Company A., 40th Illinois Voluntary Infantry

Part III

Pontoon Bridge
From The Library of Congress

           Arriving at Stephenson, Alabama, we crossed the Tennessee River on a pontoon bridge, the Johnnies having burned the railroad bridge.  We now ascended raccoon mountain and went down into the valley between it and Lookout Mountain.  We were now in the immediate vicinity of, and in plain view of the enemy’s observing videts.  Stringent orders had been issued prohibiting firing guns unless in actual contact with the enemy.  But some of the boys, Uncle Perry Kelley among the others, found some sheep.  Their desire for mutton was so strong they could not resist the temptation.  Unable to capture them by ordinary peaceable ways they determined to have a sheep anyhow, took their chances and blazed away.  The guards were soon after them.  They were captured and each sent to his commanding officer for punishment.  Uncle Perry was brought in and turned over to Major Hall.  Perry being one of the best of soldiers the Major made his punishment as light as possible, ordered him to stand on a large stump for one hour.  The boys would pass around and bleat like a sheep, bah, bah.  It was funny to them.  Perry laughed it off very complacently.  He knew, as we all did that it was only a question of time when he would have the laugh back on some of them.

            We now went up onto a gap in Lookout Mountain in the rear of the rebel army, built fires, whooped and yelled, and had the bands play as if reinforcements were continually coming up.  This was on the night of November 21, 1867, and was done to create a diversion in favor of Hooker who was to assault and take Lookout Mountain.  On the 24th this movement of Hooker was handsomely and brilliantly executed and constitutes the famous battle “above the clouds”.  I was on picket guard duty that night.  It rained as if the very windows of the heavens were opened.  My associate that night was comrade William Cook of our company.  As we stood there in the pitchy darkness, the rain mercilessly pouring down, we talked of almost every thing.  Comrade Cook rather saddened me by declaring that he believed we were going to get into battle shortly, that if we did he felt he was going to be killed.  By every argument of which I was master I tried to disabuse his mind of this idea, but all to no purpose.  The premonition that he was to be killed was so deeply and firmly implanted in his mind that no argument that I could think of could remove it.

            Next morning, still raining, we started on our back track down Lookout Valley.  Keep in mind that it rained all night, and that it rained all next day.  A small stream hardly large enough to bear the dignity of the name creek, zigzagged from one mountainside to the other with wearisome regularity.  In this day’s march it was said by someone who claimed to have kept tally, that we crossed this stream thirteen times.  In depth it was all the way from the knees to the waist as we plunged in and waded through.  Our pants were as completely plastered from above the knees down with that sticky, gummy clay as though it had been done with a mason’s trowel.  We kept on our weary, dark and muddy way until about 10 o’clock in the night.  O! My!  How dark it was!  But few of us escaped a fall that night.  Many of the expressions made that night, especially about the time some fellow would hit the ground were more inelegant than poetical.  When we finally halted for the night I learned somehow, probably from that element of instinct characteristic of our kinship to the animal creation, that a pond of water was nearby.  Darkly, instinctively, but true as a compass, I went straight to it, waded in and washed off most of that plastered mud.  I then went up to where the boys had made a fire of the “top rails” of a fence.  By this time it was snowing about as hard as I ever saw it snow, even in Illinois.  For awhile I tried standing around the fire and drying my clothing, but it soon began to get muddy and sloppy around the fire.  I drew back a few yards, spread down my poncho, lay down on one half and drew the other half over me and with my cartridge box for a pillow was asleep in a few moments.  The reader may think at first that it was strange, exceedingly strange that anyone could compose himself and sleep soundly amid the surroundings just described.  But when you remember that we had been on the tramp for twenty days, had no sleep or rest the preceding night, were up all night in the rain marched all day in the rain, wading a creek thirteen times, water-soaked to the skin, then astonishment will yield to wonder that we did not even go to sleep while walking along.  I have seen this happen in at least one instance.  When I awoke it was clear, the sun shining warm, bright and beautiful, not a vestige of snow to be seen.

