Volume 25, No. 4 – April 2012
Volume 25, No. 4
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
If you have any questions or wish to present a program, or serve as program chair, please call me at 967-8911, Stephen Seftenberg, our Secretary, at 689-7785, or Bob Schuldenfrei, our webmaster, at 582-3340. Last, but not least, please renew your membership now if you wish to continue to receive the Newsletter.
The April 11, 2012 Program
Our speaker at the April meeting will be Bob Schuldenfrei. His subject will be Out of Thin Air, the Story of Southern Logistics. In a manner similar to Bob’s Question when he last spoke, this presentation has a central theme. It is the "Myth of the Ragged Rebel." No matter how detailed we get into the stories of Southern supply, we will always return to the theme of failure of the South. Bob’s goal is that of a "contrarian;" and the talk, titled Out of Thin Air, is actually the story of amazing success.
The March 14, 2012 Program:
In his family memoir John Stewart Bryan recalls his grandfather being asked if it wasn't true that all the Yankees were cowards. The elder Mr. Bryan, who had been a member of Mosby's famed Partisan Rangers, quietly responded, "Son, no one who ever fought against the Eighth Illinois Cavalry would have such an imbecilic idea as that." If it is true that the highest respect one can earn is that of an adversary, the veterans of the Eighth Illinois would certainly have been proud to know that Mr. Bryan's opinion was shared by members of Mosby’s Rangers. James J. Williamson and John H. Alexander, each of whom wrote valued histories of their service in Mosby's command, voiced similar thoughts: Williamson declared that, "The Eighth Illinois was undoubtedly at the time (August, 1864) the best cavalry regiment in the Army of the Potomac," while Alexander stated simply that the men from Illinois were "by considerable odds the best fighters we ever tackled." Mosby himself confirmed the feelings of his former comrades when he wrote in his memoirs that the Eighth was regarded as the finest regiment in the Federal Army.
Whether any unit was, in fact, better than those who fought beside it, is the type of subjective debate for which there can be no absolute conclusion. Yet such high praise from so formidable a foe must surely indicate that the Eighth Illinois Cavalry is entitled to a special niche in the roll of fighting units of the Civil War. That the regiment achieved this distinction is all the more remarkable when one realizes that its members were not exactly "born to the saddle." In truth, if they were, in 1861, even vaguely familiar with a horse, it was certainly more the result of walking behind one with a plow rather than sitting on top of one.
The Eighth filled its ranks with the farm boys from the Illinois prairie and the workers from the industrial and commercial enterprises of the new metropolis, Chicago. To help form them into a cohesive unit, the regiment was blessed with a cadre of officers, many of whom went on to achieve celebrity in either their military or professional lives. First and foremost, of course, was the friend of Lincoln, John Farnsworth. An ardent Republican and abolitionist, he had served two terms in Congress, but had not been re-elected in 1860. Mainly responsible for raising the Eighth Illinois in 1861, Farnsworth became its first colonel and was promoted to Brigadier General in 1862. However, as a result of the latter year's election, he was returned to Congress and so resigned his commission and left the army in March, 1863.
When the Civil War broke out William Gamble, a veteran of the U.S. Army, was employed as an engineer in the sewer department of the City of Chicago. Because of his military experience, Farnsworth had him appointed Lt. Colonel of the Eighth and put him in charge of training the regiment, a role he performed brilliantly. Promoted to Colonel, Gamble was in brigade command at Gettysburg and later was in charge of the Cavalry Depot at Giesboro Point, Maryland. Among the other regimental officers was George Forsyth, who served as Philip Sheridan's military secretary during and after the Civil War. Forsyth was the aide who accompanied Sheridan on his famous ride to Cedar Creek. After returning to line duty, Forsyth became known as the "Hero of Beecher Island" for his actions during an Indian War battle.
