The Desperate Day Before Us: The 21st Illinois at Chickamauga

Abraham W. Songer was working as a carpenter in Xenia, Clay Co., Illinois when the Civil War began in April 1861. “The dark cloud of war fell upon us when Fort Sumter was fired upon and surrendered,” he wrote years later. “Then we began to look each other in the face and wonder of what was really coming; we were in the dark and could not imagine correctly what was coming or the magnitude of what was to be the outcome or what was before us. We thought it meant fight and we were not mistaken in that.”

Songer chose to enlist, joining Co. G of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry and went into camp at Mattoon on the county fairgrounds. Much to Songer’s surprise, he was elected second lieutenant of the company. “To say we were a green, awkward set of men would be stating it in a mild form,” he confessed. “All were comparatively young men, but not an officer or man knew anything about drill or army life. We were quartered in stalls made for cattle and horses used during the stock fairs. As all seemed to be ignorant alike as to the mode of camp and army life, we had a tough time of it for a while. Sometimes it looked like there would be a mutiny in camp on account of the quality of the commissary. But as time passed, we learned some about how to care for ourselves by supplying ourselves with bunks and straw for bedding, and the commissary somewhat improved. We did guard duty without arms and in a line of guards about half a mile long, there were about 30 posts so that it took near 100 men each day for guard duty.”

The regiment also elected its field officers and that was where the trouble began. “It was not long after the organization that we found we had made a mistake when we elected S.S. Good as colonel, as he was lacking in discipline. He was always ready to forgive anyone guilty of bad conduct. Good would make a short speech, tell him he was going to make a brave soldier, and then send him to camp; so that all a man had to do was to request an interview with the colonel and then be sent to his quarters. So, matters continued to grow worse until the men were pretty badly demoralized. The call had been made for 300,000 men for three years’ service, so we had to enlist for three years or disband and go home. Most of the men were ready to go in for three years, but the question was to get rid of the man we had elected colonel. We felt like that would not do as Good was not fit to command even a company. Governor Richard Yates was notified of the condition of things and called the officers of the regiment to meet him at his office. We explained the condition of things to him and told what we were willing to do; that we would enlist for three years if we could get a competent colonel to command us. His instructions were to return to camp and keep as many of the men together as we could, and he would see what he could do for us.”

Early war image of the band of the 21st Illinois

A day or two later, Songer saw what Governors Yates could do: his new commanding officer arrived at camp, one Ulysses S. Grant. “Orders soon came for Grant to report with his regiment to Quincy, Illinois, so he thought it a good way to march the regiment there as it would be a good way to discipline the men; I think his idea was a good one as we were at that time a rather unruly set of men. And Grant went at it in earnest and accomplished in a short time to perfection as it soon became evident that we were not soldiering under Colonel Good, and Grant disciplined the officers as well as the men. I don’t think there was an officer but what really feared him, and if they did not, they sure respected him. The talk in the regiment then was that Grant, as a graduate of West Point, would get a brigadier’s commission if the war lasted very long. Little did we think of him ever being promoted as he was later.”

The 21st Illinois left for the seat of war in Missouri in July 1861 and began a lengthy service that brought them into action through Missouri, and then with the Army of the Cumberland at Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and beyond. The regiment took very heavy losses at Stones River, but perhaps its toughest two days of the war were September 19th and 20th 1863 during the Battle of Chickamauga. By that time, Abram Songer had been promoted to the rank of first lieutenant and was in command of Company G. His account of the battle, presented below, is drawn from both his diary as well as his postwar memoir and appears on the blog courtesy of David Dixon.

The regiment, along with the 38th Illinois, 81st Indiana, 101st Ohio, and 2nd Minnesota Battery, was part of General William P. Carlin’s Second Brigade of Jefferson C. Davis’ First Division of the 20th Army Corps.

21st Illinois monument at Chickamauga

This morning [September 18th] as soon as it was daylight, the picket line was advanced and put in proper position. Then troops began immediately to form in proper shape; Sheridan’s division moving up on the right of Davis. Cannonading was heard from 11 a.m. until late in the evening, the boys supposing it to be Crittenden. Late in the evening, we received marching orders and at 6 p.m. we started toward the left, we then being the extreme right, and moved about three miles and halted near a Rebel camp that had been left today, the timber cut on the east.

At 10 a.m. September 19th we were called out marched passed Crawfish Springs and engaged in the Battle of Chickamauga near Lee & Gordon’s Mills. The 21st Illinois was guarding the ordnance train. After marching about one hour and a half we came in hearing of heavy musketry firing and were ordered to double quick. We marched for several miles on the double quick under a hot sun with the hot turnpike road under us and went into battle on the double quick under fire. The command was “on the right by file into line,” and the regiment came around like a whiplash and in as good order as much so as if on drill, though hot and tired. The fighting was severe, sometimes driving the enemy and sometimes being drove. When night came on, the command retired from the field, sore and tired, having sustained quite a heavy loss of men, and we rested until the morning.

When the morning of the 20th came, the smoke of the battle of the day before showed on the faces of all. I suppose everyone felt as I did about what the result of the coming battle of the day would be. It could not be foretold, but it looked gloomy. My captain [Andrew George] had been wounded on the 19th and I was in command of the company; the regiment was much reduced in numbers since the morning of the 19th. Smoke still hung like a mantle until near 9 o’clock when it lifted and moved off. Everything was still. We were satisfied that Bragg had been receiving strong reinforcements or he would not have turned back on our army after evacuating Chattanooga, and that a desperate day was before us.

