THE COTTON RAID IN MISSISSIPPI
Print Williams Describes the Part Taken In It by the Fourth Illinois Cavalry.
Donated by: Judy Simpson
(DeWitt County, Illinois)
February 7, 1890
Monticello, Ill., January 1890
Editor Clinton Public, -Perhaps some of your readers will remember the article written about three years ago by Comrade W. O. Rogers, in which he gave a description of a fight between a little handful of Yankee cavalry and an overwhelming force of rebels.
His description of the fight was good, but he left us lying by the roadside and the remaining survivors in the guardhouse. (Now while he left us in a pretty country yet he left us in a poor condition to enjoy it.) Now my object in writing this is to get myself and the boys again under the protection of the stars and stripes.
As two men never see the same fight the same, I would like to tell my story, and I hope you will pardon me if I get a little tedious or repeat too much of what has already been told.
Late in the fall of 1863 the Fourth Illinois Cavalry was stationed at Natchez, Miss. At that time the country on both sides of the river was swarming with rebels. Sometimes they would collect a large force together, but usually they were scattered about in little bands. Portions of them were guerrillas who were trying to keep out of the confederate army. They were poorly armed but well mounted, having horses superior to ours, so that it kept the effective force of our regiment almost constantly on the hunt for them. But we made the place uncomfortable for them and kept the guardhouse at Natchez well filled with prisoners. While none of our men had fallen into their hands, such pens as Andersonville, Salisbury and others were gentle reminders that most any risk was preferable to being taken prisoner.
I distinctly remember one trip I was on over in Louisiana, in which nearly a score of rebels were shot down by the colored troops after being taken prisoners; and how could we blame them, remembering as they did how the rebels had used them at Fort Pillow and many other places. Of course we had nothing to do with such work, but it caused us to have grave apprehensions as to the treatment we might receive if we should fall into their hands. We were acquainted with every road and path for miles on the east side of the river, and although the white inhabitants were doing all in their power to help the confederacy yet we obtained much valuable information from the blacks.
In the spring of 1864 some reckless confederate bushwhackers were in the habit of firing on our pickets at night. They had succeeded in killing one patrol picket from our regiment. The commander of the garrison determined to break up this kind of warfare, and for this purpose he made details from our regiment to watch for those fellows. I was on a detail of a sergeant and ten picked men for this service. Our detail went out nights past our pickets and lay in ambush for them on the Washington road. We were excused from other duty, and we were in the habit of going out every other night. We had the countersign and a standing pass, and were encouraged in going out in the daytime so as to gain all the information possible concerning the surrounding country; therefore when we were not on duty we came and went as we pleased. I was on this detail when the ill-fated cotton expedition Comrade Rogers speaks of started out. I want it distinctly understood that this was not stolen cotton but belonged to the speculator who hired the boys to guard it into our lines. I had nothing to do with the contract, had no agreement with anyone, and knew nothing of it until two of the boys who had intended to go came back into camp saying that the force was too small and they had backed out. I considered that I had a perfect right to go if I chose to run the risk. We had been out the night before watching for guerrillas but were not going that night. Although I had had no agreement with the boys I knew that if I went along and helped them out that I would get my share of the pay. So I mounted my horse and started out, overtaking the train at Washington, Miss., about five miles from Natchez. Miller and I were riding in advance when suddenly Miller exclaimed there is a rebel picket, at the same time firing at him. He missed him and the rebel made his escape. This ought to have been warning enough, but we went on, and little did we think as we rode along that we were shadowed and that a force would be waiting for us on our return.
We had secured the cotton and started for camp. We had gone about half the distance when I rode up to a plantation, about a quarter of a mile from the road. An old darkly was standing by the gate, and he motioned for me to come to him. He told me there was a rebel soldier under a tree asleep. So I took him along. One of the boys remarked that we could not take him into camp, at which the fellow began to cry and said he reckoned it was all up with him. I told him that we were not in the habit of shooting prisoners and would not begin on him. We had gone about a mile farther when Dale rode on ahead to investigate a track he had noticed in the road. I afterwards learned from the rebels that this track had been made by them in dragging a negro, whom they had killed, and that when Dale made a sharp turn in the road, which hid him from our view, riding along with his revolver in his hand, when he saw six rebels who were lying in ambush for us. He raised his revolver, but they were ahead of him, and they gave him a volley of buckshot, killing him instantly and wounding his horse.
When we heard the shots fired we knew that the rebels had dismounted and were lying in ambush, and we flanked to the right and gave them a race; but we were too late, they reached their horses first and made good their escape. We got the frightened darkey's back to their drays and started on, leaving poor Dale by the roadside, Rogers, Brewer, Thompson, Davis and Miller taking the advance, Taylor, Story and myself taking the rear. We had only fairly started when the six who had ambushed Dale came back. Story shot and wounded one of them. We called for reinforcements and Henry Brewer and James Miller came back, which was all we needed as the rebels retreated on their appearance, and was all that could be spared for we had to keep a guard at both the front and the rear.