Elon Farnsworth, John's nephew, was promoted from captain to brigadier general five days before Gettysburg, and then was killed during the battle as a result of a charge ordered by the idiotic Judson Kilpatrick. Major David Clendenning led Lew Wallace's cavalry at Monocacy and then served as the youngest member of the Lincoln Assassination Trial Board. John Beveridge commanded the Eighth at Gettysburg and later served as governor of Illinois. William Medill was the brother of the founder and editor of the Chicago Tribune. Also an employee of the paper, William led twenty of his co-workers to enroll in the regiment. Unfortunately William was killed leading a charge during the pursuit of the Confederates after Gettysburg. And then there was the "Mad Major," John Waite, whose exploits against Mosby in 1864 inspired poetry by Herman Melville.
Not all the officers of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry were angels. For example, Lt. Samuel Spencer Carr was cashiered from the army because (1) he had twice drawn pay for the same period and (2) he had been found in a Washington brothel wearing civilian clothes. There is no indication in the trial record which offense was considered more serious, but being found in civilian clothes was probably better than being found in no clothes at all. When Gen. Edwin V. Sumner ordered a New York lieutenant to go out on a reconnaissance, the young officer asked how far he should go. Sumner replied, "Go as far as you dare, but then you will learn the Eighth Illinois are miles ahead of you stealing horses."
Following the trails traveled by the Eighth Illinois, examining their battles and scouts, their successes and even a few failures, would, without a doubt, be an exciting experience. However, that is a topic for another day. Rather, let us look at "their war" as the troopers themselves remembered it in their letters home or in memoirs authored in later years.
One of the lowlights commented on by almost all of the men was their first winter, 1861-1862. After arriving in Washington in October 1861, they paraded past the White House. Observing the Eighth, Lincoln promptly dubbed it, "Farnsworth's Big Abolition Regiment." The regiment was posted near Alexandria, Virginia, in what the troopers called Camp California and met their real enemy -- it was not the Confederate Army -- it was sickness of all types and it wiped out almost 25% of the regiment without a shot being fired! As Dr. Abner Hard, the regimental surgeon described it:
"Camp California, and our first winter of suffering in it, will never be forgotten by the veterans of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry. When we first took possession the weather was dry and fair, and being on the side of a hill we hoped for a pleasant camp, but no sooner did the rain begin than we were in a perfect mire; literally, there was no bottom to the mud, and it held the water like a sponge. The horses could not stand an hour in a place without making a deep mud-hole. As the weather began to be more unsettled and stormy; our camp became more muddy and unhealthy, and the sick list kept increasing. . . . Asst. Surgeon Crawford and I were unable to visit all the patients in a day, and [even] with the aid of the Stewards it was frequently midnight before we finished the rounds. During the month of January more than five hundred were on the sick list. The diseases were mostly what is termed typho-malarial fever, while a large number of cases were genuine typhoid fever. Many of the patients were so delirious that it required considerable force and constant watching to prevent their rushing out in the rain, and injuring themselves. We had but two hospital tents and [had] to send a large number to Alexandria, where many of them died. The number sent to the general hospital was greater than ever before and we needed more medicine than was allowed to an ordinary regiment."
After diligent lobbying by Dr. Hard and others, the regiment was allowed to relocate into Alexandria itself and quartered in vacant homes and other buildings. While in Alexandria, an incident occurred which not only attracted the attention of the entire regiment, but of the local and national press as well.
