How do you feel about the 25th Indiana as a regiment in the Civil War?
—William Emmick, Evansville, Indiana
This is a particularly challenging question coming from you, Bill, given your deep knowledge of the 25th Indiana and your work in writing their history. As I think you know, my focus on the entire first three years of the war was really through the prism of the 25th, particularly Company A, which was John Given’s company that plays such a large role in Suite Harmonic. That’s meant I don’t have broad knowledge of units in the wider war that would give me the overall picture that might help me make a careful comparison of the 25th to other units.
But I do have some feelings about this, starting from a loyalist position. The 25th Indiana is the unit I looked at closely. At the most basic level it’s like following a team. I wanted to admire and cheer for them. The 25th made that pretty easy. I’ve just finished rereading the Adjutant General’s Regimental History for them and it’s eye-popping. I’m going to put in the last paragraph here to give other readers a general sense of what being in this regiment meant: “During its term of service, the Twenty-Fifth has been engaged in eighteen battles and skirmishes, sustaining an aggregate loss of 76 killed, 255 wounded, 4 missing and 17 captured, making a total of 352. It has marched on foot 3,200 miles, has traveled by rail 1,350 miles, and on transports 2,430 miles—making, in all, 6,980 miles. At the original organization it mustered 1,046 men and officers, and received subsequently 686 recruits. Of these 319 have died of disease or of wounds, 695 have been discharged on account of wounds, disability and other causes, 37 have been transferred and 133 have deserted.”
Those statistics give one picture. A list of the places the 25th went and the action they were part of —from Ft. Donelson and Shiloh to Hatchie River and the blockhouse defense at David Mills against Van Dorn on the Wolf River, the Siege of Atlanta and Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” and then the heavily contested movement up the East coast at the war’s end—makes things even more vivid. Suite Harmonic includes chapters that are based on many of these battles, as well as on various marches and postings and skirmishes and the near yearlong period when the regiment was provost guard in Memphis. It made for great subject matter. The story leaves the 25th during the Siege of Atlanta when many men mustered out at the end of their three year enlistment, though John Given, as readers know, returns to the front as a clerk with the Army of the Potomac at the Siege of Petersburg and reconnects with members of the 25th in Washington, DC.
I think the record of the 25th Indiana would have been impressive just for putting up with the miserable conditions they faced in camp and on marches and for showing up for all these fights. But the fact is the regiment seems to have distinguished itself in the field. I’ll single out two things. The first is the action of the 25th at Fort Donelson in February of 1862, which was their first real combat experience after their months of training and guarding the rails and being stationed in St. Louis and helping to capture 1300 Confederates on the Black Water River. Here is the part I want to quote from the Harper’s Weekly description of their action: “An attack was made by [General] Smith before Hanson’s regiment . . . had got into position. General Smith’s troops were fresh, and impatient to take part in the action. His division consisted of four Iowa, three Indiana, two Illinois, and one Missouri regiment. Three of these, the Second and Seventh Iowa, and the Twenty-fifth Indiana, supported by others, were selected for the assault, the main column of the division making a feint farther to the right. The ground to be gained was more precipitous and difficult than elsewhere along the lines. The assault was undertaken under cover of Stone’s Missouri battery. The regiments engaged in it were not surpassed by any in the service.”
This section on Fort Donelson has this additional comment on the troops of the Western army, an opinion corroborated by John Given in his letters: “It was on this occasion, for the first time, that Southerners admitted that Northern troops would fight as well as their own, and even then it was given out that this was true of the Western troops alone . . . . If these troops—and many of them were raw recuits—had not been pretty richly endowed with Western ‘grit,’ there is no doubt that Pillow [the Confederate commander] would have effected his design and delivered his army.”
The other battle action of the 25th that I want to point to is one you assessed in an email to me that I quote in the epigraph of Chapter Fourteen of Suite Harmonic: “The Davis Mills Battle was such an amazing feat that it was talked about for years.” The story of that battle, which took place in December of 1862, is almost unbelievable, the way the 25th’s Colonel Morgan prepared the 250 men on hand from his regiment to defend against 10,000 Confederates who were marching on them. With a brutal, well-engineered crossfire from two positions (hardened with material like cotton bales), and after repelling multiple assaults, they drove the Confederates off, killing twenty-three and having only three of their own men slightly wounded. I think that speaks for itself, though I’ll still include John Given’s crowing summary of what happened, which he wrote to his family on New Year’s Eve of 1862 (and if there’s a bit of a discrepancy on the numbers there, it’s a frequent refrain from John in Suite Harmonic that he’ll have to get home and read Harper’s Weekly to know what actually happened in the war, even in the battles he was a part of):
“About the same time that Cheatham tore up the track near Humbolt and cut off our supplies from Columbus Kentucky, Van Dorn took about one thousand prisoners at Holly Springs, and then coming in between this place and Lamar (a little place about five miles from here where four companies of our regiment are stationed) they thought that our remnant would become an easy prey but after fighting from ten o’Clock until night they found that Col. Morgan with his two hundred and fifty men was more than a match for their boasting bragadocios of the “Southern chivalry,” so much so that Van Dorn with his six thousand ‘braves’ left in such a hurry that he left twenty five of those heroes in the field lifeless, and about forty wounded and prisoners and the ‘Old Twenty Fifth’ are again ‘Monarchs of all they survey’ but we miss the kind letters from the loved ones at home.”
I also think I’ll add this from a June 10, 1863 letter of John’s, written from Memphis: “If Vicksburg falls (and there is every prospect of it) I anticipate an attack at this place by Johnson for if the rebels cannot hold some position on the Mississippi they cannot hold out much longer, for they have calculated on only nine months provision in the rest of the Confederacy including the growing crop, but we have a fighting General here—one who goes in on his muscle and leaves strategy to higher officials. The men will all fight for Hurlbut because he is always in the front with the men and they like him on that account. Consequently I expect a fight here but nobody thinks of a defeat.”
From these and other comments John makes at various times—and he tells a compelling story of the 25th’s later march to Courtland under the command of a general from the East who was a wily strategist rather than the sort who does go in “on his muscle” —I have the sense that the 25th was not only a well trained regiment but that it had the good fortune of having excellent officers the men trusted to lead them well. As a unit, I suspect they were equal to any in Grant’s and then Sherman’s army, and therefore equal to any in the Union forces.