Sunday, December 13, 2009

COLONEL EBER C. BYAM

TWENTY-FOURTH INFANTRY.

Eber C. Byam was born in Canada West, in the year 1826. All that I know of him prior to entering the service is, he was a Methodist preacher. He was made colonel of the 24th Iowa, on the 7th day of August, 1862, and served with his regiment till after the fall of Vicksburg, when he resigned his commission.

The history of the 24th Iowa up to the time its brigade reported to Carrollton, Louisiana, in the summer of 1863, will be found substantially in the sketches of Colonels Miller and Connell, of the 28th Iowa. It fought at the battles of Port Gibson, and Champion's Hill, and took part in the siege of Vicksburg. At Champion's Hill, its position was to the right of the 28th Iowa; and, like that regiment, it was among the first troops to engage the enemy. Its loss in that engagement was terribly severe, and was chiefly sustained while charging, capturing and holding a rebel battery in its front. The act was daring in the extreme. Leaving its place in the line, it advanced on the battery without any support, and without any disposition being made to protect its flanks. It accordingly became an object of the enemy's concentrated fire, which in a short time disorganized it. It retired to the rear in disorder, and took no further part in the engagement. The loss of the regiment in the engagement I have been unable to learn.

The 24th Iowa reached Carrollton, about the middle of August, 1863, where it remained one month in camp, and then left with its division on an expedition up the Teche. For a history of this march, the object of which I never knew, I refer to an account, given by the chaplain of the 28th Iowa.

"On the 13th of September, we received orders from General Banks to move, which proved to be over the railroad, west from New Orleans, or rather Algiers, to Brashear. * * We commenced moving up Bayou Teche on the 3d of October; and, after a slow march which gave ample time to forage through a beautiful country, abounding in beef and sweet potatoes, orange groves and sugar plantations, reached Opelousas on the 23d instant, a distance of one hundred miles. It is needless to say that when the luxuries of this clime got in our way we ate them. The authorities would sometimes interdict them; yet, it required a fine taste to tell the difference, while the ingenuity of the men seemed fully up to the exigency of possessing themselves of any thing they needed as food. No enemy of strength being found, this expedition was evidently at a terminus. * * * *

"On the first day of November, General Franklin commenced a retrograde movement, and we began falling back in the direction of Franklin. No sooner had we commenced falling back than the enemy began to harass our rear and flanks. We reached Carrion Crow Bayou, on the second day, and remained here till the 7th instant. One brigade of the 4th Division, under command of General Burbridge, being left at Grand Chateau, four miles in our rear, were, on the 3d instant, attacked by the enemy. The regiment, with a part of our division, was ordered out to his assistance. We went promptly at double-quick for three miles; for it was apparent that the enemy were pressing him severely, that they had already turned his left flank, and were gaining his rear. This brought our troops directly facing the foe, who were already flushed with success. Teams and numerous attendants were stampeding to the rear, and great danger of confusion and disaster was imminent. Our division was hastily put in line, and the command to charge given, when the whole command went in at double-quick, with fixed bayonets. This the enemy could not stand, and they fell back in confusion, leaving their dead and wounded. In the meantime the rebels had sent a force to attack our camps, and the firing of our pickets soon became spirited. A detachment of the 24th Iowa was thrown out to their support. The sick and lame, to the last man, were ordered out, and hobbled into the ranks; but, after a brisk engagement with our pickets, the rebels retired, leaving two of their men dead. Our teams, which had been hurried out with our camp equipage, returned, and all was again quiet.

"On the morning of the 9th of November, we moved toward Vermillionville; but when within six miles of that place, the enemy made demonstrations upon our rear, and the command halted. Our brigade was formed to receive the attack, but the enemy came no further than our skirmishers, and we continued the march and went into camp near Vermillionville, in a drenching rain."

In this connection the author speaks of an incident, like examples of which have been often witnessed at new encampments. I allude to the tearing down of rebel buildings by the soldiers and the construction of chebangs with the material. The rebels called it vandalism, but I have often witnessed the operation with admiration. Two-story dwellings, with outhouses, have been utterly demolished in ten minutes time. While witnessing the performance one could think of nothing but an unfortunate caterpillar, dropped by accident in an ant-bed.

