Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

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

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city of beautiful monuments, beautiful ave-
nues and boulevards, revelling in the luxuri-
ous shade trees of that climate. As one
stands on the bluff' and looks northward into
South Carolina, there are long reaches across
the river channels with enclosed islands miles
in extent, and beyond on the mainland the



CAPTURE OF SAVANNAH 253

horizon is lost in the forest covering of those
seemingly interminable swamps.

Our objective point was now the rear of
Lee's army in Virginia, but between our-
selves and that point were hundreds of miles
of low-lying swampy country, with streams
all running at right angles to our necessary
course, and just at that time too there were
heavy rains, putting the whole of that coastal
plain in a state of inundation. Such a con-
dition of things would have made it difficult
to continue even the ordinary vocations of
peace in that half-drowned land. How then
was a whole army to traverse such a country
in midwinter, with all its munitions, and
hindered by bands of cavalry as well as by
the citizens who burned bridges and ob-
structed roads by every possible means? I
think it was the opinion, both North and
South, that the attempt would not be made.

But Sherman was then flushed with suc-
cess, and he made light of difficulties and
dangers that would have daunted almost any
commander at an earlier stage of the war.
Perhaps also he realized that the merciful
war is that which is made the shortest — at
any cost. I doubt, however, if the plans
could have been successful, even with his



254 ^^ SEEN FROM THE HANKS

indomitable energy, had it not been for the
modern form of improved pontoon boats.

In these the boat was a framework covered
with cotton duck. When the cloth was re-
moved the frame was taken apart, and the
whole could then be loaded on wagons and
transported much easier than the boats
formerly used, and the small amount of
water which found its way through the duck
was easily removed. The ready and expert
handling of these bridges, enabling them to
be quickly put in place and as quickly taken
up and loaded on the wagons, was an art in
which the Engineer Corps becanie very ac-
complished.

A marked feature of this campaign, as of
the previous one, was the great number of
slaves which literally swarmed to the army.
Of these a large and efficient force was or-
ganized to assist the Engineer Corps, as they
were ready users of the axe and spade; but
simply as a military measure, on account of
the prospect of a scarcity of food, the General
was obliged to exclude large numbers of them
and prevent their following us.

January i6, 1865, we crossed the river on
the same pontoon bridges that the Confeder-
ates had escaped by, and which in their haste



CAPTURE OF SAVANNAH 255

they had left already in place for us. They
were made on the immense river scows so
much used on the tidal rivers there, and, of
course, could not be readily transported ; but
left in position for us, they proved to be quite
an assistance. Two days' march brought us
to Sister's Ferry on the Savannah River, and
here we waited for a week, for the Confeder-
ates now confronted us in some force, and it
became necessary to wait until the body of
the army was well across, enabling it to in-
vade the country with a good defensive front
and form.

Let no one suppose that " the sunny South-
land" is always sunny, or that it forever
caresses the cheek with the soft breath of
warm zephyrs. During the week of our stay
here the weather was very cold for that cli-
mate, as in fact it had been during much of
our stay in Savannah. Sometimes water
would freeze half an inch thick in a night,
and as our clothing had become much worn
this campaign caused more suffering from
cold and wet than anything we had ex-
perienced.

In that whole two months' tramping and
camping from Savannah to Raleigh, my rec-
ollection of the landscape is of a dreary



256 /IS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

succession of forests of Southern pine, and of
swamps where the doleful cypress trees were
standing in the water ; and in area the latter
seemed to greatly predominate. Perhaps
they left that impression because they were
so much more troublesome in passing. There
were occasional oases of plantations with
their long rows of little log cabins for the
slaves, known as "quarters." One of these
plantations had been devoted — so the over-
seer told us — to raising slave children for
market. There were nearly three hundred
slave w^omen, and a dozen or two slave men,
about the place.

South Carolina looked poor from an agri-
cultural standpoint, but the same means for
provisioning the army were used here that
had proved so successful in Georgia ; in fact,
the system of foraging begun in the latter
State was here carried out by a more com-
plete organization on the same lines. The
State probably suffered more from the in-
vasion than Georgia did, and this for several
reasons. For one thing food was scarcer,
and the country had to be more thoroughly
gone over and ransacked in order to supply
the army. And then, too, there was a more
marked hostility on the part of the few re-



CAPTURE OF SAVANNAH 257

maining inhabitants, and the openly ex-
pressed opinion in the ranks that, as South
CaroHna was the first to secede and was the
most active in promoting the war, if any
State had to suffer by it, she should be the
one.

