The life and times of a Yankee scout

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:

Why fight‭?

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…”

Finally home

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.