Sunday, November 22, 2009



David B. Hillis is a native of Jefferson county, Indiana; and was born on the 25th day of July, 1825. He is a son of the late David Hillis, who was quite a distinguished politician, and at one time Lieutenant-Governor of Indiana. Colonel Hillis was educated at the University of South Hanover, Indiana; studied medicine at Madison, Indiana, and, at the age of twenty-one, commenced the practice of his profession in Jackson county, of the same State. For eleven years, he gave to his profession his undivided attention; and, at the end of that time, had attained a good standing among the members of his fraternity. In 1858, he abandoned his profession to engage in mercantile pursuits. Moving West, he located in Bloomfield, Davis county, Iowa, where he continued in business till the summer of 1860, when he removed to Keokuk, Iowa, and there, in partnership with his brother-in-law, Oscar Kiser, established himself in the dry-goods business. In August, 1861, he was appointed an aid de camp to Governor Kirkwood. This position he held till the 14th of March, 1862, when he was commissioned lieutenant-colonel of the 17th Iowa Infantry. In August, 1862, Colonel Rankin tendered his resignation, and on its acceptance Lieutenant-Colonel Hillis was promoted to the colonelcy of his regiment. During the siege of Vicksburg, he resigned his commission, and returned to civil life. He left the service with much credit.

In continuing a record of the services of the 17th Iowa Infantry, I shall try to be honest and impartial. Several Iowa regiments have done as well; but I believe none have done better. Close on the heels of the battle of Iuka, was the battle of Corinth. In the former the regiment was disgraced, but in the latter it "atoned for its misfortune:" so said its commanding general.

"General Orders No. 145.

Head-quarters Army Of The Mississippi,
Third Division, District West Tennessee,
Corinth, Mississippi, October 23d, 1862.

"The General Commanding cannot forbear to give pleasure to many, besides the brave men immediately concerned, of announcing in advance of the regular orders that the 17th Iowa Infantry, by its gallantry in the battle of Corinth on the fourth of October, charging the enemy, and capturing the flag of the 40th Mississippi, has amply atoned for its misfortune at Iuka; and stands among the honored regiments of his command. Long may it wear, with unceasing brightness, the honors it has won.

"By order of Major-General W. S. Rosecrans."

And long has the noble regiment worn its honors with unceasing brightness, baptizing them in eight hard-fought battles; but, not so much did those brave men atone for their conduct at Iuka, as did General Order No. 145 atone for that of No. 130, of the same commanding general. That "the conduct of the 17th Iowa at Iuka formed a melancholy exception to the general good courage of the troops" must stand a lie in history. Colonel Hillis was present at neither Iuka nor Corinth.

In the pursuit of the enemy after the battle of Corinth, the hardships endured by the troops were great. They suffered on the march from heat and thirst, and at night, from the cold. They had few rations, too, and suffered no little from hunger; but not so much on this march, as they did in the pursuit of the enemy after the battle of Iuka; for then a large sum was offered for a small ear of corn. The 17th Iowa returned to Corinth after a nine days' march, and went into camp.

The history of General Grant's campaign against Vicksburg through Central Mississippi, which was organized in November, 1862, is well known. The 17th accompanied the forces of General Grant on that march, moving first by way of Davis' Mills, and arriving at Moscow, on the 18th of November. On the 30th instant, the march was resumed in the direction of Grenada, Mississippi, and continued southward until about the middle of December. On the 21st of that month, the 17th Iowa started on the return, arriving at Holly Springs on the 24th instant, and going into camp at Lumpkin's Mills.

If this campaign failed in its object, it was not void of interesting and amusing incidents. Here the 17th first became expert in the art of foraging; and it was said by some officers of the regiment that their men could "fall out," butcher, dress and quarter a hog, and resume their places in the ranks, without losing "the step." With these shrewd, hungry boys, orders of "no foraging on private account will be allowed" were totally disregarded, no matter from how high authority they emanated. Even before the eyes of general officers, hogs would be turned loose from their pens, and bayoneted and butchered. Fresh pork and sweet potatoes were great luxuries, for the indulgence of which the men willingly periled their personal liberties. On one occasion, General Sullivan endeavored to oppose force against force; but he was soon knocked over by the accidental blow of a clubbed musket, and the hog borne off in triumph. The camp-making of the troops, when they halted for the night, too, was amusing. Camps were usually made in spacious fields, surrounded by strong Virginia fences; but, in ten minutes after the command "stack arms" was given, not one rail would be left upon another for half a mile round. The work was done with system, and on the principle of squatter-sovereignty; for, after the rails were thrown in piles, one would squat on them, while the other members of the mess would remove them on their shoulders to the proper quarters.

After the last named march, and that one to Memphis for supplies, the 17th Iowa was ordered into camp at Bray's Station, on the line of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Here it remained for about six weeks; and this was the only real rest the regiment enjoyed up to January, 1864. On the 8th of February, 1863, the regiment marched to Memphis, and, on the 2d of the following March, left with its division for the vicinity of Vicksburg. In the next four months, it saw its most arduous service.

