Robert Beck's Story
The Battle of Springfield
Well, I had not long to wait to have my desires gratified. On the afternoon of August 9th an order was given that every man who could carry a musket must have 40 rounds of ammunition and a haversack and cooked rations. The roll was called at 6 P.M. to see that every man was on hand and ready to march and strict orders [were given] that not a man should leave camp. We knew it meant business, but what it was, us privates were in the dark. About 9 P.M. we moved out of camp and word was passed along the line that no one must speak aloud or make any noise. Instinct taught us that there was some hot stuff ahead. We marched very slowly all night and not a man was allowed to leave the ranks. At break of day we heard some musket firing ahead and about sunrise we heard the booming of cannons which was answered by heavy firing from another direction. The battle was comenced in good earnest but why were we not rushed to the front to help the boys!
We were not long held in suspense, but put on doublequick through a brush patch, and through a corn field and down a slight depression towards the fighting line which was on an elevation just ahead. My regiment, the 2nd Kansas, was halted in the depression and then I saw the first dead soldiers killed in battle. All the wounded from the fighting line and [who were] carried to the rear were carried along the front of our line. I could see that the rebels were loaded for us and could shoot. The firing was awful in front, both artillery and musketry. We were not kept waiting long in that hollow which was not a very safe place as there were plenty of stray shells and solid shots coming our way. General Lyon came riding to the front of our line and asked our colonel if his regiment would stand fire. How the boys did shout, "Yes General try us!"
The order was given, "Forward," and we marched up to the fighting line and just as we were getting into position the rebels made a charge on us which threw us into confusion but we soon recovered. In this first charge General Lyon received a mortal wound, shot through the heart and died instantly. Our colonel, R. B. Mitchel, was also wounded at the same charge and had to be taken off the field. We stood our ground but, oh, it was hot work as the rebels had the advantage of us. We were on an open piece of ground and the land sloped down in front and [was] somewhat covered with brush. The rebels would come out of the brush and fire into us, then fall back. They made several attempts to drive us back but each charge failed, until they flanked us. Then we had to give way or be captured. We fell back in good order. Our ammunition was gone and we were nearly dead for water. The sun was dreadful hot, not a breath of air stirring and the stench of blood and powder smoke and dead horses was awful, and the groans of the poor wounded and dying, the thoughts of having lost the battle, all put together it was a day I shall never forget and have no hankering to see another. War is a savage and barbarous practice.
Well, we straggled back to Springfield but there was no rejoicing as the town was full of wounded and those that returned with a whole hide were too tired and hungry to rejoice, so we turned to and cooked our supper and after supper talked over the events of the day and some lay down for a sleep and rest, but trouble broke out anew. At midnight we had to skin out of town and right lively, for the rebels were after us. We left town apparently without much order, only so we got out in a hurry. We marched all that day on a very poor road. The wagon train was ahead but many of the wagons had to be burned as they would get stuck in the mud and [we] had no time to pull them out, so they would set fire to them to keep them from falling in [to] the rebels' hands. It was a long and hard march of 140 miles to what was then called Fort Rolla. There we halted a few days for rest. Fort Rolla was at that time at the western end of a railroad that ran to St. Louis, Mo.
Some time in September we were put on board of cars and run to St. Louis where we went into camp. All troops that took part in the battle of Springfield were reviewed by General Fremont and his staff. He and his staff were dressed in the most gorgeous uniforms and his headquarters was the finest residence in the city. We were marched by his grand palace. He sat there in front of his magnificent palace surrounded by his handsomely-uniformed staff officers, and the general did condescend to bow to our regimental officers, but us poor ragged and barefooted privates had to cheer him as we passed him in review. The day was dreadful hot and the streets quite dusty and the march was quite a long one, but the thing had to be done to please that mighty General Fremont. The poor privates were starved and had to go ragged and suffer, while the high officials could get fat and wallow in wealth and luxury. But such is human nature. The common herd are willing to suffer so they can have heroes to worship. But that review looked one-sided to me. If a little of the wealth and extravagance that was lavished on the General had been spread out on us ragged privates we certainly would have looked better.
Some time in October we were marched on board a steamboat and were taken to Hannibal, Mo. From there [we went] by rail to Shelbina, Mo., where we were quartered in empty houses for a few days, then marched to a town called Paris where we expected to have a fight but the rebels heard of our coming so they skedaddled and left us in possession of the town and of course we helped ourselves to what we could use.
We had a good square meal that night which we needed, and also found some shoes in the stores which came [in] quite handy as our feet began to get a little sore. I got a pair of quite nice looking shoes. In the morning, bright and early, we were hustled out of town and back to Shelbina. We had to go right lively as the rebels were in our rear pushing us along. In the morning I put on my new shoes in a hurry and flattered myself how easy I could march. But along in the afternoon, oh, how my feet did ache! and how the new shoes did hurt! but I had to keep a going. When we got to Shelbina the first thing I did was to take my shoes off and lo, I discovered the cause of all my suffering. I had put the left shoe on the right foot and the right one on the left foot. I had no socks on and my feet were blistered and so sore that I could not wear the shoes for a week and when I tried them on the second time I found they were two sizes too small for me so I gave them to my chum and I went barefooted.
The next morning after our return to Shelbina we found the town completely surrounded by the rebels and they were firing artillery into the town. We threw up breastworks and did all we could to defend ourselves. It looked as if we would all be taken prisoners. They kept us cooped in that little town for three days, and if the rebels had known our weakness they could have captured every one of us.
There was a locomotive and some cattle cars in the town so one afternoon we were ordered to skamper into the cars in a hurry. The cavalry [went] alongside of the train and so we slid out of town. The rebels had evidenly left a gap unprotected. We lost one man killed and some wounded. From Shelbina we went to Hudson but the country seemed to be overrun with rebels who were determined to capture us before we could get out of the state. From Hudson we went to St. Joseph, Mo. There we stayed a few days but the rebels made it too hot for us so we were hustled on to Fort Leavenworth. After a few days rest at Leavenworth, Kas., the companies were allowed to go to their respective homes for a short visit. My company went to Garnett where we were received with great honors and treated as great heroes and defenders of the union. After a few days visiting and being lionized and made a great ado over, we were marched back to Fort Leavenworth to be mustered out, but [there was] no money to pay us off.
We received our discharge papers but not a cent of pay, but we were told to re-enlist and we could go into winter quarters and get plenty to eat and a place to sleep. I took my discharge but was not fit to re-enlist on account of my eyes as they were not yet well, so I went to a boarding house and waited for my pay. After some three weeks' delay I received my pay and so ended my military experience. If my eyes had been well I would have re-enlisted as I was not tired of the army life and was a strong believer in the Union and was willing to do my part to put down the rebellion. My army life was short but hot and lively, as we were in the rebel country all the time and they gave us no rest but kept us on the move all the time. We were so far from the base of supplies most of the time, we lived by foraging.