February 1862 saw the 20th on the move. On Feb. 2 they left Cairo aboard steamships bound for Fort Henry on the Tennessee River with the rest of General Grant’s Army. The first night was brutally cold and icy, especially so for the men of the 20th who had to sleep on the hurricane deck. Two men slipped off during the night and were drowned.
They arrived at Fort Henry on the 6th, with the plan that ground troops would attack the rear of the Fort, while the gunboats shelled the front. Unfortunately, though the troops started out very early in the morning, the going was so tough that they did not reach the fort before the gunboats started shelling. The fort was surrendered; while most of the rebels escaped, going to the near-by Fort Donelson.
On the 12th the regiment left Henry and slogged through heavy mud and weather to Fort Donelson. The battle at Donelson took three days; but ultimately the rebels surrendered unconditionally to General Grant’s forces. Lt. Branch of the 20th later described February 13 like this, “On the afternoon of the 13th, it commenced raining at about three o’clock, and rained hard for three hours, then turned to snow, with high, freezing winds, which drove the sharp frozen snow in our faces. We had marched without tents; our clothes and blankets were wet through and frozen stiff. We were within easy musket range of the rebel works, and could not build a fire. It was impossible for the men to lay down to rest or sleep, on account of the snow and cold, as well as the rebel sharpshooters, who were continually firing at us, and we stood in line of battle three-fourths of the night.”
The battle took its toll on the 20th, 20 were killed – 8 from Will County and 30 Will County men were wounded. All of the color guard were either dead or wounded. Among the dead was Lt. Col. Erwin, shot in the heart during the early part of the battle.
Major Bartleson brought Erwin’s body home to Joliet. Woodruff describes the events following; “A public meeting was immediately called, and measures taken for receiving and rendering due honors to his remains. In due time they arrived in charge of Major Bartleson, whereupon funeral services were held at the Methodist Church, from which a large procession escorted the remains to the Rock Island depot, and a large committee of citizens accompanied them to Ottawa, where they were interred. The common council of the city also passed appropriate resolutions and attended the funeral services in a body.
On February 22, Washington’s birthday, services were held at the Methodist Church, and later a rally at the Court House in Joliet. Major Bartleson attended. Woodruff tells us, “The sight of the man who was just from the bloody field of Donaldson, in which he had taken an active and heroic part, awakened the most intense enthusiasm. Being conducted to the stand he made a thrilling speech; in the course of which he gave a graphic account of the battle.”
“Soon the prisoners taken at Fort Donaldson began to pass through the city on their way to Camp Douglas. Crowds of our citizens were, of course, attracted to the depot to take a look at the conquered rebs. They were, however, treated courteously and kindly, and in conversation expressed their surprise at the humane manner in which they had been treated since the surrender.”
Also seeing action at Fort Henry and Donelson was McAllister’s Battery, originally from Plainfield. They weren’t used at Fort Henry, but did have time to pick up a few souvenirs. Woodruff writes, “Lieut. Borland sent home to the True Democrat (a Joliet paper) an interesting relic from Fort Henry. It was an “Arkansas tooth-pick’ being a knife about one foot long, made from an old rasp, and enclosed in a leather sheath, on which was rudely printed the words “deth to all ablishners.” I judge from the spelling that the schoolmasters had already been killed off in Arkansas.” Lieut. Borland was made deaf and permanently disabled from the concussions that the Battery endured during the Battle of Fort Donelson. Of McAllister’s Battery the official report of Col. Wallace read, “”McAllister’s guns did good service. They were three 24 pound howitzers, without caissons, and with a limited supply of ammunition, and without a full complement of men. One of them lost a wheel, shot away on the 13th, but supplied from their limber. On the 15th, the trail of another howitzer was broken, and it was rendered useless.”
As for the boys of the 39th, also a Will County Regiment, they were in what is now West Virginia assigned to keeping the railroads open. This meant that for much of the time, they were living in cattle cars, which did little to keep out the wind and snow. They suffered from sickness constantly and found that the losses to sickness outnumbered the losses in battle. Although this was important to the overall war effort, the boys of the 39th wanted to see real battle. It would be sometime before they would get their wish.