Finding John Willis

April 14, 2012

In early April 2012, a few days shy of the 150th anniversary, I visited the place where John Willis died. He was one of the 1,754 United States Army soldiers who died in the two-day battle near the Shiloh Methodist Episcopal church in southern Tennessee. Another 8,408 United States soldiers were wounded, another 2,885 missing. The forces in rebellion against the United States, lost 1,723 dead, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing. The total casualty list was larger than that of any battle yet fought by American arms.

John Willis began his journey to his death at Shiloh in the town of Strong’s Prairie, in Adams County, Wisconsin. In the summer of 1861 Willis and many of his friends in this frontier community had responded to the call of “Captain” Henry Dawes to join a volunteer company optimistically called “The Adams County Rifles.” They were a jolly bunch of boys and young men up for adventure. John was a little different from the rest because he had been courting a young farm woman named Mary Bassett. They decided to get married before John left for the army. The ceremony took place just in time for John and Mary to say goodbye.

The Rifles, as yet unarmed, traveled to Camp Randall in Madison, and signed on to serve their country. They became Company E of the 16th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.

Company E so impressed the officers of the 16th that they named it the Color Guard, so designated because its duty was to protect and hold high the regimental flag in combat. In the smoke, noise and confusion of battle, a soldier would know he was in the right place if he could see his regimental flag. It was a dubious honor for the color guard because it made them choice targets for enemy fire, as events on the morning of April 6, 1862 would verify.

The 16th was part of the Army of The Tennessee, under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant. It was advancing up the Tennessee River to capture the important railroad center of Corinth, Mississippi. The Tennessee flows north so “upriver” is down on the map. As directed by Grant’s choice as on-site commander, William T. Sherman, the 20,000-man army disembarked from a fleet of river steamers at a point known as Pittsburg Landing. Sherman ordered them to make camp. Since he and Grant planned to advance on Corinth in a few days, Sherman neither ordered his men to camp along a solid defensive perimeter nor to fortify their positions with trenches or barricades. The 16th Wisconsin, for example, was on the southern edge of the camp in a disconnected line with units from Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. Few of these men had ever experienced combat. Most were, like the 16th, green volunteers.

Just prior to dawn on April 6, the Confederate forces led by General Albert Sidney Johnston, began what is considered one of the most successful “surprise” attacks in American military annals. Johnston had moved over 20,000 troops to within hailing range of the Union lines. Union scouting parties had seen the Confederates coming and reported to Sherman, but he refused to believe he was facing an entire army.

Skepticism was not an option for the 16th Wisconsin. Roused from their blankets, they rushed to form into line alongside their regimental colors. A thousand Confederate rifles fired, then a thousand more, joined by artillery. The men of Company E started to fall. Color Sergeant John Willis was among the first. He was followed by five others who took his place at the flag: Lewis Knight, Erwin Ryder, Henry Thomas, John Holcomb, Philo Perry. Some died on the field. John Willis lingered for a day in a makeshift field hospital. Mary’s brother Charles visited him and wrote to tell her that her husband had died in peace.

Barely a wife, Mary Bassett Willis became a widow.

Life moves on. The war ended, the soldiers who survived came home. One of them was James Dawes, who also served in Company E. He and Mary married and started a new life.

Years passed and the administrative wheels turned. One day in the 1880s, a crate addressed to Mary arrived at the Strong’s Prairie post office. It was a veteran’s memorial stone for “John P. Wills”. His body was buried in the national cemetery at Pittsburg Landing and his name is spelled correctly on the stone there. His next-of-kin were entitled to receive a memorial stone for the home cemetery. According to army records, Mary Bassett Willis Dawes was John’s next of kin.

More years passed and the location of John’s stone was lost. In the late 1940s, the Wisconsin River Power Company constructed the Petenwell Dam on the Wisconsin River and flooded substantial portions of the town of Strong’s Prairie.

In the mid-1980’s the power company drew down the level of the water above the dam, exposing ground that had not seen the sun for forty years. An “avocational archeologist” named Helge Helgesen from Strong’s Prairie started to explore the muddy flats in search of native American artifacts. He came upon a stone but it was not native American. It was the veterans memorial stone of John Willis, cracked and chipped, but with a legible inscription.

Small towns being small towns, Helge had little trouble finding the final resting place of Mary Dawes in the Monroe cemetery, one town north of Strong’s Prairie. He also found her descendants. They agreed to let him place John Willis stone in the family plot near to Mary’s. It remains there today.

Memory is small compensation for a life lost, yet better than not to be remembered at all.

–Michael Goc