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William R. Townsend Civil War Diary: On The March

EXCERPTS from the Civil War diary of William R. Townsend, 42nd Illinois Infantry, Co. E -- plus contextual narrative.

On the March

            Most soldiers, unless high command, were not apprised of battle plans until they faced their foes on the field, and primitive modes of communication added to the delays in relating information.  Rumor, therefore, spread through camp constantly and the men had to try to make sense of it:

June 5, 1863 “Have not started from camp as yet   there was heavy fighting on our out Post yesterday   the enemy attacked us in force and were repulsed . . .”

June 18, 1863 “. . . The news today is that Lees army is in xxx & Penn & Dix is within fifteen miles of Richmond supported by the gun Boats but I don’t believe it as yet”

William Townsend’s 42nd Illinois Infantry participated, as part of the “Army of the Cumberland,” in the “Tullahoma Campaign.”  Taking place in central Tennessee, the campaign went on for months:

Tullahoma Campaign --Following the battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro, TN), the Union and Confederate forces dug in to prepare for more battle in central Tennessee.  Union Major General Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland camped in Murfreesboro, TN.  Confederate General Bragg and his Army of Tennessee set up defensive positions to the south in the vicinity of Tullahoma to guard possible approaches that the Union army might take on its way to capture the key railroad junction of Chattanooga.  Rosecrans, in no hurry to move during the inclement months of 1863, remained motionless for six months.  Only 30 miles apart, the two armies waited.  Bragg, however, was overly confident of his defensive position and the long wait proved disastrous – troop morale dropped from lack of action, and hunger took its toll.  Bragg also failed to understand that Rosecrans was methodically preparing for battle.  Once the battle began in June, 1863, it only took two weeks for Rosecrans to drive Bragg out of middle Tennessee, with the Union suffering 570 casualties to the Confederate’s 2,000.   

Source: Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds.  Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, Vol. 4, 2000.  pp. 1980-1982.

The battles were fierce and the weather miserable at times, hampering supply trains.  Despite the horrors of war, Townsend had time to record a beautiful view of a waterfall during a lull in the fighting.  The following entries from June 23 through July 4 clearly illustrate the amount of marching and waiting between actual skirmishes, as well as the taking of prisoners:

June 23, 1863 “Received orders to get ready to march tomorrow morning at 4 Oclock, 12 days rations   don’t know where we are going   Ed & I are going to mess with Co H Officers Lt Montgomery & Reynolds as we can not carry a mess chest [chest holding supply of various cooking utensils, pots & pans, and food storage cans] unless we double up”

June 24, 1863 “We got up at 4 Oclock am   started for somewhere on Shelbyville Pike   had some skirmishing out about 7 miles  while skirmishing with enemy were relieved by either Grangers or Thomases  Div [Division]    . . . rained all day  Stopped at the cross roads near Millersville and went into camp   it is an awfull night and our wagons did not come up so we have no blankets or tents nor any things to eat    I am going to eat and sleep with the boys    the 1st Brig of Johnsons Div lost 40 men today  our Brig lost only two”

June 25, 1863  “Rained all night   I slept under some Rubbers of the boys   slept first rate until morning when it got pretty cold   was still raining this morning   very muddy    expect Eve will advance again   this afternoon some of the army is moving   this morning we received orders to be ready to move at three Oclock   Our teams had come up in the morning so we had our tent fly up   took it down and got all ready to move but did not go   are still in the same place   have nothing but one dog tent for four of us   has rained all day   heavy skirmishes this Eve at Liberty Gap by Johnsons Div about a mile and half ahead of us”

June 26, 1863 “Raining this morning  Left camp about six Oclock and went out about one mile   mud two feet deep or less  laid there in the mud and rain all day and then about 9 Oclock went back to our old camp to camp  still raining   Johnson lost about two hundred men killed & wounded yesterday at Liberty Gap”

June 27, 1863 “Left camp at four Oclock this morning and crossed over to the Manchester Pike at Hoover’s Gap seven miles  We laid there for two hours  Thomas had quite a fight here   lost about two hundred men  . . .  Raining very hard when we got to camp  rained most of the day   mud very deep   left our teams in Manchester Pike.

