By Dale Thomas
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the spring of 2001.
Civil War enthusiasts know well that combat deaths and deaths resulting from battlefield wounds were major factors in the over 600,000 Civil War deaths. But the wartime experiences of the 5th Illinois Cavalry demonstrate that as deadly as combat was, something other than this was the deadliest enemy.
Two days after the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run, Richard Yates, Governor of Illinois, sent a dispatch on July 23, 1861 to Simon Cameron, Secretary of War. He asked Cameron to authorize sixteen additional regiments from Lincoln’s home state. “Illinois demands the right to do her full share in the work of preserving our glorious Union from the assaults of high handed rebellion, and I insist that you respond favorably to the tender I have made.”
Sometime in the autumn of 1861, three young men from Wayne County, Benjamin, John, and Marshall Crews (a distant relative of CCWRT past president Dick Crews) rode the 125 miles north to Camp Butler on the outskirts of Springfield, the state capital. Volunteering for three years service in the 5th Illinois Cavalry Regiment, they were mustered into D Company, which contained a vast majority of men from their home county. Other Crews kinsmen from Wayne County joined infantry regiments.
The Crews family came from a region in southern Illinois known from pioneer times as “Egypt” because, like the Nile River, the high waters in spring from the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash flooded low lying farmlands. Since most of the region’s population had roots in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, there was more empathy for the Confederacy than in the counties north of Vandalia. In the election of 1860, Egypt had voted three to one against Lincoln and the “Black” Republicans. The Cairo Gazette announced in December of 1860 that “the sympathies of our people are mainly with the South.” Most of the young men from Egypt who fought in the Civil War wore Federal blue, but some fled south of the Ohio River to join the Confederacy. Company G of the 15th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry was called the “Southern Illinois Company.” However, the opposite also occurred — some of the troopers in D Company were from the border states of Kentucky and Missouri.
In February of 1862, after a brief period of training at Camp Butler and a considerable amount of sickness resulting from the crowded conditions, the 5th Illinois Cavalry took to the road under its commander, Colonel Hall Wilson. The regiment had been ordered to occupy the Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. The following month, the troopers were again on the move, first to Pilot Knob, and then Doniphan, Missouri where they saw their first action in a skirmish with the enemy. Pocahontas, Arkansas was the next destination in the middle of April. Companies D, F, and L were sent south to Smithville on June 17, and then the entire regiment was ordered further south to Jacksonport, Arkansas.
In the meantime, after a decisive victory at Pea Ridge, Arkansas on March 7 and 8, Brig. General Samuel R. Curtis, commander of the Federal Army of the Southwest, had been marching on Little Rock. Foreshadowing Sherman in Georgia, Curtis’ forces cut a path of destruction through the heart of Arkansas. An Illinois soldier later wrote: “Desolation, horrid to contemplate, marks every section of the country through which the army has passed, and an air of sickening desolation is everywhere visible.” However, Curtis for logistical reasons decided to abandon the attack on Little Rock. He moved north and then east into Jacksonport where he picked up reinforcements that included the 5th Illinois Cavalry.
On June 26, in need of supplies, Curtis moved his army south toward Helena, Arkansas on the Mississippi River where the Federal Navy was supposed to have delivered the needed provisions. Fearing another march on Little Rock, Brig. General Albert Rust sent two regiments of Texas cavalry into battle against a vanguard of Federals as they struggled through a swamp and straddled the Cache River. The Confederates, “yelling like savages and swearing like demons,” surprised the Federals causing them to retreat. But with reinforcements soon on the scene, the Federals repulsed the attackers.
Writing a week later to General Henry W. Halleck, Curtis said the Battle of Cache River ended with “a complete rout of the rebel army in Arkansas. They ran in all directions.” His army lost 6 killed and 57 wounded, but the Confederate losses were much greater — a mass grave held over a hundred corpses. In addition to the human cost, nearly 70 horses were killed in a battle that took place three days after Independence Day.
After a week of marching under a hot sun, “with only filthy, slimy water from the swamps to drink,” the Army of the Southwest finally arrived in Helena. Resupplied, the army spent the next three months in limbo fighting off subtropical diseases. Occasionally units were sent out to forage. On one such mission in October, the enemy ambushed troopers of the 5th Illinois Cavalry. Of the 150 men engaged, four died of battle wounds and another 81, including Lieutenant William N. Elliot, were taken prisoner.
Thus ended the first year of the 5th Illinois Cavalry. But in the months to come, there would be more fighting and dying in Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas. By the end of the war, 447 men from the regiment, nearly half of its authorized strength, perished, but only 28 troopers had died of combat wounds. The most deadly enemy had not been the Confederate armies. The real killers in the war on both sides were dysentery, typhoid, malaria, and pneumonia.