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Civil War Round Table of Kansas City

Battlefield Dispatches #2

Reminiscences of Pvt. William F. Nichols, Co. A, 11th Kansas Cavalry

Private William F Nichols served with Co. A. of the 11th Kansas Vol. Cavalry Regiment for approximately (18) months from February 13, 1864 – Sept. 25, 1865. During this time, he participated in patrolling the Ks. and Mo. Border, Jayhawking in Missouri, escort duty from Fort Scott, Ks. to Fort Smith, Arkansas, the Battles of Little Blue, Big Blue, Westport & Fort Lincoln. After the pursuit of Price’s Army in October & November 1864, the11th Ks. was transferred to Fort Kearney, Nebraska, Fort Laramie, Upper Platte Bridge & Fort Halleck, Wyoming Territory where it guarded the Overland Stage Route, delivered mail & skirmished with the Cheyenne & Sioux Indians. Throughout his memoir, Pvt. Nichols describes both the tragic & humorous aspects of “Army Life” in camp, on the march and in battle. This memoir was written by Pvt. Nichols in 1910 when he was living in Colorado Springs Colorado.

Joining Up

W. F. Nichols Co. A. 11 Kansas Cavalry. Enlisted Feb. 13, 1864 at home on my mothers farm ½ mile east of Millwood, Leavenworth Co. / Kansas. Enrolled by Sergeant John H. Fenton of Co. A. 11 Ks. & was sent with T.M Nichols [W.F.’s Brother], Samuel P.  Campbell, W. Scott Provo, Al Dubois, Uriah  ‘Pete” Ackley, W. A. Wellhouse, David R. Jay, A Powers and 3 Mexicans Antonio Arragon and Antonio & Jose Martinez to join the Co. at Shawnee Mission near Westport, Mo. Remained there a short/ time and was sent back to Fort Leavenworth under the command of Sgt. Fenton and Corporal John Hendrick with Hiram Miller as Mule Skinner [Driver of a Mule Team]. During the time we were in Leavenworth being mustered our Co. was ordered to Aubry, Johnson County Ks.  and on being mustered Mar. 16, 1864 we were sent to join the Co. at that point where active service at once began.

Jayhawking in Missouri

[“Jayhawking” consisted of robbing, stealing and / or murdering civilians during the Civil War and was committed by both “Union” and “Confederate” soldiers. It was especially prevalent in the eastern counties of Kansas and the entire state of Missouri.]

[Active service consisted of], regular camp duty, an occasional raid into Mo. (3 miles form Camp) to hunt hogs and steal a wagonload of [fence] rails.  We were allowed to take the 2 top rails and as to hogs, any that were not too poor to skin.  There being no residents in that part of the State (Mo.) at that time as the Rebels had first control and had driven out all Union  Sympathizers, then the “Feds” gained possession and drove out all Southern Sympathizers so that it was easy for us to get apples, fresh meat and a few rails for kindling.

Hard Duty

[During the summer of 1863, especially after Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Ks. on August 21st, the Union Army established a line of permanent camps from Kansas City to Baxter Springs that were approximately 12 – 20 miles apart to assist in the defense of Kansas. Each camp normally had a garrison of 75 –100 cavalry soldiers who patrolled in small squads from camp to camp.]

The hardest part of our duty during the summer of “64” was patrol work    N.E. [North East] from Audbry to Little Santa Fe to the Camp of Co. K 11 Ks. and south to Cold Water Grove  [due east of Paola, Ks.] to the Camp of Co. B, 15th Ks. looking for BUSHWHACKERS AND HOPING WE WOULD NOT FIND THEM.

Battle of Lexington: October 19, 1864

Early in the fall of 64 we were ordered under marching orders to Warrensburg, Mo. where we met [Maj. Ge. Sterling] Price’s Advance (Oct. 16, 64), and were then hurried by way of Hickman’s Mills to Lexington (Oct. 18, 64), where Co. A was detailed for picket duty, 3 miles east of Lexington on the road Price was expected to come in on, but instead of coming our way his main force passed south of us and entered the city (Oct. 19, 64) cutting us off from the regiment. Late P.M. a courier got to us with orders to make our way to the west as best we could. When we reached the southern part of town a regiment of Price’s troops passed North only a block in front of our Co. (and the City as far north as we could see was full of them) when we reached the street they were on an Officer (Rebel) rode back and toward us and asked what troops we were and before our Captain could answer, Private Geo. Edwards turned out of ranks and with his Carbine shot the officer off his horse; then we had to go some until we overtook the regiment and in fact we kept moving west until we reached Little Blue [Creek] where we burned the bridge & went into Camp.

