Friday, March 30, 2012

Abominable Care

The 19th century was the end of the middle ages for the medical sciences as the implications of germ theory were just being explored.  However, rusty instruments, amputations without anesthesia and lack of concern for the patient are common misconceptions about battlefield medicine. Undoubtedly, there were incidents of all these horrors, but it is unfair to say this was the standard treatment of  the wounded by physicians on either side.  Although field surgeons typically had quality instruments, they seldom had the opportunity, facility or training to sterilize them. Due to the scarcity of fresh water, the surgeons sometimes went several days without changing clothes or washing their hands. There were periodic shortages of medicines and supplies due to overwhelming demand, and the proximity to regular hospital care was a continuing problem. It is said that one crowded steamboat full of wounded soldiers was dispatched from Fort Donelson to St. Louis with no physicians or nurses on board.

                                    A modern (1865) veterans hospital ward.

 On the other hand, it is generally accepted that two thirds of the soldiers that perished during the war did so as the result of common diseases that were epidemic in every camp.  Deaths from disease were equally divided between the digestive (diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid fever) and the respiratory (tuberculosis and pneumonia) systems. Common contagious diseases such as measles, mumps, chicken pox and whooping cough were also prevalent because many of the men were from rural areas and had limited exposure during childhood. Infections from insect, snake and other animal bites as well as from minor wounds also took their toll. And finally, deaths at home or in hospitals following treatment of battle wounds were generally under reported. Those men who died from the above and other natural causes are not included in the battlefield casualty reports cited by historians.

As an example of the toll this lack of health care had on the fighting armies, consider the Seventeenth.  Of the 692 men mustered into service at Calhoun on January 4th, only 250 were available for duty three months later.  Among those no longer present, 19 were listed as battlefield fatalities at Fort Donelson.*

*  Blackburn, John, A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, 1972.  Self Published.
 LOC 72-93774

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Music of Stephen Foster

The importance of music to the Civil War soldier can not be overstated.  The music itself, however, can be over analysed.  The songs of Stephen Foster have been blacklisted or rewritten in the name of political correctness.  It must be remembered that many of them were written ten years before the war.  Although they presented a charming and picturesque vision of the Old South, they also pointed out the tribulations and torments of slave life, even under the kindest of masters, thereby arguing against the defense some slave owners offered that their slaves were protected and well cared for.

Regardless of how they are interpreted, Foster's ballads of the south are universally soul-stirring.  No other songwriter is credited with penning two different states' songs, Kentucky and Florida.  Bardstown, KY still conducts their tribute to the popular songwriter nearly 150 years after his death.  Elvis should live so long.

His Old Folks at Home became the official song of Florida even though Foster is not known to have ever visited the state. In fact, his reference to Florida's Suwanee River was added at the suggestion of a friend after the song had been completed.  Nevertheless, his music as well as other popular songs from the 1850's provided comfort to men on both sides as evidenced by this Smithsonian video clip: Music During the American Civil War.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Evening Routine

In the late afternoon, retreat was sounded by the regimental bugler and the flag lowered.  For this ceremony the volunteers often presented in full dress uniform, especially if being visited by other officers or if important orders were being read.  This was a time when they looked and felt like "regular army" and it gave them a sense of pride, of dignity and of confidence.   It was also a dearly treasured and revered  ritual because it signified the end of the work day for most of the men.

After retreat, the soldiers were rewarded with their favorite meal of the day.  The daily ration always tasted better at the end of the day.  Sometimes  Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whiskey was available for sipping.

The men dressed down after supper and congregated at the campfires, writing letters and singing songs.  There was time for reading and the occasional "spelling bee" provided intellectual entertainment.

"Many of the men, in later years, remembered the campfire gatherings as the most dreadful, yet most beautiful, hours of army life.  Dreaded because this was a time of longing and homesickness, but beautiful because it was a time of fellowship, and a time for remembrance of those they had left behind.  A soldier in the Seventeenth stated it well when he commented that the gatherings around the campfire after supper were 'the saddest happy times' in the army."*

A campfire wasn't complete until someone brought out their guitar, banjo or fiddle.  At the time of the Cloud Field encampment, most of the Civil War songs were yet to be written.  In April of 1862, the two most popular marching songs for the Union Army were actually the same tune, written in 1856 by William Steffe from South Carolina. The original version was titled "Canaan's Happy Shore" or "Brothers Will You Meet Me?" and was  a popular  campfire spiritual.  It was later adapted  for the war as John Brown's Body  and  Battle Hymn of the Republic. ( Reference: ) There is evidence that the volunteers knew and sang all three versions.  Most often, however, the troops would have sung popular songs of the time, like Aura Lea  or the songs of Stephen Foster.  For the volunteers from Kentucky,  My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night  was surely the finale as the campfires burned low.

