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A Confederate Odyssey
All this Florida boy wanted to do was rejoin his regiment. Instead they drafted him into the Confederate secret service.
December 1984 | Volume 36, Issue 1
A FTER HE WAS MUSTERED out of his beaten army in 1865, Charles Hemming went west to Texas and a highly successful career as a banker. But he never forgot the men he served with, and in 1898 he came home to raise a Confederate monument in Jacksonville. A few years later, still full of thoughts of the conflict in which he played so strenuous a role, he set down the long and fascinating account from which this article is drawn. This previously unpublished memoir was sent to us by Hemming’s granddaughter, Lucy W. Sturgis.
Florida seceded from the Union on January 10, 1861; on January 11 Hemming joined the Jacksonville Light Infantry. Two years of hard campaigning brought him, in the fall of 1863, to Tennessee. There Confederate forces under Gen. Braxton Bragg had laid siege to Chattanooga. Three of the ablest generals in the Union Army—Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George Thomas—moved to relieve the threatened city.
Bragg had placed his forces on the high ground of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. The Federals took Lookout Mountain with little difficulty on November 24, and the next day attacked Missionary Ridge. This was a formidable position, but Bragg had deployed his troops poorly: half were in rifle pits at the foot of the ridge, and other units were strung along the true crest rather than the “military crest.” That meant the Confederates could not depress their artillery sufficiently to cover a dead space on the hillside; and it gave the Union troops enough cover to carry the whole position in a spectacular charge.
The rout of Bragg’s forces meant the defeat of the Confederate effort in the West and supreme command for Grant. For Hemming it meant the beginning of a series of adventures that would carry him from prison to Nova Scotia to the Florida Keys.
His narrative begins in the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge.
When we lined up on Missionary Ridge to meet Grant’s tremendous array of men, our little army must have been somewhat intimidated; and yet I heard no expression of the kind. Just as we were getting our correct alignment, about one-half of the company was obliqued down the hillside and the battery placed in position just over us. I remember I wished at the time that that hillside was in front instead of in the rear, because I saw I could not climb it, it was so steep, some twenty feet of sheer rock, and I could not get farther to the right because of other obstructions.
Our regiments, when in battle line, were conspicuous for our evidences of weakness. One file could scarcely touch another, and we discovered almost at once that in order to deceive the enemy, who could plainly see us on the crest of the hill, our commander was marching and countermarching for some time before the battle commenced, a constant stream of men moving toward our right and then circling back and the same men coming along in the rear.
It was somewhere about one-thirty when we heard the reverberation in the hills around of a tremendous gun, and over our heads screeched the large shells it was sending at us. Then we looked out on the plain, and with the precision of a dress parade their magnificent army came in view.
The officers, all superbly dressed, pranced out on their high-mettled chargers; the bands played, and to the music came the most wonderful array of splendidly equipped soldiers I ever saw. The old flag waved beautifully at the head of each regiment and the smaller flags were in their places with the brigade and division commanders. The atmosphere was perfectly still excepting just breath enough to straighten out the banners.
I loved the old flag dearly when I was a boy, and when the Fourth of July came, I had my miniature cannon lined up on small entrenchments in our game to cannonade the fort and salute the flag. When I looked upon the old flag at the head of that wonderful army, I confess that it drew my silent admiration, as I suppose it did that of many others of our Confederate soldiers.
However, we had a duty to perform and a new flag to serve; so we lay down on the top of the hill, waiting for the coming foe. We did not fire a gun until they got within two hundred yards, and the battery, which had been posted almost over my head, ceased to fire after they started to climb the hill.
When the order was given to fire, it seemed to us that hundreds fell, and at first their line wavered, but brave officers held them to the work and, cheering wildly, they came at us again. All at once I heard someone shout, “For God’s sakes, men, don’t give up the field!” I looked and saw our line wavering in the center, and above the heads of our regiment, where our color bearer Charlie Ulmer was waving the flag and calling to the boys to hold steady, the commanding general of our army as well as that of our brigade, on their horses, were appealing to the wavering line.
The 3d Florida had fallen back, but when such an order was given I do not know, for I did not hear it. Just where I was, there were none left except Kernan and Livingstone.