The story of the author's great-grandfather's Civil War experience, based on a remarkable set of newly discoverd letters—a powerful, moving addition to the firsthand soldiers' accounts of the Civil War.
I was very glad to hear from home this morning. It is the first time since I left Otterville. We marched from Sedalia 120 miles....I almost feel anxious to be in a battle&yet I am almost afraid. I feel very brave sometimes&think if I should be in an engagement, I never would leave the field alive unless the stars&stripes floated triumphant. I do not know how it may be. If there is a battle&I should fall, tell with pride¬ with grief that I fell in defense of liberty. Pray that I may be a true soldier.
Not since Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage have the trials and tribulations of a private soldier of the Civil War been told with such beguiling force. The Red Badge of Courage, however, was fiction. This story is true.
In Testament, Benson Bobrick draws upon an extraordinarily rich but hitherto untapped archive of material to create a continuous narrative of how that war was fought and lived. Here is virtually the whole theater of conflict in the West, from its beginnings in Missouri, through Kentucky and Tennessee, to the siege of Atlanta under Sherman, as experienced by Bobrick's great-grandfather, Benjamin W. ("Webb") Baker, an articulate young Illinois recruit. Born and raised not far from the Lincoln homestead in Coles County, Webb had stood in the audience of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, become a staunch Unionist, and answered one of Abraham Lincoln's first calls for volunteers. The ninety-odd letters on which his story is based are fully equal to the best letters the war produced, especially by a common soldier; but their wry intelligence, fortitude, and patriotic fervor also set them apart with a singular and still-undying voice.
In the end, that voice blends with the author's own, as the book becomes a poignant tribute to his great-grandfather's life -- and to all the common soldiers of the nation's bloodiest war.
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In the aftermath of the battle, the men foraged and skirmished and waited for the next big fight. It rained for several days, then a light snow began to fall. "Rebs seem to be prowling over the country in every direction," Webb wrote on January 19. Bragg had reportedly been reinforced at nearby Shelbyville, "with 40,000 [new men], we are receiving reinforcements & there may be a battle. If we don't go to the rebs they will come to us." Either way, he didn't mind.
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
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.
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 1Ž3 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
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,
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."
The whole question of slavery came up again. "I am not an abolitionist," he wrote candidly, "though I would rather be one than to be a secessionist. I never advised anyone to desert. I would not advise any man to dishonor himself & disgrace his friends." Above all, he was loyal to the Union. If emancipation helped to preserve it, that was all right with him. That same sense of honor or allegiance to something larger than himself also gave him a capacity to empathize with war-ravaged victims in the South. Since John's death, Webb's mother had been almost inconsolable, and he sought to comfort her the only way he knew how. "Please Ma," he wrote, "don't be despondent. Your trouble is hard, I know, but not so hard as some. I met a widow here who had 5 sons. All went into the southern army. Three of them have been killed, & the other two are at Vicksburg."
As always, Webb tended to minimize his own afflictions by making his letters as cheerful as he could.
Winchester, Tenn., Aug. 1, 1863
I did not write you last week, but I seldom fail, & I wrote Mary [his twenty-three-year old stepsister] last week, so you will hear & I reckon that will do. Our company is still on pious duty here & having the best kind of time -- I have gotten acquainted with several families. The people are sociable & intelligent & very obliging to the soldiers, in spite of the insults that they are exposed to from drunken, worthless fellows, who, if they ever had any breeding, sense, or humanity, have lost all traces of it since they left home. This town is very healthy & beautifully situated. It has been favored with large schools. There has been as high [many] as 600 young ladies here at school at one time. I have gotten acquainted with a Mr. & Mrs. Merritt here who are very kind to me. The Regt. expects to stay here.
Truly your son,
That was not to be. A few days later, orders came down for his regiment to draw ten days' rations and prepare to march. "The indications are that we are to go to...Chattanooga. I hate dreadfully to leave here," he admitted. "The Dixie gals are awful nice." Perhaps others were beginning to feel too comfortable, too, for the previous Thursday there had been "a grand Division meeting" to rev up the troops. Several chaplains and then General Davis had spoken. "[Davis] made a few appropriate remarks & then said he was no speaker, but that if he was on charley & we were on our way to Chattanooga & Bragg was between us & that town, he would know how to talk. We cheered him heartily." Then General McCook "was repeatedly called & finally stood up to say that he could not talk, but promised us the advance, the post of honor as we go."
