Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

This they have done for us, who slumber here-
Awake, alive, though now so dumbly sleeping;
Spreading the board, but tasting not its cheer:
Sowing but never reaping;
Building, but never sitting in the shade
Of the strong mansion they have made;
Speaking their word of life with mighty tongue,
But hearing not the echo, million-voiced
Of brothers who rejoiced,
From all our river vales and mountains flung
So take them, heroes of the songful past!
Open your ranks, let every shining troop
Its phantom banners droop,
To hail earth's noblest martyrs, and her last.
To take them, O Fatherland!
Who, dying, conquered in Thy name;
And with a grateful hand,
Inscribe their deeds who took away Thy blame-
Give, for their grandest all, Thine insufficient fame!
Take them, O God! Our brave,
The glad fulfillers of Thy dread decree:
Who grasped the sword for peace and smote to save,
And dying here for freedom, died for Thee!
--Bayard Taylor

My last sketch closed with the announcement that after pursuing Bragg's army for nearly twenty miles on the day following the battle and capture of Missionary Ridge, orders had reached General Sherman's corps to retrace his march to the pontoon bridge across the Tennessee at the mouth of Chickamauga creek, and there, after supplying his soldiers with rations and ammunition to proceed with all haste to the relief of General Burnside's army, cooped up in Knoxville, and hemmed in on all sides by General Longstreet's Confederate corps that had in the previous September fought under General Brag at Chickamauga, and who after that fight had been detached from the Confederate army then engaged in holding the Federals within the confines of Chattanooga and the adjacent low lands of the immediate surroundings of that town. When the reader bears in mind that Sherman's corps had marched all the way from Memphis on the Mississippi river to Chattanooga; that fully one-half the men were almost wholly without shoes, they being worn out with the long tramp, and that they had only reached their destination in time to participate-in fact to open the battle of Missionary Ridge on General Grant's left-it is not to be wondered at that both officers and men were surprised that Sherman's corps, after its long and wearisome journey, had been selected to still continue their march for a distance of about one hundred and forty miles further. The tired men of Sherman's corps reasoned among themselves that the troops of the Cumberland having been so long confined to the town of Chattanooga and its immediate vicinity, would have been glad of the opportunity to go to Knoxville in the place of Sherman's men, as it would really have been a recreation for those who had been so long kept in such narrow limits.

The subject was considerably discussed among both officers and enlisted men, and I frequently overheard the troops talking over the question for two or three days afterwards. However it is no part of a soldier's duty to discuss the "whys or wherefores" of an order It was his duty to obey, no matter whether a blunder or mistake had been committed or not, and hence after the march towards Knoxville began, the men were as cheerful as ever, and one and all entered into the spirit of the duty to which the corps had been assigned-that being to relieve a force of our own army confined within the fortifications of Knoxville, with just sufficient rations within the works, which by the most careful husbanding was only sufficient to give each man about a quarter ration per day-that is, just a sufficient amount to keep starving men alive. Worn out with travel and almost barefoot as many of them were, I can look back to and remember the cheerfulness of the men, and that each day the corps marched on, ever increasing the number of miles per day, caused by the haunting fear that we might arrive too late to deliver them from capture.

General Longstreet was considered the most efficient officer in the Confederate army next to Gen. Robert E. Lee. This was not only his reputation among his own soldiers, but within the Federal lines a well, and the men well knew that Longstreet would be speedily be informed of Sherman's approach and make a determined effort to capture the half-starved defenders within the fortifications. In fact, he did make several attempts, but fortunately in each instance he was repulsed with heavy loss. If I mistake not, it was at Knoxville that telegraph wire first made its appearance as a means of defense. At any rate it was there that the Union troops stretched telegraph wire form stump to stump over the intermediate ground from whence an assault from the besiegers could come. This was done at about knee high and as it could not be seen in the onrush of a charge it would trip and throw the enemy sufficiently long that two or three volleys could be poured into them before they knew what caused the disaster. Many men fell to rise no more at this sort of a barricade-an invention, I think, of an Eastern Yankee from the "Nutmeg State." The march was through East Tennessee, a region noted clear through the war for its loyalty to the old flag; and it went to my heart to be compelled to forage in a region that had already been stripped by both armies of much of the supplies upon which these loyal Union men depended. On the proposition to secede from the Union by Isham G. Harris, Governor of the State, every county in the part known as East Tennessee, gave a large majority against going out of the Union, and some of them by a majority of 3,000, and before the war was over thirty-seven regiments were mustered into the Union service. I have often stated in talking about the war that there was just as much genuine loyalty in East Tennessee as there was in the same amount of territory in Indiana, and what is more, it meant much more to the Tennessean to espouse the Union cause than it did to any one in the northern states. It meant, indeed, that he risked his all, for his cabin, or whatever property he possessed, would be destroyed, and his wife and children, if he had either, would come under the ban of the opposing Confederate soldier, and be persecuted until they sought safety in flight.

