Wading Through Blood: Part II of the Charles C. Capron Letters

On May 3, 1864, the Union host encamped around Chattanooga broke from their winter quarters and began the campaign to tear the heart out of Confederate Georgia.[1]     The sight of thousands upon thousands of blue – clad troops marching south inspired Charles Capron of the 89th Illinois to write: “by one o clock you could see long lines of infantry winding their way over hill and valley like the large Boa Constrictor rushing with irristible force on to their intended victim.”[2]

Union campsite much like the one at Chattanooga Capron mentioned in his letter
Union campsite much like the one at Chattanooga Capron mentioned in his letter

Although he had been in the army for less than ten months when he started down the long bloody road to Atlanta, Capron was already a veteran campaigner.  He had his baptism of fire at Chickamauga barely more than a month after joining the army, and surviving the crushing Union defeat, joined in the retreat back to Chattanooga.  Once there he endured hunger and privation as the Rebels invested the city, and after a long bitter siege he had his first taste of victory as the Army of the Cumberland charged up Missionary Ridge and smashed the Confederate line, sending the Rebels fleeing and ending the threat to Chattanooga.  The men of the 89th Illinois had little time to enjoy the fruits of their victory as they were immediately sent with a force to relieve the Union garrison at Knoxville Tennessee, under siege from Confederates commanded by General James Longstreet.  The relief column arrived after the Confederates retreated, and the 89th did not see any significant combat for the remainder of 1863.  The only fighting they had left was against the elements as they spent a very bleak winter on the march through East Tennessee. [3]

As winter slowly gave way to spring, Capron realized the time for the army to move against the Rebels was close at hand.  He acknowledged this in a letter he wrote to respond to his mother’s worries that he did not have enough warm clothing, saying:

You was thinking that I have not clothes enough you must remember that it is getting warm weather here now and if we march much I will have to throw some of them away I would like to send home a good overcoat that I do not need but there is no chance.[4]

While he did try to allay his mother’s fears in his letters, Capron had reservations about the upcoming campaign – in a very short time he had learned the hardships of a soldier’s life, and thoughts of trying to find an easier place in the army did cross his mind.  He wrote in late March:

I think some of going into a cavalry regiment that is going into Texas I think that I can stand it better in mounted service if I can get out of this regiment but as long as they lay here I am satisfied…[5]

Joining the cavalry may have been an idle fancy, as there is no indication in his service record that Capron ever actively sought a transfer.[6]  A few weeks later he heard a rumor that his division was to be assigned to garrison duty which would keep them safely away from the front lines, but he looked at this rumor through the jaundiced eyes of a veteran saying, “…there is so many reports that you cannot believe anything you hear and only half what you see at any rate…”[7]

While Capron prepared himself for the combat to come, great changes were being made in

General William T. Sherman, commander fo the Military Division of the Mississippi - Library of Congress
General William T. Sherman, commander fo the Military Division of the Mississippi – Library of Congress

the Union high command.  On February 29, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General and given control of all the Federal armies in the field.   Grant’s new responsibilities required his presence in the Eastern theatre, so General William T. Sherman was given command of the Military Division of the Mississippi to take charge of the Western theatre.[8]

After receiving his promotion, Grant wasted little time in formulating a plan to destroy the Confederacy and end the war.  Grant and the Army of the Potomac had the objective of destroying Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and taking Richmond; at the same time, Sherman would move against Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee and capture Atlanta.  With both Union forces, east and west, moving at the same time, they would keep the pressure building against the Confederates until they ultimately collapsed from the strain.[9]

By the time he was ready to move against the Rebels in early May, Sherman had at his

General George Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, to which the 89th Illinois Infantry belonged - Library of Congress
General George Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, to which the 89th Illinois Infantry belonged – Library of Congress

disposal a very powerful force, consisting of the Army of the Tennessee, commanded by General James B. McPherson, the Army of the Cumberland, commanded by General George Thomas, and the Army of the Ohio, commanded by General John M. Schofield.  All told, Sherman had approximately 100,000 men under arms to use against Johnston’s Rebel army, numbering about 60,000 men.[10]

On May 3, 1864, the 89th Illinois received the news that Capron had been anticipating for so long; their corps had orders to march.[11]  The regiment broke camp at McDonald Station, Tennessee, about 20 miles Northeast of Chattanooga and marched south towards the nearby Georgia border.  After passing the state line Capron said that he had “crossed on to the sacred soil.”[12]

The Federals were marching for Dalton, Georgia, where Johnston had the Army of Tennessee entrenched just west of town on the craggy heights of Rocky Face Ridge.  The Rebel position was a strong one, and Sherman was not anxious to waste lives in a frontal assault.  He decided instead to flank Johnston out of his earthworks, and accordingly on May 7th, General McPherson began marching his troops beyond the Confederate left flank to Snake Creek Gap, a route through Rocky Face Ridge that offered access to Resaca, Georgia.  If McPherson could take Resaca, Johnston’s railroad supply line to Dalton would be cut, and he would be forced to abandon the city.[13]

Rocky Face Ridge, Georgia - Library of Congress
Rocky Face Ridge, Georgia – Library of Congress

At the same time McPherson was making his flank march, General Schofield’s men were marching towards the Confederate left flank, and General Thomas was demonstrating against the Rebel center to keep Johnston at Dalton, unable to interfere with McPherson’s march.[14] Thomas’ men seized the Confederates forward position at Tunnel Hill on May 7, with Capron and the 89th serving as skirmishers while the Federals moved towards the main Confederate line on Rocky Face Ridge.  Over the next four days the regiment skirmished with the enemy, providing the distraction their orders called for.[15]

On May 11, Capron found time to pen a letter to his family describing the combat he had seen over the past few days:

Georgia Tunnell Hill May 11, 1864: to the dear ones at home I now seat myself for the purpose of answering your kind letter which I received to day dated May 1th

            I am some distance from where I last wrote you for we left Camp Donelson May 3 went about 8 miles and camp there for the night started the next morning came to Catoosa springs and there came to a halt no one dareing to venture through the gap for fear of a massed battery but old Willich our brigade commander came up and said that he would go through with his brigade and through we went driving in the rebels videttes  May 5 & 6 laied in camp I will now give it to you day by day as we got it.  May 7 advanced about 12 miles to tunnell hill slight skirmishing through the day and some big guns fired.  May 8 formed in line of battle the same as yesterday got orders to go on the skirmish line lost 14 men killed and wounded May 10 layed on the reserve heavy skirmishing all day and considerable cannonading May 11 we heard that we could send out letters to morrow so I will finish it this evening I have not time to give all the particulars suffice it to say that we have waded through blood for the last 14 days and are now within 60 miles of Atalanta with the enimy within a mile of us they have disputed our passage every night we have made an avarage 10 miles a day except to days that they made a stubborn resistance I passed over the battle field after the noise was hushed and the dead and wounded that they left in our hands showed how they suffered I remain as yet unhurt Mr Copeland[16] is well he received a letter from amanda yesterday there will be in all probability another big battle before many days and it may not be my lot to come out safe you must write whether you get a letter from me or not for the mail does not go our very regular.  I will now close as we are a going on this morning this from your affectionate son

            C. C. to M. S. C.[17]

On May 12th, the 89th marched to a new position and began building earthworks, so their skirmishing duty was over for a time.  Although Capron made it sound very bloody, the regiment’s casualties were slight – only two killed or mortally wounded.[18]

The Federals had done their job well, but ultimately the effort to distract Johnston had been in vain – McPherson, after making contact with the thin line of Confederate defenders protecting Resaca, believed the Rebels were massed in force against him and  withdrew to Snake Creek Gap, leaving the southern supply line intact.[19]  Johnston, finally alerted to the threat to his rear, ordered his army to evacuate Dalton and retire to Resaca, a movement that began after dark on May 12.[20]

Snake Creek Gap, Georgia - Library of Congress
Snake Creek Gap, Georgia – Library of Congress

On May 13, the Federals began their pursuit of the Rebels, the blue columns coming within sight of the Confederate entrenchments at Resaca on the 14th.  Sherman ordered his men to attack that day, and at the same time he sent a column to flank the Rebels from their position.  Fighting flared again on the 15th, but realizing his position had been turned, Johnston withdrew his army that night.[21]

For the 89th Illinois, the fighting at Resaca never amounted to more than a light skirmish, and losses were negligible – only one man killed or mortally wounded.[22]   There was however one other significant casualty of the fighting at Resaca – the 89th’s Brigade commander, General August Willich, was wounded by a sharpshooter on May 15, and command of the brigade fell to Colonel William H. Gibson of the 49th Ohio Infantry.[23]

Capron and the 89th Illinois were on the march again May 16 and 17 as they continued their pursuit of the Rebels.[24]  On the 18th Johnston halted his army north of Cassville with the intention of giving battle, but his plan misfired and he withdrew again to the south of the town.  The next day he retreated again to the safety of Allatoona Pass and prepared to meet the Federals from this very strong position.[25]

Allatoona Pass, Georgia - Library of Congress
Allatoona Pass, Georgia – Library of Congress

After the Confederate retreat to Allatoona, Sherman allowed his men three days of rest, and Capron took advantage of the opportunity to write home:

                                                            May 22th, 1864, Camp Near Kingston

            To the remembered ones at home.  I now seat myself to answer your kind letter which came to last night dated May 12th I wrote you on the 19 but as we are going to leave in the morning I thought I would write you a few lines I am well at present so is Mr Copeland we have been in camp 2 days but got orders to move in the morning do not know where we will go to some think that we will go on to the Potomac I am as yet one of the favored ones but how long I do not know I received a letter from Annette and Laura dated May 2 it said that they was all well I have not much to write now as I wrote lately I do not know when we will be paied of [f] likely not till this campaign is over they owe us nearly 6 months pay already you must tell Nell Lorain and Arthur to write as you do not know how eager the boys are for the mail if the folks at home could see the boys watch for the mail i am sure they would write oftener but I can think of nothing more to write at present I wrote a letter for Mr Copeland the same day I wrote to you I must quit for this time so good bye for this time from your affectionate son  C. Capron to M. S. C.[26]

 Sherman put his armies in motion once again on May 23, but the objective was not Allatoona Pass.  The General had spent time in the area before the war, and he was well aware of how well the rugged terrain lent itself to a defender.  Instead he decided to continue the tactics that had worked so well and flank Johnston out of his Allatoona entrenchments by moving troops to Marietta, Georgia by way of the small town of Dallas.[27]

The Yankee move towards Dallas did not go unnoticed by General Johnston however, and pulling his army out of Allatoona, he moved quickly to intercept.  The Rebels won the race, and when the Federals arrived they found the Confederates drawn up in line of battle along a wooded ridge that ran from Dallas north to a chapel known as New Hope Church.[28]

Earthworks on the New Hope Church Battlefield
Earthworks on the New Hope Church Battlefield

On May 25th the lead element of the Army of the Cumberland, the 20th Corps commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker, struck the Confederate line near New Hope Church.  After a very bloody fight, the Federals pulled back with nothing to show for their heavy losses.[29]  While the fighting raged around New Hope Church, the 89th Illinois struggled along with the rest of their corps to reach the front lines, marching on what Colonel Hotchkiss called “blind roads and over a broken country.”[30]

The 89th Illinois took up a position with their division on the Union left on May 26, and spent the day skirmishing and building earthworks.[31] That night Sherman sent General Howard orders to attack the Confederate right flank north of New Hope Church – a fateful set of orders that led to the deaths of many good men in Capron’s regiment.[32]

Howard chose for the attack the 89th’s Division, commanded by Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood.  To avoid the excessive casualties that a frontal assault was sure to bring, Howard ordered Wood to march his division around the Confederate right and attack the exposed flank where the Rebels were not protected by entrenchments.[33]