This happened just at sunrise. The road was full of rebels. It was a command, which had been stationed back by the plantation, and the man I had captured was their picket. The firing had wakened them and now they were after us. There was but one thing left for us to do and that was to make the best of our retreat, which was not very good, as we had been riding all night and our horses were almost worn out. Before us lay a hill about one-half mile long called Cloverhill or Thornhill. On came the rebels with howls that would have done justice to Comanche warriors yelling at us to halt, and keeping up a fusillade with shotguns and revolvers. Our boys knew that it must be a hand-to-hand fight sooner or later. My horse was a good one, but he was continually stumbling when I rode very fast down hill, therefore I had to hold him back for fear of his falling, consequently I was the last one in getting down the hill, and the commands, "Halt! Surrender you Yankee s__ of a b____," were ringing in my ears. But that part of the program had never entered my head. We finally reached the bottom of the hill, but the rebels had made two jumps to our one and they were there too. Some of the boys said rally at the bridge, at the bottom of the hill. I cocked my carbine intending to fire the instant I turned around, but my horse, poor fellow, was worn out and he stumbled and only kept from falling by coming against the bank. The way they made the lead fly around me for a few seconds caused one to think that the whole pack of them must have fired at me. I looked to my left and saw a fellow cocking his revolver for another shot, when I shifted my carbine into my left hand and put the muzzle almost against him and pulled the trigger, but there was no report. Our carbines were the Sharps and had to be capped. I suppose when I had loaded it the cap had not been properly fixed, as I had loaded it on the run; but that decided my fate, the fellow brought his revolver down on me. I spurred my horse but his bullet done its work, going through my right lung.
It is said of General Jackson, that in a duel he received the bullet of his opponent without flinching and then killed his man, but that ball took all the fight out of me. All I thought of was to get out of the way. I remember as if in a dream, how our boys made their mad rush past me and were engaged in a deadly hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. I remember hearing Henry Brewer cry out that he was wounded, but have no recollection of hearing a shot fired. A gentleman who witnessed the fight said, "I never heard corn pop faster in a skillet than revolvers did for about half a minute, and you Yankees seemed to be doing the most of it." I was the first man in the fight and the first one out. My horse gave a couple of jumps, when a ball struck him in the hip going through him lengthways. He hobbled on three legs up a little hill, about seventy-five yards from the fighting grounds. The boys coming along after the fight told me to jump off and take to the brush. I attempted to climb off but I could not use my right hand and fell. I got up and walked to the side of the road and stepped over a little rail fence. On the other side of this fence was an offset of about fourteen inches where I fell.
The next man in the fight was Brewer. The first man he met he blowed the top of his head off with his carbine, clubbed his gun, and made for Lieut. Willis, the man who had shot me, He struck him over the head just as the Lieutenant fired. They were riding side by side, and Hank was shot through close to the heart. By this time James Miller, Ambrose Story and Wm. Taylor had opened the ball in earnest, and woe unto the luckless "cornfed" that got in their way.
I am writing this as it was told me. They say that when our boys made a stand, that only seven of the confederates came into the thickest of the fight, the remaining number of about fifteen, stopped up on the hill, a little distance, and contented themselves by shooting from the distance; and out of the seven who came down, two were killed and five wounded. As the last man was going back up the hill, Taylor was attracted by the fine black horse he rode, He said he didn't care for the wounded Johnnie, but he wanted the horse. He struck out after him. The fellows up on the hill turned when they saw him coming and scattered like a flock of sheep.
It was with sad hearts that the little band turned their faces toward camp. They had been victorious but at what a fearful cost. Dale was dead, Brewer dying, and myself they knew not how badly wounded. Brewer's horse was wounded and lamed for life; Miller's horse was wounded, and Story had the bridle shot off his horse's head. They had their clothing cut in several places. Our prisoner had escaped, riding Dale's horse.
Up to the time I fell over the bank I was in no pain, but there I lay and panted like some hunted animal, but the reaction soon came and the pain began. Every breath hurt like a knife cut; but it would be too long a story to tell my feelings. A man placed in a desperate situation can do a great deal of thinking in a short time. I could hear Brewer groaning. Poor fellow, we had fought side by side in many a close place. A braver man never faced the foe, but soon his moaning ceased. I well knew the result.
After the fight was over the rebel Commander Willis sent some of his conscripts over to the hill where my horse was standing? They took the saddle off him and picked up my hat. Another said, "I'll bet $10,000 there is a wounded Yankee in the brush." But they were not particular about finding any more Yankees; they knew when they had had enough and did not tarry long. Presently I heard other voices and knew that they were digging Brewer's grave. Every minute seemed an age to me. I was too weak to make much exertion and the blood would start afresh whenever I moved. I heard a buggy coming and tried to halloa, but I was shot through the lung and could not make them hear. I groaned, but they whipped up their horse. I afterwards learned that it was two girls, and my groaning had scared them, but I knew that I must do something. I made a desperate effort and got up on the bank, where I was seen and taken to a house. A surgeon was sent for who dressed my wounds. The name of the man who had taken me to his home was Brown, and they could not have cared for me more tenderly if I had been their own son. Their family consisted of three daughters and a son; the son was about twelve years of age and the daughters were young ladies.
