27 June 2012

Sergeant Jacob Mills, Jr.: A Warrior For His Union and Lord Part I

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Sergeant Jacob Mills, Jr.:
A Warrior For His Union and Lord
Part I

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
June 27, 2012

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Central Montana.

Jacob Mills, Jr. was one of a kind. He lost an arm fighting in the Civil War, gained success as a businessman in Vermont, and achieved fame as a circuit-riding minister on the Montana frontier. Born in Topsham, Vermont on November 18, 1842, Mills thrived in the harsh rural farm setting with the bitter cold of New England winters forming the rugged physique and strong character of a boy who was to become one of Methodism’s bright stars in the Rocky Mountain west.

At the age of nineteen Jacob Mills, Jr. enlisted as a Private on December 14, 1861. He was assigned to Company D, Vermont 8th Infantry Regiment when it was organized in February 1862 under Colonel Stephen Thomas. The 8th Vermont went in to mid-winter quarters at Camp Holbrook at Brattleboro, Vermont until the 4th of March. The winter was unusually severe; the snow was deep, mercury frequently went below zero, and the men were housed in cheap sectional houses, resulting in much sickness and discomfort.

On the March 4, 1862 the regiment marched to New York, and five days later boarded ships Wallace and James Hovey, with sealed orders, which, on being opened at sea, directed the troops to report to Brigadier General John W. Phelps at Ship Island, in the Gulf of Mexico. Ship Island was reached on the 5th of April after a rough passage. Here the 8th Vermont remained, drilling and getting in condition for service, until Captain David Farragut had taken Forts Jackson and St. Philip, guarding New Orleans, and had captured the city at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The regiment again went aboard the James Hovey and sailed for New Orleans, reaching there May 12, and going into quarters in the Mechanics' Institute building. The people of the city were in a state of turmoil at the Union occupation, but the stern hand of General Benjamin F. Butler had a very calming effect. During this period the 8th Vermont did much police and provost duty.

On the last day of May 1862, the regiment was sent to Algiers, opposite New Orleans, and Colonel Thomas was placed in command of the district of La Fourche. Pickets were thrown out as far as La Fourche Crossing, and by means of a volunteer force of railroad men from the regiment, the Opelousas railroad was opened to that point. Engaged in guarding this railroad, Company H was stationed at Bayou Des Allemands, and suffered the first regimental casualties of the war when on the 22d of June a large party of Confederates ambushed a Union detachment. Soon more regimental casualties came from disease.

On the 4th of September, another detachment of sixty men guarding a railroad train, was ambushed at Boutte Station by a Confederate force 1,500 strong, and badly cut to pieces, losing fifteen killed and twenty wounded, although the train escaped. The Confederate force that attacked this train now turned to Bayou Des Allemands station, which was held by small detachment, and demanded its surrender. In the face of overwhelming odds, the three officers and 137 men surrendered.

Among those surrendering were seven Germans who had enlisted from New Orleans, and, being recognized by the Confederates were tried by a hasty Court Martial, condemned to death, and shot on the pretext that they were deserters from the rebel army, which was entirely untrue, and outright murder.

On October 24, 1862 BGen Godfrey Weitzel began an expedition for the capture of the whole La Fourche district by landing at Donaldsonville and going down the La Fourche. The 8th Vermont was assigned to Weitzel’s Brigade, and began on the 26th of October to open the Opelousas railroad to Brashear City. This was accomplished by December 8th having put in order 80 miles of road, built two bridges
covering 1,150 feet, rebuilt four miles of track, captured seven cannon, and opened complete railroad and telegraph communication between Algiers and Berwick Bay.

The 8th Vermont remained in camp at Brashear City until the 8th of January, 1863, when it moved to Camp Stevens at Thibodeaux, but returned in two days to engage in the expedition against the Confederate gunboat John L. Cotton, which was located in the Bayou Teche. The Cotton was a strong boat with a heavy armament and partially ironclad.