Of his foragers while in this State, Sherman
says, with just a suggestion of humor: "A
little loose in foraging, they did some things
they ought not to have done; yet on the
whole they supplied the army with as little
violence as could have been expected." But
the sober fact was that a strip of country
many miles in width and reaching across
the State from south to north was stripped
of fences, buildings, farm animals, property
and food of every description, though I never
heard of a case in which violence was offered
to citizens.

We were not now, as in Georgia, without
an army to confront us, for the Confederate
General "Joe" Johnston had collected some
of the remnants of Hood's defeated army,
an(i probably some forces from other parts,
and was disputing our progress at every
stream and swamp. This General Joseph E.
Johnston is considered by some critics to
have been the most able general in the
17



258 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

Confederate service, not excepting Lee. He
commanded the army which confronted
Sherman in the Atlanta campaign in 1864,
and he resisted our advance towards that
city with acknowledged skill. Had he not,
upon Jefferson Davis's order, been super-
seded by Hood, it is quite possible that
Sherman's success would not have been as
complete as it was.

There were frequent skirmishes along our
front, and there is a picture of one of these
which my Imp continually thrusts before me,
but the name and locality he has lost. The
scene is of a far-flung skirmish-line where the
men are wading among the towering tree
trunks, nearly leg deep in water, and loading
and firing as they advance. It was charac-
teristic of these swamps and flooded low-
lands that they were crossed by roads and
causew^ays, with bridges spanning the chan-
nels, and it was this which made their passage
in the face of an enemy so difficult.

The flooded condition of the country made
the continual moving of pontoon bridges a
wearisome task. Sometimes men would be
ferried across, and when enough were on the
other side they would throw out a skirmish -
line to hold the enemy at bay while the bridge



CAPTURE OF SAVANNAH 259

was being placed. It was always necessary
to have the bridges guarded, both while being
placed and when being taken up.

One day, when we had marched in a pour-
ing rain since early morning, we did not get
into camp until evening. We were tired and
hungr}^ thoroughly wet, and quite disposed
to think that General Sherman was an un-
reasonable man, and that our lot was a hard
one. But while we were making some re-
marks bearing upon this view of the situa-
tion another regiment passed along without
stopping to camp. Upon inquiry it tran-
spired that this regiment had yet to go four-
teen miles farther in the rain, and then do
guard duty at a pontoon bridge which must
be in place before morning.

All at once our spirits rose to the point of
cheerfulness; our lot was a pleasant one,
after all, — comparatively speaking, — and a
camp in the towering forest, lit up by fires of
the sooty pitch-pine, is n't bad, even if it
does rain. Human nature is the same
always. Comfort and luxury are elastic
terms, and depend for their meaning mainly
upon comparative conditions.

Probably much of Sherman's success was
due to the skilful manner in which he handled



26o ^S SEEN FROM THE RAiYKS

his troops, continually misleading the enemv
as to his real destination, and in this he was
no doubt greatly assisted by his foragers,
who hung about the army like a cloud. He
first threatened Charleston with a consider-
able force, then threatened Augusta in the
same manner, but finally passed with his
whole army between the two places. The
same method answered his purpose all the
way, continually threatening the places he
did not mean to strike, while the main part
of his army moved by other roads.

In these "demonstrations" of course the
cavalry formed the active element, because
of their ability to move rapidly from one
point to another. The traditional idea of the
cavalryman as one who rides furiously into
the enemy's ranks, slashing their heads off
right and left with his sabre, is not a true
picture of the service rendered by that branch
of the army in modern warfare.

In actual combat, since the coming of the
long-range rifle, the use of the sabre is as rare
as the use of the bayonet. In fact, the
cavalry now does most of its fighting dis-
mounted, and formed in line like infantry.
But with us they formed the advance-guard,
actively pushing out to find and "feel" of



CA PTURE OF SA VA NNA H 2 6 1

the enemy, and General Kilpatrick, who had
command of Sherman's cavalry, was the
most active and energetic of commanders,
often being in the thick of the fray himself,
as was evidenced by the fact that he was
several times wounded.