June 28, 1863 “Left our camp at four Oclock and started for Manchester  muddy and still raining  got to camp near Manchester about ten O’clock  don’t know if we will stay all day or not  this is the point for concentrating the army but expect we will move on tonight or early in the morning   our Div is in advance   our Brig advance of Div   our Reg advance of Brig   We camped Duck River today and one other   staid in camp to day   had a good wash in Duck River  went down to see the cave on the River  it is a regular amphetheater  there is a regular stream running over the rocks and falls near the cave some 60 feet”

June 29, 1863 “Rained again last night   I am very near sick this morning but will get along  We left camp about ten Oclock and marched through Manchester and took the Road for xxx  our Div was advance of our corps  our Regt advance of the whole  we marched about six miles and made junction with the 14th army corps  It has rained very hard all day  went on Picket tonight our whole Regt    we had several streams to wade  some of them three or three & half feet deep so we got very wet  there is considerable firing in the front to night   As I was laying in my tent today a big copperhead snake crawled over the blanket  gave me a good scare”

June 30, 1863 “The 51st I.V. [Infantry Volunteers] relieved us from Picket this morning and we came in to camp  there was a good deal of firing last night on the Picket line but there was no one hurt  . . .  moved ahead about 1 ½ miles and formed a line of Battle  were mustered today  had to wade several creeks to day  are now within six miles of Talahoma [Tullahoma]

July 1, 1863 “We left camp this morning at 8 Oclock and started for Talahoma [Tullahoma] and reached there about noon.  We were the first Inf in the town.  Rebles left this morning.  That is the last of them did.  We are not camping here close to town  some of our teams have come up and the boys have three days rations  there is some talk of our following the Sicesh [Confederate troops] to night but have received no orders as of yet  We did not leave camp but have orders to camp here for the night  am glad of it as I am awful tired  it was a very warm day  eve took about fifty prisoners and some of them gave themselves up”

July 2, 1863 “Left camp at four Oclock and started after the Secesh  [Confederate troops]  went as far as xxx Springs  seven miles   had to turn off as the Bridge over Elk River was burned   had to go up the River several miles  crossed two more creeks  We do not cross to night but are camped on the banks of the River  some of the troops have already crossed it   has been an awful warm day and a great many men gave out  we took about fifty prisoners today  belonged to the rear guard of the Rebles  they are just one days march ahead  am afraid they will keep so”

July 3, 1863 “Crossed Elk river at five oclock   had to undress   came about two miles and had another Branch of the Elk River which we also had to wade   passed through Winchester  it is quite a large place  it is the Reble capital of the State  we drove the rear guard of the army out of the City   after we passed Winchester about two miles we crossed  Mxxx Creek which we also had to ford   we marched today altogether Twelve miles  camped on the xxx Railroad near Owen    Station close to the foot of the mountains  the Secish left here at Eleven oclock today   rained again today”

July 4, 1863 “Staid in camp today   had a wash and as our teams came up got a clean shirt   our cavalry had a fight with the Rebs about four miles out  drove them about three miles  took quite a no of Prisoners   one whole Brass Band   we lost about 210 men killed & wounded  one 1st Lt of the 6th Ky Cav  I suppose we will start on tomorrow  . . .  Fire a national salute this Eve    pretty dull 4th of July”


            By the end of July, 1863, rumors still floated about camp and the movement of troops was uncertain.  During a lull, sworn enemies put aside their differences for a chat, but for obvious reasons friendly banter didn’t last:

July 20, 1863 “Our Regt came in about ten Oclock  . . .  there was a report that there was a big force of Reb Cavalry coming this way to cut off this Brigd and two Regt were sent out to check their advance  . . . there is nothing new to day from any source   there is some talk of our moving from here in a few days  I hope we will  some say we are going to Huntsville Ala . . .”

