Of The Old First Nebraska Tells of Perils He Endured
in the '60s
Behm, Who Enlisted as Drummer Boy, Thirteen Years of
Age, Marched in Winter Hundreds of Miles Clad
a Suit of Summer Underwear
a Detachment Was Captured
cheeks and shoes well polished, hair neatly parted,
and clothed in his best Sunday suit, a dimutive little
boy of 13 years presented himself to the recruiting
officer of the United States Army stationed at the government
building in Omaha just forty years ago last April, and
asked to be enlisted in the Union's cause.
what can you do, my little son?", asked the officer
with an amused smile as he gazed down benignantly on
can shoot, sir, and I can play the drum, too,"
came the fearless response.
officer was impressed, and the next day a new name was
added to the roster of the First Nebraska Regiment.
that of Frederick Behm, who now resides at 2459 South
Fifteenth Street, Omaha, and signs himself John F. Behm
-- the youngest member of Uncle Sam's Army for several
years Mrs. Behm, after prolonged protest and with deep
misgivings, finally gave her consent to the enlistment
of her older son.
and pleasure, pathos and humor, suffering and enjoyment
were interwoven in Mr. Behm's homely tale of youthful
-- experience such as sickened many an older but fearful
heart and made deserters of many but homesick men. The
regiment was mustered into government service in the
latter part of June 1861, and a month later started
down the Missouri on a steamer, to do actual service.
the little boy knew of his calling he learned from an
occasional drummer on the streets of Omaha. The
first night out Major McCord ordered him to ascent to
the hurricane deck and beat taps, the signal that
it was time to turn in. Although he did not know the
difference between taps and the long roll, Freddie attempted
to obey orders but unfortunately played the wrong one.
There was a rush to arms, and a scramble for the
ladders leading to the upper deck. In the melee
First Sergeant Cook was stabbed in the leg with a bayonet,
and there was, with all a merry mix-up. The commanding
officer lost his temper and threatened to have the boy
court marshaled, but when he saw how truly penitent
the offender was he changed his mind. From that
time forward the drummer boy was know by buy one title,
and the was "Taps". When he was mustered
out there were not a dozen in the regiment who knew
him by any other tittle but "Taps" youth and
lack of avoirdupois did not prevent him from nursing
an ambition to be one of the soldier boys in reality,
so when the regiment reached Fort Donaldson the drum
was left in quarters and a carbine substituted, which
he carried until the end of his service. But there
were occasions when he yielded to boyish impulses and
washed away a portion of his woes by indulging
in a heart easing cry. One of these was the night
after the first day a fight at Shiloh. The situation
is best portrayed by Mr. Behm's own words:
the Battle of Shiloh, "From Crump's Landing twenty
miles away, the Nebraska Troops were rushed to the scene
We got there after dark the night of the first
day. The rain had been falling in torrents, and
we had marched in mud in many places up to our knees.
We were drenched to the bone, and there wasn't
a tent to be had, and not a fire to gather about. In
some manner I got lost from the regiment. I wandered
about for over an hour, and finally gladdened by sight
of a big Fremont tent. I hurried to it, raised
a flap and crawled in. On striking a match I was
petrified to find thirty dead bodies piled around me.
Maybe I didn't scramble out o' there.
remember hurrying away, and finally stopping under a
big oak tree. There I was lost from all my friends.
I had just left a tent filled with dead bodies;
on every side were wounded men, groaning and yelling,
cursing and praying and calling
for help, with no one to help them. Two gunboats,
the Tyler and Lexington in the river a mile away, were
throwing shells into the rebel camp every half hour.
A few hundred yards ahead of me I could see the
rebs gathered around their campfires, drinking gallons
of the liquor they had captured during the day, making
speeches and singing songs. The rain was still
beating down with cold, penetrating monotony, and the
wind was sobbing mournfully through the trees as they
threw their shaggy limbs fitfully and weirdly toward
the sky, just like ghostly arms calling one to perdition;
with all this I couldn't contain my feelings any longer,
so I just threw myself on the grass and cried and called
for mother and brother and all the dear ones I had left
2 o'clock in the morning I started my search again.
This time I ran across a sutler's tent, being
able to tell it by its
shape. When I crawled inside I found its owner
had hurriedly departed leaving all his possessions behind..
cheese, and crackers and ginger snaps, and cigars and
pocket knives, and it seemed to me like a little bit
The way I did fall onto those ginger snaps was
a caution. After eating all I could possibly hold,
and that was
no very small amount, for I had practically nothing
since breakfast the morning before, I skirmished around
some ginger ale to wash it all down. Then I took
a nap. Awakening shortly after daylight, I filled
my pockets with all they would hold, and then taking
three boxes of cigars in my arms I started out to find
the First Nebraska boys. Fortunately they
were not far away.
comes Taps," they shouted when they saw me, for
they had given me up as lost. They seemed to be
just as pleased to see me as I was to see them and I
gave each one something, a cigar, a ginger snap; or
a knife, to show them how I appreciated their interest.