The 24th Iowa remained at Vermillionville till about the 20th of November, when it fell back to the rebel Camp Pratt, and the next day to New Iberia, at the head of navigation on the Teche. Here the regiment remained till the middle of December, and then returned to Berwick, and in a short time proceeded to Madisonville, on Lake Pontchartrain. At Madisonville the regiment went into quarters, and remained until General Banks organized his Red River Campaign. The 24th joined in that celebrated failure, a history of which will be found in the sketch of Colonel Connell and the 28th Iowa.

The 24th Iowa reached Morganzia Bend, on the 22d of May, 1864, after the nine days' exhausting march from Alexandria. Here it remained till about the middle of June, when, with its brigade, it was ordered down to Carrollton and thence west to Thibadaux, to anticipate General Dick Taylor, who, with a large force, was reported to be moving on Brashear. But nothing came of this expedition, and on the 6th of the following July the troops struck tents and moved back to Algiers.

Early in July a portion of the 19th Corps as re-organized was summoned to the Eastern Department, and preparations were made for its hasty departure. Grant needed these troops at Petersburg, and Sheridan, in the valley of the Shenandoah; and there was little now that required their services on the Gulf. Steele was in danger of being driven from Little Rock, and a portion of the 19th Corps was dispatched to his assistance: the balance took boats for Fortress Monroe. The 24th and 28th Iowa left New Orleans for the last named place on the 22d of July. The 22d Iowa with its brigade had left for the same destination several days before. This was an eventful passage in the history of these regiments, and, when well out in the Gulf the news was broken to them that they were going to the Potomac, it was hailed with universal acclamation. No Iowa soldier had as yet trod the soil of Virginia. All his fame had been earned in south-western departments, and he was impatient to measure his bayonet with those of the boasted Virginia veterans.

For these troops this was the first ocean trip. They had made short journeys on the Gulf, but none of sufficient length to make them familiar with that detestable, though invigorating sickness, which is certain to overwhelm all new voyagers. They were not more fortunate than others; for, says the chaplain of the 28th Iowa, when the sickness was on them, they were at first afraid they would die, and then afraid they would not. The hardest feature of the journey was the crowded condition of the boats; this, with the hot weather and the meager supply of fresh water, put many on the sick list, and, as soon as land was made, in the hospitals.

After touching at Fortress Monroe, the fleet proceeded to Alexandria, where the troops were debarked and transferred by ferry to Washington. From Washington they were ordered by General Augur, to the Shenandoah. The 24th and 28th Iowa were the first Iowa troops in the National Capital, and their march down Pennsylvania Avenue is thus referred to by Chaplain Simmons, who has published a history of his regiment.

"About noon of the 3d, we started from the depot, passing down Pennsylvania Avenue, with our battle-worn colors floating over the column. * * The fame of Iowa troops had been long talked of in Washington, and now, for the first time, its people looked on living Iowa regiments. Much interest seemed to be manifested by the citizens. The boys caught the enthusiasm, and their soldierly deportment evinced their appreciation, and called out from the public press honorable mention. I can not fail to mention that citizens of Iowa thronged to greet us. Many others, gentlemen, ladies and children, mingled in the throng, to lavish their sympathies upon these brave men. Men of position and influence gave their congratulations; children mingled with the soldiers; and the ladies — God bless them — blushed not to smile their sympathies upon our war-worn veterans."

From Washington, the 24th Iowa, with its brigade and division, marched by way of Snicker's Gap to Berryville, where they formed a junction with Sheridan. Sheridan as elsewhere stated was at the time falling back before Early; and, after the arrival of the 19th Corps, he continued his retrograde movement till he arrived first, at Charlestown and then, near the hights of Harper's Ferry, where he threw up fortifications. After resting five days in this position, he moved forward to Charlestown, and two weeks later again advanced, encountering the enemy near Berryville. Early fell back across the Opequan to near Winchester, and both armies fortified. This was on the 8th of September. Eleven days later, the advance was resumed down the rugged Berryville pike, and the enemy encountered, when was fought the desperate battle of Winchester or Opequan Creek, the first of the series which utterly demolished the invincible cohorts of Early.

