James Roger Atcherley’s American Civil War – Part 4

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Quote Camp Four Miles South of Corinth, June 2, 1862. Mr. Editor:—I write to you, if not from the depths of my heart, at least from the depths of a wilderness. Wilderness. Ugh, that doesn’t imply half the horrors of this wretched, deserted, god-forsaken, ‘skeeter-inhabited region. From the time we reached Pittsburg Landing up to the present, which is a little more than six weeks, we have never been out of the woods. —Nothing but woods, woods, and bugs, bugs, continually and eternally. Unquote — Newark Advocate, 20 June 1862.

events - American Civil War - Pittsburg Landing, 1862Pittsburg Landing, around April 1862.

Following their arrival at Mill Springs, too late to take part in the battle there, the 31st Ohio Volunteers remained in the area for some three weeks before moving on. This time, instead of marching, the regiment travelled by steamboat. Aboard the Magnolia, the men headed down the Ohio river and then up the Cumberland, reaching Nashville, Tennessee, on 18 February 1862. Writing in 1881, N N Hill Jr stated:

Owing to the inconveniences to which the men were subjected, much sickness ensued, so that on disembarking less than one-half were fit for duty. After a short rest, however, the health of the men improved greatly, and the regiment moved southward with Buell’s army. The regiment advanced with the army toward Corinth, and during the march was engaged frequently in skirmishing with the rebels. After the evacuation of the city it marched in pursuit of the rebels about forty miles, and then returned and went into camp near Corinth.

As we have seen, James Atcherley [] also wrote of the 31st Ohio’s time at Corinth. His words were written at the time of the events and, in contrast to his humorous description of camp life back in January 1862, the tone of his letter of June 2nd was – understandably – far from upbeat. James wrote about the disappearance of Confederate forces from Corinth, and he expressed his views on those who were pushing for an end to slavery rather than concentrating on the restoration of the Union. There were other problems too, which were closer to home – the pesky bugs of Tennessee’s woods.

Quote Did you ever see a wood tick? but of course you didn’t, Ohio would not countenance such ‘varmin.’ Well, I wish I was innocent of any such knowledge. But I ain’t. They have picked me completely clean; and everyone knows that I could but ill spare it, for I never had much, so that I now go by the delightful cognomen of ‘Bones,’ ‘Spindle,’ or ‘Shanks.’ But then there’s one consolation, even for me. I don’t have so much to carry, and that’s quite a consideration when you remember that we have a knapsack, sixty rounds of ammunition, canteen and haversack to carry.

Of course you have heard of the evacuation of Corinth. We heard the explosion of the magazines on the morning of the 30th of May, and  suspecting they were going to leave us without saying good bye, an advance was ordered and made. Of course you have heard how we arrived ‘in time to be too late;’ in time to know that the weeks of labor, and hard labor, too, which we had performed, was all for nought; in time to see that they had given us the slip and gone, baggage, guns and all.

events - American Civil War - evacuation of Corinth, 1862Evacuation of Corinth, Mississippi, June 1862.

And, oh! didn’t someone receive a blessing when we found out how weak their defences were; how easy it would have been to carry them. But they were gone; had escaped, and so there was no use crying over spilled milk. But where were they gone, was the all absorbing and interesting question, a question which no one could answer. Meantime we were marched through the dust, and then countermarched, but for what purpose I’ll never tell, for I have not the remotest idea.

About three o’clock, P. M., we were marched out into an open field. Here the whole division was formed in line of battle, stacked arms and waited there until about half past eight o’clock, when the bugles sounded forward, and regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade, moved forward slowly and with many delays, for the roads were blocked up with artillery. We made but little progress, and at two o’clock, A. M., we were ordered to rest on our arms until daylight. Tired and exhausted as we were, it was no hard job to lie down in that dirty road and sleep soundly. When we were roused a few hours later to cook our breakfast, I must say we were as dirty a looking set as you ever saw. Our clothes covered with dust and our face smeared with the same, we gazed into one another’s faces and then made a break for water.

After breakfast we resumed our march, and after a great deal of delay pitched our tents in the center, as near as I can judge, of this immense swamp you hear so much about. There are so many conflicting reports in relation to the same subject in circulation, that a person can hardly tell what to rely upon. However, they all agree that Pope and perhaps Mitchell is in hot pursuit of the enemy, and on the afternoon of the 30th we hear heavy cannonading in the direction in which it is supposed the rebels have gone, and yesterday three trains loaded with prisoners arrived.

It is now the belief that our grand army will be scattered once more, as it was before the grand junction was made here, some to Arkansas, Missouri, East Tennessee and Virginia, and some, perhaps, will be left here. To which of these points we shall go is pretty difficult to say, for I have heard each mentioned in turn as the place of our certain destination. I saw some members of Capt. Nichols’ company a short time since, and was sorry to learn that a few days before, while out on a reconnoisance, twelve of their number were sun-struck, among them Josh. Griffith of Newark; otherwise the company is well.

The conviction is gradually forcing itself upon us that as soon as we can dispose of the rebels, that is, bring them back once more behind the old flag, there will be one more task for us to perform, before our duty of punishing traitors is finished. That task will be to march, Cromwell like, upon Washington, and purge both Houses of the traitors or idiots, (I hardly know which to call them,) who now disgrace the seats where once great men sat; who have awakened the echoes of those halls which once echoed back great thoughts and pure sentiments. If Congress could be induced to adjourn till after the war, and play with less dangerous tools, things might work out better.

