Letter of Thomas J. Ames, Sergeant, Co G, Fifty-First Illinois Infantry

(Letter appeared in The Waukegan Gazette of March 29, 1862. Ames was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga and died a few days later.)

New Madrid, Mo., March 18, 1862

Friend Cory—As the battle is over and New Madrid is ours, and as we have faithfully promised very many of our friends in Lake county that they should hear from us at the earliest opportunity after our arrival at the seat of war, and furthermore as the soldier's convenience and opportunities for writing letters are rather limited, therefore we trust that you will grant us the favor of making our promises good through the columns of the Gazette.

You, doubtless, are all familiar with the history of the 51st Regiment up to the time that it left Camp Douglas for Cairo. We stayed in that muddy hole something like ten days. We were then ordered to cross over to the Kentucky side of the river; and remained there until the 4th of March, when we were awakened at an early hour in the morning and ordered to have everything packed by eight o'clock ready to start on a forced march into Missouri. The steamer Rob Roy took us to Bird's Point, where we took up our line of march on the track of the Cairo and Fulton railroad. We passed two long bridges the first day that the rebels had nearly ruined by cutting the posts that held them up. When we saw this wanton destruction of property, it made us feel as if we would like to try our rifles upon them.

We encamped the first night at Bertrand, eighteen miles from Bird's Point, partook of our hard bread and meat, stationed our camp guard, rolled ourselves in our blankets, and lay down to rest for the first time on the sacred soil of Missouri. But there the programme was to undergo a change, for instead of resuming the march the following morning as we had expected, we were told that we would remain where we were until the arrival of Gen. [Eleazar A.] Paine who was to take command.

We stayed here until Sunday, the 10th day of March. In the meanwhile we had been brigaded with the first battalion of the Yates Sharp Shooters, the 16th and 22d Regiments of Illinois volunteers. We left Bertrand at three o'clock P.M. and marched ten miles to Sikeston, where we passed a miserable night without shelter, and the rain pouring upon us all night with scarcely a moment's intermission, but our boys endured it without a murmur. The following morning we were on the march at half past seven o'clock, and marched twenty miles through a country fertile, naturally, in no common degree, but at the same time bearing those unmistakable evidences of indolence and unthriftiness that are sure accompaniments of the peculiar institution. There we again halted for the night. The next morning we marched two miles to our present encampment, which is in a cornfield including nearly the whole cultivated portion of the country, for they don't seem to raise any thing else but corn to any extent.

As soon as we were halted and had stacked our arms, our boys set themselves busily at work collecting corn stalks, fence rails, &c. to use for fuel and to construct screens to protect themselves from the hot sun by day, and the cold northers by night, as our tents did not arrive until Saturday, and I think it would have done you good to have seen the boys pitch into those secesh rails. They soon cleared the neighborhood of all such incumbrance. But nothing of importance occurred until Wednesday evening, when we got orders to be in readiness to march on New Madrid the next morning. The order was received with manifest delight by the men for they had now become anxious to get where they could quench their thirst from the cool draughts of the Mississippi. Accordingly at daylight the long roll of the drum broke forth upon the silent air that had remained undisturbed through the night, save by the occasional crack of the rifle of the distant picket guard who was faithfully watching the movements of the enemy. And soon the heavy boom of artillery told us that the action had commenced for our batteries. Nos. 1 and 2, which had been planted during the night three-fourths of a mile north of the principal fort, had commenced dropping shot and shell upon it. This was returned with spirit by the fort and three rebel gunboats that were lying in the river. Our boys quickly dropped into line and marched for the field of battle, to all appearance as little concerned as if they were starting on an ordinary march.

Our Regiment, together with the Sharpshooters, supported by the 2nd Illinois Cavalry, first took position a mile and one fourth north east of the lower fort, which is said to be the strongest position on the river below Island No. 10. Here we were joined by Gens. Pope and Paine and formed in line of battle, expecting that our batteries would prove so hot to those in the fort that they would break out and give us a brush; but owing to an accident to one of our best guns, a sixty-four pounder, early in the morning, which was struck in the muzzle by a ball that carried away a large piece from it rendering it entirely useless; and later in the day the platform of a second one settled so as to get out of range, which left us but two effective guns, we kept this position until some time after noon or until it was very evident that the enemy would be able to bring more artillery against them. At this stage of the proceedings we were ordered to take a circuitous route some two or three miles from our first position to the east of the town, to dislodge a part of the enemy that were concealed in a large cornfield, and if possible take their smaller fort, which was situated in the vicinity and out of range of the other. We accomplished the design as far as clearing the field was concerned, for they quickly scampered from out of those stalks you can rest assured; but the gunboats seeing the turn that matters were like to take in this quarter, hurried to the rescue, and sent such a shower of grape shot, balls and shells, that the Generals ordered us back again.

I must here speak of our Colonel and other field officers, who all agree in saying [we proved ourselves] to be made of the right kind of material. The colonel said to us as we were going into the corn field towards the fort:—"Boys keep cool, take good aim, fire low," &c. But what tends further to make us feel proud were the remarks of the generals, which was that we manifested a willingness to encounter danger that would have done honor to an older Regiment. As there did not seem to be any further chance to accomplish anything more this day, we returned to our camp at five o"clock P.M., expecting to renew the attack in the morning, by which time we knew we should have six or eight additional siege guns firmly planted and ready to rain iron hail upon them. But judge of our surprise and delight the next morning to hear the cheers of our men and see the Stars and Stripes, the proud emblem of our country, waving in triumph over those formidable works, which only a few hours previous were in possession of our enemies. Yes, they were gone, and that, too, in the greatest haste and confusion. They left everything, cannon, abundance of balls and shells, small arms, magazines filled with ammunition, and in fact everything. Their only object seemed to be to save their lives, which makes the old Scripture true, that the wicked flee when no man pursues.

I will close this letter, already too long, by begging pardon for trespassing upon your time and patience to such an extent.

Yours, &c.,
T. J. Ames