            This day we had charge of a large wagon train conveying rations and forage to the starving army of General Thomas, who had succeeded Rosecrans in command of the army of the Cumberland.  We trudged and labored along with the train all day and until about midnight, prying and lifting them out of mud holes.  About midnight Major Hall, former captain of our company, now in command of the regiment, received a message informing him that the great fight would come off on the morrow, that if he desired to participate he must drop everything and join the brigade at once.  Accordingly he took possession of the boat that was ferrying the wagons over, crossed the regiment over the river and joined the brigade about 3 o’clock the morning of the 24th.  Getting a bite of breakfast we were set across the river again in pontoon boats.  This placed us on the same side of the river as Chattanooga and the Federal as well as the Confederate army.  During this misty, cloudy day we could partly see and hear the famous “battle above the clouds”, Hooker taking Lookout Mountain.  We could hear the cannons fire and often see the flash of the guns through the clouds.  We maneuvered around considerably during the day and late in the evening captured an advanced line from the enemy on a spur of Tunnel Hill, or Missionary Ridge.  We passed the night here.  What a night it was!  We could not stay on top of the spur as there we would be in plain view of the enemy and in range of their guns.  The side of the hill was so steep that it was almost impossible to sleep without rolling or scooting down the hill, a very steep declivity.  I scooted down the hill once so far that when I awoke I was completely lost from my company.  When I found them again I lay down astride a bush which held pretty well in place.  It cleared off during the night and next morning the sun arose and greeted us in all its beauty and splendor.  It was destined, however, that day to look down on a scene of terrible carnage and slaughter among human beings.

            At this time five companies of our regiment were away on detached mounted duty.  The five companies present for duty had a numerical strength of about 130 men.  Early in the morning we were deployed in line and sent forward to feel and develop the enemy.  Crossing the intervening hollow we ascended Tunnel Hill, capturing their advanced line of breast works.  Had our support come up at that time, as they should have done, there is no question in my mind but that we would have gone over their principal line of works as easily as we had their first line, thus doubling back their right wing and have terminated the battle in the morning instead of in the evening as was done.  For some inscrutable reason our support failed to appear, the enemy finding there were but few of us came out of their works and we had to withdraw a short distance, covering and protecting ourselves as we best could in the timber.  Facing about we made it so hot for them they were glad to crawl back into their works.  In this first engagement two men of our company were killed John Miller and Robert J. Atwood.  The latter being killed inside the rebel works.  Neither of them had ever been under fire before and consequently did not know how to properly protect themselves.  In this preliminary bout I had a very close call.  When we reached the works I was almost out of breath from climbing the mountain side.  I squatted behind the works to get my breathing machine going properly.  I could hear the boys spatting away, and I thought I would peep over and see what they were shooting at.  A “sun of a gun” of a rebel was lying behind a log fifteen or twenty feet distant, and when I raised my head above the logs he blazed away at me.  He shot a little quick.  However good his intentions, his aim was faulty.  He hit the log right under my face, filling my eyes and face with bark and dust.  If you ask, “did I dodge?” I answer, verily, I surely did!  I scratched the bark and dust out of my face and eyes as quickly as I could, intent on looking after the future welfare of that Johnnie, but alas!  Someone had already got him.  After shooting at me he had jumped up and started to run when Jasper Darnell, or Wm. C. Moore, one or the other, maybe both, terminated his earthly existence and relieving me of any further trouble with him.

            While we were waiting for our supports to come up the rebels were busy strengthening their lines in our front, no doubt strongly impressed with the idea that our movements portended a turning of their right flank.  This weakening of their center to strengthen their right gave General Thomas his opportunity to strike their center.  I distinctly saw from ten to fifteen battle flags, representing an equal number of regiments march up to our front.  We knew this meant obstinate, hard bloody work for us when we should be thrown against them again.  After what seemed an interminable delay our support came up in view.  General Corse, who afterwards became famous for his defense of Altoona, Georgia, and from which circumstance (General Sherman signaling him to hold the Fort, he was coming) originated the popular song “Hold the Fort for I am coming”, came to us and director Major Hall to select twenty or thirty of his best shots and send them forward as sharp shooters, himself personally requesting us to make it particularly hot for the cannoneers.  I was among the number selected.  We worked our way carefully forward directing our fire mostly at the cannons, which were so situated as to enfilade our line.  The bugler sounded the charge and here came our regiment followed by the support further behind.  Reaching the line we had taken in the morning, the fire of the enemy seemed to be too hot for them and the supporting column stopped.  Our boys by this time were well up to the enemy’s works and were meeting a perfect “hell of fire”, the boys dropping here, there and everywhere.  I remember standing sidewise to a little black jack sapling, loading and firing like a Trojan.  One cannon was sending compliments to us in the form of “Grape and Canister” as fast as it could be worked, notwithstanding we were pouring in a galling, withering fire into the men operating it.  When one was disabled another supplied his place.  One discharge from that gun hit the ground just in front of me.  The next just behind me.  I momentarily expected the middle to be knocked out and me with it.  Fortunately for me they did not hit the man in the middle.

