Sunday, July 12, 2009



James Alexander Williamson, the successor of Major-General Dodge to the colonelcy of the 4th Iowa Infantry, is a Southerner by birth, and a good representative of the old-style chivalry. He is a native of Columbia, Adair county, Kentucky; where he was born on the 8th day of February, 1829. All that I know of his early history is, that he was educated at Knox College, Illinois, where he was known as a hard student and accurate scholar. In 1845, he removed to Iowa, and, ten years later, located in Des Moines, the present home of his family. His profession is the law, in the practice of which he was engaged just before entering the army.

Soon after the second call of the President for troops, in the summer of 1861, General Williamson enlisted in the volunteer service for "during the war." He was commissioned 1st lieutenant and adjutant of the 4th Iowa Infantry, on the 8th of August, 1861; since which time his history has been almost identical with the history of that regiment; and, as much as we admire the general's military career, we could not, if we would, pay him a higher compliment; for to no Iowa regiment is the State more largely indebted for its military renown than to the noble 4th Iowa. At Pea Ridge, its conduct was most gallant, challenging alike the admiration of friend and foe. General Curtis said: — "This regiment won immortal honors;" and General Van Dorn: — "I never saw troops stand up and fight so before."

During the thirty months subsequent to the 23d of January, 1862, the time when the 4th Iowa left Rolla, Missouri — in its march under General Curtis against General Price to Springfield and to the Ozark Mountains; from that point to Batesville and across the State of Arkansas to Helena; thence to Chickasaw Bayou and up the Arkansas River to Arkansas Post; from Milliken's Bend round through Grand Gulf and Jackson to the rear of Vicksburg, and then, after the fall of that city, back to Jackson; from Vicksburg to Memphis, and thence across the country to Chattanooga; and finally, in its march with General Sherman against Atlanta — its record is one continued series of achievements, unsurpassed for success and brilliancy.

That I do not speak of this regiment in too high terms of praise, the following order of General Grant is proof:

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, February 2d, 1864.

"The Board of officers of the 15th Army Corps, appointed to determine the battles each regiment and battery of that command are entitled to inscribe on their colors and guidons, have made the following award, in the case of the 4th Iowa Infantry : — Pea Ridge; First at Chickasaw Bayou; Arkansas Post; Vicksburg — siege and assaults on the 19th and 22d of May; Jackson; Chattanooga."

But this order is imperfect in details. The following are the skirmishes and engagements in which the 4th Iowa took part, previous to joining the campaign of General Sherman against Atlanta: —Pea Ridge; Chickasaw Bayou; Arkansas Post; Jackson (May 14th, 1863); siege and assaults at Vicksburg; Jackson (July 12th, 1863); Cherokee Station; Caney Creek; Tuscumbia; Lookout Mountain; and Ringgold. This too, including the battles that the 4th Iowa was engaged in on the Atlanta campaign, is the battle-record of General Williamson.

When Colonel, now Major-General Dodge, was assigned to the command of a brigade under General Curtis, he retained Adjutant J. A. Williamson upon his staff, and made him his acting assistant adjutant-general. At the battle of Pea Ridge, Lieutenant Williamson acted as aid-de-camp to Colonel Dodge, and, by his coolness and promptness, rendered important service. I might add, it was his good conduct in that engagement that made him lieutenant-colonel of his regiment; for Lieutenant-Colonel Galligan had resigned, for reasons which I will not mention. On the confirmation of Colonel Dodge as brigadier-general, Lieutenant-Colonel Williamson was promoted to the colonelcy of the 4th Iowa Infantry.

On the third day's fight at Chickasaw Bayou, Colonel Williamson, in command of his regiment, distinguished himself.