By "us" Webb meant his brigade, which was made up of four regiments, including the 25th. Proud as he was of this, he would not have been unhappy to linger where he was, or, as he put it, "guard the train, or some nice town." Meanwhile, "somebody went through the regt. after pay day" and took all the money, including Webb's, that he could find. "I think I know who did it," he wrote, "but am not certain...it is too bad." Webb lost $50; that was four months' pay. Every penny he had saved to send his mother was gone. But now something else was getting under his skin. "We hear that there is a great excitement at home over the draft, & that the Copperheads [Peace Democrats] are drilling to resist it. [I] hear that six hundred drilled in Mattoon. Is it true?"
Nothing could have enraged the troops more. There was a large antiwar movement in the North, and though most of it was principled -- and stirred by issues that move any free people to debate -- the Copperheads, or some among them, belonged to one of its subversive wings. For various reasons, it was not always easy to distinguish who they were. In both North and South, there was justifiable concern that the war's prosecution might give rise to despotic regimes. Jefferson Davis ruled almost by fiat; Lincoln, to a lesser degree, had assumed semidictatorial powers. It has been said that he wielded more power than any Anglo-American since Cromwell, and, indeed, some of his measures alarmed even those who agreed with his aims. He had authorized the summary arrest of "suspected persons," had suspended the writ of habeas corpus for those charged with "disloyal" acts, had banned the circulation of certain newspapers, such as the Chicago Times, for their dissenting views, and had introduced the draft. The draft was considered draconian, because it meant that any able-bodied male between the ages of twenty and forty-five could be selected for compulsory service at the turn of a wheel. Few were exempted -- unless they could find a substitute or pay a commutation fee. That favored the rich, of course, and provoked the poor. "Inter arma silent leges," Cicero had written: Laws must sleep when a nation struggles for its life. That may be, but without someone of the wisest forbearance -- a Washington (or a Lincoln) at the helm -- tyranny is apt to result.
The South had been driven to conscription first. It had less manpower to draw on -- about a fourth of that of the North -- and as the meatgrinder tactics of the war ground on, the Confederate army began to admit old men and boys, robbing, in Grant's words, both the cradle and the grave. Once enrolled, soldiers had to remain for the duration, and by the war's end, an estimated eight hundred thousand, or four-fifths of the South's eligible white males, had served. That was hard on the whole population. But the North, too, was finding the cost too much to bear. Whereas antiwar sentiment was suppressed in the South, in the North it grew. For the most part, Republicans stood fast behind Lincoln, though some might grumble; the Democratic opposition took various forms. Those who favored a negotiated peace were known as Peace Democrats or, less kindly, Copperheads, after the venomous snake. Some rejected the epithet as a slander; others took pride in the name and wore on their lapels the goddess Liberty cut from copper pennies, to give it a patriotic twist. Their slogan was, "The Constitution as it is and the Union as it was." They saw the war as a failure, creating unbridgeable hatred between the sections and futilely spilling blood.
The more militant Copperheads were of a different stripe. Though often mingled with the moderates, they were a seditious "third column" in the Union's midst. Many belonged to a secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle (later, the Order of American Knights and the Sons of Liberty), established satellite "lodges" or "castles" in various towns and cities, and, sometimes under the guise of constitutional concerns, fomented opposition to the war. But their real agenda was threefold: the perpetuation of slavery, its extension into Central and South America, and military victory for the South.