            The fighting now was terrific.  It seemed to me that every limb, twig and even the small stones and gravel were in a perfect commotion.  It was no matter of wonder that so many were being shot down.  What excited my curiosity was how any could escape unscathed.  I was among those unfortunates who received wounds, being shot in the left wrist and put out of the fight.  I gave my gun to a comrade who had gotten his choked.  Major Hall, observing I was wounded signaled me to go to the rear.  The signal was used because nothing could be heard in the din and roar of battle.  Firing was so intensely hot at this time that it was almost equivalent to death to expose one’s self.  I waited for the firing to slacken a bit and when it did so I made a dash for the rear.  I confess to going with considerable celerity.  It was too dangerous to go otherwise.  Down a steep grade I went at a two forty clip.  I came across our surgeon, Dr. Graham, who examined my wound, gave me a drink of brandy and told me how to reach the field hospital.  Reaching the place what a sight met my eyes.  Men were there shot and mangled in every conceivable manner.  I wish I could describe that scene so you could see it as I saw it that day.  I know I cannot and therefore shall not attempt it.  My wound began to pain me, the pain apparently going to my heart, was almost agonizing.  I saw it would be impossible to conceal my suffering.  Many others were much worse wounded than myself and uncomplaining, so to avoid making a public spectacle of myself I walked off where I could be alone, and there I remained until the intensity of my pain wore off.

            From this place we were transferred to the Corps Hospital.  I now learned more of our company’s fatalities.  Among the killed were Miller and Atwood, whom I have already mentioned, Mort Hall, and William Cook, the comrade who had the premonition of his approaching death, which I have already related.  I do not know what my reader will think of “premonitions”.  I scarcely know what I think myself.  However, in the case I have told you about there seems to have been some overshadowing destiny or fatality, and comrade Cook had (to say the least of it) a semi consciousness of his approaching end.  The fact that the comrade went almost entirely through the battle safely and was then killed by one of our own cannons, makes the case, if possible, still more remarkable.  This most sad and unfortunate accident was caused by the dropping of a shot from one of our batteries which had been firing over our heads.  Among the wounded was C. A. Johnson, O. P. Kelley, Thomas and Jasper Darnall, J. H. Flannigan, L. A. Johnson, myself and others whom I cannot call to mind.  Our company’s loss in killed and wounded amounted to more than half of those present in the fight.  At the hospital, I being able to be up and around, witnessed many gruesome sights – the surgeons amputating fingers, toes, legs and arms, until great boxes would be filled and carted off for burial.  I call to mind one poor fellow who belonged to the 6th Iowa.  His thigh bone had been shattered close up to his body.  He refused to have his leg amputated.  His surgeon protested and argued with him kindly and gently, telling him that his life was at stake, that he might survive an operation, but that without one he was bound to die.  He listened quietly and complacently, but firmly and flatly refused an operation, telling his surgeon that he thought he could not survive after being cut half into, that if he died he would take his leg with him, if he survived he would have it with him also.  Personally, I do not know, but subsequently I learned that he recovered. 

