Shadowing His Steps

Civil War campaigns of my great-great-grandfather, Michael Schneider (1842-1900), who served for more than four years in Cleveland’s Company G of the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

In the spring of 1992 I was living and working in central Kansas and thinking of taking a vacation. My sister was living in Savannah, Georgia at the time with her family and offered to let me stay there for a few days. She had been there for a few years and wanted to show me her new house. I had been working hard since my arrival in Kansas the previous summer and was ready for a break. With fond memories of my previous cross-country road trips and an interest in the historic sites of the South, I decided to go. I set aside two weeks for the round trip and started to pack.

I decided to take U.S. 50 northeast to Emporia, where I would follow Interstate 35 to Kansas City and then pick up I-70 across central Missouri and southern Illinois and Indiana to Dayton, Ohio, where I would attend a national retreat held by Brother Roger Schutz (1915-2005) and the Taize Community at the university there. From Dayton, I would take I-75 south through Cincinnati and Louisville all the way to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I would merge onto I-40 southeast to Asheville, North Carolina. From Asheville, I-26 would take me through South Carolina to the junction of I-95 for the final short leg of the journey into Savannah.

I finished my final preparations and took off in early May. I was looking forward to seeing Ohio, Tennessee, and North Carolina again, all scenes of my childhood that I had not visited for decades. My maternal grandmother was buried in Bedford County, Tennessee and I planned to pay my respects there on the way back. I knew from my studies of the Civil War period that Savannah was captured by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in December of 1864 and offered to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift. Unlike the rest of Georgia, Savannah was spared the torch and preserved with its stately colonial and Victorian architecture for future generations to enjoy.

What I did not know is that I would be retracing the steps of a Civil War ancestor, Michael Schneider (1842-1900), who was born in the German state of Wurttemberg and settled in Cleveland, Ohio with his immigrant parents. My new genealogy hobby was in its infancy and I had no idea yet that my grandmother’s grandfather had marched with Sherman through Georgia and participated in the capture and occupation of Savannah. Moreover, the route I would be taking had many other parallels with the locales of his wartime campaigns. Much of my planned route would take me within a few miles of where he had marched from 1861 to 1865.

I set out in early May and made good progress across Kansas and into Missouri. Route 70 was bordered by thick forests, once the scene of innumerable “bushwhacker” hideouts during the Civil War. Guerrilla chieftains like William Clarke Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson used the thick cover and hidden creek beds of western Missouri as a base from which to launch raids on Union garrisons, columns, and settlements. I remember the density of the forest cover in one of the campgrounds where I stayed the night. Other than the modern interstate highway and some roadside truck stops, the wild character of that country had probably not changed much since the 1860s.

Unbeknownst to me, my ancestor Michael Schneider’s regiment, the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry of Fuller’s Brigade, began their first wartime campaign by chasing these guerrilla bands through central Missouri, trying to thwart their raids and prevent young men from enlisting in the Confederate Army. They marched to the aid of Colonel James A. Mulligan (1830-1864) and his 23rd Illinois (Chicago’s Irish regiment, in which another of my distant relatives served) at Lexington, but were too late to relieve the siege there and prevent Mulligan’s surrender. The 27th Ohio continued their march, passing through towns like Sedalia, Syracuse, and Milford before moving southeast to participate in the Battles of New Madrid and Island Number 10 in early 1862.

Continuing along I-70, I took a detour to the picturesque Missouri River town of Hermann, an historic settlement of German immigrants at the heart of the “Missouri Rhineland.” While my ancestor did not pass through Hermann during the war, the German architecture and cultural attractions I saw there would have certainly been familiar to his eyes, as his youth in 1850s Cleveland was spent in a similar immigrant neighborhood along the shores of Lake Erie. Most German immigrants sided with the Union in the Civil War, having fled political persecution in the German states. Many were ardent abolitionists and loyal members of Lincoln’s Republican Party.

