This Regiment was organized with companies principally enlisted from the counties of Massac, Pope, Gallatin, Saline, White, Hamilton, Franklin and Wayne.
Immediately after the Regiment was mustered into United States service at Camp Mather near Shawneetown, Illinois, General Grant ordered it to Paducah, Kentucky, where it constituted a part of the garrison of that place.
When General Halleck moved upon Corinth, Mississippi, this Regiment like many others went up the Tennessee River on steamboats, and from Hamburg Landing marched out to join in the siege of Corinth. The Regiment was assigned to the Division commanded by General Schuyler Hamilton, and to a Brigade composed of the Fifth, Tenth and Seventeenth Iowa, Fifty-sixth Illinois, Tenth Missouri and Eightieth Ohio Regiments, and commanded by Colonel Pursell, of Iowa. The Regiment participated in the pursuit of Beauregard's army after he abandoned Corinth.
When Halleck's army was scattered to various Departments this Division remained with General Grant, who was placed in command of the District.
During the summer of 1862 the principal camp for the army occupying northern Mississippi was in the hills of Clear Creek near Corinth, from which place a number of long and exhaustive marches were made to Holly Springs and other points in the heat and dust of an exceedingly hot, dry summer.
In May, during the siege of Corinth, Colonel Kirkham obtained a leave of absence and resigned his commission, the command devolving upon Lieutenant Colonel Brown, who in turn during the summer resigned, and the command devolved upon Lieutenant Colonel Raum, who had been promoted.
On the 3d of October, 1862, the Confederate forces 20,000, under Price and VanDorn, attacked Corinth, which was defended by General Rosencrans with 12,000 men. During the first day the advantages were with the Rebel army. On the morning of the 4th the battle opened at daylight. The Union forces occupied strong positions west and north of the town, C.S. Hamilton's Division occupying the extreme right in two lines. General Price attacked this point and by a most intrepid charge dislodged the front line from its works and captured ten pieces of artillery. The Fifty-sixth Illinois and Tenth Missouri Regiments had been posted some distance in the rear of these batteries to support them. These Regiments held their positions and after the front line had retired opened up a heavy musketry fire upon the rebels who were occupying the Union entrenchments. This was continued for some time, when Lieutenant Colonel Raum ordered the Fifty-sixth Regiment to charge with bayonets. When Colonel Holmes of the Tenth Missouri saw the Fifty-sixth Regiment in motion he ordered his Regiment to charge also, and the two Regiments at a full run retook the batteries, drove the rebels from the works, repulsed reinforcements which were coming up and broke the centre of Price's army, which immediately retired.
After the battle General Rosecrans visited the line and thanked the officers and men for their gallantry. This Regiment joined in the pursuit of the Rebel army after its defeat at Corinth. During the pursuit and at about nine o'clock at night the Regiment was ordered to march immediately to Kossuth, 12 miles distant, to intercept the enemy if he should again move upon Corinth.
The Regiment participated in the campaign in central Mississippi during the winter of 1862, and reached at point some miles south of Oxford, but after the capture of Holly Springs and the destruction of the stores accumulated there, marched to Memphis as part of an escort of six hundred wagons sent for supplies, and reached that place about December 25. During the balance of the winter the Regiment was engaged in guarding the Memphis and Charleston Railroad.
In the spring of 1863 the Division was numbered seven and assigned to the Seventeenth Army Corps, commanded by General McPherson, and was in the column ordered to march against Vicksburg. The Regiment was in the expedition that went through the Yazoo Pass with a view of reaching Vicksburg by way of the Yazoo River.
In the latter part of April the Regiment with the Division joined the main army under General Grant at Young's Point, and immediately marched with the column which soon crossed the Mississippi River below Grand Gulf.
When General Grant crossed the river, Colonel Raum with the Regiment, was directed to occupy a position opposite Grand Gulf, and as soon as the enemy was compelled to evacuate that place to cross the river and take possession of it, which he did on Sunday morning, May 2. Grand Gulf was immediately made a base of supplies for the Army, and a transportation line was at once established from Young's Point to Perkins' Plantation by wagon and thence by steamboat to Grand Gulf--this duty was exacting and laborious both day and night. The Regiment was relieved in time to join the main army at Champion Hills.
