Three Times a Prisoner

My Third and Last Capture

By Reub Williams, Editor

The gloomy days of 1862 were upon the country. In portions of the Union a draft for troops had been made, and it was threatened all over the loyal portions of the land. The rebels had been very successful thus far. Buell, with the army of the Cumberland, was thrown back on Louisville, by the strategy of the rebel General Bragg, while, at the same time, Cincinnati was threatened by the forces under Gen. Kirby Smith, whose army, after the capture of the Federal forces at Richmond, Ky., was unimpeded to the Ohio river. Besides these rebel successes in the field, a secret oath-bound organization, composed of the disloyal element of the Northern States, had been formed and were not only actively engaged in neutralizing the efforts of the government to put down the rebellion by resisting the draft; discouraging enlistments in the Federal cause and encouraging desertions from the army, but were actually in secret correspondence with the rebel government at Richmond, Virginia. I have said these were gloomy days; the term does not express the situation as it really existed. Loyal hearts throughout the Northern States trembled for the safety of their country; disloyalty and treason stalked through the land, and in very many neighborhoods openly defied the government in its attempted enforcement of the draft, and treasonable utterances were as common, in some localities, as ordinary conversation. Added to the rebel successes came the Democratic victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois of that year, and the consequent turning over of these State governments to a party whose leaders openly avowed their sympathy with the Rebellion, and the reader will bear witness, I think, that the gloom which prevailed among the friends of the Union had good cause for its existence.

In reciting my second capture at Richmond, Kentucky, I left off after receiving the order of Gen. Lew Wallace to gather up the broken detachments and demoralized troops, that for three days following my arrival at Cincinnati, came pouring into that place, over the railroad track leading from Lexington, Kentucky, to the "Queen City." The pell-mell manner in which the Federal troops shed the soil of Kentucky from their feet after being paroled, left each in doubt and ignorance as to the fate of his comrades, and it was not until after all who were not killed or severely wounded, reached Indianapolis, that I was made aware of the escape of the two hundred of my own regiment, who up to this time, were among the dead, so far as any knowledge of them existed. After reaching the last named city, however, I learned of their arrival at Louisville, and immediately started for that place to ascertain who were still among the living. I here found a goodly number of the two companies that went from this county, under Captains Boughter and Wells, and learned for the first time that the Colonel of the regiment, William H. Link, who, with a number of other officers, including Henry Wescot, of this county, were among the mortally wounded, and had been left at Richmond to die. Both had received severe wounds in the thigh, and the former died a few days after the battle while Wescot lingered for some time, and finally lock-jaw set in, ending his sufferings some days later. I here learned what was afterwards demonstrated to me very often and that was, that a wound in the hip or thigh, with scarcely any exceptions, proved fatal to those receiving it, and it grew to be a feeling among soldiers that such a wound was almost as dangerous as a shot through the heart, the difference only being in the lapse of time previous to death.

I at once set about securing permission to remove the two hundred men of my regiment to Indianapolis, where those who had been paroled were ordered to rendezvous. This was quite a difficult matter; those who had escaped capture at Richmond, were, of course, just as much subject to military duty as they ever were, and as men were needed at this time, objections were made by superior officers against having them transferred. I was very much opposed to having my regiment broken up by having two hundred in the field, while the remainder were in the camps of the State, but finally, with the aid of Governor Morton, who was the soldier's friend, par excellence, and who sided with me in the matter, I finally got permission for those at Louisville to join me at Camp Morton, near Indianapolis, and where, in a short time, about five other regiments, who were soon after captured at Mumfordsville, were added to the number. The terms of the parole were only, that we should not take up arms until regularly exchanged, and hence, the troops in Camp Morton were at once organized; order was brought out of chaos, and each regiment was ordered to proceed at once in perfecting itself in drill and all the details pertaining to a soldier. The strictest discipline was kept up, and if I do say it myself, when news of an exchange came, at the end of three months, I doubt whether there was a body of better drilled men in the service on either side, than the ones then occupying Camp Morton.

