One of the Civil War’s most dramatic and lop-sided battles was between the remnant of the 25th Indiana and 10,o000 of Van Dorn’s Confederate men. It is unique among the battles of Emily Meier’s Suite Harmonic because it is not fully rendered on the page but told as the story of what happened by John Given, who fought in it, to his cousin Menomen O’Donnell, later a Medal of Honor recipient. In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Davis Mills on December 21, 1862 and of John and Menomen’s visit at Camp Davis Mills, during the month of December 2012, this story will appear here in print on emilymeier.com.
The Hatchie River battle was still very vivid to them. They’d struggled through the grasses toward a high ridge only to be halted suddenly by Colonel Morgan on word the enemy was advancing toward the same point of land that they were. Even now, John felt a chill on the back of his neck thinking of it. Colonel Morgan had ordered the artillery to engage the Rebels’ big guns immediately, and they had. They’d disabled them with a fire of shells as loud as any John had ever heard. Then the 25th chased the Rebel infantry full out until they’d actually forced Van Dorn to change his route of retreat
If the men gradually forgot the small facts of such a battle, things like the broomsedge chafing against their clothes and the weeds snagging at their boots, and the larger ones like men being felled yet again by bullets, there was still never a time when they lost the sense of themselves as men at war. Men in continuing peril. Men who needed to be wary. It was as inescapable a thing as the rank smell of the sinks and the sharpness of the early December mornings that, to John, felt like dawns in the Blue Stacks in Donegal when the valley lay beneath a skin of hoarfrost.
Yet for all the sense of war—of war as the place where they were—they never knew what was happening unless they’d done it themselves. When the supplies Lieutenant Boren was waiting for failed to arrive, they hadn’t an idea why until they got the news—unsubstantiated at first, but finally confirmed by messenger in spite of their communications being severed—that General Cheatham had torn up the tracks. The cars couldn’t get through, and the regiment was living on half rations and forage with the rest of Grant’s men.
Men became edgier on patrols. There were more rumors, this time that Van Dorn was nipping at the army’s rear and that he’d actually taken Holly Springs and burned the depot and, with it, the army’s commissary and quartermaster stores. Then there was the certain news a few days before Christmas that he was headed straight for them in force—ten thousand strong and fully prepared to capture their six shrunken companies: the two hundred and fifty men who stood alone to guard the Mississippi Central’s railroad lines.
There was general alarm among the men, yet things happened so astonishingly and so quickly, that it was not something they had to consider long, though there was no end of considering it in the days that followed. It was a story for all time, John was certain, a story for every single man and officer who was there—who had been there—and to his great and amazed pleasure, four days after Christmas, he told it first to his cousin Menomen.
He was by himself in his hut, trying to repair his boot heel, when Menomen came in. For a moment, John didn’t know him, for his hair had turned gray. Then Menomen laughed and he did know him. They leapt at each other, pawing one another in a great bear hug of the kind that their O’Donnell uncles and cousins gave each other at a wake or a wedding dance. They pummeled each other and exclaimed over finding each other in this isolated place. When Menomen had seen John’s new corporal’s chevrons and John had noted Menomen’s lieutenant’s bars and learned that he and the 11th Missouri (Menomen had joined it when the Illinois regiments were full) had arrived with General Hurlbut as part of Grant’s army, John made him sit on Levi’s bunk since it had the best straw tick. “
Are you a phantom then?” he said, and it was grand to see him—Menomen O’Donnell, who’d always had magnetism the way their cousin James Mulhern had brains. Not that Menomen wasn’t smart. “Lord, you look fine. You do, Menomen. And your unit’s come here to the middle of nowhere?”
“Center of the earth,” Menomen said. “What I heard, you’re a dusty little band of heroes.”
“Not so much heroes,” John said. “Well, maybe heroes,” he conceded.
“Tell me about it,” Menomen said. He leaned forward with his bright eyes, palms on his knees, and so John told the story for the very first time, and it didn’t need embroidering to be a real story, though he did linger over the parts he liked best. He drew them out with the right detail so the story was worth Menomen’s attention and the drams Menomen poured them from his flask.
