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Wisconsin in the Civil War

A Surprise Attack on the 8th Wisconsin Infantry

Major John W. Jefferson of Madison, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, describes an unforeseen battle at Fredericktown, Missouri, on October 21, 1861.

The Cape Girardeau forces had got under way, and were about half a mile from our regiment, when we were somewhat astonished to hear a shot from a twelve pounder.

I met the Major of the Twenty-first Illinois, and asked, "Can we have come upon the enemy?" He replied, "O, no sir; it is impossible—Thompson is 25 miles distant." Then came another shot. I said: "That means fight, as sure as you live." I had not finished speaking before the whole artillery force commenced firing, and within three minutes more, the sharp sputter of musketry was heard. The most intense excitement and fright prevailed among the inhabitants of the town. Women and children were running to and fro, seeking cellars and other places of concealment. Every person and thing that could move was moving. Our regiment was not ready, and took the double quick step down the street towards the battle ground…

In half an hour the wounded commenced to be brought in—some shot in the head, some in the leg, some with an arm off, and so on. The whole country resounded with the echo of our men's cheers and yells as they charged the enemy. The battle lasted one and a half hour, and I think it was one of the most brilliant and complete victories we have had during this war.

I was on the battle-field [afterwards] and it presented a horrible picture. The dead and wounded were strewn in every direction; one rebel was shot through the heart, while he was astride of a rail fence, which he had attempted to climb over. He died "on the fence," with one hand clinched, and the other grasping his rifle. Ten yards from him lay Col. Lowe, of the rebel army. His horse had been killed, and he had dismounted, and a few minutes after he was pierced through the head by a Minnie ball.

Source: E.B. Quiner Scrapbooks: "Correspondence of the Wisconsin Volunteers, 1861-1865," Volume 2, page 17.

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Portrait of J.W. Jefferson.
Portrait of J.W. Jefferson.

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