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April, 1863 – Watching the War

April of 1863 saw the troops from Will County getting prepared for battle once again. Marches and maneuvers were the order of the day. But for the most part, the boys were still watching the action instead of being in it.

The 20th Illinois Voluntary Infantry, the first to muster in from Will County, had been camped at Lake Providence, Louisiana when on April 18th they were given the order to move out. They boarded the steamer Continental and started down the Mississippi River to a point above Vicksburg called Milliken’s Bend.

Grant was organizing his campaign to take the rebel stronghold at Vicksburg. The rebel army had set up artillery there that sunk every Union boat that passed by during the day time, and many that tried to run the blockade at night.

On April 21st nine men from the 20th volunteered to run the blockade on the boats while the rest were marched overland to Carthage below Vicksburg. In George Woodruff’s history of Will County in the Civil War he prints a letter from Sgt. James Branch describing this march.

“We started from Milliken’s Bend on the morning of the 25th of April, at 9 o’clock, and marched to Carthage, below Vicksburg. We marched nine miles and encamped. The roads were in good order; ten days before, they would have been impassable.”

“It was through a swampy country, and it was plain to be seen that if it rained we should have fun. And sure enough, on the night of the 26th, it began to rain in earnest, continuing all night. We were without tents, and were well soaked by morning. But no matter, we started on in a terrible thunder storm. Companies F and E were rear guard.”

“It rained all day, and of all the roads I ever saw, ours was the worst. That day we passed over a hundred wagons stuck in the mud. We were drenched with water all day. We made six miles, and encamped on an old deserted plantation, and slept in a bed of raw cotton, without blankets, and in our wet clothes.”

They crossed the Mississippi River on gun boats and transports that had run the blockade to get to the Mississippi side of the river. The Battle of Vicksburg was about to begin.

Meanwhile the 39th had been encamped on St. Helena Island off South Carolina. On April 2nd they were moved to Folly Island, about 5 miles from Charleston. From the top of a sand hill they could see the entire harbor along with Forts Moultrie, Sumter and Johnson.

On April 7th they were witness to a fleet of ironclads steaming into Charleston Harbor under Admiral Dupont. One of the regiment describes the scene.

“When the day broke this morning, we discovered that the eminence upon which we had encamped last night about 12, commanded a view of great range. We could see the blockading fleet off Charleston harbor; the ironclads, and the reserve fleet of wooden vessels (known as cheese boxes); Fort Moultrie and the sand batteries on Sullivan’s Island, Cumrnings Point battery on the end of Morris Island, and Secessionville; the steeples of Charleston ; and above all Fort Sumter, with the rebel flags flying defiantly over it.”

“Old Sumter loomed up grandly; as we gazed upon its massive walls we thought bitterly of the startling episode of two years ago. Every heart in the 39th was burning to avenge the insult and treason of that hour.”

“Soon we discovered a white flag flying beneath the stars and bars, but it was no flag of peace and submission. Leveling our field glasses we recognize the “Palmetto flag,” the contemptible rag with which South Carolina opened the rebellion, and displaced the stars and stripes.”

“Immediately we saw smoke and heard the roar of heavy guns as Moultrie and Sullivan’s Island opened fire. We could see their flags, but not the works, nor could we see the fleet as yet; but soon the monitors sailed up the channel, and we could see the smoke stacks and turrets. Soon one of them approached very near Sumter and opened fire. The fort was soon hidden by dense clouds of smoke, as in rapid succession it discharged its guns.”

“The scene was grand and sublime beyond description. For two hours the fight continued; between four and five Sumter slacked fire, and as the shot and shells of the indomitable ironclads still flew through the air, we expected that the walls of Sumter would soon fly the national colors.”

“But the fire was again renewed fiercely by the rebels. Day was drawing to a close, and the fleet firing a parting shot withdrew over the bar, and thus ended the conflict. We rejoiced that when we counted the “cheese boxes” (as they were moving after the huge iron-clad, like ducks following their mother bird,) none were missing, and we supposed that the contest would be renewed in the morning, but we were doomed to disappointment.”

It would be awhile before another attempt would be made to take Fort Sumter. As for now, all the boys of Will County could do was watch and wait for their turn, which was not long in coming.

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