About 1:00 p.m. Capron shouldered his musket as the 89th marched off in search of the enemy flank.  The journey took them over broken, heavily forested terrain for two and a half miles, ending up at a place known as Pickett’s Mill.[34] As the Federals moved into attack position, instead of the open flank they were expecting, they saw Confederate soldiers hard at work building earthworks.[35]  Even so, General Howard believed the attack could succeed as the Rebel works were incomplete, and at 4:30 p.m. he ordered the attack to begin, but instead of a powerful thrust by his entire division, only the leading brigade, commanded by Brigadier General William B. Hazen, was sent forward.  Capron and the rest of Willich’s Brigade, next in line after Hazen, could only watch as their comrades marched off towards the enemy works.[36]

Hazen’s men marched through a thick tangle of forest, pushing back the enemy skirmishers to their main line, a broken, timber covered ridge overlooking a ravine through which the Yankees must pass to reach the Rebel line.[37] As they advanced through the woods the Federals were hit by what the Lieutenant Colonel of the 49th Ohio Infantry called “a desolating fire of musketry and artillery at close range.”[38]  The stubborn men in blue pushed to within 20 to 30 yards of the Confederate line before they were forced to take cover from the wall of lead and iron being thrown at them.  After enduring this galling fire for 40 minutes, with the brigade running low on ammunition and facing a Rebel threat to both flanks, Hazen ordered his command to retreat.[39]

Print by artist Rick Reeves depicting the repulse of Hazen's Brigade by Granbury's Texas Brigade
Print by artist Rick Reeves depicting the repulse of Hazen’s Brigade by Granbury’s Texas Brigade

About the time Hazen’s retreat began, the 89th fell in and prepared to advance – their brigade had finally been given the order to attack.  The regiment swarmed over the ground well marked by the dead and dying of Hazen’s Brigade, and soon their own casualties joined them as their ranks were rocked by the same terrible fire that devastated their comrades.  Lieutenant Colonel William D. Williams said the 89th advanced to within 25 yards of the Rebel works where “the fire was so murderous that the column paused, wavered, and sought such shelter as they could find.[40]

The 89th endured the firestorm for an hour when Colonel Gibson ordered the brigade to retreat, but owing to the intensity of the iron and lead being thrown at them, the survivors had to wait until darkness to safely withdraw.[41]  The stragglers of the brigade that lingered too long had to run for their lives when the Rebels mounted a nighttime charge to clear the ravine in their front of Yankees.[42]

Modern view of the Pickett's Mill Battlefield at the spot where Hazen's Brigade attacked the entrenched Confederates - Photo by Wayne Hsieh, flickr.com
Modern view of the Pickett’s Mill Battlefield at the spot where Hazen’s Brigade attacked the entrenched Confederates – Photo by Wayne Hsieh, flickr.com

Among the fortunate few in the 89th Illinois who escaped injury at Pickett’s Mill was Private Charles Capron, but many in his regiment were not so lucky.  The unit had 24 killed, 102 wounded, and 28 missing – their worst loss of the entire war.[43]

With the dawn of day the horrific cost of the Federal attack was revealed to the soldiers of both sides.  One Rebel in the 45th Mississippi Infantry who surveyed the scene wrote in his diary, “I never saw so many dead Yanks here as I saw in front of Granbury’s Brig. today.  It looked as if a line of battle had fallen there, it was terrible to look at.”[44]

In the wake of their ordeal on the 27th, Capron and the rest of the regiment began digging entrenchments, and the men spent the next nine days manning the fortifications.  Other than pushing their works closer to the enemy on the 30th, very little of note took place, giving the regiment a chance to recover from the shock of their losses.[45]

Charles knew that his family must have heard about the slaughter at Pickett’s Mill, and concerned they might fear the worst, he penned his family a letter from the trenches to inform them he had survived:

                                                                                    Altona Mountains, May 30th 1864

            Dear mother I now seat myself to write you a few lines to let you know how I am for I know how anxious you are to hear from me especially if you got the news that the 89 was all cut to pieces but thanks to the all mercyfull I am still alive and well I will now tell you what kind of a scrape the third division got into.

May 27  we had been marching around in thick timber till nearly noon when we stoped to rest awhile.  but about 11 o clock we started again marching to the left suddenly a brisk fire was heard from our skirmishers and well we knew that the first brigade would soon be in action[46] but had no idea off it being so hot a place but we soon found it out for it was not many minutes as we advanced before the bullets that came pattering around us told us that the enemy was near we came to the top of a little hill we found ourselfs in it for earnest we then charged across a little ravine and up another hill to within three rods of their breastworks when we could go no farther we was then reinforced by the 15 Ohio who came up and tried to storm their works but was compelled to fall back we had lost already 3 killed and 9 wounded in our company by dark.  at dark the regiments all withdrew but ours we then put out sentinels when their whole line arose about 3 rods from us doubtless thinking that we was a going to charge them they remained in that position about five minutes when their bugle sounded no one knowing what it meant as we are unused to their call but they soon advanced within bayonet reach when our men halted them they halted when a rebel officer steped out of the ranks and fired a revolver twice they then set up a yell and fired a volley into us a good many of our men had no ammunition and then came on the masacre and all our men could do was to get out of their way.  I immediately fired my gun knocking a rebel endways and comenced the race they firing a volley after me but I got out all right they catched one of our seargants one fellow held him while the other one struck him he let on like he was one of their own men by exclaiming what in h—l you hitting your own men for they let him go then and he got away in the dark our total loss in killed wounded and missing is 145 the brigade loseing 700 men and the division about 1600.[47]

            I will now close by saying that this finds myself and Mr. Copeland well we both send our best respects to all at home so farewell for this time from your affectionate son CC to MSC

tell some of the young ladies  to write to me so to pass off time[48]

Memories of this battle stuck with Capron, and even the passage of time and participation in many battles afterwards could not erase thoughts of Pickett’s Mill.  Many months later he shared with his mother one of his experiences from the battle:

…we was obliged to lie down for if we had attempted to gone back the balance of us would been shot down.  However we laid there and on rushed our support to help us consisting of the 15 and 49 Ohio they came up to where we was laying I was lying behind a log when they came up the officers urged them to go on the line steped up on to the log to git over when six of them was shot down falling onto me and litteraly covering me with blood…[49]

With the lack of a decisive result from the fighting around New Hope Church, Sherman decided to move around the Confederate right flank, sending his cavalry to take possession of the towns of Allatoona and Acworth.[50] The Union Infantry began moving at the same time, starting on the far right of the Federal line, and it was not until June 6 that the 89th Illinois with the rest of the 4th Corps shouldered their rifles and marched east to within two miles of Acworth.[51]

The Federal move did not go unnoticed by the Rebels, and Johnston responded by pulling out of the New Hope Church defenses on the night of June 4 and marching east and putting his army into a blocking position to the northeast of Marietta Georgia, with his left anchored on Lost Mountain, his center on Pine Mountain, and his right on Brush Mountain.[52]

The 89thIllinois had been in their earthworks since the assault at Pickett’s Mill, and the move on June 6 came as a welcome relief from the monotony of the trenches.  In a letter written the day they marched out, Capron told his mother,

We had a pretty hard time of it as there was ten days that we was not alowed to take of[f] our catridge boxes night or day and but one night that we did not have to git out and stand to arms but the Lord is good and thus spared me[53]

For the next three days Sherman paused his armies to build up supplies, and the 89th took advantage of the respite to rest before the pursuit continued.  The advance resumed on June 10, and the 4th Corps made contact with the enemy near Pine Mountain. [54]  The 89th Illinois next engaged the Rebels on June 14, when their brigade moved forward as part of a general advance.  The Confederates were driven back and the Federals pushed forward three-fourths of a mile until they came within sight of the main line of Rebel entrenchments.[55]

Pine Mountain, Georgia
Pine Mountain, Georgia

Due to the mounting Union pressure being put on his line, Johnston withdrew his forces from Pine Mountain the night of June 14-15 and pulled back his center to the next fortified line on Kennesaw Mountain.[56]  Soon after, with his flanks in danger, Johnston pulled his troops from Lost and Brush Mountains on the night of June 17-18.[57]

As the 4th Corps pursued the Rebels south towards Kennesaw, the 89th Illinois followed a familiar routine whenever they met any resistance: throw out skirmishers, advance and drive the enemy back.  This process was repeated time and time again  during the Atlanta campaign.[58]  Capron was under fire often during the almost daily skirmishing, and being ready for combat at a moment’s notice became second nature to him.  In one letter to his brother he casually wrote, “I got your letter all safe and sound the rebels made a charge on us while I was reading your letter had to jump up in a hurry but it did not amount to anything…”[59]

Union Skirmish Line
Union Skirmish Line

The 89th Illinois particularly distinguished themselves in a skirmish on June 17, charging across 200 yards of open ground to seize some enemy rifle pits and capturing a number of prisoners in the process.[60]  Lieutenant Colonel William D. Williams wrote with justifiable pride, “This skirmish was a very gallant and spirited affair, and particularly honorable to the dash and spirit of the Eighty-Ninth Illinois.”[61]

After many sharp clashes, Sherman had his men in front of the formidable Confederate position on Kennesaw Mountain.  Up to this point, Sherman had successfully flanked Johnston out of strong defenses, but this time supply concerns, heavy rains, and fear of a Confederate attack made a flanking movement impossible, so he decided to attack the entrenched Rebels head on.[62]

Parts of two Union armies struck the Kennesaw line on June 27, a corps from the Army of Tennessee hitting the right center of the Confederate line, and two divisions from the Army of the Cumberland attacking the Rebel center.[63]  For once, the 89th Illinois had some luck – their division was held in reserve and did not have to make the assault.[64]  This was indeed fortunate as the Rebel defenders threw out a withering fire, inflicting heavy casualties on their blue-clad opponents.  The Union attack failed completely, and at the end of the day all Sherman had to show for his efforts was 3000 killed or wounded men.[65]

The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain - Library of Congress
General Sherman at Kennesaw Mountain – Library of Congress

Since they were held in reserve during the battle, Capron took the opportunity to write a letter home:

Camp Near Marietta                                                   June 27th 1864

           

            Dear Mother I now seat myself to answer your kind letter.  I was glad to hear that you was all well as usual these few lines find me in midling good health but nearly worn out as there has not been a day since the 5th of May but what I have heard either the booming of cannon or the rattle of musketry.  Have been in 3 or 4 different engagements since this campaign and thankfull I am to almighty God for preserving my live thus far.  I can not enter into all the particulars for it would fill to or three sheets of paper.  We charged on the enemy the 21 of June and gained our present position and throwed up works under a heavy fire I was on the skirmish line at the time and fired one hundred and thirty rounds my gun got so hot that I could scarcely hold my hand on it.  I have been on the skirmish line every other day since I will now finish my letter which I was obliged to postpone a while on account of a fierce artillery duel we came out best a we silenced the rebel battery.  We get enough to eat at present and quite a variety we have coffee hardtack and meat for breakfast, hardtack coffee and meat for dinner and meat hardtack and coffee for supper.  Mr Copeland is well as usual yesterday our men and the rebels agreed not to fire on one another so we had a pretty quiet day but we was ordered to commence hostilities again this morning had one man killed to day the rebels have got a strong position here and well fortified and old sherman is trying to get around them and oblige them to surrender but it is hard to for old Jonston is a wily foe to deal with.  I have not had a letter from Annette for nearly a month she does not write very often no how you said that John Rockwood was in the 112 I want to know what state it is from.  You should see the timber that we have been skirmishing in for the last few days there is scarcely a tree but what has from 50 to a hundred bullets in it trees a foot and a half thick has been cut down by our cannon the rebels know how to use their artillery for they put a solid shot into one of our portholes it struck the end of our cannon glanced and struck one of the wheels smashing it up in general.