“It wasn’t at all like Shiloh,” John said. “Or like Donelson. It wasn’t a surprise, for we’d scouts coming in to say Van Dorn was on his way and that he had a thousand men he’d already captured from Holly Springs. We knew he wanted us, too. But, Menomen, we’ve a brilliant colonel. He’s Colonel Morgan and regular army, and Van Dorn could have brought a hundred thousand—a whole Shiloh’s worth of fellows—and it wouldn’t have made any difference.” John stopped a moment, wondering all at once if exaggeration really suited him as a storyteller and, though Menomen was still listening, his expression unchanged, John determined to bring it down a notch.
“Though you might not recognize it as such,” he said, “for it’s a blockhouse since we got done with it and all armored with the railroad ties we pulled up and cotton bales we commandeered—if you spotted the sawmill when you came in, and surely you did, you saw the key part of our defense. It was a straightforward thing that Colonel Morgan wanted to do. For him a thing’s as good as done when he’s made up his mind, and he’d decided we wouldn’t get hurt and we wouldn’t get captured and that he’d save the railroad trestle and that we’d just plain play havoc with Van Dorn’s men. We turned the mill into the blockhouse, and there wasn’t a man of us who didn’t rub calluses through to raw skin for all the hauling and lifting we did and it was officers, too, it was a fierce pace. We made a secure post that sits so you see all of the trestle and the wagon road that comes from the south and crosses the river bridge.
“It’s the Wolf River here. You’d have come in over the bridge, Menomen, and it’s not seventy yards from the blockhouse. When we were done, Colonel Morgan put Captain Wright and Company H on the inside and we saw to it—Lieutenant Boren and I, for he’s acting quartermaster and I’m clerk to him—we saw that the men got ammunition and bread enough to last for a two-day siege. Since Van Dorn still wasn’t here, half the men worked until nightfall on Saturday—it’s a week ago yesterday though it feels less—and they turned an Indian mound into an earthwork that was stuffed full with more rail ties and cotton. It was brilliant, Menomen. Absolutely. It was a fort, and just 300 yards from the bridge—a little more—and with the blockhouse, we had a perfect cross fire on the bridge. And since Colonel Morgan had rested half the men, there were fresh troops in place by eleven at night, though there was still no Van Dorn. We rested on our arms and at four a.m. we were in full battle positions ready for an attack.”
John waited while Menomen poured another dram, and then he went on. “Still he didn’t come. We waited, and then we waited more. When the sun was up, we went back to fortifying the mound, which was a bloody mess from the men’s blistered hands, and it was at noon when we heard shots from the pickets being driven back in and all of us took our positions again—Company A with four other companies in the new fort. We had an Illinois battery, but only light artillery. There were two companies from the 5th Ohio Cavalry that Colonel Morgan ordered dismounted. He divided them between the blockhouse and fort and to make a guard on the river approach to the west.
“Sitting ducks, you’d think—all of us—and maybe we should have been. When they finally arrived and came on the attack—and with all their hellish yowling—we had to stay steady. Nothing else. No moving sideways or back, but concentrating on the firearms and ramming the charge home and making the shot true when the line rushed forward. If they’d had their big guns, we would have been done for, but they didn’t.”
John had picked up his musket while he was talking. He paused, watching Menomen pull his boots off and stretch out on the bunk. Menomen lit his pipe and, for all the world, it seemed to John he was looking at one of his uncles instead of Menomen. It made him homesick. Really it did. It made him homesick for everybody in Drimarone and the mountain houses where no one could dance away from the other dancing feet and, when night had turned into morning and the dancers kept stepping, his aunts served food cold: oatcakes and boiled leeks. Sheep cheese.
Menomen drew on his pipe, and it was clear his thoughts had turned to Drimarone, too. “They’re out on picket now, but there’re Donegal boys here with me—Denis Ward from Eglish and Charley Diver, brother to John. But go on. Van Dorn’s men must have thought that they had you.”
“They did,” John said. “They surely did think that. But there were plenty of things that weren’t in their favor. The ground was rough. The river was right in their way, and every time their line tried advancing, we’d open fire from the fort and the blockhouse and there was no way they could move forward without getting shot. In a while they had to pull back, and we waited to see what it was they’d do next and it was massing their troops to try to force their way across the bridge. We could see them with all their banners waving and their lines stretched back so far that the road had disappeared.
“The colonel put our best sharpshooters at the prime vantage points, and it was desperate the way those men came forward then—some of them were even forced onto the trestle from the crush behind—but our fire was so heavy from both directions that there was nothing for them to do but to fall back once more. They lost men. Men who were shot. Men who were trampled. And it was a lot of men. Menomen, the year isn’t out, but it’s a year when I’ve done a thing I didn’t know I would and that’s kill men because I can. And more than that, I’ve gotten used to it and see it like a job.”