Unrest in the North culminated in the antidraft riots of 1863. On July 14, two days after the first drawing in New York, crowds of workmen, most belonging to the Irish poor, poured into the streets shouting "Down with the rich men" and "We'll hang Horace Greeley on a sour apple tree." As the mob surged up Third Avenue, it tore down lampposts, ransacked mansions, and, coming to the induction center, ripped up the census lists and smashed the lottery wheel. Then the building itself was set on fire. Before long, the violence turned into a race riot, and over the next few days mobs attacked blacks at random, looted the Second Avenue Armory, destroyed the offices of Greeley's pro-war Tribune, and razed a black orphanage to the ground. For two days control of the city remained in the vandals' hands until Federal troops, straight from the Gettysburg carnage, arrived to restore elected rule. Sharpshooters were perched on rooftops; cannon swept the streets. When it was all over, a thousand lay dead.
Disorder erupted elsewhere throughout the North and Midwest, including Coles County, where the Knights of the Golden Circle had a lodge. There Copperheads built up a hidden cache of arms that included a small cannon and even met for military drill. They made threats against local Republicans, provoked fights with soldiers on leave, and in some cases ominously marked the houses of their opponents with a circled K, the emblem of their clan. In Paradise, Charleston, Mattoon, and other towns there were various reprisal killings, followed, in March 1864, by the so-called Charleston Riot that left twenty-one dead and wounded, most of them Union troops.
All that spring and into the summer, Rosecrans, according to his own meticulous fashion, prepared for his march on Bragg. His plan was to cross the Tennessee River below Chattanooga and turn the Confederate left, intercepting Bragg's communications, than take the town from the rear. On August 16 he began his advance, with Crittenden on the left, Thomas in the center, and McCook on the right. Altogether, he had an army of about sixty thousand men advancing on a fifty-mile front. To deceive Bragg as to his point of crossing, he made a feint with one corps along the river to the north. Webb was with McCook as they made their way through a mountain pass:
Camp near Stevenson, Alabama, Aug. 25, 1863
We left Winchester on the 17 & came out to the mountains 7 miles. On the 18 we climbed to the top of the mountain 2 miles & on the 19 helped the wagons up & marched on the mountain 10 miles. It was a hard day's work. We did not get to camp till 12 at night. Be sure we were all tired, & glad when our days work was done. On the 20th we helped the wagons down -- we fastened ropes to them & let them down the steep places by hand while the teamsters got down with the mules. Sundown found us in camp in the valley close to a splendid spring. After feasting on sow belly & hardtack with plenty of green corn & green apples & a good bath, I never slept better in my life. On the 21 we went into camp at 10 o'clock in a regular gutter up Alabama swamp where the mosquitoes are nearly as big as horse flies, & where nobody ever lived but mosquitoes. Here we are in this swamp today & will stay here till we march. We are 23 miles from Stevenson 25 miles from Chattannooga on the Memphis & Charlestown Railroad. I. D. & all are well.
Truly your son,
The feint succeeded, enabling Rosecrans to bring his army across the river on a pontoon bridge. The crossing was led by Colonel Hans Christian Heg, who had raised a Wisconsin regiment of immigrant Norwegians at the outbreak of the war. He was Webb's brigade commander. In keeping with McCook's promise, the 25th Illinois was in the vanguard of the crossing, just before dawn on August 29. It is generally considered one of the great strategic moments of the war. Webb describes the scene:
Camp in Front, Alabama, Sept. 1, 1863
Sure enough we stayed in that swamp till we marched. We left camp with a pontoon train & came to the river 4 miles & camped for the night, our brigade in advance. Gen. McCook kept his word. There were 4 regts. in the brigade [the 8th Kansas, the 15th Wisconsin, the 35th Illinois, and the 25th Illinois]. Early Saturday morning we were divided into companies of 25 each & loaded into the pontoons with 100 rounds & our guns loaded, & at the command of the general all the boats pulled for the south shore of the Tennessee where we expected a battle for the rebs were in sight & a few shots were fired. It looked like risky business going out into the river in those boats facing the enemy. There was a sure thing that nobody could run. The river is 800 yards wide. It was a beautiful site to see the boats in line of battle nearly a mile long pulling together regularly. It looked too many for the few rebels on the south shore for they took at once to the bushes. We all landed together. Gen. McCook went over with us making his promise good that he would give us the advance & go with us. We guarded the southern shore while the Pioneer Brigade put down the Pontoon Bridge. The first to come over the bridge were Rosecrans, Davis, [James Scott] Negley, Sheridan, [James A.] Garfield [later president of the United States] & their staffs. Part of the second brigade [of his division] came over & relieved us & we marched out to the foot of Sand Mountain & we went into camp. We rested Sunday & on Monday we came up & went into [our present] camp [in the front]...The rest of the Division came up last night. Today Gen. [Richard W.] Johnson's Division [also part of McCook's Corps] is crossing. We are about 6 miles from the river. McCook complimented us highly for our efficiency in throwing across the Pontoon Bridge. Another week will show us new things perhaps. The boys are all well.
