"Your friend, Washington Gardner": excerpts of Civil War letters.
--Washington Gardner, April 19, 1863
To commemorate the centennial of Michigan History magazine, we will be reprinting a series of articles that were originally published in the magazine's first volumes 100 years ago. Written in the style of 1917, the articles will be edited for length, style, and clarity. We hope our readers will enjoy exploring Michigan History's fascinating past!
In 1861, 16-year-old Washington Gardner was mustered into the United States Army for service during the American Civil War. He served more than three years in the ranks, participating in some of the bloodiest campaigns and battles of the war. In May 1864, he was severely wounded in battle but survived.
Gardner became one of the best-known surviving veterans of the Civil War in Michigan. Following his return from the war, he attended Hillsdale College and, later, the Albany Law School in New York. He subsequently worked as a lawyer in Grand Rapids and a professor at Albion College. After serving as Michigan's secretary of state from 1894 to 1898, Gardner was elected to the U.S. Congress and served there until 1911. Later, he was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The following letters were written by Gardner during his years of service in the war. Addressed to a childhood friend in Ohio, the letters express the observations and experiences of one of the "nameless rank and file" who made up the great body of the army that preserved the United States.
March 21, 1863 -- Near Murfreesboro, Tennessee
"As I was thinking this evening of my old friends and acquaintances in Ohio you were among the number...You may not know that I belong to [Company D of the 65th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment]... We are camped on the west side of Stone's river. The camp ground overlooks the battle field which was a fearful one. At least I think so. Our regiment lost in that battle nearly two hundred in killed and wounded. I had a brother who commanded our company badly wounded. He was shot through the body; he fell on his face and his sword dropped from his hand. We all thought he was killed, but he is recovering. I had only my blouse cut by a bullet. Quite a number of us went out on the battle field today and repaired the graves of the brave boys who fell in our regiment. We built a rail fence around the graves and planted some young cedar trees, had a short but appropriate sermon by the chaplain and then returned to camp."
May 30, 1863 -- Near Murfreesboro, Tennessee
"...We are waiting with great anxiety to hear the final news from Vixburg [sic]. We have heard many conflicting rumors during the last few days but nothing reliable as to the capture of that stronghold. But I hope before you read these lines the glad news of the rebel army at that point being taken may have reached your ears. No doubt there has been much hard fighting at that place and that many men have sealed their patriotism with their blood. Many a home circle has been broken, many a loving mother called to mourn the loss of a son. I have two brothers in Grant's Army; one a captain in the 29th Iowa and the other a sergeant in the 24th Iowa volunteers. I suppose they have both been in the late battles about Vicksburg but I sincerely hope they may have escaped the bullets of the enemy..."
October 15, 1863 -- Chattanooga, Tennessee
"...For more than a month now we have been in the midst of exciting events, having something to do with the enemy almost every day. On the 19th and 20th of last month was fought out along the Chickamauga one of the bloodiest battles of the war...Here indeed was war with all its horrors. To see our comrades who had become as a band of brothers some in the prime of life some approaching young manhood and fighting in a holy cause shot down by a traitorous foe, some killed instantly, others frightfully wounded, left where they fell to suffer and perhaps die of neglect on the field. Such is war. The battle lasted two days and our regiment lost heavily. A number whom you knew in Company D were killed or wounded. I had my bayonet scabbard cut in two by a bullet but I escaped unhurt. My brother, captain of our company, who was so badly hurt at Stone river was again shot through the body. Latest reports are that he will probably live."
November 14, 1863 -- Chattanooga, Tennessee
"...I witnessed a painful sight this afternoon--the shooting of two federal soldiers...The men had been tried for desertion, found guilty and sentenced to be shot...About one P.M. a solemn procession composed of two details of infantry, one in front of the prisoners and one in the rear, marched into the inclosure [sic]... General Sheridan and staff were present. All were mounted and all in full uniform. The General had a broad yellow sash over his shoulder drawn across his breast and down under his sword belt. He sat motionless upon his big black horse which stood just a little in front of the other horsemen.
