Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

As seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war online

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the present perhaps — may pronounce us all
equally inconsistent in some other matters.

I am afraid that it never occurred to those
who fell victims to the barbarities of the
Southern prison system to draw comfort by
philosophizing on the remote cause of their
misfortunes. The system referred to is al-
ready so severely condemned by the better
sentiment among themselves that at the
present day not one of their number has the
hardihood to attempt to defend it. It was
a losing game for them, for although it cost
us tens of thousands of good lives, yet the


Spirit which it awakened in the North when
the animus of our foes was once understood
was such that from that time on their ulti-
mate defeat was never for a moment in doubt-
We passed one of these prison pens on De-
cember 3d, which gave us an opportunity to
investigate its interior and exterior arrange-
ments. The record of the fact that in the
Northern army prisoners never received in-
sult or injury is an everlasting testimonial
of the better civilization bred under free



A Song by the Camp-Fire, and what Followed — A
Strayed Premonition— How Railroads Were De-
stroyed — Capturing a Steamboat — In Front of
Savannah — Rice Plantations — Lumber for Winter

IT was about two weeks after we left At-
lanta before the army itself came in con-
tact with the enemy, and then only in a
skirmish. The band had gathered as usual
about its camp-fire one evening, where we
expected company at any time, for the musi-
cal talent included in the group attracted
many first and last, until it had become a
tacitly understood middle-ground in the gulf
'twixt commissions and ranks.

On this particular evening the Sergeant
Major — as it happened, a stalwart Scotch-
English blend who stood six feet two and


handled a sword much more gracefuUy than
he did his /i'5— was the first to arrive and
drop on the carpet of pine needles. He had
not been there long before he removed his
pipe from his mouth and began to sing.
This surprised me, for I had never heard him
sing a note before; but his voice was a rich
baritone, though uncultivated, and he sang
fairly well None were loth to listen to good
singing at such a time, and he sang on and
on; love song, drinking song, and camp song
following in succession. At last he paused,
and, reaching for a brand to relight his pipe,
dryly remarked:

"Hi don't knoo Vv^hat 's got liinto me to-
night. Hi 'ave n't felt so bloody-mooch like
singin' since Peach Tree Creek. We moost
be a-goin' to 'av' a fight to-morrow. Hi
halways feels like singin' the hevenin' afore
a fight."

As it happened, the next day while w^e
were entering Sandersville, our brigade being
in the lead that day, the enemy's cavalry
opened fire on the advance guard immediately
in our front, my own regiment being in the
firing line, and as we entered the village play-
ing a patriotic air, a slight shower of lead
whispered over our heads. I saw two or


three wounded, but I do not remember that
any of our men were killed. But the enemy
left a few of their dead behind, one soldier in
gray being stretched at full length on the
porch of the village church. Though the
firing was lively for a time our line never
paused in their forward sweep, and the flurry
was soon over.

It was hardly enough of a skirmish to be
called a " fight," but perhaps it was sufficient
to preserve the self-respect of that "bloody-
mooch" desire to indulge in song which had
manifested itself on the previous evening. A
few centuries ago such an occurrence would
have been sufficient material for the making
of a legend and a romance combined. Now,
however, the element of superstition seems
to be so far outgrown by the common mind
that the matter caused almost no comment,
and I only remember it as a curious incident
that no one thought of attempting to explain.

A bon mot which seemed to be much more
in keeping with the spirit of the time was per-
petrated by a facetious comrade, who re-
marked that Sandersville was well named,
for it was the only place thus far that gave
indications of having any "grit."

With the skirmish ended there was a halt


for dinner, and now began a running to and
fro through the village and surrounding
farms in search of provisions. I succeeded
in overtaking a hen, but in decapitating it
my hands and face became spattered with
blood. There was no water near except in
wells, and I did not care to become a comedy
star by returning to the line in that plight.
So, thinking only of procuring a basin of
water for washing, and never once reflecting
on the incongruity of the act, I stepped on
the back piazza of one of the houses and
knocked gently at the door.

It opened, and there was disclosed within
a group of women, in ages ranging from fif-
teen to fifty, I judge, and the whole group
stood transfixed with terror at the sight of
my blood-smeared face and hatchet Had
I come to murder them, as I doubtless had
others? My appearance was certainly in
evidence against me.

I had a sudden feeling of embarrassment at
having intruded in that rude manner and
frightening the family, but I could not retreat
then. So with such politeness as I could
summon I asked for a basin of water. One
of the girls, perhaps eighteen or more years
of age, with a womanly quickness of percep-


tion, seemed to be the first to grasp the situa-
tion, and, coming forward, she took down a
basin, and dipping some water fjjom a pail
with a gourd dipper, brought it outside and
set it on a bench.

I murmured thanks, and something about
being sorry to make so much trouble (oh,
how ridiculous the conventionalities seemed
in such a case!), and her grave, frank face
actually relaxed with a little smile while she
went in again and soon returned with a clean
towel, which she stood and held in waiting
for me to take. I will not say that I com-
pleted the washing and wiping in haste, for
the reader would not believe me if I did. It
was necessary for me to explain that we had
no regular rations, and were therefore obliged
to live on the country, and that I hoped the
passage of the army would not entail great
loss upon them, etc.

She responded to it all with politeness, and
continued to converse with a well-bred tact
that put me more at ease, and left me in no
doubt of the fact that she was a lady. Pos-
sibly the sudden revulsion of feeling from
that of terror made her forget for the moment
that I was part of an invading army whose
errand was destruction, and gave a little


flavor of friendliness to her conversation, for
the reader must remember that what she
probably thought was a battle had just been
fought before her eyes.

When I finally took my leave, it was with
a mutual exchange of good wishes, each for
the other, but as I turned to take up the dead
fowl, a queer feeling came over me, and I had
half a mind to leave it where it lay. Then I
reflected that it would probably be my last
opportunity for the day to get food, and —
hunger got the upper hand of sentiment, and
the fowl went with me.

This was the only glimpse I had through-
out the w^hole march of a white family in their
own home, and I never ceased to hope that
they might have no worse cause for fright
than the one I gave. Yet, whenever after
that I thought of the appearance of the coun-
try at those times when we had brought up
the rear instead of being in the van, the
thought was not a pleasant one.

I told Frank what a hard chase I had after
the fowd, and he congratulated me upon my
success in foraging, but remarked that I had
been gone long enough to have chased the
chicken half-way across the State. It was
dressed and neatly packed away in the


haversacks until the night camp should give
us time to cook it. For dinner we had com-
mon field corn parched in the frying-pan,
but I had hardly swallowed a handful of it
before we were ordered to again resume the
march; the hour of nooning had somehow
shpped away.

I am reminded here of another incident in
our brigade that seemed to have a bearing on
the subject of premonitions, of which I spoke
a short time ago. A certain sergeant had
been in no less than fifteen battles and had
never experienced any special dread, or "a
feeling of premonition," as he expressed it,
though he had once been slightly wounded.
But at the approach of the very last bat^ in
which his regiment was engaged, the battle
of Bentonville, North Carolina, he was over-
come by a feeling of impending death. He
was not in the least superstitious, but try as
he would he could not throw off this feeling,
and having a little time he sat down and wrote
a letter to his family. Sealing and directing
it he took it to his lieutenant, and requested
him to send it if he, the sergeant, should not
survive the battle. He then explained to the
lieutenant his presentiment, and that he could
not throw off the feeling of impending death.


"God help you, Sergeant, if you feel so,"
replied the lieutenant, putting the letter in his
pocket, "but I am as sure of going home to
my family as I am that the sun will rise."

The lieutenant was killed in that battle,
and it was the sergeant who lived to tell me
about it all and finally go home to his family.

As I have intimated, this was more a cam-
paign of labor than of fighting. The country
was full of swamps and streams, more espe-
cially on the latter half of the journey, bridges
were destroyed and roadways were obstructed
by having trees felled across them. An
army of that size can live well in a country
teeming with plenty as long as it keeps mov-
ing, but if Hood, instead of his wild-goose
chase to Nashville, had remained in our front,
we should have been starved out. As it was,
the bridging of streams and swamps, cor-
duroying roads underlaid with quicksand,
removing obstructions of all kinds, and drag-
ging wagons and guns out of the mud with
ropes was an immense labor and more wear-
ing on the men than the easy distances

The destruction of railroads, when it was
thoroughly done, was a laborious task. The
interruption of traffic for a few days was not


sufficient. We were cutting the Confederacy
in two now, and the railroads, its great arte-
ries, must be so thoroughly destroyed that
they could not be repaired.

A regiment would line up on one side of the
track, and taking hold of the rail and ends of
the ties, would begin to lift it up. Presently
it would be standing on the ends of the ties,
and as it began to go over at one point the
men would let go, and, running behind the
others who were still lifting, grasp a new
place and continue the raising. When once
started in this way, the track, rails and ties
together, would be slowly rolling over Hke an
immense furrow of sod rolling from some
giant plough.

" Now surely the railroad is destroyed," the
novice would say. Not at all, for it could
easily be put together again; the ties must
be burned. These, however, could be re-
placed by an army of slaves ; the rails them-
selves must be made useless. This was
accomplished by piHng up the ties with fence
rails and dry wood, and across each pile
would be laid perhaps a dozen of the iron
rails. The burning of the ties would heat
these, and while they were red hot each rail
was twisted by the use of a peculiar wrench.


A bent rail can be straightened, but a thor-
oughly twisted rail can never be used again,
and the Confederates had no source from
which to replace them.

As the campaign continued the constant
foraging, destroying railroads, and skirmish-
ings grew almost monotonous, except that
as we approached the coast food grew scarcer
while the swamps to be waded grew wider and
deeper. A few days before the end of our
march. Captain Gildersleeve (now Judge Gil-
dersleeve of New York), while in charge of the
foraging detail in search of food, touched the
Savannah River at a point several miles above
the city. While here they discovered a steam-
boat coming up the river, and hailed her
with orders to "Heave to." The boatmen,
however, put on all steam, and it continued
its course, they evidently hoping to get out
of range. But a few bullets through the pilot-
house caused the captain to change his mind,
and a white flag was shaken out. When she
was pulled to the shore a small body of Con-
federates was found on board. These were
placed under guard and taken away as pris-
oners, but the boat was burned where it lay.

It was soon after this that our brigade was

engaged with a small body of the enemy.


They had erected earthworks and resisted
our advance with some show of force. When
a line was formed for the attack our position
was not immediately in front of their works,
but was on the flank. The resistance was not
formidable and the works were soon in our
possession, with a few prisoners who preferred
to stay and end their military service by being
taken. Our position in the line prevented
the regiment from taking an active part in
the skirmish, but we had an unpleasant ex-
perience in that we were obliged to wade
through a rice swamp where the mud and
water was nearly leg deep.

The river is very broad in its lower course,
and is subject to the rise and fall of the tide.
The land is much of it so low that the rice
plantations are only protected from the en-
croachments of the tides and freshets by a
system of dykes. But instead of the Holland
system, which pumps out the water from the
low-lying farm-lands, these dykes have out-
lets through which the water escapes at low
tide, but which are automatically closed by
swinging doors in such a way as to shut out
the rising tide. Near the city the river sep-
arates and flows in different channels, en-
closing thus low-lying islands which are miles


in extent. Each island was a rice plantation
surrounded by its dykes with tide gates, and
fortunately there was there in store some
rice, which was soon needed.

