1861-1865: Robert H. Crist to Peter M. Crist

Robert H. Crist in later years
Robert H. Crist in later years

These remarkable letters were written by Capt. Robert H. Crist (1829-1912) of Co. L, 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery (a.k.a. the Jackass Regiment) — the only heavy artillery regiment from the Hoosier state. The regiment began its service as the 21st Indiana. “It served in eastern Maryland until February 1862, when it was assigned to the expeditionary force destined for Louisiana. With one exception, it served in that state for three years, participating in the capture of New Orleans, the battles of Baton Rouge and Fort Bisland, the siege of Port Hudson, and the Red River Campaign; the siege and capture of forts Gaines and Morgan near Mobile, Alabama, in August 1864 was the exception. The regiment returned to Alabama in March 1865 for the campaign against Mobile, fighting in the siege of Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely, Following the end of the war, the Hoosiers were scattered along the Gulf coast performing garrison duty until January 1866.” [Source: Lawrence Lee Hewitt in the foreward of The Indiana Jackass Regiment in the Civil War, by Phillip E. Faller]

Two of Crist’s 1861 letters are housed at the Indiana Historical Society. Their biography of Crist states that he “was a resident of Martin County, Indiana. On July 24, 1861, he enlisted as a Private in Company F of the 21st Indiana Infantry. He served with the regiment until February 2, 1863 when the 21st Indiana was transferred to heavy artillery service and designated the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery. Crist stayed with the newly formed Company L of the 1st Artillery for the remainder of the war, earning several promotions for field conduct. He became 2nd Lieutenant of his Company on November 18, 1863 and rose to the rank of 1st Lieutenant on September 9, 1964. On March 1, 1865, he became Company L’s Captain, leading his men until he was finally mustered out with the rest of the 1st Artillery on January 13, 1866 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”

A History of Will County, Illinois gives Crist’s biography as follows (in part): “Robert H. Crist spent the first sixteen years years of his life in the Empire State (New York) and with his father came to Illinois in 1845, since which time he has resided in Will County, save for a brief period passed in Iowa. He lived with his father until he had attained his majority and during that period assisted in the work of te farm. On reaching adult age, however, he learned the carpenter’s trade, which he followed in this county until 1852, when he removed to West Liberty, Iowa, where he was employed at building operations until the fall of 1854. He then returned to Plainfield [Illinois] where he remained until 1859, when he removed to Natchez, Mississippi. The following year he went to Woodville, Mississippi, and was master mechanic for the West Feliciana Railroad, one of the oldest railroads in the country, but in the fall of that year he was called upon by the vigilance committee and notified that he must leave because of his loyalty to the Union.

“Mr. Crist made his way northward to Bedford, Indiana, and in July 1861, he gave further demonstration of his allegiance to the Union cause by enlisting as a member of Company F, 23rd Regiment of Indiana Volunteers for three years’ service, or during the war….When the war ended and the country no longer needed his services, Mr. Crist returned to Wilmington [Illinois] and was engaged in business as a contractor and builder until 1896 when he retired from active life.”

Crist was born in Bethel, Sullivan County, New York on 29 December 1829. His parents were Peter M. and Lillian (Hunter) Crist.

1861 Letter
1861 Letter

Addressed to P. M. Crist, Durant, Cedar County, Iowa

Camp Murray
Baltimore, [Maryland]
October 1st 1861

Dear Friends,

Yours of Sept. 22d came along in good time, and that Chicago nigger-stealing sheet in a day or two after — much obliged. I have written you one or two letters from this camp, but the Captain [Francis W. Noblet] is gone to town and I have the tent to myself, and to kill time, will answer your last letter. As to that case of small pox, [Stephen W.] Forbes stood guard while on a detail at Washington at a hospital where there was a case of small pox. He was notified of it the next day and when he get sick they took it for granted they had better get him out of the camp and done so. The losing of the tent took place while I was at New York. It made quite a stir in camp. Pickets were put out at night for awhile. the tent was found by the Police over in the city. Forbes was sent across the Patapsco River to the Maine Hospital. There is no new cases about the camp. Forbes is getting pretty well. There are several cases of measles in the camp and several at the Hospital.

