Submitted by: Judy Simpson
Mr. Editor---Something over twenty-two years has past and gone since the incident of which I am about to write occurred.
On the 22d day of June, 1864, our regiment, the 4th Illinois Cavalry (Dickey's regiment), was in camp at Natchez, Miss., and had been there for six months ere we had become acquainted with all the citizens in that region of the country. For miles around, and in rear of the city, we knew every foot of land. We had followed Grant from Cairo to Henry, Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, through Tennessee to Vicksburg, Black River, Raymond, then down the river to Natchez, from where, in November, 1864, we were sent to Springfield and mustered out of service.
We were attached to no particular brigade or corps. Company A of our regiment was Grant's body guard until after the fight at Shiloh, and perhaps longer, but as I am not writing a history of the 4th Illinois Cavalry, I will not pretend to tell the engagements they were in during the war.
In the spring of 1864 there was a great amount of cotton stored away in the swamps of Mississippi, and you all know it was very valuable. Speculators in Natchez were numerous, and would pay fabulous prices for guards to go out with their drays and bring in the precious article. We had on several occasions went out and brought in cotton without any trouble worth naming, and we considered that we were about as good commanders as Grant or anybody else. But, alas! How sadly mistaken were we. As soon as it required generalship, we failed to have it. We relied on bull-dog grit and got gloriously whipped, yet we fought nobly.
On the 22d day of June, 1864, memorable to a few boys in McLean, DeWitt, Piatt, and other parts of the country, a few members of Company L were in the city of Natchez and made a contract with a speculator to bring in fifty bales of cotton for $2500, to be paid for when the cotton was delivered. We went back to camp, and I laid the matter before Captain H. H. MERRIMAN, who peremptorily ordered me not to engage in anything of the kind, and if we did he would not be responsible. We paid no attention to this as our time would soon be out. We were without money, and $2500 would be a big thing to go home with, so we went to work to get the volunteers all from Company L. We intended to get twenty-five men, but failed. We only succeeded in getting nine, as follows: James THOMPSON, James MILLER, Ambrose STOREY, Henry BREWER, Thomas DAVIS, William DALE, Prentice WILLIAMS, William TAYLOR and myself. The speculator had told us it was only 17 miles to the cotton, but it turned out to be 27 miles, where a Federal soldier had never before trod. We ran the picket at sundown, the evening of the 22d, and about dusk started with the drays for the cotton. About half way out we stopped at a planter's house and met an Englishman from the city, whose name I have forgotten. He was a very strong sympathizer with the South, but claimed British protection. He had come to inform the rebels of our advance. We had a pleasant chat with them and passed on. We had not gone 200 yards when we were fired upon by three rebel bushwhackers, who we supposed had just left the planter's house. We ran them off and then held a consultation whether we should go back and take the Englishman prisoner, or kill him, but finally agreed to let him go and hurry on and get our cotton.
About two o'clock in the morning, away down in a swamp in the thickest of timber, we found the prize. We loaded in short notice and started for the city in high glee. I was first sergeant, and it was agreed that at sun-up I was to leave the cotton and go alone into camp and make out my morning report at nine o'clock to keep down suspicion. Myself and three others were riding in front of the drays. Just as the sun was peeping up we were talking about me starting ahead so as to arrive in time, thinking of course all danger was past.
Just then we came to a deep cut in the road, where we saw that something had been dragged along in the dust. This excited Comrade Dale, and he spurred his horse and galloped to the end of the cut, when these same three rebels raised and shot him down. This track in the dust was made by a negro, whom the rebs had killed that morning and thrown over the fence, and as soon as Dale stopped at the fence he was fired upon. As soon as the firing was heard, we galloped up and hastened the retreat of the rebels. We fired at them as they fled, and then turned around, picked up our poor dead comrade and laid him in the fence corner. William Dale was a good soldier, from Harp township, and, I think, a relative of the Harp family.
By this time the boys in the rear had all come up and began to scatter to the front. The negroes driving were hallowing and whooping, scared to death---and, Mr. Editor, your humble servant was scared just as badly. These three rebs ran about a mile and went in an old cotton gin that stood about fifty yards from the road. Seventeen rebels, commanded by a lieutenant, coming up the road and meeting us, also went into the old cotton gin, making 21 in all against our 8 men left. They stayed there until we passed, and then made a dash for us. We held them in check for a few moments with our carbines, but they kept coming. The negroes had all left the drays standing in the road and went to the woods. We saw there was no use to try to hold the cotton, although it was precious and hard to give up, so we wheeled and made the dust fly for a mile. We looked back, and O, God! they were about to catch us. What to do I certainly did not know. I wanted to pray, but did not have time. My thoughts were not upward, but onward. Their horses were fresh; ours had been ridden all night, without feed, and were jaded. As we were approaching a small bridge in the road some one of the boys, I believe Sergeant Thompson, who now lives in McLean county, ordered us to wheel at the bridge, which we did. This brought us face [to face]---and what a sight! I wish I had my photograph then. I think I was of fair complexion. Talk about Donelson and Shiloh! Clover Hill discounts them all. Henry Brewer was shot through the heart just as he disabled the rebel lieutenant by striking him over the shoulder with his carbine. Prentiss Williams was shot through and through, and knocked from his horse. He walked into the woods, marked a sapling, buried his pocket-book, which contained $40 in greenbacks, started back to the road and fainted. He was found by the rebs, who took him to a house nearby and cared for him. The balance of his friends had gone, leaving in a hurry. They failed to follow us any farther; if they had they certainly would have gotten us. We scattered in every direction and went into camp. I was the first one, and when I approached our quarters I was reminded of the parable of the prodigal son. Captain Merriman, seeing me afar off, but not in the beautiful language of the father to the son, desired to know "what in h--l was the matter?" "Nothing," said I. "D--n it, don't lie to me." My countenance told my guilt and trouble. I thought I would be shot, and told him all. His comforting words were: "D--n you, I told you not to go," and a few more adjectives.
It was a little after nine o'clock when I got in, but I went and made out my report, reporting the dead and wounded, and absent without leave. This was Thursday morning, June 23d, and everything moved along nicely. My report went in every morning the same until Sunday, when the following order was sent to Captain Merriman. I have the original order, which reads as follows:
Headquarters Reg't., Cav., Ill. Vol.
Natchez, Miss., June 26, 1864
H. H. Merriman, Captain Co. L---You will at once place 1st Sergeant W. O. Rogers, of your company, under arrest, confining him in his quarters, after which you will report in person to these headquarters.
By order of C. D. Townsend, Major commanding regiment
A. T. Chego, Adjutant
After Captain Merriman returned I was ordered under guard to Major C. D. Townsend's headquarters. We had a half hour's consultation, the Major trying to get me to acknowledge my guilt and tell who was with me and who the speculator was that hired us to go. Failing in this, he sent an order to the Captain ordering the arrest of Taylor, Thompson, Davis, Storey and Miller.
That beautiful Sabbath morning I shall never forget. Instead of marching to church, as good soldiers should, we were marched under guard to the military prison in Natchez, there to remain until shot, or till the close of the war. I had been in guard houses before. Indeed I was acquainted with every guard house from Louisville, Ky., to Memphis, Tenn. Don't think I missed one, but never before had I looked through the iron bars. We sat down, played seven-up, enjoyed ourselves the best we could, and plotted to beat the officers by swearing to nothing---pleading ignorance, and in this we were successful. I could tell a great deal more, but have already taken up too much space.
W. O ROGERS,
1st Serg., Co. L, 4th Ill. Cav.