1865 DIARY OF UNIDENTIFIED QUARTERMASTER/ADJUTANT—26TH WISCONSIN INFANTRY

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Brown leather ledger, 3.5 x 5.5”. Covers scuffed, worn and detached. Writing on the cover, now faint, reads, “Issues to Company”. Inner pages exhibit light foxing throughout. Diary entries in pencil, some quite faded, while remaining 98% legible.

The 26th Wisconsin was an almost exclusively “German” regiment, organized at Milwaukee’s Camp Sigel, Sept-Oct., 1862. Sent to Washington, the unit was attached to the Army of the Potomac, 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 11th Corp, with which it served through the Battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg; transferring to the Western theater, it was later attached to 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division 20th Corps, with which it served through the Atlanta Campaign and Sherman’s March to the Sea and through the Carolinas, concluding in with the Battle of Bentonville. Mustered out following the Grand Review in Washinton , the unit lost during service 188 killed or mortally wounded, for a total of 265.

Although the author never identifies himself, his early quartermaster listings from “Camp Sigel” [Milwaukee] tie his regiment to Wisconsin. And, his mention of “Colonel Winkler, “the second and final colonel of the 26th Wisconsin, completes the regimental identification, with a handful of fleeting references to the “26th” occurring in later entries.

As for the unidentified author’s rank, from his early quartermaster listings he seems to have served through the war as staff and field quartermaster, receiving an adjutant’s commission very near the end, March 26, 1865. That he was well educated is attested by the sophisticated syntax of his opening January 1, 1865 entry. To wit:

“In Camp near Savannah/ Jany, 1st 1864 [actually 1865]…..Once more after a long interval of neglect, I commence journaling the passing events of my life or at least the rest of my life as a soldier. I promise not to neglect my little pocket diary. New years day has past and has brought with it no item of particular interest. For a clime so far south as this it is incredibly cold and disagreeable. We are laying under marching orders & probably shall cross the river in a day or two.”

The 26th was then boated across the river into South Carolina and on January 3, the author mention his colonel by name: “There was a reconnaissance party that went from the Regt. today…As soon as Colonel Winkler heard the firing he went out to support the detail with 20 men. As soon as he came to the field of action he sent a flanking party. The Johnnies soon smeld a ____ and skedaddled.”

Most entries from here on contain commentary on daily marches and light skirmishing and fighting. With also news from afar. To wit:

Jany 8…No news to day, except the meager dispatch in the Savannah Republican that (Gen. Ben) Butler had returned to Fortress Monroe with his expeditionary fleet all safe, & that Porter was still thundering at the gates of Wilmington (NC).

Jany 28…Received a letter from my old friend G.D. The loss of so many companions and friends with the past year makes those that are left doubly dear to me. And a letter of friendship is received with untold thankfulness.

Feb. 17…Reports that Columbia was yesterday taken by the 15th Corps. [And also burned, though controversy continues to rage as to whether the fires were accidental or should be attributed the occupying 15th Corps or the retreating confederates.]

BATTLE OF BENTONVILLE, NC.—MARCH 19-21

March 16……Marched at 7 this morning. The sound of cannon which told us plainly that the enemy refused to skedaddle for Kilpatrick. We…formed a line of battle while heavy skirmishing was going on to the front. Our Brigade joined the 1st Div. on the right…We threw out a heavy skirmish line& the bugles sounded the advance. We kept in close support of the skirmishers. When they opened the ball we lay down…the rebs held their ground pretty well but they gave up before the withering fire of our skirmishers and artillery…By three o’clock we have driven them from three advanced line of works. Captured three pieces of artillery and over 100 prisoners. At the time we advance through a swamp almost waist deep in water. After we had pushed the enemy over a mile we fell back about 200 yards, and throwing up much word prepared to camp for the night. At the loss of the 26th today was 2 officers & 5 enlisted men killed & 12 enlisted men wounded. The Brig. Lost in all a little over 100.

