troops were left with Hooker's forces to climb and capture Lookout mountain next day.

Previous to all these movements so briefly described, General Grant had his pioneer and pontoon corps busily engaged in building boats at a point about two miles above the mouth of Chickamauga creek. Here they had taken up a mile square of ground within which no citizen was admitted, nor soldier either, without written authority, the object being to procure the strictest secrecy as to what was going forward. Here a large number of boats were built and done so slyly, too, that but few of our own army knew anything about what was going on. The night before General Sherman crossed the Tennessee at the point referred to, all of these boats were occupied with all the soldiers each one would hold and were very quietly permitted to float down the Tennessee, gathering in all the Confederate posts above the mouth of the stream, as silently as possible, not a shot to be fired without orders, and then only should it be absolutely necessary. This movement was most successfully accomplished. Indeed, in looking back at the incident now, it is a wonder that something did not happen to put the Confederates more vigilantly on their guard. However, the night was dark, which was greatly in favor of the boat party; the river was high and the boats required on that account, no rowing, and only the helmsman was called upon to do anything but float down the stream and keep his boat in line. The location of all the picket posts of the rebels were known beforehand and every one of them, except the last one, was captured without firing a gun. At this one located near the mouth of Chickamauga creek, a rebel soldier heard a noise in the water and perceiving a dark object on the stream, fired at it without even dreaming that it was an enemy. The party landed here, capturing all but two of the picket posts, those two succeeding in getting away and presumably carrying their information to their own headquarters. The pontoniers at once threw up a slight defense and the steamer Dunbar having been captured a day or two before, its engine had been at once overhauled and made right, its first duty was to convey a couple of companies of Federal troops across the river, instead of being operated by the Confederacy, as previously. Two more companies were hurried over by the Dunbar, and in the meantime work on a pontoon bridge was going forward apace, and my own regiment was among the first to cross it. All the troops that had been transferred to the opposite or south side of the river had built by this time a strong fortification and a battery was soon in position thus rendering an attack from the Confederates a very dangerous thing to engage in. I remember meeting Colonel Ed Wood, formerly of Goshen, and then the head of the Forty-eighth Indiana whose regiment lay near the north end of the pontoon bridge and having been at work all night the men were then engaged in eating their breakfast. The Colonel had a "fly" erected and was resting under it as a cover. When he saw me at the head of the Twelfth, he ran out took me by the hand and begged me to get off my horse and have a cup of coffee, adding, "Colonel Reub, you're going to catch hell over there!" At the time I believed it myself. Poor Colonel Ed! He was a bright young man, but in a period of mental gloom he took his own life, if I remember correctly, while he was clerk of Elkhart county, and only a few years after the war.

The next sketch will contain a description of some of the scenes in the wonderful battle of Missionary Ridge, preceded as it was, by the "Battle Above the Clouds," the accident to the pontoon bridge already referred to having caused a whole division of the Fifteenth corps to be among the gallant troops of General Joe Hooker, who climbed up the rocky face of Lookout mountain and swept away the "hornet's nest in gray," that for so many weeks had harried, if it had not hurt, many of "the Yankees," and as the scene was so worthy of the pen of the most brilliant of all the war correspondents-the late B. F. Taylor-his portrayal of that most scenic of all the battles of the civil war will be welcomed, I feel sure, by the readers of these "War Memories," and it will be the principal feature of the next sketch.

Warsaw Daily Times July 25, 1903

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