ADVENTURES OF A VETERAN - JOHN E. WRIGHT
Jacksonville Daily Journal, January 1906, Page 7
ADVENTURES OF A VETERAN
SOME OF THE EXPERIENCES OF CAPTAIN JOHN E. WRIGHT IN THE CIVIL WAR
Marching, Fighting, Waiting, Risking Life and All for the Land He Loved
The history of our country would be very incomplete did it not contain a record of the noble work done by the brave defenders of the union during the trying times of the civil war when hundreds of thousands of the country's best young men went bravely to the front and risked all that the government might be perpetuated. It was during the summer of '61 that Barbour Lewis of this city recruited a company for the cavalry arm of the service and among the men were several well known to the readers of the Journal. James Burnett was first lieutenant. George W. Moore second lieutenant. Thomas Snelling, then W. A. Kirby, and later C. W. Mathews, orderly sergeant, John E. Wright, private, corporal, and later second sergeant, while other members were C. R. Taylor, George W. Van Zandt, John W. Melton, W. H. Jordan, James Magill, George Glenn, Henry Maul and others not now recalled.
Feeling that the story of these brave men and their deeds never grows old a Journal representative asked Captain Wright for the narrative of his service and let it be distinctly understood that the gentleman himself has not the slightest part in suggesting, but hesitated sometime before responding, having no desire to appear as anxious to tell his story. He finally consented to tell some things, but what follows is but a brief part of the history of his experience and that of the men in his command for three years and two months.
“I had no taste for military life, having first earned a title as captain of a Wide Awake company in 1860, when I was but 18 years of age. It is a matter of no small satisfaction to know that I belonged to and commanded a company in an organization which did so much to elect the great emancipator when he was first a candidate for president. During the summer of '61 Barbour Lewis recruited a company for the cavalry service and we were sent to Jefferson barracks in St. Louis and as there was no Illinois regiment for us to join we were mustered in as Company G in the First Missouri cavalry. This created the greatest dissatisfaction as we all preferred to be credited to our own state, but we had taken the oath and there was nothing left but to make the best of it and after all it turned out well enough with the exception of the fact that we were counted from Missouri and do not appear in the adjutant general's report of the troops from this state. Our officers were Col. Ellis of St. Louis. Lieut. Col. Lewis of Carrollton, captain of another Illinois company credited to the poor old state and three majors, Hubbard, Banzoff and Jocelyn. There were twelve companies in a cavalry regiment and they were generally divided into three battalions, each commanded by a major which necessitated three of these officials.
After the war Col. Lewis became leader of the marine band of St. Louis and during the grand encampment of '87 I had the pleasure of an interview with him which was very pleasant.
We were mustered in Aug. 1, 1861, and soon after were ordered to Jefferson barracks in St. Louis, from which we went up the Missouri river to Jefferson City and thence to Warsaw, where we crossed the Warsaw river and proceeded to Springfield, Mo. There we were quartered in a tobacco warehouse and the odor made me sick, though not enough to cause me to fail to do duty. There the regiment was divided into companies. F, G, K, and M were place in command of Major Jocelyn. Not long after Company F left us, but the other three companies stuck together during the greater part of the war. We were ordered to Rolla, Mo., and there began the hard service for which our time was distinguished. That old fellow Quantrell, was abroad in the land and we went after him in good shape and for ten days kept on the run almost using up both men and horses but failed to accomplish much.
