One Month and Nineteen Days: The Tragic Service of Captain Hiram Gibbs
The brief service of Captain Hiram M. Gibbs of the 21st Wisconsin Infantry Regiment can teach us broader lessons about the Civil War in the Western Theater.
Gibbs’s military career highlights the experiences of new troops on military campaigns, the care of wounded soldiers, the communication between regiments and injured troops’ families, and the fate of slain soldiers’ corpses.
Although Gibbs was born in New York City in 1822, he spent most of his adult life in Michigan and Wisconsin. At age nineteen, he married Nancy Hile Kennedy, another New York native, in Somerset, Michigan. By 1850, Gibbs was a farmer in Somerset with $900 in real estate. Within five years the family (which eventually included four children) moved to Calumet County, Wisconsin. There, Gibbs was a farmer with $1,500 in real estate and a $250 personal estate. It was a small county, with 1,850 residents in 1860, and Gibbs once served as the town chairman of Forest Junction.[i]
When the Civil War erupted, Gibbs did not initially enlist. Instead, in August 1862, the forty-year-old farmer joined the 21st Wisconsin Infantry Regiment at nearby Chilton, Wisconsin. Named captain of Company E, which was primarily composed of men from Chilton, Gibbs joined for three years or the duration of the war. Commanded by Colonel Benjamin Sweet, the unit had little time for drill before they fought their first battle.[ii]
Shortly after joining the regiment, the 21st Wisconsin was deployed to Kentucky to help repel a Confederate invasion. Rebel armies commanded by generals Edmund Kirby Smith and Braxton Bragg had rolled into the Bluegrass State to recruit soldiers, pull Union troops away from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and to hold the commonwealth for the Confederacy. The Union Army of the Ohio, which had followed the Confederates into Kentucky, reorganized at Louisville. After adding thousands of new troops to their ranks (including the 21st Wisconsin), they moved against Bragg’s command. On October 8, the two armies collided near Perryville, a village of 300 inhabitants.[iii]
Three days before the battle, Gibbs wrote his wife from Bloomfield, Kentucky, a small town about 35 miles northwest of Perryville. “We have had one days hard march and slept without our tents three nights,” Gibbs recorded. “Most of my company are well, none seriously sick. My health has been excellent . . . Since I joined my regiment at Louisville I have endured the marches as well as any of my men.”[iv]
Gibbs, however, knew that dangerous times lay ahead. “We may have a battle in a few days,” he wrote. He also worried about his unit’s inexperience. “I feel no anxiety with regard to the outcome personally [but] I would feel better if the regiment was better drilled. We have been hacked about and had but little time to drill, but I think the men will fight like tigers.”[v]
At Perryville, Gibbs and the 21st Wisconsin were deployed in a cornfield between two brigades on the Union left flank. One brigade, commanded by Brigadier General William R. Terrill, was on a hill to their front, while another, led by Colonel John Starkweather, was crammed on a ridge behind them. At 2:00 p.m., the Confederate army struck. Soon, Tennessee and Georgia soldiers commanded by Brigadier General George Maney overwhelmed Terrill’s men and pushed them into the cornfield.
