By Ronald S. Coddington, featuring artifacts from the Paul Denver Collection
Eighty infantrymen blackened with gunsmoke and dirt, soaked in sweat and spattered with blood huddled at Shiloh on Sunday afternoon, April 6, 1862. They had been in action since daybreak. After 10 hours of unrelenting battle, this band of brothers, smaller in number than a regulation company, were all that remained of the 11th Illinois Infantry.
Though pushed to the limits of human endurance, they gripped their fouled muskets and awaited the next command. Their fate, and that of the national army, remained an open question.
One of the stalwarts still standing, Ira Beddo, remained in the ranks despite having his right hand mangled and rendered useless by a gunshot. A quiet and retiring young man, Beddo had recently celebrated his twenty-third birthday.
Born in the Finger Lakes region of New York in 1839, he and his family joined the westward movement of Americans seeking land and opportunity in the early 1840s. The Beddos found it in the Michigan village of Southfield, a short trip by horse and wagon to Detroit. Beddo’s father, John, a Shropshire lad who had journeyed from England to America during his youth, prospered as a farmer. Beddo’s mother, Abigail, died in 1849. His father remarried the following year and the family relocated across the state to Van Buren County.
At some point, Beddo set out to find his own way in life, continuing the westward trek initiated by his parents. By 1861, he resided in the Illinois county of Ogle.
Meanwhile, a civil war engulfed the nation. A flood of citizens from across Illinois volunteered in regiments organized for three-month enlistments. One of them, the 11th Infantry, formed in Springfield, the state capital. Following the expiration of its term, and with the war’s end nowhere in sight, about a third of the men re-upped for three more years. New volunteers, including Beddo, enlisted.
Beddo joined the ranks of Company D, a unique militia outfit. Garrett Voorhees Nevius, a dashing young man and photographer in Rockford, a short trip from Beddo’s home in Ogle County, had organized the unit between December 1860 and January 1861. Nevius had campaigned for Lincoln as a leader of his local Wide Awakes chapter and befriended the charismatic Elmer E. Ellsworth. Inspired by Ellsworth’s penchant for the Zouave style and passion for the pomp and circumstance of local militias, Nevius formed his own organization—the Rockford Zouaves. After the war started, it became Company D.
Thus began Beddo’s journey in defense of the Union and the Constitution, and later the freedom of enslaved people. Over the next four years, the regiment’s performance on western campaigns prompted one correspondent to label it the “Famous Eleventh.” William F. Fox, author of the oft-referenced treatise Regimental Losses in the Civil War, listed it as one of the army’s “Three Hundred Fighting Regiments” in grim recognition of its casualties.
The lion’s share of credit for the regiment’s reputation as hard fighting—and hard dying—volunteers belongs to Beddo and his comrades. These soldiers had the good fortune to be led by highly capable senior officers who inspired them with firmness of purpose and quality of character. Three of these officers played important formative roles: William Harvey Lamb Wallace, an accomplished attorney and Mexican War veteran; Thomas Edwin Greenfield Ransom, a graduate of Norwich University and son of a regular army colonel killed during the Mexican War; and the aforementioned Nevius. Patriots all, they inspired the troops with grit and determination, and a desire to put down the rebellion. None lived to see the war’s outcome.
Cutting its way out at Donelson
The Fort Donelson campaign in February 1862 proved the first major test of the regiment’s mettle. The victory by U.S. forces against the Confederate garrison left in its wake a two-mile swath of dead men and debris reminiscent of the hellish landscapes in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. Stunned survivors recounted twisted, ghastly bodies in unimaginable positions, some in piles, blasted into unrecognizable masses and stripped of their humanity. In this carnage lay the remains of a significant portion of boys from the 11th. They lost their lives in defending their position against repeated Confederate attacks. The fourth and final assault involved enemy cavalry troopers who slipped around the regiment’s rear. The 11th extricated itself by cutting its way out of what could have been a final stand.
When number crunchers tallied the casualty list of the 11th, they found 70 had been killed outright, 181 wounded and 88 missing—339 of about 500 engaged, a rate of 68 percent.
Beddo and about 160 of his comrades emerged physically unscathed. Treating emotional trauma was a personal matter. Their battlefield performance established them as a dependable regiment that could be counted on in a tough spot. It also resulted in a modicum of glory that reflected on Wallace, who now commanded the brigade to which the 11th belonged. He received a brigadier’s star and advanced to division command. The light also shone on Wallace’s superior officer, John A. McClernand. A powerful Democratic Party leader back home in Illinois and an ally of President Abraham Lincoln, he had received his commission as a brigadier general due to political acumen. McClernand added a second star to his shoulder straps.
