They Never Came Home: A Story of Three Brothers Who Fought in the Civil War

5, January 2012

Joe Johnston is a guest contributor who will be writing articles related to the Civil War. This is his first article in the series on History Happens Here. His latest book, The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery, was published by the Missouri History Museum in 2011.

Louis D. Gamache was a country doctor who lived near the little town of Rock Creek in Jefferson County, Missouri, bordering St. Louis on the south. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had a farm and nine children. Every week the family loaded into the wagon and went to mass at the Catholic church up the hill. Like a lot of Missourians in 1861, they hoped the threatened Civil War would just pass like a spring storm.

Louis and Elizabeth GamacheLouis D. Gamache and Elizabeth Gamache of Jefferson County, Missouri, ca. 1880. The couple lost three sons who fought for the South in the Civil War. Courtesy of Joe Johnston.

The Gamaches owned no slaves. In fact, in a fascinating twist of logic, they leaned toward the Confederate cause but were opposed to secession. They figured those who were anti-slavery were forcing the nation into a split, and the only way to hold the Union together was to preserve slavery.

The older Gamache girls were married, and their husbands had no intention of going to war. Louis and Elizabeth tried hard to keep their boys from enlisting too, but Elias, John, and Jerome Gamache, ages 18, 19, and 22, were hot-headed and ready to fight.

As a state, Missouri was officially neutral. But on May 10, 1861, about 25 miles from the Gamache farm, Unionist troops seized the state’s arsenal and fired on civilians, killing over two dozen. In the next month, Unionists took over the state government, and Governor Claiborne Jackson called for 50,000 volunteers to defend Missouri from the Union army. Despite their father’s pleas and their mother’s tears, the Gamache brothers were among thousands who answered Jackson’s call. It was a sad day in Rock Creek as the boys started down the road, each carrying a bedroll, some corn fritters and boiled eggs, a rifle, and a good knife. They walked 10 miles east to catch the train to the end of the line at Rolla, where they would enroll in the new Missouri State Guard.

When they descended the train steps, the brothers were looking at a sea of men, mules, muskets, tents, and wagons. Officers, with no more uniform than anyone else, somehow managed to keep organizing, directing, counting, and ordering. The Gamaches were assigned to a company and told to stay with that group until further notice.

Like all the recruits, they knew nothing about where they were going or what they’d be doing. Thousands of them had no weapon. But confidence surrounded them like a fog, embracing them, yet blurring their vision of what they faced. These were men of simple politics who foresaw a simple solution to a massively complex conflict. They laughed and joked that it would be over quickly, maybe even with the first shooting.

General Sterling PriceConfederate general Sterling Price, ca.1861–1865.

Each day, the boys saw General Sterling Price riding among his troops, a splendid figure of substantial girth, but carrying it well on his 6’2” frame. His white curls framed a face that was authoritative, yet flushed with enthusiasm for his job. His men called, “Good mornin’, Old Pap,” as he smiled, talked, and treated each enlisted man in rags with the same respect he accorded his officers.

After two weeks, when their passion had dwindled to endless boredom, the troops finally set off marching to the rattle of sabers, drinking cups, and harness chains, in a symphony of boot steps, thundering wagons, clomping horses, teamsters’ calls, and officers’ commands. They went west, south of Carthage, to the sprawling Cowskin Prairie, broader and flatter than any field back home. They received only a little training before August 10, 1861, when the Battle of Wilson’s Creek surprised everybody with its ferocity. The first blood was shed in the war. Missourians fought Missourians. And Price’s undisciplined farm boys took a terrible fight to the Federal forces, sending them running in retreat.

General Price continued on the offensive, moving three weeks later to the Federal fort at Lexington, which was surrounded by 12-foot-high breastworks. Price’s men took the breastworks, and then in the Battle of the Hemp Bales, rolled the bales in front of them for cover. They drove closer and closer to the Union lines, while Union bullets buried themselves harmlessly in the hemp, until they took the fortress with one screaming charge.

It was a soul-stirring victory for the State Guard. But it was not followed with any support from Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government. Price could hold none of the ground he’d gained, and his only choice was to fall back to southwestern Missouri. The Union followed and kept pressing, until finally on February 12, 1862, Price and his men crossed the line into Arkansas.

There, on a cold March morning, they turned to meet the pursuing Union troops in fierce fighting at Elkhorn Tavern. The South won the day, but then had to fall back because the Union strengthened and repositioned overnight. That’s usually how it was. The rank and file soldiers from Missouri, including the Gamaches, had to be satisfied with brief tastes of victory followed by retreat, and the end nowhere in sight.

