Letter From T. R. Oldham
Head Quarters, 39th Iowa Infantry, Camp Elliot, Corinth, Miss Jan. 20 1863
You will pardon me, I trust, for not fulfilling my promise long ere this, viz. of dropping you a line for publication. My reasons for not doing so are, 1st, a want of time; and 2nd: while in Iowa communication was so frequent between the members of Company D and "the friends of home;" and in the absence of anything of importance transpiring in camp, it would have been a very difficult matter to have made a communication at all interesting. Since we have been down in Dixie, we have been on the march nearly all the time, so that it was almost impossible to write, and even now I do not propose to burden your columns with a very lengthy epistle.
As you remember, We left Camp Henon, Dec. 13th, and proceeded by Rail Road - over the Illinois Central - to Cairo, at which place we arrived late in the evening, Dec. 14, in the rain and immediately embarked on board the Chancellor. The boys had a miserable time of it on the decks, in the rain, and many a poor fellow, as he lay that night upon the wet floor, and the rain pouring down on him sighed for "home and the loved ones there."
On the 16th we started down the river and reached Columbus about dark. We marched out on the bluff - spread our blankets on the ground and rested there for the night. I would say, however, that our rest was not very sweet, nor our slumbers unbroken. We remained at Columbus the next day which gave "us boys" who had never had any experience in military affairs, a fine opportunity of viewing the works and fortifications - Columbus, you know, when held by the rebels was regarded as impregnable, and one of the strongest fortified places on the river. This was undoubtedly true, at that time. Just above the town is a high bluff, rising almost perpendicular, to the h[e]ight of from fifty to seventy five feet. On this bluff strong earth works were thrown up and heavy batteries planted upon them, commanding the river above and below, for miles. To the right and back of the town, the bluffs rise to considerable h[e]ight, in the form of a semi-circle. All along these bluffs are works thrown up trenches cut and fortifications erected, guarding the town pretty effectually against a land approach. I had the opportunity, while there of seeing the chain which Bishop Polk had thrown across the river to prevent the passing of steamboats. The chain has been drawn out of the river and now lies upon the bank. The links ar[e] about ten inches in length, and nearly two inches in diameter. Taken altogether, the place presents an exhibition of the rebels skill and ingenuity.
The town is but little consequence, and derives its importance from the vast amount of [illegible: __v__nent _o_es] shipped to and from that place. The [illegible: possibly "residents"] of this place are all gone.
On the 18th we took the cars for Corinth, to which place we had been ordered to report to Brigadier General Dodge. When we reached Jackson; Tennessee, we were ordered to disembark, by Gen. Sullivan, in command of the district, as the place was momentarily expecting an attack. The men were ordered to sleep on their arms that night and the next day and night following, were in line of battle almost constantly. Gen. Sullivan then marched to meet them, and after a slight engagement the enemy retreated. He drove them back for some distance but the right wing retreated towards Trenton and Humbolt, at which places they captured our garrisons, destroyed all the Government stores and tore up the Rail Road track for a distance of ten or fifteen miles, above, towards Columbus. Two brigades were ordered up to Humbolt, among which was our regiment under Gen. Haynie. We remained there a few days and then proceeded to Trenton. On the evening of the 27th we broke up camp and started to Huntington, a distance of 28 miles. After marching until 2 o'clock we halted for the night. The next morning at daylight, we were on the march again and marched fifteen miles that day. The men were not accustomed to march - had to pack heavy knapsacks - and when they halted for the night, were completely worn out. The next morning many of the men felt unable to proceed and were left behind. Before concluding this I will give you a list of these of Company D, who were left behind and subsequently taken prisoners. When we reached Huntington the rebels had "skedaddled" and we were encamped for the night one mile north of town. The next day Colonel Dunham of the 50th Indiana - acting Brigadier - was ordered forward towards Lexington. His command consisted of the 50th Indiana, 122nd Illinois, 39th Iowa, and 4 pieces of the 7th Wisconsin battery. This force constituted the 2nd Brigade. His command started forward and encamped that night in a small town 12 miles distant. Before we reached the place however, our scouts come in contact with a party of rebel cavalry, who were drawn up in line across one of the streets of the town. Our men fired on them and killed one rebel officer and two privates. The rebels then [illegible: fel]. During the night our scouts discovered the whole rebel force under the command of Gen. Forrest to our right about four miles distant. It was evident that the rebels were endeavoring to make the escape by crossing the road ahead of us and persueing there course toward the Tennessee River. Col. Dunham was at a stand to know what course to persue. Gen. Sullivan was expected from Huntington but he had not arrived and our force was much inferior to that of the enemy. Being a true soldier, however, he determined to push forward soon in the morning and intercept them at Parker's Crossroads, on which point they were known to be advancing.
