My great-grandfather, Harmon Camburn, enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 two weeks after the start of the Civil War. He was nineteen. His infantry unit, 2nd Michigan, fought in several major battles during the horrific war. His final and nearly fatal active participation in the war occurred on November 24, 1863. His unit had been assigned to secure the Confederate arsenal outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, as the Union Army attempted to capture the city. Here is his account of that day.
NOVEMBER 24, 1863 – Day broke with a heavy mist hanging over hill and valley, completely shutting out all view of the enemy’s lines from us. As soon as it was light enough to see, the 2nd Michigan was ordered to “fall in.” Without the usual cup of coffee, the line was formed, and the roll was called. In the absence of the Sergeant-Major, I collected the reports of the orderly sergeants of the various companies and turned over to the adjutant, a report of 160 men present for duty in the regiment. Immediately, this little band moved down the slope into the railroad cut. Halting here, we were informed that our destination was to capture the center redoubt out on the open plain. There was no remonstrance against the undertaking, but the general expression was that one-half of us would not return alive. The signal to charge was to be one gun from Fort Sanders. The signal to retreat two guns.
While we waited the signal, the utmost freedom was given the discussion of the chances of our undertaking. There was no thought of hesitation. There was no blanching. And when the signal came, with set teeth, the men sprang up the bank as one man. A slight breeze had cleared the mist, and the sun poured its glad rays upon many a brave boy for the last time.
Wheeling slightly to the left to squarely face the objective point, our line moved rapidly forward. The watchful foe, discovering us, poured in a deadly volley. Several fell at the first fire. The guns of Fort Sanders opened a point-blank fire on the work over our heads. With wild mad shouts, our line dashed on into the vortex of their curved line where they poured on us a murderous fire from both flanks as well as in front. Bullets screamed and whistled through the air from all directions. There seemed to be lead enough in the air to almost shut out the light of the sun. As we came within range, the guns of Fort Sanders ceased firing, leaving the fight all to us.
Coming upon the redoubt, our right swung forward so that they could fire directly into the end of the redoubt. At the first volley, the enemy broke and fled back to their reserve in the woods close in their rear. Now having full possession of the earthwork, we took shelter on its outer face and fired over the top at the foe in the timber. I had seen Adjutant Noble and Lieutenant Gilpin fall before we reached the work. Lieutenant Gulver had also been killed. Men had been falling all the way and were dropping every second now. While aiming over the work, a ball struck me in the right breast, passed through the lung and out at the back near the spine. Major Byington who was in command, came and said to me, “You are badly hurt,” passed on and had not gone ten feet when he was hit almost simultaneously in the leg and in the side. Raising upon his knees he called, “Pass the word to Captain Ruckle to take command and tell him for God’s sake to get the boys out of this.” Just at this moment, the two guns belched forth the signal to retreat. Those who were able got away. The enemy now advanced to reoccupy the work, and the infantry around Fort Sanders commenced firing to cover the retreat of our men. As the rebels approached us, they began calling to one another to bayonet the wounded. A swarthy rebel major with long black whiskers and a cocked navy revolver in each hand, dashed to the front and roared out, “Who says bayonet the wounded? Show me the son of a bitch.” There was no more such talk.
Reaching over the work, some rebels dragged me inside by the collar. I was semi-conscious by this time, but I remember that a rebel sergeant took my watch and gave it to one of my comrades with instructions to send it to my friends if he got out alive. I also remember the big rebel major ordered four men to place me on a stretcher and march in step without flinching back to the woods. This order he enforced at the muzzle of his two revolvers, although the air was full of shrieking leaden missiles of both friend and foe.
This action did not last half an hour, yet in that time, 160 men had driven 200 men from an entrenchment, they being supported by a whole brigade not eighty rods away.
Eighty-six out of the 160 were killed and wounded. No advantage had been gained. It was impossible to hold the work without moving a large force outside our entrenchments. This was apparent to most everyone before the work was taken.
In view of all the conditions, the person or persons ordering this move were pronounced guilty of official murder by all who witnessed it.Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier
From the Army Reminiscences of Harmon Camburn (1842-1906) Presented by Patricia Camburn Zick
He survived the shot that entered his chest despite the lack of care after capture by the Confederates. For six days, he existed on his youthful strength, whiskey, and morphine. Finally, the Union negotiated his release and for two months he healed in the makeshift hospital in Knoxville’s post office. He was sent home in 1864, he promptly married my great-grandmother. Eventually, four children completed their family, but my great-grandfather never fully recovered from his wounds. But he lived a life that continued to show his true character. His obituary in the local paper says it all.
The very sad passing of Harmon Camburn occurred Thursday morning at 4 o’clock after an illness of nearly two years. The immediate cause of his death was lung and heart trouble, but ever since the war, during which he was badly wounded, he has not been strong. With Mrs. Camburn he went to Florida last November where it was hoped his condition would be bettered, but he became worse and they returned to Adrian on March 7. Since that time he has been growing steadily worse. He has suffered a great deal during his last illness, but has always maintained a spirit of fortitude and always had a kind, patient word for his immediate family, friends and members of the Grand Army, who often visited him. Very quiet and unassuming he has led an exemplary life, been a very good citizen, a home loving man and a kind father and husband.Adrian, Michigan paper, March 22, 1906
A hero. I remember him with gratitude. So many others have given of themselves to defend and protect. I send a prayer of thanks to them all.