The Romance of the War. The One Hundred Days Men of 1864.
Published in History of Rock County vol.1 (1908)
By William Fiske Brown
I. Going Out
(For the benefit of a younger generation this article, prepared from old letters and my diary of that time, is added as a sketch of the romance of war.)
The late Spanish or Cuban war enlisted a few of our young men and awakened in our state some popular interest. But the young people of to-day have not felt and indeed cannot fully know that burning excitement which overflowed all our hearts in 1864. Then the very existence of this nation was in danger. There was a high fever and even the children had it.
Between the years 1861 and 1864 many loyal volunteers had gone to the front from our town and from the college here at Beloit, while we younger boys had been kept at home and at our books until 1864.
Early in that year, however, came the call for several regiments to serve for one hundred days and mainly on garrison or picket duty. They would set free and send to the front just as many of Grant's veterans and thus would render good service. To this romance of war even the parents of an only son could not object. College authorities approved. Our beloved Professor Blaisdell enlisted as chaplain and a prominent citizen, Alfred L. Field, served as quartermaster of the 40th.
Besides the enthusiastic meetings down town, we had student gatherings, speeches and war songs in the college chapel, now art room, 2d story, and amid rousing cheers one and another declared it his purpose to enlist.
When Henry D. Porter took that stand, it was suggested that he was too short for the United States requirement. At once a committee was appointed to take him out and measure him. Whether that committee stretched Henry or the truth or both or neither is immaterial. They promptly reported that he was exactly at the limit, five feet. (Tremendous cheering.) It should be added that he was never sick, always ready for duty and did good service from the beginning to the end of his term.
Besides many of us town boys, thirty-one from the college classes (about half the whole number) and twenty-five preps enlisted in the 40th Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers, called the Students' Regiment.
After several days' drilling on the college campus, May 18th, with flags and cheers, we took the cars for Camp Randall (now the Wisconsin University athletic field) at Madison. A ruddy young Norwegian sitting in a car seat near me said in a rather weak voice that his name was George Travis from Illinois. To our great surprise he was arrested and sent off that same evening, because the United States army does not enlist women. May 19, 1864. Last night we had our first camp supper, consisting of bread and coffee without milk or sugar, and then drew blankets and bunks for the night. My bed was a bare board and I slept soundly on it. May 20. Went to Madison University and from the top of the main building sketched our camp. The barracks look like cattle sheds on a fair ground. May 24. Larry Foote and Moffat Halliday are playing cards at my elbow and they slap the table so energetically that it roughens my writing. To that usual army game, however, the 40th adds chess and checkers, with many superior players. Yesterday we signed enlistment papers in triplicate. At our physical examination to-day, when the surgeon came to W. H. Finch he gave him a playful poke and said: "A man with your chest can go anywhere.". Our college boys all passed. June 1. A dozen of us were furnished with muskets and bayonets and stationed at the prison where there are thirty prisoners, mostly deserters. We stood guard all night and found it chilly.
Sunday, June 5th. Chaplain Blaisdell conducted divine service in the open air behind the captain's quarters on the hill, and a choir of Beloit boys sang. June 7. This afternoon seven companies were sworn in. Our Company B. was disposed of second. A lieutenant of the regulars, standing by Colonel Ray, called off our names and unless he stopped us, each answering, "Here," marched down the front and formed in a line to the right. Four men from Beloit were refused. The oath was duly administered to the rest and we marched back to our barracks regular soldiers of the United States. Hurrah!
June 8. We have to roll out for roll call at 5 a. m., take two hours' drill in the morning, two more in the afternoon and often two hours' battalion drill after supper. This afternoon I was sent with W. A. Cochran and three others to the hospital and we were set to pounding clothes in a barrel. Two hours of that work and one of carrying wood has saved us, however, from twenty-four hours' guard duty, in this rain. Soldiering begins to lose some of its romance. We have to obey orders. June 11th. To-day clothing and guns were issued. Each man got a woolen blanket, $3.25; rubber blanket, $2.48; dress coat, $7.00; pants, $2.50; shoes, $2.05; woolen shirt, $1.53; drawers, 90c.; stockings, 32c.; knapsack, $1.85; haversack, 33c., and canteen, 41c. Amount in greenbacks, $22.62. The cap will be a dollar more. The whole allowance per man was $23.90.
Sunday, June 12th. This hot afternoon we went on parade in full accoutrements, with knapsacks packed. It was decidedly tiresome.
June 14. Called up at half past four a. m. We received rations for three days, hardtack, dried meat and cheese. At 8 a. m. we strapped on our knapsacks, marched to the cars and at last were 'off to the war.' Milton Junction saluted us with flags and the firing of cannon. At Clinton Junction were friends and dear ones from Beloit, kisses, flowers, cheers and more cannon. At Harvard a young lady filled my canteen with coffee. More girls and flowers. Hurrah! Reaching the old North-Western depot, Chicago, about midnight, we marched the longest way around to the Soldiers' Rest on Michigan avenue, and stacked arms in the street. At 2 a. m., Mr. E. W. Porter, a Beloit graduate, furnished cigars for Company B., and Mr. Clinton Babbitt gave us hungry fellows a feast. It was hot coffee, bread and butter and pie plant sauce, sponge cake and a dish of strawberries for each man. After speeches and cheers we marched to the cars and at 4 a. m., June 15, started south. Our progress was attended by enthusiastic demonstrations of loyalty. At every city flags were displayed and guns fired, while young and old wished us Godspeed. All kinds of food, fruit and vegetables, including cabbages, were offered us. Old women waved their aprons and young ladies their handkerchiefs. Springfield was one continuous wave, and it was Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! all the way to Alton.
