I am beginning a column for the Traer Historical Museum. In this column I hope to share some of the past history of Traer and Northern Tama County with its readers as it has seasonally occurred in the past.
I think of it as being very similar to the "Fifty Years Ago In Traer" section that used to appear in the Traer Star-Clipper, but perhaps more of one event and more in depth. I would be thrilled to hear what others would think interesting to share or suggestions anyone may have.
Because of the Civil War presentation and activities at the Traer Historical Museum, I thought it appropriate to begin with the Civil War.
Ironically, it was about this time 150 years ago that the 14th Iowa Infantry Company G was captured during the battle of Shiloh. Traer was not yet a town, but many of its future prominent citizens were in the thick of the Hornet's Nest at Pittsburgh Landing. The battle is often referred to as the Battle of Shiloh.
Future Traerite BF Thomas wrote a book of his experiences in the Civil War called Soldier Life. He was in the Battle of Shiloh. The chapter on Shiloh is the shortest chapter in the book, but is probably the one most read and quoted by family and historians. They were captured on the 6th of April 1862, the first day of battle at Shiloh. After that night, they were marched and put in box cars on trains and made their way to Memphis, Tennessee, Canton and Mobile, Alabama, and then down to Macon, Georgia.
150 years ago the Civil War was barely one year old, and the outlook was bleak for a swift end. The Battle of Shiloh was only the beginning of the heavy toll on life for each side of the war. Over 3,400 were killed at the Battle of Shiloh, 16,000 were wounded (an equal amount of killed and wounded on each side), and Peter Wilson, BF Thomas, and others of the 14th Iowa Infantry were part of the 2,885 captured or missing. The task of caring for so many prisoners, let alone their own army, was a daunting task for the South. This is one reason as many soldiers died from food poisoning and prison camp life as died from battle during the Civil War.
Peter Wilson had become very ill and was left at a hospital in Memphis. Robert Clark became sick in Mobile and was left at a hospital there. The other prisoners continued their journey and were taken to Cahaba, Alabama. No food provisions had been made for the thousand plus men and BF recalls a woman offering a plate of beans to the prisoners. One plate of beans for one thousand men doesn't go very far. BF Thomas described when they finally did receive some provisions:
"April 23, 1862... the meat stank so we had to remove it from the building. Several other barrels proved as bad but finally we secured one we were able to eat. We boiled this meat in our large iron kettles and with our corn bread we lived fairly well... this was the first time in my life when I anxiously awaited my breakfast, knowing when it came it would be a small piece of corn bread and small piece of beef and no coffee or warm drink...
April 28, 1862. We were told by a citizen that New Orleans had fallen into our hands. Hoped it was true but felt uncertain. Our rations were much better than when we first came here. Several of our boys were sick. We ascribed it to the close confinement and spoiled met. Espy McKune was sick and we feared he would have a spell of the fever. He was taken to the hospital."
On May 4th, the group arrived in Macon, Georgia, just four weeks after they had been captured. BF stated that it seemed like four months. Here they were taken to "Camp Oglethorpe". BF described the camp.
"The grounds were enclosed with a tight board fence about eight feet high. There were several buildings within the enclosure which were utilized as hospitals and for commissary storage. There was a long row of cattle and hog sheds, boarded up on the back part and with board roof, open in front. These were occupied as sleeping quarters. But many of the men had not even the board roof but slept on the open ground. Now when you remember we had no coats, only thin blouses and no blankets except those men who brought away tarpaulins from Memphis, you will understand we were not reveling in luxury as far as sleeping arrangements were concerned. But much of the ground was covered with grass and there were many thick shade trees growing here and there so things were not so bad as they might have been. There was a small stream of water running across one corner of the ground that gave us plenty of pretty good water for use. At noon Sunday they served a loaf of bread to each of us. this was the first light bread we struck in the Confederacy...
May 8th. The boys told some wonderful stories about the "Gray backs". It was reported that one of our boys, while asleep upon the lawn, was seen to be slowly moving along the ground. Upon examination it was discovered that the colony of "Gray backs" under him had all started in the same direction and so carried his body along on their backs. This is a mild sample of their stories. To say the least the "Gray back" was the most numerous thing in camp."
Next week we will look at a letter by Peter Wilson written home after his capture at Shiloh and hospitalization.