Less than two months later, along the bluffs and banks of the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing, the opposing armies clashed in the fields and woods surrounding Shiloh Church.
Shiloh: Sabbath day in hell
At Shiloh, the experience of the 11th, now about 239 strong, echoed that of other regiments in blue. Rifle shots disrupting early morning camp routines. Hastily forming battle lines to the beat of drums and barking of officers. Wagons rolling to the rear as fast as mules could move. Cannon shots passing overhead, some splintering trees and others tearing into tents and scurrying men and animals.
In the midst of the chaos, 200 Illinoisans, including Beddo, clutched their muskets and raced in double-quick time towards the source of the fire. The balance of the regiment was on detached duties elsewhere.
Several hard-marching minutes and no more than a half-mile later, they glimpsed the enemy. Confederates, neatly arranged five regiments deep with flags unfurled, advanced steadily about 300 yards from their position.
Ransom, commanding the 11th that day, reacted immediately. His chilling order passed down the line: “The whites of their eyes, boys, and then give it to them.” Beddo and the rest of the rank and file prepped their muskets. When the moment to execute Ransom’s command arrived, they did not hesitate. Index fingers resting on cool metal triggers pulled back and poured a volley of searing lead into the pristine rebel ranks. The shock of bullets broke the rebel ranks and sent them skedaddling.
Confederate officers reacted without missing a beat. They rallied the disordered men, reestablished the line, and responded with a vengeance. A torrent of bullets whizzed and zipped into the ranks of the 11th, thudding into bodies with fearful accuracy. One hit Ransom in the head, tearing into flesh and leaving an oozing river of blood streaming down his face. He remained on his horse and shouted words of encouragement. Bullets ripped into other company officers, leaving captains and lieutenants sprawled on the ground. Enlisted men and noncommissioned officers were not spared the onslaught.
This fight was going to be bigger than Donelson—much bigger.
Beddo, still standing, loaded and fired as quickly as his hands could move. He and his comrades performed these actions by rote. But their brains must have registered the reality that they were outnumbered. Behind them, no reinforcements could be seen. Isolated and increasingly vulnerable to annihilation, the Illinoisans gradually fell back, holding the enemy at bay with a lively fire and hoping against hope to stave off destruction.
Then, a small miracle occurred. Several blue regiments arrived on the scene and filed into position as the hail of shot and shell continued. The battle lines hardened, allowing a brief pause for the remnants of the 11th to catch its collective breath.
By this time, about 2 p.m., more than half the regiment had been taken out by rebel fire. A gunshot had struck Beddo in a place no infantrymen can spare—his right hand. He refused to seek treatment. Ransom had left the field, incoherent from loss of blood, his horse having been shot out from beneath him. Ransom’s trusted major, Garrett Nevius, had withdrawn after he suffered a serious wound in his hand. Command of the regiment fell to the senior line officer, Capt. Lloyd D. Waddell of Company E.
Waddell had no time to take stock of the situation before him. He and the remaining 80 soldiers were in the fight for their lives, and for the survival of the army.
In this moment appeared Brig. Gen. McClernand. Noting the small number of men before him, he asked if this was everyone in the regiment. Their answer confirmed what his eyes beheld. If the general’s face displayed any emotion, it escaped recorded history. But his reply was preserved. “Well, my men,” McClernand said, “We must win this day, or all will be lost. Will you try it again?”
They told him they would, and they did.
Ten minutes later, Capt. Waddell recalled, the 11th rejoined the fray. They rallied around the regimental colors held aloft by an unexpected source—the wounded Beddo. He had taken the flag so that the uninjured bearer could bring his musket into action. Beddo remained steadfast while his comrades blasted away at the enemy. After a time, Beddo relayed the colors to another man. He then picked up a musket and, placing it between his knees, loaded and fired as best he could with his one good hand.
Beddo’s actions prompted his first lieutenant, Henry Hobart Dean, to proclaim him one of the bravest soldiers in the 11th.
The fighting raged about two more hours in this sector of the battlefield. It finally concluded after McClernand’s ragtag line repulsed a sixth and final advance by the enemy.
It can be fairly stated that the men of the 11th did their part to hold the line against a determined enemy. Their actions contributed to a shift in momentum that enabled Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s bloodied army to take the offense the next morning and whip the rebels.
Grant held the regiment in reserve on April 7, allowing them to begin the process of healing and rebuilding. Altogether, 103 men and officers suffered death, wounds, or went missing—a loss of 43 percent.