            Most of the boys think the war will close this summer I can think of nothing more to write at present so I will have to quit for this time by asking you to write as soon as you get this tell arthur to write to.  If I should get killed remember the government owes me 75 dollars bounty besides six months pay so fareyouwell for this time this from your affectionate Son C. C. to M. S. C.[66]

After the brutal repulse of his men at Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman was not eager for more direct assaults on fortified positions.  With the weather improving, he decided to continue with what worked and flank Johnston out of his defenses whenever possible.[67]

Thereafter events moved quickly for Capron as the 89th Illinois took part in a series of flanking maneuvers that brought them to the outskirts of Atlanta.  On the night of July 2, Johnston was forced to abandon Kennesaw Mountain because of the threat to his flanks and retreat to a new position with his back to the Chattahoochee River.  Sherman again moved around his flanks, and on July 9 the Rebels retreated across the Chattahoochee and took up a new line of defense behind Peachtree Creek.[68]

In a letter written on July 20, Capron explained to his mother how they flanked the Rebels from their Chattahoochee defenses:

we came to them again just this side of the river but getting one of our batteries in position we give them such a shelling that many of them swam the river they then took up their position on the opposite bank and then how are you yankee.  there we was obliged to stop they on one side and we on the other of the Chattahootchie the way our men generally cross is to shell them and swing a pontoon but the rebels has learned this trick so old Sherman quietly sent a corps up the river and then lit into them where we was and they thought we was trying to cross and while we was keeping them in our front the corps up the river quietly crossed now the whole army is all across and within 4 miles of the doomed city.[69]

In the end, his failure to check the advance of the Union armies on Atlanta spelled the end

General John Bell Hood
General John Bell Hood

of Joseph Johnston’s command of the Army of Tennessee.  President Jefferson Davis relieved Johnston on July 17, fearing he intended to retreat and abandon Atlanta without a fight.  Davis wanted someone to attack the Yankees, and so he promoted John Bell Hood, a man known for his aggressive style of fighting, to full General and command of the Army of Tennessee.[70]

The same day Davis sacked Johnston, Sherman had his armies on the move: Schofield marching on Atlanta from the north, McPherson from the east, and Thomas from the northwest heading directly for the Peachtree Creek defenses.[71]

The Army of the Cumberland began crossing Peachtree Creek on July 20, and Hood wasted no time proving he would fight.  At 4:00 p.m. two corps of the Rebel army slammed into the Federals, but they were already safely across the river.  The fighting was desperate, but in the end the Confederates were repulsed with heavy losses, over 3000 men killed, wounded, or missing.[72]

The Battle of Peachtree Creek by Rick Reeves
The Battle of Peachtree Creek by Rick Reeves

The 89th Illinois had been very fortunate in this attack – their brigade was spread very thin to cover an extended line, so thin the brigade had every unit at the front with no reserves held back.  But the Confederate attack fell to the brigade’s right, so the 89th Illinois was never engaged in the battle.[73]

After his defeat at Peachtree Creek, Hood pulled back into the Atlanta defenses.  Sherman ordered his armies to pursue, but Hood was not prepared to let the Federals invest the city without another fight.  McPherson’s troops were advancing on the city from the east, and Hood sent a corps under Lieutenant General William J. Hardee out of the entrenchments that attacked the Yankee flank on July 22.  The Confederate attack was repulsed with heavy losses, but it did have one positive result for the Rebels: General McPherson was killed in what came to be known as the Battle of Atlanta.[74]

The next day the Army of the Cumberland made contact with the Rebel entrenchments in the suburbs north of Atlanta.  As they had done so many times before, the 89th Illinois began throwing up earthworks to protect themselves.  The men came to know these fortifications very well as they were home to the regiment for more than a month.[75]

Confederate Fortifications at Atlanta - Library of Congress
Confederate Fortifications at Atlanta – Library of Congress

Trench warfare at Atlanta was a grueling experience for Capron and his comrades as they were exposed to burning heat, rain and mud, and the ever-present threat of Rebel iron and lead.  In a letter written from the trenches, Capron spelled out the dangers of life on the front line:

                                                                        Camp Behind Breastworks

                                                                        Two miles from Atalanta

                                                                        July 29th/1864

 

            To the absent ones at home

                        I now seat myself amidst flying shot and shell for the purpose of answering your kind letter which I just received was glad to hear from you and more so to hear that you was all well this finds me enjoying good good health we are working toward Atalanta  slowly this morning we advanced within 3 hundred yards of their fort when zip zip comes the bullets which makes us git down rather low till they got done fireing when we up and give them a volley that made them hunt their holes in a hurry we was then relieved from the skirmish line and came back to camp when they commenced shelling us one burst in the quarters the pieces flying in every direction one piece hit one of company G men tearing the skin from his foot and bruising him considerable in fact there is not a day goes round but what we have some one hurt the weather is very warm here indeed we have occasional showers last night we took 7 prisinors we took to headquarters and the guns I took and fired at the rebels and then broke them over a stump I do not know how long it will take to get Atalanta I hope not long at any rate for I am out of paper envelopes and every thing else they talk of getting our muster rolls made out here and then sent to Nashville and have them chashed if so I shall let the whole of mine go home it will be something over $80.00 dollars and then I want you to send me some of it as I need it and such small articles as I can not get here you need not fear of Lee getting between grant and washington he has sent a small raiding party there to make grant release his hold from Richmond but I do not think he will make out for grant is to sharp for him our men throw shells into Atalanta every day I can think of nothing to write at present Mr Copeland is well as usual and writes every chance he has you must excuse all mistakes and bad writing for I have to dodge the bullets nearly all the time

so no more for this time

            from your affectionate

            Son C Capron

            To the family in general

            I will send you some verses that I got out of a rebel letter and a

            rebellious stamp[76]

 After the Battle of Atlanta, Sherman formulated a new plan to end the stalemate and take the city.  He ordered the Army of Tennessee, now commanded by Oliver O. Howard, to march from their camps east of the city to the vicinity of Ezra Church, west of the metropolis.  From there they would be in a position to cut the Macon & Western Railroad, Hood’s lifeline supplying his army in Atlanta.  Hood, aware of the Federal move, began moving forces into position to attack Howard’s column.  On July 28 four Rebel divisions attacked the Yankees at Ezra Church, but the attack was repulsed with heavy losses – the Rebels had over 3,000 men killed, wounded, or missing.[77]

While the fighting at Ezra Church was raging, back in their trenches the men of the 89th Illinois were settling in for a long, drawn-out fight.  On August 2 Capron wrote his mother, “…the belief that Atalanta is taken is entirely humbug the city is not yet taken but will stand a siege.”[78]  While he didn’t think the siege would end soon, he did note that it was having a negative effect on Confederate morale saying,

we are wearing them out faster by lying still than any other way for hundreds of deserters come into our lines every day the other night we was on picquet and captured 7 prisinors they say that we wound men in Atalanta with our minie balls distance 2 miles what do you think of that[79]

From July 23 to August 25, the 89th Illinois slowly advanced their earthworks, eventually pushing their line to within 400 yards of the enemy.  While they were constantly under fire, the men were well protected by their fortifications and casualties were low during this period, only 3 killed, 21 wounded, and 1 missing.[80]  On August 20th Capron wrote a letter home giving a vivid description of life on the picket line:

                                                                        in the old place

                                                                        Camp of the 89

                                                                        Aug 20th 1864

 

            Dear parents brothers and Sister

                                    Having just received your very kind letter dated Aug 12 I thought that I could not spend my time any better than writing to those I love I should have wrote sooner but old Wheeler got into our rear and tore up the railroad and played smash in generally so there had been no mail in or out[81] however this finds me in good health and hope these few lines will find you all enjoying the same blessing we still remain in the same position go on picquet every third day I went on yesterday and came off this morning in the afternoon yesterday I noticed boxes of amunition coming out on to the skirmish [line] then I knew there would be fun before long and sure enough at five o clock we was all ordered onto the line and then the order was given to open on the jonnies instantly a stream of fire issued from the rifle – pits accompanied by the reports of our rifles which sounded like the heaviest clap of thunder the object was to draw the enemy attentions away while another division charged on the left we had one man killed and one wounded I tell you I had some close calls we had a shower to day which cooled the air considerable I suppose you heard before this time that Mr Copeland was wounded slightly in the knee think he will get home if he does I want him to write to me we get plenty to eat and we are within sight of town I received the comb and cannot thank you any to much for it we have inspection every day and have to keep our guns as bright as silver but this may not interest do not know whether to be glad or sorry for the stranger that you have up there but give it a kiss for me and as for the name I am afraid I would be a poor judge.[82]  I was glad to have Arthur write tell him to be a good boy and if I live to get out of this I will come home and see him we expect to be paid be fore long but I have wrote all the news and will quit for this as I have to write Lorain a few lines so good bye for this time I remain your son till death C.C. to M.S.C.[83]

After 34 days of misery in the trenches, the 89th Illinois marched out of their holes in the earth on the night of August 25 – at long last Sherman was moving in force against the Rebels.[84]  The General decided to take his entire force save one corps, and move them west around the city and sever the Macon & Western Railroad, forcing the Rebels to come out of their trenches and fight or abandon Atlanta.[85]

On August 31 as the blue columns neared the town of Jonesboro on the Macon & Western Railroad, they were attacked by 24,000 Confederates under Generals William J. Hardee and Stephen D. Lee.  The Yankees repulsed the Rebel assault, and the next day staged a counterattack that broke the Confederate line and forced the Rebels to fall back, leaving the railroad to the tender mercies of the Federals.  With his only line of supply cut, Hood was forced to withdraw from Atlanta the night of September 1, 1864.[86]  The 89th Illinois did not take part in the fighting around Jonesboro as their division was held in reserve and did not reach the battlefield until after dark on September 1.[87]

Sherman pursued Hood to Lovejoy’s Station south of Atlanta, but after due reflection decided not to attack.  On September 5 he ordered his armies back to Atlanta to rest and give him time to plan his next move.[88]

The 89th Illinois marched into Atlanta on September 8 with their national and regimental colors snapping in the breeze.  It was a proud moment for the regiment, but for Capron there was also a tinge of sadness as he remembered the men who gave their lives on the long march to the city:

we marched triumphantly through Atlanta with drums beating and colors flying but many was the brave youth that started with us never lived to see the town but they are resting peaceably in a soldiers grave having gave their life freely for their country.[89]

 The men of the 89th Illinois went into camp three miles east of Atlanta and finally the regiment was allowed a much needed rest.[90]  From May to September the unit had been marching and fighting almost continuously, and the hardships of the campaign had taken a toll on the men.  Capron later said of their condition:

if ever rest was agreeable it was to us poor fellows for we had been exposed to all kinds of weather besides the hard marching under the most intense heat and being up nearly every night more or less (for we was obliged to keep a vigalent watch to prevent a supprise) had tended to wear us out and when we went into camp at Atlanta we had nothing but the best of men the weak and sickly playing out long before.[91]

By the time the Atlanta Campaign ended, Charles Capron had been in the army for just over a year, and he was still a few weeks short of his nineteenth birthday.  Although still a teenager, the war had changed a green farm boy into a hardened soldier.  Some of the changes were physical, as he explained to his mother:

you would not know me if you was to see me the change is so great tall and slim and weather beaten enough to be an indian but if you think you can own me I shall be most happy to call round.[92]

The changes to Charles Capron were not only physical – the exposure to the violence and death of the battlefield also changed his outlook on life and made him somewhat cynical.  On learning that his father was contemplating buying a farm, he offered the following advice:

You spoke about father going on to a raw farm if he thinks he can make it pay all I have to say is to go ahead and may the Lord prosper him.  but whatever he does the best thing for him is to have it in black & white for I have found out since I came to do for myself that it will not do to trust any one for your best friend sometimes proves to be your worst enimy.[93]

Along with his cynicism, Capron had developed a sense of moral ambiguity that at times allowed the worst part of his nature to rise to the surface.  A perfect example of this was told in a story Capron related to his mother while he was camped at Huntsville, Alabama:

When we got to Murfreesboro the boys being short of money made up there minds to go through some of the store keepers a niggar tried to hinder us but we wrung his head off quicker than scat but we had arroused the guard and they came to arrest us we told them if they fired a shot we would tear them limb for limb we then sallied on them took away their guns took what we wanted and came away quietly but the 89 was reported [to] Major General Thomas do not think there is much danger of any harm however.[94]

Capron felt no shame for what he and his fellow soldiers had done, and apparently it didn’t bother him to tell his mother about the sorry episode; clearly the war had brought out some harmful character traits in the young man.

