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Seventeen-year-old Charlie Gibson: The Face of the Civil War in Indiana

The recent exhibition opening at the Daviess County Museum, involving a set of letters recently presented to the museum from the Civil War period, focuses on a soldier who is one of a handful of ”just boys” in the Fourteenth Indiana Regiment. Charlie Gibson and a few others joined local neighborhood units to fight for the North by misrepresenting their ages—a soldier had to be eighteen.

Charlie had been attending Vincennes University, but left in April of 1861 to join C Company, the Martin Guards in the southern Indiana county with the same name. He signed the muster rolls with a group he knew quite well—his friends, with whom he had attended the Mount Pleasant Schoolhouse not far from Hindostan Falls in pioneering territory of the state. Most of the young men lived now at Loogootee nearby on the railroad.

He is described by his friend Will Houghton, who first was captain and later major of the Fourteenth, as being slight of build, with a sweet, honest disposition. Charlie and the “Devoted Little Band” as the Mt. Pleasant lads called themselves, went in October of 1861 with the Fourteenth Indiana Regiment, all from southern Indiana, to Rich Mountain, the first land battle of the Civil War. In that battle they were held in reserve. They stayed on Cheat Mountain in western Virginia, cold and sometimes hungry, fighting a couple of small battles and then came down to the Valley Campaign, chasing the elusive Stonewall Jackson. Charlie was made corporal, with many chores of a routine nature to supervise.

Charlie’s letters, five of them, show him as glad to be serving his nation and appreciating the comradeship of his boyhood friends, now all soldiers, but frustrated with the course of the war. Unusual for a seventeen-year-old, he shows himself hating the institution of war itself. After they fought the relatively important battle of Winchester in spring of 1862, he wrote home, lamenting the death of his neighbor Leopold McGuffin at Shiloh. He knows battles around New Orleans are going on and laments that there will be more: “ere this reaches you a big fight will take place and many a brave man’s life lost.”

He is a thoughtful young man, growing up rapidly. His Company C was decimated at the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862. The horrible battle of Fredericksburg was looming in December of that year and after the Northern army’s defeat he writes home January 6, 1863, that he believes the South is formidable, seemingly impossible to defeat. He yearns for home but wants his relatives to know he is brave. “You said in your last ‘I am in for it and not to get discouraged.’ I never fear about that I think I can stand it—as for being discouraged I can’t say I am discouraged but—still I would like to see matters go on better. I have concluded this Army of the Potomac is a great humbug. . “

Still, there was good news. This boy, now two years older than he had been at recruitment time, has been named a second lieutenant. His reliability and character have been recognized.

The “Devoted Little Band” of friends and the rest of the regiment expressed congratulations: this lad had shown his mettle.

Spring came, and Charlie would have his first opportunity to lead the troops: the Battle of Chancellorsville was looming in an area called The Wilderness. The Fourteenth, now part of the famed Gibraltar Brigade, would lead the troops as they marched toward battle. Charlie’s promotional documents had not arrived; he looked forward to their coming. And he wrote home, Laura but very few of the original 14th are left out of our Co 101men 9 are left for duty and your brother is one of the number—what do you think of that—many have died, been killed, discharged and sick in hospital in Washington until lately Co. “C” was the largest Co in the Regiment—but now it is the smallest—we had 8 men on dress parade yesterday. It appears that the loss in Co C is always the largest of any Co in the regiment—at Fredericksburg the Regiment lost 12 killed and 5 of the 12 were from Co “C” the same at Antietam our loss was the heaviest of any in the Regt.

The Paymaster has to yet call around but—we are anxiously waiting for him and think we will be here soon. I suppose Capt Houghton will be at home before this letter reaches as he has a leave of absence. I do wish he was with us for I am sick and tired of our Dutch Lieut—he means well enough and tries to do everything right—but—don’t know how. Hugh Hopkins Ive not heard from lately but suppose his father will take him home as soon as he is able to travel that is if he ever will be able. Barney Berry will go home again I think Barney will resign as he will never be able for the service again.

How are you all getting along at home. I would like to drop in this evening and stay with you a short time would be very nice well they can’t hold us more than 15 months longer at farthest and then—what will I do have a nice time I think.

He would like to drop by that comfortable home to see his mother and father and sisters and brother, just for an evening. He looks forward to the time he will do that in fifteen months.

Still, his friends from home noted that he seemed thoughtful, quiet.

In a beautiful springtime May day the troops were positioned; then, unexpectedly, in the clearing where they lay idle, the troops of Eleventh Corps rushed into the clearing: Jackson had attacked them and they had fled. That night the regiment lay tensely on their arms.

The next day Charlie Gibson prepared for his first day leading troops. The new second lieutenant waited with the rest of the army to go into battle.

Here’s how Major Will Houghton described the scene just as battle was to begin.

Carrol rode to his place in line and in his soul stirring voice called “Attention! Battalion. The battalion of direction—column forward.” The bugle sounded MARCH and the column moved forward. It was the finest sight I’ve witnessed. Hooker, Mead, Howard and French were all looking on and the interest was intense. We moved in splendid line and on the Rebels as soon as we entered the woods. We gave the first volley and the first cheer and. . . the Rebels ran.

But in that advance Charlie Gibson of Company C fell, leading the troops for the first time. The rest of the Devoted Little Band slipped away from the battle as they could to comfort him; he died the next day of an abdominal wound. Houghton and others of his friends buried him.

But there’s more, and it’s as shocking as many of these battlefield stories from the war: after four days the friends had to go and disinter Charlie Gibson to send home to his father and mother, whom they had promised. It was a ghastly experience.

The friends wrote to his family, agonized that this young boy has paid the price of war with his life at the very moment he was being rewarded.

Some contended the body hadn’t been well handled. Hougton wrote this:

With Charlie I have shared all the toils, cares and stages of two years in the tent and field. The same pillow served us both & the same blanket shielded us from the cold &storms. I would rather my right arm had withered to the shoulder than have it said I failed to attend him when he was wounded, suffering, dying. By Sallie’s letter I see you have the impression that it rained the day he died. I do not remember its raining where we were. I think the day was a warm and pleasant Sunday, the day he was wounded was a beautiful day—Capt Hopkins will be at home before you see this. He takes some stripes belonging to Charlie. I sent his commission by mail. I hope it has arrived safely.

I would be pleased to hear from you should you conclude to write. Give my kindest regards to Mr. and Mrs. Gibson, Sallie, Willie All.

All praised him as one of the finest soldiers the regiment produced. The others from the schoolhouse band would return home to places of honor and achievement in the post-war world. But not this young man.

In most units there was a Charlie Gibson. Probably several. Twenty thousand young men did not come back from the 200,000 who served from the state.

But looking at him we can see what the little town, the state and the nation suffered in this cruelest of all wars. It’s small consolation that Charlie himself saw the futility of it all but served his nation nobly anyway.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor, Hawthorne Publishing. Baxter’s book Gallant Fourteenth: The Story of an Indiana Civil War Regiment can be ordered from the site: click back.