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Jeffry D. Wert Author of Gettysburg: Day Three Testament is a gripping story of one Union soldier's experiences in the Civil War. Benjamin "Webb" Baker's letters are rich in details, full of patriotism, and frank about the horror and hardships. Benson Bobrick has written a compelling book.
David J. Eicher Author of The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War Testament by Benson Bobrick is a touching and intimate portrait of one man's adventure during the Civil War. Rarely does a book provide such a compelling window into what war can mean to a single human being.
Frank J. Williams Chair, The Lincoln Forum From Pea Ridge to General Sherman's march to Atlanta, "Webb" Baker marched with the 25th Illinois Regiment. His letters home form a tapestry of a soldier in war....Benson Bobrick's superlative narrative enhances this great resource for a better understanding of our Civil War.
For Webb, Stones River had been just another battle - an inconclusive battle in a long and inconclusive war. Though he had been in the midst of the action and his own regiment had lost ninety-six, he was remarkably matter of fact about it in his letter home. "There was a hard fight here," Webb reported on January 10, "a heavy loss but Rosecrans gained the victory & the rebs. are gone. McCook was driven back 2 miles by the massed force of the enemy on our right before we were reinforced. The secesh got our knapsacks & blankets. I have been having the chills. Am well now. I am better satisfied now that John's remains are at home." His mother hoped to visit him at Murfreesboro, where Rosecrans's army was encamped, but he advised her against it, as he expected to be on the move. "We are likely to follow the enemy right up," he told her, "& I hope we will keep at it till the job is done - don't like to waste so much time. I don't mind fighting for my country if we will only do it but I hate to lay round while the work remains to be done."
On the 19th, as he stood on picket duty four miles south of camp, a Rebel appeared with a flag of truce and a sealed dispatch addressed to Rosecrans. Perhaps it had to do with a prisoner exchange; it was not for Webb to ask. On the 31st, his regiment began a three days' march through mud, rain, and snow to Franklin, where they hoped to take on Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Rebel cavalry commander, who was wreaking havoc on their lines of supply. Almost every major bridge and trestle on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad had been damaged, cars burned, engines destroyed. In one place, "a tunnel had been choked with rubbish to a distance of 800 feet." Forrest sped up to Harpeth Shoals on the Cumberland River, and Union troops pursued. There, it was wishfully reported, he had "got decently cleaned out & himself mortally wounded & taken prisoner" - which wasn't so. Meanwhile, General Jefferson C. Davis had turned the command of his division over to one of his colonels and taken a cavalry brigade up to try to cut off Forrest's retreat. "We are in readiness to go to his support if he needs us," Webb wrote his mother. "If you hear of a fight near Franklin now you may know we are in it."
Around Murfreesboro the skirmishing was chronic, as the opposing armies scoured the countryside for food. The Union troops, on half rations, were soon at risk of scurvy, and even officers regarded onions and potatoes as luxury fare. Webb seems to have accepted his plight, as usual without much complaint; military and political issues were uppermost in his mind. "One of our parties killed 10 rebs the other day & got 80 prisoners," Webb reported, as well as "several wagons & 300 cavalry saddles & accoutrements ... No set battle is expected till we get to Chattanooga, but every inch of ground between here & there will be contested so our advance will be slow but I think sure." Meanwhile, a few weeks before, he had written, "I wish we could move soon & talk less - Somehow I hope the war will close before another summer passes - I don't know how the settlement is to come but somehow I look for it to come." Like many others, he also expected the manpower advantage of the North to tell and put great hope in the new draft act. "How do the fellows up north like the conscription bill?" Webb asked his mother. "The soldiers like it I tell you. Hope those braggy fellows at home will all get pulled in." Lincoln had also just signed a bill to authorize back pay. "The talk is that we will get 4 months soon. It will not be before we need it."
Both developments gave the soldiers heart, but there was another kind of trouble in the ranks. The Emancipation Proclamation, when first announced, set off celebrations in many Northern cities, but it had not been greeted with complete enthusiasm by the troops. "[It] has stirred things up considerable," reported Webb. "Some of the boys are very bitter about it. They say that they did not come to war to free niggers, but I guess this will bring the South to a compromise. Anyway, I hope the war will soon be over." Though primarily a Unionist, he didn't object to the Proclamation itself as an executive act; indeed, as we know, he had accepted the possibility of it a year before. But it incited others to near rebellion all that spring. "There has been a good deal of deserting since," Webb confessed to his mother in early March, "but I guess it will stop now - I understand that the law is to be executed to the limit on deserters, & that means death - for my part I would as soon die any other way as to be set up against a stump & shot at." At the same time, he questioned the Proclamation's practicality and timing, as he returned to the subject again:
Murfreesboro, Tenn., March 16, 1863 Dear Mother: Yours of the 5th inst. was here [when] we got in. We have been on a ten days' scout. Nothing of importance transpired while we were gone. We got a drenching for 36 hrs. but it is clear & warm now. This is really a summer day. The trees are putting forth their leaves & the earth will soon be covered again with verdure. Already the grass is about good enough for cattle to live grazing. I would rather be here than at home till [the] war is over. I don't understand how loyal men can remain at home. I am sorry there is so much division in the North. The Proclamation serves a good purpose, as an excuse for some rebel sympathizers in the north. It can't do the slave much good till he gets inside of our lines. I suppose it will be hard on him till after that. The boys many of them don't like the idea of making soldiers of negroes. But after all they will do to shoot at as well as anybody if we could only think so. Truly yours, Webb.
