Our Rural Heritage: Civil War: September 1862, settling in for the duration

Col. Elias Smith Dennis, who's brilliant strategy resulted in a Union win at the Battle of Britton's Lane
Col. Elias Smith Dennis, who's brilliant strategy resulted in a Union win at the Battle of Britton's Lane

By Sandy Vasko

On September 5th, 1861, the 100th, temporarily bivouacked at Camp Erwin, made ready to depart. George Woodruff was at the station to describe the scene”

“Its departure was a scene of the most intense interest and excitement. Probably around no other day in the history of Will county has there ever gathered so much interest. Here were nearly a thousand men, mostly young men the flower of city and county, gathered from all the walks of life, about to go forth to the perils of war.”

Twenty railroad cars had been ordered to transport the regiment, and as the train left the depot the shouts of “Huzzah!” were mingled with cries and tears of mothers and sweethearts. At Wilmington, the train stopped for water. The Wilmington Independent was there.

“One of the largest crowds that Wilmington ever saw together, perhaps, congregated at the railroad depot yesterday afternoon, to witness the departure of friends and relatives in the Will County regiment for the seat of war. The train left Joliet at 3 o’clock, and arrived at Wilmington at about 4. The engine was detached 40 or 50 rods above the depot, and leaving the train in “the cut” came down to the tank for water.

“While this was being done, a number of the boys ran down from the cars, to say farewell to friends, and drop a parting tear with the loved ones to be left at home. There must have been over a thousand ladies in the crowd, and it was enough to melt a heart of stone, to witness strong men forcing back the scalding tears, and to see poor women and children weeping in the arms of husbands, fathers, and brothers, as they sobbed for the a “Good-bye; God bless you.”

Arriving at Louisville, after a 500-mile trip the new regiment was looking forward to regular rations and a good night’s sleep. However, it was not to be; they found themselves on duty immediately. Woodruff describes what happened next:

“At 9 p. m., instead of turning in for a good night’s rest, they were drawn up in line of battle, pickets stationed, and the rest ordered to sleep on their arms. About half-past eleven, just as they were getting into a comfortable snooze, the call ‘fall in’ was sounded, and they were formed in line again, and then marched through the silent city, and out on the Beardstown pike, through clouds of choking dust, about four miles, when they were ordered to halt, and fix bayonets.

“Most had never seen a line of battle, or torn a cartridge, and if some bit at the wrong end, or put the ball down first, let them not be blamed; they did the best they knew then, and they soon learned to do it right, as many a Reb found to his sorrow.”

The 100th spent the next two days marching through incredible dust, with little to eat except the sweet potatoes and fruits the found along the way. They went into camp with the 79th and 88th Indiana. On the second day after going into camp, they were told to prepare for inspection.

Again, from Woodruff we read what happened next: “The guns had been loaded since leaving

Louisville, and now they must be cleaned up, and got ready for inspection, and boots must be blacked and coats brushed, etc. About 3 o’clock the colonel ordered the companies to form in front of their quarters in ranks of four that they might be ready to move to the appointed place. But the guns were yet loaded.

“Someone, ignorant of, or forgetting the standing rule against such a procedure, fired off his gun — it was so much easier than to draw the charge. The example was contagious; everybody else followed suit, and pop, pop, all down the line go the guns. The Old Nick was to pay at once. The pickets on the distant outposts hearing the sound fired off their guns to give the alarm, the long roll was sounded, and everybody but the innocent 100th thought that John Morgan, or Gen. Bragg, or Jeff. Davis, or the devil, or the whole confederacy was upon them. The 100th enjoyed the sensation they had created, but Col. Bartleson was very much mortified, and Gen. Kirk stormed and swore at the boys, calling them an undisciplined mob. The review was postponed for that day.”

While the 100th was learning what it meant to be a soldier, the 20th, stationed in Tennessee was doing the real thing. On Sept. 1, they received orders to intercept a force of rebel cavalry. Their guide decided to shorten the distance to Clover Creek where the rebels were supposed to be hiding, and took a short cut through “Britton’s Lane.” The result is now known as the Battle of Britton’s Lane.

They unexpectedly came upon the enemy’s pickets and the 20th hurriedly took position on a ridge supporting the battery of artillery that started to shell the enemy. The total force of the enemy was between 3 and 4 thousand, while the Union force, including the 20th and the 30th Illinois who was with them, was not more than 800.

A Col. Elias Smith Dennis, from Carlyle, Illinois. is credited with a bold move which was the victorious stroke of the battle. Woodruff describes it like this: “But Col. Dennis having ridden out in advance, and discovered them dismounting and preparing for a charge on foot, took advantage of the lull in the fight, and of a concealing cloud of dust, to change the position of his little force, without the knowledge of the Rebs, so that when the next charge was made, it was made upon empty space, while our force poured in upon them such a deadly cross-fire was threw them again into confusion and made them retire defeated.”

After the dust had settled, the Rebs left 179 dead on the field, while the entire loss on the Union side was 5 killed, 51 wounded and 52 prisoners. A sound defeat and a celebrated victory for the 20th!

Another Will County regiment, the 39th, stationed in Virginia saw little action. They were guarding the railroads and the cars, a necessary job, but not one that they relished. The felt they were in the back waters of the war, and longed to see “the elephant” – battle — again.


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