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Civil War soldier tells of his experiences

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By The Staff

A few weeks ago, my husband, Dale, and I were shopping in a neighboring town when we ran into Vandalians Jeanne and Ivan Witbracht.

As we paused to talk, Jeanne told me of a document written by her Civil War great-grandfather, Sgt. J.K. Francis, that she thought I might find interesting. She told me it was a description of all the battles he had taken part in, and it included a list of the officers in his infantry regiment.

She cautioned me that her great-grandfather was not a native of Fayette County, although there might be county men listed in the papers.

The next day, when I visited with Jeanne, my excitement grew. Her great-grandfather was a member of the 97th Illinois Infantry, which was recruited, in part, from Fayette County, as well as Calhoun, Coles, Cumberland, Jasper, Jersey, Macoupin and Madison counties.

I pointed to the names of Capt. Andrew Ray and 2nd Lt. Thomas M. McClannahan of Co. F, and Wilson Campbell, a 2nd Lt. of Co. I, all Fayette County men.

I had recently looked into Capt Ray’s family for a family researcher, and knew that Campbell served as Fayette County clerk upon his return to the county after the Civil War.

As for Lt. McClannahan, my husband’s distant relative, Tom Sears, a Southern sympathizer, got into a gun battle with him while McClannahan was home on leave, and an innocent bystander by the name of Culbertson was killed.

The three-page description of Sgt. Francis’ Civil War experiences titled, “A History of the 97th Reg., Ills. Inf. During My Term of Service Until Discharged, Sergt. J.K. Francis,” was followed by a list of officers of all the companies of the 97th Illinois Infantry.

Sgt. Francis’ name does not appear anywhere in the document, other than in the heading. He did not provide his first name, or note the company he served with. The 97th was made up of companies A-I and K.

Turning to the Internet, I checked the Illinois Secretary of State Web site (cyberdriveillinois.com) and searched Civil War soldiers. This produced an "Illinois Civil War Detail Report," in which I learned that his first name was James and when he enlisted at Jerseyville, he was a teacher.

I also learned that Sgt. James Francis was born in Newbern, Jersey County, Ill., and this was his residence at the time of his enlistment in Co. K of the 97th Illinois Infantry.

James was a single man, age 23, 5 feet 8 inches tall, with blue eyes, auburn hair and a fair complexion. He mustered into service of the United States Army at Camp Butler on Sept. 8, 1862. The report went on to say that he was "discharged on Nov. 25, 1863, from a hospital at New Orleans for wounds."

James tells that they left Camp Butler on Oct. 3, 1862, marching to Cincinnati, Ohio, and crossed the Ohio River. From there, they continued to Covington, Ky., where they rested until Oct. 20. Nine days later, they reached Nicholasville, Ky., 100 miles from the Ohio River. “On the 17th (of November), they embarked with the fleet intended to operate against Vicksburg, Miss., down the Ohio River.

“Embarked as a part of the force designed to attack and capture Vicksburg. Landed on the Yazoo Dec. 26, and next morning marched to the battlefield, were placed on the right, stood picket and skirmished with the enemy during the five days following, when our forces were withdrawn and our attack abandoned.”

On Jan. 11, they began what he termed the "Expedition Against Arkansas Post." His company was held in reserve until nearly the close of action, when they were ordered to the front and were advancing on the works with fixed bayonets when the fort surrendered. James wrote, “To Lt. Campbell of our regiment belongs the honor of hauling down the Rebel Flag. Our loss was not heavy, five being wounded, two of whom died, Capt. Jno. Tribble being one of the latter.”

The next places he mentions were Young’s Point and Vicksburg, a second time, where now they spent several days digging a canal to lead the Mississippi’s waters away from the city, making an island town of it. This project was abandoned after several days.

Millikens Bend is mentioned next. James wrote that they joined up with "Gen. Grant’s great army," and headed back to Vicksburg. Eight were wounded at the Battle of Port Gibson, and two killed at the Battle of Champion Hills, Miss.

When the final assault was made on Vicksburg, Sgt. James K. Francis was there. “Vicksburg fell on the Fourth of July, and early the next morning the 97th was seen wending its way through dust and heat toward Jackson, Miss, capital of the state, to actively engage in the siege of that place.”

He wrote, “It is needless to state the many hardships and privations undergone from the time we left Millikens Bend to the time of setting down in camp again at Vicksburgeethose who were not along doubtless would not credit the tale of hardships and suffering that might truthfully be told.”

With one month rest, the 97th was on the move again. By Oct. 4, they left their camp at Camp Carrolton, marching 80 miles to Brashear City, La.

By the time they reached Brashear City, the 97th had been "decimated by death" – those are James Francis’ words. They had started out with 889 men, and what he termed a “residue as a part of the column remained to go with our commander, wherever duty required.”

“On the night of Oct. 31, at midnight, we were ordered to board a lot of flat cars. The crew running the train was taken from the ranks of the 97th Regiment – engineer, fireman and crew, while the regular train preceding ours was run by railroad men, and they were notified that our train would follow.”

It was about 3 a.m. when the crew from the first train, loaded with Union soldiers, heading north to muster out, “left their train (after rounding a sharp curve) standing on the track for our train to run into.” There was no warning, no signal lights. The second train with the 97th Regiment slammed into the stopped train.

James writes, “As a consequence, many of our regiment were killed and nearly every man in it more or less injured, so that only about 90 men were left fit for duty out of the whole regiment. Many died after as a result of this experience, and many more were maimed and crippled for life, myself among the number.”

When the medics came around, James heard them say, “I don’t think this poor devil will make it, but if he is still alive our next round, we’ll take him.” And they did. He had an open wound in his side for the rest of his life. From the state’s Civil War records, James spent about a month in a hospital in New Orleans before his discharge.

Upon his return home to Jersey County, James married Martha Jane Roades. After a brief sojourn to Kansas with their infant son, Richard, where the Kiowa Indians were making their presence known, they returned to Illinois, settling in Elsah. A second son, James, was born here followed by Mattie and Pearl.

The son, James Francis, married Nellie Urie, and they are Jeanne Witbracht’s grandparents. Nellie would tell that she couldn’t invite both her father and her husband’s father to dinner at the same time because they could fight the Civil War all over again. Thus, she hosted two Thanksgiving dinners, two Christmas dinners and two Easter luncheons.

Sgt. J.K. Francis’ story will not end here. Although all she has is a copy, Jeanne has plans to share the document with the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield.