Fate of Battle: Martin Beem and the Battle of Shiloh

    At the outbreak of the war, Martin Beem was working as a printer’s apprentice at the office of the Alton Telegraph in Alton, Illinois. Born November 14, 1845 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he moved to Alton with his family shortly thereafter and studied in the public schools before embarking on his profession. Upon President Lincoln’s first call for troops in April 1861, the 15-year-old tried to enlist with an Illinois regiment but was rejected due his age. Martin was not to be deterred so easily; he slipped across the Mississippi River and went to St. Louis where he lied about his age and joined the 4th Missouri Volunteer Infantry in the three months’ service. Following the conclusion of that term of service, he enlisted on September 6, 1861 as a Corporal in Co. C of the 13th Missouri Volunteers, and served with that regiment through the remainder of his service.

It was Martin’s heroic actions at the Battle of Shiloh that gained much notice for him, including by Chaplain Jesse B. Davis of the 7th Illinois who described what occurred on the second day of the battle. “I made the acquaintance of this estimable youth at Cairo last summer during the three months’ service when he was a messmate with my son in the 4th Missouri,” Davis wrote. “Early on Monday morning, the color bearer of the 13th Missouri fell mortally wounded, but before the colors touched the ground, they were caught up by young Beem and carried forward in the face of a destructive fire a distance of more than 100 yards where they were planted by his own hands upon a caisson which had just been abandoned by the Rebels and where, without any apparent trepidation, the gallant youth waited for his regiment to come up which was done with deafening cheers by the men who seemed all aglow with the admiration of his gallant conduct. He carried the colors for the remainder of the battle and kept them until the close of the drama, consistently and defiantly waving at the enemy. These facts I obtained from officers of high position in his regiment and from sources equally worthy of confidence. I learn that application will be made to Governor Gamble to advance him to the rank of a commissioned officer.” [1]

          In the aftermath of Shiloh, Martin Beem wrote a letter home describing what he experienced in those two days of combat. His regiment was attached to General John McArthur’s Second Brigade of General William H.L. Wallace’s Second Division. The 13th Missouri lost 10 men killed and 67 wounded at Shiloh.


Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee

April 8, 1862 [2]

          Early Sunday morning, a brisk cannonading commenced near our outer lines, but for a long time we knew nothing of what was going on, thinking it was the artillery practicing as usual and not for a moment expecting an attack. The long roll soon banished our doubts. The battalions were all formed and marched to the scene of the action where they engaged the enemy from the rising of the sun even unto the setting down of the same and it was then that the fate of the battle was decided.

          By some strategy, which has not yet been fully accounted for, the enemy got within our lines in full force directly in the camps of three Ohio regiments [a reference to Jesse Hildebrand’s brigade of the 53rd, 57th, and 77th Ohio regiments], completely surprising them, and killing their field officers while vainly endeavoring to rally their frightened men. These regiments created almost a panic among the rest of the troops, but our batteries advanced and like brave men fought well but they were overwhelmed and gradually retired with the rest of the troops from one position to another, fully contesting every inch of ground. By noon, almost every regiment on the field had been engaged and cut up and scattered to more or less extent; and when fresh troops were most in need, we had none, while the enemy pitted fresh troops against us.

          By night when the battle was to be decided, when we all expected a total defeat but firmly resolved to die fighting, our dropping hearts were cheered by the sound of distant music and the information that Buell had just arrived with 20,000 of his advance. Such a cheer as rent the heavens will never again be heard in the forests of Tennessee! Our batteries were worked with renewed vigor, and the infantry, inspired with fresh courage, steadily advanced and drove the enemy back on every point until the darkness put an end temporarily to active hostilities.  We slept on the field on our arms, our pickets extending over the ground so lately occupied by the Rebels. Nothing was done during the night worthy of notice. Our batteries sent their compliments every 15 minutes to the enemy to remind them that we were opposed to their planting their cannon or otherwise managing their domestic institutions in their own way.

