Wiped Out at Guntown: a private's view of Brice's Crossroads
Amidst the chaos of the collapsing Federal position at Brice's Crossroads, Private Frank B. Curtis of the 95th Illinois Infantry found himself tasked with carrying off his wounded colonel, Thomas W. Humphrey. The man was dying. " I carried the colonel about half a mile before I got a stretcher to put him on. He died in our arms; all he said after I got charge of him was ‘Oh, my poor wife and children. I love you all, boys. It is only weakness. Oh, my God!’ I asked him if he had any word to leave before he died but he never spoke another word. I took his watch and gave it to the adjutant, and saved his coat containing his diary and letters. I shall never forget the look the Colonel gave me when he was breathing his last."
Private Curtis had only been with the 95th Illinois for a few months and already he had two campaigns under his belt. The 33 year old New York City native had been working as a farmer near Spring, Illinois when he chose to enlist in Co. B of the 95th Illinois on January 14, 1864 and soon was in action. In early June, he wrote the following letter to his wife back home in Illinois, haunted by the experiences of battle at Guntown, Mississippi and depressed at the misfortunes of his regiment.
did not know the object of the expedition until we got to Ripley, Mississippi in
the northwestern part of the state. Here we learned the object was to go to
Baldwyn on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad and destroy the road running through
that place in order to keep Forrest from running supplies from Mobile to
Corinth. But Forrest nipped all such movements in the bud. We reached Ripley on
the 7th of June, our marches being very slow on account of the
condition of the roads. It rained every day but one while we were gone. On the
9th, we started from Ripley pretty early in the morning but did not
march more than 10 miles, the most we marched on any day on our way out until
the 10th when we marched 20 miles.
|Relics from the battlefield including a bent Enfield bayonet, a mule shoe, a stirrup, and a pocket watch.|
(Brice's Crossroads Visitor Center)
On the 10th, we broke camp about 5 o’clock in the morning and started for Baldwyn with the intention of making that place before night. After we had gone about 15 miles, orders came back from General Sturgis, who was five miles in the advance with the cavalry, for us to come on with the infantry with all possible haste for there was fun ahead. The day was intensely hot. Our brigade commander used no discretion and commenced double quacking his men instead of taking the common pace and keeping them a little fresh when they had to go into the fight. He rushed his men on and they fell out by the scores, sunstruck and overcome by the heat. In the regiment ahead of us, over 200 men fell out of the ranks. Out of that number, 20 of them went to their long homes. Words could not describe my feelings as I saw the boys drop out of Co. B one after another until we had only twelve men left. Some of our stoutest and bravest men had fallen out. Conkey and Fred Morley, poor fellows, held out to the last moment and could stand it no longer then dropped out along the side of the road. I did no see Fred Morley again until I saw him at Ripley the next morning. I met Conkey waddling along the road seven miles on the other side of Ripley the next morning more dead than alive. But they both got back to Memphis safe and well with the exception that Conkey had very sore feet walking from Ripley to Collierville, a distance of 60 miles, on his bare feet.
|Captain Elliott N. Bush|
Co. G, 95th Illinois
Killed in action June 10, 1864
After we reached the battlefield, General Sturgis, who had command of the expedition, ordered our brigade right into the fight, not giving us a moment’s rest. His orders were to go in and hold this field at all hazards, even at the point of the bayonet. The whole regiment heard him give the orders. We went down a hill through the brush into a clear field and formed the regiment into line behind a rail fence. Companies A and B were ordered over the fence into the brush as skirmishers, Co. B going out with only 14 guns, two of our men having come up that had fallen out. We had not moved from the fence more than five rods when a shower of bullets, thicker than hail, was poured into us. I was at the extreme left of the company; we were deployed about five paces apart. Joseph Sweetapple was the next man to me and I had just advanced about three steps in front of Joe to get a better sight of the Rebs when Joe was hit in the thigh with a bullet, making a bad gash, but not touching the bone. He got back without any assistance. This brought me next to [Sergeant Stephen Albert, “Al”] Rollins. We kept on advancing and Rollins and I got behind a tree and if one ball hit that tree, a hundred hit it. I was taking a squint from behind the tree and had a ball pass right through my whiskers. I think Al Rollins was hit in the hand at the same time. We were both taking aim and fired into the Rebel ranks together and as soon as he fired, he started and ran back and acted the same as all the wounded men do. This caused me to think he was wounded when behind the tree.
