State of Nebraska - Genealogy Trails







"Kid" Of The Old First Nebraska Tells of Perils He Endured in the '60s


Fred Behm, Who Enlisted as Drummer Boy, Thirteen Years of Age, Marched in Winter Hundreds of Miles Clad

in a Suit of Summer Underwear


How a Detachment Was Captured






With 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.


"But what can you do, my little son?", asked the officer with an amused smile as he gazed down benignantly on the

precocious youngster.


"I can shoot, sir, and I can play the drum, too," came the fearless response.


The officer was impressed, and the next day a new name was added to the roster of the First Nebraska Regiment.  It was 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.


Pain and pleasure, pathos and humor, suffering and enjoyment were interwoven in Mr. Behm's homely tale of youthful experience -- 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.



First Service Disastrous



What 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:


At the Battle of Shiloh, "From Crump's Landing twenty miles away, the Nebraska Troops were rushed to the scene of fighting.  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.


"I 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 behind.


"About 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..  There was cheese, and crackers and ginger snaps, and cigars and pocket knives, and it seemed to me like a little bit of everything.  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 and found 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.


"Here 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.



Perilous Travel Half Clad



"But 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.


It 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.  There were five of us from the Nebraska regiment banded ourselves together, and decided to take it easy, that is, not   rush matters as some of the others were doing.  I remember their names well to this day, although I haven't seen one of them since the following winter.  There were Sawyer, Graham, Steward, Walt Smith and myself.


"The 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 by bushwhackers.


"The 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.



Startles People of St. Louis



"Patterson, 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.


"On 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.


And 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.


Among 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."



How They Were Captured



But how did you happen to fall into the hands of the enemy, "Taps," asked the reporter, familiarly.


Well 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 veteran furloughs.


When 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 the government.


One 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 surrender.


A 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.


The 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.



Robbed of His Clothes



We 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

of corn each.



Sergeant Major Missing



Sergeant 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  hit fate.


As 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.


But were there no comical or ludicrous incidents during your service?


"O, 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 for liquor.


I 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

it 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.



Burying the Dead at  Shiloh



Speaking 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.


Another 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.


When 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.


Then 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.




C. E. M.  






Omaha World Herald - May 12, 1901