The Yankees are Buried Shallow: A Civilian’s View of Brice’s Crossroads

 The carnage surrounding his family’s homestead near Guntown, Mississippi in the aftermath of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads left local resident Samuel Agnew speechless. The war had been brought literally to his doorstep.

          “I walked through the rooms and found everything turned upside down and nearly everything we had taken from us,” he wrote in his diary. “Dead and wounded men were lying in the house. The walls of the house had been perforated by a good many bullets. Negroes and white men both plundered the house, and nothing could move their hearts to pity, but with vandal hands they rifled trunks, bureaus, and rooms. The garden and yard fences were torn down. Before I reached the house, I found the road filled with shoes and articles of every description which had been thrown away by the Federals in the retreat. Soldiers lay stretched cold in death on the roadside. I saw two before I came to the gate. When I saw these things, I knew that Forrest had gained a great and complete victory, but my heart sank within me at the prospect of our own losses.”

The following excerpts from Reverend Agnew’s diary were sent to Captain John W. Morton of General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command in February of 1883. Agnew sent this information along to Captain Morton in hopes that the famous artillerist would use it in a future article describing the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads. But Captain Morton felt that Agnew’s account was so compelling and unusual that he provided it to the editors of Southern Bivouac magazine who ran the diary as a stand-alone article ran under the title of “Confederate War History: Tishomingo Creek, or Guntown, Where Sturgis and Grierson Were Badly Worsted” in their May/June 1883 issue.

          The University of North Carolina now owns the original diary as part of their Southern Historical Collection. A full transcript of the diary covering from September 27, 1863 to June 30, 1864 can be found here.  

 

The Agnew household was located near the Ripley-Guntown Road which was the primary pathway along which the Union army under General Samuel Sturgis both approached and retreated from Brice's Crossroads. The structure survived the battle but just barely. "When it was evident that there would be a fight here, a Yankee told mother that she had better leave the house as the Rebels were going to shell it," Samuel Agnew recorded. "They told the Negroes that if the whites left the house, they would burn it." His mother, wife, and sister took shelter in one of the bedrooms in the center of the house while the storm of battle raged in the yard. When Sam Agnew returned the day after the battle, he found dead soldiers scattered along the road and even within the house itself. "My heart was so full because of our situation that I could hardly talk."


Diary of Samuel A. Agnew, Guntown, Mississippi

June 8, 1864

This morning is dark and lowering and before breakfast it commenced raining. It bids fair to be a very rainy day. There has been some excitement today growing out of the Yankee raid. Forrest has gone up country. He passed yesterday evening and I learn today is repairing the bridge across Twenty-Mile Creek near Burres. Trains brought up his artillery to Baldwyn last night and this morning he evidently is striking toward Corinth as the point of danger. Our intelligence is that the Yankees are at Ripley. I cannot learn which way the Yankees are going, some think they are moving toward New Albany, others towards Rienzi or Corinth. There force is said to be seven regiments of infantry at Muddy Creek, four of which are Negroes, 2,500 cavalry, 250 wagons, 150 ambulances, and large quantities of artillery.

 

June 9, 1864

          The news we had was that Rucker had gone from Baldwyn with his brigade towards Rienzi while General Forrest with his entire command has gone to Rienzi. The Yankees were reported to have gone in the same direction. We hence felt very easy thinking that for the present we would not be troubled with the Yankees. Late this evening Thompson Phillips came over telling us that Oliver Nelson had sent word down that the Yankees were coming down the Ripley road this evening and it was not know whether they would go towards Baldwyn or Guntown. Sent the mules off to the woods lot. Brought in the mules at dark. We discredited the news of the approach of the Yankees.

 

June 10, 1864

          The morning was cloudy. At breakfast we learned that the Yankees camped at Stubbs’s last night although we did not suppose they would travel this road. Went out early with the mules into the woods back of Watson’s field. Went over to Uncle Joe’s to notify him of the report and got lost on the way. While at Uncle Joe’s, heard a roaring towards Lyon’s Gin which I did not understand; came on back and stopped at the end of the lane to take observations and while there heard two horsemen approaching down through the thicket in back of the farm. I awaited until I could hear them conversing then put my horse to the run and escaped to the thicket. I have reason now to think that the approaching horsemen were Yankees.

          About 10 o’clock heard the report of a cannon toward Baldwyn. Suppose that the enemy had gone down to the Baldwyn road and met Forrest. Walked over to the western fence of the Watson field to note the direction of the cannonading and concluded it was about the crossroads. The cannonading continued with brief intermissions for several long hours. While at the Watson field I saw Arch, one of my father’s Negroes, skulking through the woods. He told me that the Yankees were at our house and had taken everything we had to eat. About 50 wagons were in front of the house and the yard was full of thousands of Negroes. This was bad news, but I hoped that Arch being badly frightened had exaggerated. But his news caused us to keep quiet and not attempt to communicate with the house.

