Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Brigadier General J. I. Gilbert


James I. Gilbert is one of Iowa's best officers. He is a native of Kentucky, and was born about the year 1824. At the time of entering the service, in the summer of 1862, he was a resident of Lansing, Iowa, where he had lived for about ten years. In Lansing, he has been commission merchant, dealer in general merchandise, produce dealer, and lumber merchant. At the time, or just before entering the service, he was the proprietor of a livery stable, and a dealer in real estate. He was commissioned colonel of the 27th Iowa on the 10th day of August, 1862, and served without special distinction till he joined General A. J. Smith on the Red River Campaign, in the spring of 1864. His gallant conduct at Fort De Russy, and through the whole campaign, and also before Nashville nearly a year later, secured his promotion to a general officer.

The 27th Iowa, which was rendezvoused in the city of Dubuque in the months of August and September, 1862, was made up of "the overplus of companies over the 21st regiment in the northern part of the State." In the early part of October, Colonel Gilbert, with six companies of his regiment, was assigned as an escort to guard a pay-master and train from Fort Snelling to Mille Lacs. The balance of the regiment, under Major Howard, remained at the fort. Early in November, Colonel Gilbert returned to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and soon proceeded to Memphis, via Cairo, Illinois. Major George W. Howard with the balance of the regiment had already proceeded to that point. He reached Memphis on the 20th of November, and one week later joined Sherman in his march from that place to the Tallahatchie, below Waterford. It will be remembered that this movement was made in conjunction with that of General Grant through Central Mississippi, against Vicksburg. The 27th Iowa marched only as far south as College Hill, near Oxford. "The regiment was then ordered to Waterford, Mississippi, and thence to the Tallahatchie River, where it first commenced its work as railroad guards."

When Van Dorn attacked and captured Holly Springs, the 27th Iowa, with other troops, was hurried to that vicinity; but the wily rebel having destroyed the immense Federal supplies, made his escape. The march was then continued northward, for the purpose of meeting and, if possible, of capturing Forest, who was at the same time making his raid on the Jackson and Columbus Railroad. The 27th arrived at Jackson on the 30th of December, and the next day or night, Forest's defeat at Parker's Cross Roads and subsequent flight having been, learned, was marched by a circuitous rout to Clifton. The raiders however escaped. It was this raid of Forest, it will be remembered, that so frightened General Davies at Columbus, and caused him to order the destruction of government property at Island No. 10. The march from Jackson to Clifton was the first fatiguing one the 27th Iowa had yet made. More than one man of the regiment wished that night that he had never entered the army.

From December, 1862, until the following August, the regiment served in Southern Tennessee. It was stationed a principal portion of the time on the Jackson and Columbus Railroad, with head-quarters at Jackson.

On the abandonment of Jackson and the railroad through to Columbus, in the fore part of June, 1863, Colonel Gilbert was ordered down to Moscow, where he remained with his regiment till the 20th of the following August, guarding the railroad. But after the fall of Vicksburg, and the defeat of General Johnson's army at Jackson, Mississippi, the 27th with its brigade was ordered to report to General Steele, who was then about starting on the Little Rock Campaign. The brigade, composed of the 49th and 62d Illinois, the 27th Iowa and 50th Indiana, and commanded by Colonel J. M. True, of the 62d Illinois, arrived at Helena, after the forces of General Steele had left; but immediately starting in pursuit, Colonel True succeeded in uniting with Steele in time to enter Little Rock with the main army. With the routine of camp-life and picket duty, the months of September and October were passed at Little Bock, when, under orders from General Steele, Colonel Gilbert reported back to Memphis in command of his own regiment and the 49th Illinois. At Memphis a portion of the 27th was assigned to duty at the Navy Yard, and the balance put on picket-duty in rear of the city.

Up to this time, the 27th Iowa, as a regiment, had never met the enemy in battle; but the time was now near at hand when it would afford new proof of the intrepidity of Iowa soldiers. The regiment left Memphis for Vicksburg on the 28th of July, 1864, whence, a week later, it left with General Sherman on the celebrated march to Meridian.