The Regiment was engaged in the assault on Vicksburg, May 22, and was with the Seventh Division when it reinforced General McClernand on the left. On the 12th of June during the siege, Colonel Raum was assigned to the command of the Second Brigade, Seventh Division, Seventeenth A.C. On the 25th of June the Regiment was sent to reinforce General Logan when he blew up and assaulted Fort Hill. The Regiment occupied the crater during a portion of the night and lost heavily in both killed and wounded during the conflict.
After the fall of Vicksburg, the Seventh Division was ordered to reinforce General Steel in his movement to capture Little Rock, and had reached Helena, Arkansas, when news came that General Steel had captured the place.
When General Sherman left Vicksburg with the Fifteenth A.C. for Memphis to march across to reinforce General Grant at Chattanooga, the Seventh Division, then at Helena, was assigned to his command and was incorporated into the Fifteenth A.C. as the Third Division, where it remained during the war.
The Second Brigade, now commanded by Col. Raum, was composed of the Fifty-sixth Illinois, Tenth Missouri, Seventeenth Iowa and Eightieth Ohio regiments. The Fifteenth Army Corps reached a point opposite Chattanooga on the 23d of November and that night crossed the Tennessee River on pontoon boats above the town and moved out to attack the enemy's right flank on Missionary Ridge.
The battle at this point continued during the 24th and 25th. On the afternoon of the 25th, Colonel Raum was directed to reinforce the Third Brigade under General Mathias, who was closely engaging the enemy near the top of the ridge east of the tunnel.
The movement was made under a heavy shower of shell from a battery of the enemy stationed over the tunnel. The Fifty-sixth Illinois and Tenth Missouri were posted in an old road near the foot of the ridge, as a reserve. The Seventeenth Iowa and Eightieth Ohio were put in position by Colonel Raum higher up the ridge with the view of exchanging positions with the Third Brigade, when suddenly the enemy attacked the front and right flank with a heavy column, forcing the six regiments of the Third and Second Brigades down the ridge with heavy loss. The Rebels, driving everything before them, charged down the ridge. The regiments in reserve awaited their coming, and when Colonel Raum reached the line and gave the command to fire the two regiments sprang to their feet and delivered a most deadly volley, which made the Rebels recoil, and as volley after volley was delivered they returned to their fortifications on the ridge. The loss of the Brigade on this occasion was more than 240 men. These two regiments for the second time met and repulsed the enemy after it had been victorious in driving the front line.
In this engagement the Fifty-sixth Regiment lost quite a number of officers and men. Major Welsh, who commanded the Regiment, was wounded in the arm and hip, and Colonel Raum, who commanded the Brigade was wounded in the left thigh.
After this battle the Fifteenth Army Corps marched to Huntsville, Alabama, and was stretched out in various directions occupying the railroad and country.
The Fifty-sixth Illinois was assigned to garrison Whitesburg on the Tennessee River, the steamboat landing for Huntsville.
Lieutenant Colonel John P. Hall had rejoined the Regiment and was now in command. On the first of May, 1864, began the great Atlanta Campaign, and from that time until November, the Third Division was engaged in protecting the line of communication in the rear of the army; first the Memphis and Charleston road afterwards the road from Chattanooga to Atlanta. The Fifty-sixth Illinois was first stationed at Mud Creek, where it built a block house for the defense of the railroad bridge. The Regiment had now been reinforced by new Company I, commanded by Captain Evans and composed of the veterans of the Thirteenth Illinois Volunteers, and new Company D, commanded by Captain McCartney, who organized the company for the Regiment. About the 1st of July the Regiment was stationed at Calhoun, Georgia, on the Chattanooga and Atlanta Railroad; the Division held the railroad from Dalton to Ackworth and branch road from Kingston to Rome, besides the fords and bridges of the Ettawa River. The Division headquarters was at Cartersville, and the Second Brigade headquarters at Resaca, which was strongly fortified to protect the depot of supplies.
The Regiment held Calhoun and Adairsville and several smaller stations along the line of the road, and successfully repelled every attack made upon the road.