Early the next morning, the ball opened by a brisk fight from the artillery after which the infantry moved simultaneously with Wallace on our right, Rousseau on our left, and Sherman in the center, driving the enemy from their lairs until we had them outside of our lines when they took their position in an elevated field. They were then attacked by Rousseau’s men who succeeded in driving them a short distance when, his ammunition failing, he was compelled to retire until new reinforcements arrived. Then the tug of war commenced- the enemy bringing one division after another until the center alone covered three miles of ground. Volley after volley and roar upon roar of artillery and musketry were sent with them until the air seemed to be one dense cloud and a continued thunder reverberating in the heavens. A little over four hours’ hard fighting compelled the Rebels to yield and commenced their retreat, which they conducted in good order being strongly covered in their rear with artillery.

Regimental colors of the 13th Regiment of Missouri Volunteers; this early war flag was carried at Shiloh (perhaps by Martin Beem) and was replaced later in 1862 by a flag designating the regiment the 22nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. (Ohio History Connection)

A brief notice of our regiment (13th Missouri) would not be inappropriate perhaps. Early, say 6 o’clock, it was formed and ready to move which it did soon after, taking its position near the scene of action in a ravine. It soon advanced and engaged the enemy for some two hours, fighting like veterans, and were on the point of taking a Rebel battery when it was discovered that it was a ruse of the enemy to outflank us, but being detected in time, the Colonel ordered us to fall back. Unfortunately, at this moment, a ball struck our lieutenant colonel who fell from his horse mortally wounded. The men, hearing it was the colonel (Colonel Crafts J. Wright, in whom they had implicit faith and confidence), got confused and fell back in disorder. The enemy, taking advantage of it, poured in deadly volleys, causing the regiment to suffer seriously. They again rallied and advanced. The Major, in an endeavor to lead on the men, was struck by a ball, knocking him completely out of the saddle. He was taken from the field and his wounds dressed. On they advanced and retreated alternately. A ball struck the adjutant’s horse which felled him to the ground, falling on the adjutant’s leg and injuring it so as to compel him to retire from the field. Thus, you see, we had but one staff officer on the field and if that one had fallen, the 13th would have ceased to be.

Night found us laying flat on the ground near the edge of a field exposed in a heavy cannonading from the enemy who found that we were in the woods and began to pour in shot and shrapnel, grape and canister, which playing such fantastic tricks around our heads as to make it rather uncomfortable. Darkness put and end to the fun and we lay there all night enjoying nature’s sweet restorer with our eyes wide open- the rain falling in such torrents as to do away with all sleep in the open air. The next morning, our division under Sherman, was moved forward some three miles where we formed behind some artillery which soon opened on the Rebels who quickly replied sending huge masses of shell, canister, and grape, some not missing our head by more than 12 inches. Curious sensations one feels when he hears them hum so closely and don’t know which way to dodge, for fear of running his head against it!

We moved into the field about 11 o’clock and fought valiantly until relieved by [the rest of] McArthur’s brigade. Scarcely five rounds had been fired when, for some mysterious reason, our regiment fell back 50 yards, leaving some eight or twelve men there with the colors. Unfortunately, a ball struck our brave color sergeant, knocking him down very hard, and the colors out of his hand. They were instantly seized by a member of Co. C [Martin Beem himself] who took them in his hand, and turning to the regiment, asked them to follow, marched forward alone, and planted the colors on an embankment in the face of the enemy’s fire. The regiment, witnessing this, gallantly rallied and soon formed, but feeling inclined to go back rather than forward, hesitated. The colors were taken up again and moved all alone and planted some 300 yards in the advance on a caisson just deserted by the enemy. This encouraged the regiment who again came to the aid and fought there until their ammunition was gone, then retired in good order, the colors waving defiantly all the time. The conduct of this color bearer elicited the universal applause of the regiment, who poured in his ears more congratulations than he desired, he being naturally somewhat modest. He was in the thickest of the fight but through the intervention of kind Providence, not a hair of his head was touched while one of the color guard received four shots through his clothes.

The 7th Illinois lost 30 killed but no Alton boys. Reverend Mr. Davis of Alton preached the funeral ceremonies over eleven of this regiment who were laid side by side in a hole. I witnessed the service, and it was truly impressive.