II. In Camp and Coming Back
From Alton we steamed down the Mississippi and reached Memphis Sunday morning, June 19; temperature, 125 degrees, F. At 11 a. m., having strapped on knapsacks and shouldered arms, we marched through deep dust a long way 'round to a camp ground about two miles from the city limits. In woolen clothes and carrying about sixty pounds each, all found it hot indeed, but got here. Jack Lewis even carried F.'s gun along with his own. On arriving, parched with thirst, early in the evening several of us hunted up an old deserted well, buckled straps together and let down a canteen through weeds and broken curb to the cool water twenty feet below. When it was drawn up gurgling full and put to our dusty lips, then we learned the real meaning of the word Nectar. That first night all slept on the ground without covering.
"Camp Ray, June 20, 1864. Our mess consists of ten Beloit College boys of Company B.: Lyman Winslow, of '65; Fitch, Lewis, Newhall, Fred Curtis and Brown, of '66; Porter and Smith, of '67; A. W. Kimball and F. Bicknell. We must do our own cooking for awhile, and all take turns. As chief of mess I have drawn a piece of pork, alias 'sow belly,' 1 Â½ pints coffee, 1 Â½ pints of brown sugar, Â½ peck of potatoes, 2-3 pint of salt, Â¼ bar of soap and 20 of the six-inch square crackers, called hardtack.
21st. After the usual drill we made of rubber blankets, etc., a mess tent and put up the sign, "Eagle Mess. No Smoking Aloud." For to-day's ration we have 1 2-3 pints of coffee and the same sugar, 2-3 pint of vinegar and as much molasses, one quart of rice, one quart of beans, Â¼ bar of soap, one candle, twenty hardtack, and sow belly sufficient. Fitch, Kimball and I are the first cooks. During the night came a thunder-storm and a small river under our blankets. Good-natured Kimball and others turned out amid the downpour in the airiest possible costume and scraped a shallow trench about the tent. Next day several of us were sent to the city with a commissary wagon which we loaded with hay bales and the new tents. Managed to get three lemons, 25 cents, one-half pound white sugar, 15 cents, and a lump of ice, so our mess had a treat.
June 24. Sixty having volunteered for picket duty, we took thirty cartridges apiece, with three days' rations of hardtack, marched a mile or two from camp, and were then distributed in stations about thirty rods apart, three men at a station. We stand guard duty and night until relieved, each man taking his turn of two hours on guard and four off. It was aid that those whose property we were guarding would not give or even sell us anything. Feeling ill, I tried the matronly colored cook of the nearest secesh mansion, and with kind words and a dime got a refreshing cup of tea. That evening Corporal F. went on the same errand. Reported that he marched up to the front piazza where the Atkins family were sitting, asked for a drink of water and they merely pointed him to the well. Said he saw unhealthy symptoms of their unchaining a savage-looking dog, so he left. In the still night during my guard from eleven till one, Comrade Shumaker went over towards that same house jayhawking. Pretty soon there was a loud woof! woof! and S., rushing back empty-handed, with that dog after him, jumped the fence just barely in time. Early next morning visited that house again and made for the cook a small pencil sketch of her little bare-legged grandson. After that nothing was too good and they gave me the best the house afforded for breakfast. A colored lad called out, "Your relief's just done gone by," so I hurried back to my station convinced that those negroes were loyal. Sunday morning Chaplain Blaisdell preaches. We also have excellent evening prayer meetings, and what some prize far more now, a company cook.
July 1. Our rations for two days' picket service are a loaf of bread each, with a little sugar and coffee. On this picket one of us convinced a secesh cow that it was milking time and filled a tin cup. For this, his only act of foraging, he has since most sincerely repented not. We had to sleep on the ground if at all and be waked by falling rain. My sketch of that post shows Corporal Eben Kendall sitting disconsolately on the wet roadside with his feet in a ditch. The romance of war has vanished. Southern heat is steady and stifling. The standing guard alone one still hot night suggested these lines, to a familiar tune:
Oh, well do I remember my old Beloit home,
The bird-house on the ridge-pole, where birds would always come;
Rock River bright behind it, the busy street before,
The vine-clad wall, those columns tall, the rose beside the door.
Long years a call was sounded, of danger, through the land.
Our fears proved not unfounded and many an earnest band
Marched off to aid their country, with these among them then,
So here we are in Tennessee, remembering home again.
Loud praise in song that dear Wisconsin home,
Though late and long a soldier you may roam.
