1863 April 25: The 12th Wisconsin Infantry’s First Big Fight
Edwin Levings and his brother Homer were in Company A of the 12th Wisconsin Infantry. E. B. Quiner, in his Military History of Wisconsin,¹ has this to say of the expedition Ed Levings describes in this letter: “On the 18th of April, Colonel Bryant [George E. Bryant] was placed in command of a force of infantry, cavalry, and a battery, to coöperate with a force under General Smith,² from La Grange, against the rebel General Chalmers,³ on the Coldwater River, to divert his attention from the celebrated raid of Colonel Grierson,4 which that officer undertook in the Spring of 1863, penetrating through the centre of Mississippi, and arriving at Baton Rouge, La. Colonel Bryant encountered the rebels in strong force at the river, and drove them from their position, and waited some time for the appearance of General Smith’s force to attack in the rear. General Smith failed to appear, and Colonel Bryant returned towards Memphis, where he was met by an additional force, and returned to Hernando, and there waited for signals of attack by General Smith. Not hearing from that officer, he returned to Memphis with his command. The Twelfth formed part of the expedition but suffered no loss.”
The original letter is in the Edwin D. Levings Papers (River Falls Mss BO), in the University Archives and Area Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
Memphis, April 25th 1863
I suppose if you are in receipt of our last letter, you are particularly anxious about us. For we told you we were going out after a large force of rebels who were camped on the other side of the Coldwater River, 35 miles south. The expedition returned yesterday noon, after an absence of 6 1/2 days, and I hasten to tell you we are both safe and sound and have had a glorious time. I regret to say the main object of the expedition was not accomplished on account of the failure of Gen. Smith to coöperate with us, his part being to come in behind the rebels and attack them, while we engaged them in front so the rebels were not all “gobbled up” as they were expected to be, but
[page 2 —] I will say we had several hard fights and lost some men. But the rebels lost more & we returned with 80 prisoners, 200 horses and mules, 150 negroes, and destroyed a large amount of rebel supplies while gone. So much I have told you, now for the sake of clearness and connection as well as interest I will speak of the events of the expedition in the order of their occurrence. The Expedition consisted of 1 Battallion [sic] of the 5th Ohio Cavalry, the 13th Ohio Battery (4 guns), 41st Ill. Int’y., 33rd & 12th Wis. & was commanded by Col. Bryant. We left the city at day break on the 18th and reached Hernando at 5 P.M. 25 miles south. The country was rough & hilly & rebels cavalry were all around us. The 12th being the advance, & Companies A & B had a good deal of skirmishing to do. 6 or 8 rebels were caught by the cavalry reaching Hernando.
[page 3 —] The Cav. had a hard fight 1 mile south of that place just after we came up & we had a chance to see it in part. 25 or 30 rebels were laid out on the field & 75 captured with their arms & 1 wagon of [hams?], our loss, one prisoner. The prisoners were lodged in the Court House. During the fight a force of rebels Cav. were seen coming into town to cut off our Cav. retreat & attack them in the rear not knowing we had guns & artillery along, when they saw us they skedaddled as fast as they could. The captured rebels were sent out to draw our men into an ambush where lay a large force of rebels, but they were beaten at their own game. The people seemed glad we had come for they thought we would be over powered. We got a lot of cotton for beds & piled into the houses there being a hard rain all night.
[page 4 —] 2nd Day — Clear but muddy. Went on to the Coldwater 10 miles I saw one wounded rebel sitting up against a stump where he had been all night. Our ambulances were sent out to pick up the rebel wounded & were fired into by the rebels. Co’s I & G with a squad of Cav. were sent back to Memphis with the prisoners & captured arms, but after going a little ways a superior force of rebels came in sight & they had to double quick & break the arms & [__] escaped. Our Regt. was behind that day. There was Cav. skirmishing all the way to the river. When we came up to the river there was a hard battle in progress down in the bottom. The Cav. drove the rebels across the ferry & held there till we came up. Major Hays5 of the Cav. was mortally wounded in the action. The 41st & 33rd & the artillery & 3 companies of our own Regt. fought the rebels 6 hours, Co’s I & G guarded the prisoners & the other companies were held in reserve. There was no attempt made to cross
[page] 5 [—] the river as the programme was for Col. Bryant to hold the rebels there till Gen. Smith came in behind the rebels. We could have crossed but there would have been great loss on our side if we had. For the rebels were posted behind fallen trees & logs piled up in the thick brush where it was almost impossible to see a rebel, & they were reinforced several times & finally with artillery. Gen. Chalmer [sic]³ commanded the rebels. Our artillery fired 120 rounds of shell & grape & once or twice when rebel reinforcements came up, let whole volleys into the head of their columns which must have cut some of the down surely. Federals & rebels lay within 30 yds of each other for 6 hours & every time a head showed itself the bullets blew. Crack crack
[page] 6 [—] crack all the time. At last the rebs retired, evidently to entice us across, but they could not fool Col Bryant in that way. They were superior in numbers & finally their artillery opened on us but none of their shell burst. One shot struck within 10 ft of the ambulances & 3 others a few rods to the right of us. This was to find out where our battery was, doubtless, when they would have opened on it furiously, no response was made, but the troops fell back a short distance & fearing us we finally fell back to Hernando by another road, for a better position. We had not gone 2 miles ere rebel cav. hove in sight, but they were driven off by our cav. Our loss was 4 killed & 12 wounded, I think. The killed
[page] 7 [—] were Major Hays of the Cav., a Capt. & Lieut. of the 33rd, 1 private 41st, 1 private 15th Ohio Battery. One man of Co E. of our Regt was severely wounded in the right arm & right lungs. Major Hays has since died. We camped that night on a plantation & destroyed all the cotton.