As Terrill’s infantry retreated through the corn, disaster befell the 21st Wisconsin. When Maney’s rebels approached, members of Starkweather’s brigade, located on the ridge behind the 21st Wisconsin, fired into the cornfield. Therefore, the regiment was attacked by Confederates to their front and endured friendly fire from their rear. The unit’s chaplain, O. P. Clinton, said that the 21st Wisconsin “was drawn in a murderous position.” The regiment quickly broke.[vi]
Although the 21st Wisconsin disintegrated as a cohesive fighting force, some members of the regiment later supported Starkweather’s brigade. John Henry Otto, for example, manned one of Starkweather’s cannons. When Starkweather saw Otto and other infantrymen firing the pieces, he told them to “give them hell.” Maney’s rebels eventually shoved Starkweather’s men back to another ridge. After several hours of brutal combat, the 1st Wisconsin Infantry (accompanied by some members of the 21st Wisconsin) staged a counterattack and checked Maney’s advance.[vii]
During the Battle of Perryville, which lasted nearly five hours, more than 7,500 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed and wounded. The 21st Wisconsin suffered at least 39 killed, 103 wounded, and 52 missing.[viii]
The regiment’s officers were hit particularly hard. Colonel Benjamin Sweet was wounded in the shoulder and elbow. Major Frederick Schumacher was killed, shot once in the head and six times in the chest and legs. Captain George Bentley of Company H was also killed, as were lieutenants David W. Mitchell and E. J. Kirkland. Wounded officers included lieutenants Abner B. Smith, Ferdinand Ostenfeldt, who was shot in the arm, and A. B. Sweet, who was injured in the scalp. Chaplain Clinton believed that “Company E suffered the greatest loss of any company.” Among those wounded in Company E was Hiram Gibbs, who was shot in the side.[ix]
Gibbs’s wound was severe, and he was taken to what Clinton called the “Sulphur Spring Hospital Near Perryville.” This hospital may have resembled another mentioned by Gibbs’s comrade John Henry Otto. “The barn nearest to the line was used as an amputation room; that is [where] arms and legs were sawed off,” Otto wrote. “The boys called it the ‘butchershop’ or ‘barnyard.’ [O]thers gave it the very proper name of ‘Uncle Sam[’]s Sawmill.’”[x]
Gibbs faced desperate circumstances. Field hospitals at Perryville were crowded, and food, water, medicine, and medical care were scarce. Chaplain Clinton, however, provided comfort to the injured and wrote letters to wounded soldiers’ loved ones. This included Gibbs’s wife, Nancy. “I have just come from the side of your husband,” Clinton wrote her two days after the battle. “He was severely wounded.” The chaplain added, “Capt. Gibbs did his duty nobly and fell as a hero. His hip is badly fractured and he is a patient sufferer.”[xi]
Like Gibbs, many of the Union soldiers at Perryville were from the Midwest. Therefore, because of their proximity to the battlefield, some soldiers’ family members traveled to Perryville to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones or to care for the injured. James D. Kennedy of Ohio, for example, whose son had died fighting in the 105th Ohio Infantry, traveled to the battleground and exhumed his remains.
Clinton, however, urged Nancy to stay home. “Capt Gibbs wishes me to say you are by no means to think of coming to him,” the chaplain wrote. “You cannot help him. We are about 70 miles from Louisville and on a very bad road. Patiently wait and hope for the best. Your husband is a great sufferer and the crisis has not yet come. All is done for him that our poor accommodations will permit. We are passing through painful scenes.” With a wound in the side and a shattered hip, Clinton knew that Gibbs’s chances for survival were slim. He closed the letter, “Hope you will trust in God—hope for the best and prepare your mind for the worst.”[xii]
At 8:00 a.m. on October 15—a week after the battle—Gibbs died. He had only been in the army for one month and nineteen days.[xiii]
“Our worst fears in regard to your dear husband are realized,” Clinton wrote Nancy. Her husband went “calmly away to his rest” and was then interred “in a little burying ground on a hill nearby.” Clinton told Nancy that they would send her Gibbs’s personal items, including money, papers, a watch, and his sword. “The past week has been the most painful of my life in witnessing the suffering of poor, torn humanity,” Clinton told her.[xiv]
Gibbs would not remain in that “little burying ground.” Most Union casualties, who were initially buried in regimental plots on the battlefield or at field hospital sites nearby, were eventually moved to the Perryville National Cemetery, which was established west of town. Unclear land claims, however, ultimately closed that cemetery, and the Union dead were reinterred at Camp Nelson National Cemetery, approximately twenty-five miles away. Gibbs was among those reburied at Camp Nelson, and he rests in plot E, grave number 3146. Although he was interred far from home, Gibbs was not forgotten. After the war, a Grand Army of the Republic post in Wisconsin was named in his honor.[xv]
After Gibbs’s death, Nancy received a pension of twenty dollars a month. She died on July 24, 1907, at age eighty-seven, and was buried at the Central Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in King, Wisconsin. She never remarried.[xvi]
Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books, including “Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle” and “Maney’s Confederate Brigade at the Battle of Perryville.” His latest is “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” which examines Southern honor culture, violence, and vigilantism through the lens of an 1856 murder on a steamboat. He is the former executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association.
