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 -
National Colors of the 89th Illinois Infantry –

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),

[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),

[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.


3 thoughts on “Been Front and Seen the Elephant”

  1. What a wonderful find and so glad that the letters of this Union enlisted man are preserved for all of us now and into the future. I agree that reading the Union experiences is helpful in seeing the whole Civil War picture. This also helps in getting some idea of what family members left behind in the South experienced with the Union Army’s presence. This past fall, I met a relative of a Iowa Union Army soldier whose experiences were where my relatives lived and he is writing a book about this unit. I told him I looked forward to reading it. I learned from him that they used the Jacinto Courthouse as a barracks for a time. He talked how they killed a bushwacker there as well. We can learn alot from each other. Thank you for sharing these letters and thanks to Mrs. Neely for her foresight to preserve these historical letters by the workhorse of both armies, the enlisted men privates.

    1. I’m glad you liked the article – I thought Capron’s letters described the hardships faced by enlisted soldier’s very well, which is why they have been favorites of mine for many years. I will have part 2 of his letters posted very soon, so keep a watch out for them.

  2. The letters paint such a clear picture of a soldier’s experience. They show not only the shock of battle, the sudden appearance of enemy fire, the instant death of the man beside you — they also show all the privations the soldiers suffer, how they improvise for food, clothes, and minimal warmth, and how very much it means to them to receive a letter from home, or to write one. It’s wonderful to have letters like these, lest we forget what war is. I don’t remember whether there are letters from Iraq or Afghanistan that are anything like the Civil War letters?

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