 

The Federal situation in the afternoon and evening of April 6, 1862. (Map courtesy of Hal Jespersen at www.cwmaps.com)

The story of Martin Beem is one of a meteoric rise and a sad ending. Already a sergeant by the time of Shiloh, he was commissioned a second lieutenant May 1, 1862 and suffered a severe wound at the Battle of Corinth in October 1862. By then, the 13th Missouri had been redesignated as the 22nd Ohio Infantry, most of the troops being Ohioans. Lieutenant Beem was promoted to first lieutenant on November 30, 1862 but never recovered fully from his Corinth wound, and discharged for disability on October 21, 1863.

After the war, he traveled extensively around the world, visiting “the West Indies, central America, Mexico, and Montana,” then landed in Washington, D.C. and took a job as a reporter. He stumped for Ulysses S. Grant in Arkansas during the 1868 Presidential Campaign, studied law, and entered into law practice in Chicago in 1870. Beem, known as General Beem due to his involvement with the Illinois State Militia, became a prominent and well-connected attorney, was the first president of the Chicago Union Veteran Club, a Mason, a member of the G.A.R., and of the county Board of Education.

Reading the accounts of his demise in 1888, one suspects that he suffered from post-traumatic stress from his experiences in the Civil War. A wartime friend noted Martin’s “patriotism, bravery, honesty, and ability,” also citing his “cool, energetic fighting and the honest, faithful, persistent, and intelligent discharge of duty.” [3] But an obituary published by the Society of the Army of the Tennessee stated “he was of a peculiarly nervous temperament and so eccentric as to defy any correct insight into his personal characteristics, business relations, or family affairs.” [4]

On October 20, 1880, General Beem married 20-year-old Lula Stoughton “Lucy” Case of Neenah, Wisconsin and there his troubles began to catch up with him. He first met Lula at the Grant reception in Chicago and it was “a case of love at first sight.” Lula was apparently a looker, “a beautiful and vivacious woman and fond of the attention that is naturally lavished on her,” a family friend noted. Lula was also talented, ambitious, and possessed some wealth of her own. General Beem’s health was poor; he had suffered for years with chronic inflammation of the bowels as a consequence of his wartime service, and as a result, he did not pay proper attention to his business interests and ran into money troubles. Matters were not helped when Lula attracted the attentions of a Milwaukee attorney named Sutherland [possibly George Eaton Sutherland] who lavished her with letters and attention while Beem, “fond of books and not of society,” worried himself sick that his marriage was falling apart. A friend of Lula’s commented that she suspected that her husband was becoming insane. “The General was in her opinion, at times, insane and cited instances of actions of which a person of sound mind would never be suspected. Mrs. Beem further advised that she was about to apply for divorce on these and other grounds,” it being clear that “anything but a happy matrimonial life was being lived.” [5]

Gus Case, Lula’s brother, reported that General Beem was at times violent and had a bad temper. “My sister told me he choked her once and kicked her at another time,” he told a reporter after Beem’s death. “I saw him take a book from her in Chicago and throw it out of the window because he did not like the book. He got crazy mad and threw a dozen more books out. He had a violent temper. She told me that he had said he would shoot Sutherland, her lawyer, on sight.” Lula’s mother said the cause of the trouble was financial: Beem wanted control of Lula’s money so that he could pay off some debts. When she refused, he kicked her. “He was badly involved. His strange actions led me to think he intended to take her life. He had always said that they should go together,” she commented. [6]

The end came on May 1, 1888. Lula had traveled to Stanton, Nebraska to visit her parents’ ranch a few weeks earlier and General Beem followed, arriving on April 28th. “He asked for a revolver the first day after his arrival for the purpose of shooting wildcats,” his mother-in-law reported. “He spent his time wandering about the farm and got worse daily.” His father-in-law D.C. Case said that Beem was more talkative that day, “his eyes looked big and wild. He seemed to be nervous.” [7] After lunch, the General and his wife retired to the bedroom to take a nap. Lula went to sleep in the bed; the General sat in a chair nearby reading. She was awoken by her husband waving a revolver. “The first thing she saw was the General’s face in front of her bearing a horrible look. She heard him say once more that he was shoot two different men at sight,” D.C. Case reported. The General then turned the gun on himself and fired two shots, the first striking the ceiling, the second of which penetrated his heart. He died within moments.

