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1864 June 4: The 32nd Wisconsin in Alabama and Tennessee

June 8, 2014

The following report from the 32nd Wisconsin Infantry comes from the June 4, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.

Things in Alabama—Letter from Col. Howe,¹ of the 32d Wisconsin.

The Green Bay Advocate takes the liberty of copying the following from a private letter recently received from Col. J. H. HOWE,¹ of the 32d Wisconsin, then at Decatur, Ala.  It is interesting as the testimony of a truthful and observing witness to the condition of the South.

“The ‘situation’ is unchanged this morning.  The pickets of the 32d had a sharp little skirmish with some rebel cavalry this morning, but nobody was hurt.  Twenty-five deserters came in in [sic] a body, chased by a squad of rebel cavalry.  The fugitives were protected by the picket and are safe.  Since we have been here, desertions from the enemy, at this post, have averaged about 59 a day.  Many of them enlist at once in our army.  The 2d Alabama Cavalry has now nearly 1,200 men, all natives.  Some of these deserters are filled with the fiercest hatred against the rebels.  The testimony of these men, coming from different armies, or at different times, is substantially the [same?].²  They say the people at home, are tired of the war and will gladly have peace on any terms.  The majority of the rank and file of the army will desert as fast as possible, but that the great majority of the officers of the army are determined to fight it out, to the last man.  All concede the hopelessness of the cause from the preponderance of men and resources, unless something intervenes.  They are ardent waiters on Providence and will fight, while they wait.

Evidences of the terrible despotism under which the South groans is apparent everywhere, when you penetrate the run of the Confederacy.  There are no able bodied men white or black in the Confederacy.  They are either all in the army or in the woods, hiding from conscript officers.  The conscription is mercilessly enforced.  There is no civil government anywhere.  Bands of armed soldiers patrol the entire country, and their will is the only law.  In that part of Mississippi lying north of Vicksburg and west of the Mississippi Central railroad, a brigade of Texas cavalry is stationed, doing patrol duty.  There is a complete reign of terror.  The soldiers live upon the inhabitants and seem to enjoy life.  The few citizens we found to talk with expressed a greater dread of their “friends” than of us.  Those Texans declared that they never intended to stop fighting.

Union men and conscripts are hunted with blood-hounds.  On a march, the other day we found a blood-hound dead and hung up to a tree, in a little town in West Tennessee.—Our guide, an old man of over 60 and a resident of the neighborhood, explained its history.  We were in that part of west Tennessee where the 7th³ Tenn. (Union) cav., Col. Hurst’s4 regiment, was raised.  Col. Hurst has been ordered to Memphis.  The rebels, when he was gone, sent away and got this hound to hunt this old man and one of his sons who was unfit for service.  He had two other sons in Hurst’s regiment.  The old man laid out, watched his opportunity, and shot the hound.  The rebels had a public funeral and buried the beast with the honors of war.  A few Union men rallied, dug him up and hung him in front of a rebel’s house in the village.

This operation had been twice been repeated by each party.  Unionism was in the ascendant the day we marched by, and there hung the hound, a stench in the nostrils of all.  The rebels wreaked a terrible revenge, however, a few days before.  Two of them suddenly rode up to the old man’s house, found the son there, with his wife, three little children and his mother.  They shot the young man dead on his own door-step, and one miscreant snapped his musket three times at the very breast of the mother.  I stood in the door-yard and heard the story from the widow, and three pretty children near her.  She showed me the blood-stains of her dead husband.  The story ran through the command.  I am quite sure some good fighting would have been done most any time that day, and but few prisoners taken, had the opportunity offered.

On this same march, we went to Purdy, Tenn., where Col. Hurst resides.  He was an old citizen, very wealthy, a lawyer, a planter, a large slaveholder, and a Douglas democrat.  He stood out for the Union, made many and strong speeches for it.  When west Tenn., was occupied by rebel troops from Miss., and then forces out, Hurst remained quietly on his plantation.  At the instance of some of his own neighbors, rebels, he was arrested and thrown into jail, on charge of “being a suspected person.”—Among other indignities heaped upon him, he was led by a halter around his neck, by his own neighbors, round the public square of the town.  After long confinement he made his escape to the Tenn. river, when our gunboats went up after Donaldson and Henry5 were taken.  He subsequently went back, raised a strong regiment of his own neighbors, the 7th Tenn. Cav., burned every building around the square, part which he was marched excepting one owned by a Union man, and gave the inhabitants notice that for any property of his injured or taken by them, he would exact fearful retribution.  His family live unmolested in the town, and he is in command of his regiment on active duty in the field.  His regiment takes very few prisoners.”

1.  James Henry Howe (1827-1893) was a lawyer and the attorney general of Wisconsin (1860-1862) before the Civil War. He served as colonel of the 32nd Wisconsin Infantry from 1862 to 1864. The regiment participated in the Red River Campaign and the Battle of Nashville. After the War Howe  operated private law firms in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, North Dakota, and Chicago, Illinois from 1875 to 1892. He was also vice president and a counsel member of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad Company. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin and he served for just over a year (December 1873-January 1875).
2.  There is a black blob on the microfilm and covers several words in this section. It appears in the same spot on every page for several issues, so probably was something stuck on the camera lens.
3.  Hurst raised the 6th Tennessee Cavalry, also called the 1st West Tennessee Cavalry. The unit was notorious for violence.
4.  Fielding Hurst (1810-1882) was a staunch southern Unionist from Purdy, Tennessee. His pro-secessionist and later Confederate neighbors directed considerable intimidation and violence toward him. Hurst was arrested and imprisoned, with other vocal Union sympathizers, until he was freed when the Union occupied Nashville and he returned home. He then formed the 6th Tennessee Cavalry, many of the recruits being Hurst relatives. Hurst’s men were able to gather invaluable intelligence about the surrounding countryside for the Union Army as the 6th Cavalry patrolled for bands of guerrillas, bushwhackers, and thieves. In 1863, Hurst’s regiment accompanied Union forces to Jackson, Tennessee, to deal with returning Confederate troops. After a brief battle, portions of the city were in ruins and the Union officials shifted the blame to Hurst’s men. Confederates responded by personally targeting Hurst and his family. Union officials again used Hurst and his regiment as the scapegoat, for their failures to end guerrilla problems and restore order in the region, following Nathan B. Forrest’s Second West Tennessee Raid. After the War, Hurst and his men of the 6th Cavalry remained targets for their Confederate neighbors.
For many more details, see the Fielding Hurst entry, written by Derek W. Frisby, in the online Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
5.  Fort Donelson (February 11-16, 1862) and Fort Henry (February 6, 1862) were captured by Union forces.

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