* Blackburn, John; A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, 1972, p.90. Self Published
LOC 72-93774

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Afternoon Routine

After the morning chores there was the welcome call to lunch which the soldiers jokingly called "roast beef".  The noontime meal was much the same as breakfast had been and amazingly the same as supper would be.  Unless some appropriated rations were available, every meal was hardtack, army beans, salted meat and coffee. The salted meat could be beef or pork and tins of sardines were also commonplace.

The afternoons were for drilling and some free time if possible. Their camp in Cloud Field was bounded by Brown's Ferry Rd., winding from Pittsburg Landing to Hamburg-Savannah Rd. While drilling, the 17th & 25th Kentucky Infantries would have formed on the ferry road.  For longer marches they would undoubtedly proceed westward to the intersection and, on "Column Left",  head south along the main road.

Modern view from Brown's Ferry Road down Hamburg-Savannah Road to the south.  Wicker's Field is adjacent to the distant grassy area on the right (about 1/2 mile) and a small pond lies about 1/4 mile beyond .
Photo by the author- all rights reserved

The troops were also allowed some free time for swimming and exploring the countryside.  Immediately to the east of their camp were seven curious earthen works that puzzled the men from Kentucky.  They were obviously man-made, but for what purpose?  The debate invariably led to the conclusion that these mounds must have been the defenses for an ancient village, but who could have built them?  Certainly, none of the Indian tribes with which they were familiar.

Editor's Note:  Today, the Orientation Center for the Shiloh Indian Mounds National Historic Landmark sits just a few yards east of the 17th's campsite.  I recommend touring the park in person or by visiting .

Friday, March 23, 2012

Morning Routine

The sound that most often disrupts the deep sleep of an infantryman is "Reveille", played by the regimental bugler sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 AM.  This particular torture is only bested by the brutal sound of the human voice shouting "Roll call!"

The soldier rarely looked or felt his best when presenting for roll call.  Abandon every image of a well-groomed company of uniformly dressed volunteers forming a line and answering smartly as their name is called.  In fact, it was said that anyone who did this for a week was guaranteed corporal stripes.  The fact that so few satisfied  this requirement is testimony to the high value placed on sleep by the weary soldiers.  The men fell out for roll call representing every conceivable permutation of the state of undress, barely recognizing or acknowledging the sound of their own name.

After roll call, it was time to take care of the animals.  This was the one time when being in the infantry was a decided advantage.  Only after caring for the animals did the men dress for the day.  Anyone who has mucked-out a stall can appreciate the wisdom in this scheduling.

After the animals, the men were fed.  The staple of breakfast, and every other meal, for the Civil War soldier was a solid, dense cracker about 3x3x1/2" in size.  One of the great challenges during the war was finding a way to eat this "hardtack" in every possible situation in which they found themselves.  When times were hard, the cracker was simply soaked in water or coffee until the resulting mush could be eaten with a spoon. 

In camp, however, more creative methods were available.  Hardtack could be soaked in water, drained and fried in pork fat.  This was called "skillygallee".  Another popular method was to spear it with a stick and toast over an open fire.  This was preferred in the evening as the men gathered around the camp fires sharing stories and toasting their hardtack.  But for breakfast, the preferred dish was "Peas on a Trencher", where a serving of peas or beans topped the cracker and softened it with their juices.

After breakfast, the men were divided into work details. Those not needed for chopping wood, digging sanitary trenches, maintaining armaments or other duties were assigned to drill.

Editor's Note:  Taken from the Regimental History of the 17th Kentucky Infantry written by John Blackburn,  A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, 1972. LOC 72-93774

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Grant's Decision

Editor's Note:  Grant's decision to have his forces bivouac near Pittsburg Landing has been discussed and re-cussed for the past 150 years.  Keeping within the framework of this presentation, only situational knowledge that was available to Grant at the time will be presented.  Higher order analysis is reserved for those with loftier goals than this writer possesses.

When Halleck decided to reinstate Grant as Commander of the Army of the Tennessee, he issued the following imperatives.  First, release as many steamboats as possible for other duties along the western rivers.  Second, await the arrival of the Army of the Ohio at Savannah, on the east bank of the Tennessee River.  Third, avoid engagement with the enemy. And fourth, await Halleck's own arrival from Fort Henry.  The Commander of the Western Theater intended to personally take charge of the combined armies for an assault on the railroad junction at Corinth, MS, some 22  miles to the south of Pittsburg Landing.

