Today, July 18th, marks the anniversary of the Civil War battle in which the legendary Massachusetts 54th Regiment heroically led a Union assault on Fort Wagner, SC. My first acquaintance with this regiment was through the Academy Award winning movie Glory. (If you haven’t seen it run…do not walk… to the nearest video store/computer and rent/download it. It is one the best of the many Civil War movies out there. )
For the uninitiated, the 54th Mass was one of the first all-black units to serve in the Civil War. They distinquished themselves in the ultimately unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner while singlehandedly putting to rest any lingering doubts the US Army might have had about African Americans’ abilities as soldiers. Sadly the 54th sustained many casualties in the battle including their white commander Col. Robert Gould Shaw.
As a young teenager growing up in the late 1960’s, I had a very romantic ideas about life in previous centuries. Bookworm that I was, I read a lot of historical fiction. I watched Masterpiece Theater faithfully. I loved the customs, the language and the fashions, especially the hoop skirts popular during the Civil War era. If time travel were possible I would have been on the first train out.
Unfortunately for me, my mother was a medical historian and quickly pointed out to me the perils of what passed for medical care in a pre-germ theory world. In fact she didn’t hesitate to give me specifics about the particular problems of being female in that world… complications of childbirth and the mortality rates of infants and children just to name a couple.
You don’t hear a lot about the contributions of women during the Civil War but I came across an interesting story last week while I was researching the Battle of Shiloh. Belle and William Reynolds had been married exactly one year when word of Fort Sumter reached them in their hometown of Peoria, Illinois. William immediately enlisted and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 17th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Rather than be separated from her new husband, Belle (along with several other women) followed his unit keeping a journal about her experiences.
Throughout the summer and then through the fall and winter of 1861, William’s regiment was involved in various campaigns in southern Missouri. By April, 1862 they had moved into Tennessee and were camped by the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing just across the river from the town of Savannah. At dawn on Sunday, April 6, 1862 Belle was cooking her husband’s breakfast on the campfire when the Confederates launched their surprise attack on the Union forces. Now this is the part I love…in the midst of bullets flying and shells shrieking, Belle calmly finishes frying her cakes and as her husband mounts his horse to leave for battle, wraps them up and puts them in his haversack before running for her life! Talk about being cool under fire!
For the remainder of that day Belle and the other women assist as the wounded soldiers begin to pour in. Many were taken behind the lines to the Union steamboats on the river. The next day as they visited one of the boats, a surgeon objected to having women on board. Not intimidated in the least, Belle proceeds to search the boat for any members of her husband’s regiment. In her diary she notes that “though there were three or four hundred wounded men on the boat, there were but two or three surgeons, and they unwilling to have us relieve what suffering we could.” The surgeons also refused to give the women any supplies so undaunted, Belle gathers some from other boats and returns to clean wounds and serve food. Go Belle!
A week later Belle is ordered home to Illinois for some much needed rest. The other travelers on her boat were very interested in hearing her eyewitness account of the recent battle. One of the passengers happend to be Illinois govenor Richard Yates who, being moved by Belle’s story proposed to give her a commission in the army and upon learning her husband’s rank of lieutenant, made her a Major stating that he believed in “giving the women the best of it.”
In my never-ending quest to ferret out every detail of the lives of my ancestors, I have found some branches of my family tree to be more, shall we say, accessible, than others. Case in point: my mother’s entire family line. My mother’s parents were born in Hardin County,Tennessee where their families had lived for generations. But they spent their adult lives in Oklahoma where my mother was born. I don’t remember ever meeting any of her Tennessee extended family. One of the few family stories that made it from my grandparents, through my mother to me was my grandmother’s childhood memory of seeing show boats on the Tennessee River. The county seat of Hardin County, Savannah, is situated on this river.
So having very few family clues to go on, I started looking for historical information that might give me some context for my ancestor’s lives in that place. Fortunately for me (although not so much for the soldiers involved) a major Civil War battle was fought in Hardin County….the Battle of Shiloh. Oh for a family diary about those days! Hey I can dream. Now you could probably fill many libraries exclusively with books about Civil War battles and the Battle of Shiloh is no exception. Surely somewhere in that sea of ink is something about Hardin County and the people who lived there.
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