The capture of Atlanta ended one campaign, but there was more fighting in store for Charles Capron.  The fight at Nashville Tennessee on December 15-16 would be added to his list battles before the bloody year 1864 ended.[95]

With the start of 1865, Capron braced himself for a new season of campaigning, and he made it clear that he was not looking forward to it:

…we will take the train at Huntsville from there to Knoxville and from there to Bulls Gap then we will be where we will hear the roar of the cannon the flash of muskets and the clash of bayonets as we meet in deadly conflict but would to God that I might never see the sight again but I go to my duty and if it comes my lot to fall in the comeing strugle I die content knowing that they is them at home that loves me and will drop a silent tear to my memory.  But we will hope for the best.[96]

Fortunately for Capron, the 89th did not see any serious combat in the remaining months of the war.  With time on his hands the soldier had time to think about the sacrifices he and  thousands like him had made, and he wondered if the civilians at home appreciated how much the boys in blue had suffered.  To make sure that they did, Capron took his pen and began to write:

CAMP GREEN

 It is late into the night but an unquiet spirit seems to hold sway over mine thoughts, And as I cannot sleep I will write: Elevan O clock and everything is so hushed and still: When compared to the noise and confusion of two hours since Everything seems so deathlike! but a short time ago the air was filled with shouts and laughter the merry notes of the bugler as retreat was sounded or at tattoo when Nellie Bly & Nancy Dawson were receiveing such a murdering at the hands of drum & fife

            Now all that I hear to break the monotonous stillness as I sit in my palace of unhewn logs & roof of canvas is the distant notes of a claronette sounding like some boatmans horn in a dream or the quick sharp cry of Halt from some lonely sentinel as he chalenges some intruder upon his precincts.  That word halt it causes a start now although I have so long been used to hearing it there is something in the tone acquired from long practise which speaks most forceably to the mind of danger you are strolling around thinking no one near all is still when suddenly halt brings you to a stop with a thrill though you see no one and cannot tell where it came from, yet you half expect to see a tongue of fire from some unseen hand and hear a loud report accompanied by a peculiar whistle which will tell you that the leaden messenger of the pale horse and rider had gone on its mission of destruction.  So is a soldiers life bound to obey the commands of a superior officer though in so doing he should hazard the life of a fellow soldier A soldier is a mere machine never supposed to act from his own will yet always yielding obedience to the commands of others no matter how arduous the task he must perform long and tedious marches through every kind of road and weather encamp at night on the ground without shelter cold wet & hungry.  or after traveling all day through rain & mud spent a sleepless night on the picquet line watching and warding danger from his fellow soldiers in camp.  at early dawn to again shoulder his knapsack & of soldiers friends the truest his musket & perform another long march over roads which were it not war times would be thought impassable for man or beast.  O ye who lounge on sofas of crimson dye live upon the fat of the land and never know hardships or sufferings do you, ever cast a thought upon the soldier who volunteers to undergo almost more than human nature can bear that you may enjoy peace & luxury at home among friends and relations.  O ye-stay-at-home-rangers how little you know of the life of a soldier ye bread & butter apron strings guards How little is known or realized of what the boys in blue undergo untill one has seen with their own eyes & heard with their own ears.  What most precious Set of Blackguards these human beings of Adam will be Who when this war is over cannot boast of having been front and seen the elephant.

                        C. C.

            I sat down and wrote what I thought Charles Capron

            You can get this published if you want to[97]

 With the surrender of the major Confederate armies in May 1865, Capron eagerly awaited the day the 89th would start for home.  He told his mother,

we are laying in camp living fat and greasy waiting for orders to pull up stakes and go home.  Home what a thrilling sensation of pleasure steals over me as I think of that simple word simple yet powerful.  you must not look for me crossing the threshold for we can not tell much about the military moves sometimes they are quick as flash again as slow as time.  Then again what do you take me for a recruit or conscript to think that I cant walk three miles after soldiering 2 years and marching 25 & 30 miles a day for a week on the stretch no sir the first thing you see or hear of me will be in the house and you wont know me either.[98]

 Unfortunately for Charles Capron, even though the war was over, he was not going home.  He had enlisted for a three-year term, and he still had over a year left to serve, and the government was not about to let him go.  When the 89th Illinois Infantry  mustered out of service in Nashville on June 10, 1865, the 202 men in the regiment with time left to serve were transferred to the 59th Illinois Infantry.[99]  Three days later Capron sadly wrote his mother,

To day I take my pen in hand to inform you of my where abouts.  I have been transfered from the 89 to the 59 the old boys has returned home and it is very lonesome here dont know any one in the 59.[100]

Capron’s next letter to his mother contained both good and bad news: the good news was that he was in Illinois; the bad, that the 59th was just making a layover at Cairo before continuing on to their final destination: Texas.  Even though it was only a short stay, the soldier was delighted to be back in Illinois:

down in Texas expect I will roast without a doubt but one thing I got to see Illinois soil again and got some Illinois bread to eat and seen some Illinois ladies at least they claim to be but they looked as so they had been hard run and what is more I dont believe there is a virtuous woman south of the ohio river.[101]

 Charles closed his letter with a thought that turned out to be tragically prophetic:

I expect there will be a good many of the troops die off there will be at least if the yellow fever gets among us I do not think there will be any more fighting to do but disease is some times worse than the bullet.[102]

 On Independence Day the 59th Illinois boarded the steamboat Nightingale and began the long trip that took them down the Mississippi and out into the Gulf of Mexico.  The ship arrived in Matagorda Bay on July 9, and the next day the regiment was transferred to another boat that landed them at Indianola, Texas.[103]  The men then began a grueling march in the Texas heat to their campsite, a journey that even the veteran Charles Capron was barely able to complete:

1860 Illustration of Matagorda Bay - Library of Congress
1860 Illustration of Matagorda Bay – Library of Congress

and then we started for our present camping ground distance 30 miles how shall I ever describe the suffering we endured during the night there was no water on the road and several of the men droped dead in the road I would have given $50 dollars for a glass of cool water I got in sight of the lake and staggered my tongue was parched and swollen and my throat was all on fire by a desperate effort I kept on my legs till I got to the Lake then throwing off my things I just laid down by the lake and drank and kept drinking thought I never tasted any thing so good in my life.[104]

 The Texas prairie was a novel experience for Capron, and he wrote his impressions of the strange new land:

Green Lake Texas

July 25. 1865

Ever Remembered Parents

After so long a time it is with pleasure that I seat my self for the purpose of converseing with you a short time.  I received the paper you sent me was very glad to get some thing to read have not received any letter for some time am looking for one every day we are still on the plains of Texas enjoying ourselves the best we can which is pretty good living they issued an order for the command to supply itself with milk so we went out and drove in as many cows as we wanted tied up the calves and now the cows come up every night we have a good deal of sport milking them they are wilder than deer and we have to lassoo them.  then we have a chance to hunt several of the boys have shot deers since we been here.  one of the boys shot an alligator the other morning that measured 12 feet I tell you it was an ugly customor had some alligator soup for dinner one day it tasted first rate and then our company owns a fishing seine go a fishing every day and have all we want to eat of the best kind of fish the weather has been very warm for last two or three days but we had a change last night in the shape of a good rain the first I have seen since I landed on the texas coast it is still raining to day.  there is no news of any importance to write and if there was we never would get to hear of it in this godforsaken country we expect to move on to Austin as soon as our supply train comes up which will not be long when we get to Austin I will write again and tell you all what I see and hear what kind of a town Austin is and what kind of folks live there the inhabitants that live round here are about half indian and the other half spanish, I can not understand anything they say.  If you want a pony all you have to do is to give them $2.50 to catch one and you have a pony.  Well what will I write in fact there is nothing more to write and I will have to close hopeing to hear from you soon from your ever loveing son Charles Capron

                                    To Mrs Mary S. Capron

                                    When this you see think of me

                                    Write soon as you get this[105]

Sadly, this is the last letter that Charles Capron wrote, as less than a month later he was lying in a soldier’s grave.  His service record gives the grim report: “Cause of Casualty – Fever – Date of Death – August 22, 1865 – Place of Death – San Antonio, Texas.”[106]  Capron, the survivor of some of the conflicts bloodiest battles, died from that great killer of Civil War soldiers, disease.

In 1867 Shepherd and Mary Capron pulled up stakes and headed west to Kansas to make a new start.  The couple started a farm, but they were never very successful, and by the early 1880’s the family’s financial situation was so desperate that they were forced to seek a Mother’s Pension based on Charles’ wartime service.  In one of their pension applications a neighbor testified:

I first knew Shepard Capron in 1871 that was my first acquaintance the farm he lives on is worth as near as I can judge 500 or 600 dollars.  They have not made enough to cover his exemption, 200 dollars.  They have not made enough to pay their expenses they are both old and feeble past seventy years, I have always found them both very truthful and honorable the old man is very sick now their income is very limited ever since I knew them they tell me their son that died in the Army was their main support and I believe it.  I also believe they are entitled to their pension claim that they are justly entitled to it, as they are both old and feeble.[107]

Mary continued making pension applications until her death on February 22, 1897; afterwards Shepherd began filing claims in his own name.  There is no indication in the mass of paperwork that they ever received a dime.[108]

Perhaps the best epitaph for Charles Capron comes from a speech given by Colonel Charles T. Hotchkiss, commander of the 89th Illinois.  He said of his regiment, “Our History is written on the head-boards of rudely-made graves from Stone River to Atlanta.  Such a record we feel proud of.”[109]

There was one grave even further away than Colonel Hotchkiss realized – a small marble marker in the San Antonio National Cemetery with the simple inscription, “Chas. Capron, Ill.

San Antonio National Cemetery
San Antonio National Cemetery

 

            [1]

 War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 401.  Cited hereafter as Official Records.

[2] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 12 February 1865.  Charles Capron Collection, OldCourtHouseMuseum, (Vicksburg, MS).  Hereafter all letters will be cited as Capron Collection.

[3] For a complete history of Capron’s service during the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, see part one, Been Front and Seen the Elephant: The Civil War Letters of Charles Capron, Company A, 89th Illinois Infantry.

[4] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 9 March 1864.  Capron Collection.

[5] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 31 March 1864.  Capron Collection.

[6] Compiled Service Record of Charles Capron; 89thIllinois Infantry; National Archives, Record Group 94.

[7] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 18 April 1864.  Capron Collection.

[8] Castel, Albert.  Decision in the West (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992), 57, 67.

[9] Ibid, 68.

[10] Espositio, Vincent J., ed., The West Point Atlas of American Wars Volume 1 1689-1900 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1959), 145.  Cited hereafter as West Point Atlas.

[11] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 401.  The 89th Illinois belonged to the Army of the Cumberland, 4th Army Corps, Major General Oliver O. Howard commanding, Third Division, Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood commanding, First Brigade, Brigadier General August Willich commanding.  Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 92.

[12] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 12 February 1865.  Capron Collection.

[13] West Point Atlas, 145.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 390.