The fleet bearing the command of General Sherman entered the mouth of the Yazoo River, on the morning of the 26th of December, 1862, and proceeded up that stream until opposite Johnson's plantation, which lies on the south bank of the river, and some five miles below Maine's Bluff. At this point General Frederick Steele, in command of the 4th Division, 13th Army Corps, debarked his command, and, under instructions from General Sherman, sent out Blair's Brigade on the Johnson road, which leads to the Walnut Hills, in the direction of Vicksburg. That day reconnoissances were made, and that night a new point of attack was determined on. Accordingly, on the following morning, General Steele re-embarked with the brigades of Hovey and Thayer, (in the last of which were the 4th, 9th, 26th and 30th Iowa) and, moving further up the river, effected a landing just above the mouth of Chickasaw Bayou. From near this point to the Walnut Hills, a distance of four miles or more, extends a narrow, winding causeway, or levee, and over this was the only accessible way to the point of attack; for, on either side of the levee, the country is covered with brush and timber, and is so low that, at that time, much of it was under water. Along this highway, which had been obstructed by the enemy with brush and fallen trees, the brigades of Hovey and Thayer moved, till they had arrived in the vicinity of the bluffs—General Steele says, "within about eight hundred yards;" but it could hardly have been so near. "At this point the levee turned to the left, and continued in a curve for about eight hundred yards;" and, on its farther side, were the enemy's skirmishers and sharp-shooters. General Hovey's Brigade, which was in the advance, endeavored to remove the obstructions in its front, and dislodge the enemy's sharp-shooters; but the position was covered by the enemy's artillery on the bluff, which made it impossible. But this point gained, and still General Steele had little assurance of success; for the steep sides of the bluff were lined with rifle-pits, in which the enemy were lodged in force. The enemy's artillery, too, frowned down upon him from four different points. He believed it impossible to make a successful assault, and, falling back to the river, returned to Johnson's plantation. On the morning of the 29th instant, General Thayer's Brigade, being the first off the boats, was hurried rapidly forward. It was to be held in reserve, but the zeal of its commander led it directly to the front. "The 26th Iowa was detached to cut a road," and the 30th was met by General Steele, and turned to the right; but the 4th, under the lead of its gallant colonel, moved forward at double-quick, and was the first to enter the enemy's second tier of rifle-pits. It was for its gallant conduct at this point that the 4th Iowa was permitted to inscribe on its colors, "First at Chickasaw Bayou." But the regiment's bravery was of no avail, and that assault was mere butchery; for the whole of Pemberton's Vicksburg army was in possession of the bluffs.

The fact that General Sherman ordered, or permitted, that assault, was, with many, new evidence of his insanity; but it is now, I believe, well settled that the orders under which he acted were unconditional and imperative.

The engagement at Pea Ridge was more protracted and exhausting, but, for fierceness, it is in no way to be compared with that at Chickasaw Bayou. In each of these battles, the 4th Iowa was in the hardest of the conflict; but, considering the time it was engaged in each, its loss was fifty per cent. greater in the latter than in the former. Its loss at Chickasaw Bayou was one hundred and twelve, out of an aggregate of three hundred and fifty taken into the engagement. Lieutenants L. Pitzer, E. C. Miller, and J. H. Miller were among the killed and Colonel Williamson and Captain R. A. Stitt of Company F, among the wounded.

In the re-organization of the army before the final Vicksburg campaign, the 4th Iowa Infantry was assigned to the 15th Army Corps; and, with that command, it has served ever since. Its losses in the assaults on the enemy's works in rear of Vicksburg were heavy; and at Chattanooga, where, under General Osterhaus, it joined General Hooker in scaling Lookout Mountain, the loss in killed was especially heavy. In the march of General Sherman on Atlanta, it engaged the enemy at Resaca, New Hope Church, Kenesaw Mountain, and in the battles of the 22d and 28th of July, and at Jonesboro. Its conduct before Atlanta, on the 22d of July, was gallant in the extreme, as was also that of the 9th Iowa. An account of the part it acted, during that day, will be found in the sketch of the last named regiment.