NOTES [i] 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Calumet County, Wisconsin, accessed from Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020; “Cpt. Hiram Mead Hibbs,” www.findagrave.com/memorial/694507/hiram-mead-gibbs, accessed on November 29, 2020; Hiram M. Gibbs, Civil War Widows Pensions Records, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed from Fold3 on November 29, 2020; “Nancy Hila Kennedy Gibbs,” www.findagrave.com/memorial/55565315/nancy-hila-gibbs, accessed on November 29, 2020; 1850 U.S. Federal Census, Hillsdale County, Michigan, accessed from Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020; 1855 Wisconsin State Census Index, accessed from Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020; Robert Haese, At Seventy: A History of Forest Junction, Wisconsin (Brillion, WI: Brillion News, 1944), 49. [ii] Gibbs Civil War Widows Pension; “Hiram Gibbs,” U.S. Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865,” accessed from Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020; “Our Louisville Correspondence,” New York Daily Herald (October 18, 1862): 1; Charles Estabrook, ed., Annual Reports of the Adjutant General of the State of Wisconsin for the Years 1860, 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864 (Madison, WI: Democrat Printing Co., 1912), 197; Charles House, “Only a Footnote Needed to Bring Sad Tale to an End,” Green Bay Press-Gazette (March 12, 1962): 14. [iii] For the 1862 Kentucky Campaign, see Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001); and James Lee McDonough, War in Kentucky: From Shiloh To Perryville (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996). [iv] Gibbs quoted in House, “Only a Footnote,” 14. [v] Ibid., 14. [vi] Clinton quoted in House, “Only a Footnote,” 14. For information about the fight on the Union left, see Stuart W. Sanders, Maney’s Confederate Brigade at the Battle of Perryville (Charleston: The History Press, 2014). Friendly fire is also noted in William DeLoss Love, Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion (Chicago: Church and Goodman, 1866), 612. [vii] Sanders, Maney’s Confederate Brigade, 89, 94, 108, Starkweather quoted, 89. [viii] 21st Wisconsin casualties from Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 374; and Sanders, Maney’s Confederate Brigade, 109. [ix] “Officers of the Third Division,” Nashville Daily Union (October 21, 1862): 2; Schumacher’s wounds from Sanders, Maney’s Confederate Brigade, 77; Love, Wisconsin in the War, 612; chaplain quoted in House, “Only a Footnote,” 14; “U.S. Register of Deaths of Volunteers, 1861-1865,” accessed from Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020. [x] “Sulphur Spring” quoted in House, “Only a Footnote,” 14; Otto quoted in Sanders, Maney’s Confederate Brigade, 122-123. Gibbs’s widow’s pension application also states that Gibbs died at a hospital “near Perryville.” Gibbs, Widows Pension Record. [xi] Clinton quoted in House, “Only a Footnote,” 14. Gibbs’s death noted in Gibbs, Widows Pension Records; “Cpt. Hiram Mead Gibbs,” FindAGrave.com; “U.S. Register of Deaths of Volunteers.” [xii] Kennedy and Hamilton from Sanders, Maney’s Confederate Brigade, 134, 128; Clinton quoted in House, “Only a Footnote,” 14. [xiii] House, “Only a Footnote,” 14; Gibbs’s time in army specified in Gibbs, Widows Pension Record. [xiv] House, “Only a Footnote,” 14. [xv] Gibbs at Camp Nelson, “Cpt. Hiram Mead Gibbs,” FindAGrave.com; “U.S. National Cemetery Interment Central Forms, 1928-1962,” accessed via Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020; National Cemetery Administration, “Camp Nelson National Cemetery Burial Ledger, U.S. Burial Registers, Military Posts, and National Cemeteries, 1862-1960,” accessed via Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020. GAR post named for Gibbs from Soldiers and Citizens Album of Biographical Record Containing Personal Sketches of Army Men and Citizens Prominent in Loyalty to the Union (Chicago, 1888), 221, 780. [xvi] Gibbs, Widow Pension Record; “Nancy Hila Kennedy Gibbs,” FindAGrave.com.