Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

God rest them well, for a country's trust
And a country's home and fame.
Are shrined for aye in their hallowed dust
And surrender each soldier's name!
God rest them well! If today they come,
And can see the hearts of us
Beat in glad time with the throbbing drum,
Then their rest is glorious
---W. D. Nesbit

Having decided to reproduce the splendid description of the battle of Mission Ridge from the pen of the gifted poet and prose writer, B. F. Taylor, written on the field, and who was a spectator of a struggle without its counterpart in any war, owing to the peculiarities of the ground upon which it was fought, I also decided not to mar the thrilling and vivid detail of the great battle by any of my own weak comments in comparison with those of the since deceased author, so well known to the people of Indiana especially, and the country at large as well. I likewise determined that it would be almost a wrong to the reader to break the trend of the magnificent and eloquent tribute to the war history of that period, by dividing it and printing the sketch in two separate issues, owing to its length, and I fell certain that all those who will take delight in perusing the article will be grateful that the story as written by Mr. Taylor was all told in the same number of the paper, and I am satisfied that my decision not to divide a story so well told will be endorsed by every one of the readers of these "War Memories" -so well told, indeed, that I am firm in the conviction that none of the surviving veterans who participated in the "Battle above the Clouds," the name that was won for the struggle to secure for the Federal armies the summit of Lookout Mountain, on the first day, or in the mightier effort required to wrest from the Confederates the seven miles of cliffs known as Missionary Ridge, on the second, will regret perusing it.

The name won, too, by the veterans of the Potomac under "Fighting Joe Hooker" is not at all a misnomer, for it was indeed a "battle above the clouds," that came about in this wise. The contest that was to end in the capture of the summit of Lookout Mountain began at the very base of that grand projection of nature, skyward, by the skirmishers of both armies and it was not many minutes after it began until the combatants were entirely obscured by the smoke of their own guns, from the thousands of soldiers who were spectators of the ever-rising line of battle as the Confederates retreated up the rocky sides of Old Lookout followed by the continually pursuing line of Federals. Away up the sides of the mountain is a plateau of more level ground-large enough, perhaps, for a couple of regiments to stand upon-so it looked at least to the spectators below. On the top of this plateau, no smoke had ascended to or covered it, and it lay there in the bright sunlight. All at once the ranks in gray retreated across this bit of level ground and in a few moments "Old Glory" burst out on the plateau in all its splendor of the colors so dear to the heart of every patriot. The lines broken by the steepness of the rough ground and the breath-consuming climb of the "boys in blue" all at once straightened out on their regimental flags and the incident became historic, and the name "The Battle Above the Clouds" took its place in army literature and had its baptism, for all below was still enshrouded in the smoke of the struggle which, had not yet lifted to the level ridge alluded to. What a cheer rent the air from the soldiers lying in the trenches below as the colors of each regiment burst out on that bit of breathing ground! The cheer was taken up and ran along the line from Hooker's daring men on the extreme right of Grant's line to those of Sherman seven miles distant on the left, but so peculiar was the lay of the ground that by the use of an officer's field glass "Old Glory" could easily be seen as it rose "above the clouds" in that ever memorable picture made by the troops on their way to the top of Lookout.

During the progress of the battle for the possession of Lookout Mountain, General Sherman had gathered all of his division commanders at his headquarters including also each brigade commander as well, and as I was the senior and consequently the ranking officer in the command next to Col. John Mason Loomis, who died at his home in Chicago less than two years ago, he invited me to accompany him, knowing that if he might be disabled in the coming fight of the next day, that the brigade would fall under my command, he also placed the right wing of the brigade in my charge for the approaching contest on the morrow. General Sherman took the party to the most salient points on the north bank of the Tennessee River and pointed out the position of the enemy from maps that had been previously secured through the secret service corps of the War Department by spies, intelligent Union citizens within the rebel lines, and all available means, and I have often thought since that the carefulness of "Old Billy," as his boys delighted to call General Sherman was of great advantage to the Federal commanding officers the next day, for each brigade commander was given a brief, hastily sketched fragment of paper representing the immediate front of each brigade and the position to be occupied as far as ascertained, to be used as a partial guide. Just as soon as a sufficient force had crossed the pontoon on the Tennessee, heretofore described, each division was pushed out into the wooded ground that lay in our immediate front, and as each division formed on the right or left of the first one taking position, orders were given for the men to breakfast, and then the captains of companies had them replenish the supply of "hard-tack" and bacon in their haversacks, and especially was the supply of cartridges seen to, each box being required to have the regulation forty in number and sixty rounds stowed away in the pockets, and sometimes in the lining of the men's coats. All this was, as can readily be seen, a wise provision; as no one could know the number of the enemy that might be met, nor could they even guess when a commissary or ammunition wagon would be seen again.

