The Diary of John Louis Whitaker Phares, Company K, 16th Mississippi Infantry

Diary of John Louis Whitaker Phares

Company K, “Wilkinson Rifles,”

16th Mississippi Infantry

(Taken from the Dallas Morning News, August 28, 1927)


One of the reasons that I love being an historian is that it gives me an excuse to root around and find neat things that no one has seen for a very long time. A good example is the diary of John Louis Whitaker Phares, who served in Company K of the 16th Mississippi Infantry. His diary was published in the Dallas Morning News, the first part in the August 28, 1927 edition, and the second part in the September 4, 1927 copy of the paper.

Phares was a dentist residing in Woodville, Mississippi, when the war broke out, and he gave up his practice to enlist as a private in the Wilkinson Rifles. The diary kept by Phares covers the period from May 1862 – August 1863, and illustrates the war as seen by one of the rank and file who served under General Robert E. Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Photograph of John Louis Whitaker Phares in the Dallas Morning News, August 28, 1927

A note – in places the original article was illegible, and in places I have left blanks where words had been obscured. In other places where I was reasonably sure of the writer’s intent, I put the probable word that Phares wrote in brackets. In some places the article summarizes the journal entries rather than quoting them directly, and I include this information in the “editor’s notes.”

The 16th Mississippi Infantry was formally organized in Corinth, Mississippi, on June 17, 1861 when the unit was called into the service of the Confederate States of America. Carnot Posey, a veteran of the Mexican War who had served under Jefferson Davis in the 1st Mississippi Rifles was elected Colonel of the regiment. The 16th left for Virginia in July 1861, but didn’t see any significant action until the spring of 1862, when the regiment took part in General Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign in May and June of that year. As the diary opens, the 16th Mississippi is engaged in the battle of Front Royal, Virginia: 

Friday, May 23, 1862:

Made an attack on the enemy at Fort [Front] Royal. The hour was 3 p.m. They showed but little fight and soon were put to flight. Captured the First Maryland Regiment, and others of other regiments. Took $500,000 worth of Government stores. The enemy did not burn the bridges near town. Took large amount of ammunition and other valuables. Captured nearly 3,500 prisoners in three days.

Editor’s note: While the 16th Mississippi was on the field during the battle of Fort Royal, they were not engaged, and suffered no casualties.

Union army entering Front Royal, Virginia - Library of Congress

Friday, May 30:

The army began to retreat. In one march we tramped twenty-three miles.

Tuesday, June 3:

Crossed the Shenandoah two miles from Mount Jackson, set the bridge on fire. The enemy came up while it was burning. Our battery shelled them. We marched two miles beyond New Market. Moving all night long.

Wednesday, June 4:

Our brigade is the rear guard of the army. The boys suffered considerably from hunger today. Rations are short. Camped four miles from Harrisonburg.

Friday, June 6:

Marched twenty miles yesterday. The enemy pursued closely. Roads very bad, difficult to get wagon train along. Had a skirmish at 3 p.m., took forty-three prisoners, one Colonel. They were regulars but we held the field. Losses great on both sides. Colonel Ashby killed.

Editor’s note: the “Colonel Ashby” mentioned by Phares is Brigadier General Turner

Brigadier General Turner Ashby - Library of Congress

Ashby, who commanded cavalry in General Stonewall Jackson’s command during the Valley Campaign. He was killed while leading an assault on June 6, 1862.

Saturday, June 7:

General Jackson went forward with his division to meet General Shields, Colonel Ewell remaining with his command. Enemy a little more cautious about following us today.

Sunday, June 8:

At noon we engaged the enemy. Our regiment charged the Eighth New York Regiment, repulsing them with great loss on their side. Fought until 5 p.m. We fought well, driving back three separate enemy regiments, then a brigade; a battery was driven back in a single charge. I was wounded in the last charge. Colonel Posey and I were carried back three miles to a farm house. The enemy lost ten men to our one.

Editor’s note: the engagement that Phares mentions in this entry is the battle of Cross Keys, Virginia. The 16thMississippi was heavily involved in this fight, suffering 6 killed and 27 wounded.

