Under Fire: “I never witnessed a battle field before”

ECW welcomes back guest author Jeff T. Giambrone

Sketch of the battle of Chickamauga by Captain Adolph Metzner, 32nd Indiana Infantry.(Library of Congress)

As darkness fell over the Chickamauga battlefield on September 19, 1863, the booming of cannon and crash of musketry slowly faded, only to be replaced by the cries of the wounded and dying in the Northern and Southern armies.  Once night held full sway and it was safe to move, a young Union private carefully picked his way through the blue and gray clad bodies that littered the field in front of his regiment.  He later explained his journey in a letter to his mother saying, “I took a stroll over the part of the battlefield that our brave boys had been over and to see the ground strewed with the dead and hear the cries of the wounded was heartrending indeed to me as I never witnessed a battle field before.”[i]

Why the teenager should be so fascinated with the human wreckage of two great armies is not hard to understand; Chickamauga was his first battle, and he had spent the 19th safely in the rear guarding wagons.  However the chance to test himself in combat was not far off; his regiment suffered heavily and needed every man it had the next day, even a green recruit.[ii]

The recruit’s name was Charles C. Capron, the newest member of Company A, 89th Illinois Infantry.  He had been a soldier barely more than a month, and was still seven days short of his 18th birthday.  As he walked among the dead the night of the 19th, he realized his chances of living to see this birthday were not very good.[iii]

Charles Capron was just another long forgotten name among the millions who served the Union cause until the providential discovery of a cache of 48 letters written by the private during the war.  They were found decades ago by Mrs. Pat Neely in the attic of an apartment in Minneapolis owned by her Grandmother, and unable to discover who had placed the documents in the attic, Mrs. Neely held on to the letters, recognizing their historical importance.  In 1996 she gave the letters a permanent home, donating them to the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi.[iv]

Charles Capron was born on September 26, 1846, in Rutland, Vermont, the second of eight children born to Shepherd and Mary Capron.  In the late 1840’s or early 1850’s the family pulled up stakes and began a journey westward, and by 1860 the family was living on a small farm in Roanoke, Woodford County, Illinois.[v]  Seventeen-year-old Charles left home in the summer of 1863, apparently because of a falling out with his father.[vi]

To support himself while he was on his own, Charles worked odd jobs for about three months before deciding to become a soldier in the Union army.[vii]  At the time he joined up, Charles T. Hotchkiss, commander of the 89th Illinois Infantry, was in Illinois with some of his men on recruiting duty, and Charles Capron was enlisted in Company A of the 89th by the colonel on August 14, 1863, at Rock Island.[viii]

Charles never really explained his reasons for enlisting, but the excitement of army life must have been nearly irresistible to a teenager fresh off the farm; also the bounty paid to new recruits was a strong incentive to join up.  Another less substantial but equally powerful attraction was the call of patriotism; a call that Charles Capron clearly heard.  In a letter to his mother he said that in attempting to secede the Confederates had “trodden on the best government that ever was made and they are a set of high born fools.”[ix]

Whatever his reasons for joining, Capron had the good fortune to become part of a veteran regiment that had already seen combat. He learned the business of being a soldier from men who had already faced the Rebels in battle and knew how to survive on a battlefield.

As dawn broke on September 20th, the soldiers of both armies began to stir and prepare themselves for another day’s bloodletting.  As he readied his accoutrements for the coming battle, Charles was scared, but also determined to show the veterans in his regiment what he was made of saying, “The next morning I took my place in the ranks resolved to see what they done.”[x]

Charles Capron wrote his recollections of Chickamauga over a year after the fact, but the passage of time and the numerous other bloody battles in which he had taken part did not dim his memories of the first time he saw the elephant:

At 9 o. clock while we was laying on our arms the ball opened in earnest by the rebels charging one of our batteries the brazen mouthed dogs was once more let loose from their quetide of which they had hardly cooled off from the use of the previous day and once more the hills and mountains was awakened from their slumbers by the heavy roar of artillery but the bugle sounded for us to fall in and in return we was ordered to charge the rebels which we did and drove them back.[xi]

In another letter to his mother written after the war had ended, Capron expounded further on his experiences during the battle of Chickamauga:

Maintained our ground till noon when we was ordered to support the 6 Ohio battery[xii] it was there that our Lieutenant Colonel was killed by a sharp shooter[xiii] I saw him when he fell several sprang to his aid and bore him off the field they did not charge our battery as we expected but on our right and left we could hear the heavy roar of musketry and the deep tone cannon told us that they was dealing death and destruction elsewhere as well as in our front but our battery had expended all but one round of amunition and we received orders to fall back which we did while the battery gave them the last round they had and then pulled of[f] from the field as soon as dark came we took up our line of retreat toward Chattanooga.[xiv]

The battered Union right managed to hold out until darkness brought an end to the fighting, and General George Thomas was able to successfully disengage and retreat towards Chattanooga.  During the retreat General August Willich’s Brigade, of which the 89th was a part, was the last to leave the field, covering the retreat for the army.  It was after midnight before the brigade halted for the night and the exhausted men were finally able to get some rest.[xv]  As Charles Capron lay down and wrapped himself up in his blanket the thought crossed his mind before he drifted off to sleep that his chances of living to see his eighteenth birthday had risen considerably.

With the coming of the new day, the men of the 89th were roused from their slumber and ordered to get ready to travel.  The regiment fell into line and the tired, dirty line of blue clad soldiers set off in the direction of Chattanooga.  The column halted four miles outside of the city and the regiment deployed in line of battle, watching for any sign that the Rebels were in pursuit.[xvi]

As they lay in wait, Charles and his comrades had time to take stock of the losses they had suffered at Chickamauga and were filled with sorrow to see so many faces missing from their depleted ranks.  The battle had cost the regiment some of its most precious blood: 14 men killed, 88 wounded, and thirty missing.[xvii]

Charles had survived his first battle, but he didn’t have time to rest on his laurels because he had many more battles to fight. The young soldier saw action in over a dozen separate actions before the war ended in 1865.