Sterling Price (Library of Congress)

Battle of Little Blue: October 21, 1864

Next morning made a killing of a band of sheep and were roasting meat when Pap Price finished his ford and began pushing his men across the Blue (Oct 21, 64), which broke into our cooking and being in ill humor we gave them about as hard a fight as they had struck for sometime, but as they out numbered us about 6 or 7 to 1 we had to get for the West, where we were continually meeting re-enforcements.

Battle of Big Blue: October 22, 1864

On reaching Big Blue we made another stand and forced the enemy to make a crossing (Oct. 22, 64) of the Creek to the south and to scatter their forces so that we were able to hold them in check until the following day (Oct. 23, 64).

Battle of Westport: October 23, 1864

[Maj. Gen. Alfred] Pleasanton overtook them and with Carbines strapped to their saddles came on them in a Saber Charge, which spoiled all plans. The next day (Sunday, Oct. 23, 64) was the hardest day for both sides, but being greatly re-enforced we beat them and turned them South.

[The Battle of Westport was a decisive Union victory which caused Confederate Commanding General Sterling Price to abandon his plans to attack Kansas City & Fort Leavenworth, and to advance southwest into the enemy state of Kansas to create as much havoc & destruction as possible. One of the most direct ways for officers to deliver both verbal & written orders during a Civil War battle was to use a messenger mounted on horseback Very often, the couriers or dispatch bearers were killed or became lost in the confusion of the battle which is what happened to Pvt. Nichols after the Battle of Westport.]

Alfred Pleasonton (National Archives)

Battlefield Courier

On Monday morning (Oct. 24, 64) I had my first experience as a dispatch bearer.  While we were skirmishing on the west of Brush Creek, we from an elevation, saw Price’s forage train reaching several miles to the South in full retreat. Lieut. Thornton detailed me to report to Blunts field headquarters which he pointed out to me as best he could about 2 miles away and to the N.E. [Northeast] and I to make good time, took as straight a course as I could, When about half way and passing a grove of black oak saplings on the side of a steep hill, (I being at the foot of the hill) a volley from some 2 or 3 hundred Rebels was fired at me from the top of the hill about 100 yards away. One or 2 bullets struck low enough, one struck my bridle rein and the other struck my Poncho which was strapped to the back of my saddle and passing through the roll endwise. The tops of the trees and down hill shooting fooled them. I returned the favor [shooting] as best I could & soon run into our own troops and was not reaching headquarters.

Skirmish at Fort Lincoln: October 25, 1864

On my return I was more fortunate as Co. A was held to the extreme right as a Scouting Party until we reached Fort Scott. At Fort Lincoln [located approximately 3 miles west of present Fulton, Kansas on the north bank of the Little Osage River] while on skirmish duty the Rebel skirmishers were behind a rail fence about 300 yards away and all seemed to be firing at the flag. Our Ensign Sgt. Slane told me to dismount and drive them out of the fence corner; my 2nd shot started them, one of their number being supported by 2 comrades.

Amateur Artilleyman at Fort Scott: October 26, 1864

The following morning found us in Fort Scott. The prisoners (among whom was Generals [John S.] Marmaduke & [William L.] Cabell) and guns and equipage captured at Mine Creek or Trading Post were coming in; among other things was a 6 gun Battery of 18 Pound Brass field Guns, They [were] driven in two and the harness cut from the horses leaving the guns standing in the street. A young fellow who had evidently saw a Cannon undertook to explain how the guns were handled and finding the Lanyard and a Primer, he inserted the Primer, hooked the Lanyard in the ring of the primer and pulled. (He didn’t know it was loaded), this particular gun had been taken “Charged”; fortunately there was no person directly in front of it and it being standing almost Parallel with the street there was no damage done until the shot was well out of town when it struck the corner of a brick house, knocking out a cart load or more of bricks & mortar. “The Amateur/ Gunner" took a walk.

William L. Cabell (Library of Congress)

John S. Marmaduke (Library of Congress)

Pursuit  to the Arkansas River

We were ordered to follow Price’s trail and overtook him at Newtonia, Mo. and went into Camp within ½ mile of Price’s Camp; during; the night we received orders to fall back 6 miles and rest our horses for 2 days when we again took up the Chase; we overtook them again at Webber Ford on the Arkansas River near Fort Gibson, I. T. [Indian Territory; now Oklahoma] and after firing a few shells at their rear guard we went into Camp in a very heavy rain, my bed was composed of 2 fence rails and I was taking a fever. I put in a bad night, we had neither blankets or tents.

