These delightful and entertaining — sometimes humorous — letters were written by William “Stuart” Walker (1839-1907) of Mason City, Illinois. Stuart was the son of William Hammer Walker (1797-1859) and Ann Harris (1807-1844). He wrote all of the letters to his older brother, James Alexander Walker (1833-1911) — a physician in Mason City.
W. Stuart Walker enlisted as a musician on 25 May 1861 in Co. K, 17th Illinois Infantry. At the time of his enlistment, Stuart identified himself as an “artist.” Enlistment papers recorded him standing 5′ 7½” with brown hair and brown eyes, light complexion, and unmarried. Though he enlisted for three years, he was discharged prematurely at Pittsburg Landing after a year in the service suffering from chronic diarrhea only a couple of weeks after the Battle of Shiloh in which he was a participant. His discharge date was recorded as 24 April 1862. After returning home to Illinois, Stuart apparently regained his health to a degree and volunteered to serve in a civilian capacity with the boys of Mason City who had enlisted in the 85th Illinois infantry. There are seven letters included in this collection written while Stuart served in the 17th Illinois; there are four more written while he served as a civilian cook for the officers in the headquarters of the 85th Illinois. It isn’t known whether he accompanied the 85th throughout the balance of their service. His last letter was written in Rossville, Georgia, in September 1863.
After the war, Stuart returned to Mason City where he eventually (1869) married Margaret (“Maggie”) Montross. In 1870, Stuart (age 31) was the editor of the Mason City News in Mason City, Mason Co., Illinois. His wife, Maggie (age 22), was keeping house and caring for their infant son named William. By 1880, Stuart had moved his family to Los Galos, California, where he found employment as a printer. He died in San Jose on 29 November 1907 and is buried in Los Gatos Memorial Park at San Jose, Santa Clara, California. His headstone is of the standard Union soldier shield design, identifying him as a “musician” in Co. K, 17th Illinois.
In Stuart’s letters, he frequently mentions Dr. James Philander Walker (1826-1892) of Mason City, Illinois. “J. P.” or “Cap” — as he called him — was the Captain of Co. K, 17th Illinois in which he served. J. P. was also his cousin — the son of his Uncle Joseph Culton Walker (1786-1841) and his Aunt Lucretia (Fletcher) Walker (1786-1841). J. P. was also the Lt. Col. of the 85th Illinois with whom Stuart was connected, as stated previously.
This letter was written from Peoria, Illinois, where the members of the 17th Illinois assembled and began their drilling.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
May 16, 1861
As I had nothing very pressing to do this morning, I thought I would drop a few lines to yourself by way of letting you know that we are still here and likely to remain for some time although there is some talk of us going to St. Louis or Cairo but we don’t know anything certain about it.
There is lively times here now. There is ten companies here on the ground now — a full regiment. Companies are drilling all over the ground — some in uniform and some not. We are of the not kind. We will elect our regimental officers soon — perhaps today. There is a fair show for Capt. Ross of Fulton Co. for Colonel and some talk of J. P. [Walker] being our Major. I’ll tell you Jim, it’s no fun to be a soldier. There is a strict guard kept now of 100 men and if we bat our eye once, they tell us to halt — and if we repeat it, they call the officer of the guard — and if we do it again, they charge bayonet. Everybody is well, I believe. No very late news.
The troops in Cairo is encamped in mud and water. They have to have their beds fixed up on platforms, so I understand. You must excuse my writing. Andy McLaerin and me is both writing on Doc’s [J. P. Walker’s] trunk. Our pen holders are pine sticks and our pens tied on with strings. All our company was made up and sworn in before we got here. They had a hard time to get in. All the Mason City boys are bound to go the whole hog. Dayton Ragan and all the other boys are regulars.
The time passes on very slow. If we stay three years, I for one will be as greyheaded as a — as a — regular. Nearly all the boys says it has been at least three months since we came here but I guess we will get weaned after awhile. But we will be calves for some time yet or I’m no regular. I shall look out for you up here next week. Gentlemen and ladies come to visit their friends nearly every day. I did not get in till last Monday and I guess we don’t get any pay for two months and [ ] says [ ] we don’t really know anything about it.
Jim, there’s a lot of shenanigans about this soldiering but it don’t do to say anything about it.
Jim, if you can collect a little money for me, it would help me very much in the way of getting writing material and such like articles. There is very little money in the army — at least in our company. Hardly any of the privates have any red.
Tell my girl to cast a fun stray thought on the bold soldier boy. I guess I’ll have to quit as dinner is almost ready. I could write for a week but it would not be regular. So ho! for the bacon and beans. I don’t know who feeds us but it costs somebody like the devil to keep us in provisions for eight or nine hundred men eats considerably.
Porter is here yet and is going to stay two weeks anyhow. He got badly scared yesterday. There was a company from [ ] that lacked two or three men to make up their [rosters?] and to fill the company up, Porter enlisted with the understanding that they would get another man in his place and after we had put his name down, they got their company filled with [ ] and went to swear them in but Porter swore nary time but backed out a little the most scared man you ever heard of.
— W. S. Walker
After spending about one month at Peoria, engaged in drilling and making preparation for service, the 17th Illinois Regiment was transported by steamboats to Alton, Illinois, where they went into camp and spent another month in drilling. About the middle of July, they were transported by steamers to St. Charles, Missouri, and then by railroad to Warrenton, where they spent a week.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
Warrenton Station, N. M. R. R. [North Missouri Railroad], Missouri
July 21st 1861
We left Alton on the 18th at 10 o’clock at night and arrived at St. Charles about noon the next day and in less than one hour we captured the secession flag and two secessionists. Capt. J[ames] P. Walker [of Co.K] captured the first one. The oath of allegiance was administered to them and they was glad to escape with their lives. We then went out in the edge of town and camped in the loveliest place I ever beheld. I would give $10 if I had the picture of our camp at St. Charles.
