Editor's note: To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, The News-Sentinel is providing a retrospective on the role Allen County residents played in the war effort.
Margaret Hobson started off trying to gather information on a distant relative who served on the Union side during the Civil War.
The Spencerville woman ended up “adopting” the entire unit, compiling information on every man who served in the 44th Indiana Regiment. She eventually hopes to share what she has learned in one or more books.
“I just feel the men want their story to be told,” she said.
Research project grows
Americans will spend much of this year commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Fought from 1861 to 1865, it pitted the North against the South over questions of preserving slavery and the country as a union of states.
Hobson, who taught math in the Fort Wayne Community Schools district for 20 years before retiring, started researching her family's genealogy about 40 years ago. She began working on her mother's side of the family about 30 years ago. That's when she discovered ancestor Lewis W. Griffith, a member of the 44th Indiana who enlisted in August 1861 as a private and was discharged at the end of the war in September 1865 as a captain.
She found his story so interesting, she decided to gather information on the more than 2,000 men who served with him in the unit during the war. Most of the men came from northeast Indiana, including the regiment's first commanding officer, Col. Hugh B. Reed of Fort Wayne.
In her quest, Hobson has spent hours at the downtown Allen County Public Library, where the Genealogy Department has been a treasure trove of facts and details. Her search also has taken her to the Indiana State Archive, Indiana State Library and Indiana Historical Society, all in Indianapolis, as well as to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Formatted for book-size pages on her computer, the men's bios now fill more than 350 pages, she said. Currently, she's not sure if she will publish the bios as part of one or more books, or just put all the information online for people to use.
“I never was interested in making money on this anyway,” Hobson said.
Personal view of war
Hobson's findings about 44th Indiana offer an intriguing view into the war at the personal level.
When war was declared after the Confederate attack April 12, 1861, on Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, many men in the Fort Wayne area rushed to enlist and get in on what some thought would be a brief and glorious march to victory.
To enlist, men were supposed to be ages 18-45. However, Hobson found many accounts of older soldiers using shoe polish to hide gray hair on their heads and in beards. Teens reported writing the number “18” on a slip of paper and tucking it under their foot in a shoe so they could swear they were “over 18” when asked about their age.
Many of the soldiers in the 44th Indiana were age 18, Hobson said. But the unit had several 14-year-olds, including a drummer standing only 4 feet, 1 3/4 inches tall. The oldest regiment member was age 65.
The 44th Indiana gathered to start active military service Nov. 22, 1861, in Fort Wayne, Hobson said. From 1862 to 1863, they fought in major battles in Tennessee at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Stones River and Chickamauga, the last of which was on the Tennessee-Georgia border near Chattanooga.
From June to December 1862, the 44th marched more than 800 miles in pursuit of the army of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, trudging east from Corinth, Miss., to Bridgeport, Ala., then north to Nashville and Louisville, and south about 60 miles to Perryville, Ky.
“It was just amazing that they survived it,” Hobson said.
When the 44th arrived near Perryville, they could hear other Union Army units fighting Bragg's troops, but their unit was not called into battle, she said. After pursuing Bragg that far, the men were so disappointed they couldn't fight that about 20 deserted the regiment.
Death, disease common
Reality hit home in other ways, too.
Of the 952 enlisted men who made up the 44th at the start of the war, four died by accident, 159 died from disease and 64 died from war wounds, Hobson said.
Overall, 18 percent of the soldiers in the 44th died, she said, a rate higher than the 14 percent average for all Indiana units. She attributes the higher casualties to the battles the 44th fought and its long marches.
The soldiers' diaries talk about bathing once a month and continual problems with body lice, she said. They didn't have the medicines we do today to heal some of the wounds and diseases. Back then, some people still used bloodletting as a cure, she added.
Some men in the 44th also wrote about the shock of witnessing a slave auction in Henderson, Ky., Hobson said.
However, “I do not think the men were fighting to free slaves,” she said. “That came later. They were fighting to preserve the Union.”
The 44th Indiana finished up the war doing guard duty around Chattanooga, she said. They were released from service on Sept. 15, 1865.
‘Debt of gratitude'
Despite getting little credit for their war accomplishments, the men of the 44th Indiana had a major impact early in the war, Hobson said.
During the battle at Fort Donelson, which is near Dover in northwest Tennessee, the 44th twice stopped Confederate troops from breaking through the Union lines and regrouping, she said. Had those Confederate troops pushed through and regrouped, the Rebels may have mounted a stronger fight at the Battle of Shiloh — a battle they eventually withdrew from after both sides suffered heavy casualties.
“The 44th really were heroes,” she said.
And what of her ancestor, Lewis W. Griffith — the one who launched her on this military campaign?
A farmer near Hamilton in Steuben County, Griffith married just days after he enlisted, Hobson learned. Two of his brothers also went to war, Benjamin serving with the 152nd Indiana and Leamon with the 74th Indiana. Leamon died as a result of being shot in the right knee during the battle at Chickamauga.
Lewis was age 23 when he began combat duty with the 44th. During his four years with unit, he rose from private to captain. He suffered a wound to the face at Shiloh and to the right hand at Chickamauga.
He re-enlisted Jan. 1, 1864, but lost four months pay after being found guilty at a court martial in August 1864 of being “partially intoxicated” and “guilty of conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.”
After the war ended, Lewis Griffith returned to Hamilton, Hobson said, where he died in January 1918 at age 78.
“I was/am proud of his service and feel a large debt of gratitude for what the soldiers accomplished,” she said. “They suffered so much in order that the union was preserved. We take it for granted now.”