Sharpshooter Delirious with Fever

“Next morning we started to Fort Smith for supplies, but as to how I got there, I never knew as the fever had the best of me; the first I knew, I was in Camp on the north side of the river near Fort Smith laying on a saddle blanket with a cavalry saddle for a pillow and hearing pistol shots and someone to say if “Nix was able to Pull a gun he could hit it.” I turned my head and saw they were shooting at a goose’s head as it walked by about 40 yards away. I drew my favorite revolver (a Colt 36 caliber octagon barrel Navy) and at the first shot cut the goose’s head off and remembered nothing more for several days.

Unpopular Surgeon

During that time Regimental Surgeon Underwood heard of me and sent word by Lieut. Joe L. Thornton for me to report next morning at Headquarters. When sick call was blown. I told the Lieut. to tell him to go to the place the Bible says is never very cold and that if he came near me with his blue pills I would shoot him so full of lead that some prospector would be likely to locate a Lead Claim on him. Lieut. Told him I was crazy with fever and would do just what I said and that I was the best revolver shot in the Regiment. I heard no more from Dr. Underwood.

Hitching a Ride & Jayhawking Rations

After leaving Camp what seemed an age to me, we were ordered back to Kansas. I had barely got strong enough to stand alone when we started north. We were furnished a few old worn out mules & wagons to haul our rations. One of Co. A. (Uriah Ackley) was detailed to drive [the] team and into his wagon I crept for a ride and could have rode to Fort Scott only my propensity for foraging. On the 2nd day out from Fort Smith some of the boys asked what was in the wagon. I told them Hard Tack and Bacon. I was Brevetted Commissary Sergeant by them and they began handing in their Haversacks and I filling and handing them out. It was several days before the wagonmaster found us out, but when he did, it was not long until I found myself out “With very emphatic Orders to Stay Out.” After that I walked (when the Boss was about)!

A fate worse than Death

I remember I walked the day we reached Cabin Creek and that I saw the skeletons of our two lead scouts who were a day ahead of the Command and had been killed by Bushwhackers and EATEN by WOLVES. A detail was sent back to bury their Bones.

Rations on the Wing

We had been in Camp, but a short time when a Prairie Chicken dropped  down within 30 yards of our Camp. It had hardly struck the ground until I had my Revolver leveled. I shot its head off and in a few minutes an Orderly rode up and he said Colonel Moonlight would be pleased to see the soldier who fired the shot at Headquarters. I told him I was on sick report and was not able to walk that distance. In a few minutes the Col. made me a short call. I told him I had heard the order read that evening that there should be no shooting, but when the chicken dropped so close and that my mess was out of rations, I forgot orders. He let me off after giving me to understand it was because I was sick and out of grub.

Home Cooked Rations

When we arrived at Fort Scott, Ks., we were entirely out of rations. We went into camp a short distance south of town and of course we nearly all went to town to try for a square meal. The citizens done their best for us and we went to Camp with our belts let out from one to 4 holes.

Pig Stealing

While on my way to camp I saw a trick played on a farmer who had brought a dressed hog to town for sale. It was after dark and the man was standing holding his team in front of a store waiting for the dealer to come and see the pork when two soldiers came up and asked his price. One of them took hold of the hogs head as if to see how it was dressed and before the man realized what was going on they jerked the Pig weighing about 100 lbs. out of his wagon and was gone with it. The night was rather dark at the time, but in a very few minutes it turned a deep indigo Blue for at least 2 blocks around, but as he could not leave his team all he could do was to stand there and Curse the soldiers.

Sleeping in Snow & Stealing Apples

At Mound City we met the worst Blizzard I ever was out in and although we camped out in the open having no tents and very few blankets no one froze. At Paola Ks., the night we camped there, an Illinois Regt. stole about 100 bushels of Apples out of a storeroom without going inside. They cut a hole in the floor and carried them out in haversacks. There was an old unused cellar under the store and of course “a soldier to find it.”