Blacks, indeed, served admirably. On many a battlefield, as Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, would report, "they proved themselves to be among the bravest, performing deeds of daring and shedding their blood with heroism unsurpassed."
Meanwhile, Webb had now spent quite a bit of time in Tennessee and was strongly drawn to the land. Though parts of it were "devastated, & like a ruin," he still thought it "the prettiest country" he had ever seen. He liked the climate ("it is as warm as a May day today," he exulted during a brief winter thaw) and imagined he might come to live there after the war. "The few people who are left," he added, "are very friendly, & of refined manners. They are most all secesh. They say they never will submit to the usurpation of their rights. But I guess they will" (letter of February 8, 1863).
It seemed they must. "The enemy is in force in front of us," Webb wrote his mother on March 25. "We have 1/3 of the army on picket all the time now I guess & the rest are under orders to be ready to march with three days rations at a moments warning. It looks as if we were going to have a fight. Let it come."
News, some of it confused, came in from the Eastern front.
After the Federal defeat at Fredericksburg, Burnside had been replaced by Joseph Hooker, a dashing corps commander known to the rank and file as "Fighting Joe." A veteran of the Mexican and Seminole Wars, he had fought well in the Peninsular Campaign under McClellan, but he was a hard-drinking, boastful man, and his nickname actually derived from a copyediting error in an article telegraphed to newspapers, not from the martial ardor he had shown. Nevertheless, it stuck, and that helped him in his task. Over the next few months he took the Army of the Potomac in hand, reorganized and enlarged it, and restored its spirit and strength. At the end of April 1863, he advanced to Chancellorsville in an attempt to outflank Lee's left. "The enemy must either ingloriously fly," he informed his troops, "or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him." Later that night, he actually announced, "The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac. They may as well pack up their haversacks and make for Richmond."
They did no such thing. Lee divided his army and sent most of it through a dark ground called the Wilderness to attack Hooker's right. The forest cover was thick, mostly pine and black oak, with a dense undergrowth tangled with vines. Though vastly outnumbered, Lee fought with more skill, and in every part of the five-day engagement beat Hooker's army in detail. On May 5, the baffled Union commander withdrew his forces back across the Rappahannock in defeat.
In Webb's camp, the men were "jubilant over the fact authentic that Charleston, S.C., the mother of secession," had fallen (though in fact it had not); but learned the truth about the Federal debacle at Chancellorsville. "We are disappointed to some extent," he told his mother on May 19, "though not so much perhaps as we would have been if the Potomac army had never been beaten before, but anyway we expected something of Fighting Joe, & we got something, i.e. a good drubbing. We should have liked it better if the result had been different but we are not here to complain. I guess Burnside & Hooker are not the men to handle great armies. They are good fighters directed, but not to direct." Such has been the judgment of history, too.
But for the armies of the South, a purely defensive war held out almost no hope for their aspirations, for, as one historian notes, "sooner or later Lee's army would be forced back on Richmond, and there meet its end." Grant was now at the gates of Vicksburg, a Gibraltar-like stronghold on the lower Mississippi, and Bragg was hard put to keep Rosecrans from advancing farther in east Tennessee. Lee therefore opted to strike north again, in a reprise of his Maryland campaign. This time, however, his goal was not to gain a border state, now recognized as hopeless, but, by his very boldness, to increase political dissension in the North, wreck supply routes, and help other Confederate armies survive by forcing Lincoln to draw troops from all quarters to protect the capital and other sites. In a row with the War Department, Hooker quarreled over how to meet Lee's threat and was thereupon replaced by George Gordon Meade, a seasoned general who had shown courage and ability in a number of battles, including Antietam and Second Bull Run.
Early in June Lee began his advance. He moved north by way of the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys, crossed the Maryland state line, entered a small valley surrounded by low hills just across the state line in Pennsylvania, and there met Meade at the town of Gettysburg. Both armies established defensible positions on various ridges and hills (among them, Cemetery Ridge, Culp's Hill, Oak Hill, and McPherson's Ridge), and after two days of incomplete but costly encounters, tore into each other with terrific force. At Cemetery Ridge, the heart of the contest on that day, thousands upon thousands on both sides fell, with the Rebels leaving nineteen battle flags behind them on the field as they withdrew. Lee escaped once more back into Virginia, but he had failed to achieve any of his aims. And on the very next day, July 4, Vicksburg fell.
