Taking New Madrid: A View from the 10th Illinois

    Today's post features an account written by Theodore Wiseman, then serving as adjutant of the 10th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. During the time of the New Madrid operations, Wiseman was on detached service as the acting assistant adjutant general of the First Brigade, Fourth Division under the command of Colonel James D. Morgan, who was colonel of the 10th Illinois. Wiseman made a good fit in his new role; in April 1863, he was promoted to the rank of captain and transferred to the U.S. Army's Adjutant General's Department where he served for the remainder of the war.

    One of the interesting features of Wiseman's account was that it was written to Captain James S. Jackson of Co. G of the 22nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry; Jackson was back home in Illinois recuperating his health while his regiment and Wiseman's were engaged at New Madrid. Wiseman had served in Co. A of the 22nd Illinois for about eight months at the beginning of the war as first lieutenant before accepting a transfer over to the 10th Illinois in February 1862, so this letter was essentially one comrade keeping another comrade abreast of developments at the front.

    Wiseman's account was published on the third page of the March 27, 1862 edition of the Salem Weekly Advocate published in Salem, Illinois. The Ohio native settled in Missouri after the war and died of a stroke in 1915

As reported in Harper's Weekly, the Confederates used sacks of shelled corn as breastworks at New Madrid. Federal forces approached the town from the woods in the background in the dark of night, built trenches, and placed four heavy guns to shell Fort Thompson. After a long day exchanging cannon fire, the Confederates decided to abandon the town and under the cover of a heavy thunderstorm, slipped out without the Federals noticing. General Pope's men marched into town on the morning of March 14, 1862 after it was determined that the Rebels had left. 

Camp 2-1/2 miles from New Madrid, Missouri

March 14, 1862

Dear friend,

    The stars and stripes wave in triumph over another stronghold of the secession, namely New Madrid. It was evacuated last night by the Rebels. I will give you the history and causes of the evacuation by the Rebels as I am in full possession of the facts in relations to forces in the engagement, the time of the evacuation, and the causes.

    On Wednesday March 12th, General John Pope sent an order to Colonel James D. Morgan, commanding the First Brigade, Fourth Division,  to be ready to march with his command, composed of the 10th Illinois commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Tillson and the 16th Illinois commanded by Colonel Robert F. Smith. The brigade marched up to General Pope's headquarters at sunset. On our arrival, we noticed three 24-pdr siege guns and an 8-inch howitzer, capable of throwing a 48-lb shell. It was soon understood that the object of our being called out was the planting of those guns at some important point near New Madrid to command both the town and the river.

New Madrid lay at a bend of the Mississippi River; Fort Thompson lay just to the west of town.

    Our surmises proved correct for soon after dark (or sunset as it was a beautifully clear moonlit night) we started to a place about one mile west of the town and north of the fort [Fort Thompson], the fort bring about three-quarters of a mile below the town on the bank of the river. Here we were met by four companies of the 43rd Ohio who acted as advance and picket guard. They had driven in the outposts of the enemy that evening, killing four and wounding five or six. After passing the pickets, our men were supplied with spades and shovels, the order being given that no one should speak a word but the officers and they in an undertone. 

The 43rd and 63rd Ohio regiments marched in support of the two Illinois regiments. "The sky had clouded over and a man could not be distinguished at ten feet. The march was through continuous cornfields skirted on the right by woods. It was made as still and as rapid as could be. At 5:30, daylight began to lift the darkness around us, revealing a dense fog that completely hid us from the town. Before we were fairly in line, the sharp crack of musketry began to 5:45 and immediately our heavy guns opened upon the fort.  But the fog was so dense that the shots did little damage." ~member of 63rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

    We left the road and went direct south over a rise of ground until within 800 yards of the Rebel fortifications. The 10th Illinois here formed in line of battle and advanced slowly and cautiously towards the fort, the 16th remaining with muskets in one hand and shovels in the other until the 10th had crawled within 500 yards of the Rebel fortification. One of the Rebel pickets fired and ran, but our men did not return fire as it was strictly against orders to fire on the enemy's pickets. The 16th now came up with spades, the ground was laid off, and four hundred spades were throwing dirt faster than I ever expect to see thrown again. They worked one hour when the 10th relieved them, and the 16th guarded us for an hour and so on during the whole night and not a word spoken above a whisper.

    I never in my life saw men more willing to do all in their power to further the work. Everyone seemed to see the importance of it. Some time after daylight, four companies of engineers and one company of artillery arrived and they did their duty nobly. By daylight, we had our fortification completed sufficient for two regiments of infantry and rifle pits for two companies, one on each flank. On each flank of the main trench we mounted the siege guns, two on the right and one siege gun and the howitzer on the left. The Rebels no doubt were considerably surprised in the morning in place of being roused from their slumbers by "reveille" to instead be routed by the booming of our cannon and the loud hissing sound of the shells as they dashed in the midst of them. It was not many minutes when they bid us good morning with a 6-inch shell by way of an interlude. In less than ten minutes, the ball fairly commenced on both sides. The Rebels had two gunboats and a revenue cutter, all of which chimed in. For some two hours the firing on both sides was really grand if I may be permitted to use the word, when it was somewhat ceased on both sides.

Lt. Col. John Tillson, 10th Illinois

    One of our 24-lb guns had been disabled by one of the Rebel 24-lb shots striking her near the muzzle, knocking out a large piece, killing two cannoneers and wounding five more. This was on the right flank of our trenches. The gunboats and the cutter shifted their position up the river as as to take us on the left flank, but they only succeeded partially as the bend in the river would not permit their getting completely on our flank. This was continued all day, the shells flying thick and fast about our heads. Our boys laid in their trenches like idle spectators as the distance between us was too great to make use of small arms. Every time a shell or ball would strike the trenches, the boys with spades would fill up the large furrows the shells would make. Something like 85 shells struck our little fortification during the day.