All along, Price wanted to retake Missouri and restore its lawfully elected government. But Missouri was surrounded by Union states on three sides. And the concern that topped all others, Jefferson Davis couldn’t send troops to Missouri because he needed every man and bullet to defend Richmond and the core states of the Confederacy. By that fall the Confederacy began to understand that it couldn’t hold such distant land as Missouri, and the State Guard was called to join the other Southern forces gathering in Mississippi.

Tears rolled down Price’s cheeks as he addressed his men encamped on the west bank of the Mississippi River. They couldn’t go back to Missouri without supply lines and more troops. They were needed in Tennessee to repel Ulysses Grant’s push there against General Albert Sidney Johnston. If they could deliver a mighty defeat against Grant, then the army would push north and retake Missouri.

Knowing Price was right, his men had to decide whether to desert the army or go fight Grant. The men loved Price enough to follow him into hell, so they loaded up in boats and crossed the Mississippi. Ironically, they were too late, as Grant and Johnston clashed at Shiloh, Tennessee, the very next day, with the Missourians still a five-day march away.

The next day, April 8, Gen. Price resigned his commission in the State Guard and became a general in the Army of the Confederate States of America. The loyal Gamache boys followed their beloved “Old Pap” in joining the Confederate regulars. At Camp Churchill outside Corinth, Mississippi, they enlisted in Company F of the 2nd Missouri Infantry Volunteers, under Capt. Tom Carter, who’d been in regular Confederate gray for over a year and had been wounded at Elkhorn Tavern. About the same time, Price placed himself and his men under the command of General Van Dorn, newly appointed chief of the Army of the West, and they all knew that only fighting would get them home again.

But Missouri and home were getting farther and farther away. Men rebelled at the idea of defending other people’s homes, when their own were occupied by the Blue Bellies, and desertions reached an all-time high. The faithful ones could only cling to their faith that each weary step was getting them closer to consolidating a grand and victorious Southern army.

Union forces kept coming, so the Confederates pulled back from Corinth. On June 7 they went into camp at Priceville, 6 miles east of Tupelo. There, they waited. Price was not any happier than his men, but on the 4th of July, when they surrounded his tent and demanded a speech from their beloved leader, he promised once again that some day soon they’d be going back to retake Missouri.

On July 7 they were reviewed by Generals Bragg and Hardee, who pronounced them to be “the finest, most efficient, best drilled and most thoroughly disciplined body of troops in the Army.” The accolades did little to raise morale, however. Rations were poor, with no way to keep food cool in the miserable Mississippi heat. There were worms in the meat and cornmeal, but when hungry men came across anything edible, they cared little what condition it was in. The land was swampy, and disease-carrying mosquitos were a constant pest. When canteens ran dry, men drank from farm ponds, puddles, and slow-moving streams that carried human and animal waste. They had no way of knowing it at the time, but throughout the war, far more men would die of disease than of battle wounds.

John, the middle Gamache brother, fell ill but stayed at his post, living with dysentery until it dehydrated him so that he couldn’t stand. He died pitifully, but mercifully, on July 10, 1862, as men moaned and flies buzzed around the little field hospital of Priceville. When the army moved out at the end of the month, they left thousands more like him in the hospital at the Union Army’s mercy.

The waning days of summer 1862 were a frustrating series of movements and camps, finally bringing Jerome and Elias Gamache to another fight at the little railroad and resort town of Iuka on the Mississippi-Tennessee line. Union forces surprised them September 19 with an attack from both the north and south, but the rebels held. The Missourians under Price faced double their number of Yankees, but they fought like men possessed, running into the field firing, sending the enemy into retreat, and capturing nine cannons.

Encouraged by the victory, the army resupplied, and every man had plenty of fresh water, bacon, hard tack, and ammunition. Holding their heads high, they marched back toward Corinth and destiny. They had the honor of attacking the one place that offered the South a big strategic advantage.

When the rebels got to Corinth on October 3, 1862, they found a railroad town surrounded by earthworks, and almost a quarter-mile-wide strip of tangled trees the Yankees had piled up to stop them. The Confederates started forming for attack, but Federal marksmen shot rebel artillery horses so fast that the artillery men couldn’t get the cannons set. It was all going to be up to the infantry, and they were ready. They plunged into the river of trees, jumping, climbing over and under, always forward and through a blistering hail of Yankee rifle and cannon fire.

Behind their breastworks, the Yankees were surprised to see the rebels emerge from the timber minutes later with few casualties, yelling and running toward them, hungry for blood. Jerome and Elias jumped into the ditch in front of the earthworks and scrambled up the bank. As they mounted the top with the first wave of rebels, the Yankees broke and fell back to positions closer to the town.

