First Posted: 5/5/2012
Although the Civil War experiences of enlisted men have not been as well documented as the exploits of generals and the epic battles they led, enlisted men have not been forgotten. Re-enactments have revived interest in camp life. Marching, cooking, sleeping, rumors and boredom were the daily grind of enlisted men during war, when they were not fighting.
My great-great-grandfather R.C. Fisher served as a cavalry scout with the 1st Squadron of Ohio Volunteers, which was the Army of Ohio, between Aug. 1, 1863, and Feb. 24, 1864. A sergeant from northwestern Ohio, his journal was passed to my uncle, Richard A. Bigelow, who died in 2000.
The current whereabouts of the journal are unknown to me at this time. I have access to it because it was published in 1995 with other journals, memoirs and letters by McGraw-Hill Publishers in “The Last Civil War Scout.” The journal proved interesting to the book’s editors because it is a vivid and thoughtful daily account of his experiences during the war.
This year’s 150th anniversary of the war inspired me to re-read the journal. Like the war itself, the journal proved worth revisiting. It is far more interesting than I recalled from an earlier reading. To retain the accuracy and feeling of Sgt. Fisher’s writing, I have not edited spelling or punctuation. Let’s start at the beginning:
Southerners fought to defend their homes, but why did Northerners like my great-great-grandfather fight? Here is what Sgt. Fisher said at the time of his re-enlistment on Jan. 5, 1864: “To day has been quite cold & disagreeable with slight rain to night — there was a great time in reinlisting — myself & about twenty others signed the role — I expect my wife will scold some but I deem it to be my duty & know that she is patriotic enough to endure my absence for the good of our beloved country & I feel confident that the principal part of the fighting will be over by next summer & if in reenlisting I have don my wife & child a wrong then may God forgive that act but I feel that I have don right & with him I leave the ishue.”
In the midst of the worst weather of the campaign and the fiercest fighting, Fisher believed it was his patriotic duty to help keep the Union together. He commonly referred to the enemy as “rebbles,” thus he believed it was a war to put down a rebellion among Southern states.
Fisher fought in battles in Kentucky and Tennessee. He led no charges against enemy positions. He “exchanged fire” with Rebels, but he claimed to have killed or wounded no enemy combatant. As a scout, his role was reconnaissance, delivering messages and sometimes policing. Because battle strategy depends on geography and enemy positions, it was an important job. Skirmishing, ambush and capture were hazards of the job. His journal is a view of the war as he witnessed it. He followed orders and knew little of the larger battle strategies swirling around him.
Did this Yankee scout hate the “rebbles”? It seems not. After the disastrous Confederate charge on Fort Sanders, he cheered the victory but lamented the loss of life. His only moment of anger against the Confederates happened in late November. On Sunday, Nov. 25, 1863, he wrote: “This is the Sabath — our men have orders not to fire on rebs to day — they still keep up their fire on us — several of our men have been killed and wounded to day.”
When Union soldiers committed crimes against local property, Fisher helped to round up the perpetrators. This campaign was not comparable to Sherman’s “total war” in the Carolinas. Here, homes and buildings were burned only if they were strategic or believed to be infected with smallpox or other contagious diseases.
Loyalties among the locals were divided in Kentucky, a border state, and east Tennessee was largely pro-Union, despite the state’s Southern stand.
Fisher spoke of friendly local women, especially when they were selling or cooking food. Food and lodgings for hungry and tired soldiers was a thriving industry, as this note on Aug. 9, 1863, from Lexington, Ky., illustrated: “This morning the camp us full of wimen with butter, eggs, milk, pies, cakes, aples & in fact everything that will bring money…”
When a camp meal of hush puppies cooked in ashes and cold boiled meat was prized, fresh eggs and baked goods must have been delightful. It is also worth noting that selling “everything that will bring money” may have included other services, but the gentleman in Fisher prevented him from writing anything of this. Near Knoxville, he encountered the first woman he ever saw chewing tobacco: “It is very revolting to see a pretty girl with a big cud in her mouth & squirting out the juice…”
Marching, as Fisher did from southern Ohio through Kentucky to the battlefields of the Knoxville campaign, often consumed 20 or more miles per day. Bad days were defined by poor weather, poor roads, too little food for the men and horses and sick or wounded comrades. At the Cumberland River, Fisher wrote that he “marched twenty miles to day and camped one mile south of the Cumberland River — this is the place where our men drove the rebble Gen. Scott across the river when he made his raid into Kentucky.”
Three days later, they marched another 20 miles but “to day Orderly Williams and myself took it easy & did not get into camp until late – His wound hurt him so & my horse was sick…” Often days would go by in camp with “still nothing.” But things were heating up as the enemy prepared for an attack on Yankee lines. During idle days, men still died from disease and accidents.
