Accounts of War

Nathan T. Kinman

“He was the youngest of the thirty-three patriotic descendants of Heinrich Gernhardt who, from 1861 to this time, entered the military service of Uncle Sam. He was but a stripling eleven years and ten months old when, in company with a chum, Joe Robinson, he ran away from home, and on the 28th day of November, 1862, enlisted as a drummer—because on account of his age he knew he would not otherwise be accepted. His three living brothers were already in the service, and he thought it was his duty to be there also. In the following spring the army of the Cumberland was being recruited and needed musicians, so he was ordered from New York, where he had been stationed during the winter, to join the army at Chattanooga, to serve as a bugler. It was soon discovered, however, that he could not bugle, whereupon he was given his choice of being sent back home or shouldering a gun and a knapsack. He immediately decided to remain with the army. He wanted to carry a gun, and did not object to a knapsack. He was still only in his 13th year, but his promotion to the rank of a high private made him feel that he had now attained to manhood. There were perhaps younger boys in the army as drummers, but certainly not many younger that carried a gun and a knapsack. He was now assigned to Company G, of the 79th Pa. V. Infantry, Fourteenth Army Corps, under Gen. John M. Palmer.

“Nathan’s first baptism of fire chanced to be at Lookout Mountain, November 23, 1863, where there was much fire, and much excitement. He did not know that was was such a terrible business, but he found out what it was when the infernal dogs of war began to bark and howl and snap and bite as the Fourteenth Corps moved across Lookout Valley in the assault on Lookout Mountain, the crest of which was alive with the ready Boys in Gray under the redoubtable General James Longstreet, waiting to receive with their outstretsched arms the eager Boys in Blue under the equally valorous General Joseph Hooker. The attacking troops were not only warmly assailed with shot from muskets and cannon, but shells with lighted fuses, and rocks, and even logs, were rolled down on them in the most spiteful manner, as they scaled the side of the mountain, and fought and won the famous ‘Battle Above the Clouds.’ Nathan vividly remembers how, after the Johnnies had in helter skelter haste left their seemingly impregnable position, the conquerors, flushed with their splendid victory, rent the air with shout upon shout and became almost frantic with joy. And Nathan was a very fortunate boy, as he sustained no injury in this nor in any of the succeeding battles during Sherman’s March to the Sea, which now seems marvelous to him when he reflects how many he saw killed and wounded around him in the various engagements.

“The hottest place the juvenile soldier thought he was ever in was at the battle of Bentonville, N. C., March 21, 1865, near the close of the war, where Sherman gave Gen. Johnston another severe wallop. The fight did not continue long, but it was lusty and bloody while it lasted. Gen. Slocum, in command of the left wing of Sherman’s army, very unexpectedly found himself confronted by Johnston’s entire army, whereupon Sherman ordered him to stand strictly on the defensive, and sent dispatches to a number of his scattered divisions to move in haste to Bentonville in his support. Slocum was not frightened. He at once took a strong position to make a vigorous defense, and then sent a division a little farther ahead to form another line. Johnston now quickly fell on him with an overwhelming force and broke up his advanced line. Slocum had hurried up the Fourteenth Corps, under Gen. J. C. Davis,—the corps to which Nathan belonged, carrying a gun and a knapsack,—and the Twentieth Corps, under Gen. Williams, and was now ready to make an obstinate resistance until Sherman could push forward the troops to his relief. Kilpatrick heard the noise of battle in the distance and in the meantime had come galloping to the scene and massed his cavalry on the left, ready to take a hand in the fight. The confident enemy now came on in a terrific rush, in three heavy columns, expected to crush Slocum by his very weight and impetuousness. But he found himself facing an insurmountable barrier. Right there in his front stood the undaunted Fourteenth Corps, presenting a solid wall beyond which he could not advance. Six times in less than one hour he tried in vain to break the line. He partially succeeded the last time, but the undismayed men of the Fourteenth instantly rallied, furiously charged him in turn, and sent him flying from the field. It was a hot fight, and so close that many of the Confederate dead lay within the Union lines. Nathan says the men around him were ‘simply mowed down,’ but once more he passed through the showers of bullets without being harmed. Other divisions of Sherman’s army now came up, and Johnston concluded the proper thing for him was to retreat. Slocum’s loss was serious, but Johnston’s was nearly twice as heavy.