Frederick Harter, bugler of Company D describes the background: "A Copperhead, one Pastor Stewart, preached inflammatory sermons in the Episcopal church every third evening. Worse, he omitted the prayers his Church for the President and Congress. Stewart not only skipped the prayer; he went further, asking the congregation to join him in silent prayer for Jefferson Davis and the Army, Navy and Congress of the South." Dr. Hard relates what happened as a result of this Pastor's actions:
"Now it happened that the conduct of this clerical traitor came to the knowledge of Capt. (later Gen.) E. J. Farnsworth, of Company K, Eighth Illinois Cavalry, and, being a zealous churchman as well as a gallant soldier, determined to go to church and see and hear for himself. The parson did omit the prayer for the President and Congress; Captain Farnsworth then said aloud and deferentially, ‘I insist that you read the prayer of our church for the President of the United States of America.’ The parson continued the service, ignoring the respectful, patriotic and proper request of Capt. Farnsworth, whereupon the Capt. Farnsworth directed Sgt. John A. Kinley, of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry, who was present, to arrest the traitor on the spot. Sgt. Kinley attempted to perform his duty with all possible courtesy. He walked up to the pulpit and merely laying his hand upon the arm of the rebel parson, said: ‘I am ordered to arrest you, sir; you must discontinue your professional labors and come with me.' The parson threw off the Sergeant's hand. Here the captain stepped up with some other officers, and the reverend traitor was gently helped from the pulpit. [and marched to Col. Farnsworth’s headquarters]."
On that same day, February 9, 1862, another Confederate supporter in Alexandria was silenced through the efforts of the Eighth. As Silas Wesson of Company K wryly observed, "The rebel newspaper office caught fire and burned down. The boys did not try to stop it."
As the fighting began in earnest the troopers of the Eighth began to form opinions of the high command. This practice continued throughout the war. Their comments were often quite succinct. For example, Hiram Weld described George Stoneman as "a very strict disciplinarian and with not much manhood, or else it is covered up with his official importance." Silas Wesson agreed that Stoneman was a fool, described Col. Luigi Di Cesnola as "a no good jabbering Italian," and called Lt. Colonel Gamble "a perfect tyrant who seemed to delight in punishing the men for any minor fault." On a positive note, Wesson called Col. Farnsworth the best colonel in the service and praised General Sumner as a good leader, but went on to mention how the General's aide had to lift him into the saddle each day.
Major William Medill's remarks were especially bitter. He saved his sharpest tongue for Gen. George McClellan. According to the Major, the Peninsula Campaign "was one of the worst campaigns known to history, and that everyone of little Mac's movements has been a blunder." In a subsequent letter, Medill said McClellan was incompetent and that his advisors were traitors. However, not all of the Major's comments were unfavorable. He lauded Hooker for reorganizing the army and breathing new life into it. As Medill was killed in July, 1863, one can only wonder what his opinion of Grant, Meade and Sheridan would have been.
Many of the men commented on Lincoln. Of course these remarks did not refer to any military expertise, but concentrated on his appearance. Silas Wesson took the traditional approach when he wrote that the President "is as homely as a mud fence." Lt. William Hazelton was a bit more specific when he described Lincoln as dressed in a very plain black suit, looking like, "a superannuated Methodist Minister." Frederick Brown's minority opinion was that the President "did not seem to be homely at all but one of the kindest looking and most intellectual men I had ever seen." Frederick Harter agreed with Brown: "Many called his unattractive face ugly, but the face registered nothing disagreeable, nothing unpleasant. Every feature radiated veracity and compassion."
The most common topic in letters home was the life of the trooper, the routine that now filled their days. Francis Rogers was obviously proud to be a cavalryman as he made clear when he told his son, "The cavalry was still considered the elite branch of army service, for to it still clung something of the glamour of knighthood and chivalry and the dignity of riding a horse while the common herd had to walk. Then, too, the cavalry was always full of action, always in the advance, always the eyes and ears of the army."
A less romantic view was expressed by Chalmers Ingersoll when he described campaigning as "[a] long day’s march, in a steady rain through mud awfully deep, camp at night anywhere, without tents, and four hard crackers a day per man for rations, and what we can confiscate for the poor horse. This is the life day after day, occasionally enlivened, however, by the shooing, at long range, at the enemy."
Silas Wesson described his experiences in the Peninsula Campaign. On May 12, 1862 he wrote, " sometimes we have one meal a day, sometimes none and then again, all we can eat. Our food is hard crackers and meat, and coffee, when we get enough of that we are lucky." Things had gotten even worse when he wrote on July 1st, "No signs of rest, no letup in fighting. I am so sleepy I cannot eat and so hungry I cannot sleep. My horse has worn his saddle for a week. He is tired and sleepy too." On July 8th, he went on to explain that the chaplain went home on leave because the men were so busy that they had no time to pray. Lt. William Hazelton described the variety of their meals while in camp: "For breakfast we have coffee, bread and meat, for lunch we have bread, meat and coffee, and for supper we have meat, coffee and bread."