You wanted to know what kind of fare we have. Our fare is very good. We draw plenty of rations and have plenty to eat. We have good no. 1 light Baker’s Bread (no corn bread), good side pork, fresh beef every other day, beans and rice plenty. Potatoes every day for dinner, poor coffee made in an old sheet iron camp kettle, boiled ½ an hour, sugar, vinegar, salt, pepper. We draw more than we can eat and the cook trades off the surplus for tomatoes, cabbage, &c. Our company is divided in 4 messes. Each mess generally has a cook hired. There is from 20 to 25 men in a mess and for one man to cook for that number without any conveniences, it is not to be expected that victuals would always come on the table (on the ground) in apple pie order — especially a slow nigger cook. There is milk wagons in the camp several times a day. At supper many of us buy a pint of (country) milk for $0.03 and eat bread and milk for supper. There is plenty of oysters in camp that we get for $0.12 a pint — either cooked or raw. The trouble is we live too well. I have never done much at cooking.

James W. McMillan (1865)
James W. McMillan (1865)

As to arms, the two flank companies received Enfield rifles at Indianapolis — also 57 sharpshooters. the other 8 companies have the old muskets changed from a flintlock to a percussion. They are of no account. Many of the tubes are broke off and many blown out. There is no dependence to be put in their shooting. They would do tolerable we at 75 to 100 yards. Our boys had the promise of new guns long before this. The Colonel [James Winning McMillan] has gone to Washington (they say) to make arrangements for new guns for the 8 companies.

Wednesday morning, October 2d

I have been rather unwell for a day or two or 3. Bad headache and bones aching all over, and yester afternoon I had  to give up. I took a big dose of pills last night and some quinine along. The Capt. [Noblet] was in town yesterday and bought us (him & me) each a husk mattress [for] $1.28 each. Cold nights we put them together and then we can get the necessaries of life as we may have to suffer soon enough in an enemies country. The Colonel returned last evening and says our 8 companies are to have the Belgian rifles with sabre bayonet tomorrow. Our Enfield rifles are about the length of a musket. The bore is about 5/8 of an inch. The ball is an inch long. The hind end of the ball is hollow and spreads to the creases in the barrel when fired. Rifled cannon balls are the same shape and work on the same principle. They shot a ball from one from Governor’s Island 2½ miles and hit a 8-inch board. the gun caps we use are larger than those you use.

As to our drills, it takes quite a book to tell it. The book is about the size of Pollok’s Course of Time, but I will try to give you an idea of our drills — loading, firing, running &c. We (skirmishers) when marching, we march as you used to by columns, flank, platoons, &c. But when we commence drilling, we generally string out or form company, of one rank (on half sheet No. 1) of rear rank, steps up to the left of no. 1 of front rank, and then count off by 4’s (commencing on the right — always). The commander commands, deploy as skirmishers, then one man near the center stands fast and they start each way from him general double quick (165 steps to the minute), and as they get (generally) 5 paces apart, they halt, till they get strung out as in no. 4. Then (command) rally by 4’s, then they start (double quick) no. 1, 2 & 3. start and rally’s on no. 4 while no. 4 stands fast. They stand with their right heels together. They can see all 4 ways and charge bayonet. No horse man can get to them. If you are among the trees or rock knolls &c, they are not restricted to any distance, but are allowed to take advantages of all objects that will shelter them. Then in advancing or retreating from an enemy, they take the position sometimes in no. 6. The front rank advances 6 or more paces and fall, face foremost flat on the ground, or before they start they fire. The rear rank reserve their fire. There must always be one rank loaded. Then they fall and load. When loaded, the rear rank fires and run forward of the front rank the same distance and falls. The men in each rank are about 1 pace apart of the purpose of letting the rear rank & bullets pass between them. In this way, they load and fire as fast as then can, advancing or retreating each time as the case requires. The loading is done lying down.

If advancing, they fall with their face towards the enemy. as soon as down, the breech of the gun is at their feet. They roll over on their back, place the butt of the gun between their toes, lock up — that is barrel up, the cartridge (alias cartouch) box is more in front so as to be comfortable when on their back. When loaded and ramrod returned, they roll on the left side and as they do, draw the gun forward to the right side position to prime or cap, but continue to roll till they get on their face. Resting on their left elbow, at which position they prime, then drop on both elbows and fire. If retreating, they lay the gun across their toes and shoot at a rest. A man stands 7 or 8 chances to get it when standing up to one he does lying down. There are quite a number of maneuvers in drill that is very interesting both to the performers and the spectators. The Grand Rally is done from no. 4 or 5. The officers get to the centre and then command grand rally either by word or by bugle. You can imagine 50 or 60 men strung out about 1 rod apart all in a line. Then as in no. 7, they start on double quick and rally around their officers, each side of the centre keeping their own side when they are all in. Then the two front rank kneel and charge bayonets. The inner ranks or standing ranks keep shooting (if cavalry is coming) till it is necessary to charge bayonets. standing & when we (sharpshooters) speak of drilling with the companies that drill according to the old style, we call it drilling with the cows they appear so awkward. In fact, men learn more in one week in skirmish drill than they can in a month in infantry drill. But old soldiers think there is nothing like the solid mass of moving columns. There certainly is something grand in a moving army, but htat is not what is wanting. The Grand does very well in time of peace.