At Memphis and just before leaving for Vicksburg, the 27th Iowa was brigaded with the 14th and 32d Iowa, and the 24th Missouri. These troops constituted the 2d Brigade of the 3d Division, 16th Army Corps, which afterward, under command of Colonel William T. Shaw of the 14th, so distinguished itself in the Red River Expedition of General Banks. In the Meridian march, it should be stated that the 27th Iowa went some six miles further east than any other troops of Sherman's command, and in this advanced position captured several prisoners.

The plan for the Red River Campaign had already been matured, on the return of General Sherman to Vicksburg; and on the evening of the 10th of April, 1864, General A. J. Smith left with his expeditionary army for the mouth of Red River, where he arrived on the evening following. The fleet of Admiral Porter arriving that same evening, the expedition, on the morning of the 12th instant, sailed up the river, and in the afternoon arrived at Simmsport, where the infantry forces disembarked. From this point, General Smith marched with his command across the country to the rear of Fort De Russey, while Porter, with his gun-boat fleet, proceeded up the river. Near Simmsport a small body of the enemy's cavalry made their appearance; but they offered no resistance to the advance; and on the evening of the second day the fort was invested. Porter in the meantime had come up with his fleet, but for some reason took no part in the engagement which followed. I have been told that it was the crookedness of the river at this point, together with certain obstructions, that prevented him from operating with the land forces.

Fort De Russey, a formidable earth-work of the enemy on the south-west side of Red River, and some four miles above the town of Marksville, was built on a high point of land, about one hundred paces back from the river, but connected with it by rifle-pits. On the south-west bank of the river, was a six-gun water-battery. The Fort proper mounted but four guns: two six-pounders commanded the open country south-west of the Fort; and two thirty-two pounders covered the Marksville road and the approaches to the south-east. On the north-west side of the fort was dense timber and impassable swamps.

On the 14th day of March, the day of the capture of Fort De Russey, the 27th Iowa led the advance. Marksville, which is some thirty miles distant from Simmsport, was reached at four o'clock in the afternoon; and at this point Colonel Gilbert was ordered to halt his regiment to prevent straggling in the town. He was kept in this position till all the troops had passed, and until the dispositions for the attack had been nearly completed. The 27th as a regiment had not yet been under fire, and, jealous of his own reputation and that of his command, Colonel Gilbert dispatched his adjutant to Colonel Shaw, with this request: "If there is to be any fighting we want to have a hand in it." An order was finally returned for him to bring his regiment forward; and he moved up and took position on the extreme right of the assaulting forces. Two entire brigades charged on the fort, and Colonel Shaw's held the right. The line of battle was semi-circular, and, on the right, was formed in the edge of timber and some two hundred and fifty yards distant from the fort.

In front of the 2d Brigade (Colonel Shaw's) was a ravine, running nearly parallel with the enemy's defenses; but, before this could be reached, the entire line must pass under a severe musketry-fire from the fort and the adjacent rifle-pits. After the reconnoissance had been completed, during which time the fire from the fort had been responded to by the 3d Indiana Battery, a general charge was ordered, when Colonel Gilbert, drawing his sword and stepping to the front of his regiment, said: "Boys, come on." "From that moment," said a member of his regiment to me, "we knew he had the true grit." He was one of the first officers, if not the very first, to enter the enemy's works. If this was not a sanguinary affair, it was a brilliant one, and augured well for the success of the future expedition. The number of casualties of the 27th Iowa, in this engagement, I have failed to learn.

It should be borne in mind that General Banks had not yet come up from Franklin, Louisiana; nor did he come up till a week after the capture of Alexandria; so that the credit incident to the capture of Fort De Russey belongs solely to General Smith and the troops of his command. On the morning of the 15th instant, the 3d Division, having re-embarked on the fleet, moved up to Alexandria, and that same evening the place was entered without opposition. Here General Smith remained till the arrival of General Banks with his command, consisting of portions of the 13th and 19th Army Corps.