Westward Bound

At Olathe, we found our Capt. (H.E. Palmer) and the remainder of our Co. having formed a stragglers camp with Orders to march to Fort Riley. All who had been on the Price Raid  were given a furlough to go by way of home; others to go via of Lawrence direct to Fort Riley. At Riley we established Camp west of the Fort near the Crossing of the Republican River on the road leading to Junction City. Late in February 1865 we had refitted and  resumed our March west or rather to the N. W. [North West] up the Republican crossing over to Fort Kearney [Nebraska] on the Platte River, up the Platte to Julesburg where we forded the River and went into Camp near where the U.P.R.R. now crosses Pole Creek.

Henry E. Palmer (Battle of Westport Museum)

Fatal River Crossing & Bucking Bronc

Our forage train Crossing after us lost a 6 Mule team and loaded wagon. The mules balked and sunk in the quicksand in 30 minutes from the time they stopped, wagon & mules were entirely out of sight. We crossed the river, using the North Platte Valley, below Chimney Rock, our route then lay up the river by way of Scott’s Bluff to Fort Laramie where we drew 3 months rations and pushed on for what was known as the upper Platte Bridge. On the way (at Chaparral Creek) I had the ill luck to do what no one else ever did, that is, to shoot myself; I was, as usual, riding a bucking horse and  as we were about going into Camp he began Pitching and caused the hammer of my revolver to strike on my Carbine, the bullet passed through several coils of a lariat I carried tied on my saddle and glanced angling across the Calf of my leg and lodging in my boot; this let me off duty 2 or 3 weeks.

Killed by Indians

At the bridge we had an easy time until the / Sioux began to work south when we were sent / on a ten days Scout on the Powder River under Major Bridger as chief of Scouts coming back by Independence Rock and Devils Gate on the Sweetwater and although we found no Indians we found plenty of game; Elk, Deer, Antelope, Bear and Buffalo. We had been back at the bridge but a short time when a detail from Co. A. was sent on a scouting trip to the lower Bridge about 30 miles down the river; they found a small band of Cheyenne and in the fight we lost our first  man killed by Indians. George Glidden of Easton, Kansas. He had always happened to be on sick Report or detached service at the time of a fight and had never been in an engagement of any kind and was not detailed to go on the trip, but traded places with one of the detail and was killed by the first shot fired.

Fatal Fishing Trip

Shortly after we were ordered over south on the Bridger’s Pass Stage road going back down the North Platte by way of Fort Laramie and / west up the Laramie River to Fort Halleck. Before reaching Laramie (at Deer Creek) we lost our / second man. Silas Henshaw of Jackson Co., Mo. had gone about 200 yards from Camp fishing when 3 Indians crept up and shot him with arrows and although mortally wounded he made a brave fight. He drew his 44 [Caliber]  revolver and the first shot killed one of their horses, the next wounded an Indian when they made their getaway. Before help got to him, he died in about 24 hours.

Stagecoach Mail Delivery

Co. A was scattered. 8 men at a station from Medicine Bow 8 miles east of [Fort] Halleck to Sulphur Springs 8 miles west of Bridger’s Pass. I was stationed at Pine Grove, 8 miles East of Bridger’s Pass. Co. M of the 11th Kas. was stationed from the first station west of Vyes Road Ranch (Sulphur Spring) to Green River. Our duty was to not only guard the stage from one end to the other of our line, but to haul it, as all the stage horses had been run off by the Indians before we got there. 4 of us must put our Cavalry horses on the stage and  ride on the stage, the other 4 on horseback no passengers taken, only letter mail.

Last Fatality & Galvanized Yankees

We lost but one man after we reached Fort Halleck. Sergeant H. C. Gale in command at Medicine Bow Station was shot from ambush when he was within 100 feet of the station door by a French Renegade, on July 5, 1865. Late in the fall of 1865 we were relieved by troops [prisoners] who had been recruited from Military Prisons [Galvanized Yankees: former Confederate soldiers] with the understanding they were not fight the rebels, but would be sent to the mountains. Our last shot at an Indian was at Virginia Dale about 35 miles N.W. [Northwest] of Camp Collins. It was long range shooting [&] no damage was done that we know of.

Homeward Bound

We were then on our way to Fort Kearney, Neb. by way of [Fort] Laramie, Plains, Virginia Dale, La Porte, Greeley, Fremont’s Orchard, Julesburg and down the Platte River to [Fort] Kearney where we turned in our Horses, Arms, and Equipments and made our way on foot via / Marysville, Onaga and Holton, Kansas to Fort Leavenworth where we were mustered out within ½ mile of where the Regiment mustered in 3 years before.

W. F. Nichols, Colorado Springs, Col., 18 East 2nd Street, Ivywild., Apr. 4, 1910          

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