Given his awareness of the enemy's defensive position at Corinth,  Grant needed to disembark his troops on the west bank to release the steamboats for other duties.  He retained only the timber-clads Tyler and Lexington,  his floating command post Tigress and enough boats to ferry Buell's army across the river when they arrive.

It was Sherman's failed mission at Tyler's Landing and subsequent encampment near Pittsburg Landing which led C.F.Smith to position three divisions of green troops on the portion of the plateau nearest Corinth. It was, however, Grant's decision to follow this pattern and deploy his remaining forces in bivouac-styled encampments between the primitive log church and Pittsburg Landing. These positions were on high ground with boggy, flooded creek beds lying to the north and south. The open fields were separated by lightly wooded tree lines, deep ravines and natural growth southern forest. The primary approach from the south was a relatively narrow band of dry land to the southwest. All in all, a naturally defensible position.

Modern view showing the sun-spattered bottom of a 50 ft-deep ravine near Pittsburg Landing.
Photo by author- all rights reserved.

Why these natural defenses were not enhanced has been a subject of much debate, but we will leave it here with Grant's explanation that he felt the troops needed drilling and discipline more than experience building fortifications.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cloud Field, Mar 18, 1862

At long last, land!  The New Uncle Sam weighed anchor and steamed the nine miles upriver to Pittsburg Landing with other regiments that had been held at Savannah, TN.  They left only McClernand's Division behind to garrison Savannah.  After nine days aboard the 902-ton steamboat, the men and horses were ready to stretch their legs and feel the earth beneath them.

The men debarked "in an atmosphere of jokes and fun," as reported by John Blackburn.*  The infantries, cavalry, artillery batteries and supply wagons made their way up the winding road that climbed from the landing to the plateau 75 feet above.  They then proceeded about one mile along a smooth, firm road to an area known as Cloud Field.  From the rear of General Hurlbur's Headquarters on the Hamburg-Savannah Road and extending eastward, the four regiments of Cruft's Brigade were arranged along a small ferry road that led back to the landing.  The men from Calhoun, who had performed so well at Fort Donelson, were positioned (from west to east) 31st IN, 44th IN, 25th KY and 17th KY, forming the 3rd Brigade of Hurlbut's Fourth Division. (See Note)

"Not all tents were made ready for use before the laughter was silenced by a drenching rain. As the men cursed the rain, they could not know that rain on another day, very soon, would save the lives of many of them."- Blackburn*

Modern view of Cloud Field looking north-eastward from Hamburg-Savannah Road.  The Seventeenth's encampment was in the distant grassy area at the far right of the picture.
Photo by the author- all rights reserved

Editors Note: Although the Brigade is still under the command of Col. Cruft on this date, Hurlbut will assign the entire brigade (incluiding Cruft) to General Jacob G. Lauman in early April.

*  A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, Blackburn, John (1972) LOC 72-93774

Friday, March 16, 2012

Three Cheers! Mar 16, 1862

At Savannah, the men aboard the New Uncle Sam scrambled to the upper decks as word spread that a steamboat had just arrived from Fort Henry.  Their own boat was momentarily in danger of capsizing as the soldiers pressed to the railing to see a familiar figure in slouch hat and blue frock coat cross the gangplank to the landing below the Cherry Mansion.  The general that led them to victory at Fort Donelson had arrived to take command of the Army of the Tennessee. The troops gave him a welcoming cheer as he climbed the hill to his new headquarters.

Young General Ulysses S. Grant in his customary slouch hat and blue frock coat, c. 1863.

Whether  it was because of the pressing need to relieve General Smith (he was no longer fit for field duty) or the result of intervention by Lincoln (who reportedly said, "I need him. He fights."), General Halleck had asked Grant to resume command.  He was ordered to await the arrival of Buell, who's advance from Nashville was being delayed by boggy roads and washed-out,or possibly sabotaged, bridges.  Halleck  planned to leave Fort Henry and take command of the combined armies at Savannah.  Under no circumstance was Grant to engage the enemy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tyler's Landing, Mar 14, 1862

The volunteers from Ohio County anxiously expected orders this day as they watched Gen. Sherman's division weigh anchor and head about 30 miles upstream to Tyler's Landing.  Sherman was to conduct a raid against the Memphis and Charleston RR at Burnsville, MS, about 19 miles to the west.  Torrential rains and the flooding of Yellow Creek, however, made this journey impossible. He made his way back downstream to Pittsburg Landing and there set up camp on some elevated farmland near a one-room Methodist Church.

                                   Steamboats at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee.