Along in the afternoon the bugles of the various divisions, brigade and regiments following one another, sounded the advance, the troops in two solid lines with elbows touching, very unlike the present style that is permitted by the system in vogue today in consequence of the introduction of the repeating rifle, which enables one man to deliver seven shots, in the same time that it took the muzzle-loading musket of the civil war period to be fired twice, and thus allowing the lines to be in single rank with a wide space between each man, thus reducing the liability of being hit, in a wonderful degree. The troops moved forward at "quick step" with a cloud of skirmishers a good distance in advance, and it only required a few minutes for our skirmishers to meet a similar body of Confederates placed there to impede the Yankees' advance. As the main body of the Federal line pressed forward it produced a like effect on our skirmishers, who covered the ground so rapidly that the roar of musketry that even a skirmish line could make become almost continuous and sounded to those in the rear very like "the double drag," one of the earliest feats of drum-stick skill, taught to a snare drummer at the beginning of the war. It was plain to be seen, even to the veterans in the ranks, let along an officer, that the enemy did not intend to make a real stand until at least their troops had reached the summit of the most eastern point of Missionary Ridge, consequently the enemy was pushed hard and while the main body made several stands, yet the eastern-most hill was captured just before dark, the enemy falling back to the second one and to a point where reinforcements could reach them. While at not time could this first attack on the enemy be called a battle, yet there were several killed and wounded on the Federal side, as well as many Confederates whose dead bodies and the wounded of the contest along with a couple hundred prisoners fell into our hands.

Perhaps a half mile to the west-towards Chattanooga, at any rate-a similar hill loomed up-a larger and a higher one than we had captured. These hills were not of sufficient size to call them mountains and yet I have always thought-and did then, when the hundreds upon hundreds of men clad in gray could be seen scattered all over their face in our direction-that both of them were too large to come under the designation of "hills." Another thing was developed there, to show the truthfulness of the old adage that a "man's hindsight is always better than his foresight," for it must be plain to each one who participated in the capture of the first "sugar loaf" that the Federal lines should have been advanced right off and taken the second one-a feat that could easily have been done had our troops pressed forward. However we bivouacked on the first hill leaving the second one for the next day; but there are always two sides to most questions and this is particularly so in war times. The commanding officer of one side cannot "most always tell," to use a many-year old juvenile expression-what may occur in a few brief hours. During that second night the second hill was fairly covered with "gray coats" and several batteries were in position. Gen. Roger Q. Mills, of Texas, and the leader of the House during Cleveland's administration, in writing me only a few years since, stated that there were twenty-two guns behind the hastily prepared embrasures. None of them were there the night before and it is altogether probable that the force that was driven from the first hill the night before was all there was there to check our onward march in the direction of Chattanooga, thus the second hill could readily have been taken.

Such was the position on the night of the day just preceding the battle of Missionary Ridge, so graphically described by the glowing, burning, eloquent words of the late B. F. Taylor, which appeared in these columns last week. The first division of the Fifteenth corps to which my regiment belonged cared for themselves the best they could during that weary night. All through the lengthening hours we could hear the noise of the rebel troops at work in building fortifications, the cries of the teamsters and the rumble of twenty-pounder Parrotts being placed in the embrasures prepared for them so hastily. At about 3 o'clock a.m. I received an order to have the men breakfasted and to be ready to march at 4:30. Not a man in all that corps but knew that an order like that "meant business" as they would say in these "piping times of peace," but the order was obeyed with alacrity. The signs for several days past were so threatening that every man almost had destroyed the letters received, and up to that time preserved in his knapsack, and he had written others to father, mother, sisters or brothers, and it may be to "a dearer one still," bearing in mind as he did that it might be the last one he might ever pen. Few men desire to leave a previous correspondence in their knapsacks or anywhere on their person on the eve of going into battle, and very often have I seen soldiers destroying them as they watched the signs that so truthfully indicated a coming battle. The evening before the morning to which I am referring I saw our faithful patriotic Chaplain, M. D. Gage, now of San Jose, California, carrying over his shoulder a weighty haversack whose contents were letters written after we crossed the Tennessee River, and I want to add one more to the many words of praise I have listened to, bestowed upon Rev. Gage. Not only during the war did I commend him, but on all occasions since whenever the regiment's career was under discussion. No more faithful officer entered the service than Chaplain M. D. Gage, and none proved so valuable; or did so many favors to the men. To this day ask any surviving member of the regiment and he will go into ecstasies in his praise of Mr. Gage.