Travel Half Clad
there was one other experience I had that was worse
than that," continued Mr. Behm, as his mind wandered
over the eventful past. "How would you like
to travel 500 miles in the month of September with its
cold, almost wintry evenings, with nothing on but the
remnants of a suit of summer underclothing, over rocks
and mountains through an enemy's country, where you
could not tell what moment you would be shot down, where
you wouldn't dare approach a house for fear of being
torn by fierce watchdogs, and with nothing to eat but
ripe shelled corn and apples? Wouldn't enjoy it,
eh? Well, I didn't either.
was in the fall of 1861 when I was 18 years old. A
thousand union prisoners were paroled from a stockade
in the mountains
of Arkansas, midway between Jacksonport and Bakersville.
We all started for St. Louis, 500 miles away.
were five of us from the Nebraska regiment banded ourselves
together, and decided to take it easy, that is, not
matters as some of the others were doing. I remember
their names well to this day, although I haven't seen
them since the following winter. There were Sawyer,
Graham, Steward, Walt Smith and myself.
rebs had taken away practically everything we had, especially
those of us who had been dressed at all comfortably.
They had left me nothing but a dilapidated suit
of medium weight underwear, and none of the others were
much better. With an old pruning knife one of
the boys chanced to have, both legs of my drawers cut
off below the knees, and lower ends tied up. In
these we carried our food, which consisted entirely
of the corn we could gather from the fields and the
apples we could ocassionally steal. Some idea
of the dangerous nature of the country may be gathers
from the knowledge that the first day out we passed
the bodies of twelve of our men who had been killed
cold was something excruciating; in fact, the worst
part of the whole trip. We would sleep in the
day time and travel at night. This was for two
reasons. First, it was safer to travel at night,
and secondly, it was impossible to sleep at night for
cold, and it was easier to sleep in the day time because
of the sun's heat. The fare was almost a picnic
compared with what we had in prison, which consisted
of two pints of "shorts" a day to each individual,
with not a grain of salt. The apples were better
than nectar from the gods.
People of St. Louis
Missouri, was the first union town we struck. From
there to Pilot Knob each of us were permitted to ride
a condemned horse, and from Pilot Knob to St. Louis
we went via box car. On the platform at the St.
Louis station I bade my companions good by. They
left for up town, while I laid down to sleep. When
I awoke it was about 6 o'clock, and broad daylight.
I started for the city, and saw people gazing
at me terror stricken.
sight of me women would run shrieking into the house,
children would peer with frightened faces from behind
blinds, and I wondered what was the matter. I found
out at last when I met a policeman and he sized up my
wearing apparel and guessed that I was an escaped lunatic.
I more convinced him of my identity by showing
my parole, which I had carried in a secret inside pocket
of my undershirt. He kindly took me to the station
and secured me a ticket to Benton Barracks, about five
miles out. When I got aboard a car, it was soon
emptied, every one seeming to fear I was a desperate
character. Despite my appearance, and want of
wearing apparel, I felt quite aristocratic, having a
car all to myself.
speaking of patriotic and loyal women, I guess Omaha
had a few. While we were at Benton barracks we
received all kinds of clothing sent from here, together
with between $400 and $500 in cash, a mighty big sum
to be raised in those days in a city the size of Omaha.
the things sent was a quantity of night gowns, a luxury
unheard of almost to the common soldier in those days.
I remember that I drew one with blue trimming,
and I've often wondered who made that gown. I
wish I knew, for I'd like to thank her for it. It
was a great comfort."
They Were Captured
how did you happen to fall into the hands of the enemy,
"Taps," asked the reporter, familiarly.
you see, I was mustered out in the fall of 1862 because
all bands were discharged, and I was a member of the
First Nebraska Band. When I reenlisted in the
spring of 1864 it was as a saddler. There were
seventy-five of us sent down the river, presumably to
join the regiment. But news traveled slowly in
those days, and while we were on our way down the remainder
of the regiment was on its way in Nebraska to enjoy
we got to Duval's Bluff, Arkansas, we found our comrades
had returned, so we were given horses and sent out with
four companies of infantry from the Sixty-eighth Illinois
to guard a party of haymakers that had a contract with
morning along in August there came on the autumn air
the sound of firing from the direction of Little Rock.
Lieutenant Donovan sent me out to discover the
cause, and I reported in a short time that from all
appearances the detachment was surrounded by about 7,000
rebels. Colonel Mitchell, in command, was informed
and declared that although we had only 100 men he wouldn't
fort of hay bales was hastily constructed on each side
of the track, and a log rope stretched between two telegraph
poles to which the horses were tied.
rebs, almost 7,000 strong, under General Shelby, surrounded
us, but remained at a distance not to be reached by
our arms. A cannon was brought up and trained
on us. The first shot struck a big medicine wagon
and sent splinters in every direction. The second
struck one of the hay presses, and set it on fire. In
a short time timbers, hay and prairie were ablaze, and
the flames added torture to those already wounded. I
can remember that the day before, the infantrymen had
been paid, and when things began to look so blue, they
began burying their possessions. It was only a
question of time, and by 5 o'clock that evening we were
ready to surrender. Just as we were turning over
our arms a detachment from Duval's Bluffs arrived, but
too late. We were pushed along behind the rebs
as they retreated, and finally the relief withdrew.
of His Clothes
prisoners were hurried along in fast time I'll tell
you. I remember that one of the first things to
happen to me was when a big red headed, raw boned fellow,
who impressed me as a Texan, appropriated my horse and
commanded me to take off my boots. I had to do
it, and when he got them he demanded my hat. Another
fellow wanted by coat and another my trousers, so when
they got through I had nothing on but my underclothes.