Battle of Cross Keys, Virginia - Library of Congress

Date not stated [June 1862]

Editors note: the article states that Phares and Colonel Carnot Posey were transported by ambulance 20 miles to Waynesborough, Virginia, then put on a train and carried to a hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. The article went on to state that Privates Phares, William Patterson, T. N. McMorriss and Tom Rowland were:

Moved from the university to a small house, very comfortable. Large reinforcements passed through for Jackson today.

Friday, June 29:

Fighting commenced at Richmond today. Wounded in the Wilkinson Rifles were Sol Oliver, Tom Haynes, George Thornton, R. A. Babers and others.

Editor’s note: the fighting of which Phares speaks was part of the Seven Days battles for Richmond. The 16th Mississippi was heavily engaged during the battle of Gaine’s Mill on June 27 and at the battle of Malvern Hill on July 1. In these two battles the regiment had 15 killed, 51 wounded, and 19 missing.

Wednesday, July 9:

Editors note: the article states that the house where Phares was recuperating was struck by lightning.

Considerable thunder gust. Swartz and McMorris left for home today.

Wednesday, August 13:

Illustration of a Civil War period surgical case which includes instruments for performing amputations. From HAND-BOOK OF SURGICAL OPERATIONS (1863) by Stephen Smith, M.D.

The doctors have been busy all day amputating limbs of the wounded. Quite a pile of limbs are in sight of our room.

Thursday, August 21:

Visiting the soldiers graveyard near the university with John Patterson, where I saw the grave of E. H. Bell, made arrangements to leave for the army since my wound is almost well.

Editor’s note: E. H. Bell was Edgar H. Bell, a private in Company K of the 16th Mississippi.

Date not stated [August 1862]

Editors note: the article states that Phares and John Patterson walked to Gordonsville, Virginia, then on to Orange Courthouse and crossed the Rapidan River and reached Culpeper, Virginia, about nightfall. The pair then

Slept on a warehouse platform. Tried to get breakfast in several places without success. Reached Brandy Station at noon. The regiment had been ordered forward, but the cook detail was still in camp.

Date not stated [August 1862]

Editors note: The article states that Phares rejoined his company and marched with it through the towns of Orleans and Salem, heading in the direction of Manassas, Virginia.

Wednesday, August 27:

I could not keep up with the regiment last night.

Date not stated [August 1862]

Editors note: The article states that the following entry was made about the battle of Second Manassas. In the battle the brigade to which the 16th Mississippi belonged suffered 26 killed and 142 wounded.

Marching and countermarching until 2 o’clock at night. Heavy shelling from the enemy. We advanced across the area where the battle of Manassas was fought last year. It is covered with wounded from both sides. The enemy blew up the stone bridge across Bull Run last night We camped near Leesburg. Strangely enough, nothing of interest today. I wrote to ma.

Saturday, September 6:

Waded the [Potomac] river into Maryland. Captured enemy canal boats loaded with groceries. Camped later on the Monocacy River, bathing and washing our clothes. Drew two days rations of meat, flour, coffee and molasses; our appetites pretty sharp.

Wednesday, September 17:

Editors note: entry was made at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, where the Union garrison there was forced to surrender to the Confederates who had them surrounded. Although Phares has this in his diary as happening on September 17, the surrender actually took place on September 15.

The enemy made unconditional surrender. Fighting was mostly cannonading. Commenced at daylight and continued until they showed the white flag. Slept on our arms. Ten to fifteen thousand prisoners taken. General Longstreet is fighting [in] Maryland.

Image of Harper's Ferry taken from Maryland Heights - Library of Congress

Editors note: a second entry was made that is dated September 17 about the fighting at Sharpsburg, Maryland – this battle is incorrectly listed in the article as taking place at Shepardstown, Virginia:

The engagement was general and said to be the largest battle fought to date. Wilkinson Rifles lost twenty-seven men. Both wings of our army were victorious, but the center was a draw fight, the enemy having advantage in position. The dead and wounded were left in the field. We lay on our arms both sides skirmishing, but afraid to attack.

Editor’s note: the battle of Sharpsburg, also known as Antietam, was one of the bloodiest of the war for the 16thMississippi. Of the 228 men that the regiment took into the fight, 27 were killed, 100 wounded, and 20 missing.

