The Picket previously reported on a descendant of a Union officer returning a captured flag to Fort McAllister, Ga., which defended Savannah during the Civil War. A second installment provided a closer look at the Emmett Rifles, to whom the flag belonged. This concluding report describes the amazing life of that Union artillery officer (photo below).
Accompanied by a signal officer, Maj. William Z. Clayton, 29, trudged into Fort McAllister on Dec, 13, 1864, the first Union soldiers to enter the overrun fortification near Savannah.
Garrison commander Maj. George Anderson placed at least five flags -- including that of the Emmett Rifles militia unit -- into Clayton’s hands, weathered by years of farming and soldiering.
The honor of receiving tokens of surrender must have been bittersweet for Clayton.
Clayton’s first wife, Lizzie, died of tuberculosis in May 1864. Clayton may not have yet known that Edmund, the older of his three brothers to serve in the Union cavalry, had died in October 1864 at Andersonville prison camp which, like McAllister, was in Georgia.
Besides a heavy heart, Clayton carried into the earthen fortification on the Ogeechee River a musket or rifle ball in his left thigh, a wound he suffered at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, when his unit made a heroic stand.
Having two horses shot from beneath him at Shiloh, Clayton would suffer other privations and see countless men succumb to horrific wounds or disease in the following three years.
His unit, First Battery, Minnesota Light Artillery, served at Shiloh, Corinth, Vicksburg, Kennesaw, Ezra Church and Atlanta, among other campaigns, before joining Major Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea.
After the fall of Savannah, Clayton carried with him the Emmett Rifles flag during the war’s concluding battles in the Carolinas, including Bentonville, N.C, in March 1865.
Clayton and his descendants kept the silk banner in Illinois and Maine for nearly 150 years, until a great-grandson, Robert “Bob” Clayton, earlier this year made good on his ancestor’s wish to have it returned one day to Georgia.
The flag was recently conserved by the state and will be formally dedicated March 15, 2012, at Fort McAllister Historic Park, according to park manager Daniel Brown. Bob Clayton is among the invitees.
Clayton’s is the story of hundreds of thousands others who fought for the blue and gray: Young men who left family farms and joined military units, hoping to share in the grand adventure.
The artilleryman wrote Lizzie less than two weeks before he saw action at Shiloh’s famed Hornet’s Nest (right).
“I think this is going to be the final blow to Rebellion and if so we shall be discharged this summer some time,” Clayton wrote near Pittsburg Landing, Tenn.
His prediction was not to be.
He took up a plow, then weapon
William Z. Clayton packed a full life into his 94 years, winning praise as a soldier, businessman and public servant.
He was a land speculator, farmer, undertaker, grocer, lumber yard owner and liquor agent. A prominent citizen in Bangor, Maine, Clayton served on various city boards. He was a longtime member of the Grand Army of the Republic, the preeminent Union veterans organization.
Clayton lived the quintessential American life, traveling west from Maine while only 19, caught up in the pioneer spirit of the times.
After first going to Wisconsin, he settled in southern Minnesota and worked the land. Clayton Township, east of Austin, Minnesota, was renamed in his honor in 1873.
According to an 1884 document housed in the Austin (Minn.) Public Library, “The soil is a dark, rich loam,” ideal for growing grass and cereal crops.
The Civil War broke out in 1861, when Clayton was 25. The First Battery of Minnesota Light Artillery was mustered at Fort Snelling on Nov. 21, 1861, and was issued two 12-pound howitzers and four brass-rifled Parrott guns.
The unit traveled to Paducah, Kentucky, in early spring 1862. It would face its first real test April 6-7 at Shiloh.
Crushing the 'monster'
Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston chose Corinth, Miss., a major transportation center, as the staging area for an offensive after the fall of forts Henry and Donelson to Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (below) and his Army of the Tennessee.
Federal forces, including Clayton’s battery, were rushed to the region.
On March 26, 1862, the young sergeant wrote to Lizzie back home in Minnesota.
Clayton described a long boat ride and eating raw pork and hard bread.
“When we got to Pittsburg Landing we found plenty of unburied rebels that the gunboats had killed which preceeded (sic) us,” he said in one letter, part of a Minnesota Historical Society collection.