In one of the advances of the cavalry he
made his camp for the night in an advanced
position, and in the darkness a band of the
enemy captured his headquarters and all his
papers, he barely escaping to a swamp with
only his sword. He soon discovered that
most of his guard had also escaped, and under
the cover of darkness he rapidly formed a line
in the woods. The enemy were so busy
looting the baggage that they were surprised
in turn w^hen with his few men he made a
dashing charge, and he succeeded in re-
capturing his camp.







CHAPTER XXIV

TRAMPING AND FIGHTING IN THE CAROLINAS

The Burning of Columbia — Explosion in Cheraw — Tur-
pentine Factory in Flames — Battle of Avery sbor-
ough — "Aniniis Opibusque Parati" — A Little
Panic Soon Ended — Bentonville, the Last Battle.



OUR corps passed several miles to the
west of Columbia about the time that
it was burned. I shall not attempt to decide
the much- vexed question of "Who burned
Columbia ? ' ' but it was currently reported in
the army at the time that our troops had
found the city to be on fire in several places
when they first entered. This and the fact
that the streets were full of quantities of
loose cotton blowing here and there in the
high wind which prevailed at the time made
its destruction certain. It was also said that
the soldiers found large quantities of whisky
there.

262



IN THE CAROLINAS 263

When we consider that from this capital of
South CaroUna there had emanated for years
the most vile abuse of Northern men, and
especially of Northern soldiers, we must con-
cede that our Southern friends were not wise
in leaving so much inflammable material of
various kinds around loose.

At one of the camps the water obtained
seemed foul, and when boiled gave out a dis-
tinct odor of decaying animal matter. The
slaves about there explained that the water
came from " Rotten Rock," and was not fit to
use. They directed us to a spring a mile
away, where we obtained pure water. This
was before it was generally known that in
some parts of the State there are immense
deposits of fossil remains, and I have since
wondered whether it was those remains that
tainted the water. They are now mined and
used as a source of supply of phosphates for
fertilizers.

By March 6th we had traversed the State
of South Carolina, and arrived at Cheraw on
its northern boundary. We were not the
first to arrive, by some days, fortunately for
us, perhaps, for the Confederates had here
concealed several tons of powder in a pit,
carefully covering it over. But it somehow



264 ^S SEEN FROM THE RANKS

managed to become ignited, probably from
the camp-fires, and the resulting explosion
killed several of our soldiers and completely
wrecked the town.

We crossed into North Carolina the next
day, and soon encountered a characteristic
war scene in the "Turpentine State." This
was a tar and turpentine factory in flames,
and at the distance of fifteen miles the banks
of black smoke rising against the sky looked
like the approaching body of a tempest.

Our line of march led close to the fire, and
there was a weird and almost supernatural
effect in the vast seething and roaring body
of flames, which, shaded and partially hidden
by the masses of sooty smoke which covered,
or, lifted by the wind, alternately veiled and
revealed the endless blue columns swaying
with the long swinging stride which became
such a marked characteristic of the men who
marched down to the sea ; in the long bugle
peal and rumbling artillery with chaffing
horses; in the glimmer of muskets and
sabres ; and in all to be heard and seen only
by glimpses under the smoke, and muffled by
the Niagara-like roar of the flames as they
licked up the turpentine and pitch in the
great vats.



IN THE CAROLINAS 265

It was a frequent custom for the men to
while away the march b}^ singing, and there
now came roUing back from the depths of
the pine forest the chorus of thousands
voicing the stately measures of the author-
less war hymn :

"John Brown's body lies a mould'ring in the
grave,
John Brown's body lies a mould'ring in the

grave,
John Brown's body lies a mould'ring in the
grave,

His soul is marching on."

At once a prophecy and its fulfilment.

By March i6th we had reached the vicinity
of Averysborough, at w^hich place there was
a battle where our regiment was engaged,
and where we lost several men. The enemy
were found strongly entrenched here on a
neck of land between swamps, from which it
seemed impossible to dislodge them by direct
attack.