Meanwhile, at the Cherry Mansion, Gen. Smith was suffering with a severely infected ankle he had injured during a nighttime disembarkation. Relying on Sherman's description of several open fields high above the flooded creeks, Smith decided to establish a beachhead on the western bank of the Tennessee and sent two more divisions to join him, but the 17th Kentucky Volunteers remained at Savannah aboard the New Uncle Sam.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Crump's Landing, Mar 13, 1862

Accommodations notwithstanding, the New Uncle Sam was beginning to feel like a prison.  It was filled to capacity with men and the sanitary facilities were not designed for this many passengers.  Supplies of fresh water were limited and most men chose to use the railings when nature called.  Bathing and laundry services were not considered a high priority. Together with the expected effects of an overcrowded confinement, the conditions were ripe for tempers to flare.

Drawing of the Savannah Landing showing the Cherry Mansion as it appeared in 1862.

General Smith ordered Lew Wallace to take his 3rd Division to Crump's Landing about three miles upstream, the mission being to control the crossroads at Adamsville and Purdy as well as the Mobile and Ohio RR at Bethel Station.*  Those remaining anchored at Savannah hoped they would soon receive their orders as well.  After five days on board, the soldiers and horses were becoming anxious for the comforts of camp life.

*Editor's Note:  The skirmishes around Crump's Landing were not well documented. Dyer's Compendium reports that the 17th KY was involved in these based on  (I believe) their service in Cruft's Brigade under Wallace at Fort Donelson.  However, the author relies on the fact that the four regiments of Cruft's Brigade formed the 3rd Brigade of Hurlbert's 2nd Division at the encampment near Pittsburg Landing just a few days later, so it is unlikely they were with Wallace at this time.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Savannah, TN, Mar 12, 1862

The river was high, the landings low when the New Uncle Sam arrived at Savannah. The soldiers were confined to the boat for the most part.  The exceptions being the ever present infirm who were taken to local hospitals, officers called to the headquarters being established at the Cherry Mansion, and those sent to replenish supplies.

Modern view of the Cherry Mansion in Savannah, TN, as seen from the river landing.
Photo by the author- all rights reserved

The word began spreading through the regiments that they were awaiting the arrival of Gen. Don Carlos Buell and his Army of the Ohio heading south from Nashville.  The men were already impressed with the strength of their own force and tried to imagine what the combined armies would look like.  Surely they would overwhelm any Confederate forces they encountered.  Maybe the rebels would surrender or turn and run at the shock of seeing such an awe-inspiring display of strength.

Spirits were high and their daily rations were occasionally supplemented with food and drink ferried from the shore.  Perhaps the newspapers' predictions of an early end to the war would prove true after all.  Many were expecting to be home for Christmas.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Steaming Upriver, Mar 10, 1862

It was an uncommonly wet spring along the Tennessee River in 1862.  The river and it's tributaries were above flood stage.  Since the Tennessee flows northward on it's course from Alabama to the Ohio, the current was  strongly against the Union flotilla as they headed south.  This was not a problem for the soldiers on board as they were in no hurry to get to wherever they were going.  While on their cruise, the men enjoyed singing, gambling, reading the "dime novels" that were becoming so popular and simply watching the scenery go by while chatting with old friends.  All boats had been loaded to capacity, but the volunteers from Kentucky had the best accomodations in the fleet.

As they passed the alternating landscapes of fertile farmland and rolling hills, the flotilla must have been an amazing site for the volunteers, many of whom had never even seen a large city before.  They were familiar with the comparatively smaller steamboats that travelled the Green River back home, but had never seen more than a few at one time.  Now they were part of this great armada of 27,000 men, dozens of batteries of artillery and hundreds of horses among the 95 steamboats of all sizes and descriptions.

This spectacle must have impressed the Tennessee residents even more than the Union troops on board.  Loyalties in their state were divided, but the middle and western portions were decidedly more pro-secessionist.   The troops were surprised at the numbers of civilians that came to the shoreline waving and shouting excitedly, and returned the warm welcome.  They failed to realize that this welcome was mainly cover for the southern citizens to track the troop movement and estimate their strength, which information was rapidly passed to the nearest Confederate officer.

       Modern view of the Tennessee River from Savannah, TN looking toward the north
        Photo by the author- all rights reserved.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Breaking and Boarding, Mar 9, 1862

Reveille was an hour early this morning and orders to break camp were issued at roll call.  This had been expected.  To the amazement of the troops, the orders came from Major General Charles F. Smith.

