Friday, August 17, 2018

The Life and Times of John Washington Barker (1822-1863), 131st Illinois Civil War Infantry Man.

John Washington Barker was born about 1822 in Perry County, Indiana. Nothing is known of his first 35 years of his life.
John Washington Barker lived in this cabin sometime in the mid-19th century. It was located in Bethel Hollow, Pope County, Illinois. This photo is Circa 1880.
At age 36 he married Elizabeth Thacker on Christmas Day of 1858 in Pope County, Illinois. His life moved very quickly after that as John and Elizabeth had three children: Maria (or Mariah) born in 1860, Angelana in 1861, and John Washington Barker Jr. in 1863.
Barker was not at home while Elizabeth was pregnant with John Jr., and he was never able to return home after he left 2 months after John Jr.'s inception. Barker enlisted in the Civil War the month after John Jr. was conceived and by the time Elizabeth was round with child he was being transported far away from his family aboard Union steamboats. He had joined the newly formed 131st Illinois Infantry on August 12, 1862 along with 814 other men.

Pope County residents were nervous in 1862. Grant's Union Army had come through in 1861 and by the spring of 1862, the bloodiest battle in US history to that date occurred 200 miles to the south in Shiloh, Tennessee. New fighting units were being formed throughout Illinois and Pope County was no exception. The Illinois 131st infantry was formed in August 1862 and took in men from Hamilton, Gallatin, Hardin, Pope, and Massac counties.
Unbeknownst to Pope County's residents, a major reason for the new units was to prepare for the new 1862 Union thrust: to split the Confederacy in two by taking control of the Mississippi River. The 131st became a part of that effort and they first gathered at Fort Massac, Illinois in September 1862. They had no tents or firearms when the measles broke out. About 100 of the 815 men were discharged due to death or disability.

On November 13, 1862 the 131st was mustered into US service and boarded the steamboat Iowa bound for Cairo, Illinois.
The Steamboat Iowa.
There they were issued inferior Harpers Ferry flintlock guns of various calibers, which they received in protest.
An Original 1860 Musket Harper's Ferry Musket - Model № 1855; .58 caliber.
They again boarded the steamboat Iowa and proceeded along the Mississippi to Memphis, TN where they arrived on December 7, 1862. 

On December 20, 1862 the 131st embarked again on the steamer Iowa and headed south on the Mississippi to Milliken's Bend, just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. They stayed there until December 27, 1862 when they were sent to land near Hayne's Bluff, up the Yazoo River and north of Vicksburg.

They returned to Milliken's Bend on January 1st or 2nd of 1863. The size of their group had grown to about 74 boats.

On January 4, 1863, the steamer Iowa began it's trek north first along the Mississippi to the mouth of the White River then up the Arkansas River 30 miles to just outside the Arkansas Post. The 131st disembarked at noon on January 10th and marched 4 miles until 11 PM through swamp covered with underbrush and fallen timber during a snow and rainstorm.

Unbeknownst to our Barker, Joseph Fardell and the rest of the 131st they were about to become part of an important Civil War battle. The Confederates had been disrupting Union shipping on the Mississippi River from Fort Hindman located at Arkansas Post.
Union Major General John McClernand began landing troops there the evening of January 8, 1863. Major General William T. Sherman forced the Confederates to retreat into Fort Hindman.
Plat of Fort Hindman Arkansas.
Rear Admiral David Porter moved his fleet toward Fort Hindman on January 10, 1863 and bombarded it until dusk. Union artillery fired on the fort from artillery positions across the river on January 11th, and the infantry moved into position to attack. Union ironclads continued shelling the fort and Porter's fleet cut off any means of retreat. The Confederate command surrendered during the afternoon of January 11, 1863 after 6,547 casualties had occurred.

After four days of filling ditches, burying the dead, and demolishing fortifications the 131st was again on the move aboard the steamer Iowa on January 15, 1863. They arrived at Youngs Point on January 23, 1863.
The curve of the river in front of Vicksburg made it impossible for Union ships to pass the town without being exposed to rebel fire.
Abraham Lincoln proposed building a canal at Youngs Point that would allow the ships to bypass Vicksburg. He was very disappointed when the concept did not work as planned. The canal came to be called Grant's Canal and the project started on June 27, 1862.

