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Water, Water Everywhere on the March to Vicksburg:Erasmus Anderson Letter #11

Carthage Louisiana  April 20th 1863

Dear Wife,

…We have made our way around here at last, partly by land and partly by flat boats and yawls for the land is nearly all under water here and the rebels have cut the levee to try to stop us.  We are now about 30 miles below Vicksburg.

The 16th O.V.I., as part of Ulysses S. Grant’s plan to take Vicksburg, has continued to march south on the Louisiana side of the river. The march to Vicksburg is underway, although the troops are going south, in order to cross well below Vicksburg and attack from the South.

On the march to Vicksburg

To Smith’s Plantation April 18 1863

The “finally here” is an understatement. Our usually irascible Erasmus seems almost optimistic in this letter. Cpl. Wolbach’s account describes the long slog from Richmond Louisiana, where ‘E’ wrote his last letter to a levee just past Smith’s Plantation. Wolbach says:

“Moved on April 13 through fearful roads all day across fields. Avoiding the roads where they were the worst, picking our way around ponds and over bayous, with great loads of mud sticking to our shoes, the regiment dwindling away and becoming smaller every hour.  Sweating, weary and hungry, the advance fragment of the 16th reached the place for the night’s encampment.”

Erasmus said “…the rebels have cut the levee to stop us.” Wolbach explains that the land is flooded for about a mile between the plantation and the river because the Confederates have cut the levee. The first men to get there built rafts from boards torn from nearby buildings, and later troops are ferried across that water.

Erasmus speculates at length about the strategy of the army, although it is “hard for me to say anything of about what we are going to do”

…but from all appearances there will be something done soon.  The Rebels have or are reported to have a fort at Grand Gulf below here.  I think it is the intention to take it and go on down to Fort Hudson and there connect with Farragut’s Fleet and take Fort Hudson, then the two fleets can connect together on Vicksburg.  My opinion is there will be hot work in this quarter before long but the gun boats will do the butt end of the work; in my opinion we have a powerful fleet here and above and [both in his immediate vicinity and north of Vicksburg] put it with the fleet below [south of his present position] it will be enough to do almost anything.

This is quite a change in outlook for the usually pessimistic Erasmus who has been predicting that the Union could not win.  Perhaps the cannonading that took place a couple nights ago impressed him with the power of the Union’s Navy.  He tells Suzi:

There is eight big gun boats down here and two transports.  They run the blockade the other night.  They had a warm old time though, one transport sunk, the gun boats was not hurt.  They are soggy looking old things.  I tell you it would do you good to hear them let loose.  It makes it roar up and down the Mississippi for about a quarter of an hour like thunder.
Vicksburg-gunboats attack

Vicksburg-gunboats attack, April 16 1863

This is the battle that Erasmus and the other men heard boom from 30 miles (Wolbach says 18 miles) away in Vicksburg.  The fleet consisted of seven ironclad gunboats and one wood gunboat (General Price) as well as  three transports pulling ten barges. The ship that went down was the Henry Clay, a transport ship. Cpl Wolbach gives a detailed and dramatic description, which you can read here.

Given what they marched through to get here, and what he can see around him Erasmus is concerned about how they are going to go forward.

Now if we have to go clear to Fort Hudson, I see no other way to go but march for we have no boats and cannot get them below Vicksburg and I don’t see how we are to march it will be a long hard and hot march.  The weather is very hot here now but if I only keep good health it is all I ask.

Wolbach has mentioned that it continues to rain, and “Very little besides the levee at New Carthage was above water.  Much of the back country was one vast watery waste.”

Once again Erasmus voices the soldier’s complaint his own colorfully expressed–“Nobody tells us nothin’.”

I may be mistaken in regard to our movements for it is all guess work for we know nothing about it for a soldier is just like an ox he don’t know in the morning where his bed will be at night; he don’t know whether he will move today, tomorrow, or if he does move, where he is going; whether it will be 5 miles or 50 but it is all for the best I suppose in the rounds.

He is looking at Suzi’s letter, and starting to answer her plaintive inquiry about when he will be coming home.

I see but poor prospects of it till peace is made.  Unless something turns up that is unseen at present [musing–]not but I like to be at home but the impossibility of the thing[–] but I hope this summer will put an end to this war some way or other.  If we can succeed in taking these three places on the river I don’t see how the rebels can hold out much longer.  They will not give up until the bitter end.

Despite his change of tune, he can’t resist one political jab at the leadership.

If we had the right kind of men this war would have been over long ago.

But suddenly Erasmus is ordered to pack up.They are moving again.

This is a hasty close.

E. Anderson

Although this letter is dated April 20, the troops moved out on April 19, so he may have had the dates wrong.  This next move takes them to a much more pleasant camp, which he will describe in his next letter.

