April 04, 2018Editor's note: April 9 marks the 153rd anniversary of the end of the Civil War. To commemorate the event Tri-City Times writer, Rick Liblong, shares a two- part series about Almonter William B. Hamilton who was a prisoner of war and kept a diary of his ordeal. The following is reprinted from Rick Liblong's 2011 book "Answering the Call to Duty."
Prisoner of war. Three words dreaded by every soldier who ever served. Almont's William B. Hamilton dreaded it too but, unfortunately, he was held captive for 17 months as a POW in Rebel prisons during the Civil War.
Hamilton was born in Paisley, Scotland on September 23, 1831, son of William B. Sr. and Jean Downie. The Hamiltons moved from Scotland to a farm in Section 31, Berlin Township, just east of Almont, the area known as the Scotch Settlement. Young William went to school in a one room schoolhouse and was an excellent student. When he was twenty-one he began to teach others. He continued his education at the Dickinson Institute in Romeo and the Union School in Ann Arbor in preparation for attending the University of Michigan.
However, with the onset of Civil War, Hamilton interrupted his studies and enlisted in Company B, 22nd Michigan Infantry on August 8, 1862 as a sergeant. His education was quickly recognized by the army and he was promoted to Second Lieutenant on June 5, 1863 and First Lieutenant on November 17, 1863 after being transferred to Company F.
Before he left for war, however, he married his sweetheart, Sara R. Stone in Rochester on August 29.
The 997 men of the 22nd left for Kentucky on September 4, 1862 under the command of former Michigan Governor Moses Wisner. Unfortunately, Wisner contracted typhoid fever on the way to Kentucky and died in January, 1863. He was succeeded by Col. Heber LeFavour.
The 22nd was in the Western Theater of the war operating mostly in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.
The Battle of Chickamauga, fought September 19-20, 1863, marked the end of a Union offensive in southeastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia called the Chickamauga Campaign. The battle was the most significant Union defeat in the Western Theater of the American Civil War and the battle with one of the highest number of casualties in the war.
In her History of the 22nd Michigan, editor Susan Sridharan wrote, "The two armies finally clashed on September 19 in a wooded, hilly, middle-of-nowhere spot near Chickamauga Creek. The 22nd Michigan, being reinforcements, tensely listened to the sounds of battle from behind the lines near Rossville and wondered when their turn would come."
When September 20th dawned, the fight resumed. Union General Gordon Granger became alarmed when sounds from the battle indicated a failing Union line. As the men were lining up for breakfast, he ordered "Double quick to the relief of General Thomas!" and they were off to battle with empty stomachs.
At 1:00 p.m., after hurrying several miles over rough ground, they reported to Gen. Thomas just as Confederate forces were about to overrun part of Snodgrass Hill and break through the Union line. On the command of "Fix Bayonet! Charge Bayonet!" the 22nd, as part of Whitaker's Brigade, charged the hill and with heavy losses took possession. For over four hours the Confederates vainly tried to re-take the hill, but the 22nd Michigan, with the 89th Ohio and 21st Ohio, fought them off. By early evening the 22nd was out of ammunition and had to scavenge what they could from the bodies of the dead and wounded.
At a reunion of the 22nd ten years later, according to an article in the Detroit Post on September 2, 1875, Hamilton addressed his comrades. He described the death of his friend:
"Nor must I forget my friend Joel H. Canfield [23 year-old from Mt. Clemens, MI] whose death affected me more than all the rest. One of the best boys, he was from my own Co. F universally loved and respected for his integrity and intelligence, a model soldier, a true Christian patriot. He was pierced by a ball in his left breast while kneeling in the act of firing, and rolled back almost at my feet, the life blood gushing from the wound and from his nose and mouth also. His last words to me were, 'Lieutenant, have I done my duty?' On being assured that he had, he said, 'Well I trust in Jesus; I'm going to a better home.' It was with utmost difficulty he could say even that; he was then carried off and I saw him no more."
To most of the soldiers war was no longer an adventure. Hamilton said in his address:
"This being under fire is a curious thing; it causes a feeling that is neither easily imagined nor described. To hear the balls go 'zip, zip' all around you, not knowing but the next one may make a different sound by coming in contact with your corporosity, is anything but soothing to the nerves. For myself, I have been in several places both before and since, where I would rather be than under fire. I have heard a good deal about soldiers spoiling for a fight, but my candid opinion is that a great many more fine fellows have been spoiled by fighting than for want of it."
As it got dark, the 22nd made an unnerving discovery. While they had been holding the Confederates back, the rest of the Union army had taken the opportunity to retreat towards Chattanooga. By the time the 22nd Michigan realized they had been abandoned, it was too late to withdraw and they were surrounded. In the confused darkness, some of the men managed to play dead or roll into the bushes and hide, but almost everyone else was captured. Libby and Andersonville Prisons awaited them.
Hamilton, Col. LeFavour and many others were among them.
Email Rick at email@example.com.