In the morning at 4 o’clock, we struck our tents and moved up in town and got on the cars and such a train I never saw in my life before. Two engines was hitched on and a third went on before to see that all was right and then with a shriek and a jerk and the Gallant 17th was thundering along through the Rebel country of Missouri. It was a ride full of interest. Our train was nearly 400 yards long and the soldiers all [ar]ranged along at an outward face with loaded guns grasped in our hands, peering in the dark woods as we passed looking for the bands of guerrillas that we heard was watching the road. But we was not molested although we saw one company of men in the woods but they fled in terror. It is said our regiment is the first Union band that has escaped being fired on as they passed this way. I guess there is truth in it for the sides of the cars had lots of fresh bullet holes in them.
I tell you, Uncle Sam is waking things up out here. We are taking possession of this railroad as we go. Hecker’s [24th Illinois] Regiment went on about 15 miles further this morning and the 15th [Illinois] with the cavalry will be here this evening. We are camped within fifty yards of the railroad and woe be it to the man that passes the guard now without proving that he is a friend to the Union.
As we passed along yesterday, it was funny to see the niggers come out behind the corner of the house and wave their hats. Poor things. They seem to think that the day of grace had come to them. I believe the majority of white people cheered us as we came along — whether through fear or love for the Stars and Stripes, I can’t say.
Just as the train stopped at our camp ground, one old nigger ran into a house by the roadside and hollered to his master and said, “Lord God, Massa, dere is de biggest train ab cars come and dere is a million ab men on it and ebry man got a gun.” I have not heard whether Sambo is alive yet or not. I believe the idea seems to be among the Secesh that we have come to slay and eat and lay waste to the whole country. For instance, Lieut. [John Quincy Adams] Jones was out in the country today some distance from camp and went to a house for a drink of water and before he got quite to it, an old woman came out almost scared to death and said she had lived there 20 years and had never been hurt by anybody. Poor old lady. The Lieut. told her she was tolerable safe yet if you answer this right quick.
Direct it [your letter] to St. Charles. Although [it] is fifty miles from here, it is the nearest P.O. where we know the people are all right. The Post Master at this place is [an] awful disunion man. Jim, from this on you can’t expect to hear from us with any regularity. Perhaps the Missouri Democrat will be the only source. You can write to us and I expect we will get the letters generally. The neighbors here say there has been no mail here from the Northern States for a month.
No more at present. Perhaps the next you will hear of us we will be at St. Jo or Jefferson City. Can’t tell where. The part of Missouri we have come through so far is the prettiest country I ever saw. I am determined to settle in it if I live.
My love to all the friends. Your brother, — W. S. Walker
Our days of idleness has passed and the time for action has come. Our boys have been warned by our friendly neighbors not to wander away from camp or we may be prevented from returning by the rebel dogs that is prowling around through the country in search of small parties. The boys are all well. It is pouring down rain. I don’t know what county St. Charles is in but direct your letters to St. Charles, Missouri, and I guess they will get to us.
— W. S. Walker, musician, Co. K, 17th Regt. Ills. Volunteers
[to] J. A. Walker, Mason City, Ills.
I seem lots of tobacco fields yesterday and lots of niggers working in them. They looked woolly.
The 17th Illinois Regiment was then ordered to St. Louis where it became a part of the command of Gen. Fremont and accompanied him August 1 on his expedition to Cairo via steamers.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
On Board the Jennie Deans
August 1st 1861
J. A. Walker
We got on board of the boat last night but laid over till now waiting for our fleet to all get ready to start together and just now — amid the booming of cannons — we have got underway and maybe further. I just now got your letter and you can’t say how glad I was to hear from home. Jim, I can’t express the emotions I feel while I write this letter as the houses of St. Louis are rapidly receding from view. It does indeed seem like we are leaving the world behind. The soldiers was paid off yesterday and since then I am sorry to say the scene almost beggars description. Drinking and licentiousness in every form has been the order of the day but thank God these things can’t last long for their money will soon be gone. I will add that Co. K has borne the best name of any in the regiment. May it continue.
Our fleet consists of seven noble steamers carrying about five thousand well-armed soldiers with cannons. ¹ It is a fine sight. We are all going down in a line close together. Jim Hardis was on board our boat today — has just come through Arkansas. He says the rebels are coming to meet us in great numbers and well-armed and are confident of giving us thunder. We are prepared to meet them. 10 days from now, Jim, Mason County will be very apt to take her chance in the stern game of war. May she prove herself worthy of the trust that has been reposed in her. Excuse such writing as this — the boat shakes so.
O such weather I never felt the like before. Jim, if you want to know how your humble servant looks at this time a day, just picture to yourself a good-looking sort of a fellow sitting by the table in the cabin with both sleeves rolled up and shirt collar unbuttoned and a small bowie knife with a 10-inch blade in my belt and you have W. S. Walker in his everyday costume ready to drill, fight, eat dinner, or anything else at any time.
The captain [James P. Walker] got a letter from our [home] today. I read it with pleasure. Was very glad I had not been forgotten. You must all write often after this. It is uncertain when we can write but will do so whenever we can. I could stand to follow the war all my life as long as J. P. [James P. Walker] is along. As for myself, if I should fall, it would not be so bad. But if he falls, soldiering would be a dreary life to me.
I have been keeping a diary so far so you may expect when the war is over to read something dreadful.
I have just been out on the side of the boat to take a view of things. It is a grand sight to see the boats going down the Mississippi covered with soldiers — their bright bayonets glistening in the sun. We are nearing the Jefferson Barracks. I will have to cease. The boys are all well. Goodbye.
— W. Stuart Walker
General John C. Fremont is along with us. ² It is worth three months fighting to see him.
¹ The St. Louis Democrat published on 5 August 1861 the departure of the steamers from St. Louis on 1 August: “From the levee a very interesting spectacle presented itself, at about noon, to hundreds of spectators. On the firing of a signal gun, the steamers Empress, War Eagle, Jennie Deans, Warsaw, and City of Alton, simultaneously backed from the wharf, and dropped anchor in mid-stream. The movement was executed with admirable precision and fine effect. These steamers, with the Louisiana, January and Graham, constitute the military fleet of eight vessels to proceed down the Mississippi. Each bears aloft the Stars and Stripes, while the City of Alton, as the ‘flag-steamer,’ shows also the Union Jack and a broad pennon. The gallant vessels attracted much attention, and every movement respecting them was watched with keen interest.”