The force left Brashear City under command of BGen Weitzel on January 13th, and skirmished somewhat that evening. The next day sixty men from the 8th Vermont were sent under command of Captain Dutton to pick off the gunners of the Cotton, and the regiment crossed to the east side of the Bayou to drive out a force of sharp shooters from rifle pits that were doing serious damage to Union gunboats engaging the Cotton. The sixty men under Dutton were proceeding up the Bayou on a gunboat when they were hailed by another Union gunboat and begged to send a messenger to Colonel Thomas to hurry and take the rifle pits. One of the Union boats, the Calhoun, was aground, the gunners driven from their guns, her commander, Commodore Buchanan killed, and the boat in imminent danger of capture. The messenger was sent with all speed and the regiment rushed forward at double quick, Captain McFarland with Company A as skirmishers being thrown out on the right flank and Captain Dutton, with his picked sixty men being in advance on the left, but such was the swiftness of the charge that neither party was more than a moment in advance of the regiment, which swept into and over the rifle pits, killing seven of the enemy, wounding twenty-seven and capturing fifty-seven prisoners and more than two hundred stand of arms, and the Calhoun was saved.

Night came on and the position of the regiment was in jeopardy, as it stood alone the left bank of the stream. In this dilemma, Colonel Thomas ordered built a line of campfires nearly two miles in length on the right extension of our line, leading the enemy to believe we had been strongly re-enforced. The ploy worked and at about eleven o'clock the Confederates fired the Cotton and she drifted down the Teche, a pillar of flames, and sank. The expedition returned to Brashear City, the regiment not having met any loss, but having performed without question the most signal service done by any organization in the expedition.

On the 12th of April, the 19th  Corps under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks moved against the enemy at Bisland on Bayou Teche. The 8th Vermont led the column and had a sharp engagement on the evening of that day, and on the 13th fighting resumed and raged all day. Early on the 14th, the troops moved on the enemy's works only to find that they had hastily retreated in the night. The losses in this engagement were slight, being one man killed and ten wounded. The enemy retreated rapidly with our force following and with an occasional skirmish. The 8th Vermont halted on the 20th for two weeks rest at Opelousas. On May 5th the march resumed, and Alexandria was reached on the 7th.

On May 11th, the 8th Vermont moved with Weitzel's Brigade to attack a force reported to be thirty-five miles beyond Alexandria, but the enemy retreated so rapidly that Union troops could not overtake him, and the Brigade returned to Alexandria. On the 17th, the regiment marched, reaching Sims port on the 24th, where it embarked on steamers, passing through the Atchafalaya and Red Rivers, landing at Bayou Sara May 25, and immediately moved for the next major objective, Port Hudson.

On May 27th the grand assault on Port Hudson began. On this day Colonel Thomas commanded Weitzel's Brigade, of which the 8th Vermont was a part. In the original formation this Brigade held the third line of battle, but so fierce was the resistance and so great the obstacles in the thick forest, that before the outer works could be carried the two front lines were thrown into confusion.  Colonel Thomas was ordered to charge with his Brigade, and this was done with a rush, the enemy driven inside his main fortifications. The Brigade had advanced within seventy-five yards, when, being badly enfiladed, they were obliged to fall back to the cover of a ravine, where they continued to hold the front line, having done most distinguished service. The regiment lost in this battle twelve killed and seventy-six wounded, including among the latter Colonel Thomas and two other officers.

Then followed life in trenches with its horrors. On the night of June 10th there was a fruitless reconnaissance in which there were some casualties to the 8th Vermont. On the 14th came the second great assault on Port Hudson, which resulted disastrously. The 8th Vermont led the assaulting column on this occasion, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Dillingham, Colonel Thomas still suffering from his wounds and very sick. By heroic effort the regiment reached the enemy's breastworks, but the ground over which it passed was strewn with its dead and wounded, and it was obliged to fall back with the loss in this fruitless affair of 21 killed and 75 wounded, of whom seven afterwards died of their wounds. Two days later, MGen Banks called for a volunteer storming party of one thousand men to lead another assault as a forlorn hope, but there was little enthusiasm and the number was never obtained, though several members of the 8th Vermont volunteered.

During this the desperate assault on Port Hudson, Private Jacob Mills, a born leader, earned promotion to Sergeant July 1, 1863. On the 9th of July, Port Hudson finally surrendered, and the 8th Vermont was at once ordered to Donaldsonville, reaching there the next day, where there was a sharp fight. Immediately afterward the regiment marched to Thibodeaux, and went into camp for the first time since April 9 after three months of hard combat.

