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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Daring Swim Saved Regiment

In the summer of 1864, Union armies began a siege around Petersburg, Virginia, that would last nearly a year. They were trying to interrupt supplies to the nearby Confederate capital at Richmond and force the South to surrender. Thousands of Wisconsin men were among the soldiers who spread out around the city.

On June 15, 1864, enemy sharpshooters hiding in marsh grass trapped the 19th Wisconsin Infantry.

Stumped by Snipers

"The regiment had been transported up to Blackwater River in three gunboats to destroy the rebel line of transportation," soldiers recalled. "They completed their work and decided to retire but found their way blocked" by constant sniper fire from a grassy peninsula. Someone needed to take out the sharpshooters so the gunboats could pass.

Swam Underwater

"Two Reedsburg boys, Nelson Gardner and Ephraim Haines, volunteered. They tied matches wrapped in oilcloth in their hair, and under cover of heavy fire dove into the river. By swimming underwater most of the way they reached the other side safely and set fire to the marsh."

Haines and Gardner were just teenagers at the time.

"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."

Three weeks later Haines was picked off by a Confederate sharpshooter while standing in the Union trenches. He died on July 5, 1864. Gardner was captured in battle that October but was eventually exchanged and survived the war.

For more Civil War stories, see our online archive with more than 20,000 pages of eyewitness accounts,

[Sources: Reedsburg Times, Oct. 6, 1916; Krug, Merton E. History of Reedsburg (1929): 96, 101; Wis. Adjutant General, Regimental and Descriptive Rolls (Series 1144), 19th Infantry; 1860 U.S. Census]

:: Posted in Curiosities on December 12, 2013
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