² The St. Louis Democrat reported that Major-Gen. Fremont and his staff were on board the City of Alton steamer.
On August 3, the 17th Illinois Regiment went into camp at Bird’s Point, Missouri, and was engaged for about two weeks in building fortifications. They were then ordered up the Mississippi to a landing about thirty miles below St. Louis known as “Sulphur Springs” and then by railroad to Ironton, Missouri, where the regiment was encamped for a short time. While there, the officers of the regiment were introduced to Brig. Gen. U. S. Grant who had recently received his commission as brigadier general.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FOUR
Ironton, Iron county, Missouri
August 19th, 1861
As I have not heard from you for some time and have not wrote any for about two weeks, I will endeavor to give you a short sketch of what I have been doing in that time.
We left Bird Point on the morning of the 15th enroute for Pilot Knob on the Chancellor — the slowest boat that was ever beheld by the eyes of man. They had to run her ashore once to bail the water out and keep her from sinking. We were two days and one night going from Bird Point to the Sulphur Springs twenty miles below St. Louis [where] we landed. We got there on the night of the 16th and went ashore and slept on the bank. Got up the next morning feeling dreadful — wanted to fight somebody but didn’t know who so concluded to say nothing about it. Good idea, wasn’t it?
We took the cars about 5 o’clock P.M. and we were soon flying over the great Iron Mountain Railroad at a speed that seemed to laugh at the wind. Sometimes we ran along the edge of precipices three or four hundred feet high halfway between the top and bottom. Oh, it is worth a trip across the sea to take a ride to the Great Iron Mountains. As we caught the last glimpse of the distant shores of Illinois, we waved our hats and hollered out goodbye.
We reached DeSoto about 10 o’clock at night where the cars stopped for a few minutes. The band played the Star Spangled Banner to a large crowd when away we went. A little after we left there, we passed through a long tunnel. I tell you things looked dark there. we reached Pilot Knobb yesterday about 10 o’clock A.M. As quick as the cars stopped, I jumped off and threw myself on the ground and in two minutes was in the land of dreams. Al the troubles of the past few days were forgotten. I dreamed I was at home and was just going to sit down and eat dinner when someone gave me a pull. I awoke and saw Jim Neely standing by me and says he, “Now is your time, Stuart, if you want some crackers to eat.” Now was not that provoking? to be waked up just as I was going to eat that big dinner at home. Of course I went with Jim.
In the evening I went up to the top of Pilot Knob. Jim, I will tell you of that visit when I come home but as that may be a long time from now, I will give you a short description of it now. There are railroads running up to the top of it. I walked on one of them as I could get a fast hold on the ties. All along the road, great chunks of iron ore about the size of Richey House lay strewn along the road. At last I reached the top [and] such a sight I never saw before. Great masses of iron leered up on all sides. The knob is about 500 feet high and all composed of pure iron ore. On all the adjacent cliffs could be seen covered with large boulders of the heavy metal.
The town of Pilot Knob lat at the foot of the mountain on the north side and down on the south side is Ironton where we are encamped, while all around through the valleys and among the hills were scattered the white tents of our soldiers. There are about 10,000 here now, I believe. Fremont is going to concentrate 20,000 troops here. Our regiment is going to Fredericktown tomorrow about 20 miles from here. It has been raining all day and if it continues tomorrow, [we] will have a wet march of it. What we ever left Bird Point for is a mystery to me as Fremont never consulted me about it. I think I’ll report him before long.
Of course you’ve heard all about the Springfield fight. It was a glorious victory to the Union boys and if Lyon had been reinforced before the battle, the Rebel army in Missouri would have been annihilated. The death of General Lyon has cast a gloom [over] the whole land but Siegel lives yet. His name is a terror to the Secessionist in Missouri. Some of Col. Hecker’s men [27th Illinois] have just brought in twelve rebel prisoners. They took them while they were at dinner. I must go and see them in a few minutes.
All our boys are able to go around although Columbus Patterson and William Montgomery have been unwell for several days. I still remain right side up with care. Jim, you ought to write to some of the boys. Dan Fisher says he wrote to you — the first person he wrote to — and has never got any answer. I would write to him as he has turned out to be a pretty steady fellow. Write to Columbus [Patterson] also. In fact, write to all of us — to me especially. Write great thundering big letters as I don’t so very much on these little letters. Do you? Say do you?
There is some of the best springs around here I ever saw. Within three quarters of a mile of our camp, there is fine good springs of cold water all running out of the solid rock. I think I would like to spend all my days around these celebrated Iron Mountains.
I wonder if I hadn’t better stop writing. I’ll leave it to you (I fancy I hear you say do, for goodness sake). The captain sends his best love to you all. Also the boys does the same to you. As for the girls, I have nothing to say for I know them not. I am rapidly filling up my journal. It will be noted for its devoidness of anything sensible or entertaining. No more at present but remain your warm brother, W. S. Walker
Write soon and often directing to Ironton, Iron Co., Mo. Letters by way of St. Louis, I believe it will be the best plan.
From Ironton, Missouri, the 7th Illinois Regiment was ordered to move to Fredericktown, Missouri, and garrison the place. After remaining there about a week, they were attached to the command of Gen. Prentiss and accompanied him to Jackson, then to Cape Girardeau, reaching the latter place 2 September 1861.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FIVE
August 28th 1861
J. A. Walker, M.D.
Having just eaten one of the best dinners I ever sat down since I have been in camp (we had apple dumplings, peach dumplings, good friend beef steak, and all such other things that go to make up a la French made), I feel ready to go at you again. I wrote to you the other day but I have seen so much today and we are going to leave here tomorrow, [so] I concluded to send you a few lines more. We — our company — had been out on another scouting expedition. We had been traveling all afternoon yesterday over the stony ground and watched all night for the enemy but saw none and had come back to camp hungry, tired, and sleepy.