Dr. Tate, the man who watched over me and brought me through, deserves my lasting gratitude. There will always be a tender spot in my heart for him and the family who brought me through from the brink of death.
Lieut. Bertha, the man who had ambushed Dale, and his men came back and Mr. Brown told them that there was a wounded Yankee in the house. They said that they must take me back farther into the Confederacy, but when they came in and looked at me I pretended to be asleep. I was pale from the loss of blood, and when I breathed the air would make a whistling noise from the bullet hole in front. They said I would be dead by morning, but when they came back the next day I was still alive and I invited them in. The first question they asked was, "Does all your regiment fight like that little squad? If they do we don't care to meet them." They came to see me every day and we soon became very friendly. I did not consider them such valiant fighters, but they could brag as good as anybody, and were kind and considerate to me, so that I have only good will for them. I heard that they had Dale and the Negro buried in the same grave, but that was while they were mad and they were ashamed of it afterwards. I had a great many visitors, but I had sometimes doubted that the visits were made entirely on my account or whether they came to see the three pretty girls and only used the wounded Yankee as an excuse.
Among my visitors was Stuart, the man I had taken prisoner. He remarked that the tables were turned, but said I had treated him well and I should be treated the same. I mentioned the fears that our boys had had of being taken prisoner on account of being connected with the colored troops. They said they did not hold us responsible for what the "niggers" done; they knew that a soldier had to obey orders. They said we had taken a great many of them prisoners and had always treated them well, and that if any of our boys should happen to fall into their hands they would be treated the same, but woe unto the "nigger." Lieut. Willis said that he was sorry he had had anything to do with us as he had lost all of his best men.
The seventh day after I was wounded the surgeon told me secretly that my wounds were healed on the inside, and that he thought that with care I could be moved to camp, and that if I had any way of sending word to camp I had better do so. He told me to play off on the Confederates and he would help me, which I did, and they thought that I was no better. I made a confidant of Mrs. Brown and, as she had been into camp several times before to bring supplies to me, she took the word to Captain Merriman. The Captain went to Col. Farrow, the commander of the post, and asked permission to take his company and an ambulance and bring me in. Col. Farrow ordered out nearly the whole garrison, consisting of our regiment, one regiment of colored troops, two regiments of infantry, and a battery, and they brought me into camp. It was none too soon, for after they had gone the Confederates came after me. I met the Lieutenant afterwards; he had come into our lines with a flag of truce; and he told me he was glad that I had gotten away.
Now to get the boys out of the guard house and then I will close. I will tell the story as it was told to me by an eyewitness: Major Townsend was in command of our regiment. He made out charges and specifications against those boys and handed it to the commander for his approval. The answer he made was, "Major, this little squad has gone farther and done more fighting than I can get you to do with your whole regiment. I know the most of them personally. They are good soldiers and have been punished sufficiently," and destroyed the papers. But in spite of this the Major ordered dishonorable reports made out against Dale and Brewer. I met Major Townsend at a reunion at Quincy a year ago last fall and heard him boasting of making $250 a month at Natchez. In looking back over the history of this fight I think of the many things, which might have been different, and turned the tide of this history. I think of the many things, which we were sorry for, but the bitterest cup, which has passed our lips is that, two of our regiment are sleeping in dishonored graves.
P. N. Williams
[Prentice N. Williams]
Williams, Prentice N........Company "L".................Clinton County
(author of this article)
Rogers,William O............Company "L".................Carlisle,Kentucy
(author of last article)
Dale, William .................Company "L"..................Leroy County
(first to be killed)
Brewer, Henry................Company "L"..................CON
(second to be killed)
Thompson, James .........Company "L"...................Cheney's Grove
Davis, Harry T...............Company "L" ..................Cheney's Grove
Miller, James .................Company "L"...................Cheney's Grove
Taylor, William H ..........Company"L"....................Clinton
Storey, Ambrose............Company "L "..................Port Byron
I tried to find someone on the Internet who was related to Prentice Williams, but I didn't have any luck. Before the war, Prentice was living with his parents in Texas Township in DeWitt County. In the 1870 census he was married and had two children, but that's where I lost track of him. Since the article came from Monticello, Illinois, he must have moved to Piatt County.
1860 Illinois Census
DeWitt County (Texas Twp)
Dwelling: 184; Family: 178
Jno. W. Williams 59 M Farmer 7000 1250 Connecticut
Mary C. Williams 48 F Connecticut
Prents N. Williams 21 M Ohio Attended School
Mary Ann Williams 16 F Ohio Attended School
Statewide Marriage Index:
Williams, Prentice N
Martin, Mary A
De Witt 08/22/1867 C/21
1870 Illinois Census
DeWitt County (Texas Twp)
Dwelling: 2; Family: 2
Williams, Prentiss N 31 M W Farmer 8200 1030 Ohio
Williams, Mary A 25 F W Keeping House Illinois
Williams, Edwin? G 2 M W At home Illinois
Williams, Edna K 2/12 F W At home Illinois May [month born]
Davison, Mary A 16 F W At home Illinois