The high tide of success, by which the rebel armies of Generals Bragg and Smith had been borne to the very shores of the Northern States, had reached its height, and the ebb had set in, carrying back with it the forces under those two able chieftains before the resistless, onward wave of the Northern Army, now relieved of the doubted and mistrusted Buell, and under the guidance of General Rosencrans, and hope was beginning to once more illumine the countenances of those whose sons, husbands, fathers and brothers were "at the front" fighting for the preservation of the Union. An expedition was being planned, that it was given out, could not fail to be of great service to the cause of freedom, and that its success was assured. The newspapers called it the "Castor Oil Expedition," from the fact, I suppose, that its principal object was to purge the Mississippi and open that highway to the Gulf. Early one morning in November, the glad news reached the camp that we were all exchanged, and a few hours later we received orders to hold ourselves in readiness for marching orders. Another hour, perhaps, passed by and marching orders came with the additional statement that the 12th (my own) and the 16th (Col. Lucas') regiments were assigned to the "Castor Oil Expedition," and would leave by rail the next day for Cairo, thence by boat for Memphis.

As I have before said, it is not my purpose to describe, in these sketches narrating my three captures, anything more than the incidents connected with my own mishaps, I pass over, in consequence, much that might be interesting to the general reader, if written in a readable style, leaving incidents of this character for future sketches if I should conclude to write more than this closing article of my "three times a prisoner."

At this time Gen. Grant's forces lay at Holly Springs, Mississippi, and consisted of an army of perhaps forty thousand troops. Gen. Sherman, with a large force, was on his way down the river from Memphis, and it was quite evident that the objective point of both these sagacious officers was Vicksburg, the forces of one moving by land with a view of striking the rear of that stronghold, and the other by water, with the intention of forming a junction near that point, and then operating as circumstances, based on superior military knowledge, would dictate.

Gen. Sherman was off in a fleet of boats, his destination being unknown save to those who had a right to be in the secret, while the army under Gen. Grant moved forward to Oxford, about fifty or sixty miles south of Holly Springs. Each inch of ground strongly contested by rebel cavalry, this movement of his army was necessarily slow. Being among the last of the troops arriving at Holly Springs previous to the southward march of the army, my own regiment was detached from the main forces, and I was ordered to guard the trestle-work bridge of the railroad over the Tallahatchie river, about twenty-five miles south of Holly Springs. My orders were verbal, and I was told to draw my supplies from the Commandant of the Post at the latter place. We went into camp; constructed the necessary works; put out our pickets, and as I had been ordered to be very vigilant, as it was more than probable that the rebels would, at almost any moment, make an attempt to destroy the bridge, I was very careful and watchful. At the end of the third day our supply of rations were exhausted, and I sent the Quartermaster of the regiment to Holly Springs by rail for the purpose of drawing a supply. He returned without any, the Commandant of the Post of Holly Springs not having received any orders that my command should be supplied from that point. On the next day I sent him again, with a note stating that the orders placing me in charge of the bridge were verbal, as well as were my orders that I should be supplied from his post. The Q. M. returned with no better success the second time than the first, but it must be understood that it took a whole day to make the trip, there being only one train of cars per day each way, and that all the time were were engaged in untying this knot of "red tape" the men of my command were subsisting on what wild hogs they could shoot in the woods, and the little corn they could find in a country already foraged over by two armies. On the return of the Q. M. the second time my "dander" was up some-what, and I resolved to go to Holly Springs myself the next morning, knowing the great amount of difference some officers set upon the kind of an emblem was enclosed within the borders of a shoulder-strap, whether it was an "eagle" or just a "cross-bar" at each end. I found just the kind of a case I expected to when I arrived in company with the Q. M. at Holly Springs, and it did not take me long to inform the individual in charge of the commissary stores that I had come for rations and that rations I was determined to have.

He was all obsequiousness when he saw I was in earnest about the matter, and I had an order for five days' supplies, and a detail of soldiers ordered to load them on the cars within a half-hour after my arrival. After seeing that everything was on board the cars ready to leave on the following morning at 7 a.m., myself and the Q. M. set about finding some place to stay all night, and finally succeeded in gaining the permission of an old Methodist exhorter to stay with his family.

