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 surround each soldier's name!
God rest them well! If today they come
And can see the hearts of us
Beat glad in tune with the throbbing drum,
Then their's is glorious.
--- Memorial Day

During the absence of the troops who had re-enlisted and had gone home on their thirty days' furlough, the picket duty was considerably heavier than it was previous to the departure for the reason that it had to be done with much fewer troops; after they were gone the duties remaining the same, if, indeed, they were not increased. Scottsboro, the headquarters of the division and also of the brigade, was located about five miles north of the Tennessee river, that stream flowing almost east and west through northern Alabama, as has already been stated, leaving a strip more or less wide, owing to the bends in the stream on the north side of the river. In this strip there was no armed bodies of Confederates during the winter of 1863-4; but it was well known that communication was kept up with the soldiers of the Confederacy, nearly all the young men having already enlisted in the Confederate army, although not all were gone, by any means. As a consequence a close watch was kept along the river by detachments of mounted men, and very often these troops found canoes and skiffs lined on the northern bank, having evidently been used by citizens or soldiers in the Confederate ranks in revisiting their families on our side of the Tennessee. The orders were to destroy all these boats and that a stricter watch should be kept as these visiting soldiers were no doubt acting as spies as well as visitors to their homes. Whether this was so or not, I am not prepared to say. Of necessity these visits had to be made in the night time, and it always struck me that but little -if, indeed, there could be any -information of any particular value gleaned by a night-time visit by those who had to be very wary in being seen about their homes. However, the orders were quite strict on the subject and it was only a short time after the departure of the troops that had gone home on their furlough that I received an order to gather up all horses possible and make up a detachment for the purpose of making a thorough examination of the country that lay between the Memphis and Charleston railroad and the Tennessee river. The number of horses permitted in each infantry regiment is never very large, only the field and staff; with perhaps a dozen non-comissioned officers, including the orderlies; so that an estimate of about fifteen or twenty men to a regiment would probably be a fair one.

The One-Hundredth Indiana Infantry, at that time commanded by Major Ruel M. Johnson, late of Elkhart, Indiana, Lieutenant-Colonel Albert Heath, having been sent home after his severe wound from a shell at the battle of Missionary Ridge. He also was from Elkhart, and both these officers are now "assembled" on the other side, Lieutenant-Colonel Heath "crossing over the river" about fifteen years ago and Colonel Johnson afterwards succeeding to the position held by him, after the close of the Atlanta campaign and commanding the regiment till the close of the war. Colonel Johnson's demise occurred less than two years ago, and I want to say of him that he was one of the most gallant and soldierly men that entered the service from northern Indiana. He was, besides, a warm personal friend of the writer of these "War Memories," and a most cordial feeling was held by each until death put an end to all earthly friendship, and few of my intimates during the war days have been held in higher esteem by myself than Colonel Ruel M. Johnson, and this warm feeling was mutual, for many times have I heard through friends of both of us of the high terms of praise he always used in speaking of myself as a soldier and his own brigade commander. The friendship continued up till his death, and I can truthfully say, I have deeply mourned his early "taking off."

The One Hundredth, at the time I received the order to make a scout all through the region that had been assigned to the brigade to watch and guard, was located at Bellefont, the seat of justice of the county in which that town was located, but as has been heretofore stated in these columns that soon after the war Scottsboro had been made the county seat by the State legislature. Bellefont was a very old town and it contained a number of quaint and curious, but very comfortable old-fashioned houses, and Colonel Johnson had a very desirable one of these for his headquarters. In obedience to my instructions, and in order to secure as many mounted men as possible I had started to Bellefont with all the horses and riding mules that my own and the Ninetieth Illinois regiment could furnish, and at that point I expected to obtain at least thirty more. I was more fortunate than I expected to be at Colonel Johnson's headquarters, for he was able to mount thirty-two men. This made a force of about seventy-five men altogether, and although not a large one, amply sufficient for the object in view, which was to cover the ground between the railroad already referred to and the Tennessee river and arrest and take to camp everybody I could find able to bear arms, excluding women and children, of course. The country was thinly settled and in many places layers of rock cropped out of the ground, and as we moved at a rapid gait, these rocks, many of them worn as smooth as a floor by wind and water, made horseback riding often difficult and dangerous to infantry soldiers, unaccustomed to riding.