In my last article I spoke of having captured sixty-five Confederates early in the morning following the battle of Missionary Ridge. Before starting on the Knoxville trip I had made the effort to turn them over to the provost guard, and for that purpose I went to General Blair's headquarters taking the prisoners along with me. General Blair at once refused to have anything to do with them and the talk over what should be done with them grew so warm, I asserting that I would not permit my men to "foot it" all day on a forced march, and then stand guard over prisoners at night, when they could just as easily be turned over to the proper officers and conveyed to Chattanooga, only six miles distance. I grew so insistent over this point that he threatened to put me under arrest and he was in no pleasant mood when I left him-nor I either, for that matter. I took my prisoners back with me, only about a mile distant where I had my own headquarters. The next morning at an early hour, as we were about to set out on a march to Knoxville I called up all the prisoners and told them what I intended to do; that I was not going to put a guard over them at all; but that they should march along with the men of the regiment and to forage for themselves just the same as my own men would have to do, and I then exacted a promise from each one that he would not endeavor to make his escape or to leave the regiment without my permission. It would be a surprise to my readers-even to some of those who were in the war-to know that all of those sixty-five prisoners kept their promise to the letter, and each one of them marched right along with the men of the regiment to the vicinity of Knoxville, and then returned with us to Chattanooga with not a man missing. I noticed that for the first day or two they were very reluctant about foraging and declined at first to enter a farm-house, cabin or smoke house, but about the third day, as hunger began to assert itself they grew more bold on this point and finally would go in right along with my own men. These men were turned over to other officers after our return to Chattanooga, and fully one-half of them after being with the Twelfth for twenty-one days, offered to enlist in my regiment; but as there was no authority to do this short of the Secretary of War, it was not done, and I was always sorry that it wasn't. The majority of them were from Western North Carolina, and some of them claimed that they were forced into the Confederate army. The morning they were entrained for Camp Chase, Ohio, where the Federal camp of Confederate prisoners was located, I was at the depot and every one of the sixty-five shook hands with me before starting, some of them with tears in their eyes, and once more they begged me to secure permission to join my regiment. They went to Camp Chase and I never heard from them more. I only hope that some of them are alive and may read this particular incident in my hastily written "War Sketches."

The trip to Knoxville was a severe one-a journey to test the pluck and endurance of the men making it to the last degree. It should be borne in mind that they were worn out and many of them almost barefoot from the long continued marching previous to arriving at Chattanooga to aid in opening up full communications with Rosecrans' army after the drawn battle of Chickamauga, and to once more supply that army with their full amount of a rations. This had now been done, and while the rations were not yet arriving in sufficient quantities to supply men and animals, yet the line was now once more open and entirely clear from Chattanooga to Louisville, and all that was required was sufficient cars to carry the supplies, stores and ammunition to the front. The orders assigning the Fifteenth corps to the duty of relieving General Burnside required that the march should be a rapid one as the conditions were such that Burnside's force, which had been on short rations for weeks might be compelled to surrender before Sherman's relieving expedition should get near enough to render aid to the beleaguered garrison-hence haste was not only necessary, but the troops were stripped of every impediment that might cause delay. The corps left the point where they had crossed the Tennessee, the day preceding the battle of Missionary Ridge in light marching order-so light, indeed, that not a tent was allowed to either officers or men of the various regiments.