The men left the steamer on January 25th and set up camp at a point surrounded by the levee while the rain continued to pour. They waded through waist deep water to get to their posts and used pick and axe to dig the canal. Pneumonia, smallpox, and measles were rampant. The regimental surgeon was too sick to report to duty, and the healthy troops were tasked with burying those that died. They buried between 1 and 5 members of the 131st each day.

On March 2, 1863 General McClernand ordered the 131st to board the steamship Westwind and return to Memphis to recruit its health. (On March 7th, the dam holding the Mississippi out of Grant's Canal broke and work permanently ceased on the canal) The troops arrived at Fort Pickering on March 6, 1863. This is apparently where Barker and Joseph Fardell part company because Fardell did not go to Memphis with the other troops - he was sent to Jefferson Barracks at the US General Hospital in St Louis, Missouri.

By May 10, 1863 the original 815 men of the 131st were down to about 400 due to death or disablement. The remaining 400 boarded the steamboat Golden Era on that day and headed down the Mississippi River bound for Vicksburg, accompanied by the steamboats Crescent City and Warren along with a gunboat.

They came under fire while passing Island No 82 from a group of about 100 men positioned behind logs on the shore. The gunboat returned fire and the men on shore dispersed, but not before one man and a mule were killed onboard, and two men injured.


The 131st arrived at Shermans Landing just north of Vicksburg on May 12, 1863. They returned to Milliken's Bend on May 17 and relieved the 30th Ohio that was on duty there guarding army supplies from thieves.

They used the steamboat Fanny Bullett to return to Shermans Landing on May 24, 1863 and camped within full view of Vicksburg. Some of the men did duty on the picket line (ie they guarded the larger force) and some of the men manned mortar boats. The seige on Vicksburg had started on May 23, 1863.

On June 7th the 131st and 120th were ordered back to Milliken's Bend to support a colored regiment equipped with inferior weaponry that was being attacked by 1200 rebels. They arrived at Milliken's Bend one hour after the order, but the rebels retreated at the sight of the gunboats. The Union had lost 652 and the rebels 185 in the battle. They stayed for two days awaiting a reattack that never came, then they returned to picket duty at Sherman's Landing. 

By the end of June 1863, Confederate General Pemberton realized his situation was desperate. Over 10,000 of his soldiers were incapacitated due to illness, wounds and malnutrition. His supplies were at critically low levels and he had just learned that Grant was preparing another massive assault for early July.

Pemberton and his commanders concluded that surrender was inevitable. On the morning of July 3, 1863 he gave orders to display a white flag of truce and sent someone to deliver a message to General Grant proposing to meet to discuss surrender terms. At 3 o'clock pm, Grant and Pemberton met under an oak tree midway between opposing lines. They did not reach agreement, but notes exchanged later in the day brought about the final terms.

Also on this day, General Robert E. Lee was defeated in Gettysburg. These two events marked the turning point in the Civil War. On July 4, 1863 Union soldiers took control of Vicksburg.
This home was known as the White House or the Shirley House.
On May 18, 1863 as Confederate forces retreated, they were ordered to burn the house but were shot before they could apply torch. Mrs Adeline Shirley, her 15 year old son Quincy and several servants were in the house and huddled for three days before they made their presence known by waving a white flag.
Troops stationed on the edge of Shirley House.
Jefferson Davis, a Democratic US Senator from Mississippi, resigned in order to become the President of the Confederacy.
Jefferson Davis' home, called Brierfield, was captured in Vicksburg.
The next day, on July 5, 1863, John Washington Barker died near Vicksburg.

The cause of death was "Chronic Dysentery," but it cannot be denied that the capture of Vicksburg lead to his demise on that day. Working in unimagineable conditions for almost a year had taken its toll on Barker. On various documents, the location of death is listed as "Mouth of the Yazoo River" and "Paw Paw Island in the Mississippi River," but those locations are very close together.

He died in a hospital at the mouth of the Yazoo River. At that time, there were many floating hospitals along the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers.
The Red Rover floating hospital was in the vicinity at that time.
There were numerous "field hospitals," such as this one, used throughout the Civil War.
During the battle from March 29, 1863 through July 4, 1863, numbers range northward of 10,000 Union and 9,000 Confederate men killed. The city of Vicksburg did not celebrate the 4th of July for the next 80 years.
Monument to the 131st Infantry in Vicksburg.
There is no grave marker for John Washington Barker in the Vicksburg National Cemetery, but it's possible that he's buried in one of the 13,000 unknown graves.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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