The 22d, 24th, and 28th Iowa fought together in this engagement ; and their services on the field were nearly the same. I have been unable to obtain the official report of Colonel Wilds, the commanding officer, of the 24th Iowa, and therefore append an extract from the report of Lieutenant-Colonel B. W. Wilson of the 28th. The two regiments fought side by side:

"Early on the morning of the 19th, we broke camp near Berryville, and proceeded with the rest of the brigade on the Winchester pike. After crossing the Opequan, I formed in line of battle, my regiment occupying the extreme left of the brigade, and, on receiving orders to advance, immediately moved forward, and was soon warmly engaging the enemy. The 1st Brigade of our division being in advance was pressed back through our lines; yet we moved steadily forward for almost fifty yards, under one of the hottest fires of shot, shell and canister I ever witnessed. Here I was ordered to halt. At this point the fighting was most terrific; yet I am happy to say that none showed a disposition to either shrink from duty, or to fall back. * * We followed the retiring foe beyond Winchester, where night overtook us and we lay down to brood over the events of the day."

As stated in the sketch of Colonel Graham of the 22d Iowa, the first successes of the 19th Corps were changed into reverses, threatening to make the contest a defeat, almost before it had become a battle. In the midst of the confusion that followed the well-nigh disastrous repulse, was an example of coolness and courage on the part of an officer of the 24th Iowa, which is thus recorded by one who took part in the engagement:

"One instance of coolness and discipline, which contrasted curiously with the general panic, was noticed by Captain Bradbury of the 1st Maine Battery. * * Through the midst of the confusion came a captain of infantry — William T. Rigby of the 24th Iowa—leading a sergeant and twelve men, all marching as composedly as if returning from drill. 'Captain, you are not going to retreat any further, I hope?' said Bradbury. 'Certainly not,' was the reply. 'Halt; about-face. Three cheers, men; hip, hip, hurrah!' The little band cheered lustily. It was the first note of defiance that broke the desperate monotony of the panic. It gave heart to every one who heard it, and made an end of retreat in that part of the field. In a few minutes, the platoon swelled to a battalion, composed of men from half a dozen regiments."

On the 20th instant, Sheridan pressed the pursuit, and, passing through Strasburg, found the enemy entrenched on Fisher's Hill. They were again encountered and so severely punished that their retreat became a hopeless rout. Sheridan followed them to beyond Harrisonburg, and then fell back to Cedar Creek, where he arrived on the 10th of October, and where he fought, on the 19th instant, the remarkable battle bearing that name.

I give below Lieutenant-Colonel Wright's account of the part the 24th Iowa sustained in the battle of Cedar Creek. After having stated preliminarily, that his regiment was, at 5 o'clock in the morning of the 19th, in line of battle and ready to march with its brigade on a reconnoissance, the colonel says:

"At ten minutes past 5 o'clock, firing commenced on the picket line of the 8th Corps. Supposing it to be only a reconnoissance by the enemy, it created but little alarm. In a few minutes heavy firing commenced on the left and front of the 8th Corps. It was not yet day-light, and a dense fog, which had settled to the ground, rendered it almost impossible to distinguish objects at any distance. Soon after the firing commenced on the left, the brigade was ordered to move by the left flank, until the left of the 24th Iowa rested on the pike.

"Colonel Wilds ordered me to ride to the left of the regiment, and lead it to the place indicated, but before reaching the pike, I was ordered to halt, and take position, as we were already receiving the enemy's fire. * * The fog was so dense that it was impossible to tell what was in front of us, and as the 8th Corps was falling back at the time, our fire was reserved until the enemy had pressed his columns close up to and charged the battery on the right, one piece of which was captured. We held the position, however, until Colonel Shunk, discovering that the enemy had thrown a column across the pike on our left, ordered the brigade to fall back about five hundred yards, and take position parallel to, and facing the pike. This was done in good order, and the position taken and held, until it became necessary, in the opinion of General Grover, to fall back, in order to prevent being cut off entirely. (Up to this time the regiment had lost six men killed, and about forty wounded.) The order was given to fall back as rapidly as possible in the direction of the camp of the 6th Corps. The enemy came in heavy force on our left, and captured four officers and about forty men. The brigade fell back about one mile, and formed between the 1st Brigade, General Birge, and the 6th Corps, which was on the left. Previous to this time, Colonel Wilds had been wounded, and carried from the field. I had also received a bruise on my hip from a piece of shell, and a wound from a musket-ball in the left arm near the elbow, which sickened me so that I could not ride for near an hour, and the regiment was commanded by Captain L. Clark, during my absence.

