Civil War Wednesday: Horrors of War

Battle_of_Wilsons_Creek
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Kurz and Allison, Wikimedia Commons.

In his diary, Columbus Williamson Holbrook usually avoids serious topics.

Mostly, the young merchant from Mt. Vernon, Texas, writes about everyday things, among them women and food. He also writes about people he and the Mt. Vernon Grays encountered during their journey from the Piney Woods of east Texas to Springfield, Missouri, where they would join the Third Texas Cavalry in August of 1861.

For instance, on Aug. 4, Holbrook writes, “We saw six or eight indians this morning at a spring which were a great curiosity to some of the boys.”

Holbrook also mentions people who gave them corn for their horses or invited them to dinner. I’d like to find out who these people were — Mr. Dowdy, Mr. Frank Simms, Mr. Starr, Mr. Leebough, Mr. Wilks and others. One could spend a lifetime, I imagine, addressing every little thing mentioned in Holbrook’s diary.

At some point, however, War had to rear its ugly head. This is a Civil War diary, after all.

On Aug. 12, not too far from Fayetteville, Arkansas, the Mt. Vernon Grays stop for the night on the property of a Mr. Calahan. There, Holbrook writes, “we heard the good news of the battle and glorious victory of our army at Springfield.”

The battle he writes about is Wilson’s Creek, fought on Aug. 10, 1861. It was a Confederate victory. After arriving in Springfield on Aug. 14, Holbrook jots down his observations (paragraphs added, but otherwise as written):

Today being the fifteenth day since we left home we set out early for the camp which is five miles this side of Springfield a distance of forty miles for to days travel. We did not stop to get diner or feed our horses but rolled on through the dust that had been beat up as fine as flour by army ahead

we met crowds of people going to and fro who had been to the battle field anxiously enquiring about their friends. For thirty miles along the road to Springfield there is scarcely a hous that is occupied, their finery torn down and crops distroyed, stacks of grain eaten up, houses lef open, beds and furniture scattered over the floor, yard gates torn down, ruin and devastation has spread over the land. …

We got to the battlefield about three o’clock this evening. When we got there, we met with Lieu[tenant] Conly from Capt Bryants Company, who went with us over the battlefield and showed us where the principal engagements were.

The Lincolnites buried their dead for three days, but when we got there four days after the battle there were plenty of dead Dutch upon the field, which presented quite a gastly specticle to see poor human beings left dead upon the sod, uncared for but by the ugly fowls that eat their flesh. …

Next week — perhaps two weeks from now, depending on how the research goes — I’ll try to answer the question, “Who were the Mt. Vernon Grays?”

In addition to the diary, I’ve been studying Holbrook’s company roster, the census and other public records to try to determine who these nine young men were. It’s not the easiest question to answer, without benefit of a time machine, but I’ll do my best.

Until next time.

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