From the Mississippi River, January 5, 1863
Erasmus is despondent. The smell of gun powder, sweat and blood haunt him. His ears are probably still ringing from the barrage of guns. Friends are wounded and dying on a hospital ship on the river that tends the Civil War wounded. His company has, for the first time, been engaged in a full fledged battle with the enemy, forced to retreat, and he’s ready to throw in the towel.
Note: I have not determined for sure who “Jim” is as there were many men named James in the regiment.
The 16th Ohio, part of General Sherman’s forces, engaged in a vicious battle at Chickasaw Bayou. Since Erasmus concentrates in his letter on the aftermath, here is an outline of what his life has been like since his last letter home from Memphis in December.
On December the 16th, the 16th O.V.I. board a side wheeler steamboat called Fanny Bullitt and join a flotilla of 60 boats on the Mississippi sailing south from Memphis. What a sight that must have been! On December 22, they reached the mouth of the Yazoo River and proceeded up that river. According to Cpl. Theodore Wolbach’s Camp and Field, published in the 1980s, Yazoo in “the Indian language” means River of Death.
There are no thoughts of Christmas as they alight from the boats on the 25th and 26th in daunting swampland and a forest of fallen timber. A book by a man who fought in the battle, A History of the Organization and Services of That Regiment In the War of the Rebellion 1876 by F.H. Mason described the surroundings as “quagmire of varying width and unknown depth.” And Wolbach does some of his most vivid reporting. (To read these accounts and more, go to the Michael Wood’s excellent web page. ) Now from Wolbach:
The 16th stacked arms in a large turnip field near the edge of the road that (ran) along the (Chickasaw) Bayou. Across from us was the gloomy, vine-tangled forest. From the branches of the trees hung the gray Spanish Moss in abundance.” Wolbach.
Mason says that their 3-4 day delay at the mouth of the Yazoo allowed the South to bring in reinforcements. Col. DeCourcey, the experienced British soldier who was leading the 165th OVI, argued that the mission was impossible. However, General Sherman surveyed the land and was not happy, but reportedly sent a message, “Tell Morgan that I wish him to give the signal for the assault; that we will lose 5,000 men taking Vicksburg and may as well lose them now.”
The battle routes superimposed on today’s terrain as shown by Google Maps and illustrated on Michael K. Wood’s website. The Mississippi changed its course about twenty years later, and the Corps of Engineers changed the course of the Yazoo River.
See many more maps and narratives of the battle at the 16th OVI website.
The 16th O.V.I. regiment was in the front of their brigade–1500 Union men all together in the brigade, as they crossed a narrow bridge. Another brigade of 2000 men paralleled their movements. They fought on the 27th, 28th and 29th.
“The next morning, the 30th, found the 16th lifting their chilled and benumbed bodies from a muddy bivouac in an old cornfield. When we were in ranks, in column of Companies, the havoc of the fight was painfully visible. One Company, (K,) had only fifteen men present all told. Some of the Companies had no officers.” Wolbach
On the 30th, the Union officers requested a truce so they could remove their dead, and the Civil War wounded, but the Southern commanders refused. Finally on the 31st, the Union troops put up a white flag. On January 1, they get back on the boats and head toward Millikin’s Bend as the officers plan an attack on Arkansas Post.
Col. DeCourcey, the commander of the 16th, lost 580 men. So many men were lost that they reorganized from ten companies to six.
“The days that immediately succeeded the Yazoo expedition were dismal ones to the 16th boys, but they soon recovered their buoyant spirits and those that were left were as good as ever. ” Wolbach
Typically, Erasmus does not go along with Wolbach’s optimistic outlook.
As Erasmus writes his letter to his wife, he is still trying to absorb the horrors of the previous week. He is back on the Fanny Bullitt steamship, and headed, he probably suspects, for another battle. What we see in this letter, though, is his compassion for his friends.
He hopes that Will (his brother) is prisoner, and indeed that is what happened. A very large number of Union men were pinned down by fire and then taken prisoner. Some were released within a few weeks and others held for several months. Erasmus’ main concern is for Ephraim Cellars, an he tells and interesting story about trying to get on the hospital boat to check on friends.
(I have included pictures of that very boat and more information about the care of the Civil War wounded in the next post. See it here.)
We never learn how badly Erasmus was actually burned–whether he is making little of it in order not to worry his wife, or whether it really is not serious. At any rate, he, who is an upright and honest person, has learned he may have to dissemble a bit.
This seems to indicate that he went looking for Ephraim on the 30th, the day after the big charge, and in fact Ephraim was wounded on the 29th. Apparently the army had a building where they first treated the wounded before moving them to the hospital ship.
Erasmus is so determined to see Ephraim that he tries everything he can think of.
He goes on to say that he thought he (Ephraim) would die, but has now heard reports he was better. Erasmus is concerned about Ephraim’s father, “Uncle Joe”, and how the family would take the news.
He has mentioned Ephraim Cellars before, and the soldier’s father, “Uncle Joe”. I am still trying to piece together the relationship, but apparently there is a tie between the Cellars family and Erasmus’ wife, Susan/Susanna Frazer Anderson. Ephraim was drafted at the age of 18 in August 1862. He is the only boy in a family with five girls.
Sadly, Erasmus does not yet know that Ephraim, wounded on December 29, died on January 1–four days before Erasmus sat on the Fanny Bullitt writing to Suzi.
Erasmus is longing for some news from home, but says he has not heard from Suzi since before they left Memphis, and she is “not doing right.” He closes with
Notes: Besides the Civil War letters which I use with the permission of a descendant of Erasmus’ widow and her second husband, sources here include:
- A site devoted to the 16th OVI that is a real treasure trove of information about Ohio’s soldiers in the Civil War. That site is the source for Cpl. Wolbach’s “Camp and Field” report which was published in the 1880s.
- Other sources are linked in the text.
- Ancestry.com where I find birth, census death, military and other records of my ancestors and the people that Erasmus mentions.
- All photos and the maps in today’s post come from the Michael K Wood site devoted to 16th OVI, and the photos are linked to that site.
- General Sherman wrote a memoir that included an account of the battle which is angrily disputed by Wolbach. If you want to see more about the shifting of blame to DeCourcey, read Wolbach’s account here.
If you happen to know more about Ephraim Cellars and his family, or any of the other men who served in OVI 16th, particularly companies E and B, please share below in the comments.
See Erasmus Letter #5: December in Memphis, here
The next letter, #7,Civil War Deserters, is here
Hi Vera! My name is Margaret Cellar and I believe I know a little bit about Ephraim Cellars family, though I’m still trying to work out all the details. I’m descended from Thomas Cellars who was one of the first settlers in Delaware Ohio. His brother Joseph’s descendant settled in clear creek ohio, and Jefferson County Ohio. some of them eventually go to Indian, Kansas, and Minnesota. I had thought the Ephraim that served in the civil war was the son of Ephraim, who’s the son of Joseph, but now based on this letter and refrence to Uncle Joe I’m less sure.
Before Ohio they were in Cumberland County Pennsylvania, where I believe the Andersons were as well. It’s a common last name, so it may not be the same Andersons, but there is a branch of an Anderson family that’s pretty entangled in the Delaware County Ohio Cellars family. Thanks for sharing the letters.
I’m so glad you found something useful here. I would love to find out where the Andersons were before Ohio. If you have any sources, please let me know.
I just remembered to come back to this comment to see if you replied and went to pull up sources, but it seems I have accidentally deleted Ephraim Cellar off my family tree while I was cleaning it up recently. When I get my notes back together I will email you what I know about him.