In a moment of serious retrospection, Major Medill, ever the journalist and obviously, as seen in his other writings, no lover of a soldier's life, attempted to contrast the mindset of the new recruit versus the veteran trooper:
"What are the visions? To the new soldier, they are peculiarly exciting. His feverish brain always conjectures the worst, and he sees the battlefield. On that his whole thought centers and what terrible phantoms he dreams of. Its roar is deafening, and mingles with the screams and groans of the dying, the horrid sights of torn humanity, make up a scene sufficient to set the poor fellow shivering and wishing himself honorably out of the scrape.
"To the old soldier, there is a different prospect: He dreads the long weary march in the broiling sun under the weight of a knapsack and musket, the trouble of insects, the stray shot of the murderous guerrilla. But these hardships are offset with the idea of getting out of the dirty camp, into the fresh air, away from hospital and hardtack, to the excitement of the skirmish -- after rebel poultry. He talks lightly of death and while drinking his cup of coffee with his messmates wonders what one will be hit in the next fight."
Silas Wesson described for his family his feeling in battle: " there is but one answer that any soldier can testify to -- that is no thoughts at all as the bullets go by your ears sounding like the hissing of boiling water. Zip! Zip! And the scream of a shell as it goes through the air is the most horrible sound that you can imagine. When soldiers do break and fly it is the very worst of horrors, every man fleeing for his life frightens a hundred more and this it spreads like wildfire. It is a brave man indeed that can resist a stampede."
Certainly death had become a common occurrence in the day to day experience of a Civil War Soldier. Whether by battle wounds, disease or accident the frequent loss of a friend or comrade, while sad, had become neither horrifying nor surprising. Yet there was one form of dying that always had the effect of shock. That was execution. As Dr. Hard recalled:
"A deserter from another regiment had enlisted for the purpose of gaining information to convey to the rebels. He was arrested, tried by court martial and condemned to die. As is usually the case, twelve men from his regiment were selected by lot to shoot him -- eleven of their guns were loaded with ball and one with blank cartridge, so that no man might know whose ball hit him. His brigade was drawn up in line to witness the execution. The prisoner was brought out and seated upon his coffin. How dreadful the scene! There sat the poor culprit who had forfeited his life in endeavoring to aid the enemy; there stood the twelve men with their guns pointed ready to send his soul into eternity at the given signal; and here thousands of soldiers waited to see the traitor receive his just deserts, while over all there seemed to hang a deep gloom. The word was given, and they fired. Three balls entered his body, but were not fatal, and they were obliged to shoot again. All was over; the man was dead; his spirit with his Maker, and a higher power than ours will now pronounce his doom. The scene left its impression upon our minds, and although such occurrences became frequent, I shall never forget this -- the first I had ever witnessed."
Despite all the hardships, the men of the Eighth Illinois still managed to maintain their sense of humor. According to Capt. D. J. Hynes of Company G, "Col. Farnsworth told me to take my squadron and drive the enemy from the little town of Ashland. They dashed into the village only to find the Confederates already long gone. Taking a piece of paper, Hynes dispatched his orderly to Farnsworth reporting "the town of Ashland is taken. What shall I do with it?"