The fact is, you can’t imagine how mortifying and discouraging it is to think that while we are exerting ourselves to the utmost, suffering all the horrors which a tropical climate imposes, to advance our cause and advance our country, a large party at the North who claim to love the same banner and country for which we are fighting, seem to be doing all they can to hold us back. As one of the army I would say, For God’s sake let the n____ alone, at least for the present. Let us first save ourselves and the country, which seems to me to be of more importance than all the n____s in Christendom, and settle this question afterwards.

Our company are enjoying good health, with but few exceptions, and those not serious. The mails are very irregular, and a letter quite a rarity. I hope our friends at home are not subject to the spring fever.

Our address is still Pittsburg Landing, Tenn.  Respectfully, J. A. Unquote

As you can see, in presenting James’s words I have ‘censored’ two of them: the singular and the plural forms of ‘the N word’. It was of course in common usage back then (and for many years after) as a term for those of African origin or descent. My desire to “tell it like it was” however is overridden by recognition of the great offence given by the use of the word today.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

James Atcherley clearly saw the cause of abolition as a hindrance to those like himself who were fighting for what they saw as a much greater cause: bringing the United States of America back together under ‘the old flag’. In this he was not alone. But does this mean that he was against abolition, or even pro-slavery?

Dan Fleming is a reference librarian at the Licking County Library, in James Atcherley’s home town of Newark, Ohio, and I am very grateful to him for providing me with copies of James’s letters to the Newark Advocate. In his book on the role of Licking County in the American Civil War, Dan has characterised the views expressed by James as “anti-abolition attitudes” which were “typical of a great many folks in the county at the beginning of the war, who harbored fears that blacks moving up from the south would either take their jobs or become a burden on society.”

There is no doubt in my mind that James Atcherley did not want the abolitionist cause ‘holding back’ the efforts of Union forces in their fight against the secessionists (an unrealistic desire perhaps, given that it was fear of abolition that had driven the southern states to break away in the first place). Maybe I am being as naïve now as I fear James was then, but I cannot find in James’s words evidence that he was either pro- or anti-abolition. He simply wanted the question put aside until after the war had been won.

In the absence of any further letters from James Atcherley, I will return to the 1881 account of N N Hill Jr for a summary what the 31st Ohio did next:

On the twenty-second of June the regiment marched toward luka [in Mississippi], and on the twenty-sixth continued the march toward Tuscumbia [in Alabama]. Here the fourth of July was celebrated. The Declaration of Independence was read, and speeches were made by several of the officers. The regiment was divided into detachments, and two companies were sent to Decatur, and one company was sent to Trinity. On the nineteenth the brigade marched for Huntsville by way of Decatur, arriving at the latter place on the twenty-second. After the brigade had crossed the Tennessee river a messenger arrived with the information that the detachment at Trinity had been attacked by a large force of mounted rebels. The rebels were repulsed, but one-half of the detachment was killed or wounded. The regiment moved with the army to Huntsville, and thence to Decherd, Tennessee.

The splitting up of the regiment makes it difficult to be certain of James Atcherley’s exact whereabouts during July 1862. The US National Park Service’s Civil War website states that it was Company E which saw action at Trinity (on 24 July), and that the move to Dechard took place on 27 July. More uncertainty then follows, because by the end of August 1862, James had separated from his regiment and was back in Newark. The Advocate reported on the 29th of that month that:

James R. Atcherly, whose occasional army letters over the initials ‘J. A.,’ have afforded much pleasure to our readers, has returned to Newark for the purpose of securing a few recruits for Captain Putnam’s company. He has opened a recruiting office over McCune’s Hardware Store and will be glad to see and converse with any one who may feel disposed to join a pleasant company in a crack regiment.

I suspect that following his return to Newark, James did not return to the front line. Before the end of 1862, he had left the army altogether. Records show that he was discharged at Columbus, Ohio, on 1 November, by order of the War Department. By that time he had been promoted to the rank of Corporal.

Although James’s involvement in the Civil War was then over, the conflict itself continued until 1865 and claimed the lives of 625,000 soldiers from both sides. At the end of that year, on 6 December, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was adopted, which outlawed slavery.

Picture credits. Pittsburg Landing, around April 1862: From an image at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue, no known restrictions on publication. Evacuation of Corinth, Mississippi: From an image at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue, no known restrictions on publication. Abraham Lincoln: From an image at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue, no known restrictions on publication.


[1] Newark Advocate, 20 Jun 1862, page 1. Scan of letter provided by Dan Fleming.
[2] N N Hill, Jr. (1881), History of Licking County, O., Its Past and Present. Pages 308-9. Copy viewed at Hathi Trust website.
[3] Dan Fleming (2011), Shall Licking County Raise a Regiment? The Role of Licking County, Ohio, in the American Civil War.
[4] 31st Regiment, Ohio Infantry. At: The Civil War (website, accessed 6 May 2016).
[5] Newark Advocate, 29 Aug 1862. Scan of letter provided by Dan Fleming.
[6] Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of the Rebellion, 1861—1865. Volume III. Page 457 (under the name James R Acherly). Copy viewed at Hathi Trust website.
A Brief Overview of the American Civil War. At: Civil War Trust website (accessed 7 May 2016).
[8] Slavery in the United States. At: Civil War Trust website (accessed 7 May 2016).