Previous letter: Vicksburg Campaign begins

Next letter: At the Perkins Plantation

Notes: The transcriptions of his Civil War letters  which I use with the permission of a descendant of Erasmus’ widow and her second husband, and I am deeply grateful for permission to share the letters.

Other sources 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.
  • Ancestry.com where I find birth, census death, military and other records of my ancestors and the people that Erasmus mentions.
  • Maps and the photograph come from Michael K. Wood’s site on the 16th OVI, linked above.

Vicksburg Campaign Starts: Erasmus Anderson Letter #10

Letter from E. Anderson, April 8, Richmond Louisiana

Dear Wife: …If I can only have good health I don’t care.  My health is what I am afraid of and not the rebels.

“Happy is the man that to him the future is a sealed book.”  From The Story of a Common Soldier by Leander Stillwell, a Union soldier from Illinois.

Since the last dated letter we have from Erasmus (February 17) the 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry has moved twice, and received paychecks twice.  It seems obvious there is a letter missing, but the more I think about it, the more I doubt that missing letter is the last one I published.

A great deal has transpired that Erasmus does not mention, or only alludes to.

  • Col. DeCourcey resigns, believing he has been ill treated. DeCourcey, a career military British citizen, had volunteered to fight for the Union. His colorful career included returning to the Union army, then being arrested because he angered General Burnside, and fighting in Mexico with Maximilian.
  • General George W. Morgan also resigns because of mistreatment by superior officers.
  • The Regiment’s Chaplain resigns.
  • Cpt. Robert W. Leggett of Company B. “by some indiscretion incurred the displeasure of the war department and was dismissed from service,” Says Cpl. Worbach. Erasmus apparently knows Leggett personally, as he tells Suzi that he is sending some money to her by way of Leggett. After the dismissed Cpt. returned to Ohio and asked the Governor to help him, he went to Washington D.C. and met with Lincoln personally. He was exonerated and given an important command, advancing eventually to Col.

On March 11, the 16th had taken boats from the miserable, muddy Young’s Point to a much better camp about  ten miles upstream at Millikin’s Bend. They are camped on the Louisiana side of the river, but not far from Vicksburg on the Mississippi side. They are now part of General McClerland’s 13th Corps under General Ulysses S. Grant, part of the Vicksburg campaign.

Vicksburg Offensive

Map of the move by river from Young’s Point to Milliken’s Bend. From mkwe.com

Surely everyone knew the battle was about to begin, because Wolbach reports that they the army “was stripped of everything that was not absolutely necessary for campaigning.”

Cpl. Wolback reports in Camp and Field that when they broke camp in March, “The air was mild and the men relished the change and worked cheerfully.” Erasmus is not as irascible in this letter as in some others.  They have a better camp, they have received pay checks, and after a very long period of waiting, it appears they are on the move.

After nearly a month camped at Miliken’s Bend, waiting for the spring flood tide to recede on the Mississippi so the Union can start the Vicksburg campaign, the troops are ordered to break camp on April 5 and they march  away from the river, to Richmond, Louisiana on Willow Bayou.

Erasmus speculates on what will happen next.

We have moved as you will see in the country from the river about 15 miles but I don’t think we will stay here long.  We don’t know where we are going.  Some say to Carthage on the river below Vicksburg and some say to Natches and some think we will stay here for a while but I don’t know nor does anyone else.
Vicksburg Campaign

The route of Grant’s army from Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, south to Richmond. This map also provides a picture of Grant’s entire campaign against Vicksburg during the spring and summer of 1863. The 16th Ohio was part of Grant’s route the entire way (dark blue line). Map from www.mkwe.com

In fact, the Vicksburg campaign has begun, and they are marching south in order to circle around Vicksburg as part of General Grant’s overall plan of attack. There will be spots of Southern resistance along the way.  Wolbach says:

“The enemy in numbers unknown to us, were occupying the little town of Richmond, capital of Madison Parish, on the Bayou Vidale, fourteen miles back from the river, and their scouting parties several times came in sight of our camp but always ‘dug out’ in haste when some of our mounted men got after them.”

Erasmus’ letter follows his usual pattern. He describes his surroundings and his personal situation, then answers Suzi’s questions and talks about fellow soldiers, and then things about the farm.

We are camped in a beautiful country but the destroying angels have come worse than the Seven Plagues of Egypt.  We are camped by a big bayou.  It is some wider than Killbuck [Creek that runs through the valley in Holmes County, Ohio] and six times as deep.  Has fish as large as a man but can’t catch them.  There are big alligators in it and it is good to keep the boys from going in and getting drowned.
alligator in bayou

alligator in bayou

After telling Suzi that he will be sending her $20 express and has sent $45 with Captain LIggett, E. goes back to talking about Ephraim Cellars–adding some detail to the information he wrote back in February. Since many men were sick, he had to be on duty more than usual, and for the first time, we learn that Erasmus also was sick.