July 28, 1863 “. . .  the report is that France is going to recognize the Southern Confederacy but I do not believe it as of yet”

July 31, 1863 “. . . The Reble Pickets are on the other side of the river   we talk across with them  ask them the price of coffee . . .”

August 4, 1863 “. . . went swimming to night . . .  Some of the Boys were in day or two ago and got out in the middle of the river and the Rebs shot at them . . .”

August 16, 1863 “. . . there was a flag of truce crossed the river today   did not hear what it was about”

August 25, 1863 “. . . received news of the fall of Fort Sumter   hope it is so . . .”

               If marching was hard for the foot soldier, transporting supplies was sometimes a treacherous ordeal.  Rivers had to be forded, and since the enemy often burned bridges in their wake, temporary bridges had to be built on the spot.  The results were often less than satisfactory:

August 30, 1863 “Was detailed with the Bal of the Regt for foraging   went out and chopped and scored timber for the bridge which they are very busy building   expect to have it done in the course of a four or five days”

September 2, 1863 “Left camp at Bridge just at about 2 Oclock and crossed the river on the pontoon bridge [a wooden slat bridge, the deck of which was supported by rows of narrow, wooden flat-bottomed boats]  marched around the mountain about three miles and went into camp . . . after we had crossed the bridge and some of the Battery teams [horse-drawn wagons] were crossing, the bridge went down so we will have to wait until it is rebuilt for our things [supplies]”

September 3, 1863 “Slept last night under a bush without a single thing over us   like to have froze to death   our teams did not come up until five Oclock this Eve. . . .”

             By September 10, 1863, Townsend’s regiment was at Lookout Mountain, TN, and then went on to Chattanooga, TN.  Many skirmishes took place and many men died on both sides.  Marching up, down, and around the mountain seemed to be the battle plan:

September 10, 1863 “. . We marched 18 miles via Valley Head Ala and went on top Look Out Mountain . .”

September 12, 1863 “Laid in camp all day . . . Rebs can be seen from the mountain   cavalry skirmishing”

September 14, 1863 “Left damp at day light   marched over and down mountain via valley . . . 22 miles    very dusty    my co [company] rear guard”

September 16, 1863 “Left camp in morning day light   went up Look Mountain   guarded train   did not get up until after noon   marched over and down the mountain   camped at foot of mountain . . . marched 7 miles to day”

September 19, 1863 “. . . drove the Rebles with our Brigd and held our ground all night   dug Rifle Pitts   our Brigd lost today in killed and wounded 27”

September 20, 1863 “Moved our position and made a new line   Rebles attacked   massed on our Right and drove us back our whole Div   Lt. Smith & my self rallied some men and went back   Rebs fell back before us   held our position on the hill . . . joined Col Miles 27th Ill and guarded trains to within four miles Chattanooga”

September 21, 1863 “I had over 70 men with me this morning  drew Rations for them . . . received orders to move to where the Bridg were gathering  marched two & half miles  joined Bal [balance] Regt  only 180 men left   in casualty were 3 Officers Killed  6 wounded bad  7 slightly  Privates Killed 15   wounded 54   36 missing  14 p. [prisoners]   We took our position and threw up an xxx of Rails & some fighting on our left   we laid behind our works [breastworks: an improvised or temporary fortification]  until 2 OClock when we started on   marched to Chattanooga  got there at 6 OClock next morning  marched 5 miles  day before yesterday marched 13   my Co had 14 K&W&M [killed, wounded, missing]  wrote home  Total loss 154

September 22, 1863 “Stopped near Chattanooga this morning at 6 OClock  things look very dark  the secesh followed our skirmishers very close but we have been throwing up works all day and are now in a pretty good position  our Div is on the extreme right  our right resting on the river and the left of our lines that is of the army rests also on the river  There is a report of Burnside [Union General] being here but I do not credit it as yet  . . . the Enemy Shelled us but no one hurt here  there was very heavy fighting on parts of the line”