Holly Springs was a most important point in the expedition to which I have referred; it was the depot to which had been gathered all the ordnance, commisary, and quarter-master stores previous to the advance of the army southward from that point, and besides it was still the headquarters of General Grant, where he had left everything except what was actually needed in the field, and the reader will at once perceive the necessity of holding it, when it was the base of such important military movements as were then taking place. Colonel Murphy, of the 8th Wisconsin the regiment which carried the eagle known as "Old Abe" clear through the war, and which is alive and well now in Madison, Wisconsin was in command of the place, and had a force of about eighteen hundred troops for the purpose of guarding it. This was about the middle of December, 1862. Myself and Q. M. had retired early to bed, calculating to be up early and get off with our supplies to the troops of my command, who were, by this time, suffering for them; but we were destined to disappointment as well as were the troops who, no doubt, were anxiously waiting for our return. At about four o'clock in the morning I was awakened by the sharp crack of a musket, apparently not far away; this was followed by a rapid discharge, and it did not take an instant for me to understand what was the matter. Leaping from the bed and hastily putting on my clothes, I rushed to the front door, just as the grey streaks of dawn were making things visible. A little girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, ran out on the veranda a moment or two after I reached it, and she was followed by her mother and father, both cowering with affright. Just at that moment, a troop of cavalry turned the corner of and discharged their carbines down the street on which the house we were in was located. I heard a faint scream, and only had time to catch the reeling form of the little girl from falling off the porch. Poor little thing; she was shot through the head, and lived only a half hour afterwards, so I was informed, after the affair was over. Nothing so affected me during the whole course of the war as the death of that little innocent child, and I hope never to again witness such a sight.

The affair of capturing the city was but work of a few moments. The rebel General Van Dorn, shortly afterwards killed by Dr. Peters for criminal intimacy with his wife had swooped down upon the town with about eight thousand cavalry, and captured the place, just because there was an incompetent, and for aught I know, a traitorous officer in command, for he had been warned twenty-six hours previously of the contemplated attack, and ordered to be in readiness to meet it. The result is soon told; all the Federal soldiers who were in the city were captured and paroled, and instead of being on the way back to my command, and making their hearts glad with the expected and much-needed supplies, I found myself once more a prisoner.

The first time I was captured, I was riled; the second time it occured, I felt bored; but this time I was humiliated. Three times I had met the rebels, and each time I had been taken prisoner. Had I been to blame in either case, I might not have taken it so much to heart; but I felt that I could not charge myself with anything of the kind. In the first two instances I could paliate the manner in which it was done somewhat; but that I should be made to suffer for the disgraceful, cowardly and ignominious conduct of an incompetent and unfaithful officer who had force enough at his command, and cotton bales enough in the public square to have made a barricade at each of its four corners to hold it against five times the force that captured the place without the firing of a gun in its defence, with timely notice, too, of the coming of the enemy was harassing to my feelings, and I then and there made up my mind that I would resign my commission as soon as I could find anybody's headquarters from whence it could be forwarded. It is true that Colonel Murphy was dismissed [from] the service just as soon as Gen. Grant whose army was thrown back on Holly Springs, and the plans of a whole campaign frustrated by his treacherous incompetency arrived in the place, the same afternoon, but that did not restore the liberty of those under his command. There they were, paroled prisoners, and many were the curses bestowed upon his head, and numerous indeed were the openly expressed wishes of his own troops, that Grant would hang him just as soon as he arrived in town. As I have noticed the regiment to which he belonged it is proper to say that Col. Murphy was on detached duty, and that his own regiment was down at "the front" with Grant at the time of the capture, and that there was never a stain cast upon them in consequence of the cowardly conduct of their Colonel.

I was sent with the balance of the Troops to Memphis, Tenn., and there, was placed in command of two boat loads of them and ordered to take them to Benton Barricks, near St. Louis, Mo. This I accomplished after a tedious trip of fifteen days, and I never looked back at this particular duty with any thing else than feelings of disgust. The men under my command being paroled, were perfectly unmanagable; there was not a musket on board to enforce orders, and I had to depend almost entirely on appealing to their sense of right and justice, and in numerous instances this was done in vain. I felt relieved of a great load when I turned them over to the commandant at Benton Barricks and got an order to report myself at Indianapolis.