From this point, General Banks marched through the country via Natchitoches to Grand Ecore; but Smith, moving up to the head of the rapids, above Alexandria, re-embarked and sailed up the river, arriving at Grand Ecore at about the same time as did General Banks. On the 5th of April, General Banks marched for Shreveport by way of the Mansfield road, and two days later was followed by the command of General Smith; but the advance was soon to be turned into a retreat; and neither the forces of Banks nor Smith were destined to see even Mansfield. No considerable resistance was made to the advance till near Natchitoches, and, to beat this back, no troops were required but the cavalry; but beyond Pleasant Hill, and about thirty miles distant from Natchitoches, the enemy showed so much resistance that it became necessary to send forward a brigade of infantry.

The battle of Mansfield, or Sabine Cross Roads was fought on the afternoon of the 8th of April, 1864, and that of Pleasant Hill on the morning and evening of the 9th. The last was the one in which the 14th, 27th and 32d Iowa regiments so distinguished themselves. These troops, together with the 24th Missouri, I believe impartial history will say, saved the army of General Banks from disorganization and capture; for they were the only troops that maintained their position throughout that terrible day — I mean, of course, of those whose position was in the front. If this be not so, how was it that their losses, in killed, wounded and missing, numbered nearly, if not quite two-thirds of the casualties in Banks' entire army? The position held by the 27th in this engagement was the left centre of its brigade. On its right was the 14th Iowa, and on its left the 32d. Its right rested near the Pleasant Hill and Mansfield road.

The conduct of Colonel Gilbert in this engagement, as at Fort De Russey, was gallant in the extreme. Through the anxious hours that intervened between the first attack in the morning and the final fierce assaults of the enemy in the afternoon, he was never idle, but talked with and cheered his men. Skirmishing all this time was going on; and every moment closed with the assurance that the next would open the fierce encounter. When the conflict finally did open, he stood firm and confident, using, when occasion offered and his duties would permit, a musket against the advancing enemy. Indeed, the colonel was wounded in this engagement, while in the act of shooting a rebel officer. Many brave officers and men of the 27th Iowa were left among the killed and wounded: their names I have failed to learn. One I know — Sergeant George W. Griswold, a brave and faithful soldier. He was wounded severely in the face, and left in hospital within the enemy's lines.

A history of Banks' Expedition after his unplucked victory at Pleasant Hill will be found elsewhere. In the fatiguing and harassing retreat to Simmsport, Smith's Division covered the rear of Banks' army.

Subsequently to the Red River Campaign, there has been little rest for the 27th Iowa Infantry. It joined its division in driving Price from Missouri; was with A. J. Smith at Nashville, and fought in those terrible battles that closed only with the destruction of General Hood's army; and, lastly, was with Its old white-headed general before Blakely, where it led a portion of the charging column that carried so brilliantly the strong-hold. Now it has marched with its division into the interior of Alabama; but it will probably see no more fighting.

After the battle of Nashville, Colonel Gilbert was made a brigadier-general. Since that time, he has been in command of a brigade. He is one of the most popular officers in his division.

Colonel Gilbert is six feet and one inch in hight, and has a broad chest, and an erect and tapering form. His hair, eyes and complexion are dark. He has a heavy voice, and is an energetic talker. At home and among his acquaintances, he is "noted for his love of a fine horse and riding out-fit. He thinks much of style in appearance."

He is quick and active in his motions, and, in civil life, was accustomed to decide the most important business transactions in a moment. His opinions, of which he is very positive, he is always ready to back with a bet; and his losses, of which he rarely has any, he pays promptly. As a business man, he was not considered very fortunate, though he was never placed in a position which prevented him from paying all legal demands against him. Like several other Iowa officers, he is better adapted to the profession of arms than to any other calling. I should not omit to state that, of the Iowa generals, General Gilbert is the finest equestrian the State can boast, not even excepting General Frederick Steele.

SOURCE: Addison A. Stuart, Iowa Colonels and Regiments, p. 421-8

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