NEW ALBANY — War has a habit of bringing out a certain kind of excitement in young men, at least with those who have never seen combat.
During the Civil War, New Albany’s boys who joined the ranks of Indiana’s 23rd Union Army regiment weren’t much different. Mostly comprised of Clark, Harrison and Floyd County volunteers, the 23rd had no problem in July 1861 mustering enough soldiers to go fight the rebels in the South.
“Even though there was significant Southern sympathy in Floyd County and New Albany and probably all along our side of the [Ohio] river, still they didn’t have any trouble recruiting,” said professor Curt Peters, a local historical researcher and interim vice chancellor for academic affairs at Indiana University Southeast.
Gathering near the old fairgrounds to prepare for duty, men who volunteered as infantry soldiers generally came from area farms and other working-class employment. Officers, on the other hand, most likely belonged to the merchant and higher social classes. For example, Col. William Sanderson, the commander of the regiment, was a cabinet maker in New Albany and had distinguished himself in the Mexican War.
First Lt. Shadrach Hooper, a member of Indiana’s 23rd, wrote a brief recollection of his time serving during the Civil War. Peters said much of what we know about the regiment comes from this document. In the piece, Hooper described the difficulties of living in a border state.
“The business and social intercourse of the people of Southern Indiana, by reason of the great waterway which made their interests mutual, being largely with the people of the South, it could be truly said of the 23rd Indiana that it was a case of brother contending against brother, father against son and chum against schoolmate,” Hooper said in his writing.
Heading out of New Albany in the summer of 1861, the soldiers took a train to Indianapolis followed by a jaunt to St. Louis. Peters said the local newspaper reported quite a bit on the regiment, but later was criticized for printing these articles for fear the South might use them to determine troop movement and other strategies.
Early in November, the soldiers of the 23rd were called to aid Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his men in Belmont, Mo. Marching for 22 hours straight, the regiment arrived to only find the fighting was over and they were no longer needed. Peters said writings from this time show how disappointed the troops were to not to be able to engage the Confederates.
“At first, of course, it was a thrill to go there and fight. I’m sure they were excited and they had pictures of glory and their girlfriends probably praised them for what they were doing. But afterward, life was miserable,” he said.
Soon after the Missouri excursion, the 23rd headed down to Paducah, Ky., and then to Tennessee. Later, they would help take Forts Donelson and Henry near the Tennessee River, their first major action. Soldiers from the area actively participated in the conquest by manning boats used to take those Confederate strongholds. Peters explained that in a sense, these were some of the first significant victories for the North in the war.
Through the beginning years of the war, especially after helping to win the Battle of Shiloh, Indiana’s 23rd began to make a name for itself.
“By this time, the 23rd was getting a reputation for being eager to be engaged [and for] being successful in the military,” Peters said. “And they were starting to pile up casualties. There’s no doubt about that.”
Despite having to fall back to Tennessee due to the destruction of several trains carrying supplies, the former riverboat workers in the 23rd also played a major role in one of the Civil War’s most important encounters: the Battle of Vicksburg. A previous attempt to take the Southern river town had failed, but the commanders had formulated another plan.
“In early 1863, there was an effort to take Vicksburg in a different way. Now they tried a very daring effort. They tried to bring troops on boats on the Mississippi River and go past Vicksburg,” Peters said. “It was an unbelievable and very successful effort. And the 23rd again with their involvement with boats, their experience manning boats, they were involved in getting these boats and troops south of Vicksburg.”
While the Union victory at the Battle of Vicksburg subsequently divided the Confederacy in half, another military mission that the 23rd participated in would help to bring the South to its knees. In 1864, after the regiment received its one and only furlough home, the soldiers joined William Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign. Using a scorched-earth policy, the men also fought at the Battle of Atlanta, among other encounters. In April 1865, they’d fight in their final combat.
“Finally, they participated in the very last battle of the war, even after Lee had surrendered,” Peters said. “They were there for [Confederate Gen. Joseph] Johnston’s surrender which was the very last military event of the war.”
At the Civil War’s end, the men traveled to Washington, D.C. where they marched in a parade watched by President Andrew Johnson. Taking a train back home, mustering ceremonies commenced in Louisville and Indianapolis.
In the course of the war, Peters said 345 died in battle or of wounds and 179 had died of disease. But for the rest of their lives, the survivors would continue to be connected through a special bond.
“The members of the 23rd who survived the war resumed their various lives and occupations. But they continued to enjoy their oneness as an organization with annual reunions and other gatherings,” he said. “They were very proud of what had happened and the roles that they had played. They had defended each other. They had probably saved each other’s lives. There was a bond and kinship that was just unbreakable.”