Moving down the Mississippi, the division stopped for two days near Grand Lake, Louisiana, some thirty miles above Lake Providence, and then, re-embarking, sailed up the river to the Sand Bar, just below Helena. On the night of the 6th of March, while encamped near Grand Lake, that place was visited by a most frightful thunder-storm. The wind blew with the violence of a hurricane, and swept nearly all the tents from their fastenings. The strong hawsers, too, which held the transports to the shore, were snapped, and the boats forced out into the stream. Without any means of controlling them, (for the fires were all out) they came very near wrecking; and not a few fine-skinned officers, who preferred quartering in a state-room to remaining with their commands, were frightened well-nigh to death. "They did not mind going into battle," they said, "but deliver them from another such a ride as that." Some thought they could boast of having been, for once, in peril.

The 17th Iowa next joined in the Yazoo Pass Expedition, an account of which will be found elsewhere. In this movement the regiment did not suffer a single casualty, though one of the boats, on which a portion of it was embarked, came near sinking in fifty feet of water. It had struck a snag, and the hold was half filled with water, before the accident was discovered. The confusion which followed was alarming. The boat at once made for the shore, and no sooner reached it than men, knapsacks, boxes and barrels, and guns with fixed bayonets, all left the hurricane-deck together. The distance was some twenty feet; and how it happened that no one was killed is surprising.

The transit by steamer from the Sand Bar to Milliken's Bend, and the march across the country from that point to Bruinsburg and round to the rear of Vicksburg, follow next in the history of the 17th Iowa. On that march it bore a proud and note-worthy part in two bloody battles.

One incident which occurred while en route for Milliken's Bend, I should not omit to mention; for by the accident the whole regiment came near sinking in the Mississippi. When nearly opposite the mouth of White River, the fleet bearing the 7th Division was hailed by a Federal gun-boat. While the Rose Hambleton, on which the 17th was embarked, was turning to answer the challenge of the gun-boat, she was struck by the boat following her, near the after gang-way, and her guards and a large hole in her hull stove in. Had any other than soldiers been on board, the boat must have gone down; for the hole knocked in her hull was large enough to drag a horse through. The men were aroused from sleep and hastily moved to the opposite side of the boat, and in this way the lower edge of the hole was raised above the water. This all happened at mid-night. The Mississippi was swollen out of her banks and the nearest land was miles away.

The regiment crossed to the east bank of the Mississippi on the morning of the 1st of May, 1863, the day on which General McClernand routed the enemy at Thompson's Hill, or Port Gibson, and with its division pushed on with all dispatch to the front; for it was then supposed that the enemy had sufficient strength to give much trouble. The battle-ground was passed over during the forenoon of the next day, and that night the enemy was brought to bay on the hills across the north fork of Bayou Pierre, and about eight miles north of Port Gibson. But he was dislodged next morning with only slight skirmishing, and the pursuit was continued to Hawkinson's Ferry, on the Big Black River. Here the 17th Iowa rested a few days, and then, with its division and corps, resumed the march in the direction of Raymond. Near Raymond on the 12th of May, where General Logan's Division so handsomely and signally defeated the enemy, the regiment was double-quicked to the front, and thrown into line of battle; but the enemy yielding his position it was not brought into action. Two days later it was one of the three regiments that did the chief fighting at the first battle of Jackson.

On the evening of the 13th of May, 1863, the 17th Army Corps under Major-General McPherson, bivouacked at Clinton, and, at day-light of the following morning, marched for Jackson, with the 2d Brigade of the old 7th Division in the van. For many hours, a drenching rain had been falling, and for nearly two days scarcely an ounce of food had been tasted. The roads were heavy, and by a Potomac general would have been pronounced impassable; but the Union army was to camp in Jackson that night. The column moved on slowly, a strong line of skirmishers feeling the way before it. Finally, descending a wooded hill, it came to an open country, and within plain view of General Johnson's army, drawn up in line of battle. On the right of the road, the country was open and, from a low bottom, gradually ascending; but, on the left and not far in advance, it was undulating and covered with a young growth of oak timber. It fell to the lot of the 17th Iowa to fight here. On the right was the 10th Missouri, in the centre the 80th Ohio, and on the left the 17th Iowa. The balance of the division was drawn up in line by brigades to the rear, and within easy supporting distance.