I ate breakfast and laid down in the tent and was soon buried in sleep but was soon aroused up by some of the boys. I went out to the land where nearly all the 17th was gathered and soon beheld the cause of all the noise my ears was nearly deafened with. It was part of Fremont’s army coming up. Oh Jim, it made us feel as only soldiers can feel. Here we had been for a week 30 miles from any Union troops and the sneaking citizens a hinting to us every day that the 17th [Illinois] Regiment would soon be no more — that [Gideon J.] Pillow & [William J.] Hardee would soon cut us to pieces. I tell you, Jim, when we heard the rolling of the drums and saw the head of one column coming through the woods from the direction of Pilot Knob with the old Star Spanged Banner proudly floating in the breeze, then we knew the camels were coming. First came Old Hecker’s Regiment [24th Illinois] — the terror of all evil doers, then the savage 17th [should be 15th] Illinois and Buell’s Battery close behind. They passed on to their camping ground a little the other side of Frederick, then came the Iowa 2nd with M. M. Crocker ¹ (now Colonel) at their head mounted on a cream-colored horse. He presents a fine military appearance. The next was the Iowa 7th, then the 7th Illinois, Col. Curtis commanding. I seen an old Mason City Dickinson in their martial band beating a drum like blazes. Lastly came a company of cavalry 100 strong and the baggage wagons stretching out 2 or 3 miles.
They were about 6,000 strong. Their columns were nearly two hours passing our camp. They are now pitching their tents close by us. They will stay here a day or two and tomorrow we will go on as the advance guard. I do not know our destination. Something will no doubt take place soon as the sick are all being sent back to Ironton [Missouri]. Thank God that I am one of the well boys. I feel just like hollering who wouldn’t be a soldier at everybody I see. I have got so I don’t care for fatigue, hunger, or anything else in particular. I can go all day over the roughest ground that ever was put up and carry a mule’s load and at night lay down anywhere and with a stone for my pillow sleep as sweet as though on a bed of down.
[Dan] Maslander is not very well today. I think he has overtasked himself marching [and] doing without sleep so much in the last week. If he gets sick and good care and attentiveness will cure him, he will not suffer while I stay about.
The most of the company are well. I did not write this letter with the expectation of sending you any news of any importance but I felt so good with the coming of the soldiers I had to tell it to somebody & if you can read it with as much pleasure as I have wrote it, everything will be O.K. Write soon. I have wrote three to you so far. Tell [ ] he has not heard the last of me yet. If I know anything about [ ]. I’ll bet you 10 cts you can’t read this page.
Yours with a good appetite, — W. S. Walker
¹ Marcellus Monroe Crocker (1830-1865) was born in Franklin, Indiana. He entered the United States Military Academy in 1847, but left at the end of his second year. He subsequently studied law and practiced in Des Moines, Iowa. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he entered the army as the captain of the 2nd Iowa Infantry in May 1861. He was promoted to colonel of the 13th Iowa Infantry on December 30, 1861. Crocker fought with distinction in the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, where he assumed command of a brigade during the first day. He commanded the “Iowa Brigade” at the Second Battle of Corinth in October, 1862. He was promoted to brigadier general on November 29, 1862. The following year, he participated in the Vicksburg Campaign, conducting a raid in Mississippi. Crocker had brought his brigade to a high state of discipline, and it was nicknamed “Crocker’s Greyhounds” for its swift marching ability.
Under the command of Gen. Prentiss, the 17th Illinois Regiment moved to Jackson, then to Cape Girardeau, reaching the latter place September 2, 1861.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER SIX
Jackson, Girardeau Co., Missouri
September 3rd 1861
As the mail is being made up to send to the [ ], I take advantage of the few intervening moments to write you a short letter since leaving Fredericktown. We have had a tolerable tough time as the road between here and that place is nothing but hills and rocks. We arrived here on Sunday evening, tired and hungry. I do not know how long we will stay but of course not long for we will soon be after Hardee. He is falling back to Pillow’s army. Last Saturday as our army came along they were short of provisions owing to the train being far behind and [Benjamin M.] Prentiss gave orders to take anything that we wanted to eat for about 10 miles. I never saw such times in my life. Cattle, hogs, sheep, [and] chickens all shared the same fate as the boys said — because they would not take the oath.
[Charles C.] Fremont has declared Missouri under martial law. We are authorized to shoot every man away from home with arms in his possession and not friends to the Union.
Our army at this place is somewhere near 11,000 — cavalry included. Soldiering in spite of all its hardships has something so exciting about it that I believe a man could be entirely weaned from his home and friends for life to follow the fife and drum. Jim, I would give a month’s wages if you could see even one little army coming through the deep woods of Old Missouri. If you could only stand on some of the hills after we have passed and then look ahead and see us on our winding way with a noise that would almost wake the dead [is] a scene well worth portraying. To hear the infantry’s heavy tread, and the martial bands a playing.
Since leaving Fredericktown, our army has captured nearly a 100 horses and twenty or thirty prisoners. we have had no fighting yet. About 1500 rebels from Hardee’s army had posted themselves at Dallas but fled at our approach.
Henri Lovie ¹ and the correspondent of the New York Tribune is with us. Of course they are looking out for something. Perhaps you can see something of our doings in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated before long.
Now for a little business affairs. I want you to take those two notes on Hamilton and Dolcates and collect them if possible and use the money any way you wish to as money has no charms for me while I am following the war path as I have no reason to use it since coming in Missouri. Here lately, when any of us wants [to] take us [something], we step off the road to some old rebel’s tobacco house and lay in what we want. We make all the cigars we want to.
Columbus Patterson ² is about well and sends his love to all the folks. I got a letter from Ann and Cousin Eliza. I would write to both of them today but I hear that we have to march in a few hours and the mail is nearly made up. Tell Cousin Eliza that I am confident that I did miss a great deal in not seeing her. Tell her to recollect the war will be over some time and then [ ] out.