My trip continued uneventfully across the mighty Mississippi and on through the corn and soybean fields of southern Illinois and Indiana. Before arriving in Dayton, I stopped to visit a seminary classmate in the small town of Fort Recovery, Ohio, right across the Indiana border. This was near the site of a famous 1791 battle between soldiers of the young United States and Native American warriors under Chief Little Turtle. The museum and visitor center were fascinating and included a reconstructed bastion of the 1793 log fort. Just to the east of here in Columbus, my ancestor had enlisted and trained at Camp Chase during the first wartime summer of 1861.

The Taize retreat in Dayton was edifying and I enjoyed meeting pilgrims from around the world who had come to learn and pray. I was privileged to meet Brother Roger in person, a friend of Mother Teresa (1910-1997) and a respected spiritual leader throughout the world until his tragic assassination in 2005. After leaving Dayton, I crossed the Ohio River and continued south into Kentucky. Ironically, my ancestor passed by here at the end of his wartime service on his way to muster out with his regiment at Louisville in July of 1865.

Moving through southern Kentucky and into eastern Tennessee, I was pleased to experience the sights and sounds of the Great Smoky Mountains again. I had enjoyed traveling through the Smokies as a boy, particularly the trails of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the majestic Grandfather Mountain. I could smell the sweet pines along the thickly forested interstate highway and even caught a passing glimpse of a mountain lion making his way up the rugged slope. My ancestor’s regiment had not served in this part of Tennessee, but they had fought at the Battle of Parker’s Crossroads further west and helped to garrison occupied Memphis, where I lived from 1971 to 1973 and attended 5th and 6th grade.

My route took me briefly through the mountains of western North Carolina. I was unable to travel eastward to visit Raleigh and the Outer Banks, where I spent much time as a small boy learning about Blackbeard, the Wright Brothers, and many other figures and events from local history. South of Raleigh is the Bentonville Battlefield, where my ancestor fought his final engagement on March 19-21, 1865 before marching north to participate in the Grand Review in Washington after the Confederate surrender. Bentonville is a well-restored Civil War site that I have yet to visit. I did pass nearby in 1984 during my road trip from Boston to Florida, but had no idea at the time of my ancestor’s involvement there.

After participating in the capture of Savannah, my ancestor marched north into the Carolinas with Sherman’s Union forces. His regiment participated in the third day of the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina on March 21, 1865. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

Interstate 26 took me southeast from the Smokies into South Carolina, where I passed through Columbia, the state capital. Fuller’s Brigade was there on February 17, 1865 when Sherman’s forces occupied the city and then left it in ashes. Whether or not Union invaders or the retreating Confederates ignited the blaze is still a matter of debate. What is beyond doubt is that war is cruelty, as General Sherman himself so famously said. I would like to think that my ancestor never personally burned someone’s home or business and did not make war on civilians. But even to this day, Sherman and his men are still seen by many in the South as merciless invaders.

I-26 merged into I-95 near the town of Whetsell, and I continued southwest toward the Georgia border. I drove through the vast wetlands and marshes fed by the Salkehatchie River, scene of yet another of my ancestor’s exploits. After leaving Savannah and heading into South Carolina at the beginning of February 1865, Sherman’s engineers began constructing log “corduroy roads” through what was thought to be an impassable swamp. Confederate assumptions about Yankee mobility in the area proved to be incorrect, and an attempt to block Sherman’s advance at River’s Bridge was unsuccessful. The blue columns continued inexorably north.

When I finally arrived in Savannah, I was not disappointed. The famed “Hostess City of the South” was even more lovely and enchanting in person than she had been in pictures. There was much to see there. Founded in 1733, the city was a prominent port in colonial America and was the target of a British assault during the Revolutionary War. Many 18th century original and reconstructed buildings remain from that era, particularly in the popular tourist area along River Street. I had just missed the big St. Patrick’s Day parade there, but I did enjoy strolling among the brick storefronts and cobblestones. An annual pirate festival celebrates another lively chapter from the city’s history.