The road to Knoxville was along the Tennessee river most of the way, and even when it was left at times the highway on which the troops marched was never far-distant from the stream. The Tennessee valley through which we passed was most beautiful, and previous to the war it could be plainly seen, that it had been under a high state of cultivation; the farms well fenced; and the general outlook resembled Northern farming to a greater degree than did any other locality in the South. While there was no special objection to slavery, yet that form of labor was almost unknown in East Tennessee, the farms being cultivated by whites almost wholly. Here and there an old and faithful slave could be found, at some of the wealthier homes; but these homes seldom held more than two and more generally only one colored person. This was very noticeable to the men composing the Fifteenth corps who had done duty down in Mississippi and in West Tennessee where the colored men held in bondage greatly outnumbered the whites.
Of course, after a few days had elapsed, the haversacks of the men well-filled at the start, were beginning to show an emptiness that boded short rations; and as a consequence forage parties were organized and sent out to gather up whatever would answer for food; and while this was fairly plentiful for a day or two, yet as we approached Knoxville-there is, after the troops had reached Greenville-the place where ex-President Andrew Johnson lived, and where his little square sign - "A. Johnson, Tailor"-was still nailed up over the door of a house on one of the principal streets and attracted much attention-supplies owing to previous ravages of both armies had grown remarkably scarce, and indeed the situation looked very gloomy for one never met, after that town was passed, either soldier or officer who was not more or less hungry. The need, however, to reach and attack Longstreet's troops in the rear, was so great a necessity that the men bore their hunger cheerfully, and willingly made big marches each day. I have already referred to the extreme want of shoes in Sherman's command after arriving at Chattanooga. As it was impossible to supply them after reaching that end of the march, it can be readily seen by the reader, that the necessity for a supply of shoes, was far greater up in the vicinity of Knoxville after the additional miles of marching had been made than ever before, and it was after passing Greenville that I found that the men had discovered a substitute for a worn-out pair of shoes that filled their place remarkably well. All readers of the history of the Revolutionary war will, of course, remember the untold and continued suffering of the Continental troops in their camp at Valley Forge near Philadelphia, where the scarcity of clothing was not ony very great, but almost all histories record the fact that owing to the want of shoes many soldiers left stains of blood on the snow during that long, wearisome winter-the gloomiest period of the War for Independence. During the march that I am describing after passing Greenville and in a country ravaged by friend and foe of every mouthful of sustenance for man and beast, I saw a large number of our own men whose footsteps could be marked over the frozen ground for the want of shoes and made by bleeding feet.

It was, too, at this point where I discovered the propensity of the soldiers in taking things as they come, and when anything was missing to provide something that would do for the purpose. To these inventive, cheerful sort of soldiers, the complete breaking down of a shoe, while to be regretted, for it meant bruised and cut feet as he tramped over the rough, frozen, snow-covered ground; yet it had to be borne unless something could be found to replace the shoe, and so as we neared Knoxville I saw many soldiers who had cut a piece sufficiently large for each foot out of a hide of a freshly killed beef, and putting his feet in the center of each piece he had drawn the side up all around his ankles, where it was tied with a string and as it was left on the foot it soon became dried and hard, but it fitted it so well that no corns worried him at all! It was, in fact, a wonderfully effective substitute, and many soldiers got back to Chattanooga wearing them all the way, and at that point they were supplied with new shoes.

Sherman's small army was now approaching Knoxville, the objective point of the expedition. This the men all knew, but if they had not known of its nearness the signs of the times all about them would have made it plain that something was in the wind. Orders came to close up the ranks of each regiment; to gather in all the loiterers, and to keep in ranks, etc., signs that meant much to the soldier, even though not a word had been spoken. Directly a halt came, and as I discovered that General Sherman and his staff was only a short distance to the front, and at the head of General Ewing's division, I rode over to catch some of the news that was evidently afloat and which caused the halt. It was while I was there that an officer followed by a couple of orderlies came flying across an open field, and I could guess by the large envelope he carried that he bore important news. He delivered the written message to General Sherman, who soon announced that General Burnside's missive was to the effect that during the past night General Longstreet had raised the siege and was twenty miles out on his retreat into Virginia! General Burnside very eloquently thanked General Sherman for coming to his assistance, stating that but for the arrival of his corps, threatening an attack upon Longstreet's rear had compelled that vigilant Confederate to get out of reach as quickly as possible, which he had done, marching all the previous night. Knoxville was so badly stripped of supplies that it was out of the question to permit a large body of hungry men to enter a town filled already with starving troops and citizens as well; so that we were ordered to go into camp right then and there, which was done. The next day brought the regular muster day for pay and even this formula was gone through with in a temporary sort of fashion for no company commander had his books or papers with him.

Right there I will leave the Fifteenth corps for a week and in my next recount its return to Chattanooga.

Warsaw Daily Times August 22, 1903

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