Clayton expected a fight.
“We have got 85 rounds of shot for each gun and we think we shall begin to throw some of them in a few days,” he wrote. “I shall be glad when the monster is crushed for it is a curse to our Country.”
The light artillery unit drilled in 10-acre field with five to eight other batteries. Horses glistened with sweat in the warm spring weather.
“We may be well-drilled but when it comes to the tug of battle we may not be what we think we are. I know of one that can run if Secesh gits (sic) after him and I have a Horse that can fly. But we expect to whip them and are bound to. These woods will be strewn with the dead if we do not whip them,” Clayton wrote his wife.
He likened the Southern rebellion to a “poisonous serpent.”
Already wounded, escaping death
On the morning of April 6, Johnston attacked and surprised Grant’s army at Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh) before Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell Army of Ohio could join him.
Some Federals made determined stands and by afternoon, they had established a battle line at the sunken road, known as the “Hornet’s Nest,” according to the National Park Service. Repeated Rebel attacks failed to carry the Hornet’s Nest, but massed artillery helped to turn the tide as Confederates surrounded the Union troops and captured, killed or wounded most.
Clayton later wrote at least two letters about the Hornet’s Nest to his parents in Maine.
In the first, he told them he was hobbling around on clutches as he convalesced.
“Mother you need not give yourself any uneasyness (sic) about me for the Ladies of this place are doing everything for our comfort that a mother do,” the soldier wrote from a St. Louis hospital. “The ball in my leg does not trouble me much. If it ever troubles me I will have it cut out.”
His correspondence in June 1862 gave a gritty and riveting account of the Shiloh battle.
Before the fighting, Clayton endured two weeks of the “Tennessee Quick Step,” the soldiers’ moniker for dysentery and diarrhea.
The sergeant was trying to fill his canteen at a spring on the morning of April 6 when the unit was told to get the battery ready for action.
They received heavy Rebel fire. A captain had his horse shot from under him and a driver was killed instantly by a ball through the head. Although the battery was “belching fourth their messingers (sic) of death,” the unit had to retreat because of a lack of infantry support, Clayton wrote.
Confederates attacked with fixed bayonets.
“We should have lost everything there and all been taken prisoners in a moment more.”
Clayton spied a cavalry horse with an empty saddle and rode it until the steed was fatally wounded by a shot to the shoulder.
The battery regrouped on a dirt road near Duncan Field and received support from Iowa troops. It poured canister and double canister into attacking waves of Confederates for six hours at the Hornet’s Nest (monument, above).
“We gave them shot and shell as fast as they could receive it.”
But the Confederates killed horses and sharpshooters began to pick off cannoneers.
Clayton first suffered a flesh wound in one of his lower legs late in the afternoon. Then came the more serious injury.
“I saw one of my best boys fall and in came a shot and killed my horse and I jumped from him and just as I raised to my feet I received my wound,” he wrote. The round “paralised” his left leg and he sat against a tree, revolver drawn because he expected to be bayoneted. Clayton witnessed others being shot.
“I looked towards the guns and as I peaked out from the tree a ball struck the tree right in the rainge (sic) of my face but it struck the tree just far enough to glance the ball and carry it by my face knocking the bark into my face. My gunner was with me and jerked me back.”
The Minnesotans, unlike thousands of others in blue, avoided capture at Shiloh. A general wrote that Clayton should be promoted for his service that day.
Buell’s army arrived that night. Johnston had been mortally wounded earlier and his second in command, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, took over, plotting the next day’s action.
“Beauregard ordered a counterattack, which stopped the Union advance but did not break its battle line,” according to the National Park Service battle summary. “At this point, Beauregard realized that he could not win and, having suffered too many casualties, he retired from the field and headed back to Corinth.”
The Union won a costly victory.
“He carried the ball in his leg the rest of his life,” Bob Clayton, who lives in Isleboro, Maine, said of his great-grandfather.
Amazing return of Bible
Lizzie gave William a Bible before Shiloh.
The soldier wrote of losing gear, including the Bible, when Confederates overran his battery’s camp early in the fighting.
A Confederate officer wrote his name in the Bible, according to Bob Clayton.