3rd Day — Gen. Smith had not been heard from & we lay still all day till noon in town & were reinforced by 100 2nd Wis. Cav. Cav. drove the rebels back to the river. Some of our men were engaged in catching horses & mules near town & the rebels fired at them but did no hurt & were driven off. To retaliate for firing into our ambulances, the boys burned houses that cost $50,000. The Court House alone, which was burned, cost $30,000. The officers could not stop it. At noon we left for Memphis
[page] 8 [—] by a circuitous route east of that we came down by & camped on the plantation of Capt. Blythe,6 one of our prisoners — took his negroes, burned his fences & destroyed his cotton what there was. We had but 4 days rations when we left Memphis & we took hams & everything else eatable along the road. We had to skirmish again & I must tell you a story. Col. Poole7 thought he saw rebels on the other side of us & Lieut. Reynolds8 sent us off towards a house but there were no rebels but negroes & they wanted to get away & were all ready. I told them to go in front of me & give me one of their bundles & I would see them into our lines. There were 8 of them but I got them all along but fell behind in doing so but the Cav. waited for me. There were 4 women, 3 children & 1 boy 14 years old. The boys call me John Brown.
4th Day. Marched to within 12 miles of Memphis when reinforcements & provisions came & we had to go back again. The troops that joined us were 5 Ohio Battery (6 pieces), 1 Battallion [sic] Cav., 46 & 14 Ills. Int’y. Went back
[page] 9 [—] 5 miles and camped. — 5th Day — Marched to within 5 miles of the Coldwater stream & camped, resting awhile at noon at Hernando for rest & dinner.
6th Day — The rebels had disappeared & Col. Bryant with the Cav. crossed the river, when a dispatch from Gen. Smith came saying he was after the rebs & had force enough without out [sic] us & having but 2 days provisions on hand we started back for Memphis. At noon 30 of the 2nd Wis. Cav. came upon a rebel supply train & destroyed what they could not carry off. Among the things were 4 wagon loads of ham, a lot of lard, horses & mules & 75 negroes. A Quartermaster & several other rebels were caught camped 15 miles from Memphis.
6th Day — Rained hard, marched to Memphis in the mud.
[page 10] [—] We marched about 120 miles on this trip. I carried only my oil cloth, 1 days ration, 45 rounds ammunition, rations being issued at night each day. We both felt well & never took more pleasure in marching than on this trip. The negro men we brought on are all enlisting & the women will sew & make soldier clothes for the darkies. I wish we could start on another expedition to-morrow. This may not be correct in every respect, but, doubtless, you will see the whole report by and bye & bye & get at the truth. We had plenty of fun & terrified the rebels greatly, never had so much fun since I have been a soldier. [paragraph break added]
I got 2 good Latin Books. Homer will tell his own story to you in a day or two. I must close & mail this. Excuse my haste & little pains, for I suppose you want to hear from [us] immediately. So good bye
Yours in love
We have just signed the pay rolls & will get 2 months pay in a day or two.
We rec’d. your letter of the 12th containing medicine, on this march.
I think this account is more correct than any you will see in the papers for I understand the accounts in the papers are very much distorted. Co. B lost one man prisoner.
1. E. B. Quiner’s Military History of Wisconsin (UWRF Archives E 537 .Q56 1866), chapter 20, this quotation is on pages 576-77. A digital copy is available on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website.
2. John Eugene Smith (1816-1897) emigrated from Switzerland and became a jeweler in Galena, Illinois. It was here that Smith joined the Union Army and become one of nine generals from Galena to fight in the Civil War. He participated in the battles Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Missionary Ridge, and Sherman’s March to the Sea. After the War, Smith stayed in the regular army until 1881 when he retired to Chicago, Illinois.
3. James Ronald Chalmers (1831-1898) grew up in Tennessee and Holly Springs, Mississippi, and gradated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in law. Despite no military experience, when the Civil War started he was elected colonel of the 9th Mississippi Infantry Regiment. He participated in the battles of Shiloh, Murfreesboro, and Stones River, among others. In 1863 he saw action in northern Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Following the War Chalmers resumed his law career and served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1877 to 1882.
4. Benjamin Henry Grierson (1826-1911) was a music teacher and band leader in Illinois before the war. In 1861 he joined the 6th Illinois Cavalry and was promoted to colonel in 1862. In November of that year he became a brigade commander in the Cavalry Division of the Army of the Tennessee, and in December he participated in the pursuit of Confederate General Earl Van Dorn after his Holly Springs raid. Grierson is best known for Grierson’s Raid, an 1863 diversionary expedition through Confederate-held territory that severed enemy communication lines. Grierson left La Grange, Tennessee, on April 17, 1863. After the War, Grierson organized the 10th U.S. Cavalry, one of two mounted regiments composed of Black soldiers and white officers, called the Buffalo Soldiers.
5. Charles S. Hays/Hayes was the major of the 5th Ohio Cavalry.
6. Possibly John W. Blythe (1825-1897), captain of Company B, 5th Tennessee Cavalry.
7. DeWitt C. Poole, the lieutenant colonel of the 12th Wisconsin Infantry.
8. Charles Reynolds, from Madison, was the 1st lieutenant of Company A, 12th Wisconsin Infantry, at this time. He will eventually become the captain of Company A.