[16] Azron W. Copeland was a Private in Company F, 89th Illinois Infantry.  He is mentioned in many of Capron’s letters, and was apparently an old family friend, and possibly a relative.  Author unknown, [internet website] Illinois in the Civil War, (Accessed 16 April 2002), http://www.rootsweb.com/~ilcivilw/

[17] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 11 May 1864.  Capron Collection.

[18] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 401.  Also, Fox, William F.  Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865. (Albany, NY: Randow Printing Company, 1889), 373.  Cited hereafter as Regimental Losses.

[19] Decision in the West, 136-139.

[20] Ibid, 149-150.

[21] Boatner, Mark Mayo III.  The Civil War Dictionary (David McKay Company, 1959), 692.  Cited hereafter as Civil War Dictionary.

[22] Regimental Losses, 373.

[23] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 391.

[24] Ibid.

[25] West Point Atlas, 145.

[26] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 22 May 1864.  Capron Collection.

[27] Sherman, William T.  Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman, Volume 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875), 42-43.

[28] Woodhead, Henry, ed., Echoes of Glory: Illustrated Atlas of the Civil War (Alexandria, Virginia: Time Life Books, 1998), 255.  Cited hereafter as Echoes of Glory.

[29] Civil War Dictionary, 219.

[30] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 391.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Decision in the West, 229.

[33] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 377.

[34] Ibid, 392.

[35] Decision in the West, 233-235.

[36] Ibid, 234-236.

[37] Ibid, 237.

[38] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 413.

[39] Ibid, 423.

[40] Ibid, 402.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Decision in the West, 240.

[43] Regimental Losses, 373.

[44] John T. Kern Diary, 28 May 1864.  OldCourtHouseMuseum, Vicksburg, MS.

[45] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 403.

[46] Although Capron makes it sound as if the attack took place around 11:00 A. M., it was only the march around the Confederate flank that began at that time.  The actual attack took place in the late afternoon.  Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 194.

[47] Capron was remarkably accurate in his assessment of casualties.  According to the records, the brigade had total casualties of 703 killed, wounded, and missing.  The casualties for the division were 1457 killed, wounded, and missing.  Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 379, 393.

[48] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 30 May 1864.  Capron Collection.

[49] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 12 February 1865.  Capron Collection.

[50] Sherman, William T.  Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman, Volume 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875), 46.  Cited hereafter as Memoirs.

[51] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 196.

[52] Civil War Dictionary, 452.

[53] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 6 June 1864.  Capron Collection.

[54] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 196.

[55] Ibid, 393.

[56] Ibid, 196.

[57] Civil War Dictionary, 452.

[58] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 402-403.

[59] Charles Capron to Arthur Capron, 15 June 1864.  Capron Collection.

[60] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 393-394.

[61] Ibid, 403.

[62] West Point Atlas, 146.

[63] Echoes of Glory, 257.

[64] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 199.

[65] Echoes of Glory, 257.

[66] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 27 June 1864.  Capron Collection.

[67] Civil War Dictionary, 453.

[68] Ibid, 141, 453.

[69] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 20 July 1864.  Capron Collection.

[70] Woodworth, Steven E.  Jefferson Davis and His Generals (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1990), 285-286.

[71] Echoes of Glory, 259.

[72] Ibid, 260.

[73] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 396.

[74] West Point Atlas, 147.

[75] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 403.

[76] Charles Capron to the Capron family, 29 July 1864.  Capron Collection.

[77] Decision in the West, 424-436.

[78] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 2 August 1864.  Capron Collection.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 403.

[81] Major General Joseph Wheeler conducted a cavalry raid on Sherman’s rear with the objective of tearing up the railroad tracks supplying the Union armies.  His raid did no lasting damage and was merely an inconvenience to the Federals.  Civil War Dictionary, 911.

[82] Capron is referring to the birth of his brother, Bennie Capron, born 1 July 1864.  Roger H. Bliss, letter to author, 22 November 2002.

[83] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 20 August 1864.  Capron Collection.

[84] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 404.

[85] Memoirs, 102-105.

[86] Echoes of Glory, 269.

[87] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 383-384.

[88] Memoirs, 110.

[89] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 12 February 1865.  Capron Collection.

[90] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 38, Part 1, 404.

[91] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[92] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 25 April 1865.  Capron Collection.

[93] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 12 February 1865.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Regimental Losses, 373-374.

[96] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 15 March 1865.  Capron Collection.

[97] In some of his other letters Capron gives the location of CampGreen as Huntsville, Alabama.  Although this letter is not dated, his other writings from CampGreen are dated between January 16, 1865 – March 15, 1865.

[98] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 14 May 1865.  Capron Collection.

[99] Regimental Losses, 373.

[100] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 13 June 1865.  Capron Collection.

[101] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 18 June 1865.  Capron Collection.

[102] Ibid.

[103] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 11 July 1865.  Capron Collection.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 25 July 1865.  Capron Collection.

[106] Compiled Service Record of Charles Capron; 89thIllinois Infantry; National Archives, Record Group 94.

[107] Pension application of Mary S. Capron, affidavit of John Stauffer; United States Pension Rolls.  23 September 1889.

[108] Pension applications of Mary S. Capron and Shepherd Capron; United States Pension Rolls.  1883-1897.

[109] George, Charles B.  Forty Years On The Rails (Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley & Sons, 1887), 115.

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Been Front and Seen the Elephant

For my first contribution to the blog in 2013, I wanted to do something a little different, and give an enlisted soldier’s view of the war. Now, you might say there is nothing different in that, as I have had many post’s where I have given an enlisted Mississippian’s view of the war. Well, the difference is that in this post I will give an enlisted Union soldier’s view of the war.

I firmly believe that if you truly want to understand what Mississippi’s experienced during the war, you have to take a good hard look at the men they were fighting. In particular, this article will introduce you to one teenage private, Charles C. Capron, who served in Company A, 89th Illinois Infantry. From 1863-1865, he fought in most of the major battles in which the Army of the Cumberland was engaged. In every one of these engagements, he fought against the Confederate Army of Tennessee, an organization which had thousands of Mississippians serving in the ranks.

Been Front and Seen the Elephant

As darkness fell over the Chickamauga battlefield on September 19, 1863, the booming of cannon and crash of musketry slowly faded, only to be replaced by the cries of the wounded and dying in the Northern and Southern armies.  Once night held full sway and it was safe to move, a young Union Private carefully picked his way through the blue and gray clad bodies that littered the field in front of his regiment.  He later explained his journey in a letter to his mother saying, “I took a stroll over the part of the battlefield that our brave boys had been over and to see the ground strewed with the dead and hear the cries of the wounded was heartrending indeed to me as I never witnessed a battle field before.”[1]

Why the youngster should be so fascinated with the human wreckage of two great armies is not hard to understand; Chickamauga was his first battle, and he had spent the 19th safely in the rear guarding wagons.  However the chance to test himself in combat was not far off; his regiment suffered heavily and needed every man it had the next day, even a green recruit.[2]

The recruit’s name was Charles C. Capron, the newest member of Company A, 89th Illinois Infantry.  He had been a soldier barely more than a month, and was still seven days short of his 18th birthday.  As he walked among the dead the night of the 19th, he must have realized his chances of living to see this birthday were not very good.[3]

Charles Capron was just another long forgotten name among the millions who served the Union cause until the providential discovery of a cache of 48 letters written by the private during the war.  They were found decades ago by Mrs. Pat Neely in the attic of an apartment in Minneapolis owned by her Grandmother, and unable to discover who had placed the documents in the attic, Mrs. Neely held on to the letters, recognizing their historical importance.  In 1996 she gave the letters a permanent home, donating them to the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi.[4]

Charles Capron was born on September 26, 1846 in Rutland, Vermont, the second of eight

19th Century View of Rutland, Vermont - Rutland Historical Society
19th Century View of Rutland, Vermont – Rutland Historical Society

children born to Shepherd and Mary Capron.  In the late 1840’s or early 1850’s the family pulled up stakes and began a journey westward, and by 1860 the family was living on a small farm in Roanoke, Woodford County, Illinois.[5]  Seventeen-year-old Charles left home in the summer of 1863, apparently because of a falling out with his father.[6] 

To support himself while he was on his own, Charles worked odd jobs for about three months before deciding to become a soldier in the Union army.[7]  At the time he joined up, Charles T. Hotchkiss, commander of the 89th Illinois Infantry, was in Illinois

Colonel Charles T. Hotchkiss, commander of the 89th Illinois Infantry
Colonel Charles T. Hotchkiss, commander of the 89th Illinois Infantry

with some of his men on recruiting duty, and Charles Capron was enlisted in Company A of the 89th by the Colonel on August 14, 1863, at Rock Island.[8]

Charles never really explains his reasons for enlisting, but the excitement of army life must have been nearly irresistible to a teenager fresh off the farm; also the bounty paid to new recruits was a strong incentive to join up.  Another less substantial but equally powerful attraction was the call of patriotism; a call that Charles Capron clearly heard.  In a letter to his mother he said that in attempting to secede the Confederates had “trodden on the best government that ever was made and they are a set of high born fools.”[9]

Whatever his reasons for joining, Capron had the good fortune to become part of a veteran regiment that had already seen combat. He would learn the business of being a soldier from men who had already faced the Rebels in battle and knew how to survive on a battlefield.

The 89th Illinois Infantry was organized in Chicago with the aid and direction of a number

National Colors of the 89th Illinois Infantry - www.civil-war.com
National Colors of the 89th Illinois Infantry – http://www.civil-war.com

of the leaders of the railroad industry in Illinois.  Many men who worked the rails  flocked to the call of the new regiment, and the unit was mustered into United States service on September 4, 1862.[10]  The regiment was known appropriately enough as the “Railroad Regiment,” and to advertise this fact to the enemy they emblazoned on their flag in gold letters “CLEAR THE TRACK.”[11]

At the time Capron enlisted the 89th was serving in the Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Major General William S. Rosecrans.  They were part of the 20th Army Corps, Second Division, First Brigade.[12]  The First Brigade was commanded by Brigadier General August Willich, and consisted of the following units: 89th Illinois Infantry, 32nd Indiana Infantry,

39th Indiana Infantry, 15th Ohio Infantry, 49th Ohio Infantry, and the 1st Ohio Light

Brigadier General August Willich, the 89th Illinois' brigade commander - Library of Congress
Brigadier General August Willich, the 89th Illinois’ brigade commander – Library of Congress

Artillery, Battery A.[13]

The day after Capron enlisted, Rosecrans gave orders for the Army of the Cumberland to advance on the city of Chattanooga, held by the Confederate Army of Tennessee commanded by General Braxton Bragg.  To become part of the 89th, Capron and the other recruits had to catch up to the regiment in the field as it moved, and this was to be no easy journey.  After a three week stay at Camp Douglas, Illinois, the new recruits were moved by rail to Nashville, then to Stevenson, Alabama, approximately 50 miles southwest of Chattanooga.[14]   The recruits remained in Stevenson for nearly a week fighting boredom until at last Charles was able to record with some relief,

General Rosecrans supply train came back for supplies and we was to accompany it back to the grand army this was received with a yell of delight for we was getting tired of laying around we started that evening and crossed the Tennessee river and camped on its bank where we remained all the next day amusing ourselves as best we could the next morning the train started to cross Cumberland mountains which was no light task some places going up the mountain it raises 3 foot high straight up and down and it would be all the mules could do to climb up them.  They would have 12 mules to one waggon and such a cutting and slashing beggars description.  But this was to slow for me and starting out with 9 more we made for the army distance 25 miles we reached the picket just at dark a dirty or tireder set of fellow you never see.[15]

