I am greatly indebted to Riley Smith, who sent me this reminiscence about the Battle of Resaca, Georgia, written by John C. Portis, who served in Company B, 8th Mississippi Infantry. As Portis was a very good writer, I will let his letter speak for itself:
Union, Newton County, Mississippi, June 17, 1896
Dear Madam: I send herewith $1.00 [in] stamps to be used in your society on soldiers cemetery at Resaca. I have no brother or other near or even distant relative sleeping on that glorious field that I know of but seven of my regiment lie there. I will append the names that I remember. My good right arm lies about a mile south of Resaca, Ga., just north of a church at the root of a large oak or chestnut tree. It was put in a board box and buried by a comrade. Hence you see I feel an interest in the wild hills of Resaca.
I was a private in Company B, Eighth Mississippi Volunteer Inf., and was wounded in right shoulder and throat about dark in a charge on the enemy’s works, May 14, 1864, on the side of a hill just west of the village on the north side of the river. I was carried back to the bluff below the bridge, where about three or four hundred poor fellows were lying torn, bleeding, and some dying. After a time I crossed the bridge, and faint and sick, I was trying to make my way to Cheatham’s Division Hospital, which was in the church. A man came into the road with an ox wagon loaded in part with beds which appeared to be very white. Some one called him Motes and asked him about his family, and he said they had gone on to Calhoun.
Mr. Motes insisted that I should ride, and said his wife would not care if all her beds were dyed with rebel blood. He carried me to the old church. I would like to know what became of Mr. Motes; I could not see his face. The night was dark. Sunday morning, May 15, about eight o’clock, my right arm was amputated at the shoulder joint. Thirty-two years have passed since then, and strange it may may seem that a boy soldier, that few thought could live, is writing this reminiscence of those two days of carnage.
Never shall I forget the morning of that fateful 14th of May, when at early dawn the signal guns told us in tones of thunder that both armies were ready for the work of death. Bright rose the sun, tipping mountain peak with blooming rays of silver and bathing valley and woodland in a flood of golden light, a scene never to be witnessed again by hundreds of the boys who wore the blue and the gray. In the streets of Resaca that day I saw enacted a deed of heroism which challenged the admiration of all who witnessed it. A wagon occupied by several ladies was passing along north of the river and just west of the railroad, when a Yankee battery opened fire on it and, until it had passed over the bridge, poured a storm of shells around it. A young woman stood erect in the wagon waving her hat, which was dressed with red or had a red ribbon or plume on it, seemingly to defy the cowards who would make war on defenseless women.
I felt then, and I do to-day, for that woman a man could freely die. Many a rebel boy felt as I did that day. I was taken from the church to a bush-arbor on the west side of the railroad, where I expected to die. A middle-aged woman dressed in black came with nourishment and (God bless her) fed me, and during that awful day ministered to the wants of the wounded and dying. If I remember correctly she came often to me with food and drink. Who she was I may never know, but she was a noble woman.
Will you, kind lady, bear with me while I relate just another incident of that sunday? Perched upon the top of a lofty tree near the church was a mocking bird warbling his sweet notes of joy and gladness ever now and then darting out to catch a minie ball as it went singing by but my comrade told me my little bird sang on until dark. I first called attention to that sweet songster which it seemed was trying to cheer me in that dark hour of my young manhood.
I am now nearly sixty years old, my head is almost white. I have a noble son who was then a babe, now a prominent teacher. I have two sweet daughters, and five little grandchildren who never tire of hearing grandfather tell of the time when death seemed so near, and they shed tears with me while looking in my empty sleeve. I tell them my good arm is sleeping in Georgia and that sometime, in the morning of the resurrection, God will restore my arm but they cannot understand and become indignant at the Yankees.
I fear I have worried you and if you do not wish to keep this among the papers of the society you can destroy it. I felt that I would like to write this, and, that maybe someone would see if the tree is standing and perhaps find my lost arm a place in the soldier’s cemetery. If not it can rest on until God shall bid it rise and meet its long severed companion where wars dread alarm will be heard no more. May God bless the noble women of the sweet sunny South in all their work of love and devotion to the memory of the heroes who fell battling for the ‘lost cause.’
I hope that I may live to contribute more to aid you in your loyal task. Again, God bless you dear ladies, is the prayer of Private John C. Portis, Co. B, 8th Miss. Reg. Vols. Infantry U.S.A. J.E. Jackson’s Brigade, Walker’s Division.
The lady to whom Portis wrote, Mrs. Elizabeth Simmons, was president of the Ladies Memorial Association of Resaca, which had been founded in 1866 to establish a cemetery for the many Confederate dead buried around the city. Simmons spearheaded a number of improvements to the graveyard, and was so committed to the cemetery that she asked to be buried there when she died. When she passed away in 1907 her request was honored, and she remains the only female buried in the Resaca Confederate Cemetery.
Simmons was truly grateful for the letter that Portis wrote, for he revealed the names of a number of men in the 8th Mississippi that were buried at Resaca. Mrs. Simmons wrote him the following letter in reply:
Calhoun, Ga., July 1, 1896
J.C. Portis, Union, Miss.
Dear Sir: Your kind and encouraging letter received. I return thanks for the association. Your letter gave us some information that we greatly desired – probably never would have gotten otherwise in regard to a group of graves eleven in number. We knew they were in the 8th Miss., that was all. You gave us Major Watkins’ name, getting his correctly brought out the other ten, which were almost entirely obliterated, we had begun to fear that this group of graves would have to be marked ‘unknown.’ Thank you for the light, it is greatly appreciated. Rest assured I have given the resting place of your comrades special attention. They were buried in a beautiful shady place, a large crab apple tree has grown up in the center of the group.
The improvements on the cemetery are not being completed as fast as we desire for the want of funds, we are placing a small marble head stone at each grave and want to enclose the grounds with a neat substantial iron fence, the work is being done now [and] will be very substantial. Again thanking you, I am, Respectfully, Mrs. E. J. Simmons, Pres’t Memorial Association
After he recovered from his terrible wound, Portis was discharged from the army and returned to his home in Union, Mississippi. He became a Methodist minister after the war, and was a much beloved figure in his community. When he died in 1909 his obituary said of him, “He was public-spirited in all that made for his country’s good, and was a power for great moral and civil uplift in his community…He was beloved by his war comrades, and for them he always cherished a fraternal love. His mind was stored with memories of the thrilling events of the four years of the war, and he was ever ready to entertain with reminiscences. He nobly fought the battle of life, and now his armor has been laid by while he rests ‘under the shade of the trees.”
John C. Portis died on October 31, 1909, and is buried in the Memorial Park Cemetery at Union, Mississippi.