“I’m shot, my God, I’m shot!” A Melancholy Event on the Way to Chickasaw Bayou
|Gravestone of Sergeant James Dempsey, Co. C, 23rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry|
Vicksburg National Cemetery Section E, grave 1756
It was the evening of Tuesday, December 23rd 1862 when Corporal Rockwell J. Flint of the 23rd Wisconsin sat behind a desk aboard the steamer John H. Dickey and grappled with the raw emotions of loss and anger. During the overnight hours, a tragic accident had occurred that shook the young soldier to his core. “I would like to give you the details of our voyage thus far, but present feelings will not admit,” he admitted. The regiment had boarded the steamer John H. Dickey at Memphis two days previously and were now headed south along the Mississippi River as part of the Union army’s first serious effort at taking Vicksburg. “I hardly know how to place upon paper the heart-rending news I wish to tell you. I wish to break it gently, but the best expressions seem harsh and even brutal,” Flint stated.
On August 6, 1862, three young printers from the office of the Wisconsin State Register in Portage, Wisconsin signed their names to the roll for Co. C of the 23rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. The foreman of the shop, 22-year-old James Dempsey ( “a first-class printer, sensible, high-toned, and promising young man”), was the first man to sign his name to the roll followed by his printers, 25-year-old William F. Ward, and 20-year-old Rockwell “Rock” J. Flint. Dempsey became the second sergeant, Flint a corporal, and Ward, enlisting about a week after his shop mates, entered the ranks as a private. Ward’s acceptance into the company came as a bit of a surprise: “his health had previously been poor but his sense of duty prompted him to offer himself to his country.” The three men came from across the country to settle in Wisconsin: Dempsey was a North Carolinian, Flint from the rock-ribbed state of Vermont, while Ward was a Canadian immigrant.
|Typical scene of a printer's office during the Civil War era, in this case the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, Colorado.|
The men vowed to stick together and keep the homefolks apprised as to the activities of the regiment. This they did, but it came at a terrible cost: “Rock” Flint was the only one of the three men to survive the war. The heart-rending news that Flint struggled to write was that Sergeant Dempsey had been accidentally killed that day. “It seems as though my best friend is gone, more than a friend, a brother, for it was a brother’s part he acted during our short campaign. Ward takes it hard. He sits by him by the hour and seems to care for nothing else,” he wrote.
|Sergeant Rockwell Joseph Flint (1842-1933), Co. C, 23rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry|
The steamer had arrived a few miles south of the mouth of the White River when it weighed anchor for the night. “When we land for the night, we generally have pickets posted along the river bank to guard against guerillas,” Flint began. “We go out by companies and Co. C was on last night. We had a large fire by the shore around which the company sits, except those standing guard. We had four posts and placed five men upon each post with a sergeant and corporal. Sergeant Clinton Hoy was sergeant of the first relief and Dempsey was sergeant of the second relief. Jim relieved us about 2:30 a.m. and we went to the fire. We had not been there but half or three-quarters of an hour when we heard the report of a gun. Every man seized his gun and stood listening. In a short time, Tom Murray came running up and said Dempsey was shot by one of our own men.”
Flint paused his letter at this point to converse with his company commander Oliver H. Sorenson and continued with the story. “The first party was in charge of Sergeant Hoyt which was relieved by 20 men under Dempsey. Lieutenant Sorenson accompanied the relief to see that it was properly stationed, it being a hard matter to find the posts without being acquainted with their location as the night was quite dark and the undergrowth along the bank almost impenetrable. After the posts were relieved and everything arranged satisfactorily, Dempsey, who was at post No. 3, proceeded to inspect the other posts, taking with him William Edwards. In going to post No. 4 (which was the advance), he missed his way, making a circuit and came upon the post from the opposite direction from what he had intended. When within 12 or 15 paces, the sentinel ordered him to ‘halt!’ He continued to advance, however, and this order was repeated. Still coming nearer, the sentinel said, ‘Speak! Who are you?’ Dempsey raised his hand and, thinking it to be a hostile movement, the sentinel who had his gun at the ready leaped back and fired it from that position. He was not over 15 feet distant. Dempsey fell exclaiming, “I’m shot, my God, I’m shot!” Edwards rushed forward saying “You’ve shot Jimmy Dempsey!”
“The others of the post sprang forward and raising him slightly, saw it was too true. Lieutenant Sorenson was at post No.1 when, hearing the gunshot, he ran to post No. 4 and kneeling, placed his hand upon the wound. This caused him to strangle, when he removed it and said, “Jim, Jim, do you know me?” Dempsey pressed his hand, not with a dying grasp but seemingly in token of recognition. Edwards says that Dempsey, when ordered to halt, said “We are friends from the 23rd” but spoke in such a low manner no man on the post heard him. Probably thinking they heard his answer, he did not stop and when asked, ‘Who are you,’ he raised his hand to remove his pipe as he was smoking at the time. This was the movement the sentinel considered suspicious and which led him to fire. No one on the post had the least thought of it being Dempsey, and the reason was his coming from the direction that an enemy would be expected much more than a friend.”
“The bullet took effect a little below the center of the breast, striking his right shoulder and coming out just back of it. The surgeon was sent as soon as possible, but it was too late. He did not speak after he fell and breathed his last about 10 minutes after the fatal shot. If you ever saw an excited set of boys, it was Co. C when they heard the terrible news. We were all around the picket fire and each would look in the face of the other, half-blinded by tears, as best they could and see the love the company had for him who had lost his life. Oh God, I can never forget it and never wish to, though every thought brings a pang. Jimmy was buried at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana. A headboard was placed at the head of his grave in which was deeply cut the following inscription: James Dempsey, Co. C, 23rd Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers, Killed December 23rd, 1862, age 22. Another with his initials was placed at the feet. He was buried Christmas morning.”
The man who shot Dempsey by mistake was Private James McDonough of Briggsville, Wisconsin. McDonough was soon transferred out of the company, being assigned to the Pioneer Corps on February 9, 1863 where he served the rest of the war. Sergeant Dempsey’s body was recovered after the war and moved to Vicksburg National Cemetery where he is buried in grave 1756 in section E. William Ward would serve another year with the 23rd Wisconsin before chronic diarrhea finally prompted his medical discharge on January 6, 1864; he died at home in Portage about three weeks later from this disease.
That left “Rock” Flint as the sole survivor; Rock saw action at Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, Vicksburg, Bayou Teche, and Dauphin Island. He was promoted to sergeant and in 1864 was transferred to the Signal Corps where he served until mustered out in 1865. Rock returned home to Wisconsin and returned to the newspaper business, devoting himself to the community of Menominie where he served two terms as mayor. In 1871, he married Alice Prentice of Portage and had four children with her. Rock was for 37 years the publisher of the local newspaper and later was appointed Federal marshal by Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Rock lived to the ripe age of 91 years, passing away June 23rd 1933, one of the last remaining Civil War veterans in his community.
Letters from Corporal Rockwell J. Flint, Co. C, 23rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Wisconsin State Register (Wisconsin), January 24, 1863, pg. 3; also January 31, 1862, pg. 1
“Death of James Dempsey,” Wisconsin State Register (Wisconsin), January 24, 1863, pg. 3
Obituary of William F. Ward, Wisconsin State Register (Wisconsin), February 6, 1864, pg. 3
Find-A-Grave memorial for Rockwell Joseph Flint (1842-1933)
An incredible and sad story. Great article.ReplyDelete