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Hamilton answered Call, part II


April 11, 2018
Note: This is the second in a two-part series commemorating the end of the Civil War. The first part appeared in the April 4, 2018 issue of Tri-City Times.

For the next seventeen months, Hamilton kept a diary while in Confederate prisons, a copy of which the author was given by Almonter Norm Hamilton, William's great-grandson. A copy of the entire diary can be seen at the Almont District Library. In his entry for Sept. 20, Sunday, he writes:

"At 9 am ordered to reinforce Gen. Thomas. At 1 ˝ pm came under fire. Opposed to Gen. Preston. Lost hearty & was taken prisoner."

William B. Hamilton was an optimist. Throughout the diary, he talks about and is hopeful for an exchange of prisoners that might include him. A number of entries are similar to this one of December 20, 1863:

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"Rumors of exchange seem to increase. Very cold." But he also paints a picture of hell. Dec. 31: "Am suffering for want of blankets—cold is quite severe…What a place to celebrate New Years!"

March 14, 1864:

"Exchange all right. [Sic] 40 officers and 500 men were sent north today. Gen. Dow, Capts Sawyer & Flynn of retaliation notoriety are amongst them. When will my turn come?"

Meanwhile, the war went on. The North was on the offensive but couldn't finish the job. Hamilton, while still hoping for an exchange, read books and taught himself German.

Lt. Hamilton spent most of his POW time in Libby Prison in Richmond. While it was anything but comfortable, it was nowhere near as bad as Andersonville Prison. On April 8 Hamilton wrote:

"...Doctor from the 73rd Illinois came in today. He reports terrible suffering among our men at Andersonville, Ga. Among the 7300, there are only 200 shirts & 300 blankets, the men being robbed or obliged to sell them for food. They have no shelter whatever & are dying at a rate of 150 per week. He saw 21 corpses laid in a row—all had died in one day."

Later, as the Union forces came closer and closer to Richmond, he was moved several times to prisons in Danville and Macon, Georgia, Greensboro, North Carolina and Charlottesville, Virginia.

News of the war, however, did catch up to the prisoners from papers and various other sources. But mail from home was harder to come by. On September 18, 1864 he wrote:

"Mead & Andrews got letters from home—also Spaulding. Surely it will be my turn next. My last news from home was dated the 17th of March I believe! God knows how I long to hear from my poor, dear Sara."

Also on Sept. 18, he received news that he had been promoted to 1st Lieutenant. On the 20th Hamilton wrote:

"This is the anniversary of the unlucky battle of Chickamauga in consequence of whose disastrous result I am here today. No one that has not experienced it can realize the amount of suffering crowded into one year's captivity."

His hopes for exchange or release ebbed and flowed almost daily.

Christmas came and went. New Years Day came and went. January and February, 1865 came and went.

But, finally, on March 1, 1865, after 17 months of captivity, William became a free man again. His diary reads: "March the 1st is marked as an era in my life. On that glorious day I passed through the lines & stood once more under the Star Spangled Banner."

The diary ends shortly after that entry.

He had survived. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9. The war was over.

In June, Lt. Hamilton was honorably mustered out and came home to Michigan and Sara. He enrolled in the medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and became Doctor William B. Hamilton. He set up his practice in Burnside but returned to Almont in 1877. He and Sara had five children. He was elected to the post of Lapeer County Treasurer.

Dr. Hamilton continued to be active in civic affairs and was admired by the people who knew him and he attended many veterans reunions.

He died on November 1, 1918. His beloved Sara never remarried and died in Almont on November 27, 1927. Their descendants still live in Almont and other parts of Michigan.

In the 1904 book Michigan Poets and Poetry, in which a dozen of his poems are printed, it states about Hamilton:

"Ever since childhood he has had a penchant for rhyming, a good deal of his work appearing in various local newspapers. "Occasionally a piece would stray as far as New York or Philadelphia. He is best known as the author of poem 'The Rock of Chickamauga' which was first printed in the Detroit Post in 1875…"

In the Post article Hamilton said, "In Schumaker's History of the War, Gen. Thomas is called the 'Rock of Chickamauga.' We old soldiers knew how well he merited the title. It struck me as having poetry in it and so I have made it the basis of my poem."

The Rock of Chickamauga

Let rebels boast their Stonewall brave

Who fell to fill a traitor's grave,

We have a hero grander far,

The Union was his guiding star,

The "Rock of Chickamauga."

When foot by foot, stern Rosecrans

Round grim Lookout, with bold advance,

Pressed back the rebels from their lair,

Our Thomas was the foremost there,

The "Rock of Chickamauga."

And when, in mightier force, they came

With serried ranks and sheets of flame,

Sweeping apart our shattered bands,

Who snatched the palm from rebel hands?

The "Rock of Chickamauga."

All day they surged and stormed in vain,

Lost Chattanooga to regain,

In vain each furious battle shock;

They were but waves, and he the rock,

The "Rock of Chickamauga."

His clarion voice with cheering word,

Above the din of battle heard,

His bearing firm, his kindling eye

Fired every breast with ardor high,

The "Rock of Chickamauga."

A new Thermopylae we found

On Chickamauga's bloody ground;

And in that rugged mountain pass

He stood our true Leonidas,

The "Rock of Chickamauga."

Sons of Macomb and broad St. Clair,

And Oakland's rolling fields were there.

And now they tell, with patriot pride,

How that great day they fought beside,

The "Rock of Chickamauga."

Gone is our hero, strong, and brave,

Columbia weeps above his grave,

While high upon the roll of fame,

She writes that loved and honored name,

The "Rock of Chickamauga."

—William B. Hamilton, Lt., 22nd Michigan Infantry, Co. F

Lt. William B. Hamilton, an Almonter who answered the call to duty to help preserve the Union.

Email Rick at rick.liblong@cox.net.

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