Everything was still until near 10 o’clock but occasionally a rifle could be heard. We moved to the front perhaps half a mile and took position where some other troops had put up log breastworks. At about this time (10 a.m.), the firing opened up on our left with both small arms and artillery in a terrific manner enough to make one’s hair stand on end, or bring on a nervous chill and by 11 o’clock, the attack was made all along the line. As well as I could see, there was nothing connecting with the 21st Illinois on our right, so I looked for a flank movement on our right to drive us on which such a move would have done.

Colonel John Washington Shields Alexander, 21st Illinois
Killed in action September 20, 1863 at Chickamauga

When the enemy charged on our line, we of course did our best to drive them back, but on they came like braves. I felt like we would have to retreat, and as there were no troops on our right, I expected the right to give way first and when I would see that, I would order my company out if the command was given by the Colonel. But Colonel Alexander had been shot dead, which left Lieutenant Colonel Warren McMackin in command, Major James Calloway being in command of another regiment joining our left, the 81st Indiana. When the enemy got near our works, I looked to the left and saw Major Calloway had retreated with his regiment. The men on the left of the regiment were surrendering and no troops could be seen on our left which left us standing alone with a heavy line sweeping down on us. They were passing our left flank so it seemed like there was nothing we could do but surrender which was a bitter pill to have to take.

As Colonel Alexander had been killed and I presume Colonel McMackin was not apprised of it, so he gave no order to retreat which should have been done. I thought I would hold my company until Captain David Blackburn [Co. F] on my right would order his company out, but he had taken time by the forelock and gone. To undertake a retreat at that time with one company of men would have caused the enemy to concentrate their fire on us; this would be almost like immediate death; so, I thought surrender was the right and best thing to do.

Just then, all was confusion, especially with me. My thoughts were, ‘Am I the only officer captured? Will I be accused of cowardice?’ I looked to the left and saw a rather funny sight or what would have been on any other occasion, but not at that time a bit funny, and that was the sight of Lieutenant Nineveh McKeen of Co H. He wore a linen duster with his blouse over it. The duster was 10-12 inches longer than his blouse. Well at any other time, the sight of the tale of that duster fluttering in the breeze would have been laughable to see. The poor fellow was brave enough, but at that time, he was anxious to get out of range of the bullets that were coming in our direction from some of our troops behind us.

When we all got collected up under the command of the Rebel provost guards, there were about 120 officers and men of the regiment captured. My anxiety was somewhat relieved when I found Lieutenant Colonel McMackin, Second Lieutenant Theodore Gross of Co. A, Captain Philip Wolshimer of Co. B, Lieutenants McKeen, [Charles] Howe [Co. I], [Edward D.] Coxe [Co. A], and John Jones [Co. K], along with about 20 of my company. At the time I was feeling blue and suppose we all felt about alike. I felt like our army was being defeated. The main cause of our capture was a misunderstanding by General Thomas Wood would moved his division out, leaving a gap in the line of battle on our left which cut Davis’ division off and left a gap which was readily taken possession of by the Rebels and used to their advantage.

Lieutenant Colonel Warren E. McMackin, 21st Illinois
Captured September 20, 1863 at Chickamauga

After the provost guard got us bunched up and the officers relieved of their side arms, we were started back farther across Chickamauga Creek and after a march of about two miles we saw more of what the Rebel army had accomplished when we got to a corral of about two acres of prisoners, I suppose about 2,000 men. Well that was not a pleasing sight to see so many of our men and officers under a Rebel guard, but I resolved to make the best of it I could, though it all pointed to a terrible defeat of our army. I was afraid our army would become demoralized and driven back to Nashville and we would lose all we had gained and more. When we were marching past the corral of prisoners, it was natural for me took look for someone I might recognize and finally discovered Captain James S. Jackson of the 22nd Illinois, an old acquaintance who become one of my messmates until we were exchanged.

There was one thing that I think fretted and annoyed Colonel McMackin more than everything except being a prisoner, and that was seeing a Rebel riding his little pacing bay mare round with us as we were being marched back to the corral of prisoners. She was a fine little animal that he rode on all of our marches while we were in Missouri in 1861 and 1862 and up to the time of our capture. She was a dear little animal to him, and I do not know but what the loss of her in the way she went caused him to shed tears over the loss.

Lieutenant Songer would spend the rest of the war in prisoner of war camps throughout the South, being paroled February 28, 1865 at Goldsboro, North Carolina. He arrived at Camp Parole in Annapolis, Maryland on March 7th and received a 30 day leave of absence to return to his home in Xenia. “I started for the old homestead where Father and Mother had been spared, though old, living to see their two boys return from the war. It is needless to say that it was a time of rejoicing when I got there. Mother was out when she saw me enter the yard gate. She could not run fast enough to meet me, and came shouting “Bless the Lord, oh my soul, bless His holy name!” I know that none could have thought it out of place if they had seen me shedding tears of joy as I was glad to meet my dear old Father and Mother as well as other relatives and friends. After so long a time of danger in the army and prison pens, such satisfaction to return to the old home,” he wrote.

His leave expired, Songer returned to Camp Parole in late April where he received his final discharge on May 15, 1865, giving him four years and five days of service in the Civil War.


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