John looked over at Menomen to see his reaction, for he’d felt the intensity in his voice. Menomen was quiet, his eyes and his pipe still glowing. John paused a moment longer, wondering if Menomen might say it was that way for him too, that, like it or not, it was part of them. He didn’t, and John went on. “We had the sky overhead, but it didn’t seem so, it was so tight in that earthwork and, as much as a soldier stinks on a regular basis, it was worse being confined in that way. All the men breathing, and some of them retching, and the dried blood smeared on the cotton bales we were leaning against. And the Rebels weren’t done yet. They’d fallen back, but there were more and more of them out there and they had a huge front that went even beyond the railroad. They never stopped firing. We thought we’d soon have a roof of lead.
“We kept up firing, too, and the wonder of it was we never ran out of shot. There were parties of Rebs trying to cross the river in any number of places, but they couldn’t do it. Our fire was too heavy, and so they massed up again with all their battle flags and tried another time to cross the bridge. Their muskets were pouring fire from their whole line onto the blockhouse and onto our fort—and we were so sure of our works by then that we sent up volley after volley. It was no surprise to us when they all fell back again, but they made another assault in short order and, this time, some of the men made it across the bridge, though there was no place for them to go. They had to hide beneath it away from the fire.
“I couldn’t have said how much time it all took, but later Colonel Morgan said it was three and a half hours of constant firing at us before the enemy withdrew. They left their dead on the bridge and by the railroad tracks, and it was up to us and our surgeon to care for their wounded that they couldn’t take with them, which is what we did. But before that, the men under the bridge surrendered and we let them shelter in our works and they were quivering with fear, some of them, boys that thought we’d likely shoot them, that Yankees are savages.
“The Rebels had one more plan. They wanted the trestle gone and so of no use to us. We saw them pouring turpentine on cotton balls and lighting them to hurl at it, but the boys in the blockhouse aimed so well they couldn’t do it, and so they finally gave it up. When the retreat was called, those troops and the ones that had shielded themselves next to the trestle surrendered, too, and it was a smart thing as there was no way they could have made it safely over open ground.
“They left twenty-two dead and, counting men taken off on horseback and in ambulances or left on the bridge or in a house behind their lines, they had more than three hundred wounded. And as soon as they retreated, their general sent a man out with a truce flag to ask for our surrender, which you can imagine Colonel Morgan quite heartily declined. We hadn’t a man killed, Menomen, and just three wounded and those only slightly. And that’s the whole tale.”
John finished the last of his dram, and Menomen stretched out his arms and cracked his knuckles. Then he swung his legs from the bunk and, standing up, reached as tall as the tent roof would let him. “So the 25th are monarchs of all they survey. You’ve got a story for your grandkids, Johnny Given,” he said. “Make sure, now, that you stick around to tell it.”
Of the whole war, it was the days with Menomen that John remembered always with real fondness. When they weren’t on duty, the two of them spent their hours quite happily together. At times, they stayed by themselves talking of everything from the rough ship crossings to the wildness of New York and Mick disappearing, and the Irish gangs who seemed harder than any men they’d known at home. They spoke of what it was like to farm in America where the fields were bigger and there were swamps but no peat. “It’s a lot of trees,” Menomen said, “and the wrong rocks for building fences.”
Mostly, they talked about old times, of how often they’d walked over the Blue Stacks helping their fathers drive cattle to fairs, and how they’d stopped at houses on the way for a night’s sleep and then were off again at daybreak. Menomen knew things that John didn’t. He knew why Mary Mulhern, Margaret and James’s sister who’d been a favorite of John’s when she was a grown and pretty girl and he a small lad, had gone north from the Glen and never come back.
“Her apron was high and the man wouldn’t marry her. It was likely a Molloy, and him leery that Daniel Mulheron would flay him and weave him into a sack. Or so me old aunt thought.”
Menomen had a memory, too, for things that John didn’t, like going with Michael McShane to his uncle’s to break horses in the sea, and the horses floundering when the water came up to their shoulders and how the men could handle them then and, finally, ride them onto the strand. Menomen said that sometimes they would break a horse with a wooden bit they screwed down on its lip so its nerves went haywire and the horse all quivery.