September 24, 1863 “Very foggy this morning  heavy skirmishing this morning early in our front  skirmishing along the whole line about four OClock  the enemy commenced shelling us  had the best of range  first shell hit two men  one severely  other slightly  after dark we made our brest works stronger, 10 feet wide  very heavy musketry firing   about ten OClock the enemy repulsed  the Enemy have possession of Lookout Mountain

September 25, 1863 “Moved back from our Brest works into the edge of town and did not do any thing until after noon when we moved on a hill and made a line of works where we remained all day  heavy fighting commenced about five  continued until dark.  No mail

September 26, 1863 “Had a pretty good nights sleep  heavy firing of cannons & musketry early this morning . . .  Think we can hold our ground”

September 27, 1863 “. . .  The report today is that Burnside advance has crossed the river under Genl Hartranft   Also that Gen Hooker was to have been at Nashville . . . boys very short of Rations”

September 28, 1863 “There was an alarm in the picket line last night  did not amount to much  our boys repulsed them   moved camp today over to extreme right near the river  fixing up a camp as if we intended staying  . . .  had a good wash today  some of our things came up to day   the cooking utensals  mess box and wrote several letters”

             During the Civil War, many Union officers like Captain Townsend had their own private cooks, usually slaves or free blacks.  Despite being from the north, William Townsend had no qualms about relegating his African-American servant to second-class status (he does not refer to his servant by name) and seemed to have little patience when his cook got sick and couldn’t perform his duties.  Unfortunately, derogatory names for slaves and freed blacks were commonplace at the time in both the north and the south.

October 1, 1863 “Rained last night and has rained all day   blankets wet    nigger sick   had to cook   Ed and I cooked all we have had to day . . .”

October 2, 1863 “All still on the lines to day   some movements of the enemy from the left to the Right of our lines   the Report is that the enemy have burnt two hundred waggons between here and Stevenson   also our mail.  Our nigger has been sick and we have had to do all our own cooking since yesterday morning”

            The fighting takes its toll on the men and camp life.  The wounded and supply trains have trouble moving about.  Townsend’s birthday comes and goes:

October 3, 1863 “. . .  I went down in town to the hospital  see some of my men   all doing well  . . .”

October 5, 1863 “Left camp at three OClock and came over the mountain   detained very much by ambulance train   will not get to Stevenson before tomorrow   the wounded are having a very hard time   some of them going through on lumber waggons   their mules give out and they camped right in the road . . .”

October 8, 1863 “. . .  very long & tiresome  marched 20 miles”

October 9, 1863 “Left Jasper at 6 OClock and marched to the foot of the Mountain  cut off two supply trains & one forage train by crossing from one road to the other   distance 26 miles   it seems to me I never was so tired in my life . . .”

October 10, 1863 “Left camp at foot of the mountain at 7 OClock  got up the mountain about noon  marched to the top of the other side of the mountain 14 miles  camped  slept in a house where we camped very cold to night”

October 11, 1863 “Started down the mountain at 7 OClock but had good deal of trouble.  I think it is the worst place I ever seen for teams to go down”

October 13, 1863 “To Day is my Birthday  am 24 Yrs old  Rained all night and rained all day to day  very unpleasant  can not keep Dry in our Dog tents”

 Lookout Mountain, Mission Ridge, Knoxville (Tennessee) – the sites of several main battles.  William Townsend relates General Hooker’s advance, the taking of prisoners, burying the dead, and joining with General Sherman’s troops:

October 27, 1863 “. . . some troops went down to try and take Look out Mountain last night   they are fighting there to day   have not heard what they have done

October 29, 1863 “. . .  nothing from Look Out  still fighting”  

October 30, 1863 “. . . still fighting some on Lookout Mountain”

November 6, 1863 “. . . Rebs shelled us several times to day  . . .”

November 10, 1863 “. . . is a report that the Rebs are leaving the Mountain”