In the summer of 1864, Union armies laid siege to Petersburg, Virginia, to destroy transportation lines leading to the nearby Confederate capital at Richmond. On June 15, 1864, enemy sharpshooters hiding in marsh grass trapped the 19th Wisconsin Infantry as it headed downriver from Petersburg. Nelson Gardner and Ephhraim Hanes of Reedsburg volunteered to distract the enemy by swimming to marsh and setting it on fire.
The regiment had been transported up to Blackwater River in three gunboats to destroy the rebel line of transportation. They completed their work and decided to retire but found their way blocked.
[Confederate General James] Longstreet had taken up a position on one side of the river and had stationed sharpshooters on a point projecting into the river to pick off the pilots of the gunboats if they tried to steam down the river. These sharpshooters were protected by marsh grass that grew on the point and Yanks found it impossible to get the gunboats past the point. The colonel called for two volunteers to swim the river and set fire to the marsh and thus drive the Rebs from their position.
Two Reedsburg boys, Nelson Gardner and Ephraim Hanes, volunteered. They tied matches wrapped in oilcloth in their hair, and under cover of heavy fire dove into the river. By swimming under water most of the way they reached the other side safely and set fire to the marsh.
Although hundreds of shots were fired at them they escaped unharmed and returned to their own lines. The Rebs were forced to withdraw from the point and the three gunboats were run down the river to safety.
"Source: Newspaper clippings, 1861-1930, Vol. 3" (from the Reedsburg Times, Oct. 6, 1916)
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