By the time Capron and his fellow recruits completed their long march and joined the regiment, the city of Chattanooga had fallen to the Federal army.  Through skillful maneuvering Rosecrans had managed to outflank the Confederate position at Chattanooga, and on September 9th, Bragg evacuated the city without a fight and marched his army south into Georgia.[16]  Rosecrans started his army in pursuit of the retreating Rebels, and by September 18th, elements of the Army of the Cumberland were skirmishing with Bragg’s Confederates who were deployed along Chickamauga Creek.[17]

Lee & Gordon's Mill at Chickamauga - Library of Congress
Lee & Gordon’s Mill at Chickamauga – Library of Congress

That same day Bragg began receiving reinforcements in the form of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Corps, detached from the Army of Northern Virginia.  The infusion of Eastern Rebels meant the Confederates would fight at Chickamauga with a superiority of numbers, something rare in their battles with the Union.[18]

On the morning of September 19th, the 89th Illinois was ordered with the rest of their division to move to the Federal left in support of the 14th Army Corps commanded by Major General George Thomas.  Around noon the 89th’s brigade received the order to attack, and General Willich ordered his men to make a bayonet charge on the gray clad troops to their front.  The Yankees quickly surged towards the enemy, and Willich later wrote with pride, “The charge was executed in splendid order, and with such energy that everything was swept before it for about a mile.”[19]

Illustration of the fighting at Chickamauga by artist Alfred R. Waud - Library of Congress
Illustration of the fighting at Chickamauga by artist Alfred R. Waud – Library of Congress

As they advanced the 89th was rocked by blasts from Rebel cannon emplaced on the left and right of the regiment.  Major William D. Williams witnessed firsthand the destructiveness of this fire coming from the right, and stated the enemy was firing “murderous discharges of grape and canister.”  Despite taking heavy casualties, the Yankees forced the enemy guns to retire, and the 89th managed to capture one gun in the process.[20]

The 89th was somewhat disordered in the wake of their bloody charge, but  Willich had a cure for the regiment.  According to Major Williams, the General “by his own inimitable calmness of manner restored order and confidence in the regiment, and after dressing them and drilling them in the manual of arms for a short time, ordered them to advance about 30 paces to the edge of an open space.”  The men were then ordered to lie down and hold their position, which they did for the next two hours.[21]

In the late afternoon Rebel Major General Patrick Cleburne’s Division attacked the Federal left, and the 89th with the rest of the brigade were forced by the weight of the attack to give ground, fighting fiercely as they retreated.  Willich had his troops withdraw about 250 yards where they made a stand and held off repeated Rebel attacks until darkness brought an end to the fighting. [22]

After dark Willich had his men fall back from their position to make contact with the Federals on the brigade’s flanks, and the 89th ended up in almost the same spot from which they had started their attack.[23]  The regiment had been severely tested, but the Blue line had held against everything the Rebels could throw at it – whether it could hold for a second day would be up to men like Charles Capron.

As dawn broke on September 20th, the soldiers of both armies began to stir and prepare themselves for another day’s bloodletting.  As he readied his accoutrements for the coming battle, Charles had to be scared, but he was determined to show the veterans in his regiment what he was made of saying, “The next morning I took my place in the ranks resolved to see what they done.”[24]

That morning Willich’s Brigade was in reserve behind the other two brigades of their division who were guarding the front line from behind the crude breastworks they had thrown up during the night.  The popping of muskets announced the beginning of the first Rebel attack of the day, and very soon Willich was ordered “to engage the enemy immediately in our front.”[25]

Charles Capron wrote his recollections of Chickamauga over a year after the fact, but the passage of time and the numerous other bloody battles in which he had taken part  did not dim his memories of the first time he saw the elephant:

At 9 o. clock while we was laying on our arms the ball opened in earnest by the rebels chargeing one of our batteries the brazen mouthed dogs was once more let loose from their quetide of which they had hardly cooled off from the use of the previous day and once more the hills and mountains was awakened from their slumbers by the heavy roar of artillery but the bugle sounded for us to fall in and in return we was ordered to charge the rebels which we did and drove them back.[26]

After the attack was checked, the 89th remained at the front line for two hours waiting for the Rebels to renew their assault.[27]  Meanwhile, the tide of fighting made a dramatic shift elsewhere on the battlefield.  At 11:30 Longstreet ordered 23,000 men forward to attack the Union right.  Because of a mix-up in orders, one of the Union divisions at the point of the attack had been pulled out of their position on the front line, and when the Rebels surged forward they poured through the breach into the Union rear.  The Federal right collapsed and Rosecrans was swept up in the flood of panicked blue-clad soldiers and left the field.  The only Union troops still able to fight were those of the Federal left under Thomas, and they had to face the full fury of the Rebel army alone.[28]

The 89th Illinois had been laying on their arms for several hours when Willich ordered the brigade to the rear about noon to protect the 1st Ohio Light Artillery.  The battery was protecting the brigade’s flank, and this move turned out to be just in the nick of time, for the Rebels had slipped around the brigade and were moving towards the battery.[29]

Monument to Battery A, 1st Ohio Light Artillery at Chickamauga
Monument to Battery A, 1st Ohio Light Artillery at Chickamauga

The cannoneers of the 1st Ohio cut bloody swathes through the Rebel ranks with every discharge of their guns, and Charles was later moved to write,

Maintained our ground till noon when we was ordered to support the 6 Ohio battery[30] it was there that our Lieutenant Colonel was killed by a sharp shooter[31] I saw him when he fell several sprang to his aid and bore him off the field they did not charge our battery as we expected but on our right and left we could hear the heavy roar of musketry and the deep tone cannon told us that they was dealing death and destruction elswhere as well as in our front but our battery had expended all but one round of amunition and we received orders to fall back which we did while the battery gave them the last round they had and then pulled of[f] from the field as soon as dark came we took up our line of retreat toward Chattanooga.[32]

89th Illinois Infantry Monument at Chickamauga
89th Illinois Infantry Monument at Chickamauga

The battered Union right managed to hold out until darkness brought an end to the fighting, and Thomas was able to successfully disengage and retreat towards Chattanooga.  During the retreat Willich’s Brigade was the last to leave the field, covering the retreat for the army.  It was after midnight before the 89th halted for the night and the exhausted men were finally able to get some rest.[33]  As Charles Capron lay down and wrapped himself up in his blanket, perhaps the thought crossed his mind before he drifted off to sleep that his chances of living to see his eighteenth birthday had risen considerably.

With the coming of the new day, the men of the 89th were roused from their slumber and ordered to get ready to travel.  The regiment fell into line and the tired, dirty line of blue clad soldiers set off in the direction of Chattanooga.  The column halted four miles outside of the city and the regiment deployed in line of battle, watching for any sign that the Rebels were in pursuit.[34]

Federal Pickets at Chattanooga
Federal Pickets at Chattanooga

As they lay in wait, Charles and his comrades had time to take stock of the losses they had suffered at Chickamauga, and they must have been filled with sorrow to see so many faces missing from their depleted ranks.  The battle had cost the regiment some of its most precious blood: 14 men killed, 88 wounded, and thirty missing.[35]

Charles had survived his first campaign, but he didn’t have time to rest on his laurels because the campaign for Chattanooga was just beginning. On September 22, the 89th Illinois withdrew to within one mile of Chattanooga and went to work strengthening the entrenchments protecting the city in anticipation of a Rebel attack.[36]

1863 view of Chattanooga
1863 view of Chattanooga

In the wake of his defeat at Chickamauga, Rosecrans pulled all of his troops into the defensive works around Chattanooga and began preparing for a siege.  He did not have long to wait, for on the night of September 21st, Bragg began moving his Rebels into position around the city with the intention of besieging and starving the Yankees out.[37]

From the commanding heights on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, the Rebels looked down on the Yankees in Chattanooga, and kept a stranglehold on the city.  The Federals were only kept from starvation by a long and tenuous supply route from Stevenson, Alabama.  The road crossed some very rough terrain, and the wagons were able to bring in only a small fraction of the food that was needed.[38]  Because of the trickle of food coming into the city, the Army of the Cumberland had to be put on short rations, a diet that Capron called “hardly enoug[h] to eat to keep soul and body together.”[39]

Rosecrans superiors in Washington viewed the developments in Chattanooga with alarm, and quickly took steps to send reinforcements to the beleaguered General.  Major General Joseph Hooker was sent from the Army of the Potomac with the 11th and 12th Corps, arriving in Nashville on October 4.  Major General William T. Sherman was ordered from Vicksburg with the 15th and 17th Corps of the Army of the Tennessee, arriving at Bridgeport, Alabama on November 15.[40]

While awaiting these reinforcements, major changes were undertaken in the Army of the

General George Thomas
General George Thomas – Library of Congress

Cumberland.  On October 16 Major General Ulysses S. Grant, fresh off his impressive victory at Vicksburg, was given command of the Federal armies in the west.[41]  On assuming his new command, one of Grant’s first actions was to sack Rosecrans and promote George Thomas to command of the Army of the Cumberland.[42]  Grant telegraphed Thomas that he was on his way to the city and “to hold Chattanooga at all hazards,” to which Thomas replied, “I will hold the town till we starve.”[43]

While awaiting the arrival of Grant, Thomas instituted a reorganization of the Army of the Cumberland that consolidated the 20th and 21st Corps.  As part of this change, the 89th Illinois with the rest of Willich’s Brigade was transferred to the 4th Army Corps, commanded by Major General Gordon Granger.[44]  There was also a shuffling of units within Willich’s Brigade, and the 89th now had fighting by it’s side the 25th Illinois Infantry, 35th Illinois Infantry, 32nd Indiana Infantry, 68th Indiana Infantry, 8th Kansas Infantry, 15th Ohio Infantry, 49th Ohio Infantry, and 15th Wisconsin Infantry.[45]

Grant arrived in Chattanooga on October 23, 1863, and soon after the Union army took it’s first steps to break the siege of the city.[46]  The first priority was to open a better supply line, and the Yankees wasted no time putting a plan into motion.  On the night of October 26, Union forces crossed the Tennessee River on pontoon boats and seized Brown’s Ferry from the Confederates.  With the ferry in Federal hands, a new shorter supply route was opened into the city by October 28.[47]

Union troops landing at Brown's Ferry
Union troops landing at Brown’s Ferry

With the ferry now held by the Union, more food began to flow into the city, but conditions inside the city were still rather harsh for the soldiers when Charles wrote home:

                                                                                    October 30th 1863

Ever remembered parents brothers and sisters I was sitting here in my little tent and the thought occured to me that I might write a few lines to let you know that I am well and hoping that this will find you all the same, their is nothing of importance to write that I can think of at present.  There has been some pretty hard fighting done the last two and three days.  The rebels occupy lookout mountain and have got a battery planted on top of it so that we cannot run the cars in yet on account of their shelling them but they will have to get off there if it takes all the forces in Chattanooga to do it as we cannot get supplies in to the town.  Nov. 7th I had to quit writing on the 30th as it rained so hard that it beat through the tent and wet my paper so and have not had time till to day to finish it and it was all for the best as I got a letter that you wrote on the 22nd Since that the stamps was all right and came just in time I have 7 on hand now and think that they will do me till I can get some.

