A story of the great war between the States—told from the ranks
This is an engaging recollection of the American Civil War by one of its most humble participants an ordinary soldier—later an NCO of the Union Army—in the 61st Regiment of the Illinois Infantry. His story, written in old age is surprisingly fresh, vital and full of concise detail. Here, clearly, is a man who relished recalling his time in the army and had many interesting stories of camp, campaign and battlefield action to tell. Leander Stillwell was a westerner and member of the Union army of the West, so within these pages the reader will find accounts of the Battle of Shiloh, the siege of Corinth, Iuka, Salem Cemetery, Vicksburg, Devall's Bluff, Little Rock, the Clarendon Expedition, Murfreesboro and the fight at Wilkinson's Pike.
Immediately after the colonel had given us his brief exhortation, the regiment was marched across the little field I have before mentioned, and we took our place in line of battle, the woods in front of us, and the open field in our rear. We “dressed on” the colours, ordered arms, and stood awaiting the attack. By this time the roar on the right had become terrific. The Rebel army was unfolding its front, and the battle was steadily advancing in our direction. We could begin to see the blue rings of smoke curling upward among the trees off to the right, and the pungent smell of burning gun-powder filled the air. As the roar came travelling down the line from the right it reminded me (only it was a million times louder) of the sweep of a thunder-shower in summer-time over the hard ground of a stubble-field.<BR>
And there we stood, in the edge of the woods, so still, waiting for the storm to break on us. I know mighty well what I was thinking about then. My mind’s eye was fixed on a little log cabin, far away to the north, in the backwoods of western Illinois. I could see my father sitting on the porch, reading the little local newspaper brought from the post-office the evening before. There was my mother getting my little brothers ready for Sunday-school; the old dog lying asleep in the sun; the hens cackling about the barn; all these things and a hundred other tender recollections rushed into my mind. I am not ashamed to say now that I would willingly have given a general quit-claim deed for every jot and tittle of military glory falling to me, past, present, and to come, if I only could have been miraculously and instantaneously set down in the yard of that peaceful little home, a thousand miles away from the haunts of fighting men.<BR>
The time we thus stood, waiting the attack, could not have exceeded five minutes. Suddenly, obliquely to our right, there was a long, wavy flash of bright light, then another, and another! It was the sunlight shining on gun barrels and bayonets and there they were at last! A long brown line, with muskets at a right shoulder shift, in excellent order, right through the woods they came.<BR>
We began firing at once. From one end of the regiment to the other leaped a sheet of red flame, and the roar that went up from the edge of that old field doubtless advised General Prentiss of the fact that the Rebels had at last struck the extreme left of his line. We had fired but two or three rounds when, for some reason, I never knew what, we were ordered to fall back across the field, and did so. The whole line, so far as I could see to the right, went back. We halted on the other side of the field, in the edge of the woods, in front of our tents, and again began firing. The Rebels, of course, had moved up and occupied the line we had just abandoned. And here we did our first hard fighting during the day. Our officers said, after the battle was over, that we held this line an hour and ten minutes. How long it was I do not know. I “took no note of time.”<BR>
We retreated from this position as our officers afterward said, because the troops on our right had given way, and we were flanked. Possibly those boys on our right would give the same excuse for their leaving, and probably truly, too. Still, I think we did not fall back a minute too soon. As I rose from the comfortable log from behind which a bunch of us had been firing, I saw men in grey and brown clothes, with trailed muskets, running through the camp on our right, and I saw something else, too, that sent a chill all through me. It was a kind of flag I had never seen before. It was a gaudy sort of thing, with red bars. It flashed over me in a second that that thing was a Rebel flag. It was not more than sixty yards to the right. The smoke around it was low and dense and kept me from seeing the man, who was carrying it, but I plainly saw the banner. It was going fast, with a jerky motion, which told me that the bearer was on a double- quick. About that time we left. We observed no kind of order in leaving; the main thing was to get out of there as quick as we could. I ran down our company street, and in passing the big Sibley tent of our mess I thought of my knapsack with all my traps and belongings, including that precious little packet of letters from home. I said to myself, “I will save my knapsack, anyhow;” but one quick backward glance over my left shoulder made me change my mind, and I went on. I never saw my knapsack or any of its contents afterwards.
Our broken forces halted and re-formed about half a mile to the rear of our camp on the summit of a gentle ridge, covered with thick brush. I recognized our regiment by the little grey pony the old colonel rode, and hurried to my place in the ranks. Standing there with our faces once more to the front, I saw a seemingly endless column of men in blue, marching by the flank, who were filing off to the right through the woods, and I heard our old German adjutant, Cramer, say to the colonel, “Dose are de troops of Sheneral Hurlbut. He is forming a new line dere in de bush.”<BR>
I exclaimed to myself from the bottom of my heart, “Bully for General Hurlbut and the new line in the bush! Maybe we’ll whip ’em yet.”