There are many military memoirs from hundreds of conflicts stretching back over the thousands of years that man has been engaged in armed conflict. For those who are aficionados of such memoirs each one has merit, and some are considered truly outstanding. The American Civil War was particularly well recorded by its combatants. Many men who left accounts for posterity fought in pivotal engagements or were members of notable corps. This book, written by a Union soldier who kept a diary of his experiences throughout the Civil War, has to be, by the finite nature of these resources, of enormous historical value, but might not at first seem to be especially notable. However, Byers served as a private soldier, sergeant and adjutant of the 5th Iowa Infantry. His was a regiment that when it was mustered contained 1,000 men; it lost 775 of them in action or through disease. Eighty men, including the author, were taken prisoner and all but 16 of them died. Of the nine men from Byers’ company captured only he survived; so this is truly a story of ‘the last man standing’—a survivor of a regiment that always found itself in the maelstrom of battle and which quite literally fought itself out of existence. This is a remarkable story of battle, capture and escape which will enthral any student of the American Civil War.
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The moon was down by ten o’clock of the night of April 16. Under the starlight one hardly saw the dark river or the cane-brakes, swamps, and lagoons along its border. The whole Northern fleet lay anchored in silence. Grant’s army too, down below, was silent and waiting. A few miles below us lay Vicksburg, dark, sullen, and sleeping. Not a gun was being fired. A few lonesome Confederate river guards floated above the town in rowboats watching to give the alarm at the approach of any foe on the water.<br>
Three mysterious looking Northern steamboats, with crews of volunteer soldiers on board, lay out in the middle of the Mississippi River in front of Milliken’s Bend, a dozen miles above Vicksburg. Down in the dark hold of each vessel stand a dozen determined men. They have boards, and pressed cotton, and piles of gunny sacks beside them there, to stop up holes that shall be made pretty soon by the cannon of the enemy. They have none of war’s noise and excitement to keep them up—only its suspense. They are helpless. If anything happens they will go to the bottom of the river without a word. Above the decks the pilot-houses are taken off and the pilot wheels are down by the bows, and the pilot will stand there wholly exposed. Lashed to the sides of each of the three little steamers are barges piled up with bales of hay and cotton. They look like floating breastworks. Anchored still a little further down the stream seven gunboats also wait in silence. They will lead these steamboats and try the batteries first. The boats must all move two hundred yards apart. That is the order.<br>
All is suspense. For a little while the night grows darker and more silent; the moon now is down. The thousands of soldiers standing on the levee waiting, and watching to see them start, almost hold their breath. At the boats there is no noise save the gurgling of the water as it grinds past the hulls of the anchored vessels. That is all the noise the men waiting down in the dimly lighted hulls can hear. On a little tug, nearby, General Grant, the commander of the Western armies, waits and listens. The Assistant Secretary of War is at his side. In a yawl, farther down the stream, General Sherman ventures far out on the dark river to watch events. All is ready, all is suspense. Just then a lantern on the levee is moved slowly up and down. It is the signal to start. Down in Vicksburg the unexpectant enemy sleeps. Their guards out on the river, too, almost sleep; all is so safe. Quietly we lift anchors and float off with the current. Our wheels are not moving. There is a great bend in the river, and as we round it the river guard wakened, sends up a rocket, other rockets too go up all along the eastern or Vicksburg shore. That instant, too, a gun is fired from a neighbouring bluff. We are discovered. “Put on all steam,” calls the captain, and our boats move swiftly into the maelstrom of sulphur and iron, for the enemy opens fire vigorously.<br>
The enemy sets houses on fire all along the levee to illuminate the river, bonfires are lighted everywhere, and suddenly the whole night seems but one terrific roar of cannon. The burning houses make the river almost as light as day. We see the people in the streets of the town running and gesticulating as if all were mad; their men at the batteries load and fire and yell as if every shot sunk a steamboat. On the west side of the river the lagoons and cane-brakes look weird and dangerous. The sky above is black, lighted only by sparks from the burning houses. Down on the river it is a sheet of flame. One of the steamers and a few of the barges have caught fire and are burning up, the men escaping in life-boats and by swimming to the western shore. The excitement of the moment is maddening, the heavy fire appalling, while the musketry on the shore barks and bites at the unprotected pilots on the boats. Ten-inch cannon and great columbiads hurl their shot and shell into the cotton breastworks of the barges or through the rigging of the steamers. The gunboats tremble from the impact of shot against their sides, and at times the little steamers are caught in the powerful eddies of the river and are whirled three times around right in front of the hot firing batteries.<br>
Five hundred and twenty-five shells and cannonballs are hurled at the hurrying fleet. The flash of the guns, the light of the blazing houses, make the night seem a horrible tempest of lightning and thunder. Sherman, sitting out there alone in his yawl on the dark river, has witnessed awful spectacles, but this is the sight of a lifetime. “It was,” he exclaimed, “a picture of the terrible not often seen.” And amid all this roar and thunder and lightning and crash of cannonballs above, the men down in the holds of the boats—they are the real heroes—stand in the dim candle-light waiting, helpless, ignorant of events, and in terrible suspense, while sounds like the crash of worlds go on above their heads. Once some of them climb up to the hatchways and look out into the night. One look is enough! What a sight! The whole Mississippi River seems on fire, the roar of the gunboats answering the howling cannon on the shore, the terrific lightnings from the batteries, the screeching shells above the decks. It was as if hell itself were loose that night on the Mississippi River. For one hour and thirty minutes the brave men stood speechless in the holds of the boats while hell’s hurricane went on above. They lived an age in that hour and a half, and yet a thousand of us in Grant’s army tried to volunteer that we, too, might have this awful experience.<br>
Daylight saw the little fleet safe below Vicksburg, where thousands of soldiers welcomed it with cheers. No such deed had ever been done in the world before. Only one boat and some barges were lost, and only a few of the soldiers were hurt. The cotton bales had proved a miracle of defense. In a week still other steamers, though with greater loss, passed the batteries.<br>
We know the rest. On these same boats Grant’s army would ferry across the Mississippi, and there on the other side fight five battles and win them all. Vicksburg will be surrounded and assaulted and pounded and its soldiers starved, till, on the nation’s birthday, thirty thousand of its brave defenders will lay down their arms forever.