Accordingly before daylight the next morning the column was in motion. - We reached the crossing about 9 o'clock and soon discovered the advance guard of the enemy's cavalry on an elevated piece of ground to our right. One piece of artillery was soon got into position, and eight or ten rounds of shell fired at them. Here we saw for the first time, armed rebels, but the sight of them did not at all alarm the boys, but on the contrary they manifested a desire to meet them, and try their skill as marksmen upon them.
After a short time we were ordered to file to the right, up the lane in the direction in which the rebels were advancing. On our way up the lane we met a wagon with a poor fellow in it, belonging to our battery, who had been struck by a piece of a shell, in the back, tearing and mangling him in a most horrible manner. He died soon after. We took position at the end of the lane, but our commander soon found that he was unable to hold the position. He therefore ordered us to fall back about three fourths of a mile on the Lexington road. We then took a position in front of some houses. We remained there but a short time when we saw the rebel cavalry advancing upon us, coming down the same lane in which we had filed a short time before. I got up on a high stump in front of our lines; where I had a fine opportunity of viewing the Butternuts, as they advanced to form in line of battle. The land was full of them, and it appeared to me that they were near half an hour in passing; and still another column appeared upon the left, emerging from the woods, and moving around towards their right. In an instant our artillery opened upon them but after firing a few rounds the ammunition gave out, when it became evident that the result of the day depended upon the infantry alone. The 50th Indiana, which was in advance of us, commenced pouring in upon them some heavy volleys of musketry. The 39th was ordered forward at once "on the run" to support the 50th Indiana, and formed upon their right. The 122d Illinois formed upon the right of the 39th Iowa. This was the line of battle as formed. Our line was behind a rail fence - in rear of them was a piece of heavy timber, and in front a cotton field, the ground rising gradually back for 400 yards. Upon the top of the eminence the rebel batteries were planted - one, of four guns, upon the right, and the other of eight guns upon the left, was to throw us under a cross fire. The rebel cavalry dismounted and advanced to support their batteries. The firing at once became heavy upon both sides, and the rebel batteries began to pour in upon us their grape and shell 'thick and fast." The rebel bullets seemed to fly around almost as thick as hail, and to one who was inexperienced in the "art of war," it would seem that it was almost impossible for any one to escape. The boys however, stood up under the raking fire of the enemy, manfully. They were ordered to lie down behind the fence, which afforded them a great protection - and will account for the comparatively small number of killed in the regiment.
The column of the enemy which moved down upon our right suddenly approached in our rear, and the order was given to "rally to the rear," which the greater portion of our regiment mistook for an order to retreat, and they accordingly fell back into an open field upon the opposite side of the road. Here they were opened upon by the rebel artillery, and they fell back still farther to a small piece of timber, before they could be rallied. I must say, however, that Companies F and D maintained their ground and drove the rebels back. Amid the thickest of the iron hail Col. Dunham road back and forth along the line brandishing his sword and encouraging his men. He had two horses shot from under him, and several bullet holes through his hat.
At this juncture Gen. Sullivan came up from Huntingdon [sic] with reinforcements and suddenly appeared in the rebels rear, which ended the battle as the rebels soon "skedaddled." The action lasted about four hours from the time the 1st shot was fired.
I wish here to correct a statement in the despatches [sic] in northern papers, to the effect that Gen. Sullivan engaged the enemy, routed him, captured 400 prisoners and pieces of artillery. The truth is that the fighting was all done by our Brigade, Col. Dunham commanding. To him belongs the credit of the fight, and the praise for the victory. We captured 400 prisoners, and the guns above refered to.
Our force engaged was 1540 men all told, that of the rebels, as received from the prisoners, was from 6,00 to 7,000 strong.
I append a list of casualties of Co. D as taken from the official report:
Corporal Jerome C_ok, wounded in face slightly; Rnadle [probably Randal]
Millinuer in shoulder, severely; Geo. Vaught, in left arm, severely; Jo_ T.
Plamer, in head, slightly. They are all, I believe, doing well.
Left at Shady Grove, and taken prisoners:
R. M. St_ughton, J. M. Denny, W. L. Chaney, J. F. Dant, S. B. Delk, T. B.
Daniels, J. R. German, W. Gregg, A. H_lloway, W. J. Hudgel, A. Jackson, A.
Long, S. McFarland, W. R. Miller, G. W. Miller, S. S. Mackey, J. W. Miller,
J. R. Smith, J. Sawyer, I. Winters, L. M. Likes, and Joad Johnson, missing in action. All of the above have been paroled, and I believe, have been ordered to Benton Barracks, St. Louis.
Quite a number of the boys are complaining from bad colds and camp diorrhea [sic], but none of them are seriously ill.
Capt. Bennett and Lieuts. Mathews and Carter are also complaining some from colds caused by exposure in lying upon the damp ground. They all have the confidence of the men, and they stand high in the estimation of the officers of the regiment.
But I must close non-abruptly. I have forgotten my promise, at the commencement of my scribbling entirely.
T. R. Oleham
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