From dark that night until daylight the next morning
we were marched sixty miles, we prisoners traveling,
for the most part, on foot, while our captors were mounted,
and with not a bit to eat, until noon the next day.
Then we prisoners got only a solitary ear
Major Slocum, who had been severely wounded, was unable
to keep up with the rest of us. He finally called
me and a comrade to support him and we carried him along
as far as we could, and then he was placed on a mule.
He retained his seat as long as possible, but
finally toppled off. The last I saw of him he
was sitting beside a tree in the gloom, and as I heard
a number of rifle shots in the vicinity, I have always
been of the opinion that he was shot to death right
there, although it was rather dark and I couldn't see
perfectly. He came from St. Louis and I have always
wondered what was the address of his relatives, for
I would like to have told them what little I knew of
cruel and heartless a scene as I ever witnessed was
the next morning after our capture when the rebs discovered
that we had thirty colored troopers with us. These
fellows were turned loose, one at a time and told to
run for their lives, then they were shot down in their
tracks before they had got seventy five yards away.
were there no comical or ludicrous incidents during
yes, any number of them," continued Mr. Behm. "I
remember one sight that seemed especially funny. It
was in front of General Lew Wallace's tent at Corinth.
There were five men in line, marching around and
around a tree, kept going whenever they lagged by the
prodding of a bayonet. The first two were carrying
a quarter of beef between them and a third was marching
along with a branch of a tree keeping the flies off
the meet; they had killed a cow belonging to a poor
widow woman; the fourth man had about fifty pairs of
shoes strung over him, and their weight in the summer's
sun made the perspiration just pour down, while the
fifth was incased in a barrel, each end of which had
been knocked out. Holes had been sawed through
for his arms and he had to carry this around with a
sign tacked in front and another behind, warning all
that he was "Too Fond of Whisky." He
had allowed his thirst to induce him to forge an order
never will forget the first dead man I saw after enlistment.
It was at Springfield, Missouri. As the
regiment was going down the river in the summer of 1861
we were unloaded at Jefferson City, Missouri, and hurried
across the country at the rate of forty miles a day
to Springfield. We got there too late to participate
in the fighting, so we were given the task of burying
the dead. I never had seen a gold tooth before,
and the first dead man I saw was lying on his back in
the grass under a tree, with his mouth open, and there,
plainer that a big, white stone monument in the moonlight,
was a gold tooth protruding from his upper jaw. If
I should live a thousand years I never could forget
that sight. I saw thousands of dead men afterward,
but not one of them impressed me as did that first glimpse.
After we had placed the bodies of fifty poor souls
in one hole and covered them up, I went back to my tent
and spent several lonesome hours thinking of home and
mother. Of course, I received letters from home,
but travel was slow in those days and
took at least three weeks for a letter to come up the
river to Omaha from St. Louis. Those waits were
horrible, and how happy I was when I would receive a
neat little letter from mother and brother and sisters.
the Dead at Shiloh
of burying the dead remains one of the days following
the battle of Siloh, where thousands were killed. We
dug shallow trenches, not over two or three feet deep,
and placed at least 1,500, if not 2,000, bodies in them.
A few days later I passed over this burial spot
and the rain had washed the earth off dozens of naked
legs and arms and hogs had gnawed the flesh away in
many instances. The sight was sickening and from
that day to this I have not tasted pork.
impression that is seared in my memory, never to be
erased this side of the grays, was made during the progress
of this battle. I was engaged that day in looking
after the wounded. As I came into a little clearing
I saw a tiny cottage at one side. All about were
strewn dead and dying men and horses -- batteries
were stationed in these open spaces in the woods and
mounted horses were always thick there -- as I approached
the cottage I could see a dozen or more wounded fellows
lying on the floor. Suddenly a sweet faced,
kind looking woman appeared at the door with a
little girl in her arms. I think I never saw a
prettier sight. It seemed almost as though Mary
Magdalene had been reincarnated, so gentle and loving
did she look. I often times think I would
recognize her now should I meet her casually on the
street. I found the men who had fortunately secured
shelter with her being better taken care of than they
could by us, and regretfully went on about my duties,
but the vision of that woman and her little child is
still with me.
Mr. Behm received his parole he had pledged himself
never again to take up arms against the southern confederacy,
so on returning to Omaha he was sent, together with
a number of other paroled men of the regiment, to guard
the stage lines of the west. There was not the
fighting with the Indians then that there was in later
years, he said.
the Indians had only bows and arrows, but when they
got rifles from the government and learned to shoot
it was a more serious thing to be a scout, or
western soldier. But that's another story.
World Herald - May 12, 1901