When the procession arrived at the open side of the square it was halted, the coffins were placed upon the ground, when the prisoners knelt and the chaplain prayed. They then arose, apparently very calm, and sat erect each upon his coffin. A bandage was then bound over the eyes of each. A platoon of soldiers with loaded rifles stood a few paces in front. There was a strange silence for a moment and then the voice of command rang out: 'Ready!' 'Aim!' 'Fire!' And each of the prisoners fell back over his coffin, dead. It was hard to see men thus killed by their own comrades but you have no idea how many have deserted, encouraged by friends at home to do the disgraceful act. Sad as the scene this afternoon was, it will have a wholesome effect upon the whole division."
December 25, 1863 -- Knoxville, Tennessee
"...This being Christmas evening I thought I would enjoy myself in the best way I could, as it is an old saying that 'Christmas comes but once a year'...We hope before the winter holidays of another year may come our country may be blessed with peace and our nation reunited, happy and prosperous as it once was. We hope the day is not far distant when we shall be permitted to return to our peaceful homes and enjoy the pleasure of meeting with our long absent but not forgotten friends..."
April 1, 1864 -- Loudon, Tennessee
"...It is dark, rainy and dreary. I suppose your town is as gay and lively as if no cruel war was being waged in our land. You cannot picture the desolation that exists where the armies have passed through the country and there is hardly a road or by-way in this section that has not been traversed by one or both armies. One can travel for miles and not see a fence and but here and there a house. Often can be seen the black towering chimney standing as a lone monument to mark the spot where once lived in peace and plenty some prosperous family; today house, barns, fences, stock, chickens, everything gone and the fields stripped and growing up to weeds and bushes. The husband and father, or it may be the sons or both in the army and the wife and children driven before the armies from place to place wanderers and homeless on the face of the earth. I cannot look upon these scenes so common in this section and contrast them with conditions in the north without thinking how little our people know of the horrors of war."
June 3, 1864 -- Nashville, Tennessee
"...Of course you have read accounts of the recent operations of our army under command of General Sherman; of the advance upon the enemy in Georgia, fighting and defeating them in numerous engagements and compelling them to repeatedly fall back toward Atlanta. As you may judge, this was not accomplished without considerable hard fighting, and where two large armies meet in deadly conflict a great many must get hurt or, in military terms, 'killed or wounded.' Among the latter was your correspondent. I was hit on Saturday afternoon May 14th near a little town in Northern Georgia, called Resaca. My wound was at first very painful. I was carried back from the line and taken to the field hospital where my wound was dressed and it felt much better. After the enemy retreated I, with many other wounded, was taken to Resaca where we were laid in empty freight cars and started for Chattanooga...
I remained in hospital in Chattanooga until the 30th and was then brought here where we arrived on the evening of the 31st. I am now in Hospital No. 8 which was formerly the first Presbyterian church. It is a large building. There are about one hundred and fifty in the main room and gallery besides those in the basement. Every thing is neat and clean and nearly all the wounded seem to be improving. As for myself, am doing much better than I expected. At first the doctors thought they would have to cut my leg off but now they think they can save it..."
October 15, 1864 -- Nashville, Tennessee
"...My time as a soldier will expire on the 27th this month and then hurrah for 'the land of the free and the home of the brave!' I shall then very likely leave this south land for the last time and it will be with joy mingled with sorrow. It will be pleasant to leave this land where there is so much of misery and suffering, to be once more where one can roam without restraint and to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of home, but it makes me sad to think of returning with so few of my comrades out of so many who came away.
There is hardly a battle field on which our regiment has fought that does not hold the remains of some dear friend who died for his country, while National cemeteries have their share of those who have died in hospital, not less brave than those killed in battle, where every soldier prefers to die, if die he must. This is probably my last letter to you from 'Dixie.' Next week I expect to go to Chattanooga to be mustered out but will likely not get home before the tenth of next month."
Washington Gardner was a Civil War veteran who later served as a college professor, military commander, and politician from the state of Michigan.
Caption: Previous page: Washington Gardner photographed in the early twentieth century, during his time as a Michigan politician. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-B2-5407-10.) Above: Sixteen-year-old Washington Gardner pictured as a private of the 65th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in 1861. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Michigan.)
Caption: Gardner saw his first major action during the Battle of Chickamauga, fought in September 1863. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-1762)
Caption: Gardner was badly wounded by a bullet during the Battle of Resaca, fought in May 1864. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-1762.
Caption: Gardner at Arlington Cemetery while serving as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1914. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-F81-44325.)
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|Title Annotation:||from Michigan History Magazine, 1917|
|Publication:||Michigan History Magazine|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2017|
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