Silas Wesson wrote in his diary that one day, "A woman from the Christian Sanitary [Commission] camp walked through our camp. She scared our horses almost to death." He did not, however, specify why. Wesson also related that on February 22, 1865 his company had a squirt gun fight that resulted in all the combatants getting wet. Each year members of the regiment mentioned in their letters home the various jokes that had been perpetuated on April 1st. No matter whether they were in camp or on campaign, April Fools' Day was celebrated with great enjoyment. However, practical jokes were not limited to that annual event. They were a constant threat to the unwary and the victims were not just fellow troopers. Dr. Hard told the following story:
"A citizen came to Col. Gamble, riding a mule, and dismounting in front of the Colonel's tent, held his animal by the halter while he make his complaint. He said one of his best horses had been taken by our men and brought into camp. Colonel Gamble inquired particularly about it, making him describe the horse and the circumstances of its capture. While this conversation was taking place, the soldiers crowded around him and between him and his mule. He still held the halter firmly in his hand, and when the animal would pull or jerk the halter, he would sing out "Whoa;" but so earnest was he in presenting his claim, that he paid little attention to anything around him, only keeping a firm hold of his halter. One soldier loosened the girth and slipped off the saddle, another took it back into the pine brush. Not being satisfied with this, they next removed the halter, occasionally giving it a jerk to imitate the action of the mule, and quietly led the animal away. When the man had finished his talk and obtained permission to search the camp and take his horse wherever he could find him, he found he had also lost his mule. After a fruitless search for both horse and mule, he returned home on foot."
Horses and mules were not the only property of Southern civilians that seemed to mysteriously disappear into the camps of the Eighth Illinois. Dr. Hard had no trouble defending the practice:
"The boys make themselves free with chickens, turkeys, sheep, pigs, apples, milk, etc. These simple people seemed to think they could send their sons into the rebel army to destroy our country and murder our soldiers, and that we would not only protect them, but spend our time guarding their chicken roosts, pig pens and bee hives. But they soon learned that western soldiers came for other purposes."
Even buildings were not safe from confiscation. According to Capt. William Hazelton:
"Our teamster and several privates went out and took down a sesech barn and with it built a shed for some of our horses. Our troops are making wretched work with the property hereabouts. Fences, boards, rails, wood, brick, in fact everything that is known to belong to the rebels, is appropriated by our men. Sgt. Gates and myself have a brick floor laid in our tent and a wooden door swinging in front which was once the property of a rebel. The property of Union men is left undisturbed."
As was no doubt true in every other unit in the Union Army, especially in the early days of the War, a constant topic of conversation in the Eighth was why they were fighting. Just after enlisting on September 9, 1861, Capt. Hazelton explained his reason for doing so in a letter to his fiancée:
"I had long considered this matter and having come to a deliberate conclusion that it was my duty (as well as that of every other young man) to enlist in his country's service, I concluded to go. There are times in the history of nations when the vastness of public interests demand that all private and personal interests be laid aside. Our government must be sustained. If it fails, the oppressed of all nations may well despair. The dearest interests of humanity are at stake and it must not fail. God, truth and justice are on our side and we shall not fail."
However, after two and a half years of war, Capt. Hazelton's attitude had dramatically changed and he believed he was not alone. As he again wrote to his fiancée in March, 1864:
"Have you noticed what a wonderful change there has been in the sentiment of the country since the war broke out? I mean in regard to slavery. People everywhere are beginning to see that this monstrous outrage and wrong is the sole cause of the war, and there is a growing determination to crush it out. This is God's work. ‘Man proposes but God disposes.’ For the first year I was in the service I thought I was fighting to suppress the rebellion, and now I find myself fighting to liberate the slaves. And it's not a bad object, either, is it? Especially if, as I believe, it is God's purpose. This sentiment is, I believe, pretty generally shared in by our men."
Perhaps, a conversation he had with a captured Confederate officer in the summer of 1863 had helped to change his thoughts: "We had a long talk on the slavery question, in which I flattered myself that I had the better of him in the argument. At last he frankly acknowledged that he did not know as slavery was right. His slaves had been bequeathed to him, he had been taught that slavery was all right. and he liked to have slaves"
By the spring of 1863, the reputation of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry as a fighting unit had been firmly established in the minds of friend and foe alike. As Harvey Baker reported, several Confederate cavalrymen, captured after failing to defeat the Third Indiana and the Eighth Illinois, stated that they would rather fight all the New York and Pennsylvania cavalries that those two western regiments.