On December 8th we took up a position in
front of the city, and "Marching through
Georgia" was at an end. Our camp was es-
tablished in a beautiful grove of live-oaks on
the bank of the river a few miles above the
city. The exquisite beauty of that brief
camp remains with me a sweet memory in
these New England winters. The ground
was thirty or forty feet above the river, level
and free from bushes, and the majestic live-
oaks with their foliage of dark green leaves
overhead furnished a canopy to what seemed
a vast cathedral. Their sturdy trunks, with
large low limbs which spread gradually out-
ward and upward in regular curves, gave the
curious effect that, gaze which way you
might, you seemed to be looking through a
vast succession of Gothic arches spanning
vaulted aisles that radiated from where you
stood; and all were hung and draped in
wondrous profusion with the long Southern
tree moss, which gave the scene a hoary and
enchanting effect.

We began here to build winter quarters of


boards and logs, using our little tents for
roofs, for the thought of more permanent
accommodation continually haunts, like a
mirage, the soldier's life. As may be sur-
mised, material in the way of boards soon
became a rare article, for they were only to
be obtained by tearing down some sort of
buildings, and a few of us, having secured a
boat, determined on an excursion in search
of lumber. Getting an early start in the
morning we rowed easily up the river several
miles above our lines, until we came to an
island plantation. It was entirely aban-
doned, which was fortunate for us, for we had
only the little hatchets which nearly all sol-
diers carried. As it was on the Carolina side
of the river it had not been exploited by
foragers, which w^as another piece of good
fortune for us.

The "quarters" were little cabins built of
boards of the Southern pine, and it was not
difficult for us to take some of these apart and
carry the boards to the water. As the tide
was out we built a raft on the mud, and while
we waited for the returning tide to float it we
went in search of food. But there was none
to be found except some rice in the hull, and
and of this we procured considerable.


Northern readers will need to have it ex-
plained that rice when it is threshed from the
straw is not the beautiful white kernels of the
rice of commerce. Each white kernel is en-
closed in a yellow husk, giving it much the
appearance of barley. So tightly does this
hull cling to the kernel that it can only be
loosened by being pounded in a mortar. As
we had already learned so much of the indus-
trial peculiarities of the crop, we were not slow
in appropriating a large iron kettle we found
here, and adding it to our cargo, for we could
use this as a mortar.

About the middle of the afternoon all was
ready for the start. The raft with its freight
was swaying on the flood tide, and we at-
tached it to the stern of the boat and at-
tempted to tow it down the river, but it
proved to be a most obstinate hulk, and
would go nowhere but with the current. So
we held a council of war, with the result that
it was decided that myself with one other
should remain on the raft and go down with
the ebbing tide, but the others were to go
ahead with the boat, and while preparing sup-
per should watch for us, and come out and
tow us in when we had drifted opposite the


I had a more verdant faith in human nature
before that episode than I have had since.
They were only too glad to go ahead to camp,
and being soon busily engaged about their
supper, never watched for us at all.

We two who were left procured some long
poles, and as soon as the tide had turned
boarded our craft, and pushing it well out
into the muddy river waited for it to carry
us down; and as we waited darkness settled
around and enclosed us. We shoved well
towards the south shore, and drifting faster
and faster finally came in sight of the army
camp-fires. Just above our own camp was
a point of land projecting into the river, and
upon this landmark we depended to find
our way, but as we swung round it the
current carried us far out into the channel,
and we could not touch bottom with the

Here was a predicament, for our unman-
ageable craft was sweeping us towards the
Confederate lines, which were but a short
distance below, w^ith the now rapid current.
We splashed and paddled furiously with our
poles, and just as we were preparing to
abandon the raft and swim for safety, the
poles again touched bottom, and we soon



pushed to the shore and along in the eddies
up to our camp.

We found the rest of our party enjoying a
comfortable smoke after supper, and it is just
possible that we reverted a little to the Saxon
in explaining our sentiments.



Army Suffering with Hunger — Enemy's Prudent Re-
treat — Unparalleled Campaign — Journalistic En-
terprise — Crossing the Savannah into South Caro-
lina — Cold Weather Again — Skilful Manoeuvring
— General Kilpatrick's Adventure.