War in Tennessee
Only Virginia was home to more fighting than Tennessee during the Civil War. The Yankees in Chattanooga were under siege by Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, and an army under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was dispatched to Knoxville to occupy Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio. Fort Sanders, just northwest of downtown Knoxville, was a 15-foot-high earthenworks behind a trench about 12 feet wide and eight feet deep that protected Knoxville from the siege. Here is Fisher’s account of the Union victory:
On Nov. 12, 1863, he wrote: “This morning the rebs atacted our men on the other side of the river but were repeled with loss.” (Nov. 13) “Still fighting over the river…” (Nov. 14) “Still skirmishing and fighting here and they have drove our force from Loudon to this place – our men are coming in very fast & and the rebs are following them.” (Nov. 16) “The enemy have left the other side of the river and our men are entrenching as fast as possible – it is now shure that there will be a fight here for the enemy are here in heavy force and we have thrown out skirmishers…”
The Rebel army appeared to be gaining strength and fighting intensified in the days that followed. (Nov. 19) “The fight still goes on — first one side & then the other gets the advantage. This morning we went out with Gen. Manson who has command of our right wing. We could see nothing of the enemy from our station on Temperance Hill. The fighting seems to be on our left & center.”
Bombardment by cannon was fearsome to Fisher. It also alerted the men to where an attack may occur. On Nov. 21: “To day the enemy drove our men a little and planted a battery in front of our center — fired a few shells when our men knocked their battery to pieces upsetting two of their guns. When the rebs fell back there was some skirmishing and cannonading after that — Gen. Sanders was killed to day and several others.” The fort was quickly named for the fallen brigadier general.
Anticipation of a big battle was at fever pitch. On Nov. 25, Fisher wrote: “I think there will be a charge made by our men to night.” Night skirmishing resulted in the capture of 48 Yankees. Rumors abounded during lulls in the fighting. Where was Gen. Grant? Were reinforcements coming? Were the Confederates being reinforced from Virginia? Fisher was skeptical of “rummers.”
Cannon fire began in earnest on Nov, 28. The next day, the Confederates, led by Gen. Longstreet, launched an all-out attack on the fort. “Last night about eleven o clock the rebs charged on Fort Sanders but our men were ready to receive them and waited until they got within good musket range and then pored a deadly fire into their ranks – the slaughter was terrible – I have not heard how much our loss was but it is said that the enemy left about five hundred dead on the ground and I cant say how many wounded … I counted one hundred and thirty-seven prisoners … our men are in good spirits and confident of success but none can say how the battle may turn out tonight — I think the grandest sight I ever saw was this morning from seven until eight o clock — the air was filled with the shells of the enemy — they were bursting in every direction..” There was a “flag of truce” while unarmed men from both sides cleared the dead from the field of battle. Conversation was exchanged with the enemy.
The fateful 20-minute assault on Fort Sanders was the turning point of the Knoxville campaign and the Tennessee campaign. History books recorded that the charge took place at daybreak instead of at 11 p.m. as Fisher reported.
Gen. Longstreet believed that the trench was shallow and that the steep walls could be negotiated by digging footholds.
The Confederates moved to within 120-150 yards of the ditch during the night of freezing rain and snow. When they attacked, they were initially confronted by telegraph wire that had been strung between tree stumps at knee height, possibly the first use of such wire entanglements in the Civil War, and many men were shot as they tried to untangle themselves. When they reached the trench, they found the vertical wall to be virtually insurmountable, frozen and slippery, and Union soldiers rained fire into the masses of men in the trench. Bodies were stacked on top of one another. Depending on the source, nearly 800 Confederate and 100 or fewer Union soldiers were killed.
On Dec. 4, Gen. Sherman’s men arrived, and the Confederate army fell back. On Dec. 5: “The rebs have all left — our men are in persute and are brining in prisoners every hour — I think there can be no doubt but we will bag the most of them — I think the rebellion is about done for — then there is but one more army to whip — that is Lees and it is reported here that he is whipped already but the news is too good to believe at present.”
As 1863 came to a close, this view proved a bit premature. Fisher began a police operation to reign in depredations against the locals and their property. On Dec. 13: “I went out after another lit of men that were killing pigs — arrested five of them & brought them in — was ordered to Buck & gag them — I done so but not very hard & instead of blaming me for it they thanked me for being so easy with them…”
In January, Fisher waited to go home, and the wait was long with some patrols and “schirmishing.” Apparently, those who re-enlisted got time off and those who did not went to the front lines. The final entries in the diary are from Feb. 24 and 25, 1864 in Cincinnati. “Pleasant to day — did not get our pay yet — went to the theatre to night — the play was Marble Hearts.”
With that entry, Fisher went home to his wife and children. He did not return to the war. His memoir gives insight into the life of a Yankee scout during a critical moment of the nation’s bloodiest war. The living and dying of Union and Confederate men was told with matter-of-fact, and sometimes grim, detail. It must have been far worse on the Confederate side. Like most enlisted men, Fisher was a good soldier, and he believed he was a patriot.