March 19...It was four o’clock this morning when we camped having marched since yesterday morning about 11 miles. Started out again at 9 am. We had marched a mile or two when the sullen roar of cannon far to the front told us that we had again met the enemy. We pushed briskly forward. Passed our division train…formed for action a little to the rear…opened firing in a large open field…it seems that the Rebs assailed the 14th Corps which had the advance, while marching by the flank. This completely surprised them. The first division of our Corps came up & in a measure checked the advance of the enemy and gave the 14th Corps a chance to reform.

We were soon marched into a gap between the 1st & 2nd Divisions of the 14th Corps. While we formed firing was very heavy to our left. And as soon as that subsided we advanced. Our Regt. was pushed forward as a support…We had advanced but a few paces when the musket balls came thick and fast. For a few rods we moved through a pine woods but soon come to a deep swamp overgrown with vines and underbrush. Our line returned the enemy fire, briskly pushed forward in places waist deep in water. The underbrush was so overgrown that our line was thrown into confusion. Where they halted and lay down. The 26th was compelled to take all the enemy’s fire without returning it, but the (supporting Union) line kept up a murderous fire. There we lay for upwards of an hour within 150 yards of the enemy line, until all our ammunition was nearly expended. As night came on, the fire on both sides gradually slackened & when darkness came all was as still as death.

Our line was now drawn back a few rods and established on dry ground. We threw up a line of rough line of works on the edge of a swamp & sent out pickets. It is now 11 PM & all is quiet. The 26th lost today only one enlisted man killed and 7 wounded, a very slight loss indeed for the fire we received. The enemy must have lost heavily there…as our batteries threw shell and shot the nearly the length of thir line, while we did not hear even the whiz a Rebel shell.

March 20…Not a shot was fired on the picket line on our front. & this morning it was found that the enemy had drawn back about a mile leaving his killed and badly wounded on the field. The enemy in our front is estimated at 40,000 [In reality, Union forces at Bentonville outnumbered their adversaries 3 to 1—60,000 to 20,000] Considering that up until this morning we had only 4 Divisions of about 10,000 muskets in the line I think it good fortune that we were not overwhelmed and not annihilated. About 9 oclock we were relieve by the 16th Corps…In the afternoon we were marched into position of the extreme left from the rest of our Division & Kilpatrick (Cavalry) to the left. Here we threw up earth works & are waiting for the enemy.

March 21…Went out on a reconnaissance this A.M. Found that the Rebs were in position a little more than a mile from our front. About 2 PM the busgles sounded assembly and we fell in and marched back to the same field we left yesterday. Here we pitched tents in a drenching shower of rain. Heavy fire to our right this evening…

March 22…Last night the enemy evacuated his entire line on our front. We moved toward Goldsboro. No thing of interest occurring during the day.

March 26…Received a large mail this evening bringing me several letters from home and my commission as adjutant.

April 7…The 26th was inspected to day by Brig. Gen. Cogswell, boys all made a pretty good appearance.

April 9…The reports of Grants recent successes are all confirmed to day, and in accordance with Grants order to Sherman to push Johnston, we have orders to march tomorrow morning…

April 16…It seems that our marching orders were revoked yesterday on account of a request of Johnston to Sherman to stop hostiliites as he was willing to surrender his army if would be allowed honorable terms. If this is true we have made our last campaign…

April 17…Received the intelligence that Pres. Lincoln was assassinated on the night of the 11th. This is really a thunderbolt in the midst of the good news which has lately been in. It is impossible to conceive of the devilishness of the spirit of Rebellion which being overcome in the field by force of arms now seeks to gain the ends or gratify the revenge through the weapons of midnight assassination.

April 29…Received of dispatches stating that Johnston has surrendered & we would immediately take up our line of march to Richmond & Washington to be mustered out & return home.

This is an exceptional diary in providing a rare first-hand account of the Battle of Bentonville, experienced at the regimental level. Wisconsin Civil War aficionados and western theater buffs take note. The 26th Wisconsin boys are your boys. Though the diary fails to reveal the identity of the quartermaster/adjt. author, some further sleuthing in Wisconsin records should be bring him to light.  [JP]

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