I have not heard from Bethel, Lawrence, or Evansville lately. It is raining today. (They say) there is to be 3 more regiments here with us soon. We are satisfied we will not get a chance to fight unless we leave here. Some of the officers think the war will be over by Christmas. I have put it till the first of July. Dissension is doing more in the South towards ending the war than many suppose.

As to Mr. Wisner, I recollect the name, but cannot recollect anything about him. I have become acquainted with so many men since, but tell him Halo for me at a venture. I would like to help you eat buckwheat cakes but haven’t time now. I am afraid you won’t get rich selling corn this year. But you have the consolation of knowing that you have enough to eat. You will have to curtail your expenses all you can.

8 o’clock at night. Feel some better but feel very sore. Think is it nothing but cold. Received a letter from Bill Crist today. They are all well. Bill — like some more of the Bethelites — are almost Southern sympathies. John Wood has gone to Canada, they say, to keep from getting drafted. If I think of it, I will give you plan of a camp in my next. we have a very nice camp but for the present, I must close, hoping to hear from you as often as convenient. Give my compliments to all &c.

Your most obedient son, — R. H. Crist

Address the same as before.

The brass band is playing around a camp fire while Co. A has a fiddle going and 1st Lt. is dancing a cotillion and further down the camp some are singing good old-fashioned Methodist hymns, while in other tents some are gambling. Some — many of the boys — have not a cent, while some of the sharper have several hundred. But today the Colonel put a stop to gambling in camp (after the horse was stole &c.)

Enclosed is a scrap from a paper. These are the men we took there.

[Page 6 is filled with schematics of the various formations described in the letter.]

1865 Letter
1865 Letter

Addressed to Mr. P. M. Crist, Durant, Cedar County, Iowa
Postmarked New Orleans, LA., April 18, ’65

Blakely [Alabama]
April 14th 1865

Dear Father,

Thinking perhaps you might chance to wonder where “Rob” is about now, as you must know I have left home and gone out in the country among the “Johnies” & pines of Alabama.

I have had but little time to write since I started. I would love to give you a long account of our adventures but a sheet of paper would only aggravate the attempt. We have an immense amount of hard work, fun, adventures & dangerous — but it is all war — similar to thousands of other cases better written out than I could do it.

My health has been very good — much better than I expected it would be as my liver does not do well at digesting hard tack, coffee, & salt-meats. I was quite unwell yesterday morning but was obliged to get up before sunrise, drink a cup of coffee, & start. I rode nearly 40 miles — the last five after dark — through a thick, dark swamp along the Tensas (Tensaw) River over pontoon bridges, corduroy roads, & wood roads. Had it not been for my horse, i should not have been able to find our camp. He knows the wood roads much better than I do. He is a fine horse.

My pants become quite sore and I was glad to lie down on a blanket spread on a plank. “My boy” had fixed up my tent. We moved our Hd. Qrs. from Ft. Spanish. Many of our officers and men get lost in these pinewoods. They are unlike northern woods — all pine trees are alike — no lodges or streams to guide, no moss, no farms, or fences. It is not very pleasant to lie out all night — cold & hungry — but it makes fun for the rest after they get in again. It is not far outside our lines but straying off among the Johnies you have read often about.

We have had very pleasant weather most of the time since the 20th of March. Roads are good on the uplands, but corduroy roads — that is, such as an army makes — are awful. The poles are small such as one man can carry, but two always goes, lain in the mud & water. If very soft mud [then] poles are lain length wise across [and if] those poles get loose, mule’s feet go between them. Mules get down & mules legs can be broken. Then get the mule off a few yards or feet — as the case may be — shoot him & leave it to stink.  Dead mules unburied are found very frequent — sometimes 2 or 4 to a mile. Nobody has time to bury or burn them.