Once again, the Federals got behind Bragg before he knew it and threatened to surround him completely and cut him off from his line of supply. As they hastened through two passes south of Lookout Mountain, the Rebels were forced from their positions on the heights. "The broad Tennessee below us," wrote one Union soldier, "seemed like a ribbon of silver; beyond rose the Cumberlands, which we had crossed. The valley on both sides was alive with the moving armies of the Union, while almost the entire transportation of the army filled the roads and fields along the Tennessee...No one could survey the grand scene on that bright autumn day unmoved, unimpressed with its grandeur and of the meaning conveyed by the presence of that mighty host."
Bragg was duly impressed himself, called in his outlying detachments, and evacuated Chattanooga on September 8. He crossed into Georgia and regrouped just below Pigeon Mountain, fifteen miles to the south. As the Rebels departed, the Army of the Cumberland marched in. In just twenty-three days, with little loss of life, it had marched three hundred miles, crossed three mountain ranges with ridges up to twenty-four hundred feet in height, and forded one of the mighty rivers of the West -- all in the face of the foe. Well might Rosecrans argue, if only with a fleeting hurrah, that he could do more with strategy than other commanders with their huge expense of lives.
Camp between Sand Mountain & Lookout, Sept. 15, 1863
We are here in Alabama & 30 miles south of Chattanooga. Bragg has skedaddled & left us in undisputed possession of the mountains...Rosecrans is in Chattanooga with his headquarters. As soon as the Railroad is repaired to Chattanooga we intend to make Bragg hunt his hole. We are all well & in fine spirits. We are full of good rumors. I am sorry to hear that an early frost has spoiled the corn. Hope it is not as bad as you think. Some of the boys have had letters about Copperheads. Tell me the names of those Copperheads. I think they ought to be rode on a rail.
Had Rosecrans stopped at Chattanooga and consolidated his hold on the town, he would today be remembered as one of the masters of the war. Instead, he mistook Bragg's orderly withdrawal for headlong retreat, rashly broke up his force, ordered McCook's corps to push south to try to cut Bragg off and Crittenden to chase him along the railroad to Ringgold and Dalton with Wilder's mounted infantry brigade. Thomas, who considered the idea of chasing Bragg imprudent, was ordered to proceed eastward through Lookout Mountain by Stevens' and Cooper's Gaps.
As the separate Union columns, scattered over a forty-mile front, filed through mountain passes into the north Georgia hills, Bragg almost succeeded in luring two of them to their demise. Failing that, he drew his army together along the banks of a creek called Chickamauga, a Cherokee word meaning "River of Death." Rosecrans belatedly realized the danger his army was in and managed to bring its diverse elements together before they could be caught in detail. Crittenden, commanding the Federal left, arrived first on the afternoon of September 18; Thomas brought up the center during the night; McCook, the right the following day.
Bragg was on the east side of the creek, the Federals on the west, some ways back from the bank, where they had gone into line. There they had to hold the roads back to Chattanooga, which lay through two gaps in Missionary Ridge. There was skirmishing between the armies all day on the 18th; their forces were in motion through the night; and by morning, Bragg had managed to move almost his entire infantry across the creek to the Union side. But neither army knew the exact position of the other, and some of the division commanders were not even sure where in the woods their own men were. In this manner, the battle lines formed. Bragg's target was the Federal left under Crittenden at a place called Lee and Gordon's Mill. But overnight that left had been extended, with Thomas marching around Crittenden to the north. In this way, he could better cover the two roads through the gaps, by posting troops between the ridge and the fords. Meanwhile, Bragg was expecting nine brigades of reinforcements from Virginia under Lee's principal lieutenant, James Longstreet. On the morning of the 19th, three arrived under John Bell Hood, giving Bragg the larger force. Once the others came in, he would have seventy thousand men.