No more, Jim, at this time. Write soon. Goodbye. — W. S. Walker
¹ Henri Lovie (1829-1875) worked in Cincinnati as a painter and illustrator until 1859. In 1860, Lovie joined Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper as a special artist. He was sent in February 1861 to follow Abraham Lincoln from Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C. for the presidential inauguration. Lovie joined General George McClellan’s army in Washington. He sketched the battle of Philippi and the West Virginia mountains. In June 1861, he joined the Federal Expeditionary Forces going up the Missouri River under the command of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyons to capture Jefferson City and Boonville. The campaign ended with a Union retreat after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek where Lovie recorded the death of General Lyons. Lovie escaped to Lebanon, Kentucky drawing scenes of battles at Munfordville, Kentucky and Stones River, Tennessee where he recorded the death of Colonel Julius Garesche. (2091, 2088)* He returned to Cincinnati after the war but moved to Philadelphia in 1868 to complete a life-size bronze figure of a soldier, which stands as a war memorial in Springfield, Ohio.
² Christopher Columbus Patterson was a recruit from Mason City in Co. K, 17th Illinois Infantry. He enlisted on 23 July 1861. He later transferred to Co. A, 8th Illinois Infantry.
On 8 February 1862, the 17th Illinois Regiment were taken by boat to Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. On the 11th, they received orders to take two days’ rations and leave all tents and camp equipage in charge of a camp guard, and report to Gen. John A. McClernand, commanding the right division of the advance on Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. They arrived within view of the outer defenses of the fort on the 12th. The brigade to which the 17th Illinois was attached also included the 48th and 49th Illinois Regiments, and Capt. McCallister’s Battery.
On the 13th, Gen. McClernand ordered the brigade to make an assault on the enemy’s works with a view of capturing a battery which had been annoying our troops very much. After charging up to within a few yards of the works, it was found impossible to get inside; the order was given by Gen. Grant to withdraw, which was done in good order under a severe fire of shot and shell from the battery. Col. Morrison of the 49th Illinois (leading the Brigade) was severely wounded while on his horse leading the charge; loss of the 17th regiment was quite severe. On the 14th of February, the 17th regiment lay under fire all day; during the afternoon it rained and by night turned quite cold, and by morning of the 15th there was two inches of snow on the ground, much to the discomfort of the troops. While in line waiting for orders, the regiment was a target for the gunners in the fort, who got such good range that the second shell killed four men in the four right companies and wounded two others.
On Sunday, the 16th of February, the 17th Illinois regiment was in line ready for the general assault which was to be made all along the line, when, to the joy of all, a messenger came galloping up with the information that the enemy had surrendered to General Grant. The regiment was soon inside the works. The loss of the regiment was: killed, 14; wounded, 58; captured, 7; total, 79. From the date of the surrender on the 16th of February to the 4th of March, the 17th Illinois remained in camp at Fort Donelson.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER SEVEN
February 20th 1862
As Hibberd got here this evening. I feel so full of enthusiasm that I must give vent to some of it by writing to you. I cannot give you much of an idea of the big battle in which we were engaged but it was terrible indeed. The enemy had once one hundred cannon playing at us for four days. I thought I had heard nearly all kinds of music but I never heard such music as was played over our heads around Fort Donelson.
Jim, you must not be startled when I tell you my idea of the loss. I speak of both sides. I wrote to Captain and told him I thought the loss on both sides would come up to three thousand. Since then I have been over the field and have heard lots of officers’ opinions in regard to it and I believe that on both sides in killed and wounded will exceed seven thousand. The loss on both sides are about the same. Perhaps the Federal loss was the heaviest. Just think of it. Last Wednesday we attacked the Fort, and this is Wednesday again and there are still poor soldiers laying on the battlefield unburied.
You may want to know how I like fighting. I will only say that I will follow the 17th [Illinois Infantry] to the gates of death but I am in hopes we may never get in such a place as we was last Thursday. Look a here, James, last Thursday 10 minutes after 2 o’clock P.M. until nearly 3 o’clock, we were within 100 yards of the enemy’s entrenchments with two field batteries playing on us all the time besides about 2,000 infantry. They rained a perfect storm of iron hail amongst all the time. Our regiment and the 49th Illinois stood the whole brunt without flinching till we was ordered to fall back under the hill. Almost every tree and bush was cut off and some of our boys was hurt by the falling timber. A bomb shell burst within two feet of [Andrew J.] Bruner and me and flew all over us and tore one man’s gun that was next to us all to pieces. How our company escaped so well, I don’t know without it was owing to our laying so close to the ground.
What we will do next, I can’t say. There are various rumors. I understand that Clarksville is evacuated and the garrison fallen back in Nashville. This is a lovely place now. Our camp stretches for miles up and down the river. It was worth a lifetime to see the State of Illinois marching into Fort Donelson. Our bands came in playing Dixie and then covered it up with Yankee Doodle. The Rebels all had blankets made of fine Brussel’s carpet. They was fixed as well as I ever seen soldiers anywhere. If I had have had any way to have got them home, I could have got a great many things that I would have liked to have had. As it was, I only got a fine English rifled musket (shoots 900 yards) and a big knife of the Mississippi Butcher notoriety and a secesh blanket (having thrown mine away in the fight) and a canteen and some other little things home as mementoes.
Our boys are getting along fine although many are near worn out — myself among the rest. We never knew what soldiering was till lately. 18,000 prisoners — that’s so.
Hibberd says George is coming tomorrow. I will be glad to see him. Tell Cap I seen Pete Smith ¹ and Jo Bowers today. They were on the Louisville in the action. The gunboats only dismounted one gun. The Rebel guns commanded the river for 2 miles. Their big Dalgrens played the very devil with our war boats. They threw a long ball weighing 166 lbs. clear through the Louisville.
Jim, I wish you was here to see Hibberd. He is sitting out by a big fire with all our company around him. Everyone is talking and Mo Esy [Frank Moseley?] is going through all the antics of a monkey.
