Our Rural Heritage: The Civil War: March 1862 – men on the move

A photo taken at a reunion of the 39th Illinois Voluntary Infantry, of those lucky ones who survived the war.
A photo taken at a reunion of the 39th Illinois Voluntary Infantry, of those lucky ones who survived the war.

By Sandy Vasko

We are back to the Civil War. It is early in the war, and most of the men had not really “seen the elephant,” that is, battle. Two Will County regiments were fighting on two different fronts – the 20th and the 39th. We start with the 39th.
For the 39th , who were in West Virginia, life was not so exciting. Early in the month, one man wrote to the Wilmington Independent, “We continue to move by degrees down the track of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Some of the boys say that we have been moved up and down so much, and stationed at so many different points on this road, that they know every inch of the ground, from New Creek to this place, a distance of about 80 miles.”
It was announced that the 39th was recruiting another company of men and three new commissioned officers. We read in the March 12, 1862 Wilmington Independent: “Sergt. John J. Conley, of CO. E, 39th Regt. Illinois Volunteers, who has been in this section for the past six or eight weeks, recruiting, is about to return to his regiment.
“He has met with fair success, and now calls upon all who desire to raise an arm in defense of their flag to come up and register their names. All such will be furnished with transportation to the regiment immediately.
“He will leave Wilmington on Saturday morning of this week, and those having letters or packages to send to any of the members will please have them ready by Friday noon. It is noteworthy that the members of the Phalanx who went from Wilmington sent home by Mr. Conley about $600 ($18,000 today) to their friends.”
In a letter dated March 10, we read, “We are again on the move. Our company left Alpine Saturday afternoon. We crossed the river there to guard the baggage wagons belonging to our regiment.
“We arrived at Williamsport, 11 miles from Clear Springs, about eleven a.m. There we had to cross the river by ferry, a slow and tedious process, as we had 24 wagons, and only one could cross at a time. At last, we were all over in ‘Dixie’ once more, and started for Martinsburg just before night. We fought the battle of Falling Water, but as it was dark we could see but little of the battle ground. There were still visible some marks of the fierce strife in ruined fences, fields, and broken forest trees.”
On March 19th the 39th, was involved in the battle of Shenandoah. It was a rebel rout, but that did not mean that the battle was not fierce. In writing to the editor of the Wilmington Independent, one man told of that battle, “The enemy opened fire on our regiment from a battery in front, but few of their shells reached us. They then moved to the left, and nearer, when the shells burst thick and fast around.
“Two cannons came to our rescue, and soon silenced the rebel guns. We now moved to the left, and took position close to the enemy so as to command their position, but they immediately drew back. About 5 o’clock we hear a heavy volley of musketry and in quick succession another and another; and then it is one continual roar and crash, and the smoke rises thick above the trees where the battle is raging.
“The roar and smoke of battle continue unabated, but as it moves farther and farther off, we conclude that our forces are driving the enemy back. As the shadows of night come on, we can see the flash of the guns, as the messengers of death fly from line to line; and as the darkness becomes more dense, the noise of the contending arms gradually dies away until it entirely ceases.
“We all lie down on the battle ground, with our arms close to our sides, not knowing at what hour we may be called upon to renew the conflict. All night long men are moving around with torches in search of the wounded and dead. Many poor fellows on both sides have this day gone to their long rest, and many more have been crippled for life.
“Our loss is said to be from 50 to 100 killed, and from 300 to 400 wounded. The enemy’s loss is not known, but is said to be some 300 killed. Most of their wounded they took with them. We took nearly 40 prisoners. The scene on the battlefield is awful. Dead men lying in heaps here and there, and limbs of others and dead horses lying in every direction. In a little hollow behind a battery, four rebels were playing cards. They had just dealt, and held his hand, when a shell burst in the midst, and killed all of them. In other places the wounded are groaning and crying for help. Such are the frightful scenes of the battlefield.”
The 39th continued to pursue the retreating rebels, finally going into camp around the 28th. Woodruff, in his book “Fifteen Years Ago, Will County in the Civil War,” another young man relates this tale, “When we went into camp, near the little town of Edinburg, the army was short of rations, and permission was given to forage, which was eagerly accepted on the part of the men. The woods were full of hogs, and forthwith a big hog hunt was instituted, and a promiscuous firing was going on all over the wooded sides of the mountain.
“It is a wonder that something besides hogs were not slaughtered. Indeed, one man had a very narrow escape. He was sitting down by a tree reading a letter, no doubt one he had just got from home, when all at once he was seen to throw up his arms and sink down. On being examined, he was found paralyzed and insensible.

“A ball had struck the top of his head, depressing the skull, so that it pressed upon the brain, and yet the scalp was not lacerated. The surgeons, with ready skill, elevated the skull and relieved the pressure, and he was restored to consciousness, and recovered.”



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