One accomplishment that brought the Eighth considerable attention was the fact that it had "opened the ball," fired the first shot, at three important battles. Two of these were Mechanicsville and Monocracy, but by far the most significant was Gettysburg. As we know, in late June, 1863, Robert E. Lee advanced his army into Pennsylvania. Learning that the Union Army, moving in three columns, each preceded by a cavalry force, was pursuing, Lee ordered his troops, scattered from the Susquehanna River to Chambersburg, to concentrate on Gettysburg.
On June 30th, John Buford's Federal cavalry division, leading the left Union column, occupied Gettysburg, pushing back an advance Confederate infantry force westward on the Chambersburg Road. Buford established a picket line, composed of Company E, Eighth Illinois Cavalry, on that road with a vedette post farthest out, three miles west of the center of town [A vedette is a mounted sentry in advance of the outposts of an army]. The next morning, Lee, anxious to learn the nature of the Federal troops in his front, but without Stuart's cavalry, sent Heth's infantry division eastward toward Gettysburg. The commander of the pickets, Lt. Marcellus E. Jones, Company E, picks up the story:
"Wednesday, July 1st. No sooner had I dismounted, when George Heim, from the main picket post, said that Sgt. Schaffer wanted me at once. Springing into my saddle, I was soon there and could see a cloud of dust rising above the trees some distance up the mountain. I reported to Maj. Beveridge that there was evidently a heavy column approaching. "Boots and Saddles" was taken up by every bugle in the division. By this time, a little after 7 o'clock, the enemy's advance was in sight a mile or so away. Upon sighting our picket post, they deployed skirmishers on either side of the road with the precision of veterans marching steadily down the pike to the stone bridge. I asked Sgt. Levi Schaffer, who was in charge of the picket line on the pike, for his carbine. I took aim at an officer on a white or light gray horse and fired -- The first shot at the battle of Gettysburg."
Marcellus Jones was so proud of this moment in his life, that when he wrote his application for membership in the Military Order of the Loyal legion of the United States (the M.O.LLU.S.), he highlighted the sentence: "It is recorded in Washington that I was the first man who fired a shot at Gettysburg."
By 1864, the Eighth Illinois was detached from the Army of the Potomac and given a special assignment. They were sent to Northern Virginia and ordered to neutralize the confederate guerillas operating there, especially John Singleton Mosby. Captain Hazleton explained the problem: "Our business this winter I expect will be to protect the Railroad between here and Alexandria and to hunt Mosby's men. All this section of the country is infested with them and it is unsafe to go a mile from camp without an escort. A Lieutenant and six men were captured the other day while out looking for material to build winter quarters."
By the spring of 1865, the Captain felt the mission had achieved some success: "We are kept pretty busy here scouting after Mosby's and Rosser's men. We make long and rapid marches but have good quarters to go into when we come back and a chance to rest a few days after each scout. Our Regiment has been more successful in hunting these Guerrillas than any other that have tried it, and it is expected that we shall remain here during the summer. We have captured at different times over 300 of Mosby's men and were he not constantly re-enforced by men detailed from their regular Army, we should soon have them entirely captured or dispersed." In a few weeks, the war was finally over. There would be no more long marches, no more saber charges, no more guerilla's bullet from ambush. On July 17, 1865 the Eighth Illinois Cavalry was mustered out of service, out of existence, but not out of memory. Its achievements, its reputation would forever live on, to be read in the record books, to be foremost in the recollection of Stuart's troopers and Mosby's Rangers, whose respect the Eighth had earned on every battlefield. Yet most of all, its glory would live on in the writings and in the minds of each of its surviving members. No matter where life took them, each man would say with pride: "I rode for the Union. They called us the Eighth Illinois Cavalry."
Marshall’s usual brilliant talk was followed by vigorous applause and then a spirited Q&A session, in which Marcellus Jones’ claim to have fired the first shot was heatedly debated.
Last changed: 04/06/12