Meanwhile, toward the end of June, Rosecrans began his march on Bragg. At Murfreesboro, he had done what he could to get his army into shape, and after appealing in vain to the War Department for a cavalry contingent, created one himself out of an infantry brigade. The men were mounted and armed with the new Spencer repeating rifles, which from a single loading could fire six copper rimfire .52 caliber slugs. Under Colonel John T. Wilder, this cavalry would go on to fight in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia and win fame and glory as Wilder's "Lightning Brigade." The 123rd Illinois was a part of it, and had Webb's brother lived, he would have belonged to its heroic tale.
Bragg was strongly entrenched at Shelbyville, twenty-five miles to the south, and at Tullahoma, on a branch of the Nashville line. His extreme right lay at McMinnville, his left near Franklin; Chattanooga was his base. Rosecrans's plan was to turn his right flank. To do this, he made a feint toward Shelbyville while moving his main force toward Manchester and the Cumberland Mountain gaps. As always, it rained at the setting out, and Webb's regiment slogged along the Shelbyville Pike. In his haversack, he had one week's supply of bacon and meat "on hoof" and twelve days' supply of coffee, sugar, salt, and bread.
Manchester, Tenn., June 30, 1863 Dear Mother: Your kind letter of the 12 came to hand yesterday. It was so welcome. We are finally out of Murfreesboro as you see. We left there on the 24 & have been making slow progress. We are in 13 miles of Tullahoma, the advance of the army is reported 8 miles beyond that. We have to repair the railroad as we go in order to get supplies ... this is the 7th day [we have been out]. It has rained every one of the six preceding days & looks as if it would today. It is very muddy. We are going 5 or 6 miles a day. We are fighting for every step we gain. The fighting is only skirmishing, but it makes slow marching. Wilder's Brig. is in the advance ... One of our boys has word that there is a company of rebs. organized in Hutton Township & a regt in Coles County. I wonder if it is so. I hope every one of them will be drafted into our army & sent to the very front. I hope this may find you well. Truly your affectionate son, Webb.
The Union feint worked beautifully, and before Bragg could prevent it, Rosecrans was threatening Bragg's line of retreat. The latter fell back behind his fortifications at Tullahoma, but by a second turning movement, Rosecrans forced him out. Bragg now started for Chattanooga and Rosecrans briefly pursued, as vigorously as the rough roads and swollen streams would allow. Lincoln wrote to urge him on. "If we can hold Chattanooga and East Tennessee," he told him, "I think the Rebellion must dwindle and die." Rosecrans then paused to consider how this might best be done. Between him and Bragg's army, now in Chattanooga, lay the broad Tennessee River and the high plateaus and gorges of the Cumberland range. That range, a spur of the Appalachians, stretched through Tennessee into northern Georgia and was as difficult terrain as the Federals would face in the war. Its heights included Sand, Raccoon, and Pigeon mountains, Missionary Ridge, and the crest of Lookout Mountain beyond the wide valley of Lookout Creek.
Meanwhile, the swift, almost bloodless eviction of Bragg from his whole fortified line in just nine days ought to have prompted rejoicing in the North. But it was eclipsed by the Federal victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, with which it happened to coincide. No one in Washington seemed to appreciate what Rosecrans had done. On July 7, he heard from Secretary of War Stanton: "Lee's army overthrown; Grant victorious. You and your noble army now have the chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion. Will you neglect the chance?" Rosecrans, irate, replied, "You do not appear to observe the fact that this noble army has driven the Rebels from Middle Tennessee. I beg in behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event because it is not written in letters of blood."
As he pondered his next move, Rosecrans spread out his army along the northwestern base of the Cumberland Range, with camps at McMinnville, Tullahoma, Dechard, and Winchester. Chattanooga lay to the southeast. As part of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 20th Army Corps, Webb was posted at Winchester, where letters reached him again in early July. As always, he was eager for simple news from Hutton and had recently told his mother how he and other Huttonites had peppered one Tom Temple, "taken prisoner at Stones River" and "just in from home," with questions "till he was nearly tired out. It does us so much good to see one from home who has seen the folks" (letter of March 25, 1863). But most of his mother's letters at this time were of a different cast and seem to have upset him, either with talk of personal troubles or civil unrest. He was deeply alarmed, for example, by her reports of all the "discord & contention," faltering resolve, and even subversion on the home front. He began to wonder if war might soon rend the North from within. "The northern people," he warned her in a letter on July 12, "do not know what war is" and would be "blind ... to invite civil war into their homes ... Suppose a busy army of 20,000 should camp on Mr. Moore's farm. [Webb's stepfather had a substantial estate.] In the morning there would not be a chick or pig or cow [left]. The potatoes & onions & all eatables in the house would be gone. The fences would all be burned. If they stayed a week in the neighborhood the whole community would be ... utterly devastated - no pen, let alone mine, can describe the horrors of civil war."
Excerpted from Testament by Benson Bobrick Copyright © 2003 by Benson Bobrick . Excerpted by permission.
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|Part 1||The War||1|
|Part 2||The Civil War Letters of Benjamin W. ("Webb") Baker||191|
Posted October 15, 2006
This is a wonderful book about the Civil War. I loved the letters Webb Baker wrote from the field to his family back home.
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