Pap Price was abroad in the land then and after his command we went. He was retreating and we harassed his rear as much as possible and had several brushes with his rear guard. During some of these engagements my horse was shot in the side of his head, but the ball was too far spent to do much damage, though it stunned and stupefied the poor creature and he reared up on his hind legs and it looked bad for a short time. Another ball struck my saddle in the front part of it, but I escaped unhurt. It was the desire of our commander to bring on an engagement with Price, but the latter was too sharp to be brought into it and kept on the run and we had many encounters with his men and lost some of our force, both privates and officers. At Sugar Creek it was the determination of the commander to bring on an engagement and for that purpose the First Missouri cavalry was ordered to lead the charge and Company G to go first. In that engagement we lost Abner Upham, Cephas Watson, Ed Anderson, John Geary, Fred King, Kenneth McLean and some wounded also. In spite of our strenuous efforts we could not bring on an engagement as the infantry could not get up fast enough and Price kept on his way and we after him until he reached a place south of Pea Ridge where he went on and received many reinforcements and decided to come back and make a stand. Gen. Sigel was south of us and Price went after him in hot haste. It was there that Sigel displayed the wonderful power he had in fighting while retreating. He worked his way up to us and I shall never forget how the Germans came up. We held our own and the next day they fought us on the south and west side of the ridge. Gen. Jeff C. Davis was one of the men in command in our army and he was a good one. That night the rebels muffled their cannon wheels and secretly made a forced march around to the north taking our command by surprise. All supposed they were on the other side and when a man went to water his horse he came running back white as a sheet declaring the whole rebel army was after us on that side. We hastily pulled out after losing a part of our equipage and while our company was in line a cannon ball swept right in front of us and had it passed a few feet farther back it would have killed nearly every one in the company. As it was a number of horses fell down from the effects of the missile as it went by, but no one was hurt. It was there that I saw a canon ball or shell in the air for the first time and I supposed it was a crow flying toward us and called out to the boys to look at it, but in an instant I saw what it was and gave an alarm and we scattered just in time. A shell came whizzing along and striking the ground near a buggy in which Mrs. Lewis was seated, bounded clear over her rig and went on scaring a lot of sutler wagon horses and the stores of the suttlers were scattered about promiscuously. The rebels pushed hard after us and we retreated overwhelmed by superior numbers and for a while it looked as if complete rout was our fate. At the time when it seemed as if all was lost we fell back near the command of Sigel and then the Germans showed what was in them. Steadily on they came marching in solid columns, singing their native songs and shooting furiously with their small arms. At first Gen. Sigel placed his artillery where it would do the most good and fired a few shots of stones or other material to indicate he had no ammunition. This emboldened the rebels to draw nearer and then the carnage began. Small arms and cannon vied with each other while the braying of the mules and the groans of the wounded were mingled with the awful din which rings in my ears yet as I recall it. The carnage was fearful and the rebels were completely routed and ran leaving much behind them. I rode over the field after the battle and saw horses lying in the heaps with dead and wounded men all around. The sight was dreadful.
Our steps were next turned southward and we spent the 4th of July at Jacksonport on the White river. Next we struck out for Helena, Ark., where we did some heavy work. The rebels used to have runners stationed on the roads; men well mounted who would see us in the distance and rush ahead and give the alarm either to the command or to a runner ahead and so our plans were many times frustrated. There was one man especially who gave us an immense amount of trouble and we wanted to take him, but he would always slip away. He rode a white horse which was a good one and we tried in vain to get ahead of him and go around him, but to no avail, until finally one day I was out with a squad of men and came suddenly on him in a house with his white horse hitched in front. He struck out when he saw us and mounting his horse went from us into a fence he couldn't leap, so he abandoned his horse and struck out afoot and we the same way after him for a half a mile and as I ran faster than he ran I came within shooting distance, when I called on him to halt and surrender as I didn't want to shoot him as he was not a guerilla, so we took him in as a prisoner of war.
We were out one day on an expedition with the Fourth Iowa cavalry and separated from them to travel a different direction. The Iowa boys encountered a large rebel force of Texas Rangers and had to cut for camp with all their might. As we were riding along in a piece of woods we saw a force of rebels several times as large as ours, but we completely surprised them and they supposing the whole union army was after them put out in good shape and we were unable to take any so small was our force. As we were riding along later on I saw in the distance and to one side a small squad of about 20 rebel cavalry and suggested to Capt. Lewis that if we would ride rapidly in the right direction we might overhaul them, but he thought it hardly worthwhile though I earnestly urged him to do it. Finally I begged him to let me take 25 men and go after them and when he saw I was so much in earnest he gave the command to the company to go as I had desired and away we went through the woods just in time to intercept the Johnnies coming out of a clump of bushes. I was a little ahead and rode up just in time to confront a lieutenant colonel and placing my carbine at his breast ordered him to surrender which he lost no time in doing and the boys coming speedily up halted the rest of the squad. I never saw a man so armed as that officer was. He ha sword, derringer pistol, a horse pistol, two splendid Colt navy revolvers and a new double barreled shot gun. All then he hastily dropped as we stopped him and I quietly slid from my horse and captured the navy revolvers which were splendid weapons. As we were riding to camp guarding our prisoners Capt. Lewis was beside the rebel colonel and said to him:
“Colonel, were you not armed when we encountered you?” “I was, indeed.” “Where are your weapons?” “I dropped them where we were taken.” “I wish I had known that: I should have been glad to get them. What weapons did you have?” (The list was given him.) “And are they there yet?” “Not all of them; one of your command took the Colt's navy revolvers.” “What sort of a man was he?” “Rather young, heavy set, wore a sergeant's stripes and rode a grey horse.” “Ah; I think that was Serg. Wright.”
