Monday, February 18, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 1862

The guns “cracked as fast as popcorn”

Pvt. Andrew Altman, a farm boy from Henry County, Ohio, and a member of the 68th Ohio, has been having the time of his life in the army, compared with what must have been a threadbare existence on a small farm in northwestern Ohio. At Camp Chase in Columbus, he reveled in the abundant food and ample clothing provided by the army. And then there was the excitement of going to war for his country and the possibility of “shootin’ a rebel.”

A few days ago,, the 68th had been rushed from Camp Chase to Halleck’s Western Department and now Altman and his regiment find themselves at Fort Donelson, if only in a support role. The 68th sees no action in this battle and takes no casualties, but, writing home today and four days later, Altman reports he had a front-row seat from which to view the battle (Pictured above.). “We were in sight all the time and the canon ball came torde us and some of the boys dug it out of the ground. There is dead men a laying a round here yet over the ground.”

Ohio is amply represented Fort Donelson by its son, Brig. Gen.Ulysses S. Grant, but of the estimated 24,090 Union infantrymen present, only about 2,190 are Ohioans, distributed among four regiments. (Most of Grant’s army comes from Illinois.) Of the battle’s approximately 2,600 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing), only 19 are Ohioans. Ohio’s sacrifice will soon enough, however.

In the meantime, Ohioans like Altman are excitedly writing to tell their families what they saw. “The 58th [Ohio regiment] charged bayonets on [the Confederates] and you ought to a seen them run over the [breastworks]. They went like deer,” wrote a proud Altman.

Four days later, he wrote his father, “I would liked if you had been here when the fight commenced. The guns cracked gust as fast as though you would put pop corn in [the] ovin.” Having had time to ponder what he has seen, Altman now mixes a bit of bravado with stoicism. “Oh if I ever get home, I would feel like going a gain. If it is my lot to be shot, so it be and if not so mutch the better.”

Elsewhere in the vicinity of Fort Donelson, General Grant continues with the tedious follow-up work of battle. Perhaps the most dramatic incident of the day occurs when some Union soldiers gather around the jail in the nearby town of Dover, angry over what looks, at first glance, as if several of their fellows had been bound and gagged, then shot. The rumor spreads throughout the area, gathering so much force that it alarms Confederate General Simon B. Buckner. He quickly sends a message to General Grant, warning that fears are mounting that angry Union soldiers are threatening revenge to their Confederate prisoners.

The situation at the jail is investigated quickly. It clearly appears that the four bodies there were NOT tied and, in fact, had been laid out for burial. They were fully clothed, their wounds bandaged, and showed no signs of abuse. They simply were combat fatalities whose fellow soldiers had placed the bodies in the jail to shelter them. End of story.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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