I will close as tis late. write soon. Tell Cap we would all like to see him very much. We don’t get any papers here, no letters, and no nothing anymore.
Dick Yates came down here this evening with about 1200 men for nurses. Bully for him, Tell Cap he is no cow. Don’t fail to write the next you hear from us. We may be at Nashville or some other seaport. Tell all the girls to look out for promising young men about home as the great southern expedition — when it returns — will find many of the Illinois boys on the missing roll. I will write to all the friends whenever I get a chance.
Stamps are a great deal scarcer than Rebels. I will send you a rebel stamp that I got in the fort and Jim, I wish you would send me a Union stamp. What d’ye say? Yours as ever, — W. S. Walker
Tell Cap to write soon.
¹ Peter Smith of Maso City, Illinois, enlisted in Co. K, 17th Illinois Infantry on 29 May 1861. He transferred out of the regiment to serve on a Union gunboat in January 1862. This letter tells us he was on the gunboat Louisville during the Battle of Fort Donelson.
The following four letters were written while W. Stuart Walker served the 85th Illinois Regiment in a civilian capacity as a cook — running the mess for the officers of the regiment, two of who were his cousins.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER EIGHT
July 8th 1863
J. A. Walker
I did not intend to write to you until I got to Nashville but now as tis doubtful when we will get there, I concluded to drop you a few lines by the wayside. Jim, was you ever at Louisville? If not, you never saw it. ‘O, its many sights that I have seen’ since leaving Mason City, so to speak.
Our communication seems to be cut off with Nashville via railroad. [Brig. Gen. John Hunt] Morgan is making another raid through Kentucky. Some think he is close to Louisville and coming closer all the time. There was great excitement night before last [6 July 1863] in consequence of an alarm being raised that Morgan was almost in sight of Louisville. Bells were rung, cannon fired, soldiers formed in line, citizens ordered out to the works to defend the place while the women and children crowded the streets whispering with white lips. The foe they come — they come, so to speak.
But all has once more become quiet only to be raised up again by the news that Vicksburg has surrendered with 24,000 prisoners. If it’s only true, it’s a big thing. They had a rousing time in New Albany [Indiana] last night [7 July 1863] over it. Balloons and rockets were sent up. Martial bands paraded the streets. Cannons thundered forth their mighty notes until it seemed the Ohio River was being lifted from its bed.
I have but little to write. This is a beautiful place. Louisville, New Albany, Portland, all in plain view with the music of the Falls of Louisville playing in the [ ]. I don’t wonder that it caused the Red Man to mourn when he was forced to quit the country that lays along the banks of the beautiful river. Ohio — thy name shall ever bring a thrill of pleasurable emotions to my heart whenever I think of thy picturesque banks and crystal waters. Great cities, clouded with smoke and roaring with the din of business, lovely villages peering up on every hand endowed with beauties of the grand romantic and picturesque that I thought existed only under the hand of the painter — all are thine. O, that I had the mind of a Byron — the imagination of Longfellow — to sing praises to the land we live in as we wander through her changing scenes, every step unfolding new beauties to the eye. But you will wear of this style. But bear with me, my brother, for I am far from Illinois and all the girls that live therein. That alone ought to suffice for digressions.
[John H.] Duvall ¹ and myself paid a visit to the tomb of [James D.] Porter — the giant of Kentucky. His height was seven feet, eight inches.
We expect to start for Nashville today where you will again here from me if we get through safe. I would not wonder if we saw guerrillas before we got there. About one hundred Rebel prisoners were brought through here last evening from Rosecran’s army. They were stout looking fellows.
I will draw my letter to a close. Do not write till further orders. My love to Eliza Ann and Mary and George. I will write to all soon. The weather has been almost unbearable since coming to Louisville. Nothing more at present.
Your brother, — W. S. Walker
P.S. About that wood for Hardin. I don’t think we was indebted to him for more than two loads.
Things ain’t so damned quiet on the Potomac.
¹ First Sergeant John H. Duvall was born in Fleming county, Kentucky, in 1838, removed to Illinois and was married and a school teacher when he enlisted from Mason City. He was chosen third sergeant at the organization of Co. C, 85th Illinois Infantry and served through the Kentucky campaign, receiving a slight wound a the battle of Perryville, Ky. He was promoted first sergeant and served with his company in all the campaigns and actions in which the regiment was engaged until killed at the assault on Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, June 27, 1864. His remains are buried at No. 8726 in the national cemetery at Marietta, Ga.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER NINE
July 26th 1863
J. A. Walker
This is Sunday in camp and that’s why I’m going to write and this is what made me think of it. As I was laying half asleep this morning, my thoughts led me back to the little city on __ R.R. and I fancied I heard the bell at my old schoolhouse calling the folks together. And someone passed by saying that Hoy, the Shulamite, was going to preach and the subject was the fall of Adam, so to speak. So of course I was very anxious to hear a new subject discussed of a man coming from the tribe which liveth east of the land of Egypt, which by interpretation meaneth the land of much corn. So with an attempt to start to church I awoke just in time to hear the last note of [ ] away from the city block tolling, the small but healthy home of 5 pm. So throwing myself aside of my raiment, I went down to the kitchen, woke up my colored man of the tribe of Ham of the name of Sanford, which being interpreted meaneth, fly around and made a noise and get breakfast with a bound, he sprang up saying, “Oh Massa, you find me at de rock in five minutes.”
I have started a mess for the officers. There is six in it so far. Col. [Caleb J.] Dilworth, J. P. Patterson, Borwick, the adjutant [Clark N. Andrus], and Dilworth’s boy. I will tell you how I made it after awhile. Jo Moslander ¹ and I expect to run a picture tent outside of the mess. Jo has been very sick but is getting nearly well now.
[Chaplain Joseph S.] Barwick preaches today over in our sutler store. They have just commenced singing. Somewhat different from the choir of Mason City. No woman’s voice to sweeten the harsh notes of the war trailers but still there is a charm about it that is irresistible. Yonder they go from Fort Negley, from the big camp on the hill, and from [Charles M.] Barnett’s Battery. They are all coming to hear good Barwick.