At once he called me up and asked me if I had those revolvers and I told him I had and he asked me to give them to him. I asked him if it was a command or a request. He said it was not exactly a command but he very much desired to have the weapons. I asked him by rights whose property they were and reminded him that it was due to me that they were taken at all. I showed so much earnestness about it that he said we would let the matter rest until we reached camp. That day or the next morning he sent for me to bring the revolvers down to his tent, which I did. Again he spoke of the fine weapons and after some conversation remarked that they were by all rights honestly mine, but he would like to possess one of them. I at once said if he asked for them in that spirit I wouldn't refuse and told him to take his choice. That he declined to do though there was no difference between them and so he took one and I kept the other and have it yet. I got hold of another of the same caliber and was the only one in the command who moulded his own bullets, but I used my navies to good advantage.
We had quite a number of experiences, scouts and the like while we were there. Our next place was Memphis. I had always asked the orderly to be sure to see to it that I was on hand for all the expeditions, but here I was on picket duty and missed a hard one. It was called the Coldwater scout and resulted in a number of wounded men and some captured, though the latter got back to the lines.
We were next sent to St. Louis over to the Illinois side and down the river to Cape Girardeau; from which place we had a long and memorable scout. The commander had heard of old Jeff Thompson whom they used to call a swamp rat and he was one of the worst foes the union had. He would steal up and down the bayous in canoes and do immense damage and his cavalry were everywhere at once. We set out, but no one in the command knew where we were going. The commander of the expedition called me to one side and confidentially told me Pocahontas, Ark., was our destination as he had been told that old Jeff Thompson was in that vicinity with 300 men. I was the only one to whom he confided the word and he said he would depend on me to lead an advance guard and capture the runners and keep them from sending ahead the news of our coming. I was ahead with a picked squad of men and we did succeed in getting ahead of the many runners we encountered and keeping them from doing any mischief. In due time we reached Pocahontas after a hard ride of 150 miles and hearing where Thompson's headquarters were and that most of his men were out on a scout I rushed ahead with my squad right into the rebel camp and up to Thompson's tent. They told me afterward that he supposed we were some of his own men returning to camp and he said to one of the aids: “See those fools running their horses.”
Among the men in my squad were Riggs Taylor and John Murray, son of S. M. Murray, founder of the town of Murrayville, and both splendid soldiers as were plenty more of Company G. As soon as the rebs learned who we were there was a tremendous scattering for their horses, but we intercepted most of the soldiers and captured about 20 along with Jeff Thompson himself. It is but fair to say that while old Jeff gave us so much trouble he was not a guerilla.
Our next stand was at Bloomfield, Mo. It was a county seat and we one morning woke up to find our battalion was surrounded by a thousand rebel cavalry. Capt. Truitt, as brave a man as ever drew a sword, was in command of our forces and during the morning we saw a man coming toward us from the rebel lines bearing a white flag. Capt. Truitt asked me to go with him and see what the messenger wanted, and as he drew nearer the captain asked him: “Our commander demands your immediate surrender.” “Is that all you want? Said Capt. Truitt. “Yes sir.” “Then go back and tell your colonel if he wants this place to come and take it. This is a battalion of the First Missouri cavalry and it never surrenders,” and with that we rode back to the command began to get ready for business. We had with us two mountain howitzers and it was to them that we owed our escape for we were outnumbered three to one.
As soon as the Johnnies began to form, we trained our artillery on them and fired so accurately and with such good effect that they supposed, no doubt, that we had a regular park of artillery and at once rode away as fast as they could go.
Our next destination was Philo Knob. Mo. And later on New Madrid and there the real trouble began for all; before it had been child's play compared with it. The country around there was infested with guerrillas in command of Jim Field, a fiend in human shape and a terror to the whole country and it was our duty to rid the country of them by any means possible.
I want right here to distinguish carefully between the confederate soldier and a bushwhacker or guerrilla. The former were brave, honorable men and more than once I have divided my blanket with them and my last cracker that they might not be cold or hungry, or at least anymore so than I was; but the guerrillas were a different people altogether and the regular confederate army was not responsible for them.