I have said that I felt humiliated at this, my third capture. This feeling was not at all relieved by the numerous stories set afloat here at home in regard to the frequency with which I had been "taken in" by the enemy. Those opposed to the war here at home and I meet some of them every day even yet gravely shook their heads and with a knowing look would say, "There is something wrong with Reub's being captured so often." "There's rebel gold at the bottom of it, I'll warrant you," said another, and so they kept the thing going for some time. Before closing I must relate a little story that Ben Yohn, of Boydston's Mills, knowing my sensitiveness on the subject, was in the habit of telling whenever he could get me in a suitable crowd. Ben, it must be understood, in early days kept a store at Boydston's Mills, in this county, and, as is usual in the country, his assortment of goods consisted of almost everything that could be called for and, as it was the custom in those days, the inevitable "tangle-foot" formed a portion of his stock in trade. Ben was very careful in the dispensing of this commodity, as it was sold only for medicinal purposes, or in cases of emergency, such as "snake bite," for "loggings," and an occasional "raising." Ben had for a neighbor, a backwoods, illiterate sort of a fellow, whose special weakness for a "drop of the critter" was so well known, that it was necessary on his part to resort to strategy some times to gratify his taste for something stronger than water. Early one morning Ben found him at his door, jug in hand. In those days the marshes and prairies of this region were not as dry as they are now, and it was quite a common thing for cattle to mire in them beyond extrication if assistance was not at hand. Ben's neighbor told him that his little bull had got mired the night previous; that he had, with some neighbors, been working in the water up to their waists for some hours, and it was necessary that they should have some whiskey to drive off the ague that was sure to ensue, if a stimulant of some kind was not taken. The obliging Ben filled his jug, and off he went. The next morning bright and early, Ben was again roused from his slumbers with a knock at the door and a voice shouting to him, "Ben, that little bull is mired down, again!" accompanied with a request that his jug be filled once more, and again did the accomodating Ben. fill it up and started him on his way rejoicing. The next morning his neighbor once more presented himself, looking a little the "worse for wear," and with eyes somewhat swollen and red. "Ben," said he, "that little bull has mired down again, and d--d if I don't b'leeve he does it a purpose!" Yohn used to get this joke off on me, by way of illustrating the sentiment among the disloyal portion of the people of this county, in accounting for my being captured three times, with the most infinite zest, and being a very good story-teller, it is needless to say the joke was at my expense each time.

I have said that I was sensitive on the subject of my frequent captures and of my determination to resign my commission, but those who were in the army will readily perceive that the longer this was put off, the more reluctant I was to leave the service without making one more effort to be on the winning side in some battle, engagement or skirmish, and as I had been put in command of the two boat loads of paroled troops, immediately after the surrender of Holly Springs, and having no time after delivering them at St. Louis, I deferred the matter until I reached Indianapolis, when friends there dissuaded me from such a course, while, at the same time, I was receiving almost daily letters from officers and men in my own regiment, then at Grand Junction, Tenn., urging me to by no means think of such a thing. I yielded to their solicitations, and after remaining at home about four months was once more exchanged and left on the next train after receiving the news for my command, arriving there a few days previous to its transfer to Sherman's corps, and was ordered to Vicksburg, to join him in the operations around that city. From this time forward to the close of the rebellion, I was in no engagement that was not a triumph for our arms, and the proponderance of prisoners was on our side. So, although it can be said that I was "taken in out of the cold" by the "Johnnies" every time I met them, for the first three times, I had the good fortune to see the thing reversed, and witnessed the surrender of thirty-three thousand at Vicksburg; about six thousand at Jackson, Mississippi; thirteen or fourteen thousand at Missionary Ridge, and the capture there by the men of my command of the battle flag of the 6th Alabama regiment, which now occupies a place in my office under the colors of the first company that went from this county into the service with a constant stream of "greybacks" flowing to the rear of the Federal army all through the hundred days of fighting on the way to Atlanta; seven or eight thousand at Savannah, Ga., and finally the collapse of the rebellion by the surrender of all the forces under General Johnson near Raleigh, N. C.

Verily, I had my revenge in the prisoner line, even if I didn't get a good start. While I may in future numbers of The Indianian give its readers the particulars of other incidents, reminiscences, and scraps of unwritten history, I have only to say that this article concludes the first three that I agreed to write; and if they have been perused with satisfaction by any of the readers of this paper, however few, I shall feel satisfied that I concluded to write"Three Times a Prisoner."

Northern Indianian March 25, 1875

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