Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas, 1862

Most of the members of the Seventeenth Kentucky Infantry spent the Christmas of 1861 in camp at Calhoun, Kentucky.  Fresh from the relative comforts of home and anxious to put a quick end to the uprising in the southern states, they were immediately concerned with the communicable diseases decimating the camp and the approaching winter weather.  The recruits of the 17th and 25th regiments, numbering about 400 strong and proudly sporting their new Union blues, spent their time drilling and adapting to the rigors of military life under the tutelage of General Thomas Leonidas Crittenden from Russellville, Kentucky who was to survive the war only to be killed in 1876 in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

This second Christmas of the war finds that the survivors of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Buell's campaign in northern Alabama and pursuit of Bragg are encamped along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks bounding the northern side of Russellville, Kentucky.  The two regiments have been combined into one which continues to bear the 17th Kentucky Infantry banner and numbers about 200 battle-hardened and road-weary grizzled veterans.  Their colonel has been dismissed from the service for respecting the legal rights of Kentucky's  slave-owning citizens, contrary to a general order issued by his Commander-in-Chief.  The entire regiment is on the verge of a mass desertion.  Colonel A.M. Stout is facing the challenge of his life, assuming command and trying to maintain the discipline and combat readiness of his troops.  The period of "guard and rest" at Russellville is nearing an end and rumors of an impending redeployment are spreading through the camp.

The volunteers are grateful to be stationed so close to home for this holiday season. Although rarely allowed personal leave, their friends and family could make frequent visits and supply some of the niceties of life that the quartermaster failed to provide.  The hardships they had endured (sub-freezing nights bivouacked on the open ground at Fort Donelson, miserable slogs through the bogs of flooded northern Mississippi forests and grueling 20-mile marches in the 100+ degree heat along the dusty roads of northern Alabama and southern Tennessee) are now becoming distant memories- nothing more than campfire stories to entertain and frighten the new recruits. All in all, this Christmas will be fondly remembered, due in part to it's stark contrast with the remaining two years of their enlistment.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lincoln's Ax Falls on Colonel McHenry

Colonel McHenry's order issued at New Market, Kentucky did not go unnoticed, and President Lincoln responded on December 2, 1862  by  issuing an order of his own.   He removed the Colonel who had organized and led his men through two major battles, across northern Alabama and north to Louisville, pursuing Bragg back into Tennessee.

Colonel A.M. Stout relieved  McHenry when the order was received at their camp in Russellville, but he inherited a regiment in utter disarray.  These loyal American citizens who had fought to preserve the Constitution and the Union were determined to follow Colonel Mchenry to the end.  If the army didn't want him, it must not want them either and they were, almost to a man, prepared to desert their regiment.

Ever faithful in the service of his country, Colonel Mchenry prepared a Special Order  to be read as a farewell to his troops on December 15, 1862.  With the entire regiment gathered north of the town square at Russellville, the following order was read aloud.  McHenry's character and eloquence as reflected therein are on par with many other great American leaders, and it is easy to see why his men held him in such high regard.

Headquarters, 17th Reg't Ky Vols.
Russellville, Ky., Dec. 15th, 1862


The Colonel commanding announces with unfeigned regret to the officers and soldiers of this regiment, that, by a Special Order of the President of the United States, he has been discharged from the service of his country, to which he has been unceasingly devoted since the invasion of the soil of our native state by the rebel forces more than a year ago.
He deems it unnecessary to explain to the members of this regiment the causes which have brought about this unpleasant and unfortunate state of affairs, as he supposes that they are familiar to every officer and soldier in the regiment, and moreover, he believes that the promulgation of his order dated October 27th, 1862, and the frequent expression of the opinion contained therein, accorded with the high-toned sentiment and with the law-abiding, conservative action that has characterized the 17th Regiment Kentucky Volunteers since the first blow that was struck by its soldiers in defense of our country's cause before any other troops of the belligerent armies had come in conflict upon the soil of Kentucky.
Sustained by the Constitution of our country which educated him, and which he loves, sustained by the Constitution of his native state and by the statue laws of that State, sustained by his own conscience and by first principles which induced the enlistment of you as well as of himself, sustained by the people, and endorsed by you with no intention of violating the laws of the land, or rebelling against the orders of superior military authority, he is prepared and is as willing to meet this decree of the President as cheerfully as he has met the foe on the battlefields that have been crimsoned with the blood of himself and of the brave officers and soldiers of the regiment which it has been his pride to command, and whose gallantry now forms a part of their country's history. It is an immense source of consolation to him to know that in leaving you he leaves a regiment which is a pride to the loyal heart of our native State, and has been an ornament to the different armies to which it has from time to time been attached. You were the first soldiers to leave Kentucky in defense of our country, and you were the first to return to it in pursuit of the foe that has recently been driven from its borders. You were the only representatives of Kentucky at the Battle of Donelson, and your participation in that conflict has been a theme of praise in the land. You nobly sustained the gallant reputation of your State at Shiloh on the day before it was rendered immortal by the brave sons of Kentucky who joined us from the "Army of The Ohio". The tattered but once beautiful flag presented to you by "the loyal ladies of Owensboro" was the first to wave on the enemy's entrenchments at Corinth. You have won for yourself a name that will be more lasting than "monuments of brass". Your State honors you, and your legion of friends now mention your regiment with a bounding heart. It is with pride that your wives, your children, and your relatives speak of you as "soldiers of the 17th Regiment of Kentucky".
The price of your good name is shown in the fearful list of your comrades who laid down their lives as a sacrifice to their country's honor and integrity, to the perpetuity of her institutions and of the Union. The sad dreams of the past brings mournfully to our minds the names of Captains Morton, Barnett, Hudson, Kinsolving; Lieutenants Griffin, Brown, Campbell, and Condit, with hundreds of others of our comrades who have a place among the heroic dead of our Commonwealth.
When the glorious McClellan took leave of the veterans who had fought with him through the terrible struggles on the Potomac, all that he asked of them was to sustain Gen. Burnside as they had sustained him. So would I say to you as a parting request. Stand by your commanding officer as you have stood by me. Desert not your country in this, her darkest hour of peril. Do not turn traitor or rebel. Discourage seccessionism and disunionism. Interfere not with the "peculiar institution" of the South. Commit not depredations upon private property of any kind. Stand by the principles that you first enlisted upon. Stand by your country and by the Constitution of your country, and when the struggle comes between you and the enemies of the Union, strike with the might and in the fear of the Lord, and the just and wise will sustain you, and the righteous and patriotic will honor you.

John H. McHenry, Jr.,
Col. 17th Ky. Vol.

By order.

Geo. W. Gist
1st Lt., and Adj.