At a very early hour the brigade was formed and marched down the declivities of the hill captured on the evening preceding. On reaching the level ground, the brigade was marched westward in the direction of Chattanooga, keeping the troops as well concealed as a skirt of timber permitted to be done. On reaching a point directly in front of the railroad tunnel, the command was moved forward almost to the edge of the timber, and in front of which the ground was wholly open. The tunnel ran through a depression that existed between the hill we had already captured and the one that it was yet to take, if possible. Over and behind the big hill we had just vacated lay another division of General Sherman's corps, and perhaps an additional one, for I am writing these sketches from memory and am not certain how the formation of the Federal line south of the hill that had been taken lay. I only know that it was the intention to capture the second hill, while Colonel Loomis' brigade had moved to the edge of the timber lying almost north of the point about to be assailed, and by keeping this idea in view it will be seen that our brigade was only to attract the affection of the enemy by compelling a large force to keep their attention in our direction.

My orders were most positive not to go any farther in the open ground already referred to, which was pointed out on a little map alluded to in the earlier part of this sketch and there "lie down!" Of all the orders I ever received during the war that was the most irksome, difficult and dangerous to perform. Just as the brigade emerged from the timber solid shot and shell were poured into it from the summit of the hill that during all the night preceding was transformed from a smooth-topped hill into a formidable fort with twenty-two pieces of artillery behind. Well was it for the men of the Twelfth and One Hundredth Indiana regiments and the Twenty-sixth and Ninetieth Illinois regiments that they were so close under the guns that their muzzles could not be depressed sufficiently to make them effective; consequently the shot and shell screamed and shrieked over the heads of the men. But for this, there would have been few, indeed, left to tell the story. Nevertheless, the shot and shell crashing and tearing into the trees cut off large limbs that, falling upon them, wounded, bruised and maimed many as it was, before they left the shelter of the timber. A solid shot struck a large tree that stood close to where Adjutant Jared D. Bond, of the Twelfth, and myself were sitting on our horses, splitting from it a large piece which struck the Adjutant on the side of the head, knocking him senseless from his horse. Captain Frank Aveline, of Fort Wayne, one of the brightest boys of his age in the army, while holding his sword above his head, urging his men to preserve their alignment, had the blade almost bent double by a solid shot. The next moment a musket ball struck him squarely in the center of the head, killing the handsome young man of twenty, the youngest commanding officer in the corps of his rank, and blotted out the life of the idol of his mother and the hope of his father, Captain Frank Aveline, the owner, builder and proprietor, of the "Aveline House: in Fort Wayne. A vivid picture, even though briefly told, of the broken homes that war always causes.

I was almost frantic over the order compelling me to hold the men "at a lie-down" in a place so greatly exposed, and I sent orderly after orderly asking permission to get up close to the hillside; to charge to the top of the ridge-to do anything, in fact, rather than lie under that withering fire and the big shells from Parrott guns, with just enough powder behind them to hurl them down on the line. Back came the order each time to "tell Williams to hold his ground until further orders." At the base of the big hill just before the railroad passes into the tunnel from the northern side the ground was cut away to make a "fill" and I begged to be permitted to give the men the privilege of making a rush across "the open" and secure the "fill" as a means of protection. This, too, was refused and for over four hours the men lay there, the target for that rain of solid shot, shells and musketry, to which we could not effectively reply in kind. I have talked to many men since the war who were in that engagement, not only of my own regiment, but also with others, who were eye-witnesses to as brave a feat as men are ever called upon to sustain in war time. Never was a heart more severely wrung with anguish to see that slaughter of as brave a body of men as ever faced an enemy than was my own. All this is preliminary to but on the same day so wonderfully described by B. F. Taylor reproduced in the columns of "The Indianian" of last week.

The next sketch will give in a brief way the withdrawal of the brigade from the tempest of iron hail that was falling upon them during that terrible afternoon on the banks of the historical Tennessee--the day that not only there in the field were fervent thanks returned for the great victory, but more fervently still, perhaps, in the homes and churches of the loyal North. As B. F. Taylor said, the Battle of Missionary Ridge was the stride of a giant towards the day when peace would bless the land as it never had before. Oh, let us all be mindful of our duty. Let every parent instill into the minds of his sons, the teacher into those of his scholars, the necessity of sustaining a government that has blessed us with such great prosperity, and every minister of God on frequent occasions deliver a discourse on the necessity of a pure and undefiled religion founded upon the purest of patriotism, and the preservation of a country that has cost so much in blood and treasure.

Warsaw Daily Times August 8, 1903

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