Well, I am tired this morning. Have not put on my boots yet. I am writing on a mess box sitting on my home trunk. Our camp is among the small pines near the bank of the Tensas River in the city of Blakely. Tis laughable to see & hear men come in to enquire for Blakely expecting to find quite a town — like West Liberty. I have known men come up at West Liberty & enquire for West Liberty and could not believe when told that was the place. I do not think there is 20 houses here. There was not much of a siege here. The light artillery worked on the fort some but the Reb gunboats drove our light artillery back. But once our heavy artillery went up & shelled the gunboats away & then our forces charged the fort & took it. I think about 100 was killed on our side. I do not know how many rebs were killed.

Our forces now occupy Mobile. The Rebs became alarmed at our shells and did not relish the idea of having their city shelled so the rebs moved out and sent word to us to come over & occupy [it]. We are waiting till the rebs hole-up somewhere and we will go & shell them out. This country is hilly & the river bottoms marshy, so it is difficult laying siege to am place. The most of the rebs got away from Ft. Spanish before we cut off communication. Last Saturday night our artillery shelled the Ft. Spanish some two hours. It beat anything I ever heard or saw — 21 30-pounder Parrots, 7 20-pounders, 14 8-inch howitzers (64 pounders), 12 10-inch mortars, 4 8-inch [mortars] & any amount of light artillery — the air was full of shells & smoke. I was standing about 700 yards from the Rebel guns by a naval battery of 3 30-pounder Parrots moved on shore. They fired very fast.

Maj. Gen. Canby “looked very unconcerned but put a pile of sand between him & danger when the shells began to fly.”

After a while the rebs opened on it. I soon took my head below the bank for fear they would spoil my hat as this was all I had. They shot about six feet too high. They limbed the trees behind us. Maj. Genl. [Edward Richard Sprigg] Canby stood near. He looked very unconcerned but put a pile of sand between him & danger when the shells began to fly. The smoke was thick. We could see the flash only through the smoke. [We] put down our heads and let the shells go over. That morning a bullet just missed my head about 6 or 8 inches. It makes a hissing sound besides a cracking noise like electricity. Bullets as well as shells have to resist the pressure of air. They go fast & slow as though the air was harder is some places than others. The rebs shot 100-pound shells at us 6 4/10 inches in diameter at us. They cut down trees 12 to 16 inches in diameter. I have seen them hit the side of a tree & go through — not changing their course apparently.

Our troops are in Mobile. Some are on their way farther up after the retreating “Johnies” I — or we — have had no mail in some time. We suppose our friends have written us and shall be pleased to get the letters when they come. We — the 1st Heavy — do not get mail unless some of our regiment comes from New Orleans & brings it along.

Jacket Cover of Faller's Book on The Indiana Jackass Regiment
Jacket Cover of Faller’s Book on The Indiana Jackass Regiment

An anecdote about our regiment. When [A. J.] Smith’s Corps first opened on the Rebel works with light artillery, the reb’s shelled them away in a short time. The Rebs “hollered” to our sharpshooters to take away our Pop guns and send for the 1st Indiana Jackass Battery. (Our guns &c. are hauled by mules.) Smith’s 16th Corps had not heard of us and wanted to know who in Hell the 1st Indiana was. The Rebs laughed and said or told them if 1st Indiana wasn’t along, they (the 16th Corps) was fooling away their time. So we were sent for. As we landed our guns, we were cheered from all sides. The infantry worshiped our big guns. Light artillery is not much act now days, as they cannot effect earthworks and infantry are required to carry an ax & shovel to so many men and before going to sleep they throw up a line of breastworks sufficient to protect them from a surprise and they can soon do it if they learn of a battery approaching. But 6 & 12-pound rifle shot & shell are hard to dodge on open ground as I can testify to for I tried it one morning some 10 days ago. I never heard brush rattle so in my life nor I never wanted to leave a place so much.

Tell Deb to write as soon as she arrives in Durant & I will answer. I know not when I may write again but expect to hear from me soon. I found our nigger blacksmith today at the car shop at Woodville, Mississippi. He is a nigger soldier. It done me as much good as to have found a white man.

I have not seen C. Barclay again. I cannot find his regiment — 35th Iowa.

I remain very respectfully your obedient son. — R. H. C.

Address: New Orleans, La.

A Battery of the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery at Port Hudson in 1863
A Battery of the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery at Port Hudson in 1863

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