On September 1st, the 8th Vermont moved to Algiers and went by sea on the Sabine Pass Expedition. This
Union Expedition was an Army-Navy attempt to prevent establishment of a Confederate supply line from Mexico to Texas.  On September 8th the day of the battle, United States Navy Captain Frederick Crocker entered the Sabine River with four gunboats, accompanied by eighteen troop transports carrying 5,000 infantrymen including the 8th Vermont. Confederate Lieut. Richard Dowling's First Texas Heavy Artillery, a detachment of just 46 men, had previously placed stakes in the river to act as markers for cannon fire. As the Union convoy steamed among the stakes, the Confederates opened fire with deadly accuracy and wrought havoc on the boats. The Union Army was forced to withdraw down the river after having lost two gunboats and 200 sailors captured. The Confederates are believed not to have suffered a single casualty in what has been credited as the most one-sided Confederate victory during the entire war. After this disaster, the Union troops including the 8th Vermont returned to Algiers Sept. 11th.

On January 5, 1864, 321 men of the 8th Vermont, including Sergeant Mills, re-enlisted for three years more of service. Camp was moved to Franklin on January 6, and remained there two months. A furlough of thirty days having been granted those who re-enlisted, by order of the War Department, on the 7th of April, the regiment embarked the steamer Constitution for New York, and reached Montpelier, Vermont on the 16th. The recruits and the portion of the regiment that did not re-enlist remained in camp at Algiers under command of Major Barstow, but afterward moved to Thibodeaux where they had active service. On the 6th of June, Major Barstow sailed for New York with the non-veteran portion of the regiment, and they were mustered out of service at Brattleboro, June 22, 1864.

On June 3rd the veterans of the regiment including Sergeant Mills, returning from their furlough, reached New Orleans and were placed in camp at Morganzia Bend. From there the regiment went on several scouts, but without important results. With Louisiana and the Mississippi River secure, on July 2d the 8th Vermont went by transports to Algiers, and on the 5th embarked on the steamer St. Mary for Fort Monroe near Hampton, Virginia. From there it was ordered with all speed to Washington, D. C. to resist MGen Jubal Early's threat to the capital city. Joining the Army of the Shenandoah, during July and August the 8th Vermont made a series of marches and maneuvers, oftentimes forced and severe.
On August 10, 1864 MGen Philip Sheridan took command of the Army of the Shenandoah. Three weeks later Jacob Mills was promoted to First Sergeant of Company D on September 1st.  

Shortly after, on September 19, the Battle of Winchester or Opequon was fought. The 8th Vermont reached this field at the critical moment when BGen Cuvier Grover's Second Division was being driven back after its successful advance. The first duty of the 8th Vermont was to help stem the tide and check the enemy, and when this was successfully done, the 8th Vermont and 12th Connecticut were ordered to advance and take position immediately in front and quite near the enemy's center, which was on a wooded crest and very strongly defended both by nature and armament. This was done successfully and the position held with considerable loss until afternoon, when MGen Sheridan advanced the Eighth Corps on the right and the Sixth Corps on the left. Colonel Thomas, seeing the movements but receiving no orders, took the responsibility, and with his two regiments, charged the enemy's center and strong position, carrying everything before him, throwing the enemy into confusion and silencing a battery posted in rear of his line. This was a gallant and successful charge. A monument now marks the spot and tells the story. When Sheridan's dispatch was published saying that Early had been sent "whirling up the valley," the 8th Vermont and 12th Connecticut felt that they had borne no small part in producing the result. The losses of the regiment were seven killed and thirty wounded including five officers and 1st Sergeant Mills.

It was on that day, September 19 1864, in the Battle of Winchester that 1st Sgt Jacob Mills learned the hard way about tragedy that can come into life when man fights man as well as nature too. He was shot in the arm and the bone of his upper left arm was shattered close to the shoulder. Surgery was crude in those days, and his arm was completely amputated, being removed from the socket, leaving only enough flesh to form a pad over the shoulder.

While undergoing surgery Jacob Mills had an experience that made a deep impression on his mind and eventually changed his life. In later years he often recounted it. He said that during the surgery he died and was on his way to heaven when he heard a voice saying, “Send him back; he has work to do.” For Mills, this was a profound experience. He insisted that he was actually dead, that his soul had left his body and was on its way to the other world. Of four similar cases in the hospital 1st Sgt. Mills was the only one to survive – a fact the doctors ascribed to his strong constitution developed from years of outdoor living on a farm.

To be continued next week.    
1 Jacob Mills, later in life.
2 Louisiana and Port Hudson area map (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
3 Map of Fortress Hudson Fortifications and Union Assault on May 27, 1863 (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
4 General Sheridan’s Cavalry Charge at the Battle of Winchester (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

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