          I listened intently and anxiously to the firing. The battle waged long and doubtfully for some time in the direction of the crossroads. About 5 o’clock the firing evidently grew nearer, and I was satisfied it was near Holland’s. About 6 p.m. to my surprise shells began to fall in the woods where I was hiding, when I was near the Watson field taking observations. Shells coming over rapidly with a whizzing noise such that I deemed it prudent to get out of the way. Just as we were leaving the back of the field, I heard some person talking near us; I supposed it was Pa conducting mother and the family to a place of safety and came very near going to their assistance, but just then a shell came whizzing with a peculiarly unpleasant noise over my head and I betook myself to the mules.

          I saw Uncle Joe [Agnew] in the woods, and he told me the Yankees were in our wheat field in thousands. He could give no intelligence from home, and I was greatly uneasy. The battle was then evidently raging there. The battle at the crossroads was very severe. The ground all around the crossroads is covered with the wounded and dead. The enemy fought desperately making a stubborn fight, but finally were driven back and at last accounts the fighting was going on about our house.

 

Samuel Agnew was the eldest surviving son of Enoch and Letitia Agnew; his younger brother Martin Luther Agnew had served briefly in the 23rd Mississippi but died in 1862; two other brothers had died before the war.  He was of military age but stayed home to assist his parents with running the family farm and married Nannie McKell in 1864. Agnew became minister of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1868 and led the congregation until his death in 1902. 

June 11, 1864

          I was in the woods all night and it was showery. By light I was up and walked over to Uncle Young’s but received no additional information. I was very anxious in reference to the family at home and came up on home cautiously and found that the Federals had been driven away. Our once pleasant home was a wreck; my very heart pained me when I saw the desolation wrought. Thanks to a merciful God, the lives of the family were preserved although they were exposed to great danger. The garden and yard fences were torn down. Our yard was full of horses. Soldiers were stalking through the yard and house without any ceremony. Federal wagons lined the road. Before I reached the house, I found the road filled with shoes and articles of every description which had been thrown away by the Federals in the retreat. Dead Negroes lay stretched cold in death on the roadside. I saw two before I came to the gate. When I saw these things, I knew that Forrest had gained a great and complete victory, but my heart sank within me at the prospect of our own losses.

          I found mother, Nannie [Agnew's wife], Mary [Agnew's younger sister], and Margaret on the back piazza. They were laughing and talking but under their mirth I thought I could see sadness concealed. They told me the Federals had taken from us every ear of corn and every pound of meat leaving nothing to eat and that the house had been plundered. I walked through the rooms and found everything turned upside down and nearly everything we had taken from us. Dead and wounded men were lying in the house. The walls of the house had been perforated by a good many bullets. One shell struck the gutter on the south side of the dining room. Negroes and white men both plundered the house, and nothing could move their hearts to pity, but with vandal hands they rifled trunks, bureaus, and rooms. They entered every room but the catch all. Even the Negroes were robbed of their clothing. The Negroes were especially insolent. As they passed down the road, they shook their fists at the ladies and told them they were going to show Forrest that they were his rulers. As they returned, their tune had changed. With tears in their eyes, some of them came to my mother and asked them what they must do? Would General Forrest kill them? Poor fools, many a simpleton lies rotting along the road this day. I felt sorry when I first saw them lying dead, but when I heard how they did I lost all my sympathy for the black villains.

The shallow graves at Gettysburg typify the graves dug for soldiers killed in battle. Sam Agnew along with members of his family hastily buried the dead Federal soldiers two days after the battle in a pouring rain. "I saw several newly made graves by the roadside and the Negroes were covered with very little dirt," Agnew wrote. "It is sickening to pass along the roads." 

          The Yankees acknowledged on the retreat that they had got the worst whipping they ever had. On the retreat, Sturgis was in front going at a trot. Two Yankees surrendered to mother before the battle here and remained in the house during the fight. While the fighting was going on at the crossroads there were Yankees on this place all the time. When it was evident there would be a fight here, a Yankee told mother that she had better leave the house as the Rebels were going to shell it. They told the Negroes that if the whites left the house, they would burn it. When the fight commenced, mother and the rest of them closed the doors and window blinds and lay flat on the floor in Margaret’s room at the center of the house and remained safely until our men drove the Yankees away.