In our company was Sergt. Thomas Marshall, as noble and brave a man as ever handled a gun. I loved him as a brother for he was the soul of honor, fearless and devoted to duty. One day he was ordered to take a detail fo ten or a dozen men and escort a militia captain who wanted to visit his family in the region. On the way back to camp they were waylaid by Jim Field's men and Riggs Taylor and James Hill were wounded, but were able to get into camp. Marshall's horse was killed and he was unable to get back, but was captured and as soon as the word was brought to us we started after him and found him lying in the road riddled with bullets. I was so enraged at this cowardly murder that I hardly knew what I said or did, but I then and there swore vengeance for the brutal conduct of the guerillas. For eight months we scouted in that region and I begged to be permitted to lead the advance guard and sometimes I had with me Kansas Jayhawkers, sometimes men from the Second Missouri and sometimes men from the Third Missouri, though I preferred men from my own command when I could get them. I have no desire to tell how many of those dastardly men I caused myself to bite the dust for it is something not to be talked of now as the war is over and peace and good will established, suffice to say I thoroughly kept my word given over poor Tom Marshall's body.
Of course Field was the man we especially wanted, but he was hard to get. He always rode a fine horse, was thoroughly at home and acquainted with all the country around and the people nearly always sheltered and protected him either through sympathy or fear. He was tall and athletic, a dead shot, a good rider, a hard fighter and intrepid commander. One day we crossed a swamp and soon after came across the tracks of a horse wearing shoes with three nails on each side of the shoe. I was at once certain that the animal was ridden by a guerrilla. I was in hopes that it was Field himself and began to make inquiries and discovered enough to satisfy me. At last we came to a horse about which were fresh tracks and some one had recently been there for we saw pieces of watermelon rind recently cut. I asked the woman of the place how long since Jim Field had been there but she denied he had been there at all. I was certain from her manner she was trying to deceive me, so I said sternly; “Wasn't his horse hitched to this very rack? Boys, get down and we'll burn this place.”
That had the desired effect and she at once admitted that Field had been there and left when he saw us coming. I knew he had a brother some seven miles away and we turned our horses in that direction and in due time came within sight of the house, but were protected by timber so they couldn't see us. In front of the horse was a grey horse hitched and I felt certain it was Jim Fields's so I said to the men: “Stop right here and cinch our saddles tightly. See that everything is in order. You see that grey horse, it belongs to Jim Field, the commander of those guerrillas and the vile murderer of Tom Marshall. If my horse stays on his feet and I stay on his back, I'll get the fellow, but if my horse or I go down then someone of you catch him for he must not escape.
We then bore down on the house at full gallop and as I had a rather faster horse than the rest I was ahead. When we were about half way to the house a man appeared at the front door and shut it hastily. It was Field and he wanted to get his horse, but seeing it impossible started out the back way for a cane brake a quarter of a mile away. I knew if he reached it capture would be impossible, so I rode hard after him right through a fence and when within 40 years of him commanded him to halt, but instead he turned and fired two shots at me from a Colt's revolver and I fired two at him, but neither hit. He ran again and when we were 25 yards apart I again commanded him to halt but he again fired twice at me and I at him, but all without effect, and when I was 20 feet away the same thing was done again and no one hit. Each jerked another revolver, he an English, self-cocking affair, and his first shot grazed by breast. I shot at him but his pistol wouldn't go off again and I tried to ride him down as I saw it was fight to the death. He dodged as my horse came up to him and turned grabbed the bridle and began belaboring me with his fists. He was a powerful man and I had good reason to feel his strength. I fired one shot which grazed his scalp but could get a chance to shoot no more and the desperate encounter went on until one of our scouts, a good soldier named Turpin, came up. We used to call him Dick Turpin, after the noted highwayman, but that day he was a welcome person to me. Drawing his revolver he shot the desperado dead and thus was Tom Marshall avenged and the country rid of a desperate character.
These are but a few of the many adventures we had. I don't know that we were better than other men in the army, but we did out duty as we saw it and have no desire to boast of it now.
After three years and two months in the cavalry we were mustered out at the end of our time and I then went into the infantry as first lieutenant of a company, though I was really in command as the captain wasn't present much of the time. It was there that I acquired the title of captain which has since stuck to me. I also acted as quartermaster part of the time. Our command was stationed in New Orleans, Mobile, Meridian, Miss., Selma, Ala., and most of the year at Montgomery, Ala. I saw the room in which Jeff Davis was inaugurated president of the Southern Confederacy and the spot on which he stood.
During all my four years service I was never absent from roll call on account of sickness, which is a record few can claim. W. A. Kirby was our second orderly sergeant, but he was later on worthily promoted to the command of another company and C. W. Mathews took his place and I was next. I also acted as company commissary sergeant, company quartermaster sergeant, carried the battalion flag some of the time, and in the occasional absence of the orderly sergeant took his place. Our ranks are fast becoming thinned and before many years there will be few of us left. As I said: I have no desire to parade any of my service or exploits and only have answered the questions put to me and hope the present generation will be led to realize to some degree what this country has cost.