A Union soldier apparently got possession of the book in Atlanta. He mailed it to the elder Clayton in Maine.
William Z. Clayton was promoted lieutenant after Shiloh and replaced Capt. Emil Munch -- seriously wounded at the Hornet’s Nest -- as battery commander. He later became a captain and brevet major.
The Minnesota battery saw action in most of the major western campaigns that followed Shiloh. A plaque (left) at Vicksburg lists Clayton’s contributions and he wrote reports after fighting at Kennesaw Mountain and Ezra Church during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. By then, the First Battery had new 3-inch rifle Rodman guns.
Clayton was promoted to chief of artillery for the Fourth Division, 17th Army Corps, and rode from Atlanta in early autumn 1864 toward his date with destiny at Fort McAllister.
Fort stood up to ironclads, not infantry
Fort McAllister stood as a stubborn sentinel on the Ogeechee River. As long as it held, Sherman would have a tough time resupplying his army as he besieged Savannah in December 1864. McAllister also provided access to vital bridges and railroads.
Among the scant defenders by this time were the Emmett Rifles, Company F, 22nd Battalion, Georgia Heavy Artillery, formed before the war in Savannah.
The Rifles normally comprised between 50 and 95 members. Although they first believed they would serve in the infantry, the company served as artillerymen.
“A large part of the fort is still there,” said Roger S. Durham, author of “Guardian of Savannah,” a book about McAllister.
Unlike the brick and supposedly impregnable Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River, McAllister had a unique design of earthworks that thwarted the Union navy during seven assaults. But it was designed to fight ships, not large numbers of troops.
Its low, shell-resistant walls and earth and sand construction made it easier to repair after naval assaults.
But malaria, isolation and boredom were tough on the garrison, which could take cover in a central bombproof.
“It was not a pleasure cruise,” according to Durham.
During 1862 and 1863, Fort McAllister repelled seven Union naval attacks by elements of the blockading forces offshore and in nearby Ossabaw Sound, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
The Emmett Rifles flag includes two dates: Feb. 1, 1863, when the ironclad USS Montauk led an attack, and March 3, 1863, when the Confederates rebuffed four ironclads whose weapons damaged the fort during an eight-hour bombardment.
McAllister commander Maj. John B. Gallie died during the Montauk attack. The fort’s beloved pet mascot, Tom Cat, died during the March 3 combat.
“The death of the cat was deeply regretted by the men, and news of the fatality was communicated to General Beauregard in the official report of the action,” according to a historic marker at the site.
Sherman’s March to the Sea spelled doom for Fort McAllister and, soon after, Savannah.
On Dec. 13, 1864, more than 3,000 forces in blue overwhelmed the 230 defenders at Fort McAllister. Only 25 members of the Emmett Rifles were on duty. The fight was over in 15 minutes.
After horrors of war, a long life
The war, of course, was not quite over when Sherman delivered Savannah to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present.
The army chased and battled Confederate units in the Carolinas over the next three months.
Clayton received the honor of leading a 100-gun salute when the Union flag was unfurled over the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. He was chosen by Sherman in “recognition of his gallant and distinguished services.”
The Minnesota artillery unit fought its last major battle at Bentonville and participated in the army’s Grand Review in Washington after the war ended.
Clayton and his comrades were mustered out July 1, 1865, back at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis.
The veteran married Laurette Knowles and had six children, including son Charles, who operated the family’s 2,000 acres and cattle at Clayton Township.
Clayton worked the summers in Minnesota and winters in Bangor until his later years, when he lived full time in Maine. He died there in 1929.
In January 1900, a fellow member of the Grand Army of the Republic wrote a letter in support of Clayton’s candidacy to lead the state chapter (department).
“A gallant and distinguished soldier of the Union Army, an honorable and estimable citizen of the State of Maine, a fraternal, charitable and loyal comrade of the Grand Army of the Republic, we present him as a candidate on the platform of his public record and his private worth and ask our comrades to join with us in giving effect to the recommendation of his old commander, ‘he ought to be promoted.’”
Clayton won his last promotion.
Photos of First Minnesota Battery flag and of veterans next to artillery piece courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society