          The yard was a battleground with the Southerners on the south side and the Yankees next to the crib. The Yankees made a breastwork of the picket fence between the yard and the crib lot. The Yankee battery was in front of our gate. Rice’s artillery was just below the garden. The fight here was nearly as stubborn as at the crossroads. Captain Rice told me that the artillery saved the day here as when he came up, the cavalry was retreating. The cavalrymen say this was the only time the artillery ever did them any good. In front of the house the marks of the bullets are plainly to be seen. My heart was so full because of our situation that I could hardly talk.

 

June 12, 1864

          Sabbath was a very rainy day and such crowds as have been passing; so many guns have been firing and so many persons have been about the house that it has not seemed like a Sabbath. Pa, Uncle Joe, and John Martin took the Negroes and buried the Yankee Negroes whose bodies lie nearby. It rained so much that they had to suspend operations until this afternoon.  Some Federal prisoners, four in number, were brought in this evening to assist in burying the dead: they were from Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Illinois. They are down on their officers and say that in a fight they were always in the rear and on a retreat in the front. Three white men are buried near us: Rice of the 7th Tennessee, Henry King of Rice’s battery, and A.J. Smith. The Yankees are buried shallow, the Negroes especially so. Sat about the house the entire day doing nothing of great moment. Pa had the Negroes repairing the fences deeming it a work of necessity. The people are riding over the battlefield from some distance; although the day was rainy, I notice many ladies riding over the road.

 

General Nathan B. Forrest "was in a bad humor having been informed that the citizens have been stealing many things from the Yankee wagons." 

June 13, 1864

          The road has still been the scene of continued traveling by the soldiers. The wagons which were captured are being taken down the road. Forrest has made a rich capture. This morning I walked over the ground near us, finding many dead horses and mules and the stench is great. General Forrest passed back today. I note nothing special in his appearance and understood that he was in a bad humor having been informed that the citizens have been stealing many things from the Yankee wagons. General Buford also passed; he is a large chuffy man. General Lyon also went down. A Good many troops passed down today. The pursuit of the enemy has been discontinued.

          Eight hundred Yankee prisoners were passed down today under guard. It is impossible to find one who will acknowledge that he ever plundered. One remarked as he came up “Here’s the man that caught your turkeys,” while another one was heard to say, “Here’s the place where we got the wine.” Some officers were among them and nice-looking men they were. A few negroes brought up the rear, but most of the Negroes were shot, or so reported. Our men were so much incensed that they shot them whenever they saw them. The prisoners pointed out their positions here. One was in the yard, one in the road, and another in the woods. One pointed out a tree and said, “I shot a big fat Rebel from behind that tree.” Representatives of a good many regiments were along; some from the 9th Minnesota, 2nd Iowa Cavalry, and the 114th Illinois, etc.

 

June 14, 1864

          Affairs are becoming quieter but there are many still passing. I found the roads badly cut up by the wagons and artillery that are passing every hour. The lane of Mrs. Phillips has become impassable, and the wagons go in by Mrs. Phillips’ house now. I saw several newly made graves by the roadside and the Negroes covered with very little dirt. The stench from the dead horses is almost insupportable. It is sickening to pass along the roads.

Captain Leroy Moore of Co. F of the 72nd Ohio was one of the hundreds of Federal prisoners that marched by the Agnew house in the days after Brice's Crossroads. Sam Agnew reported that the men "the Yankees acknowledged on the retreat that they got the worst whipping they ever had." Captain Moore survived months of imprisonment and eventually returned to the 72nd Ohio and mustered out with it in 1865.  


I rode over to Brice’s and saw marks of the battle but not so apparent as I had supposed from the great firing. Brice’s house and yard are public property now; sick men occupy the rooms some poor fellows are mortally wounded. I felt sorry when I looked on the poor fellows dying so far from dear ones at home. They are lying on pallets. Some Yankees are also there. The church seems to be occupied by sick and wounded prisoners. The principal surgeon was operating on a Yankee while I was there: he was lying on a table insensible, being under the influence of chloroform. His right foot had been amputated and his left hand half taken off.

 

June 16, 1864

          The stench of the dead is very unpleasant. Pa had the carcass of a horse burned a few days ago. I notice down in Phillips’ lane the grave of a Yankee with the hand projecting out. I think it is a white man though the hand looks black. I think the enemy’s dead are buried too shallow. The graves are not two feet deep and very little dirt conceals them from the eye. Some apprehend that this stench will produce sickness. Soldiers are still passing. Some of them are rough cases. We have in our army some as vile men as the Yankees can have.

 

 

Source:

“Confederate War History: Tishomingo Creek, or Guntown, Where Sturgis and Grierson Were Badly Worsted.” Samuel A. Agnew, Southern Bivouac, May/June 1883, pgs. 356-365

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