"Soon after I returned to the regiment, which was then in the position above mentioned, the enemy made a flank movement to the left of the 6th Corps, rendering it necessary for it to fall back, and we were ordered to retire by the right of regiments to the rear. We moved in this manner nearly three miles, halted, took position, procured ammunition, and prepared to renew the battle. After we had rested about half an hour, Major-General Sheridan came on the field, having been absent since the morning of the 18th. He ordered the 8th Corps to take position on the left of the pike between Middletown and Newtown, the 6th Corps the centre and the 19th Corps the right. Sent two divisions of cavalry to the right, and one to the rear.

"The 4th Brigade was formed on the extreme left of the 19th Corps, connecting with the right of the 6th Corps. In this position the troops were ordered to rest, and throw up some temporary works.

"About 12 o'clock I was ordered to move the 24th Iowa to the extreme right of the 19th Corps, and protect the flank. I immediately moved to the place indicated, took position, and threw out a skirmish line. In this position I remained until 8 o'clock P. M., when I received orders to call in my skirmishers, and take my place in the line, as it was going to advance. My skirmishers had just reported when the advance was sounded. In order to get my position in the line, I had to double-quick about one mile, and during the greater part of this distance, we had to pass through the fire of the enemy's guns, which overshot our advancing columns, the shells exploding in the rear. About 3 ½ o'clock, I got my place in the line, which steadily advanced, driving the enemy from every position taken until we reached the camp we left in the morning. Here we halted, and made some coffee (those of us who were fortunate enough to have any), the first we had tasted since the evening of the 18th. We found one wounded officer there, who had hidden among the rocks during the day, and quite a number of our wounded men. Every thing was taken from our camp, leaving the men and most of the officers without haversacks, blankets, or shelter tents.

"At 8 o'clock P. M., the regiment moved forward, with the brigade, to a point near Strasburg, to protect the parties that were sent out to collect the property abandoned by the enemy in his hasty retreat. There we bivouacked for the night, without fires, the men suffering severely for want of blankets and proper clothing to protect them from the excessive cold."

"On the following morning (20th) the remainder of the 2d Division came up, and we went into camp about one mile from Strasburg.

"It would appear invidious to mention individual cases of gallantry during the day, when all, both men and officers, did their whole duty. I can not close, however, without referring to the bravery of our lamented Colonel Wilds, who was wounded soon after day-light, and died November 18th. In him we lost a noble, brave, and efficient officer."

Each of the three Iowa regiments were conspicuous in the battles of Opequan, Fisher's Hill, and Cedar Creek. In those of Winchester or Opequan and Cedar Creek, the 24th suffered severely. In the battle of Opequan, the 24th Iowa lost two officers and nine men killed, and four officers and fifty-six men wounded. Captain J. B. Gould and Lieutenant S. S. Dillman were killed; and Captain S. J. McKinley, Lieutenant and Adjutant D. W. Camp, and Lieutenants W. W. Edgington and R. S. Williams, were wounded. At Fisher's Hill, the loss of the regiment was only one officer and four men wounded. The regiment lost, at Cedar Creek, seven men killed; six officers and thirty-nine men wounded, and two officers and thirty-nine men captured. The wounded officers were Colonel John Q. Wilds, Major Edward Wright, Captains A. B. Knott, R H. Pound and A. M. Loomis, and Lieutenant C. H. Kurtz. Colonel Wilds was thirty-nine years of age; was a native of Pennsylvania, and entered the service from Mount Vernon. Before going to Virginia, he had commanded his regiment for several months. The 24th Iowa is known as the "Methodist Regiment."

SOURCE: Addison A. Stuart, Iowa Colonels and Regiments, p. 397-406

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