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My Civil War Stories

by Albin Johnson

Each and every September a phone call comes from one of my grandchildren asking me to subscribe to some magazine, which will provide proceeds that benefit their schools. I imagine many older readers have been asked this too. Following in short order the doorbell will ring with familiar faces of neighborhood children complete with their own subscription list. The last thing I want to be is the neighborhood grinch, so I can almost always be counted on to subscribe.

There are usually a couple of magazines I will check off. They deal with the Civil War or sometimes called the War Between the States. As a youngster in Minonk, I was fascinated with toy soldiers, WW1 pictures and stories, and the annual Veterans Day Parade. On cold winter days, I "made believe" by making drawings, planning attacks, and writing secret messages back and forth between my fanciful commanders. I was Captain Johnson! I found a couple of actual WW1 helmets in our garage and my dads old uniform along with pictures of him in it.

All these things fired my fantasies and provided me with my own history lessons. As the weather warmed, new battle plans meant digging trenches and hideouts in a vacant lot with "my" command including Gordon Duncan, Don Judy, Bill Kuehne, and nameless others. Later it was Dick Dishinger and Tom Toler. We all had the choice of any military rank we wanted.

About 1939, my folks and I made a vacation visit to Gettysburg, PA where we wandered the fields, read and heard commentary about the bloodiest war America had ever fought. Manassas, Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg war sites are not very far away and later in my life I visited them also. But, Gettysburg was my introduction to that huge rift that separated the North from the South. I recall seeing rolling farm acreage and green fields; gentle hills and rocky outcroppings and old style wood fences.

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There were many statues and monuments, which told stories of the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Lotts Farm, Seminary Ridge, and, most memorable, the field that held General Picketts soldier and their march toward Cemetery Ridge. From his horse, the General allegedly shouted, "Charge the enemy and remember old Virginia". The truth was 5 Brigades of Confederates advanced over the field at a walking pace in long, straight close-quarter lines until their decimated numbers could see the faces of the Union soldiers did they start their charge. General R.E. Lee with binoculars watched as Union musket volleys and cannon grapeshot from point blank range blow holes in the Southern lines. This all took about 15 minutes to render 6500 men dead, wounded or captured. I couldn't help notice there were no trenches, foxholes, barbed wire or stone walls to protect the pursuers. All told, there were about 150,000 men engaged at Gettysburg where every one in five were mangled on these fields and hills before Lee surrendered to Grant. When I entered High School, I found the Gettysburg was only the "culmination" of a longer, bloodier conflict. But, almost before I could start reading about it, a more threatening and immanent war was starting in Europe and the Pacific. Civil and World War One memories began fading when Pathe's short movie clips and Life Magazine's often censored pictures showed any war casualties. It was not until Normandy that any pictures of dead GI's began appearing. There were Gold Stars that did appear in many of Minonk's windows though. I'm sure there are a precious few Woodford County Vets who have their own stories to tell. But I get ahead of myself.

During a cross-country trip with MY family, we visited Manassas VA where we purchased an authentic Civil War smooth bore rifle complete with bayonet as we'll as a partial letter written by a young soldier who was a drummer and orderly who delivered messages to the Union Command during a battle called "The 7 Days War or the Battle of 7 Pines ".

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This conflict stretched between Norfolk, VA and Richmond, VA (Richmond was the Capitol of the Southern States at that time.) Much later in the mid 90"s my wife and I enrolled in an Elderhostel program that featured a study of this same battle. The fighting lasted a week and provided no clear victory, only casualties! Of an estimated 250,000 soldiers engaged, some 14,000 died instantly or shortly thereafter. Another 30,000 men were wounded or taken prisoner. A most notable event that happened was that Gen. Robt. E. Lee was given command of the Confederate Army.

I had taken along our old letter I purchased describing portions of the battles. The young writer had signed his name in sepia ink: Joseph B., but no last name. He noted the rigors of a hasty retreat before an enemy charge and seeing his Capt. Charles Johnson (no relation) and this officer telling him to drop his drum and help carry a wounded man on a litter. He was ashamed to do this because of the value of the drum. He slept in a swamp and felt bullets wiz past his head, but eventually made it back to Malvern Hill, the Command Center of the Northern Forces, when the battle came to a halt. The letter contained notes of the battle sites and has the names of his Company and Commanders.

But, as I found, I could not receive and official information that would tell me who he was and where he had lived without having his last name. I was luckier with the Capt. Charles Johnson, 16th Mass. I have several reports listing requests for leave to attend to his business in Boston and reports of being wounded at Chancellorville and again at Gettysburg. The last report told of his death at home on another medical leave.

My library of Civil War Books is relatively small by other standards, but it does contain 20 reference books and several years of Civil War Magazines. I also have reprints of a couple of soldiers letters home and a reprint of an Iowan company clerk's daily diary which includes reference to the group of Iowans my great great grandfather was attached to at Shiloh, TN. I now write about the battle that took place at this site, which is located in South Central Tennessee.

My great great grandfather was born in Vergennes VT and along with his mother and others trekked their way across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois and settled in Mt Vernon, Iowa. By 1861, he was in school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and then enlisted in the Union Army. He was assigned to the 16th Iowa, 2nd Brigade, 6th Division of the Army of the Tennessee.

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He was sent to Davenport for training and shortly in April 1862, he boarded a paddlewheel boat called the Minnehaha with other soldiers and set sail to the Tennessee River and down to Shiloh, TN where the 2nd Brigade of the 16th Iowa landed and disembarked at Pittsburg Landing just in time to be issued rifles and told to press forward into battle. This was done in mass confusion, as earlier over-run Union forces were in full retreat. By late that day, Union reinforcements arrived and by the next day, General U.S. Grant had his forces organized and had the South in retreat to Corinth, MS. During the hard fighting Benjamin Butler was wounded. The battle lasted about 18 hours over a day and a half with about 3200 men killed, and18,000 wounded or missing. There were several Divisions of Illinois men fighting during this engagement. The next 3 months was a stalemate leaving the Union Army foraging for food and clean water. There was only sporadic fighting during this time. The diary reprint I have of the Company Clerk's, lists many reports of fights, drunkenness, and prostitutes plying their trade. Desertions were rampant and those caught were severely punished by making the culprits run a gauntlet of bayonets. I have several official reports on Ben Butler during this time, but by October, the information ceases. By 1863, Benjamin Butler Senior is noted as living in Washburn, Illinois and married to Susan Fischer. Over the next several years he fathered 10 children, the fourth one was named Benjamin Butler Junior. Ben Butler Jr. later married Eva Myrtle Parkin and fathered Dorothy Parkin Butler, my Mother!! And Ben and Myrtle consequently became my Grandparents.

This story about the Civil War and me is somewhat abbreviated and missing some important links. Any serious genealogist or Civil War buff would have a conniption fit with my lack of hard facts and accurate numbers. I merely wrote a simplified version. In the past, present, and in the future there will always be a "couple" of different opinions how history turned out. I prefer to leave my omissions left unanswered...

POST SCRIPT: Minonk citizens have a great Website called "Minonktalk" and a fine biographer who wrote and published the book, "Tales From the Trees" which tells other stories about the Civil War. I enjoy reading both.