Low sing the song a sad and tender strain,
For here to-day, far, far away, we think of home again.
Yet home's not in the old house or in the garden neat,
Not bounded by the river nor by the bustling street,
But in the hearts of loved ones I find it, full of joy,
Who, distant, still think oft of Will, the absent soldier boy.
To-night on post of danger a sentinel I stand,
To watch 'gainst hostile ranger and guard this little band
Of comrades, silent, slumbering. The stars above me wane
As comes the day and, far away, I think of home again.
Our chief danger, of course, was from short rations. The ditto hostile ranger was usually the southern mosquito, whose poisonous stab drew more northern blood than southern bayonets did.
"Sunday, July 10, occurred the first camp funeral. It was of a Mr. Small, Company F. Before night army mules tramped through the yellow clay of his grave. Those hoof tracks were new in a double sense.
"Monday we went sixty miles east from Memphis on train guard to La Grange. Last week three Iowa soldiers were shot at by guerillas on this road. We lay at full length on the roof of our freight car, both sides of the ridge, with our guns leveled across it ready to fire either side. (After a train or two had been fired on, each freight sent out was provided with certain prominent copperhead citizens of Memphis, who were obliged to ride on the tops of the cars with the boys. Usually there was one such guest for each car. We let our man have a prominent place so that of any attentions bestowed upon us he would be sure to get his share. Deacon Oliver J. Stiles doubtless remembers several of those guests.)
"La Grange, Tennessee, must have been a beautiful town before both armies battered it. Now, however, the churches are in ruins and used for stables, many fine houses have been burned or blown up, most of the inhabitants are gone, and the scene is one of desolation."
These letters, received from a boyhood playmate of Beloit about that time, explain themselves. He was in a battery company: Eleventh Wisconsin Light Artillery.
"Camp near Clarksville, Tenn., July 18th, '64.
Friend W. -- At the battle of Rodgersville last November we lost our guns. In that east Tennessee campaign under Burnside we suffered for the want of something to eat. For months we did not see even a hard cracker. We had to kill a beef and fry the meat on sticks and eat it without salt, as that article is very scarce in these parts. We had ear corn dealt out to us, two ears to each man for a day's ration. Our of the fourteen boys who left Beloit and went into this battery there are only two of us left.
The Same, August 6th, 1864.
Friend W. -- In one battle we fought all day and got nothing but dent corn to eat. After leaving Knoxville last summer and fall we lived on just what we could pick up. But it is all for the best country that the sun ever shone on. I thank God I am permitted to fight for it and enjoy health.
I have a cousin in your regiment, Company I, 40th Wisconsin, Oscar Bishop. We here are expecting an attack every day from the old Johnson command, eleven miles distant. We will give them just as warm a reception as we can. In our last engagement we were badly whipped; we must expect to get the worst of it once in a while.
Occasionally we have a guerilla fight but it doesn't amount to much, only it is certain death to fall into their hands. One of our own boys got caught and was shot with three more out of the 83d Illinois.
Our captain told us last night that in less than six weeks we would all be before Atlanta, Ga., but I hardly think we will leave this winter."
He did, though, went all the way around with Sherman and is living in Beloit to-day.
The heat, which rose to 132 degrees, and some special exposure, brought me to the hospital sick with fever. A box came from Beloit and on waking one morning I found under my head a white pillow marked with the name of my mother. One must be sick in the army to appreciate such comforts. August 6, Sergeant Sherrill died and Bushnell August 10, and W. H. Shumaker, in the cot next to mine, August 13. Sunday, August 21st, we sick boys were waked by the boom of cannon. What's that! "Forrest has attacked Memphis with his cavalry and artillery and our boys have gone out." One invalid managed to dress, found that his gun seemed to weigh several hundred pounds, so started without it toward the firing. The 40th regiment was at the extreme front and under fire about three-quarters of an hour. A shell burst in a stump behind Company B, and one of its fragments slightly wounded a lieutenant, Harson Northrup, doing no other damage. Forrest retreated, our boys marched back and some of them found that invalid on the road, they say, and brought him in.
On board the hospital steamer, Silver Wave, Sept. 9, 1864. "We left Camp Ray and Memphis yesterday and started north. Our boat is crowded with more than two thousand invalid soldiers. A few miles below Ft. Pillow we stopped to bury a boy of the 39th who died last night. At Cairo we buried four more. Lying on the bare upper-deck back of the smoke pipes, sick with fever, partly protected by my blanket from dew and falling cinders, what a joy it gives me at night to see that we are pointed towards the north star and are actually going home."
September 14. At Alton, Ill., we convalescents were packed in freight cars, as many as could lie in each, stretched crosswise on the hard floor. At every bang of the rough cars our fevered heads felt ready to split. Water was scarce on the way and welcome scarcer. We reached Chicago (where someone stole my canteen) on the evening of the 15th, when our term expired, were kept at Camp Randall, Madison, several days and then duly discharged. The boys of the 40th came home, some all the stronger, one to die on the day he reached home, and many to feel the ill effects of that summer for several years, but most of them no doubt better and wiser for their hundred days' service.