I was not very well myself to go when not on duty.  I saw him the day before he died. I did not think he would die so soon.

Apparently Ephraim’s family wants to go to where he is buried and move his body, but Erasmus discourages that.

When he died we did not get word till I suppose he was buried without any coffin box as all the soldiers was that was buried down there.  I think it would be of no use for them to come after him now and they could not find him and I don’t think they could raise him now anyhow besides nobody can get transportation unless he is on government business.

Sadly, although Erasmus had previously reported that Ephraim had talked to him of going home, he now says, “he was not in his right mind part of the time and I could have but little to say to him.”

Then he moves on to Albert, that troublemaker who seems to dominate the conversations between Erasmus and his wife.

You wanted to know if Albert had the dropsy.  He has been grunting around since he came into the service.  I cannot tell what ails him but I know he wants a discharge for the one thing.  We left him back at the hospital.

Albert never did get to get out of the service because of illness. Instead he was killed in battle at Vicksburg.

Erasmus reports that Cpt. Tanneyhill has heard where the prisoners are. They have traveled down to New Orleans, and are returning north via the Atlantic Ocean. (Perhaps by now, Erasmus knows that his brother is among those prisoners who were captured back in December at Chickasaw Bayou.)

John Christopher, another neighbor has died of his wounds, Erasmus reports. Christopher 42, left a wife and six children behind on his Killbuck farm.

And Erasmus turns from the Vicksburg campaign to the inevitable instructions to Susie about the farm.

This is locust year in Ohio. I want you to raise lots of little roosters and when I get home I will show you how to strip their bones. E. Anderson

To see the previous letter, #9 In the Dark Woods of the Mississippi, read here.
The Next letter: #11: Water Water Everywhere

Notes: Besides the transcriptions of his Civil War letters  which I use with the permission of a descendant of Erasmus’ widow and her second husband, sources 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.
  • Ancestry.com where I find birth, census death, military and other records of my ancestors and the people that Erasmus mentions.
  • A first-hand account of the war, The Story of a Common Soldier 1861-1865, by Leander Stillwell.

Politics and Peaches:Erasmus Anderson Civil War Letter #8

The Army of the Mississippi, February 17, 1863

There is hardly a soldier in this army but what would rather give them [The Confederate States] their independence than stay any longer.

Grant’s Army, including  the 16th O.V.I. has made camp, since E’s last Civil War letter, moving down river from Arkansas Post. On January 20, they camp at Young’s Point, Louisiana, about three miles above Vicksburg.

Civil War movement

Union troops move down the river to Youngs Point LA. Map from the Michael Woods Website for 16th O.V.I.

It is hard to fault Erasmus for being discouraged. This “Long Encampment”, which is to last 45 days, straggles along the river on levees and ground made deep with mud from nearly constant rain. The weather has turned cold. The only escape from camp is working at digging muck to build “Grant’s Canal”, or occasional forays dreamed up by General Grant to find a “back door” to Vicksburg. Sporadic bombardment from the Confederates roar across the river with their noisy “Whistling Dick” . Replies from the heavy Parrott guns mounted on flat boats. their firing lighting up the night sky. Add to the smell of smoke, sweat and mildew, the stink of the hundreds of mules used to transport things up and down the slopes, most dying from the effort.

In this Civil War letter, addressed to “Dear Wife,” Erasmus alternates his thoughts of home with political rants and doubts about the decisions being made regarding the war.

Although Erasmus has just received four letters from home, he has a political conspiracy theory about the mail, and makes it know that The Emancipation Proclamation, that went into force on January 1, 1863, is not universally approved.

It was a long time since I had got a letter.  I guess our letters are kept from us or at least a great many are.  We cannot get one Democrat paper to the regiment and we get that lieing (sic) Holmes County Republican regular.  It spoke of the joys and satisfaction old Abe’s proclamation received in the army.   There never was such a cursed dissatisfaction in the army about anything as is about that.  It is the Republican postmasters that stops the papers and letters from us.

This sentiment points back to the 150-year-old argument about the purpose of the Civil War.  Erasmus has consistently spoken in favor of keeping the Union together, but he does not believe he is fighting to free the slaves. In fact, his language and attitude reflects a strong prejudice against blacks (and liberal use of the “n” word).