    Colonel Smith's companies occupied the rifle pits on our left. These pits were about as large as a common-sized dry goods box with a little piece cut out in the rear for a man to sit on. Every pit is just large enough for one man, he being protected by the earth thrown out of the pit. It is a queer-looking sight to go along the rear and see nothing but human heads and the barrels of rifles sticking out of the ground.

    A shell struck the earthwork and happened to explode just as it entered the bank, knocking out a whole wagon load of dirt; but the boys jumped up, took their shovels, and repaired the damage in less time than it takes to tell it. A shell exploded about five minutes afterwards about ten paces in Colonel Morgan's rear, one piece of it striking one of the 10th regiment's men in the thigh, bruising his leg some, but not seriously. This was the only one of the infantry that was injured except Captain Lindsay H. Carr of Co. H of the 10th who was killed the night before.

Major General James D. Morgan

    Colonel James D. Morgan of the 10th displayed a coolness and courage seldom witnessed. While shells and balls were flying thickest, he would pass along the ground, on the open ground, exposed to the enemy's fire and tell the men to keep up their courage, that they were seeing the time they had so often wished for. He never even availed himself of the trenches during the whole day, but by his cool and daring bravery instilled a spirit of courage into all and all who were with him on that day will bear me out in saying there is not a braver or more efficient officer in the service. I was with him during the while fight as my position required and I had a good opportunity for noticing all his actions.

"At 1:15 a.m. on March 14th we had one of the most terrific thunderstorms I ever witnessed. It seemed as if the water fell in streams. In about 20 minutes, the water broke through the embankment and came into the trenches in torrents, rising ten inches before all the men could be awaken and raised out. The ditch filled driving the men to stand in groups half bent over until daylight, most of the time in the rain." ~ member of 63rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

    For twelve long hours did the hail of iron continue and not until after sunset did the fire of the Rebels cease. Our guns disabled one of the Rebel gunboats, one ball hit the cutter in the bow, and a number of our shells exploded in the Rebel fortification, killing 28 men and wounding some 40 or so. One of our shells killed five and wounded 12. The men and officers having charge of the cannon displayed the greatest courage and skill; they proved themselves worthy of the noble cause for which they were fighting. At night one company from each regiment was detailed to advance as close as two hundred yards of the fort and remain there as pickets. Before getting quite that far, they discovered the Rebel pickets and opened fire. The morning before daylight we left, being relieved by two Indiana regiments [34th and 47th]  and the 10th Iowa, having been out of camp 36 hours without anything to eat but a hard cracker and a little salt meat, and no sleep for 48 hours.

2nd Lt. Guy W. Blanchard
Co. G, 10th Illinois Infantry

    After we had marched through mud and rain for about two miles, we heard a loud and long shout in the rear from the troops that had relieved us. Directly afterwards we were informed of the evacuation of the fort and town by the Rebels during the night. During the night we had noticed by flashes of lightning steamers going up the river, and many of us were satisfied that they had left, but some, however, thought they were receiving reinforcements from Island No. 10. But it proved that they had vamoosed the rank ala General Pillow, but they had left their cannon on the fortifications and spiked them.

The 47th Indiana were among the first Federal troops to enter New Madrid. "Several of the heavy cannon were dismounted; one piece had been broken by our shots, the rest were uninjured. Everything indicated that the enemy had fled in haste. We found the guns poorly spiked and there were three magazines full of ammunition. One of our shells felled their flag and they had cut down the staff as our gunners took delight in aiming at it. Several Rebel flags were found and plenty of canteens and knapsacks. We found one knapsack marked "Vermont-Second Regiment," perhaps captured at Bull Run." ~ Chaplain Samuel Sawyer, 47th Indiana Volunteer Infantry

    The 16th Illinois has one of the Rebel flags and the 10th has another. The Rebels left quite a number of wagons, horses, and mules; it is a wonder they did not destroy everything. I suppose they made all possible haste in saving themselves. Jeff Thompson is supposed to have planned the retreat as he, like Pillow, is noted for giving the slip. Colonel [Joseph B.] Plummer [11th Missouri] is below here at Point Pleasant with heavy pieces of artillery and the Rebel boats cannot get up or down the river.

    The troops that built the trenches and held them were the 10th and 16th Illinois, one or two companies of regulars, several companies of the engineer corps, and the artillery men who attended the siege guns. All the officers and men are entitled to great praise by their fellow countrymen for their valor. Not a man flinched for a moment.

Theo. Wiseman, A.A.A. Gen., First Brigade, Fourth Division


Letter from Adjutant Theodore Wiseman, 10th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Salem Weekly Advocate (Illinois), March 27, 1862, pg. 3

Letter from "63rd," 63rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Marietta Home News (Ohio), March 21, 1862, pg. 3

Letter from Chaplain Samuel Sawyer, 47th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Indiana Herald (Indiana), April 2, 1862, pg. 1



Most Popular Posts

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

The Vaunted Enfield Rifle Musket

Straw Already Threshed: Sherman on Shiloh

Charging Battery Robinett: An Alabama Soldier Recalls the Vicious Fighting at Corinth

Federal Arms in the Chickamauga Campaign

The Legend of Leatherbreeches: Hubert Dilger in the Atlanta Campaign

In front of Atlanta with the 68th Ohio

A Fight for Corn: Eight Medals of Honor Awarded at Nolensville