“I’ve watched Michael ride his horses out on the strand,” John said. “Kate and I both have. But I don’t remember a time he was breaking them.”
Menomen had gone to Scotland, working with men and lads who dug potatoes and with girls and women who, following behind them, sorted the potatoes into the baskets of good ones and the baskets of pig feed. They saved what pay they could to take home.
“Blistering, bloody work,” Menomen said. “We’d take the boat for the crossing and they’d lower horses to the boat deck with a fall-and-tackle, and those horses were wild from the sea rocking and they lurched about. But the girls were jolly on those trips. You were off with the books, John. Were there jolly girls where you studied to be a priest?”
“If I’d seen a real girl then, I’d have thought her a figment,” John said. “But we’ve fine girls in New Harmony.”
Often, when they were all off duty, he and Menomen joined Charley Diver and Denis Ward. “Now I understand why the Given house is loud and full of talk,” George Tretheway told him. “Together, you Irishmen talk the fastest and the most and the hardest-to-understand English I’ve ever heard. What does slan mean?”
“It’s not English, “ John said, “so why would you understand it? But all it means is good-bye.”
John had had an even harder time recognizing Denis Ward than he had Menomen. In spite of the army, Denis was a great deal fleshier than when he’d known him at home. But there wasn’t a better fellow than Denis, and he talked always about Michael McShane’s kindness to him in Liverpool when they were both there working to earn their passage.
“It’s East Dublin, or it was with Michael to show me the ropes,” Denis said, and John wrote that in his letters back to New Harmony when he sent Menomen’s greetings to the family and to Margaret Mulhern and Michael McShane. He told them, too, what he knew they would all want to hear, that Menomen had had a letter from Jackey, everybody’s favorite O’Donnell. The folks about Drumboarty were all well.
Aside from his long talks with Menomen and just being with him (he still remembered how he’d tagged after him when he was a lad and how Menomen had never minded), what John liked best, what took him back the most was listening to Denis Ward when he got out his whistle and played his airs, for all of the Wards could fall out of bed and make music. It was just that easy to them, and Denis could float John far out of Mississippi and clear over the ocean and back to Donegal with his jaunty tunes. Maybe even more with his sad ones.
“You need my mother to sing with you,” John said. “One day for sure, you’ll come to Harmony and bring your whistle.”
“And your father will get his fiddle out?”
“He will,” John said. “And Mr. Cannon will get his out, too.”
They had less time than they wanted. Menomen had the responsibility of his men and, with both rations and communications still cut, John was busy at headquarters keeping track of the details that were ordered out to kill hogs and cattle and to grind meal. On New Year’s Day, they spent from morning until night in line of battle, but they heard through the grapevine, which was how they got all their news now, that there was no fighting nearer than Jackson, Tennessee.
Maybe it was true, and maybe it wasn’t. Given the day, they could hear that both Vicksburg and Richmond were taken (or they weren’t), that Burnside’s army had been slaughtered to a man (or they weren’t), or that Bragg had taken both Columbus and Paducah (this would mean they were still cut off from their support, which they couldn’t disprove), and Rosecrans had completely defeated Bragg at Murfreesboro with the 15th in the fight (or that Rosey hadn’t and the 15th hadn’t been and Burnside wasn’t even whipped).
“Did you ever wonder, John,” Menomen asked him one night when they’d been sitting around the fire and wishing they had old potatoes and knew how to make boxty pancakes the way their grandmother did it, “just how it is that we ever got here?”
John motioned with his cup at the trees and tents around them. “Here here?” he asked. The cup was still warm with his coffee dregs. “Here in the war, or here in America?”
“In the war,” Menomen said. “Do you think we joined up, Johnny, to show we’d earned the right to be here—to feel like Americans? It was a bandwagon thing, sure, signing up with all the high feeling. It’s a sociable thing in the regiment with the lads. And what Irishman would walk away from a fight? But do you ever wonder, John, if we really have a horse in this race?”
John was quiet, not certain just what Menomen was asking.
“Look at this.” Menomen reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a creased piece of newspaper and spread it open. He pushed it closer to the fire. John saw it was a cartoon, but before he could really get a look at it, Henry Schafer walked up, cup in hand, and saluted Menomen.
“What’s the cartoon, Lieutenant?” he asked. “Is it one of the nigger on the fence? Or is it the ape in the tree? That’s it, Jack. It’s one of you Irishmen. He’s got your ears, even if your arms aren’t as long.” Henry laughed, pleased at his joke. Then he poured his coffee and went off in the direction of the sinks.
“He’s a good man, a good soldier,” John said quickly. “You’d want Henry any day in a fight. But what do you mean, Menomen? You mean we’re at the bottom of the barrel here the same as the black man?”
“Maybe. I’d be lying, John, if I didn’t say I like the army, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I thought it would do me good down the road if I fought beside my neighbors. But here’s a question. Where does an Irishman come out if the slaves are set free?”
“They’ve no education,” John said, not adding what he knew, that Denis, his own brother, hadn’t either. And not Denis Ward for that matter. Not many Irishmen. “And you made your fortune and can keep it here. What kind of threat could any man, black or white, be to you, Menomen?”
“But the core of the thing is something else. We could win every battle. We could beat the South to its knees, and the only way the war would ever end is if the real cause of it—and it’s slavery, John, it’s always been slavery—is entirely uprooted. And that likely leaves other Irishmen with less luck than you and I’ve had.”
“You think it’s set—that Mr. Lincoln means to free the slaves? Free them when they’re written into the Constitution as not free?”
“I don’t see he’s got another choice. Not when the South has a million able-bodied blacks to feed armies that are killing Union men. Slavery isn’t just the cause of this thing. It’s part of what made it possible. It’s Mr. Lincoln’s duty to seize property—and, John, that’s what the black men are—when it’s used to undermine the safety of the nation. And for him, seizing the slaves means to free them.”
“So you say we’re fighting for abolition, Menomen? And even if it means Irishmen’s jobs?”
“I said why I’m fighting.” Menomen pulled the cartoon out once again. He looked at it. Then he tossed it into the coals. “I’ve been here longer than you, John, but it’s still not long enough to understand the bitterness that made this war what it is. And, yes, what it means for an Irishman. But I’ve cast my die. When I went home to Ireland, as much as I still loved the land, I hated the poverty more. It’s why I kept Mary and the children here and brought the others over. Yet it’s true the one bitterness I really feel—the one that belongs to me—is for the injustice I still saw. A part of me thinks I should have made my fight in Drimarone. A part of me wishes I’d stayed.”
John turned his cup over. “As you say, there was all the excitement and being part of it when the war started,” he said, pressing the cup rim into the dirt. “Yet I’ve wondered a hundred times if we shouldn’t have let the South go. I can understand it’s a wrong—a sin, slavery—but I can’t sort it all the way through. It still has an unfamiliar feel.” John picked his cup back up, and it occurred to him that Menomen thought more than he remembered him doing, and it occurred to him, too, that he should tell him that his best friend was a Yorkshireman. He let it go. “If we weren’t cut off, we’d know now if Mr. Lincoln went ahead with his proclamation,” he said.
“We would,” Menomen answered, kicking at the coals.
For days afterward, the conversation stayed with John, though it was something he and Menomen backed away from when they spoke again. Denis Ward brought word that another regiment—either a Minnesota or Wisconsin one, he wasn’t sure—had a quartermaster who was a brother to Dan McGroarty of Letterfad. John wondered what the full roll call of Irishmen was in General Grant’s army—just how many lads from Drimarone, how many from Donegal, how many Irishmen who’d cast their lot with America, and having made a safe passage here, found themselves fighting.
“I don’t ever want Denis in this war,” he said to Menomen later. “I made Father promise to keep him at home. It’s his back I put my foot on, for I went off to school while he helped Father. But Charley’s done well. I’ve a letter from Charley I’ve kept, and I’d admire it if I could read what captain he said had been home on leave.”
It was a damp January day when the 11th Missouri and the rest of its brigade headed back to Corinth. John was up early to say his farewells. He had written letters to New Harmony and Chicago and to Drumboarty, and he handed them over without a word, for he’d already talked with Menomen and Charley Diver about the chances for mail getting through. The dawn was chilly. There were sprinkles of rain in the breeze, and it reminded John of Donegal and the mud-colored fog and scent of sheep manure.
He stood with Menomen. For a second, it was hard for either of them to say a word. Then Menomen grinned a sly grin and slapped him on the shoulder.
“I heard you’ll be headed for Memphis,” he said. “Be careful, John. There’s a world of women there. They’d every single one of them like your name.”