But a brigade was sent by a long detour to
their right to attack the position in flank,
while our cavalry moved around to their left.
While the enemy's force was diverted by
these flank movements our line made a



266 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

vigorous attack on their centre, but did
not immediately capture the position. The
battle raged with some fury until nightfall,
and when at daylight our line again moved
forward to the attack, their entrenchments
were found to be empty ; they had retreated
in the darkness, moving their forces east-
ward, as we afterward learned.

Among the souvenirs in my daughter's
museum is a relic, a brass button bearing the
figure of the Palmetto tree, and underneath
it the State motto, " Antmis Opihusque
Parati." Heroic motto, heroically exem-
plified !

It is a trifling thing, but when I take it up
my Imp at once thrusts before me the picture
of a portion of this field on the day after the
battle ; a portion which had been occupied
by a Confederate battery. There were dis-
mounted guns, a number of dead horses, and
other indications that the battery had suf-
fered severe punishment. The dead soldiers
had been buried, but from an artilleryman's
gray jacket, which appeared to have been
torn by a shell, I took this button.

The story of this battery interested us
somewhat at the time, though how it reached
us, whether through prisoners or over the



IN THE CAROLINAS 267

vidette line, I cannot now tell. It was from
South Carolina, and during the whole four
years of the war they had been in and about
Charleston, and had not fired a gun for their
cause. At this battle, though, just at the
close of the war, they were permitted to take
part, and fired one volley. Batlery M, of
the ist New York Artillery, the battery
which accompanied our division, sent a shell
in answer to their volley, which wrought such
havoc with the Palmetto battery that they
never fired again.

This destructive shell from Battery M had
pierced their caisson, where the ammunition
is carried, and the resulting explosion had
killed many men, officers, and horses. So
their opening volley was their last.

This conflict of a day at Averysborough
was not a large affair, in comparison with the
numerous sanguinary conflicts w^hich had
preceded it. It was, however, the first con-
siderable engagement that the infantry of
Sherman's army had with the enemy after
leaving Savannah. It was fought entirely
by our corps, the Twentieth, and the loss in
killed and wounded aggregated about six
hundred.

But however insignificant a figure it cut in



268 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

the matter of losses, or numbers engaged, it
was an important battle because of the criti-
cal situation in which we were placed. Even
a temporary defeat while we were thus isolated
from a base of supplies might have been a
serious thing. And then, too, there was the
constant danger that Lee might elude the
watchfulness of Grant, who confronted him
at Petersburg, Va., and stealing away un-
observed, join his army with that of John-
ston, and with the combined force overwhelm
our toil-worn trampers.

It is easy to tell of what might have hap-
pened, but that which did happen in Vir-
ginia was that Grant's vigilance made it
impossible for Lee to get away unobserved,
and when he finally attempted it he was
promptly surrounded and his army captured.

That which happened in North Carolina
was that the Confederates, disheartened by
many defeats, were not successful once, but
were out-generaled, out-fought, and defeated
in every encounter.

After this battle we took up our march
eastward, in the direction of Goldsboro, which
is on the Neuse River. A few days after
leaving Ayerysborough. while we were quietly
tramping along at the usual marching pace,



IN THE CAROr.INAS 269

I saw far up the road a horseman riding
furiously toward us. He was an orderly
sent on some hasty errand from head-
quarters, we supposed, and hence he attracted
little attention.

Soon we heard the sound of artillery in our
front, followed by the roar of small-arms.
This had also become such a frequent occur-
rence of late as scarcely to cause comment,
except speculation as to who was "in it."
But now we noticed pack-mules being urged
to the rear, soldiers and camp-followers of all
grades running after them, some of them hat-
less, and a baggage wagon bum.ping furiously
over the rough road as the driver lashed the
mules and yelled strange oaths.

At once I understood the situation. I had
never seen a panic, but I knew this was one,
and hence it was possible for it to be a serious
affair.