 Although not officially relieved of command, Grant's fate was still in the hands of Gen. Halleck and General in Chief George McClellan.  Halleck had forwarded (unsubstantiated) rumors that the tardiness of Grant's reports was the result of  reverting to his "former habits" and demanded his removal.  There was no evidence of Grant's drinking in his current command, but Captain Grant had been asked to resign his commission in 1854 due to charges of drunkenness and neglect of duty.  He remained in private life until appointed colonel of  the 21st Illinois Infantry. An 1843 graduate of West Point, he was soon promoted to Major General given his experience in the Mexican War. Regardless of their accuracy, these rumors persisted throughout his career.

Some of the qualities that irritated Grant's superiors were the same traits that endeared him to the volunteers.  He wore a slouch hat and blue frock coat, the same as the lower ranks and was casual in his speech and comportment-  a stark contrast to both Halleck and McClellan.

                 Drawing of Union troops boarding a riverboat at St. Louis, MO, c.1863

 It was amid rumblings and speculations that the 17th and 25th infantries boarded the New Uncle Sam at Fort Henry.  She was a commercial steamboat that had been commandeered for military use and served as Grant's floating headquarters at Fort Donelson.  A side-wheeler built in 1857 at New Albany, Indiana, she carried 902 tons and was converted into a tin-clad gunboat, being renamed USS Black Hawk in November 1862.  Later in the war she served as flagship to the Mississippi Squadron and participated in most major naval operations from Vicksburg to the Red River Campaign.  In April 1865, she burned accidentally and sank near Cairo, IL, but on this glorious day she was the pride of the largest inland flotilla in American history.

 USS Black Hawk:   Photograph and ship's history courtesy of Naval Historical Center Online Library

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Preparations for Departure

Throughout their time at Fort Henry, the docks had been busy handling the steam boats that were ferrying the ill and injured to St. Louis hospitals and arriving with fresh supplies and reinforcements. The veterans of Fort Donelson began receiving newspapers from all over the USA proclaiming their great victory and predicting an early end to the war.  Most of the men began to believe their press clippings and their morale improved, while others became wary of the growing stores of munitions and other materiel.  It seemed to them that preparations were being made for a long push into the heart of Dixie.

                       Steamboats along a western river during the Civil War, 1862

By the first week in March, the number of arriving ships far exceeded departures.  Some boats did not bother to unload but merely anchored in the Tennessee River while the stores of camp supplies and munitions began to be loaded on others.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Fort Henry Encampment

To the casual observer, life in camp at Fort Henry did not appear much different from their camp near Calhoun, KY only a month prior.  Both were situated near rivers. The men slept in tents, cooked over open fires, turned the earth for sanitation and chopped wood for fuel and fortification.  (Next to his rifle, the axe was proving to be the infantryman's nearest kin.)  They also drilled like never before.  The flanking and facing maneuvers that had formerly taken a parade-like character were now performed with an air of solemn professionalism.  The images were no longer of marching to the tune of their regimental band past the gaily adorned young ladies of their hometown.  The 17th Regiment Kentucky Infantry, USA was now tempered by battle and everything about them indicated they were a hardened, professional regiment.  The sounds that rang in their ears were of heavy cannonades lasting for hours on end, the continual explosions of thousands of muskets, the whistle of grape and minie balls as they passed, and worse, the thud of their impact.  On the battlefield, the distant screams of the wounded seemed to prevail over all of these sounds, as did the last muted gasps of the men falling at your side.

These soldiers had seen the elephant and everything in their life was changed.  Those who had volunteered for a brief and glorious adventure now feared they might never return home alive, or even dead.  They had dug enough battlefield graves to understand the true meaning of sacrifice, of courage under fire and of the profuse laudations heaped upon those lucky enough to survive.  (Visit the Fort Donelson National Cemetery for a greater appreciation of the human toll.)

They were allowed some free time and engaged in the hunting of deer and small game in the surrounding woods.  Some of the men shared their few off-duty hours with the Tennessee girls and others wrote home to their families and sweethearts.  Most exciting, however was the announcement of "Mail Call!"  This was the one time when the men could forget about their present suffering and travel back home in their imaginations.  Most were proud to share their mail with friends and the sounds of orated missives could be heard throughout the camp.  There were always volunteers to read to the dozens of sick and wounded in the camp infirmary for, although the battles may end, the dying never seems to stop.  Similarly, there were always a few soldiers that found a place of solitude to wait while those who had received letters had their merriment.  These were the men who had volunteered against the wishes of family and the commandments of their fathers.  Although their hearts were filled with warm longing thoughts of home, their minds knew they would not even receive the cordial welcome so often afforded a traveling stranger should they return. Certainly, no letters were expected.