Unfortunately for Charles Capron, even when the war ended in 1865 he was not allowed to go home.  He had joined the army for a three-year term and with over a year left on his enlistment the government had other plans for the private.  When the 89th Illinois Infantry mustered out of service in Nashville on June 10, 1865, the 202 men in the regiment with time left to serve were transferred to the 59th Illinois Infantry.[xviii]  Three days later Capron wrote his mother,

To day I take my pen in hand to inform you of my where abouts.  I have been transfered from the 89 to the 59 the old boys has returned home and it is very lonesome here dont know any one in the 59.[xix]

Charles was being sent with the 59th Illinois to occupation duty in Texas, and closed his letter with a thought that turned out to be tragically prophetic:

I expect there will be a good many of the troops die off there will be at least if the yellow fever gets among us I do not think there will be any more fighting to do but disease is some times worse than the bullet.[xx]

Sadly, this is one of the last letters that Charles Capron wrote for just a few months later he was lying in a soldier’s grave.  His service record gives the grim report: “Cause of Casualty – Fever – Date of Death – August 22, 1865 – Place of Death – San Antonio, Texas.”[xxi]  Capron, the survivor of some of the conflicts bloodiest battles, died from that great killer of Civil War soldiers, disease.

The best epitaph for Charles Capron comes from a speech given by Colonel Charles T. Hotchkiss, commander of the 89th Illinois.  He said of his regiment, “Our History is written on the head-boards of rudely-made graves from Stone River to Atlanta.  Such a record we feel proud of.”[xxii]

There was one grave even further away than Colonel Hotchkiss realized – a small marble marker in the San Antonio National Cemetery with the simple inscription, “Chas. Capron, Ill.”

————

Jeff T. Giambrone is a native of Bolton, Mississippi. He has a B.A. in history from
Mississippi State University and an M.A. in history from Mississippi College. He is employed as a Historic Resources Specialist Senior at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Giambrone has published four books: Beneath Torn and Tattered Flags: A Regimental History of the 38th Mississippi Infantry, C.S.A.; Vicksburg and the War, which he co-authored with Gordon Cotton; An Illustrated Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign and National Military Park; and Remembering Mississippi’s Confederates. In addition, he has written articles for publications such as North South Civil War Magazine, Military Images Magazine, Civil War Monitor, and North South Trader’s Civil War Magazine.


 

[i] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Charles Capron Collection, Old Court House Museum (Vicksburg, MS).  Hereafter all letters will be cited as Capron Collection.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Compiled Service Record of Charles Capron; 89th Illinois Infantry; National Archives, Record Group 94.

[iv] Pat Neely to Gordon Cotton, 13 March 1996.  Capron Collection.

[v] Pension application of Mary S. Capron; United States Pension Rolls.  13 September 1889, National Archives, Record Group 109; United States Bureau of the Census, Woodford County, Illinois, 1860, Schedule 1, Illinois State Archives; Author’s correspondence with Roger H. Bliss, 22 November 2002.

[vi] Charles Capron to Shepherd Capron, 16 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[vii] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[viii] War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 542.  Cited hereafter as Official Records; Compiled Service Record of Charles Capron; 89th Illinois Infantry; National Archives, Record Group 94.

[ix] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 31 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[x] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 January 1865.  Capron Collection.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Capron was mistaken, the battery was the 1st Ohio Light Artillery, Battery A, also known as Goodspeed’s Battery.  Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 544.

[xiii] Lt. Col. Duncan J. Hall was commanding the regiment at the time of his death, Col. Charles T. Hotchkiss was still away on recruiting duty.  Ibid, 542.

[xiv] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 23 December 1865.  Capron Collection.

[xv] Official Records, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 1, 545.

[xvi]  Ibid.

[xvii] Fox, William F.  Regimental Losses In The American Civil War 1861 – 1865 (Albany, N.Y.: Albany Publishing Company, 1889), 373.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 13 June 1865.  Capron Collection.

[xx] Charles Capron to Mary S. Capron, 18 June 1865.  Capron Collection.

[xxi] Compiled Service Record of Charles Capron; 89thIllinois Infantry; National Archives, Record Group 94.

[xxii] George, Charles B.  Forty Years on the Rails (Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley & Sons, 1887), 115.

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7 Responses to Under Fire: “I never witnessed a battle field before”

  1. Nice post on the Railroad Regiment. The Texas escapade was a dark time as morale was low and desertion rampant. Sheridan wanted to send a police force to protect against possible Rebel resurgence but it was a tragic loss of life with no gain. It was fun getting to know the 89th during my research on Willich.

    • Jeff Giambrone says:

      I’m glad you liked the article! Capron mentioned Willich in one of his letters written in 1864:

      Georgia Tunnell Hill May 11, 1864: to the dear ones at home I now seat myself for the purpose of answering your kind letter which I received to day dated May 1th

      I am some distance from where I last wrote you for we left Camp Donelson May 3 went about 8 miles and camp there for the night started the next morning came to Catoosa springs and there came to a halt no one dareing to venture through the gap for fear of a massed battery but old Willich our brigade commander came up and said that he would go through with his brigade and through we went driving in the rebels videttes

  2. Scott Shuster says:

    Charles Capron has a memorial on the Find-A-Grave web site:

    https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/3060712/charles-capron

  3. Thanks for the touching article.

  4. Henry Fleming says:

    Nicely done.

  5. Chris M says:

    Nicely done Jeff.

  6. grandadpookers says:

    A good reminder of what those young fightewrs must have felt.

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