In October, General Hood made his great movement North to destroy Sherman's line of communications. On the 12th of the month he appeared before Resaca and demanded its surrender. Colonel Weaver, of the Seventeenth Iowa, then commanding the Brigade, declined to surrender and as he had been directed by Brigadier General Raum, then commanding the Division, he ordered the Fifty-sixth Illinois and other regiments in the neighborhood to report to him as reinforcements. Three regiments of cavalry and one of infantry at once marched to relief of Resaca. General Raum at Centersville foreseeing that Hood would attack Resaca, obtained authority from General Sherman, who was moving north to engage Hood, to reinforce Resaca. General John Tilson with this Brigade, was directed to report to General Raum. These troops were taken by train to Resaca, and reached there on the morning of the 13th of October, at 2 o'clock. The garrison now consisted of over 3,000 men, besides artillery. Half of this force was immediately put on the skirmish line, the Fifty-sixth Illinois being of this body. The skirmishing was kept up for nearly 36 hours, at times raging almost like a battle and with considerable loss on both sides. Upon reaching Resaca, General Raum sent a squad of cavalry with message to General Sherman, informing him of Hood's presence at Resaca and expressing his determination to hold the place until reinforced. The troops on this occasion, including the Fifty-sixth Illinois, acted with great heroism and kept at bay an army of more than five times their number.
When General Sherman issued his orders for the "March to the Sea," his army occupied the country from Chattanooga to Atlanta. That part of it assigned to Thomas started north to Chattanooga, and the balance of the army--65,000 strong--assembled at Atlanta November 14, 1864. The following day the great march began--the Fifty-sixth Illinois, with its Brigade, constituting the rear-guard of the Right Wing commanded by General Howard. About noon the rear-guard moved and marched until nearly midnight before drawing up to the encampment of the advance. After night the light from the fires of the doomed city cast a red glare high up in the heavens behind the marching troops. Without dwelling upon the incidents of this campaign, its is enough to say that the Regiment performed its full duty, and entered Savannah with the rest of the army on the 23d of December, 1864.
General Sherman set to work preparing for a winter campaign through the Carolinas. Pocotaligo, South Carolina, was fixed upon as the point at which the army should concentrate. Part of the forces were sent by water, and part were to move by land across the country, and pontoon bridges were thrown across the Savannah River, upon which the army and is train were to cross. On the 18th of January the movement began, with General Raum's Brigade in advance. He had crossed the river and the adjacent rice plantations with his troops, artillery and baggage train, when a tremendous rain storm set in, which flooded the rice fields and injured the pontoon bridges so as to prevent the passage of the other troops, which found a crossing higher up the river.
The Fifty-sixth Illinois, with its Brigade, marched across the country to Pocotaligo, the place of rendezvous. From this point the Army started upon one of the most momentous movements of the war, and this Regiment acquitted itself with high credit, as did the whole army. It took part in the battle of Bentonville.
The time of service of the non-veterans of the Regiment having expired in February, in the latter part of March, when the Army had reached North Carolina and had communicated with reinforcements at the seaboard, these soldiers, with many other non-veterans, were ordered home to be mustered out of the service. Twelve officers and 193 enlisted men of this Regiment embarked on the steamship General Lyon. She encountered a storm, and, when off Cape Hatteras, caught fire, and about 500 person met their death in the flames or in the sea. Twenty-eight persons were saved, of these five were enlisted men of this Regiment; and thus, on March 31, 1865, 200 men of this Regiment, as noble and brave as any who fought for the Union, perished. After the surrender of General Johnson's army to General Sherman the army of Georgia marched to Washington, and there the Fifty-sixth Illinois Regiment took part in the great review. The Regiment remained in the service for a few months after this event, going first to Louisville, Kentucky, and then to Arkansas, and was mustered out of the service August 12, 1865.
It was the good fortune of this Regiment to participate in nearly all the great campaigns of the Western Army. It never turned its back upon the enemy; it never was driven from a position, and was never engaged in an unsuccessful battle.
On its flag staff at the capitol of Illinois upon a silver plate are these words: Sub hoc signo vinces.