            We get 2 crackers a day now and quarter a pound of meat coffee three times a

Army mail wagon - The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume 8
Army mail wagon – The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume 8

day to day we got 2 spoonfulls of sugar think that we will draw full rations to day.  If we can not get rations we will certainly have to evacuate the place.  One of the boys has brought in a shell that has been throwed in here by the rebs it weighs 34 pounds it did not burst you had better believe it is a pretty good chunk of iron.  Hello another mail call and every man jumps and runs to see if he is to get a letter well I go with the rest and lo to behold I get your kind letter dated the 17 it has been delayed on the road some where.  I tell you it does me some good to hear from home tell Net[48] when you write to her again that I wish she would write oftener and tell Laura that I have wrote to her While I was in Chicago and have not got a letter yet.  I like firstrate if we would get enough to eat have clothes a plenty can draw anything we want once a month I have sent in for a overcoat and then I will be rig[g]ed for winter we have drawers undershirts in fact everything we want in the clothes line it being furnished by Uncle Sam we expect to be mounted this winter and armed with spencers 8 shooters[49] and then git out of the way boys I will send you my likeness soon as I can get it taken if it costs five dollars and I want the family likeness sent to me that I can see you all again tell Molly that if she was down here she would see some fellers coming along zip zip and strike a tree and cut it of[f] quicker than light[n]ing there was a shell on the battle field[50] that struck a pine tree 2 foot through and cut it of[f] clean so that the tree flew ten foot killing and wounding several we had 28 men in our company of which 15 got out alive we lost just half of our regiment in killed and wounded if you could get and oyster can and fill it with honey and send it through it would not go bad however I must draw to a close thanking you for your past kindness and begging that you may all think of me and write often from your affectionate son Charlie

           

things are very high here butter .50 cents a lbs. coffee $5.00 dollars a lbs. sugar 50 cents and every thing else in proportion.

            Tell Arthur and Willie to be good boys and I may live to see them again[51]

 

By the latter part of November, the reinforcements to the Army of the Cumberland from Hooker and Sherman had arrived and Grant was ready to move against the Rebels.  Having heard a rumor from a Confederate deserter that Bragg was about to retreat, Grant ordered General Thomas “to ascertain the truth or falsity of this report by driving in his pickets and making him develop his lines.”[52]  Thus on November 23 General Granger was ordered to take one of his divisions and attack the Rebel picket line on Orchard Knob, a 100 foot high hill about 1 ¼ miles in front of the entrenchments held by his troops.[53]

This image of Orchard Knob was taken in 1895
This image of Orchard Knob was taken in 1895 – National Park Service

            As luck would have it, Granger chose Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood, the 89th’s

Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood, the 89th 's Division Commander - Library of Congress
Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood, the 89th ‘s Division Commander – Library of Congress

Division Commander, to spearhead the attack on Orchard Knob.[54]  Word soon filtered down to the regiment that they were about to take part in an attack, and Capron hurriedly scribbled a few lines to his loved ones before the order to fall in came:

Chattanooga Tenn Nov 23rd / 63

            Ever dear ones at home it is with pleasure that I now seat myself to pen you a few lines to let you know that I am well and I sincerely hope that this will find you all enjoying that necessary blessing.  I have answered all the letters that I have received from home and have waited anxiously every day but have received no answer yet therefore as I expect to be in a battle before long I could not forbear writing to you as it may be the last time we got marching orders last night every man to have a hundred rounds of catdriges and full rations and be ready to march by four o Clock in the morning but from some cause or other the order was postponed for a while and I snatch this opportunity of writing to you.  Yesterday they throwed about 30 shells over into the rebels camp from our fort but could not get any reply to morrow or [the] next day we will have some hot work with them for they have got to git out of there.[55]

 After writing these lines Charles had to drop his pen and take up his musket as the division began forming up for the attack.  The Rebel sentinels on Orchard Knob were witness to an awe-inspiring sight as thousands of bluecoats filed into position.  Wood’s Division alone numbered over 8,000 men, and when joined by the two divisions slated to support their flanks during the fight, over 25,000 men stood proudly in line of battle.[56]  The scene was the memory of a lifetime, and Capron clearly recalled the dramatic moment over a year later in a letter to his mother saying,

On the 23 of November about noon the different regiments marched out and took their respective position and soon we had 2 lines of battle formed stretching as far as the eye could reach both to the right and left it looked more like a grand show than any thing else indeed the rebels thought we was having grand review.[57]

Any thoughts the Rebels had that the Union host arrayed in front of them were only having a review were quickly dispelled when the Yankees moved out to attack shortly after 1:15 p.m.[58]  Willich’s Brigade advanced directly for Orchard Knob, and Capron simply stated that with the command to go forward, “the dance had opened.”[59]

Illustration depicting the Union assault on Orchard Knob - Harper's Weekly, December 19, 1863
Illustration depicting the Union assault on Orchard Knob – Harper’s Weekly, December 19, 1863

After such a momentous buildup to the attack, the actual fight for Orchard Knob proved to be anti-climatic.  The hill was held by only one regiment, the 24th Alabama Infantry, with support from the 28th Alabama Infantry on the ridge adjacent to the Knob.[60]  Seeing the wave of blue surging towards them, the 24th Alabama fired a few ineffective volleys at Willich’s men and then beat a hasty retreat, leaving the Federals in possession of Orchard Knob.  Casualties during the rapid assault were very light, the brigade losing only 4 killed and 10 wounded.[61]  In the wake of the attack, Willich ordered his brigade to halt and begin digging entrenchments to strengthen their position on the hill.[62]  The 89th remained on Orchard Knob for the rest of the day, exposed to what Capron called “a severe shelling from mission ridge.”[63]

General Thomas had to be pleased with the progress his army had made on November 23.  The 4th Corps had taken all of their assigned objectives, and the 14th Corps on their right had taken theirs as well, putting the Union forces in an excellent jumping off position to attack the Confederates on Missionary Ridge.[64]

On the 24th, the 89th Illinois spent the day on Orchard Knob watching the Rebels on Missionary Ridge and skirmishing with Confederate pickets.[65]  Meanwhile on the northern and southern ends of the Union line, events were playing out that had a great impact on the  campaign.  On left of the Federal line, General Sherman crossed the Tennessee River north of Chattanooga on the night of November 23-24 with three divisions, intending to attack the Confederate right at Tunnel Hill after daylight.  His advance however was slow and cautious and he was not able to get his troops into position, so the attack had to be postponed until the 25th.[66]

At the same time Sherman was making his movement to the north, General Hooker was moving south of Chattanooga to attack the Confederates on Lookout Mountain.  With two divisions and part of a third, Hooker swept the Rebels from the northern slope of the mountain, paving the way for his troops to move against the Confederate left on Missionary Ridge the next day.[67]

From Orchard Knob the fighting that raged on the slopes of Lookout Mountain was  visible at times through a fog which ringed the heights[68], and Capron described the mountain  as the place

where the battle raged the fiercest the very earth trembled under the fire of heavy guns the air was full of shells bursting in every direction and soon the smoke was so thick that the top of old lookout was no longer visable but long after dark we could see the flash of their rifles like so many fire flys and it did not cease till after midnight when it qui[e]ted down and nothing could be heard except an occasional report of a picquet rifle.[69]

Painting of the Battle of Lookout Mountain, done by James Walker in 1874
Painting of the Battle of Lookout Mountain, done by James Walker in 1874

The 24th of November had been a good day for the Union, and Grant summed up the progress his troops had made saying, “our forces maintained an unbroken line, with open communications, from the north end of Lookout Mountain, through Chattanooga Valley, to the north end of Missionary Ridge.[70]  With his men now in place, Grant needed a plan for the assault on Missionary Ridge.  He eventually decided to attack on both Confederate flanks with Sherman hitting the Rebel right while Hooker marched from Lookout Mountain to assault the left.  The appearance of Hooker’s men at Missionary Ridge would be the signal for Thomas to send his troops forward to smash the center of the Confederate line.[71]   

The Union attack on the 25th ran into immediate problems as Sherman’s advance met very stiff resistance and made little headway, and Hooker’s column was delayed in getting to Missionary Ridge on account of having to build a bridge over Chattanooga Creek.[72]  From Orchard Knob, Capron and his comrades could see the desperate fighting at Tunnel Hill, but their own guns remained silent as they awaited the order to attack.  Sitting on the sidelines while the battle raged nearby had to be frustrating, and General Granger summed up the feelings of his men saying “As the day wore on, their impatience of restraint gathered force, and their desire to advance became almost uncontrollable.”[73]

The 89th’s role as spectators to the battle ended abruptly about 9:00 a.m., when Willich ordered his picket line to advance and drive the Rebel pickets back to their rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge.[74]  Capron was on picket duty when

the bugle sounded to advance the lines every man of us took his arms at a trail and then went creeping through the bushes as though he was hunting deer.  Well we went on about half a mile that way when bang – bang bang came all along the rebels picquet line however we routed them and drove them into camp when we was ordered to halt and hold our position which we did we was then releived and went back to the reserve lines about t[w]o hours had our catdridge boxes replenished.[75]

 Although the move to push the Rebel pickets back into their rifle pits was successful, Grant was not yet ready to attack the Confederate center on Missionary Ridge.  The general had good reason for his caution because viewed from the Union lines, the Confederate position on the ridge appeared very formidable.  In his report on the Chattanooga Campaign, General Granger described in great detail the hazards involved in a direct assault on Missionary Ridge.  He said the heights were

of almost a uniform height along the part mentioned, rising about 500 feet above the valley that lies at its base.  On the side looking toward Chattanooga it presents a bare, rough, and broken surface, marked by gullies and ravines.  This mountain barrier, even as nature planted it, was a most formidable fortress.  The commander who held it might be warranted in the conclusion that troops could not storm it.  But strengthened as it was by the enemy with a line of heavy breastworks running along its base, with two additional lines of rifle-pits, one partly girdling it midway up and the other fringing its crest, and with epaulements on the summit for fifty guns, it could well be deemed impregnable.[76]

 Grant was hesitant to throw his men against such works, but by 3:00 p.m. he felt he had to send them forward to take some of the pressure off Sherman, whose men were making little progress against fierce opposition.[77]  Accordingly he ordered General Thomas to attack with four divisions and take the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge.  Once the pits were taken, the troops were to halt – they were not to make a direct assault on the ridge itself.[78]

Willich deployed his brigade for the assault in two lines of four regiments each, holding one regiment back as a reserve.  The 89th Illinois was assigned to the second line for the assault, and the tension must have been great as Charles and his comrades waited for the signal to attack, six rapid cannon shots.[79]

When the booming of the guns at last signaled it was time to go forward, Capron and the 89th Illinois stepped off towards Missionary Ridge.  At first they were sheltered from the Confederate guns on the ridge by a thick belt of timber, but in the last 300 to 500 yards of their march they had to cross a potential killing ground cleared by the Rebels so their guns could sweep an attacker.[80]  Capron said of the march,

the whole army moved forward to take mission ridge they had all gone to the top of the mount well we advanced through the timber without any difficulty but when we emerged into the open field no pen can describe with what swiftness they poured in their shot – shell grape cannister and every other deadly missile you could think of[81]

Confederate Artillery on Missionary Ridge firing on the advancing Federal soldiers - Harper's Weekly, January 2, 1864
Confederate Artillery on Missionary Ridge firing on the advancing Federal soldiers – Harper’s Weekly, January 2, 1864

 The 89th pressed on through the shower of hot iron exploding around them and drove the Rebels from their entrenchments at the base of Missionary Ridge.  The objective had been achieved as far as their orders were concerned, but the Yankees were now exposed to a terrific fire from the Rebels on top of the ridge.  General Willich summed up the dilemma of his men saying, “It was evident to every one that to stay in this position would be certain destruction and final defeat.”[82]  To Capron and his comrades, the choice  was simple; the wouldn’t go back, they couldn’t stay put, so orders or no orders, they had to go up the hill.  Most of the Federal soldiers involved in the attack on Missionary Ridge reached the same conclusion, and very soon a wave of blue started up the ridge.  Capron described the attack saying,

we advanced right up the hill it was when we got about 2 thirdes of the way up the hill that my pardner was shot through the thigh and the Lieutenant[83] was shot in the breast killing him instantly the 49 Ohio got within stone throw of their fort when they stoped to fixed bayonets and then chargged on the works never before did men fight with such fury as the rebels did to hold their fort they even shook their flags in each other faces but it was of no use for they had to give back our brigade captured two thousand a 1000 stand of small arms.”[84]

The Union attack on Missionary Ridge was a complete success – the Confederate center was fatally ruptured, and the Rebels were forced to retire from the field with great haste to avoid being captured or killed.[85]  From on top of the ridge so recently vacated by the Confederates, Capron said that “cheer after cheer was sent after the flying fugitives” by the joyous Yankees.[86]

Union soldiers pushing the Confederates from their position on top of Missionary Ridge
Union soldiers pushing the Confederates from their position on top of Missionary Ridge

After their grand charge, the 89th was halted and the regiment spent the night of the 25th and the next night on top of Missionary Ridge, and on the 27th the men marched down from the heights and into Chattanooga.[87]  The non-stop campaigning of the past several months left the men of the 89th weary and in need of a rest – unfortunately they were not going to get it.  A few days respite was all they were given before they had to go to the aid of the besieged Federal garrison at Knoxville, Tennessee.