In the march from Atlanta to Savannah, the 4th Iowa was brigaded with the 9th, 25th, 26th, 30th, and 31st Iowa regiments—the same troops who afterwards captured the city of Columbia, South Carolina. While in rear of Savannah, these troops had a compliment paid them, to which I should in justice allude. The brigade, General Williamson commanding, arrived in rear of Savannah, on the 11th of December, and, on the 20th instant, was one of the commands selected to carry the enemy's works, and force an entrance into the city. The assault was to come off on the morning of the 21st; but the night previous General Hardee fled. To appreciate the value of this compliment, it is necessary to understand the position of the brigade, and the character of obstacles to be overcome. Its position was in the low lands south-west of Savannah, and on the right of the road leading to the city. Five hundred yards in its front was the Little Ogechee, whose north-east bank was fortified, and held by the enemy: between its line and the river was the Grave Yard Battery. The bridge over the Ogechee was destroyed, and the waters of the stream, much swollen. The brigade was to cross on rafts, planks, and poles, placed by a storming party. It was a hazardous undertaking ; but, had not General Hardee fled, it would doubtless have been successfully accomplished.

The 4th Iowa Infantry has met the enemy in eight different rebel States—Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and has never been repulsed; only once has it been compelled to yield the ground it had wrested from the enemy.

In closing an official statement of the services of his regiment called for by the Adjutant-General of Iowa, General Williamson says: It "stayed at Nashville a few days to get an outfit, and then started on the campaign against Atlanta, and has only halted in line of battle since, until its arrival at this place, on the 7th instant. This is not a regiment which has ordinarily been at 'posts.' I can hardly realize the meaning of the term. We have stopped a few weeks to rest after a campaign, but never had charge of any post since the regiment was really equipped for the field at Rolla, in the fall of 1861.

"Our records, reports, and returns are made from the place where we happened to be when they fell due, and one camp has been almost as much a 'post' with us as another."

Subsequently to the spring of 1863, General Williamson has been in command of the brigade to which his regiment has been attached; and during all this time has enjoyed, in an uncommon degree, the confidence of his superior officers. In proof of this I give the following instance: While Governor Stone was on a visit to the army before Atlanta, in the summer of 1864, he met General Sherman at his head-quarters. In the course of conversation, the names of different Iowa officers were introduced, when Governor Stone enquired: "Where, general, is Colonel Williamson?" "With his command and doing his duty, as he always is," was the reply; and only those who know General Sherman can appreciate the worth of this compliment.

General Williamson was not promoted to his present rank until the winter of 1864-5. Why such merit was so long unrewarded, has been a question much canvassed, and has produced not a little indignation, both in and out of the army. I give the following on the authority of a distinguished citizen of General Williamson's city: — On one occasion, the family of General Williamson being sick, that officer, knowing the long delay that would follow in obtaining a leave of absence through the regular channel, applied directly to the War Department. He obtained his leave and left for his home, after presenting his papers at corps head-quarters. The corps commander, who was, and still is jealous of his authority, was indignant; and from that time until the fall of 1864, although conceding the merit and claims of the general, declined to urge his promotion.

General Williamson is of medium hight [sic], and has a fine, symmetrical form. His full, gray eyes, which in his ordinary moods have a sort of absent and care-worn expression, tingle with intelligence and animation as soon as he becomes interested in conversation. In manners he is modest and reserved. He never begs favors. In New England he would be appreciated ; but, for a Western man, he lacks impudence.

The editor of the Cass County "Gazette," an intimate acquaintance of the general, speaks thus of him:

" Colonel Williamson is a refined, chivalrous gentleman, whom one must know to appreciate. To those who win his confidence, he is lavishly sociable; but, for those who treat him coolly, he has no smile or word of gladness. He rarely alters a deliberate opinion, and we know of but one exception; once of the best Democratic blood of the North, he is now a warm friend of Lincoln. He is a brave man. In battle his fine form moves near the van. He rides slowly, speaks with much calmness, and never becomes excited in action. Williamson is still a young man; but he is to-day a favorite of the people—especially in Middle and Western Iowa."

SOURCE: Stuart, A. A., Iowa Colonels and Regiments, p. 117-24

No comments: