John Williams was my great-great-great-grandfather. When he was 19 years old, he enlisted as a private in Company G of the Fourth Indiana Cavalry, along with some of his friends and neighbors from the Bedford area in Lawrence County, IN. He served for three years, participating in the battle of Chickamauga, the Atlanta campaign, and Wilson’s raid through Alabama and earning a promotion to corporal. The regiment mustered out at the end of June, 1865, in Nashville, TN and boarded a train for Indianapolis a few days later.
Back home in Lawrence County, John married Sallie Fish on August 17. They had three daughters before Sallie died in 1874 at 31. John remarried to her cousin Mary and had several more children. He became a minister and served several rural churches during his 60-year career. He cofounded Mount Pleasant Christian Church, which still exists on the northeast outskirts of Bedford. Near the end of his life he told a newspaper reporter that he guessed he had performed about 1500 marriages, and, as far as he knew, all of those individuals had lived happily ever after. When he died at the age of 83, he was survived by five children, twelve grandchildren, and eleven great grandchildren.
This information is easily found in public records. It is a little more difficult to learn what John was really like. But I feel like I know him. He was an illustrious and well-regarded citizen, so there are many references to him in newspaper articles and historical archives, and when he died the text of his funeral sermon was published in its entirety. Moreover, my great-grandmother (John’s granddaughter) never threw anything away, and I inherited all the scrapbooks and letters she saved, and even an old Bell telephone book. This is how I know some obscure details about him, like the fact that he moved into a house at 514 L Street from a farm just outside of Bedford in 1899 and that his phone number there was Main 1134. Or that his church paid 25 cents for lamp wicks and 40 cents for communion wine in January, 1896.
But John’s personality also comes through in some of these records. For example, his letters are full of references to food. In one, he described with delight the menu at a recent dinner with the Keithley family: “chicken & dumplings & sausage & pie & cake, taters & everything good.” In another, he noted that “George has brought in a few mighty fine rabbits” for rabbit pie. And he fondly recalled the time his aunt and uncle showed up at his regiment’s training camp in Indianapolis with “a fair wagon load” of treats. “Why, there was chicken by the dozen, boiled ham, bread, pies and cakes, pickles, jellies, preserves, honey, and yellow butter,” he wrote. His fellow recruits were pleased when he shared the food with them. “I believe the boys will remember that event to their dying day,” he reckoned.
John’s correspondence also reveals sweetness and humor. In a 1907 letter to his nine-year-old great-grandson, he made up a rhyme to amuse the boy: “Artie had a little lamb, its name was Daisy tootin. She butt the red pig on the head because it was a rootin’.”
“Say,” he continued, “we’ve got the smartest rooster. Aunt Sudie gave him to us. He comes off the roost early in [the] morning, gets close to the kitchen door, and crows till I go out and feed him.”
On a sadder note, he reported to Artie that “my two poor little kittens both died,” poisoned, he thought. He buried them together. “I guess I am the only one who thinks of them,” he wrote. “I don’t forget such good little friends.”
In another narrative, John described how, during the war, he helped an illiterate man in his company by reading to him a letter from home. The man’s wife missed him so much, she wrote, that “I have been on my head ever since you left home.” John found her choice of words curious. “I asked the comrade if he thought his wife went to church on her head. He said that was about like her to do that. I told him that it would be very unhealthy to go that way. He said that if she didn’t have any more sense let her go. Someone else read for him after that.”
A few months before John died in 1925, he and Mary celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a party in their home, and the event was covered by the local newspaper. According to the reporter, “hundreds of friends from all over the county and city [called] throughout the day to extend felicitations to this greatly beloved couple.” The rooms were filled with baskets of flowers and presents, and Mary was “gowned in lavender with lace.” The article praised John’s service in the war and as a Christian minister afterward.
Many soldiers returned from the war shaken by the death and destruction they had seen. Some could have been diagnosed as suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder if they had lived in the 21st century. The Fourth Cavalry didn’t experience as much combat as some regiments did, and John was never wounded or captured. But he witnessed plenty of unsettling scenes: comrades shot down in battle, stacks of amputated limbs outside a field hospital, and scores of bodies buried in long trenches under a cover of blankets, leaves, and dirt. It seems the war was often in his thoughts. He wrote a lengthy account of his experiences in the army that reveals the hardships and risks that he and his comrades faced.
In December, 1864 a brigade that included the Fourth Cavalry was pursuing Confederate General H. B. Lyon’s cavalry toward Elizabethtown, KY. One cold night, John’s friend Eli Fish complained that he felt frozen and sick, and he asked John to stop with him at the next house they saw in order to warm up. Soon they saw a large house set back from the road, and as they rode up to it they saw a light in the window. They let themselves in and walked into the parlor, where a fire was burning low.
“The first thing that arrested my attention,” John recounted, “was two muskets standing in the chimney corner. There were two men lying on the floor with their feet toward the fire. They were asleep – snoring. I turned to the other corner of the room where there was a bed, and I saw there were two men on the bed.” John asked the second pair who they were, and one replied that they were officers on General Lyon’s staff. Eli quickly grabbed one of the muskets from the corner, and John raised his carbine. “They were told in one sentence that we were Indiana soldiers and that they were our prisoners,” John wrote. He ordered them to turn over any weapons they had. After a tense moment, one man reached under his pillow and pulled out a revolver. John and Eli took their prisoners to their brigade commander.
After the war, John attended his company’s reunions. The veterans brought their families to these gatherings, where they ate, reminisced, and reconnected. Before the 1919 reunion, John sent a note to his daughter giving her the date of the event. “To my fair skinned and blue eyed Kittie,” he wrote, “this is our last homecoming.” He wanted her to make a point of attending. “Your entire family is expected without fail,” he told her.
When he was in his 70s, John submitted an inquiry to the monthly periodical Confederate Veteran. It read, “John Williams of Bedford, Ind., who served in Company G, 4th Indiana Cavalry, hopes to learn something of a Confederate soldier who was shot by him during a skirmish near Montgomery, Ala., at a small creek during Wilson’s raid in 1865, between Selma and Montgomery. He thinks the man was a member of the 4th Alabama Cavalry.”
Was the possibility that he had taken a life, even during wartime, weighing on John’s mind? Did he hope his former enemy had survived and that the two of them could make peace with each other? As with many veterans, the war seems to have followed him like a shadow. It defined him and his generation, and brought to them the respect and admiration of their descendants but also painful memories.
I don’t know whether John ever received a reply to his inquiry.