Colonel Johnson accompanied the detachment furnished by his regiment, and although it was really unnecessary for either him or myself to go along with the raid and each could have delegated the command to subordinates just as well as not, both of us entertained the same view and went along with the novelty of the affair and to relieve to some extent the tedious monotony of camp life. Of course, the horses and mules used on such occasion were wholly unacquainted with any sort of drill which would not have been the case had the command been composed of cavalry. It was not only after the troops left Bellefont until those who knew the ground informed us that the advance guard was nearing the river, and so I ordered the men to be very quiet; to move forward at a walk and keep themselves and horses hidden behind the intervening clumps of undergrowth that was quite abundant as the detachment neared the river. There was quite a bend in the stream at the point reached from which quite an extended view could be had both up and down the Tennessee, and on arriving sufficiently near the stream the command was halted and a couple of soldiers belonging to the Hundredth were sent forward alone to ascertain if there were any boats or canoes in sight or anything to be seen of men crossing the stream from either side. They had scarcely got into position until one of them crawled back to the head of the column with the information that two boats, one a canoe and the other a skiff had apparently just landed on the north side of the stream below, and as near as they could make out a couple of horses were to be seen on the bank near by. Colonel Johnson asked for the privilege of taking charge of a detail to secure the horses before the strangers themselves could reach them, and accordingly he took about six men and quietly arranged to get to the tied-up horses about the same time the men from the boats could do so. The main body moved close to the river and as the two men discovered the larger party first they at once rushed for the horses and reached them at about the time that colonel Johnson did, the affair resulting in taking them prisoners without a short being fired from either side. The two boats had been pulled partly out of the water and our men soon destroyed each one of them by lifting large stones as high as they could reach and letting them drop on the bottoms of each one. The skiff was easily broken in pieces, but the canoe withstood several similar attempts before the bottom fell out.

The two prisoners were taken in charge, both of them claiming that they were citizens living on the south bank of the Tennessee and had only crossed over to get some food and medicines, if possible for the relief of a sick family that lived on the southern side of the river. Their story was probably true, but as my orders were strict they were sent back to Bellefont for further examination after the return of the expedition. The order to destroy all means of communication used in crossing the river was general, and the boats would have been broken up whether any one had been found near them or not. the expedition proceeded on its way and about an hour after it was resumed its march the advance guard discovered two mounted men to whom they gave chase leaving one of their number to wait until the main column came up, it only being a short distance behind. As soon as the information was given the whole number of troops were ordered to move forward at a gallop and join in the chase. As long as the fleeing individuals remained in a region covered with undergrowth they were comparatively free from discovery: but Colonel Johnson had scouted all around his camp when first located at Bellefont in order to learn the lay of the land, for he was a very careful and an efficient soldier, and he informed me that in the direction the men were fleeing they would soon be on open ground and easily captured. Sure enough, the detachment soon emerged into a region almost entirely free from all kinds of undergrowth and the advance guard reported the men in sight and riding as far as their horses could carry them. The order was given to chase them at full speed, and I presume it would have been a fine sight to a spectator having nothing else to do but look on and see the helter-skelter pursuit after the two fleeing men. Some horses would stumble and throw the men mounted upon them over their heads. some of the men also, were so unaccustomed to riding on horseback that their pantaloons were pushed up to their hips, they presenting an appearance of almost anything else than of skillful horsemen in pursuit of an enemy--one, in fact, that would have made such superb cavalry officers as a Sheridan or a Custer, grit their teeth at such an untidy appearance on the back of a horse. I have already stated that in the region near the river, some of the rock--acres of it, in fact--was entirely free from soil of any kind, and it was soon after the chase began that the main body rushed upon such a piece of country. I remember that when it was first struck my own horse, owing to the speed he was going "slid" on all four feet for a distance of thirty feet on the smooth rock, before he could recover himself. this fact was established on the return of the troops as one of the solders who had seen it measured the ground by the scratching of the horse's almost brand new shoes on the solid rock. It was at this point that many of the infantry, unused, as they were to horseback riding met their "Waterloo" for more than a dozen of them were thrown from their horses.

The pursuit was continued by those who remained mounted on the more speedy animals, and after a long chase both were captured, and when the raid was over they were sent under guard to Huntsville, the headquarters, the particulars of their capture having been made out in writing and forward with the men. Whatever became of them I do not know. They were probably kept in the guard rooms there for some time and then dismissed. My own idea about them was that they may have been a couple of confederates making an effort to see their families living north of the river. Even had they been spies there was no way in which they could gain any information that would or could prove damaging either to the army then occupying the line of the Memphis & Chattanooga railroad or have any effect on the general result. During the war I knew of quite a number who were similarly treated and allowed to go their own way after their capture without a trial and after the war was over, it was better that it should have turned out that way than to have hung them as spies, even though the proof might be forthcoming. Surely few Federal officers nor the men composing the vast body of troops in the field could be accused of cruelty towards their captured enemies. On the contrary, I have often seen the men, of my own command share the last scrap of rations they possessed with newly captured prisoners. Indeed, this was generally the case, and I have never seen or heard of a hungry prisoner when there were means at hand to supply his wants, and as a rule the Federal soldier would divide his last piece of "bacon" or "hard-tack" when he well knew that the commissary wagon might not catch up for the next two days.

During those days of waiting for the return of spring and also of the regiments that had gone to their homes on their promised thirty days' furlough there were many ways for putting in the time. I often made visits to General Logan's headquarters at Huntsville, if I remember aright about sixty miles west of Scottsboro, sometimes accompanied by major E. D. Baldwin, of the Twelfth, and sometimes other officers--one other occasion I remember that Captain Ed. H. Webster and Marsh H. Parks formed a part of the visiting company. Both of these young men were gallant, generous-hearted and intelligent soldiers. Captain Webster had been lifted out of F where he was a Second Lieutenant to be Captain of A company, and at that time the late Marsh H. parks, then the Sergeant-Major of the Twelfth, was awaiting his promotion as Adjutant, the news having been received that Jared D. Bond, the first Adjutant who was so seriously hurt by a splinter from a tree hitting him on the side of the head as he sat on his horse at the battle of Missionary Ridge, had resigned, and I had recommended Parks for the position. the commission came about the time that the "veteranizing" regiments began to return on the expiration of their furlough. It was during one of these visits to Huntsville that Major Baldwin and myself witnessed a horrible accident--one of the kind that in looking back to the war and the constant handling of powder in kegs, in cartridges and shells--is a never-ceasing wonder under the circumstances that they were so few. Baldwin and myself had gone to the depot after a day and a night's visit at Huntsville, where we had gone to hear the celebrated actress Julia Daily. The depot was situated well out on the north side of the town and we were awaiting the hour for the train to depart for the east and to Scottsboro, our own camp. The train was due to start a few minutes after 9 o'clock in the morning, and as we reached the depot we noticed a full battery of artillery going out to some open fields at the north of the town for drill. Bot of us knew the officers of the battery quite well, and two of them rode over to us for the purpose of shaking hands. It was at this moment that the wheels of the leading caisson of the battery struck the rails of the road and in an instant there was a flash as of vivid lightning, and a jar followed that almost compelled the belief that we ourselves had been shocked from the bolt; but the screams of the dying horses, mingled with the groans of the wounded men, soon assured us of our own escape as well as of the officers referred to. The havoc was fearful. Both the men whose place it is to sit on the seat of the caisson had been blown into fragments; the span of horses next to the wheels had been almost wiped out of all semblance of what they were before the explosion, and the rumps of both the horses in the lead had been blown away. Up in a tree standing near the spot where the road crossed the railroad tracks at a height of sixty feet, was the main trunk of a man with mangled fragments clinging to the limbs of the same tree. It was a fearful sight indeed, and was brought about by the careless packing of the shells in the caisson. I cannot now remember, but if I am correct there were four men killed outright, four horses also, and of the latter several more were so severely hurt that they had to be shot to put them out of their misery. The number of wounded men was seven, and it can almost be set down as a certainty that but for the two officers riding aside to speak to Major Baldwin and myself, they, too, would have been among the killed or wounded, for the place of one of them on such a march would have been right at the side of the caisson that had exploded, and the other would not have been far distant.

On another occasion Major Baldwin and myself got a seven days' pass to Nashville, the capital of Tennessee--a very gay city after it fell into the hands of the Federal army, and Northern people by the thousands visiting the place, and many others going into business, and thus making the town very lively, with the constant arrival of troops from the North and its crowded streets, a livelier, busier place than it ever was in times of peace and before the war. Nashville is a very pretty place, too, and since the war it has been making a steady advance in everything that goes to make it an important tow. During all the war it was the great congregating place for officers and men on their way either to their regiments, or for those going home, the city being the principal starting point. We greatly enjoyed the visit and especially the change in rations: for, to tell the truth, the army ration, from its sameness, will pall upon the taste of most men, and it was the dining at a first-class restaurant or hotel that suited us the best of anything we found in the city. A soldier longs for fresh vegetables and I remember that it was in February when we were there; too soon for early vegetables, except onions and radishes procured at the hot-houses of the North, and on one occasion I remember that our bill for a single dinner for these two articles was $4. We knew just what they were to cost before they were orderd as the price was set down for every article on the menu and at $4 for radishes and onions, the reader can perceive that we must have been quite hungry for them, or else the price was put up for the occasion; when however, we found that a single piece of rye-bread was placed at 20 cents that reconciled us somewhat and we could see that four dollars' worth of radishes and onions at a "single sitting" was not out of proportion to the bread, at any rate.

Warsaw Daily Times, Sept. 19, 1903

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