One of the reasons for the success of the Union charge at Missionary Ridge was the fact that Bragg had weakened his army by detaching General Longstreet on November 4th with 10,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry to attack Union General Ambrose Burnside at Knoxville.[88]   By November 17, Longstreet was outside Knoxville with Burnside penned up in the city and calling for reinforcements to relieve his garrison.[89]  On November 28, Grant ordered Sherman to take his corps and Grangers Corps and march to Knoxville to rescue Burnside.  Sherman pushed his men very hard, believing the Federals in Knoxville were in dire straits, and the march was a very difficult one for his soldiers were ill-equipped for a long wintertime march.[90]  Capron simply said “It is needless to go over that tedious march suffice it to say we suffered severely having half enough to eat and barefooted to[o] we reached Knoxville nearly exhausted.”[91]

On December 5th, Sherman received intelligence that the forced march he had subjected his men to had been for nothing – Longstreet had attacked Burnside on November 29, and had been decisively defeated.  In the aftermath of the repulse, Longstreet retreated from Knoxville and the siege of the city was lifted.[92]

1864 view of Knoxville, Tennessee
1864 view of Knoxville, Tennessee

The weary, ragged line of blue clad soldiers belonging to the 89th Illinois completed their long march and entered Knoxville on December 7, and they were finally allowed to get some much needed rest.  The regiment remained in the city until the 15th, when they were ordered with their division to Blain’s Cross-Roads, about 18 miles Northeast of Knoxville, where they set up a defensive position.[93]

Camped on the plains outside of Knoxville and exposed to the harsh winter weather without enough food and shelter, Capron and the other men of the 89th suffered terribly.  The regiment’s division commander, Thomas J. Wood, later wrote that while his men were stationed at the cross-roads they were “suffering all the privations and hardships that insufficient clothing, insufficient shelter, and insufficient food at the most inclement season of the year can produce.”[94]

The suffering might have been much worse for Charles and his friends but for the fact that they knew how to supplement their meager army rations.  How this was done he explained in a letter to his mother:

                                                                        December 22nd /63

                                                                        Camp of the 89th Ill Vol near

                                                                        Strawberry Plains

 

            Ever remembered ones at home it is with pleasure that I now seat myself to pen you a few lines to let you know that I am right side up and forked end down last night we came of[f] from picket and lo to behold the mail had come it being the first that we have got since we left Chattanooga it being over a month.

Well I got three letters one from Laura dated Nov 23 one from Annette dated Nov 21 and yours dated the 7 of Dec you better believe I was more than glad to hear from you all I wrote one letter at Knoxville now I will write you a longer one as I have more time.  We started from Knoxville the next day but _____ and marched about 18 miles in a north easterly direction and are now camped near Strawberry Plains the health of the camp is excellent last night one of the boys by the name of wagoner[95] company B shot to of his fingers of[f] while out on picket you wanted to know if I was in that fight I was in it from the time it commenced till it ended the second day the mail came out and I got a letter from you and had to read it with my gun in my hand but was glad to get it even that way I have enlisted for three years unless sooner discharged but we all expect to get home next summer  We fared firstrate on the march we got all the flour meal molasses honey butter mutton pork beef also chickens turkeys geese dried fruit of all kinds the way we get such things is by going out of a night to some rich secesh house and make him haul out or else the bayonet or revolver happens to get out in sight and then he has plenty of such as we want we then fill our haversacks and make our way back to camp satisfied with our exploit we then go to work and cook us a good supper and then for bed up in the morning at five o clock get breakfast ready by daylight then if we are not a going to march hurah for another forageing expedition we generally come into camp at night with as much as we can pack.[96]

Civil War foragers at a Southern homestead
Union Army foragers at a Southern homestead

 Although the campaigning was done for the year, Capron still had plenty of fighting to do – but it would be against the elements, not the Rebels.  The 89th spent the remainder of the winter moving from one temporary camp to another in East Tennessee, all the while exposed to the harsh winter cold.  Capron never forgot the winter he spent around Knoxville, and he later wrote of one memorable incident:

they then took us on to the top of a high hill and told us we would remain there for the night it was then cold enough to freeze the devil himself indeed I never suffered so in my life I laid down so close to the fire to keep warm that my blankets catched afire and burnt up and like to burnt me with them.  The next day they moved us to a more comfortable position where we remained a week and then started for the plains again, we staid there one day and got orders to have everything we could get along without, as we was going on a forced march and the next day we started and went to a small town called New Market and camped their for the night.  the next morning we was on the move before day light and marched all day mud knee deep till we came to Morris town where we went into camp our regiment went on picquet and a wetter night I never saw.  I was completely drenched to the hide.  and then to top off with it turned round and froze.  I concluded I could not stand it in camp and put off for town paid 50 cents for my supper and then bent my steps toward an old rebel hospital finding 3 or 4 more of the boys in we went smashed up a couple of the bunks and built a fire in the fire place then I hauled up as Comfortable as possible.[97]

Charles Capron closed his letter by saying, “you will see by reading this that we was on the move all winter and the suffering that our division was exposed to is more that my pen can describe.[98]

The young man was right – he and his comrades had suffered more than any mere words put to paper could express.  But the horrors he had witnessed on the battlefield and the suffering he had endured that winter of 1863 had molded him in a few short months from a green recruit into a hardened veteran – and the experience that had been so hard won would serve Charles Capron well in the near future, as he was fated to see the elephant many times in the summer of 1864 as the Army of the Cumberland fought for a new prize: Atlanta.

COMING SOON: Part 2 of the article on Charles Capron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Charles Capron Collection, Old Court House Museum (Vicksburg, MS).  Hereafter all letters will be cited as Capron Collection.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Compiled Service Record of Charles Capron; 89th Illinois Infantry; National Archives, Record Group 94.

[4]Pat Neely to Gordon Cotton, 13 March 1996.  Capron Collection.

[5] Pension application of Mary S. Capron; United States Pension Rolls.  13 September 1889, National Archives, Record Group 109; United States Bureau of the Census, Woodford County, Illinois, 1860, Schedule 1, Illinois State Archives; Author’s correspondence with Roger H. Bliss, 22 November 2002.

[6] Charles Capron to Shepherd Capron, 16 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[7] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[8] War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 542.  Cited hereafter as Official Records; Compiled Service Record of Charles Capron; 89th Illinois Infantry; National Archives, Record Group 94.

[9] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 31 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[10] George, Charles B.  Forty Years On The Rails (Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley & Sons, 1887), 106.

[11] Schmale, John, [internet website] Civil War Flags of Illinois,  (Accessed 27 November 2001),

http://www.civil-war.com/searchpages/undetail.asp?ID=335

[12] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 538.

[13] Ibid, 44.

[14] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Capron Collection; Esposito, Vincent J., ed., The West Point Atlas of American Wars Volume 1 1689-1900 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1959), 108.  Cited hereafter as West Point Atlas.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 2, 22.

[17] West Point Atlas, 112.

[18] Ibid, 110-112.

[19] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 538-539.

[20] Ibid, 542.

[21] Ibid, 543.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[25] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 540.

[26] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[27] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 544.

[28] West Point Atlas, 241.

[29] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 544.

[30] Capron was mistaken, the battery was the 1st Ohio Light Artillery, Battery A, also known as Goodspeed’s Battery.  Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 544.

[31] Lt. Col. Duncan J. Hall was commanding the regiment at the time of his death, Col. Hotchkiss was still away on recruiting duty.  Ibid, 542.

[32] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 December 1865.  Capron Collection.

[33] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 545.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Fox, William F.  Regimental Losses In The American Civil War 1861 – 1865 (Albany, N.Y.: Albany Publishing Company, 1889), 373.

[36] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 545.

[37] West Point Atlas, 115.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[40] West Point Atlas, 115-116..

[41] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 27.

[42] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 1, 1.

[43] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 27.

[44] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 4, 209-211.

[45] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 16.

[46] West Point Atlas, 115.

[47] Ibid, 115-116.

[48] Net was Charles older sister Annette Capron.  He had a younger sister, Lorain, and three younger brothers, Arthur, William, and Eddie.  Another brother, Henry, died shortly after birth, and the youngest, Bennie, was born 1 July 1864.  United States Bureau of the Census, Woodford County, Illinois, 1860, Schedule 1, Illinois State Archives; Author’s correspondence with Roger H. Bliss, 22 November 2002.

[49] One of the first practical repeating weapons, the Model 1860 Spencer had a seven shot capacity.  At the time Capron wrote this letter, the weapon was becoming well known in the Army of the Cumberland because of its use by Colonel John T. Wilder’s Mounted Infantry Brigade at Hoover’s Gap in June and Chickamauga in September, 1863.  Despite Capron’s hopes, the 89th Illinois was never issued the Spencer.  McAulay, John D.  Civil War Breech Loading Rifles (Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mobray Publishers, 1987), 93-102.

[50] Given his lack of combat, Charles must be talking about his experiences at Chickamauga.

[51] Charles Capron to family, 30 October 1863.  Capron Collection.

[52] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 32.

[53] Ibid, 128.

[54] Ibid, 129.

[55] Charles Capron to family, 23-27 November 1863.  Capron Collection.

[56] Cozzens, Peter.  The Shipwreck Of Their Hopes (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 129.  Cited hereafter as Shipwreck.

[57] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 24 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[58] Cozzens, Shipwreck, 129.

[59] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 24 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[60] Cozzens, Shipwreck, 130.

[61] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 263.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 24 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[64] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 90.

[65] Ibid, 269.

[66] Cozzens, Shipwreck, 145-158.

[67] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 33-34.

[68] Cozzens, Shipwreck, 199.

[69] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 24 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[70] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 33-34.

[71] Ibid, 34.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid, 131.

[74] Ibid, 264.

[75] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 November 1863.  Capron Collection.

[76] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 131.

[77] Cozzens, Shipwreck, 246-247.

[78] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 34.

[79] Ibid, 264.

[80] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 131.

[81] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23-27 November 1863.  Capron Collection.

[82] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 264.

[83] 2nd Lieutenant Erastus O. Young was commanding Company A when he was killed near the crest of Missionary Ridge.  As he was shot he yelled “Forward and Victory!”  Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 270.

[84] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23-27 November 1863.  Capron Collection.

[85] West Point Atlas, 116.

[86] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[87] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 24 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[88] Boatner, Mark Mayo III.  The Civil War Dictionary (David McKay Company, 1959), 467.

[89] Ibid, 468.

[90] Cozzens, Shipwreck, 387.

[91] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 24 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[92] Cozzens, Shipwreck, 387.

[93] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 1, 432-433.

[94] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 31, Part 2, 262.

[95] Private John R. Wagoner joined the 89th Illinois 8 September 1863.  He deserted the regiment 14 March 1864.  Author unknown, [internet website] Illinois in the Civil War, (Accessed 16 April 2002), http://www.rootsweb.com/~ilcivilw/

[96] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 22 December 1863.  Capron Collection.

[97] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron.  24 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[98] Ibid.