The fate of Chattanooga was once more in the scales.
Early on the 19th, Thomas sent a reconnaissance toward one of the crossings, where it came up against the dismounted cavalry of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the fighting began. At about the same time, a Confederate reconnaissance had been groping for any soft spots in the Union left. Thomas outflanked this party with a division of his own, and the contest spread. The Federals were outflanked in turn, more and more units were drawn in, and by midafternoon the greater portions of both armies, including Webb's unit in the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division of McCook's corps, moving up from the right, were engaged along a three-mile line.
The struggle continued until sundown, and at the end of the day, a day of hard but inconclusive jousting, the Federals still held the Chattanooga roads, but the Confederates had gained some ground. It was a restless night. Medics worked through it, tending to the wounded, though the cries of those they could not reach pierced the darkness between the camps. Pioneer brigades worked at breastworks and other barricades and entrenchments; divisions on both sides were marched and countermarched into new positions to fill gaps in their lines. Rosecrans withdrew his right from Lee and Gordon's Mill to Missionary Ridge and shortened his lines by more than a mile, as he turned his army toward the south. Meanwhile, "a sharp fire was kept up between the pickets, and, ever and anon, the booming of a cannon, startling us in our troubled slumber, reminded us of the carnage of the past day and the coming horrors" of the next.
There was gloom on the Union side. Bragg had been further reinforced, with six more brigades under Longstreet, so that his army now outnumbered the Federals by ten thousand men. It was clear he would again try to turn the Federal left, to drive it back, rout it, and seize the mountain gaps.
Rosecrans consulted with his officers late into the night, then, "as was his habit," kept them "a bit longer to socialize." He asked McCook to regale the assembled generals with a rendition of "The Hebrew Maiden's Lament," a plaintive, popular ballad that his baritone voice seemed to run through like a dirge. "As the wind whistled through the puncheons of the tiny cabin and the telegraph clicked its accompaniment," writes one historian, McCook came to the final verse: "Dearest youth whose care-worn image,/ Graven in my heart will be,/ Ah thou seest not the bitter,/ Bitter tears I shed for thee." The generals then "quietly filed out of the cabin and returned to their commands."
The following morning fog drifted up from the creek and hung low over both camps. At dawn, Bragg attacked as expected, hurling his troops in echelon from left to right down the Union line. Despite the ferocity of his assault, the Federals held their first positions and the battle was largely a stalemate until about noon. Then, as his center came under attack, Rosecrans mistakenly thought one of his divisions was out of position and ordered another to march out of line to fill the gap. That created a half-mile divide for the Rebels to charge through. Under Longstreet, twenty-three thousand men did just that. The Federal divisions on either side "were slammed out of place," writes one historian, "like doors swung back on their hinges and shattered by the blow. The whole right wing was taken on its left flank, completely torn away from the rest of the army, and swept off the field in utter and hopeless rout." Five of its brigades were also cut off completely from the rest of the command.
The headquarters of Rosecrans was overrun, and assuming the worst, he withdrew to Chattanooga with most of the other commanders to supervise its defense. Overwrought at the debacle, it is said, he could barely stand. Yet all this time, Thomas had remained on the field. In spite of the enveloping chaos, he had managed to hold his wing together on the Union left, and retreating back a mile to Snodgrass Hill, a wooded knoll on Horseshoe Ridge, he rallied fleeing troops, established a defensible position on the western slope, and there, as the "Rock of Chickamauga," he withstood for several hours a dozen assaults by four Confederate divisions, until twilight at last allowed him to withdraw to Chattanooga through Missionary Ridge.
As at the Round Forest nine months before, Thomas had saved the army from destruction -- though this time not from defeat. In two days of fighting, each side had lost between sixteen thousand and seventeen thousand men. But the Confederates had won the day. Bragg reported to Richmond: "It has pleased Almighty God to reward the valor and endurance of our troops, by giving to our arms a complete victory over the enemy's superior numbers. [They were actually inferior.] Homage is due and is rendered unto Him who giveth not the battle to the strong." Addressing his troops, he said, "Your commander acknowledges his obligations, and promises to you in advance the country's gratitude. But your task is not ended. We must drop a soldier's tear upon the graves of the noble men who have fallen by our sides and move forward." Just one tear? There was cold comfort in comfort so coldly stated. Another general, haunted by the carnage, would later ask himself, with more feeling: "Are you the same man who once stood gazing down on the faces of the dead on that awful battlefield? The soldiers lying there -- they stare at you with their eyes wide open. Is this the same world?"
The wounded at Chickamauga fared badly, but those on the Union side worse. Corps hospitals had been placed at Crawfish Springs to take advantage of its ample supply of water for dressings, but that was three miles to the south and separated from the army's base by Missionary Ridge. Chattanooga was twelve miles north. Although most of the wounded were taken to Chattanooga, others were dragged all the way back to Murfreesboro, three hundred miles to the north, over rough mountain roads in an ambulance train. The journey was a hard one, but those who survived it probably fared better in the end.
That's where Webb ended up.
General Hospital No. 1 Ward A, Murfreesboro, Tenn.,
September 27, 1863.
This is my first opportunity to write you since the battle. I hope it will reach you before you get the details so you will not be uneasy about me. I received a wound in the left arm, the ball ranging upwards through the deltoid muscle to lodge in the shoulder near the joint. The surgeon is going to cut it out next week perhaps. The wound is already sloughing & doing well. Think I will join the company in a month. I was wounded in Saturday's engagement [i.e., on the 19th] together with Hogan, Wesley, Williams, Goodrich, Hawkins, Hatmaker, Myers, McClain, Hendy, H. Beevers, Wallace, & Red Cartwright. There is some others reported but I don't recollect their names. Out of 33 who went into the battle, only 13 stacked arms. Several of the boys are lost from the company, perhaps killed. I was pretty near the last man wounded on Saturday. I saw I. D. just as I was leaving the field. He had not received a scratch but they had shot his hat away & he was bareheaded & laughing. On Sunday the Division had another hard engagement & was driven from the field. The company only stacked six guns that night. Tom Denricks & I. D. were still with the company & unhurt. Bill Beevers was supposed to be wounded & have fallen into the hands of the enemy. Don't know certain...Henry Beevers [Bill's brother] is here. He is wounded in the leg. You will get a description of the battle from those whose business it is to describe it in the papers & in the reports of the officers. Send me a Charleston Ledger [the hometown newspaper] please.
Webb's injury was more severe than he let on, and it kept him in the hospital for almost four months. The bullet that had struck him, as before at Pea Ridge, was a minié ball, which expanded on impact, smashed the tissue it tore through, and splintered bone. The prospects for Webb keeping his arm were not very good. As one Union doctor tactfully put it, "The minie ball striking bone does not permit much debate about amputation." Webb was liquored up, anesthetized with ether, and some morphine was rubbed into his wound. The wound was probed, loose pieces of bone and tissue removed, and a wad of lint used to plug it up. Afterwards, he was given some quinine to help fortify his system while the wound sloughed and healed. In the end, remarkably, his arm was spared, though the surgeon had failed to dig the bullet out. Webb would carry "an ounce of Rebel lead," as he put it, in his shoulder for the rest of his life.
Copyright © 2003 by Benson Bobrick
Table of Contents
|Part 1||The War||1|
|Part 2||The Civil War Letters of Benjamin W. ("Webb") Baker||191|
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bendon Bobrick does great job narrating his ancestors story Benjamin W Baker a union solider tells his expeirences of war in his letters home
This is a wonderful book about the Civil War. I loved the letters Webb Baker wrote from the field to his family back home.