In the aftermath, the Missourians looked around and could scarcely believe what they saw. Very few of them had fallen. They had driven the enemy back from heavily fortified positions. After a satisfied cheer rolled down the gray line, the men began to realize the toll the fight had taken on their bodies. The temperature was in the 90s. Exhausted, they laid back, drank their canteens dry, and bathed the faces of their friends who had collapsed from heatstroke. Price rode among them, saluting and praising them for their courage, as cheers and waving caps followed him down the line. The general sent his entire personal staff to help refill canteens and tend to the wounded and weary men.

The next morning, rested and ready to repeat their valiant charge, the men marched forward to fight again. They stopped just out of the Yankees’ rifle range and formed shoulder to shoulder, presenting a magnificent display, bayonets held high and glistening in the rising sun. Jerome and Elias started forward, then with a chilling yell charged headlong into the hail of Federal gunfire. One reporter detailed the scene, saying they ran with their faces turned slightly, as if against a rainstorm, as though it might save them from a bullet. With lead whistling all around them, they burst through the Federal line and sent the enemy into full retreat.

But then, with victory assured, no reinforcements came to press the attack. Soon Yankee cannons on the flanks turned inward and pelted the rebels in a devastating crossfire. Price wept openly as he watched his men retreat across the very ground they had won, and yet he knew there was nothing else they could do.

The oldest Gamache brother, Jerome, had fallen somewhere in Corinth. The Yankees would load his body into a wagon, as they did thousands of other gray-clad boys, and roll him unceremoniously into a ditch. There would be no attempt to record the rebels’ names or units or look for notes about whom to contact. The ditches were simply filled in and never marked.

The Confederates retreated quickly, as the Yankees moved to cut them off. Again, the Missourians turned and fought. At Hatchie Bridge they kept the Yanks at bay long enough to get the huge gray column across the bridge. And by the time the army could stop, they realized that thousands of them had been lost. No one knew who was killed at Corinth. Elias Gamache could only hold the rosary in his pocket and look for his brother among the exhausted marchers. But when roll was finally taken, Elias knew Jerome was missing, and there was no way of knowing whether he lay in a ditch or a hospital.

Of the 8,000 men Price had brought from Arkansas, more than half were dead or in hospitals. By December there were so many desertions and rumors of desertions to come that Price had no choice but to meet the matter head on. He assembled the men. Looking out on their faces, he knew them well, knew their misery, but also knew he had to stir them to faithful service. Like an echo, his words were shouted back through the ranks from officer to officer as he said calmly, “All those who wish to remain in the service of this army, take one step forward. All those who wish to be shot, remain where you are.” There was a moment of complete silence as men looked at each other to be sure they’d heard correctly. Then, with a great rustling of shoes and equipment, the entire mass of men slid forward.

The winter was long. In the Confederate capitol in Richmond, commands were changed. Among them, Price was released to return to Missouri and attempt to raise a new force to retake the state. But his men had to stay. On February 7, 1863, Price stood before his troops for the last time. He told them they were needed by the Confederacy in Mississippi. He would return to Missouri to liberate their homes from the Yankee invaders. They both had a job to do, and one day they would be reunited in their beautiful Missouri.

And so Elias, the youngest and last Gamache boy, 500 miles from home, without his beloved commander, without his brothers, with only his devotion to duty to strengthen and sustain him, turned his eyes to the east and the battle ahead. Grant was throwing everything he had at the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, heavily fortified Vicksburg. He sent Federal gunboats up the river to bombard the rebel gun emplacements in the dark of night, while transports landed infantry nearby. Elias and the other rebels repulsed the attack, but it only delayed the inevitable. Grant was sending men from every direction.

On the morning of May 16, 1863, blue and gray columns moved in ponderous lines at various angles along Baker’s Creek, in the shadow of Champion’s Hill. Everyone knew something big was coming, and the tension rose until midmorning, when skirmishing escalated to fully engaged infantry and thundering artillery. The 2nd Missouri held the left flank of the Confederate line. Later in the day, after rebels were pushed from their commanding positions along the ridge, it was the 2nd Missouri that led the charge to retake the high ground. For almost three hours, as Union troops fell, fresh men took their places. The outnumbered Southerners fired all their ammunition, then, rather than abandon the field, picked up bullets from the dead and kept firing until there were no more bullets to be found.

Finally, they could fight no more. A junior officer had made a mistake and pulled the supply wagons back. With no ammunition the exhausted troops were forced to fall back. Somewhere in the horrible carnage they left the wounded Elias Gamache, bleeding badly. As darkness fell, he retired to the company of his departed brothers. Like at Corinth, Federals piled the Confederate dead in ditches. But there at Baker’s Creek the hatred was so deep, they left the ditches uncovered so the wild hogs could feed on those sons of the South.

For five years, John and Elizabeth Gamache watched the road, hoping to see their sons. Five years they waited for a letter. But their prayers went unanswered. All they knew was, like so many others in blue and in gray, John, Jerome, and Elias never came home.

—Joe Johnston, Guest Contributor