            It was now decreed that those who were only slightly wounded would be given a furlough and sent home.  Among those thus favored from our company was  J. H. Flannigan, L. A. Johnson, and myself.  I did not feel that I had any particular desire to go home at this time, my mother having died since I was last there.  Yet, I supposed I had about as well be there as anywhere else so I accepted a furlough and started home with the other boys.  I remember that on the first day we got as far as Stephenson, Alabama, where we had first crossed the Tennessee River on our way to Chattanooga.  I have told you that the Johnnies had burned the railroad bridge at this place.  It was now in process of reconstruction.  When we got on the train next day they frightened me considerably by backing out on the unfinished bridge carrying rails for adjustment by the workmen.  It looked as though they would push us off into the river, one hundred feet below.  We stayed over in Stephenson one night, paying the fellow who claimed to be running a hotel seventy five cents each for the privilege of sleeping on our own blanket on the floor, in a room reeking with dirt and vermin in endless variety.  Railroad travel at the time of which I write was slow and very uncertain.  The Government was bending every effort to the suppression of the rebellion.  Everything, even travel on the railways and rivers was subordinated to the necessities and requirements of the Federal authorities, so our journey home was very tedious requiring about four days to reach Tamaroa, Illinois.  We were delayed at Nashville and at Louisville, made a detour away out into Indiana, eventually reaching Tamaroa.  Here we stayed over night with and uncle of comrade Johnson.  Next morning we were all bustle and anxiety to get started on our way home.  The old gentleman, comrade Johnson’s uncle, had an old rattle trap of a wagon and team he desired to send to his farm in the neighborhood to which we were going.  In the kindness and magnanimity of his great loyal heart, (I use the word loyal advisedly, the reader may invert the proposition if he desires and will doubtless be nearer the truth than I was), and prompted possibly by a noble, praiseworthy desire of contributing something to the cause of his country, at the same time avoiding the humiliating necessity of having to pay some one to do the job, he made us the very liberal proposition of letting us ride in the old shackeldy wagon, drive his team out to his farm, paying him the modest sum of only five dollars.  We all felt that even this wonderful liberality placed a severe strain upon his magnanimity.  He looked as if he felt he had made a mistake (after our ready acceptance of his offer), that he could as easily have gotten ten dollars as he did the five.

            It was now December.  There had been much rain and the roads were desperately muddy.  A sudden cold squall had supervened, rendering the roads very rough.  So much so indeed, that we chose to walk most of the time, preferably to riding in the old wagon.  On the way we fell in with Old Uncle Braxton Parrish of Benton, Illinois, an M. E. minister.  I was well acquainted with him and had heard him preach many, many times.  He was a genial, sociable old gentleman, loyal and patriotic to the core.  I enjoyed his association very much.

            We arrived at Benton in the afternoon.  I had lived in Benton for three years preceding the war and knew almost everybody in the town.  Benton had some inhabitants who had a very unsavory reputation for loyalty.  In fact some were so outspoken in their opposition to the further prosecution of the war, that their utterances were deemed treasonable and they had been arrested and imprisoned as enemy’s of the Government under whose protection they lived.  W did not tarry long in Benton, resuming our journey towards home.

            Considerably after nightfall we arrived at Uncle Demetrius Johnsons, who then lived on what is now called “Knob” in Knob Prairie.  He was the father of Marcus Johnson, the circumstance of whose death has already been chronicled.  It was here I met his young widow, and as before related, the lines of sorrow were so strongly in evidence, her grief so deep and poignant, that I almost repented of the opportunity of seeing her.

            A little further on comrade Flannigan and I separated from comrade Johnson.  We were getting near home and our roads diverged.  I went with comrade Flannigan and comrade Johnson by himself.  His home was on a southeasterly course from where we separated, while ours was northeasterly.  Jim and I arrived at his mother’s house at probably two or three o’clock in the morning.  Jim had never been home since his enlistment.  Of course his folks were extremely glad to see him and—well, I am not going to tell what they did when they fully aroused and found out for sure that Jim was certainly there.  His wife was at a neighbor’s house, but was sent for, and that is all I am going to tell about it.  I was a comparative stranger to all  but Jim and his elder sister, yet I was received and treated with the utmost kindness and courtesy.  After breakfast I continued my journey to the settlement where my own relative lived.