Jim, I wish you was here. You would see a thing or two. The Contraband from every state with their thrilling tales of Southern life, of Southern hospitality, of Southern barbarity, of Southern heathenism, from every state this side of Mason & Dixon’s line. Henry — the boy after our own heart — is a South Carolina negro and he would make such men as Doctor Deskins [of Mason City, Illinois] blush for manners and good sense if he is a nigger. But hold on, I must go to church for to hear Barwick’s prayer going up to heaven in behalf of our country, the United States. Jim, it’s a big thing to be an American citizen.
I went to Murfreesboro and just before starting back an old citizen came to me and asked me for a little salt that was left lying on the table where we had eaten our dinner. I told him he could have it as our people was not so badly spoilt as to be saving of salt. He said it cost them one dollar a pound. I told him it cost us two cents in America. Can Copperheads ask which side the war affects. I went in to prisons at Murfreesboro and I speak truth when I say that I saw no one that expressed a wish to fight us longer. The time draws near. The end approaches. The giant skeleton of starvation is stalking through the South with fearful strides. They know it. We see it on every hand. I pity the women and children. Nearly the last ear of corn is off the crib. The pig sty is empty. The men all gone (thousands will never come back), and the support of the Rebellion, the hope upon which all their affections were centered. The nigger has gone away and left them and he’ll never come back anymore.
The boys at church have just struck up that very familiar old hymn of Greenville. Oh it goes through my heads like sounds of long ago.
There is a colored regiment being organized here. Tis nearly full and they are well drilled and will make soldiers too for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel.
Dock Patterson is writing here at the same table. He is about the best fellow a man can get with along the journey through this wilderness. [Lt. Col.] J[ames] P. [Walker] has gone down to the city. He is well and is well-liked by all the regiment. All the boys are getting along finely. Bill Beck ² was over to see me. He makes a good soldier. [James] Wallace is getting along as well [as] usual. Does his duty whenever he is able to walk.
I must close not because I can’t say any more but because I hate to write a paper that ain’t ruled. Tell Ann Eliza and George and Mary that I will write all of them soon. Write to me soon, Jim, or I’ll soon forget that I have any acquaintances back in Old Mason. Take care of yourself. Be a good boy, Put your best foot foremost. Play out your biggest trumps and don’t get euchred. Give my love to all but hold on. I ain’t right certain but what I give the most of it away before I left home.
I remain — or rather continue to be — your devoted, affectionate, loyal, Union-loving brother till death or the measles overtake U.S. and then he must stop signing himself, — W. S. Walker
Provate — That note Rosebroe has on that property. Half of it will be due soon. I wish you would pay it off. The whole amount is over sixty some odd dollars. It would some interest. If you can do anything with Stout or Elliott so as to get a deed, make it fast. I wish you would straighten them notes up with Willard. Do not put this thing off, Jim. I will make it all right with you.
¹ Joseph Moslander served in Co. C, 85th Illinois Infantry until his health failed in the Atlanta Campaign. He died at a hospital near Lookout Mountain, Tennessee on 22 July 1864.
² William L. Beck was born in Piqua, Miami county, Ohio, April 23, 1844, removed with his parents to Illinois in 1855, and was farming near Mason City when he enlisted. He served with his company until the close of the war, and was mustered out with the regiment. He is now farming at Rogers, Benton county, Arkansas.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TEN
August 25th 1863
Mr. J. A. Walker
I received a letter from you that Patterson brought and will answer it if I do not freeze out in the attempt. The weather commenced to change last evening and it is now a fair sample of an October morning in the North. We have a lovely place to camp in Dixie. Beats Yankeedom all to pieces for natural beauty = fine horses = running steams = pretty women = nigger equality = and all those things that make this life so pleasant. And the hope of happiness in the hereafter so uncertain.
The duties of the 85th [Illinois] consists in building and repairing the railroad and of course our stay will necessarily be short. It is the impression that we will go on next week. I see a great deal more of Southern life than I ever did before owing to my occupation. I had quite an exhilarating little ride yesterday. I buckled my old companion (revolver) on and mounted the Colonel’s war horse and took Henry, my colored man along and away we went over creek, through cornfields and orchards through groves of evergreens. Stopping at plantations ____ing with the darkies and brandishing our weapons o’er their tow heads, administering the oath and galloping on. Our object was butter — a scarce article worth 50 cents at lb. at Nashville.
We finally hauled up at an old plantation inhabited by colored people. We dismounted and went in, found they had butter and that which was good. We found the old lady had no scales and that suited me for I always thought I was good at guessing so I guessed at a cake weighing about 4½ pounds for which I guessed about fifty cents would pay for and the old woman guessed that would do. We also got a sack of Indian peaches for twenty-five cents (guessed at them too). I then tried to buy an old pony (a perfect ______) which I told Sambo I wanted for Gen. Rosecrans. He said he could not spare dat hoss no how. I thought he was about the sparest object I had seen for sometime.
One old black woman had a cigar box nearly full of Confederate scrip. I tried in my most winning way to coax a. v. from her to send home but she said it had cost her money and she wanted and would have money for it. Says I, “My Christian friend, I’ll bet you two dollars and a half you won’t.” I then, in a very polite manner (characteristic of W.S.) told her that her money was getting of less value every day and was not worth a damn when she first got it. We then bid them an affectionate adieu and galloped back to camp where we had a tremendous big peach cobbler.
