Accounts of War

John B. Sees

“John has a war record abounding with many interesting incidents, of which limited space will permit a brief notice of but a few. He enlisted February 18, 1864, for three years or during the war; was mustered into service a week later as a recruit of Co. D, Seventh Reg’t Penn’a Vol. Cavalry, and was discharged by reason of close of the war, August 23, 1865. Being well acquainted with several members of this company from the neighborhood of Muncy, who are still living—and one of them, Silas Snyder, was John’s messmate, and often drank with him out of the same canteen—I have had opportunity to acquaint myself with the part that he and his comrades took in the campaign in which they together served. The Seventh Penn’a Cavalry served chiefly as a part of Gen. Minty’s Brigade of the Second Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Cumberland. John B. Sees participated in the engagements at Rome, Dallas, or New Hope Church, Big Shanty, Kenesaw Mountain, McAfee’s Cross-Roads, Lead’s Cross-Roads, and Columbus, all in Georgia; at Bardstown in Kentucky, and at Plantersville and Selma in Alabama, besides having a hand in various lively raids and skirmishes with guerrillas and bushwackers. For some time he served every third day of the week on detached duty as a courier from General Eli Long’s headquarters. April 2, 1865, he rejoined his regiment just in time to share in the important battle of Selma, a stronghold that was defended by works of the most formidable character, where the Second Division met with the fearful loss of twenty-five per centum of its men and officers in killed and wounded. Minty’s already depleted brigade led the advance of the division of 1,550 men and officers on the main road to Selma, and was conspicuous for its gallantry and impetuosity throughout the engagement. In charging the enemy’s works it was necessary to cross an open space of some distance where the division was exposed to a tremendous raking fire of musketry and artillery, entailing a heavy loss in killed and wounded. In the commanding General’s official report every officer of the Seventh Pennsylvania was complimented by personal mention, and was afterwards brevetted for signal service in the taking of Selma. Minty in his report said that ‘every officer and soldier performed his duty so well and so nobly,’ that it was difficult for him to make any special mention. The assault of Selma by the cavalry, then dismounted of course, was one of the most daring in the history of this or any other war. The rebel works consisted of an abates of fallen trees, the limbs of which pointed outward and were each sharpened to a minute point—then came a space of 500 or more feet planted with torpedoes, and studded with barricades made of pointed stakes leaning outward and interlaced with wire—then a palisade higher than a man could reach, made of logs standing on end and extending a number of feet into the ground, and the tops united by stringers and surmounted with wires; the entire palisade being provided with loopholes, controlling the approaches, and a platform inside on which the first line of the enemy awaited the assaulting column—and then beyond all this yet was a ditch about five feet deep, and then a line of earthworks higher than a man, and at intervals strong forts with bombproofs, etc., mounted with light and heavy guns commanding every foot of the ground, and manned by men whose valor and determination will never be in question. Think of men attacking and actually capturing such elaborate works, and yet the majority escaping with life and limb! Hardly a man of the Seventh who did not have bullet hole in his clothing, while the carbines of many were hit and broken to pieces. John B. says he can’t explain how he got though, but he retains a vivid recollection of coming out of the melee unharmed. If the Johnnies had not wasted the bulk of their powder, lead and iron, he doubts if any one would have come out alive.

“Another fearful carnage John remembers was at Kenesaw Mountain, where the rebels had intrenched themselves in a strong position by nature, from which they repulsed and inflicted great loss on Sherman’s assaulting columns. Sherman admits that he met with a defeat here, but it was really only a temporary reverse. In his official report he says: ‘I perceived that the enemy and our own officers had settled down into a conviction that I would not assault fortified lines. All looked to me to “outflank.” * * * Failure as it was, and for which I assume the entire responsibility, I yet claim it produced good fruits, as it demonstrated to General Johnstone that I would assault, and that boldly; and we also gained and held ground so close to the enemy’s parapets that he could not show a head above them.’ When the Seventh Cavalry was moving with Minty’s brigade from the centre to the extreme left of the Union army, on the last day’s fighting in front of Kenesaw, and while passing Siegel’s infantry corps, John saw a long line of the enemy rolling great masses of rock down the steep sides of the mountain from the crest, four hundred feet high, on our unprotected troops along the base. The batteries of artillery on the top of the ridge, from which every moment of the Union troops could plainly be seen, at the same time fired at the passing cavalry, the noise of which mingled strangely with the incessant musketry and rattle and clatter of the bouncing and whirling rocks, but their aim, owing to the steepness of the face of the mountain, was fortunately too high to do much harm. The clamor and excitement cannot be described. Pandemonium reigned—in fact had been reigning for days and weeks, and kept on reigning. Johnston saw that he was not only ‘boldly’ assaulted, but that he was again being boldly flanked, so he soon evacuated his strong position, and Kenesaw was won, and both armies had been taught an important lesson. Sherman would assault, and that boldly!

