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Voices from the Civil War

Area author documents soldiers' lives

Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “War is hell.” 

Spencerville author and historical researcher Margaret Hobson says that was perhaps never more true than during that war, now marking its sesquicentennial.

For the past two decades, the 71-year-old retired Fort Wayne Community Schools math teacher has been compiling exhaustive information on one small part of the Civil War – the men of Indiana’s 44th regiment who faced their singular versions of hell after mustering for the Union at Fort Wayne’s Camp Allen in November 1861.

The soldiers, Hobson says, thought they were signing up for a brief adventure, a chance to leave northeast Indiana behind and see the world.

“The men thought it would be a six-week affair, that the Union would win easily, and they thought they would be home to plant crops in the spring. They didn’t realize it would be four years,” she says.

Four years of bloody battles, long and underequipped marches across the South, sickness and, of course, death.

Of the 478 men who fought at one of the 44th’s major battles, Shiloh in 1863, 177 were killed or wounded, the highest of any regiment at that battle, one of the bloodiest of the war.

For every soldier of the 44th who died of wounds, two died from disease. About 18 percent of the original 952 enlistees did not make it to war’s end. 

Hobson says she learned about the regiment when she began researching her mother’s family history. She found a branch of her mother’s family, the Griffiths of Hamilton in Steuben County, had three brothers who served in the Union Army. One went into the 44th, and when she found a regimental history compiled by its surgeon, she started reading it.

“I was just sucked in,” she says.

Wanting to share the information with her family, she made a copy of the rare book. And, curiosity piqued, she started following trails to learn more about each of the regiment’s soldiers, who eventually numbered 2,012.

She went to the Indiana State Archives in Indianapolis – where she found original muster rolls of eight of the 10 companies – the state library and the Indiana Historical Society. She combed regional newspapers’ archives for soldiers’ obituaries, war coverage and letters to the editor they had written while serving.

She made trips to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and used online genealogical sources. She created her own computer database to keep track of the soldiers, nearly 100 of whom had signed their enlistment papers with an “X” because they could not read or write.

As her research continued, Hobson was often led to the soldiers’ descendants and their own historical troves – from portraits and photos to letters and diaries, including eight diaries from men from the DeKalb County area alone.

“People were very generous. I don’t think I was ever turned down,” Hobson says of the frequent requests she made for information.

The result will soon become a three-volume history on the regiment. Her first, the 400-page “The Iron Men of Indiana’s 44th Regiment, Part 1: Biographies and Statistics,” came out several years ago, followed by “The Voices of Indiana’s 44th Regiment, Part 2: Formation and Photos,” which tells more about the outfit’s colonels and companies, concentrating on the time at Camp Allen. The book also contains complete court-martial transcripts and about 250 photos.

Hobson’s third volume, on the battles and other assignments in which the men participated during the war, is scheduled for release in November. Like Volume 2, much is told in the soldiers’ own words, which she found fascinating, as they told of bathing once a month, body lice, being on half-rations and disgust at their commanders when they were not allowed to go to a nearby farmhouse for water.

The third book, like the others, will be self-published by a local printer in a limited edition and available through Amazon.com and The History Center gift shop in Fort Wayne. Hobson says her goal is to make her information available to local historians and soldiers’ family researchers, not making money. 

“From the beginning, it’s been a labor of love,” she says, adding that the work kept her mind off a diagnosis of colon cancer. She now is a 16-year survivor.

What did the 44th do in the war? Most of its time was spent in Tennessee, where it tried to keep Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg at bay, Hobson says.

“When they left Shiloh, they marched over 900 miles,” she says. “They didn’t have tents. They didn’t have shoes. Anything they owned, they had to carry with them. It was amazing they survived.” 

The route led through Tennessee and Mississippi, across Alabama, up to Lexington, Kentucky, and down to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where the regiment fought in the Battle of Stones River. Then it was on to the Battle of Chickamauga near northwest Georgia. After that, the 44th marched back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where soldiers guarded the key supply town until being decommissioned in 1865.

At one point, around the time of the Battle of Perryville at Perry­ville, Kentucky, and when they were without a top commander, 20 men, apparently so disgusted at conditions and that they were not called to fight though they could hear the battle raging, deserted the regiment, Hobson found. Yet overall, the regiment had only a 4 percent desertion rate, lower than the Union’s average, she discovered.    

During its service, the 44th had five colonels, each with a checkered history. One died in surgery after he fell off a railroad car and was run over by the train.

One was captured, then freed in a prisoner exchange, before he resigned. It was later disclosed that he had changed his name and had a secret wife.

Another left in ill health and died shortly after returning home.

The last returned to Elkhart and died in Michigan eight years after the war.

The first, Hugh B. Reed, a Fort Wayne druggist buried in Lindenwood Cemetery in Fort Wayne, is her favorite, Hobson says.

Duty called him to enlist, she says. He left his troops on a two-day pass in 1862 to return home, but he didn’t come back for a month, thinking an earlier request to recruit more soldiers would be honored. He was thrown in the brig and held for court-martial.

Under duress, he resigned, coming back to Fort Wayne for a time. But with his business in ruins, he left with his family for New Jersey.

Hobson says he was a broken man, likely suffering from what’s known today as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“After the Civil War, he became a recluse,” she says. She learned from family members that he spent most of his later life “just sitting in his chair.”

As for the ancestor who started her on her quest, Lewis W. Griffith, Hobson found that he started as a private in 1861 and served the entire four years, rising to captain. But, because this was war and war is, well, you know, there were wrinkles.

“He actually was court-martialed,” says Hobson, who published the affair’s entire transcript, along with all the others she found.

“He was sent up on three charges, with one being that he told a colonel to kiss his ass, and one being drunkenness. The other was gambling with the troops, but that was dismissed,” she says. “He was convicted on the first one and intoxication, but not drunkenness. He lost three months’ pay, but it didn’t hurt him any because he was made a captain, which I think speaks to how he was well-liked by the men.”

Hobson says that when she learned about the court-martial while researching at the National Archives, she didn’t tell her mother, thinking she would be mortified.

“I delayed a few days,” she says. “But what happened was that she got the biggest charge out of it. She remembered her relative as the kind of man who spoke his mind.”

After the war, Griffith was known for going to his soldiers’ funerals and was a pallbearer at some, Hobson says.

“I think that was not uncommon for many of the men (of the 44th),” she says. “They all had gone through something horrible. And I think it bonded them together.” 

rsalter@jg.net

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