|"Rollins and I got behind a tree and if one ball hit that tree, a hundred hit it," Curtis wrote. "I was taking a squint from behind the tree and had a ball pass right through my whiskers."|
I remained out in the brush with the company until Colonel Humphrey ordered us to fall back. You may be sure I was glad when he called us in for I do believe that if we remained out as skirmishers 15 minutes longer, we would not have had a man left as the Rebs had a crossfire on us and we were catching it on all sides. The Rebs were formed in line at the bottom of a hill with a much heavier force than ours. Our skirmishers advanced to the brow of the hill which gave them an excellent chance to fire on us and a much better chance for us to fire on them. I took dead aim at them and that was almost useless for the shooter could barely miss them. But when I saw our boys falling, it made me mad and I was bound to send some of the hell hounds to their long homes.
|Map depicting the Battle of Brice's Crossroads reproduced from my book Sherman's Praetorian Guard published in 2017. The 95th Illinois took position near the Federal center, facing off against dismounted Kentucky cavalrymen and mounted infantry. The retreat from Brice's Crossroads was covered by the 72nd Ohio, along with the 55th and 59th U.S. Colored Troops. (Map by Hal Jespersen)|
When our company fell back behind the fence, I saw two men lying on the ground back of Co. K as if dead. I did not know who they were until Jerry Fitzmorris came down to me and wanted me to help get Al Rollins off the field. This was the first I knowed of Al being shot the second time. He was hit in the stomach while getting over the fence. I let him lay for about 15 minutes and poured water out of my canteen on his wounds. The Rebels began to advance upon our lines and the Adjutant [Wales Wood] ordered us to take him off the field. Rollins then told me to go and see Colonel Humphrey and get him to let me have three or four men to help me carry him off the field, but when I got to the small road running through the woods, I met our adjutant. He told me the colonel was wounded and wanted me to take charge of him until I got him to some place where he could get relief. He said he could do nothing himself as he was so overcome with heat. Before I got the colonel halfway to the hospital, I got three men out of the 81st Illinois to help me carry him out of the woods on to the main road. I forgot to tell you I asked the adjutant to give me three men to help carry Rollins off the field. I was then about 40 rods from Rollins, but the adjutant told me not to go back for he had heard orders given for all of our men to get out of the woods for our batteries on the hill were going to throw grape and canister all through the woods. So, I had to leave Rollins to his fate. [Rollins died of his wounds that afternoon.]
|Colonel Thomas W. Humphrey|
I carried the colonel about half a mile before I got a stretcher to put him on. He died in our arms; all he said after I got charge of him was ‘Oh, my poor wife and children. I love you all, boys. It is only weakness. Oh, my God!’ These are all the words he said after I took charge of him. I asked him if he had any word to leave before he died but he never spoke another word. I took his watch and gave it to the adjutant, and saved his coat containing his diary and letters. I shall never forget the look the Colonel gave me when he was breathing his last.
Our loss in killed, wounded, and missing is 82 men. We had a very narrow escape from being captured. They flanked us and got on three sides of us, firing as a crossfire, mowing our men down. May God spare me from ever getting into such another hot nest. We all thought we had a hard time up Red River, but it was nothing in comparison to this trip.
After we got wiped out at Guntown, we retreated to Ripley, a distance of 20 miles, reached there at 7 the next morning. There was not 10 men of any regiment together; half then men threw away their guns but the men were not to blame for we all fought until our ammunition was run out, and no means of getting any more. If the Rebels had worked their plans right, they might have taken the whole army prisoners. The Rebs followed us into Ripley and attacked our forces early the next morning. They took the 81st Illinois prisoners and part of the 120th and half a brigade of Negroes. Our regiment started off in company with another brigade commanded by the colonel of the 9th Minnesota [Alexander Wilkin]. He took us through woods, across fields, over little byroads, through swamps, in fact, we went every way we could to avoid the Rebs. Our cavalry ran away from us so that we did not know whether the Rebs were in our front or rear. We had no artillery with us in our march from Ripley. We left eight pieces on the road stuck in the mud, two pieces were taken from us, besides of whole train loaded with hardtack, sugar, and sowbelly, and all our ammunition. We marched over 100 miles in three days, three-fourths of the army not having a mouthful to eat for the whole distance. I will say no more, for it makes me shudder to think of it.
Post a Comment