Casualty List for the 16th Mississippi Infantry from the battle of Sharpsburg - TIMES-PICAYUNE (New Orleans) October 29, 1862

Saturday, September 20:

Editors note: the article states that by this date, the Confederate army had retreated to Charleston, Virginia, and then began a march to Winchester, Virginia:

Robert Gerald, Nole Dickson and I foraged for Irish potatoes and apples. Too cold to sleep with the little cover we have. Had an election in our company for third lieutenant. James Bryan was chosen.

Friday, October 3:

Foraged for plenty of cider, one loaf of bread and a good dinner. Returned from a frolic last night and was arrested by the provost guard. The rest escaped. Nothing of interest today.

Sunday, November 2:

Editors note: this entry was written from Culpeper, Virginia:

Men more worsted than ever before. Many are barefooted. All cheerful.

Wednesday, November 5:

E. R. Davis died yesterday. Frank Best, Robert Gerald, Frank Leatherman, Flitch Lewis and I went eight miles from Culpeper to Mrs. Moise’s to bury him. Spent night in barn. Snow several inches deep.

Date not stated, [November 1862]

Editors note: the article states that the 16th Mississippi made a forced march to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Phares made this entry:

The citizens having moved to the country at threat of the enemys shells. General Patrick warned them under flag of truce to surrender the city. Worked on the breastworks tonight. Our brigade was called tonight without five minutes notice on news that the enemy was crossing the river. Lay on our arms all night. No attack. Snow several inches deep.

View of Fredericksburg, Virginia, taken from across the river - Library of Congress

Thursday, December 4:

Editor’s note: The paper states that after doing picket duty and having several engagements that caused numerous casualties in the Wilkinson Rifles, Phares made this entry:

Howell Cobb wounded and died this morning. Last night our company, under Captain Counsel, returned from picket duty. We dug entrenchments, then were ordered to leave them and move further along to the right, with the left wing of our regiment covering the road. We dug strong entrenchments. The second night we have not slept. Supplied canteens before light as position is exposed. At daylight were fired on. Our batteries routed the enemy. They ran, throwing away their guns. Rest of the day passed quietly.

Editor’s note: Phares had his Cobb’s mixed up – it was General Thomas R. R. Cobb who was killed at Fredericksburg, not his brother Howell Cobb, who was also a Confederate general.

General Thomas R. R. Cobb - Library of Congress

Date not stated, [December 1862]

Editor’s note: the article states that after lying on their arms for two days and suffering from the cold, Colonel Posey ordered the Wilkinson Rifles to go into Fredericksburg and investigate the conditions there:

Several shells were thrown at us without effect. We went through the back streets, separating into squads, searching every house. Destruction and havoc everywhere. Citizens left their homes on a moment’s notice. Stores and furnishings all looted by the enemy. Every house shell ridden. Many burned. A squad captured one Hessian. Returned to regiment with blankets and shoes left in town and on the battlefield by the enemy. Lay on our arms for a week.

Editor’s note: The battle of Fredericksburg took place on December 11 – 15, 1862, and resulted in a Confederate victory when the Union assaults were repulsed with heavy casualties. The 16th Mississippi suffered only light casualties, having 3 killed and 17 wounded.

Friday, December 19:

The enemy fired a signal gun. Our long roll beat. In less than five minutes our army was marching to the front. The enemy remained inactive and we returned to camp. Sent a letter to Ms by Mack Lewis.

Monday, December 22:

Subscription in camp to relieve suffering in Fredericksburg district. Wilkinson Rifles gave $13.50.

Wednesday, December 24:

Weather mild and cloudy; company drill this morning. Everything dull in camp, nothing to change the monotony.

Thursday, December 25:

This has been the mildest Christmas I have ever seen. Moved camp a mile; now situated on a ridge with fine wood and water. Sad changes have taken place in our little band in a year. Many the pride of company and life of the whole camp are now consigned to the cold earth, either stricken down by disease from exposure or fallen contending for liberty. While looking back on our misfortunes with sadness, we have cause to be thankful to Almighty God that our sufferings have been no worse. While the enemy has been two-thirds greater in every battle in which we have taken part, we have been victors in every instance.

End of Part I – I will have Part II of the diary posted soon.


One thought on “The Diary of John Louis Whitaker Phares, Company K, 16th Mississippi Infantry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s