A panic is an unreasonable and unreason-
ing fright, and when it seizes on an army it
becomes positively infectious and irresistible.
No matter how^ well some may keep their
heads, the very fact that the great body of
the troops have lost the bonds of discipline
and the power to reason, and have in fact
become insane for the time being, puts every



270 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

one in danger. It was this which defeated
our raw and undisciplined army in the midst
of success at the battle of Bull Run in the
first year of the war.

But this army with its experience of long
service had become immune against undue
fright, and the panic, as the late Artemas
Ward would have said, "as a failure was a
success." We halted at the side of the road,
which for a little time was filled with a strug-
ling mass of soldiers, horses, mules, and wag-
ons, but the scramble was soon ended, and
every one who had been concerned in it
looked ashamed.

The advance-guard that morning had en-
countered a small force of the enemy, and
driving them rapidly back had suddenly and
most unexpectedly come upon the whole
Confederate army in a well defended position,
and were themselves assailed in turn. They
had gone forward with so little suspicion of
danger that they had been accompanied by
a considerable body of stragglers and camp
followers, mostly officers' servants, all intent
to forage in search of food, and so eager that
they kept well up to the front. It was these
stragglers and foragers who were responsible
for most of the confusion, for, when the



IN THE CAROLINAS 27 1

troops were suddenly repulsed, it was they
who became so panic-stricken as to endanger
the welfare of the army.

But reinforcements came, and, as it had
been at each place before, the Confederates
were defeated and driven out of their works.
Falling back, they now established them-
selves in a new position, this time near Ben-
tonville. At this place they were attacked a
few days later, and in the battle which ensued
the enemy were again thoroughly defeated;
it was Sherman's last battle. In this battle
we were well towards the extreme left of our
line, and as soon as the position was taken we
immediately began to cut the timber in our
front and put up a breastwork of logs.

In a defensive position in a forest this cut-
ting of the timber for a considerable distance
in front is important, for it not only prevents
an attacking body from having any conceal-
ment of their movements, but the entangled
trunks and limbs of fallen trees make a very
effective barrier to hinder an assaulting
force, and to hinder and delay an assault
when its forces are well under fire is usually
to defeat it.

We were not attacked in this position, but
the regiment did some active skirmishing



272 AS SEEiV FROM THE RANKS

along our front, for the enemy repeatedly
attacked the skirmish -line hard enough to
find out that it was there and ready to offer
resistance. At one time three or four of the
picket reserve brought a man back to the
regiment in a blanket. As he was carried
we supposed, of course, that he was hard hit,
or had at least as much as a leg broken. But
when the doctor examined him the only in-
jury to be found was a flesh wound, — a bullet
hole through the muscle of the upper arm.

This would not usually prevent a man
from walking a limited distance, but he was
very young — only a boy in his 'teens — and
the loss of blood with exposure to a cold rain
had so wrought upon him that with the ner-
vous shock he was prostrated and lost all
strength.

This was our last encounter with the forces
of the Confederacy, and we soon after went
to Goldsboro, and thence a few days later to
Raleigh.




CHAPTER XXV

THE DAWN OF PEACE

Surrender of Lee and Johnston — Rejoicing Interrupted
— Lincoln and Seward — Through Richmond and
over Old Battlefields — A Vast Bivouac of the
Dead — Washington in Mourning, but Exultant
and Rejoicing — The Grand Review.

NOW the army soon became filled with the
wildest rumors flying from mouth to
mouth. Lee's army was said to be marching
south to join with that of Johnston, and with
the combined forces to overwhelm Sherman.
Again it was rumored that negotiations were
pending between Lee and Grant, looking to
the surrender by the former of all the Con-
federate forces then in Virginia; it seemed
too good to be true. But at last it was defi-
nitely made known that Lee's army, the
one army of the Confederacy which had
successfully held its ground through the

'' 273



2/4 ^^ SEE AT FROM THE RANKS

whole war, had really surrendered, and this
meant of course that the war was virtually
over.

It may have been true that we were worn
down by the long winter's campaign, but now
we became suddenly unconscious of it, if
such was the case, and were filled anew with
life and vivacity. We should surely now
reach home, we thought, before the expira-
tion of our three years, which would not be
for six months yet.

The crowding of great events was thick and
fast now, and it was soon made known that
there was some sort of armistice between
Sherman and Johnston, with a view to the


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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 13 of 14)