In his after-action report filed a week later, a proud and sufficiently recovered Ransom heaped praise on his officers for their gallantry, calling out many by name. He commended the rank and file as a whole: “Of the noble bearing of the men of my command during the several engagements they were in on the 6th instant I need not speak. Their numbers were few, they fought long and well, and suffered severely; they added yet brighter laurels to those they so dearly won at Donelson.”
Long road home
The 11th continued its fighting ways through the Vicksburg Campaign and other operations in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. The senior officers who molded the men into a formidable fighting force paid for it with their lives.
Brig. Gen. Wallace suffered a mortal head wound while on reconnaissance in a deadly sector of Shiloh dubbed “Hell’s Hollow” by those who had survived it. He died on April 10 in the arms of his wife, Martha Ann, who had arrived at Pittsburg Landing just before the Confederate attack. A large funeral procession accompanied the 40-year-old general’s body, enclosed in a casket covered with his bullet-ridden flag, to its final resting place in an Ottawa, Ill., cemetery.
Nevius became the regiment’s colonel and died in action on May 22, 1863, during the assault on the defenses of Vicksburg. The remains of the 26-year-old were sent to New York, his home state, for burial.
Ransom advanced to brigadier and commanded on the division and corps level. His health compromised by wounds in four separate battles and the rigors of active campaigning, he succumbed to dysentery in October 1864 at age 29. The Chicago Tribune added its voice to mourners when it observed, “Measured by what he has achieved, by the reputation he leaves behind, the young General leaves condensed into a few months’ span what would adorn a matured lifetime.”
The leadership lessons imparted by these officers and others lived on through Beddo. The gunshot he suffered smashed the knuckle joints of his right hand, permanently limiting the mobility of his fingers. This crippling injury did not prevent him from continuing in the service. Less than a month after Shiloh, on May 1, 1862, Beddo received his sergeant’s stripes. In 1863, he joined the regiment’s cadre of officers as second lieutenant. Appreciative comrades in Company D presented him with a sword engraved with his name, rank, and the date of his promotion: July 10, 1863. Beddo later became company captain. He served a stint as his division’s Chief of Ordnance during the waning weeks of the war.
Beddo mustered out with the survivors of the regiment in July 1865 at Baton Rouge, La., and received his final pay and discharge at Springfield. He made his home in Rockford, the birthplace of Company D. Here, he reunited with his newlywed wife, Carrie. The couple had met in Michigan before the war, and married in August 1864 while Beddo was on leave from the regiment. Their first child, a daughter, arrived in 1867 and a son seven years later. The family relocated to Austin, a suburb of Chicago, about this time. Beddo, who had worked as a carpenter and joiner, may have moved here for job opportunities in the expanding industrial sector.
Tragedy visited the Beddos following the birth of a third child, Beth, in March 1879. Carrie died in April and infant Beth in June, leaving 40-year-old Beddo a widower with two young children. Less than a year later, in May 1880, he married Mary M. Leighty and started a new family that grew to include two daughters. He supported them as a superintendent at Western Electric, a rapidly growing company that would eventually become AT&T.
Respected by his workers, Beddo preferred living quietly at home, rarely mixing with neighbors in his community. Said to be an avid reader, one source noted he stayed current on the issues of the day, and voted the Republican ticket.
One summer afternoon in 1886, as Beddo operated a circular saw at his workplace, a splinter of board detached and stuck into his stomach. Alarmed co-workers rushed him home. Efforts to treat him were in vain, for the injury proved mortal. Beddo was 47. Some suggested his crippled hand contributed to the accident that claimed his life.
Special thanks to Paul Denver for sharing his collection and research.
References: Huffstodt, Hard Dying Men; Ira Beddo military service record and pension files, National Archives; Fox, Regimental Losses in the Civil War, 1861-1865; Official Records of the War of the Rebellion; Eddy, Patriotism of Illinois: A Record of the Civil and Military History of the State in the War for the Union, Vol. I; The Inter Ocean, Chicago, Ill., Aug. 1, 1886; Chicago Tribune, Oct. 31, 1864, July 31, 1865; Wilson, Biographical Sketches of Illinois Officers Engaged in the War Against the Rebellion of 1861; The Ottawa Free Trader, Ottawa, Ill., June 27, 1863; Church and Waldo, Past and Present of the City of Rockford and Winnebago County, Illinois; Miller, American Zouaves, 1859-1959; Griffing, Will, “1861: Garret Voorhees Nevius to Frank F. Peats,” Spared & Shared 10, sparedshared10.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/1861-garrett-voorhees-nevius-to-frank-f-peats
Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.
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