An inquest was held in Stanton which returned the verdict that Been died “from hands unknown,” and suggested that it was suicide. “It is probable that the true key to the beginning and the end of this tragedy lies in the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Beem were not happy in their relation as man and wife and this fact discouraged and unmanned him,” it was reported. “In a fit of despondency, he secured the revolver.”[8] Lula accompanied the body of her deceased husband back to his family in Alton, Illinois, but met with a frosty reception. “The father and sisters of the dead man were not satisfied with the verdict of the coroner’s jury at Stanton and this dissatisfaction was increased by the conflicting stories and strange conduct of Mrs. Beem during her brief stay at their home,” it was reported. [9] The General was buried at Alton Cemetery but was exhumed on May 10th and examined once again. The Beem family had requested this second inquest into General Beem’s death including an examination of his rapidly decomposing body. Dr. William A. Haskell performed his grisly duty and reported that he “found a penetrating gunshot wound, the ball entering the sternum between the third and fourth ribs passing through the right auricle of the heart and through the base of the aorta. I found no trace of the ball. There is no wound of exit. The wound in the sternum and through the heart is the only indication of the size of the ball and in my opinion the ball was not larger than a .38 caliber,” it was reported.[10]

It appears that the Beem family suspected that Lula murdered her husband, but the evidence was lacking to make a formal charge. Matters looked ever darker when General Beem’s last will and testament was discovered in Chicago, a will that contained a memorandum made out the day before he traveled to Nebraska. “I want my wife to have only what is permitted by the law,” he directed. “I want the rest of the estate to go to my sisters in Alton, Illinois in equal parts after the payment of my debts. I want to be buried in Alton by the side of my mother and brothers and especially request that my funeral be strictly private, none but the family relations and such family friends as may be necessary to help bury me. I want no parade of any kind,” Beem wrote.

“I want Mr. Charles P. Sawyer and E.S. McComas to make a rigid investigation into the manner of my death so that if I have been poisoned or foully dealt with, to prosecute any parties that may be implicated. My troubles make me suspicious and may be without cause. Yet a letter sent to my office by a boy near the closing paragraph may guide you to whom I have apprehension of most danger. I have written her if she wants to be free, I would sever an artery or kill myself, but this was only a few days ago and I said it solely for effect. I have no such purpose and never dreamed it. I have others to live for, to say nothing of a soldierly duty to discharge. I fear poison more than anything else,” Beem wrote. As can be imagined, Beem’s memorandum, once published, raised a furor in both Chicago and Alton but ultimately the cause of his death remained unclear; did the General commit suicide, broken in body and spirit, saddled with debts and suspecting infidelity, or was he murdered by his wife or her family? [11]

“We can only leave his faults, and his sorrows and troubles such as they were in the hands of Him from whom no secrets are ever hid,” concluded his comrades in the Army of the Tennessee.



[1] “Letter from Tennessee,” letter from Chaplain Jesse B. Davis, Alton Telegraph (Illinois), May 9, 1862, pg. 2

[2] “From Pittsburg Landing,” Letter from Martin Beem, Alton Telegraph (Illinois), April 25, 1862, pg. 2

[3] Letter from George F. Allen to General John A. Rawlins dated April 8, 1869

[4] Report of the Proceedings of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee at Toledo, Ohio September 5th and 6th, 1888, pg. 179

[5] “Looking for the Cause,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), May 4, 1888, pg. 1

[6] “A Talk with the Case Family,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), May 11, 1888, pg. 2

[7] Ibid.

[8] “From Hands Unknown,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), May 4, 1888, pg. 1

[9] “The Death of Gen. Beem,” Blackfoot News (Idaho), June 2, 1888, pg. 2

[10] “Inquest on the Body of Gen. Beem,” Alton Evening Telegraph (Illinois), May 10, 1888, pg. 3

[11] “Death of Gen. Beem,” op. cit.

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