Our Rural Heritage: The 39th’s first bitter taste of defeat, January 1862

Photo courtesy of Chicago Veteran Association
Photo courtesy of Chicago Veteran Association

By Sandy Vasko

When we left the 39th, it was New Year’s Eve 1861. Battle came to them on the wings of the new year.

On January 3rd, the 39th became engaged in its first real battle and its first taste of defeat. The local newspapers reported it like this:
“Seventeen members of the Yates Phalanx were taken prisoners at the late engagement near Bath, (Va.) and were sent from Manassas to Richmond on the 16th instant. The following is a list: Wm. Crum, Franklin Hewitt, Nelson Walls, J. L. Grant, John Martin, M. Wait, J. S. Lacs, P. S. McCamly and Thomas Lusen, of Company D. Michael Price, E. Stebbins, M. Frink, and U. Fuller, of Company K. John Howath, of Company E. Wm. Irving, James Hankel, and William Reddig of Company I.”

In a letter home, an unknown “volunteer” wrote, “You will undoubtedly have heard of our defeat and retreat long ere this reaches their eyes. The lightning has before this spread the news far and wide. Still there may be some particulars which will be interesting to you.
“First let me say that I think we might and ought to have been reinforced in time to have saved this disgraceful retreat; I say disgraceful, for we can look upon the retreat from Bath in no other light. It is better to retreat than to be taken prisoner, but while there is any hope of holding a place I do not believe in running. But I will give you an account of the affair without further reflections.

“On Friday morning it was reported that a large rebel force was advancing towards Bath. We had heard so many false reports, however, that we disbelieved this one, until evening, when a dispatch came from Major Munn, commanding at Bath, confirming it, and ordering part of Company E to Great Cacapun to assist Captain Slaughter. Twenty of us, in command of Lieut. Whipple, arrived at that place about one in the morning. The pickets reported camp fires all through the valleys to the south of us. Northing of importance transpired that night, but the next morning the pickets reported that a large force was advancing towards Bath, and we were ordered to build breast works, so we could defend ourselves in case of attack.

“So we commenced building fortifications to prevent their coming. About noon we were informed that our troops had evacuated Bath, and that 2,000 rebels were advancing upon us. We had heard a little cannonading in the direction of Bath, but could hardly believe that our men had been driven out without more fighting than this indicated.

“There were stationed at the place 3 companies of our regiment, a section of artillery, with 2 cannon, and the 84th Pennsylvania regiment. The 13th Indiana regiment went down in the cars a little before noon to reinforce Bath. Soon we were informed that the Colonel of the Pennsylvania Regiment had ordered a retreat without firing a gun, before the Indiana regiment arrived. The artillery and the three companies of the Illinois 39th fired upon the enemy and turned their march twice, but were obliged to follow the Pennsylvanians.”

1st Lieutenant Baker, from Wilmington, who had been ill with dysentery for a month also wrote to his friend, the local newspaper editor, right after the 39th retreated. He said that the 39th was assigned to cover the retreat of all the other regiments, crossing the river last. Baker wrote, “The Captain says a whole Pennsylvania regiment cross the river, before he would cross, and was the last man to get into the boat. In the mean time, the other Companies were hurrying their baggage and themselves across the river as fast as possible, all of which they made good to this side, while our camp lost all their tents, and the Captain and second Lieutenant their trunks, together with the camp books and papers. I only lost my sash, which happened to be in Lieutenant Johnson’s trunk.”

The rebels then commenced to shell the troops on the other side of the river. Baker reports, “Yesterday morning they commenced planting their batteries right above town, and upon a hill overlooking us. Matters about this time began to look a little dubious, which made it necessary for me to get away. I got up and was dressed, was assisted into a buggy and went about half a mile, when they stowed me away in a house, and left me.

“This, however, did not suit the Captain Munn for two reasons; one was on Mrs. Munn’s account, as she had just arrived, and was to accompany me, and second, a flag of truce came down to the ferry and a boat went over, returning with a Colonel of the rebel army, who demanded our immediate surrender, which, if we refused they would shell the town. We of course refused.

“He then told us to have all the women and children out of town before 12 o’clock. PM., which we did, for it was no quicker said than done. Horses, buggies, carts, jackasses, etc., were all brought into requisition, and in absence of these dame Eve’s descendants on foot, were making the fastest time possible.

“The Captain succeeded in securing a buggy for Mrs. Munn and myself to take us farther down the river. My nurse, one of the best women that lives, followed us on foot. We were obliged to go three miles before we found a place to stop, as the houses all along the road were full of women and friends that had left in the night. At last we succeeded in finding a place. But as soon as Susan, my nurse, heard where I was, she sent Corporal Russell to inform me that they were all secesh, and would betray me into hands of the enemy, if they could get a chance, which made it necessary for me to change my quarters again.

“We stayed there until about three o’clock p.m., when they sent another buggy which we got into and came to this place; and a fine place it is, too. A good house, fine people, plenty of company, a melodeon, and a pretty girl to play and sing. I think I’ll soon be in fighting order again as I have the very best of care here.”

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