After Georgia’s secession from the Union in 1861, local Confederate forces occupied Fort Pulaski, named after the Polish soldier who gave his life defending the city against the British. The fort’s strategic location on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River protected Confederate commerce and blockade runners until Union rifled cannon bombarded it into submission in April 1862. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there and recognized its bastions years later when I watched the 2010 movie The Conspirator, which was filmed there under the direction of Robert Redford.

Apparently the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump was being filmed in Savannah around the time I was there, but I was unaware of when and where that was happening. I did get to see the Ron Howard film Far and Away in the local theater, which tied in well with my ongoing family history interest. I went to the Green Mansion, where Sherman set up his headquarters after occupying the city in 1864, and the Colonial Park Cemetery, where some of the gravestones still leaned to one side after being kicked by Union cavalry horses corralled there. Others were, according to local legend, vandalized by vengeful Yankee troops.

The stately colonial squares with their wrought iron and ornate fountains were filled with white canvas tents and campfires for a time during the two months of Union occupation. Confederate prisoners had been locked up in a makeshift camp along Bay Street, and thousands of escaped slaves from across Georgia and the Carolinas poured into the city in search of Sherman’s protection. All of this I learned while I was there, but I had no idea my direct ancestor had been a part of the occupying forces. The Civil War still lingers in Savannah, both in the lucrative tourist trade and the more subtle ambivalence about the meaning of the conflict.

Period engraving of General William Tecumseh Sherman and his army entering Savannah on December 21, 1864.

After my time in Savannah was over, I decided to head home by a different route. I drove northwest on Interstate 16 to Macon and then headed up I-75 to Atlanta. I was unwittingly following in reverse the very route my ancestor had taken when he left Atlanta in November 1864 on Sherman’s famous (or infamous, to many Southerners) March to the Sea. Sherman’s columns laid waste to the local countryside in a deliberate effort to crush the Confederacy’s industrial and agricultural infrastructure. Homes, businesses and farms were burned, livestock slaughtered, and railroads demolished, leaving one Confederate observer to describe how stark rows of burnt chimneys marked the passage of the invader.

When I arrived in Atlanta, I visited the spectacular Cyclorama with its 360-degree panoramic painting of the July 22, 1864 Battle of Atlanta, completed by German artist Friedrich Wilhelm Heine in 1886. I had visited the museum as a boy and remembered it affectionately, but was unaware of the contribution my own ancestor during the battle. The 27th Ohio was part of General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, and was the first unit to be hit by the Confederate assault on “Bald Hill” on July 22. The 27th checked the enemy advance for a time, but sustained close to 50% casualties. They also lost General McPherson himself, who was killed by Confederate pickets. Michael Schneider survived the carnage, but many of his comrades did not.

Detail from the Atlanta Cyclorama painting by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine. My ancestor’s regiment, the 27th Ohio of Fuller’s Brigade, was heavily involved in the day’s fighting on July 22, 1864 and sustained close to 50% casualties.

I also visited the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park while I was in Atlanta. There was much to see and do and the city had expanded significantly in the years since I went there as a boy. I continued north on I-75 and returned to Tennessee, this time driving to the small Bedford County town of Normandy and visiting my maternal grandmother’s grave. The simple stone lying peacefully in a grassy field behind an old barn next to several other generations of her adopted family brought back sad memories of her memorial service there 18 years earlier. I stood in silent reflection and placed a rose on the stone.

This small act of homage tied in to my ancestral pilgrimage in ways I did not foresee at the time, for it was her grandfather’s Civil War campaigns I was unknowingly retracing. Several years later I became involved in reenacting the war as a Union soldier and correspondent, in part to recognize the role my ancestors had played in saving the Union and ending slavery. I believe my grandmother and her grandfather had both guided my steps on that 1992 road trip. Later that year, I returned to California and changed careers, eventually becoming a full-time history teacher for twenty years. I would like to think that I did my part in passing down the family story and honoring the deeds of my forebears.

My certificate of membership in the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. I joined in 2001 and remained an active member until 2006.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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