The guns of General Sherman were already thundering on the south side of the city, and were being answered by those of General McPherson; and down the road, which separated the right of the 17th Iowa from the left of the 80th Ohio, the shell and solid shot of the enemy flew in rapid succession. Near one o'clock, the entire line of the 2d Brigade began to advance slowly, while its skirmishers drove in those of the enemy. No guns were fired, except those of the skirmishers and the artillery, till we were within three hundred yards of the enemy's line. Here a halt was ordered and bayonets fixed. The 17th was lying under the crest of a small hill; beyond was a ravine, and a little further on, the chivalry — one Georgia and two South Carolina regiments. In an instant the artillery ceased firing, when the order was given, and the charge made. Colonel Hillis simply said: — "Boys, when I tell you to go down there, I expect you will go."

The enemy stood for a moment, and then fled in confusion; but not till he had strewed the hill-slope with eighty of our dead and wounded. The regiment went into the fight with only three hundred and fifty men, and the contest was of not more than ten minutes' duration.

The 17th stood panting on the spot but just now wrested from the enemy, when General Crocker, with hat in hand, came riding up. "God bless you, colonel," and then turning to the regiment, he added: "don't let any one tell me the 17th wont fight." This was Colonel Hillis' first hard-fought battle; and his gallant conduct secured the love and admiration of his regiment. Among the dead were Lieutenant John Inskeep and fifteen others; and I regret that want of space prevents me giving their names. Captains L. W. Huston and C. P. Johnson, and Lieutenant John F. Skelton were among the wounded. Captain Johnson and Lieutenant Skelton, with the other severely wounded, were left in hospital in the enemy's lines.

As General Crocker predicted, the Union army camped in Jackson on the night of the 14th of May. On the following morning, the 17th Army Corps marched back in the direction of Vicksburg; and, on the day succeeding that, was fought the stubborn battle of Champion's Hill. The 2d Brigade camped at Clinton, ten miles west of Jackson, in the evening of the 15th instant; and it was rumored that, for its gallantry at Jackson, it had been detailed as a sort of body-guard to General Grant, who, during that night, had his head-quarters established at Clinton. But day-light, on the morning following, was ushered in by the booming of cannon away off in the direction of Vicksburg; and as the brave boys of the 17th looked at each other, they seemed to read in their faces mutual concern and anxiety; for, I care not how reckless men may be, the first thought of entering battle is chilling and repulsive; and he who is constantly boasting of his valor is the one of all others to be watched in action. It proved as all expected, for orders to move immediately and rapidly came instantly; and the regiment, foot-sore and weary, was off again for the scene of action.

At Champion's Hill (for I cannot drag out the story longer) five hundred men snatched victory from a self-confident enemy. The Union lines, on either side of the Jackson and Vicksburg road, had been overpowered, and the troops were fast yielding their last position, when the 17th Iowa and 10th Missouri coming up succeeded, after five successive charges, in turning the scale of battle. Before the 17th was fairly in line, it raised a shout, which, being taken up along the entire line, led the enemy to believe that the Federal reinforcements did not number less than fifteen thousand men. This seems improbable; but a Confederate quarter-master, who was taken prisoner, afterward declared that the Union reinforcements could not have been less than that number. At that point, General Grant came near being defeated; but he had ample reinforcements near at hand, and had the enemy been successful there and followed up the attack, their defeat in another position would have been even more disastrous than it was. Though General Grant in his official report declares: "Expecting McClernand momentarily with four divisions, including Blair's, I never felt a doubt of the result," yet, when he was seen coming down from the hill from which his forces were being slowly but surely pressed, his countenance wore an expression of sadness and doubt, such as the 17th never saw it before. It was just at this instant that the 17th Iowa and the 10th Missouri, passing their general, went under fire; and I believe that I do no injustice in claiming that these troops acted the chief part in turning the scale of battle at Champion's Hill.

Though the 17th Iowa was not engaged more than thirty minutes before the enemy fled, yet its loss, in killed and wounded, was fifty-nine. Corporal J. R. Holt and privates James Kain, John Kirkland, Ezra Stoker and William Turner were among the killed. Corporal H. W. Mulford, a young man of exemplary habits and promise, was one of the mortally wounded.

Among the regiment's spoils in this victory, were the colors of the 31st Alabama, and four guns of Waddell's Alabama Battery. The regiment also captured more than three hundred prisoners. That night it encamped on the battle-ground, and the next day, with the 10th Missouri, buried the dead, and cared for the wounded. It arrived in rear of Vicksburg in the morning of the 20th instant; and, from that day till the surrender of the city, did its full share of duty on the skirmish line and in the trenches.

In personal appearance, Colonel Hillis is attractive. He is not a large man, but is strongly and compactly built; and steps promptly and firmly. His complexion, hair and eyes are dark, the last being full and lustrous. On first acquaintance, one would think him a little haughty and aristocratic; but his sociableness and congeniality soon remove this impression. As an officer, he ranked high, and, had he remained in the service, would have been promoted in a few weeks to a brigadier-general.

Colonel Hillis has good business talent, and a fine education. He is also somewhat of a politician, and makes a pretty and forcible extempore speech.

SOURCE: Addison A. Stuart, Iowa Colonels and Regiments, p. 321-30

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