WITH the lumber secured we proceeded
to the building of the winter quarters,
but as it happened we did not enjoy them
long. In a few days Fort McAllister, on the
Ogeechee River, was captured, and this
opened mail communication, but did not
suffice for a " cracker line." During the last
two weeks of our march the country had
grown poorer in the matter of supplies, for
as the swamps had grown broader the arable
land had decreased. As soon as we halted in
front of the city food disappeared from the


surrounding country in a twinkling. A little
additional was obtained from the rice planta-
tions on the river, but that also soon van-
ished, and we were confronted by an enemy
more imperious than the Confederate army.

A little corn had been saved for the mules,
for it was imperative to keep them alive, but
it became necessary to place an armed guard
over them, while they ate or the corn would
be stolen. Major Smith's compassionate
heart was so moved by the sight that each
day when he 'drew the few ears of corn al-
lowed for his horse he divided it among the
men most in need, letting the poor beast eat
twigs, moss, or anything else. He never re-
covered from the moss and brush diet, and
the good Major was obliged to get a new horse
soon after. ]\Iany times I have seen men
searching the dirt where the mules had eaten
their corn, to pick out the scattering kernels
one by one and save them for their supper.

The city was peculiarly well situated for
defence against assault, one side fronting on
the broad river, and the other sides being
nearly surrounded by a morass too wide to be
quickly bridged and too soft to be walked
over. Its fortifications, looking out across
this barrier, seemed absolutely inaccessible.


It was about ten days after the arrival of
the army in front of the city that a large por-
tion of our regiment was ferried across the
river in fiat-boats to watch the enemy, who
were seen to have pontoon bridges connect-
ing the city with the South Carolina shore.
Here our men were confronted by a consider-
able body of Confederates, with whom they
had some skirmishing for a few days, losing
several killed and wounded, Colonel Ketcham
being among the latter. He was crippled by
a shot through the thigh.

The enemy were seen to be leaving the city
and crossing the bridges in considerable num-
bers, and it was thought that if we gave them
time enough they would all retreat by that
way. But the army was really suffering for
food, and it was decided that an assault must
be made at all hazards. Quantities of tall
Southern cane was cut and tied in bundles,
which were to be carried forward just before
the break of day and laid in the mud to form
roads over which the charging forces could
cross the swamp in front of the works.

It promised to be a bloody task, and the
morning set for it was December 21st, but
during the previous night, having perhaps
got an inkling of our plans, the remainder of


the enemy quietly but very hastily left the
city, retreating northward on the pontoon
bridges our regiment had been watching,
across the Savannah River into South

Comparing its results with its cost, Sher-
man's march to the sea stands unparalleled
among the campaigns of the war. By
cutting the Confederacy in two, destroying
long lines of railroads, crippling its internal
resources, and approaching the rear of forces
then confronting the Army of the Potomac,
thus effecting what is known in military par-
lance as a "concentric movement," it was a
mighty factor in bringing the rebellion to a
close. In accomplishing these great results
the army lost in killed, wounded, and missing
less than one per cent. In other respects
also the campaign brought us great gains,
for the enemy left behind in their flight
valuable stores and a large amount of ar-

Up to the very last day of their occupancy
the Savannah Republican was published and
sold on the streets, but so sudden w^as the
departure of the Confederates that the office
and publishing rooms, with all their material
and machinery, were found perfectly intact


by our troops in the morning. Yankee en-
terprise seemed to be always on hand.
Ready writers dropped the musket, and as-
suming the pen began to furnish copy ; com-
positors who could set type as readily as
they could load a rifle were summoned from
the ranks, and by afternoon the paper was
sold on the streets without having missed an

It announced the evacuation of the city by
the Confederates the night before, and the
consequent occupation by Sherman's army,
with the change of editorship and proprietor-
ship, and naturally also there was an editorial
statement in regard to a "change of atti-
tude" upon national affairs. Can the boast-
ful spirit of modem newspaperdom give a
more striking instance of journalistic enter-
prise ?

The city of Savannah fronts the river on a
towering bluff, and as I remember it 't is a

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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 12 of 14)