I am running a very nice little mess which I will give you their names. I furnish the eatables and they the cooking utensils. I pay my cook ten dollars per month. The mess pay me 3.50 per week each. I can do well at it as long as we are out in the country. Nashville prices are exorbitant. My mess s consists of Col. [Caleb J.] Dilworth, Major [Robert G.] Rider, J[ames] C. Patterson, Rev. Mr. [Joseph S.] Barwick, C[lark N.] Andrus (adjutant), Capt. [Pleasant S.] Scott, Capt. [Samuel] Yates, Capt. [John] Kennedy, Lieut. [Isaac C.] Short, Lieut. [Eli F.] Niekirk and Dilworth’s and Rider’s servants who are second table boarders. We have gay times here in camp. I never enjoyed myself better in my life. There is something going on in camp all the time to make things lively — negro dances — negro minstrels — negro yarns of Southern life in Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana or any other place. You see characters here and hear phrases that seem familiar to anyone that ever read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life in the South.
Payday will soon be here and J. P. and Barwick are busy filling out pay rolls etcetera. It is very cool today. Our chaplain has worn his coat all day and has been enquiring for another but without success so far.
Jim, I feel confident you will be puzzled to read this hieraglyphisical array of letters and characters that I always use to devote words and express thoughts but I never apologize. It beats all why I don’t get more news from Illinois than I have done so far. Perhaps they can’t read my signature.
O my boy, have you read the glowing pages of the American Eagle one of B___’s exchanges whose motto is to fly around and make a noise. I had the pleasure of hear[ing] Gov. [Andrew] Johnson speak in Franklin last Saturday [23 August 1863] on the War Question. I never heard anything to equal it. He exhorted the Tennesseans to open Dixie eyes and rally round the [Union] flag. Democrats here in the army say they never heard anything so eloquent since the great Douglas held the people spellbound by his voice. Parson Brownlow was there and a host of other loyal sons of Tennessee. The soldiers were all out with drums beating and colors flying. Everything went off nicely. Crowds of citizens were on the ground and cheered as the speakers went on and went off to their homes praying that the old Union would soon be re-established and peace smile on them. A crowd of negroes come flocking into our camp yesterday saying they were starving out in front. The whole country is panic stricken. They say they believe the hand of God is in this affair. But I must close.
J. P. [Walker] sends his love to all. Do write soon and often. I subscribe myself your brother as ever, — W. S. Walker
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ELEVEN
In Camp, Rossville [Walker Co.] Georgia
[September 17th 1863]
J. A. Walker
I will endeavor to write you a few lines this morning to let you know how we are progressing. I cannot think of writing an interesting letter. I am nearly worn out losing sleep and marching through the mountains. Such roads — oh ye Gods! I was left in charge of the headquarters wagon at Bridgeport, Alabama, and just got up last evening. We had an awful time. we were two days and a half getting twelve miles. Our wagon turned over once in the mountains smashing things up generally. We are close to the enemy. The front is engaged no doubt and a terrible contest is expected but we have all confidence in the Army of the West.
The country around here puts me much in mind of Shiloh. There is a little parade ground close to our camp similar to the one I crawled over on that terrible 6th of April. Our review commences today (Thursday) just as it did then but little reviews to fill the blank and we are hourly looking and listening for the storm. Bragg and Johnson have a heavy force with them but the valleys and mountain passes have many a noble legion of Northmen encamped in their sequestered shade. Two mighty hosts confront each other.
We have been on the march nearly 4 weeks but we still live and expect to while we exist. The boys are generally well. [Cousin] J. P. [Walker] is enjoying very good health. [James] Wallace is sick. He has something like the erysipelas on his face.
This country is full of dangerous reptiles and inspects. Something of the scorpion kind has bitten several of the boys. Two of the 85th [Illinois] were bitten this morning. One of Battery I’s men was bitten on the march and died soon after. The country which we have passed through is rocky beyond the understanding of man. We can scarcely drive a tent stake in two inches without striking a rock.
I don’t think our boys are fighting merely for the country for it ain’t worth a damn. We are fighting for the Corpus Christi, the American Eagle, and a few other little items not spoken of here. O, has Banes got the Eagle yet? If so, why don’t he say something?
I will close. Give my love to all the relations, friends, and others that enquire of W. S. I will write more when the tide rolls back. I saw the inimitable Dote [?] Ragan a few days ago. He is all right. [ ] Powell’s brother is here.
I was in a cave in Alabama that had been explored [ ]. It was a grand taking. I went into Merrill’s Cave ¹ in the Raccoon Mountains. Of course it looked like the haunt of murderers. I’ve see a thousand grand scenes — a thousand curiosities — through Tennessee, Alabama, & Georgia but they are written in the Book of Chronicles. Goodbye Jim. Don’t forget to write. — W. S. Walker, Sept. 17th ’63
Hold on, I ain’t quite through yet. I don’t expect to write more until I get somewhere. The mail is carried to Bridgeport in a U.S. Wagon six mules at time 100 yards per hour.
Old Baldwin has just come up from Nashville. He is sitting out by the Colonel’s tent giving the crowd a history of his adventure.
While at Bridgeport I went out with a forage train down the Tennessee river. When about 8 miles from camp, I stopped at a house to buy some dried fruit. The train went on and I was to meet them at the crossroads. The people at whose house I stopped were named Hurt and they had two good-looking girls. I stayed longer than I should have done and when I started, it was sundown and I could not find anything of the boys so I was a long ways from home and the country full of guerrillas and the darkest valleys and the deepest woods that ever grew. I studied the matter over, called a council [I], and put it to vote whether to try and find the train or to find the camp. I was mounted in the adjutant’s horse (a splendid animal) and had my revolver along which I had loaded seven times before starting. The latter course was adopted so I set out and although I listened for bullets to hear someone cry out in highwayman’s tones to halt, or a bullet to whiz by or in me, but nary halt nor whiz. I trusted to my horse to find the way back to camp which he did about ten o’clock and I hain’t been to Hurt’s since we left next day.
Once more we will quit. Once more we will sign our name, — W. S. Walker
Chief Cook at Headquarters, 85th Ills.
Write soon and tell the rest to write soon. J. P. [Walker] sends his love and respects to all. Hurrah for the Southern Coast — we’re bound to go there too. We’ve built our camp fires on Alabama soils as we come marching along (sing Halleluyah).
¹ I asume this is what is now known as the Merrill Rift Cave in Jackson county, Alabama.