As for “Republican postmasters” it is true that postmasters were eagerly sought political appointments.  While I doubt that postmasters would actually hold back mail, no doubt the Postal Service was censoring mail, but mostly from the Union to the Confederate states. The more pertinent question here, I think, is how did Erasmus get away with his attacks on the government and the army if someone was censoring him?

On January 29th, Grant arrived to personally get the troops ready for the assault on Vicksburg. See Grant’s thinking on the preparations for taking Vicksburg.

Erasmus is not impressed with the idea of digging a canal.

I think Lincoln would do well to send some old crazy woman down to oversee this great expedition.  It would make any old woman laugh to see the great canal they are digging.  It just puts me in mind of little boys play.  If they had anybody to oversee that knew anything they could had it ready to run boats through by this time and saving any more fighting at Vicksburg.

Erasmus is thoroughly sick of seeing illness and death, although he never complains about personally being affected. He must have had that Iron constitution, when he says “I don’t know how long we will stay here but not long I hope for a constitution of steel could not stand this long.”

Our army will soon run down for it is alarming to see the deaths that occur daily.  This is a flat swampy country, very muddy and we are miserably fed….If we stay here until warm weather they will die like old sheep….If this nation can stand this all it has a stronger backbone than I think it has.  I just want to see if the people of Ohio will stand another draft or not. Any man that would volunteer or go drafted now ought to be shot the very day he goes.

Wolbach’s account agrees about the health of the men.

The sick list of many regiments grew alarmingly, and the death rate was a matter of seriousness…The number of deaths in the 16th was small compared to the number under medical treatment.

As usual, Wolbach, twenty years after the fact, has a somewhat more sanguine view of affairs than Erasmus. He points out that those lower down the slope plus the work crews have beautiful views of Vicksburg. And he says: 

It is curious that amid circumstances that look dismal when viewed in retrospection, the majority felt little concern and even enjoyed themselves.

Some “boys” even built boats out of scrap material and caught fish in the river. However he also mentions desertions and an attempted suicide.

Both Wolbach and Erasmus refer to Cpl. Thomas Phillips of Co. B, who disappeared on January 12 while they were still on the White River in Arkansas.  Wolbach says that he went west and became a hunter and trapper.  Erasmus says, at the end of his letter:

We heard from T. Phillips the other day.   He was at Memphis and is likely at home now and I think he knows enough to stay there.

Erasmus is convinced that the Union is losing the war, and thinks they might as well just give the South their independence and get it over with. As in the last letter, he is still tempted by dissertion, but ever logical, he weighs the pros and cons.

Though I am as much opposed to a dissolution of the Union as any other man I will bet all I am worth, it will be done before we have peace…Oh I wish the strong war men of the north had to stand in our place, they would soon be like us, be in favor of peace…I would like to get out of this honorable but which would be the most honorable, to fight in this war or throw my gun down and go home is the question. I know which the most of the boys will do if they was paid off and was where they could get home, but I believe they are afraid to pay them off just on account of that, but it would be hard to get away from here without giving oneself up to the enemy.

While Wolbach, in Camp and Field refers to the back-breaking work of the “contraband”, the term used for escaped slaves, Erasmus, predictably, sees them differently.

We have thousands of old helpless negroes hanging around the army being fed and clothed by the government and not benefiting us one cent.  That’s the way the war is carried on.

The second half of his letter turns to affairs at home.  He has learned of the death of Ephraim Cellars since his last letter, and he sympathizes with the family, particularly since Ephraim was the only son in a family of daughters. This death only compounds his despondency. Further illustrating his attitude toward the war and blacks, Erasmus says

It seems too hard for them to lose him in such a wicked war as this but it can’t be helped now for it is too late but I have this to say let no more come for we have enough out to lose now and the war will never end as long as a man will fight for the n_______s.

The Union soldiers still have not been paid–going on seven months now–and nevertheless suttlers are charging extortionate prices–30¢ a pound for cheese; 30¢ for dried apples; boots from $6 to $20; and a can of peaches for $1.50.

Oh, I often dream I am at home getting something good to eat, just anything exept fat pork and crackers would be so good.  I want you to save me a can of peaches and all I ask is to get home to eat them

After saying, as he as before, “I want you to get along the best you can,” and he is hoping for peace and that he can get home to his family,” he ends his letter abruptly.

It is plum dark, good-bye.

E. Anderson

Oh, it is so sad to hear him yearn for peaches, and so eerie for him to end this dark letter with this brief farewell.

See the prior letter, #7, Civil War Deserters, is here.

The following letter, #9, In the Dark Woods of the Mississippi, is here.

Notes: Besides the transcriptions of his Civil War letters  which I use with the permission of a descendant of Erasmus’ widow and her second husband, sources 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.
  • 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.
  • Other websites are linked in the body of the letter