“Sees, like all the kindred who saw active service during the eventful era of the great Rebellion, had experiences that would make interesting reading in our family history—and of which our kindred of the future will no doubt wish that I had collated many more. For instance, when marching through Georgia he and his messmate, Snyder, were one day dispatched from general Long’s headquarters with a message to Captain McBurney, who was then in charge of the wagon train. On returning to headquarters with their receipted envelopes—the envelopes, by the way, in which the dispatches were usually carried were always endorsed by the officers receiving them, the time of receipt noted, and then returned to the bearers, and carefully guarded by them as evidence that they had performed their duty—they ventured to turn aside to the buildings of a large plantation to see what they could find in the way of commissary supplies. The premises had already been so completely looted that, as Sees himself said when I interviewed him, ‘not even a feather could be found.’ The cattle had all been killed, and nothing remained of them but their bones, hides, and entrails, which were scattered over the ground all around the buildings—a sight that had already become familiar to them, as the country was thus pillaged and made to pay tribute to the Union army for many miles on each side of the line of march. They entered a pigpen, and there also they found that hungry comrades had just preceded them and helped themselves in the same unsparing way. They were about to give up the search when they discovered several pigs’ heads that they concluded had been forgotten, and these they hurriedly got ready for rapid transportation, as they were not expected to loiter on their way, by running strings through the lower jaws to secure them to their saddles. Just as they were ready to mount with their valued contraband of war a squad of superior officers and their orderlies rode up to them, and one in a voice of stern sovereignty that startled them demanded, ‘What are you men doing here?’ ‘Looking for something to eat,’ said Sees, as composedly as he could, as he met and almost cowered under the penetrating glance of the austere officer, whom he had no recollection of having ever seen. ‘To what command do you belong?’ To General Long’s,’ replied Sees, too much flustered just then to think of further explanation. ‘Mount, and fall in under guard with my orderly,’ said the officer, evidently thinking there was something wrong in their being so far away from their command. As they were in the act of obeying the mandate the officer observed the pigs’ heads, and added, ‘Go back and get your meat.’ When they had picked up their porcine trophies, the next command was, ‘Mount,’ and next instant ‘Forward’—the now uneasy suspects and the orderlies falling in at the rear. The guard, after riding a short distance in silence, asked the supposed stragglers, or possibly suspected deserters, how they came to be so far away from their commands. ‘We are couriers from General Long’s headquarters sent with a dispatch to Capt. McBurney in charge of the wagon train, and were just on our way back.’ ‘Why didn’t you say so to the General?’ ‘That’s so! Why didn’t we? Didn’t just happen to think of that. Say orderly, who is that officer?’ ‘That is General Sherman, in command of the Army of the Cumberland.’ ‘Good heavens!’ inwardly exclaimed the alarmed dispatch bearers, and presently turning to Snyder, Sees whispered, ‘We are in for it now, and will not see our camp this night.’ A moment later the orderly galloped forward and told the General what the captives said, upon which the Chief instantly halted and commanded them to ride forward, and demanded to see their receipt from Capt. McBurney. Turning to his staff, as if glad to be relieved of an unpleasant suspicion, he said, ‘These men are all right,’ and in a much kinder tone ordered them to fall in again. Coming to a cross-road by and by, the General paused, and in a wholly changed manner gave the couriers kindly admonition in regard to the danger of lingering so near the enemy’s line, and the duty of returning immediately to headquarters to report after delivering dispatches, then told them to follow the road to the right, as it would take them direct to General Long’s headquarters, and as they turned their horses to obey, delighted them still more by saying in a very friendly manner, ‘Good-bye, boys.’ ‘Snyder,’ said Sees, first breaking the silence, as the great commander and his staff were disappearing from sight, ‘If I ever have another boy, his name shall be William Sherman.’ His next was a girl, but number 4 is a boy and now bears the honored name of the Hero who led the famous March to the Sea.