“Though battles are exciting, and always more or less dangerous to corporeity and life, yet the long and tiresome marches, in the hot sun, or in rain, often over dustry, sandy or muddy roads, were sometimes about as hard to endure. Nathan says his command marched thirty-five miles one day, then before the men had time to get settled in camp the enemy came upon them and forced them back over the same ground, and they did not stop moving until the next morning, when they were about ready to fall over from sheer exhaustion. Often, however, the soldiers have lots of merriment on their marches, as well as when in camp, as every battalion has its irrepressible wags and jokers, ever ready with some ludicrous speech, or to view grave matters in a farcial way, and this often serves to rally their spirits and maintain their fortitude. There is always something turning up to make sport over, to stir up their wits, promote good cheer, excite interest in their movements and surroundings, and to keep them on the alert. Incidents daily occur, in almost every soldier’s life, that would adorn a tale, point a moral, excite sympathy, provoke laughter, or elicit admiration, if rightly told. Once Nathan went out on a foraging raid by himself, at a time when such liberty was not approved, and he came across a little pig, nice and fat, that he seized as contraband of war and tried to smuggle into camp without being seen by the officers. He was caught in the act, however, and for his defiant misdemeanor he was compelled for a while to carry the pig back and forth in front of the commander’s tent, and then—more mortifying than all—he was obliged to surrender the pig. He would not have minded the carrying part of the penalty, if he only had not been deprived of his nice little fat pig. At another time, when he craved a change of diet, he quietly stole from the ranks when on a march to visit a house not far from the line, where he thought himself very fortunate to find a nicely baked cake, a luxury not on the list of army rations. When he returned to his company he shared the tempting sustenance with two of his comrades. Results—his comrades died, and he got ‘awfully sick.’ Moral—don't always trust to pleasing appearances. Lesson—obey orders.

“A good pair of willing legs sometimes is a blessing to a soldier, and inattention to orders may cause serious trouble. Once when the boy was out on the skirmish line a call was sounded that he mistook for a summons of another sort, and that led him to move in the wrong direction. The mistake resulted in his walking right up to a body of Confederates. Seeing his predicament, he wheeled about and made a desperate scud to get back to congenial company. A number of bullets whizzed past him, but he got back whole—as bullets don’t hurt unless they hit you. He thinks his legs never performed their duty in better time. And he paid closer attention to calls after this affair.

“No impression remains more vivid in Nathan's mind than the closing scene of the war, of which it was his good fortune to be a witness. He will never forget how jubilant they all felt and the excitement that followed when the word was passed along the lines that both Lee and Johnston had surrendered, and that the cruel war was at last ended. The men were forbidden to fire off their guns or discharge the field pieces, but a command might as well have been given to the wind to stop blowing. For the next hour the noise made by the defenders of Old Glory was simply terrific. The glorious sunshine of Peace had at last broken through the black cloud of Civil War, and they could not refrain from giving the loudest possible expression to the joy, the overwhelming delight, that now filled their hearts. The whole army was frenzied with excitement. The noise presently subsided, but the rapturous joy that had for a moment overflowed abides to this day in the soul of every survivor who fought to preserve the Union. Preparations immediately followed to march to Washington, where they were to be reviewed by the President and his Cabinet, and then disbanded. Nathan, now past the noon of life, thus in a few touching words referred to their reception at the metropolis of the nation by the great and grateful multidude on the bright day of the review. ‘We arrived in Washington tired, ragged and dirty, but Oh! how we were cheered and cheered and cheered by the people as we marched by. It is a pleasant memory yet, to think of those hearty and tumultuous cheers, the bright faces, and the flags, that everywhere lined the avenues, and the cordial welcome we all received.’ ” (from Heinrich Gernhardt and His Descendants, pp. 294-299).

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