            I did not enjoy my sojourn at home this time as well even as I had on the previous occasion.  My mother’s absence saddened me beyond expression.  Notwithstanding, everyone treated me kindly and seemingly tried to make me feel welcome, yet I longed for the time for our return.  In a measure I enjoyed the association of the young people.  I knew I had to back and somehow I felt that the sooner I got back the better reconciled I would be.  At home a soldier was considered a Hero, and much adulation and honor was bestowed upon him.  Those of us who had the bump of modesty largely developed were often caused to blush at the homage paid us by the good, loyal patriotic people of Illinois.  Do not let this statement lead you to think that all the people of Illinois were loyal and patriotic.  Some, even in our own county and precinct, we were told, were not only not loyal but absolutely disloyal.  Quite a number, it was said, were actually in secret opposition to the Government, and to further prosecution of the war against our (their) brethren of the south – meeting in conclaves and conventions, resolving that not “another man or another dollar should be given to prosecute this unholy war against our (their) brethren of the south.”  We were further reliably informed that they had, and were having and holding secret lodges under the name of Whangdoodle, Knights of the Golden Circle, etc. etc., in which to consider more perfect ways of opposition to the administration.  In the presence of soldiers these very fellows were all to goody good for any thing.  I really believe that some of them possessed a sufficient amount of self respect to be actually ashamed of themselves.  We of the army had heard many bad stories of their doings and saying and as a consequence were greatly embittered against them.  I assure you, they received a most decidedly cold shoulder from us.  As a rule they were treated with the utmost contempt and scorn.  Some even tried to tantalize and aggravate them into saying or doing something in the open, evidently with the purpose of affording them an excuse and opportunity to decrease the male population of the community.  On several occasions these designs came perilously and dangerously near realization.  I remember one night while at home this time, I was at Uncle Armstead Hunt’s.  About dark Jim Flannigan and Alf Moore came to our house, said they had heard there was to be a meeting of the “Copper heads”, “Whangdoodles”, “Knights of the Golden Circle” lodge at Mellonville, now called Flint.  We all loaded up our guns.  Uncle Armstead kept a pretty good second rate armory in those days, caught out our horses, that is Jasper and I did, and off us four went to Crackers Neck to find the lodge.  We searched in every place it was possible to hold such a meeting, but no lodge could be found.  If we had found such a gathering it may go without saying, somebody would most assuredly have had occasion to regret that coming together.

            However, finding no one we went to a frolic – a regular “Arkansas hoe down”, - the first one I had ever been to in my life, although past nineteen years of age.  It was a rather droll, comic proceeding to me.  There were but few persons present whom I had ever seen before, and only one young lady that I knew.  Some old married men were there whom I thought would have been more in the place at their home fireside.  I took no part in the dancing.  I had never danced a reel as they called it, or a cotillion in my life, nor did I until after I had voted.

            One more incident of this trip.  The little mementos and keepsakes of comrade Cook, who was killed in the battle of Missionary Ridge, had been preserved.  When I started home they were entrusted to my care for delivery to his wife.  I readily accepted the trust, giving the matter no special thought.  Subsequently, however, with a full knowledge of all the trust and delivery carried with it, I should have hesitated to undertake it.  It was some time after I had reached home that I concluded one morning to discharge my obligation to my deceased comrade and his sorrowing wife.  Mrs. Cook lived probably a mile from Uncle Armstead Hunt.  It was from his house that I undertook the journey accompanied by Jasper, Uncle’s youngest boy.  I had given no thought to the serious side of my visit until after we had started.  Then I began to reflect over my mission.  What would she do?  The thousand and one questions she would ask me.  All came to me so vividly now that if there had been any chance to retreat, any possible way of avoiding the unpleasant fulfillment of my obligation, I certainly should have taken advantage of it.  When I came in view of her house, I saw her step to the door.  She had heard of my being at home and had an inkling of my intended visit and its object.  She remained standing in the door until I walked into the yard, then jumped out in the yard, threw up both hands and gave a scream that I can almost hear now.  She was about to fall.  I took her by the arm to prevent her falling.  She partially recovered control of herself, threw both arms around me and gave vent to her feelings in the most pitiful, heart-broken anguish I ever heard.  Candidly, I believe I would rather have risked my chances in another battle than to have undertaken to perform a similar kind office of friendship and comradeship.

Introduction Part I Part II Part IV

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