“More instances of inhumanity and suffering occurred during the great Civil War than could be faithfully told in a hundred volumes. War is always and unavoidably more or less an occupation of cruelty, and was again so to a great extent when waged by the Unionists for peace, freedom, civilization and the Union. But the Secessionists commenced the war, seized forts, arsenals, mints, arms, clothing, custom-houses, and everything else belonging to the general government that hands could be laid on, and, as General Sherman naively told the complaining Mayor and City Council of Atlanta: ‘I, myself, have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet’—and now they could realize that war is cruel when they had to take some of their own bitter medicine. The following incident is a fair illustration of the hartlessness [sic] and destitution that usually follows in the wake of war. After the battle of Atlanta a poor woman stood by the roadside near a small house the Second Division was passing, and hailing General Long, she begged him to leave a guard to protect a small patch of potatoes, as she had been dispossessed of everything else that could be eaten, and now had only the few potatoes left to keep herself and family of little children from starving. Long instantly and gladly directed his adjutant to detach a man from the escort to guard the potato patch, with strict orders to allow no man to enter it or the house, and to shoot any one who attempted to do so in defiance of orders. To John B. Sees was assigned the duty of remaining behind to defend the woman’s potatoes and home while the command was passing. All went well enough until the rear guard came up. The officer in command of the last detachment asked Sees what he was doing there, and where he belonged? Presuming him to be merely loitering behind to steal, or possibly to desert, the officer demanded to see his orders. ‘My order was a verbal command from General Long,’ said Sees. The captain of the guard did not believe this and immediately placed him under arrest—after which the men raided the potato patch, and soon the helpless woman and her little ones were by the hard-hearted soldiers deprived of their last rations. The woman earnestly interceded, insisting that the guard had been left there by Long at her own urgent request, and in tears she implored that the potatoes might be spared for her children, but her tears and entreaties were all in vain. The officer even seemed to think that he had done a clever thing, and with a chuckle of self-assurance, as he and his men moved on, said, ‘We will take the game to General Long and have it plucked.’ Sees was not at all uneasy, kept perfectly cool, and said not a word, confident that General Long would not be hard on the blameless game. On reaching headquarters the captain of the guard commanded his prisoner to dismount and hand over his saber and revolvers—his carbine being suspended to the saddle. When he marched him into the presence of the General, however, he soon learned to his dismay that he had bagged game that he should not have fooled with. The General, after a few words, understood the whole proceeding, and peremptorily ordered the indiscreet officer to hand back Sees’ saber and revolvers and reinstate him forthwith. He then said, ‘Captain, I have almost a mind to reduce you to the ranks. Your conduct is a disgrace to our army. You will take off your stripes, and consider yourself relieved from duty until further orders.’ Some little time elapsed before he was reinstated. Sees got off with a mere formal and mild reprimand for not having saved the potato patch—his frank plea was that he thought he did not dare resist the rear guard when he was placed under arrest—but he had all the satisfaction he wanted when he saw the mortified captain standing around for more than a week without his stripes and with nothing to do or say.

“Sees was fortunate to escape bodily injury by saber, bullet, and shell, in all the various bloody conflicts in which he was engaged, but just as the war was coming to an end he met with a painful accident while he and a portion of the Seventh Cavalry were on the trail of Jeff Davis’ escort that, as afterwards learned, was making off with the gold from the Confederate Treasury, done up in boxes as cartridges and marked ‘ammunition.’ This was but a day or two before the capture of Davis and a number of his party by the Fourth Michigan Cavalry, one of the regiments of the Second Division, on the tenth of May, 1865. See’s horse stumbled as he was riding with his detachment through the woods and threw him with some force against a tree, fracturing three of the ribs of his left side, and spraining an ankle. He remained in the company camp, under the kindly care of his messmate, Snyder, but was not again fit for duty for seven weeks. But then no further active service was required of him, as there were no more battles fought, and no more forced marches made in pursuit of the enemy, after the collapse of the Confederacy. The Seventh Pennsylvania Cavalry, after the disbanding of the brigade, proceeded to Eufaula, Alabama, and remained there until about the middle of August, when it returned to Harrisburg and was there discharged. Sees thinks that the Fourth Michigan Cavalry justly received the reward of one hundred thousand dollars awarded by the United States government for the capture of Davis, but claims that the Seventh Pennsylvania Cavalry was also in the chase after the President of the so-called Confederate States of America, and rendered important service in getting him in the position to be captured, and that he will never forget that he himself got a sprained ankle and had three ribs fractured in the memorable pursuit. The government, he says, has not forgotten him, however, as he is receiving six dollars a month pension.” (from Heinrich Gernhardt and His Descendants, pp. 264-271).

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