Finding the Elephant at Perryville: The 123d Illinois's First Fight
The men of the 123rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment were all from east central and southern Illinois, and nearly all young farmers. Answering the call for volunteers, most of the troops found themselves being mustered in at Mattoon, Illinois on September 6, 1862. On October 8, 1862, Just 19 days after leaving Mattoon, they found themselves in the very middle of the Battle of Perryville. One young soldier, 22 year old William T. Hunt who was a farmer from Jasper County, told the following to his daughter Etta Hunt Gone.
"I remember very little about the next few weeks. We drilled with broomsticks and hoe handles for guns. Our regiment was the 123rd Ill. Volunteers. Our commander was Colonel James Monroe, who had been at the front for over a year. He had come home to recruit a new regiment.
I also remember the ladies of Mattoon presented us with a hand-sewn flag (silk). When they presented it the speaker said they had looked up mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, or sweethearts of every man in the regiment. They had them sew at least a part of the seam, so it belonged to every man in the regiment. They asked that we carry it with honor, never let it fall in the dirt, and bring it back to them with victory. Col. Monroe accepted it in behalf of the regiment. He promised all they asked.
This I do remember well, that just six weeks from our enlistment we were on the battlefield at Perryville, Kentucky. Now why they would send a green unit with no more training than we had into the front line, I will never know, but there we were with our muzzle-loading guns.
We formed at the edge of a woods and loaded our muskets. To do that we put the stock of the gun on the ground. With one hand we held the muzzle, and with the other, took from our belts a small package of powder wrapped in paper, just enough for one load. With our teeth we tore the paper open and put the powder and ball in. Then the wads went on top and it was all tamped down with our rods. We could shoot once and it was to do over again.
Our guns ready, we came out of a woods, crossed a small meadow, climbed over a rail fence and started down a small hill. There was a stream at the bottom, small shrubs here and there, and also a few trees, but sign of a gray uniform any where. Just as we reached the brow of a hill the whole valley at the bottom erupted into a mass of Johnny Rebs. They came charging up that slope with their terrible rebel yell. Guns blazing. It looked like a million of them.
Well. we lost no time starting back for that rail fence. Some fired guns, but most of us had but one thought and that was to get out of there but fast.
When we reached the fence, I threw one leg over, and just as I started to jump down the wind blew my cap off. Of course it fell on the side I did not want to be on. I gave one look at that cap, then at the Johnnys getting so close and my comrades getting so far ahead of me, and decided who needs a cap any way. Though they were all ahead of me I was not the last one to gain the woods. That is the way it went all day; we would form a line, fire a shot, then hightail it to the rear as fast as our heels could take us. Our officers could do little except try as best they could to keep us together.
Near evening we ran into the main line of Union forces. There they were flat on the ground behind logs or mounds of dirt they had thrown up as protection. There was a small cannon just back of them, and as we went through their lines we told them, "You fellows will get out of here fast, for the Rebs are coming back there by the thousands." They just laughed at us, tried to get us to stay with them and see how fast they ran, but we had all the fighting we wanted and at that minute if we never saw another gray uniform it would suit us fine.
So we went back through the lines and by the time we got back to the rear we were rather well scattered. But we were close enough to hear when the Johnny Rebs struck that line of old vets, who had been out since the war started. We knew they came no farther.
Had we not been such green soldiers, we would have hunted up some of our regiment but my buddy and I had but one thought; that was we must have a drink. Our canteens were dry; we had sometimes gotten almost as much gunpowder in our mouths as we did down our gun barrel. Water we MUST have and we knew that country was full of springs; so we set out to find one. We soon did but also found a heavy guard around it and to all our pleading we got the same answers "Reserved for the wounded." They next one was the same, and the next one, and so on for miles, at last we found one not guarded. It was late and we were so tired, thirsty, and disgusted that we spent the night there after drinking all the water we could hold. We used our knapsack for pillows and supperless went to sleep.
We woke up in the chill dawn and knew we'd better get back to camp as soon as possible. So, cold and stiff we filled our canteens and chewing hardtack we made our way back to camp. But where was the 123rd in all that mess? Well. after a long search and lots of questions, we found them camped in the back of a clear stream of running water did nothing at all to help our ego one bit or empty stomachs either. It was a hard lesson but that kind are well learned and never again did we wander away on our own; no matter how we were scattered in battle. We learned that it if it could be had our officers made camp where there was water."
Storyteller, William T. Hunt (Co I 123rd Illinois) is the gentleman in the center. I am not sure who else is pictured. Weatha Hunt Goben wrote more about Wm. T. and his military life in 1966, but the above is all that concerned the Battle of Perryville.
The 123rd Illinois suffered 36 killed and 180 wounded.