Some Personal War Experiences of David B. Freeman, Who Lays Claim to Being the Youngest Confederate Soldier

Written by David B. Freeman, Submitted by Alan Freeman

Delivered Before and Published by Authority of Atlanta Camp No. 159, United Confederate Veterans, Atlanta, 1923


Mr. Commander, Comrades:

It is with due appreciation of the privilege of so doing that I present here a sketch of my war experience, and if it proves of interest for no other reason, I trust it may from the uniqueness of that experience, or it’s being out of the usual. For fear of fatiguing you with too much detail I will only touch in the high places, so to speak.

Comrades, we have all had our war experiences and those of many of us are very much alike, but I have never read or listened to one that I did not enjoy. Not even so common a thing as a dog fight can be witnessed by two people and told of exactly alike. Our impressions come from the angle at which our understanding compasses an event and we generally like to know how the other fellow viewed what we saw. To me one of the most interesting stories of the war was a paper- covered book with the title, “Company Aitch.” It was the experiences of a Tennessee private for the full four years of the war with his company in the western army.

Now, to be fair with you, I never regarded as of much importance what some have been liberal enough to regard as a distinction, that of being the youngest Confederate soldier, a claim I feel safe in saying with due modesty but with candor I have established without any question. Though I know it was very much of a reality, the war seems as a dream to me, a separate part of my life, at least, and I lay no claim to patriotism, for I hadn’t lost any war and wasn’t hunting any, that I should go to it, but it rather came to me through circumstances not of my ordering.

I had a brother, crippled from white swelling, but from having been a member of the Fulton Blues previous to the development of the disease he possessed the military spirit. He went into his native county, Gilmer, and was the main spirit in the raising of a cavalry company, of which he was elected first lieutenant. Though hopeful, he was uncertain as to whether he could stand the service. He asked our mother to let me go with him into camp if need be to be of help to him. Astride a nick tailed blaze face bay pony I hied into Camp Felton, near Cartersville. There was organized Smith’s Legion, composed of an infantry battalion and one of cavalry. Infantry needed a drummer boy, cavalry a marker. The latter place was offered me, and there, by my mother’s and my brother’s consent I enlisted. This was in April, and I lacked one month being eleven years old. It was understood that I was to be allowed to return home any time the Colonel saw fit after drilling days were over; but alas! as we shall hereafter see.

After an itinerary characterized by no more exciting features than drill practice of the evolution of cavalry tactics, including the leaping of fences, picking up handkerchiefs while riding at full speed, etc., in which I got my share of falls, the fag end of summer found us going into Kentucky over the Cumberland Mountains after a brush with Clift’s men at Big Creek Gap.

As the panorama of the magnificent Blue Grass region unfolded itself to our vision from the mountain tops I thought this must be Paradise. As we went through the towns of Monticello, Crab Orchard and Danville, the populace welcomed us with joy. At every front gate stood ladies and children waving at us and as we would leave a town every horse had waving from its bridle a tiny Confederate flag. By the diminutive size of myself and steed I attracted much attention. Some would give me presents, such as home knit socks, mitts, neck scarfs and comforters, and some would observe that I ought to be at home with my mother.

At Monticello we came to the camp of General John H. Morgan and his men. I thought General Morgan was the finest looking soldier I had seen, and he was. Robust, erect; well fitting uniform; cavalry boots with spurs with immense rowels; white wide brimmed hat, held up at the side with a star; dark hair and beard – all this, with his coal black saddle mare, made him a picturesque figure.

At Mill Spring we were shown the spot where General Zollicoffer was killed. We halted at Camp Dick Robinson, at Bryantsville, and were put to guarding stores captured from the Federals at the battle of Richmond.

There was a drought and the streams all dried up and as the citizens had cisterns for their own use and no water to spare us, we suffered greatly for water. I saw men take their canteens and wave away the green scum and sink them to be filled in the puddles.

Coming away from Camp Dick Robinson the scene was one I never will forget. Acres of ground were covered with pickled pork in barrels. There was a large building filled with captured clothing and equipments. All this was set on fire. The heavens were lit up with the flames. Everything was on the retreat. Infantry had been passing in the day; the artillery and wagons were moving at night. The demoniacal blaze, the stench from burning meat and clothing, the braying of mules, the cursing of teamsters, all made up a fiendish medley for the vision, the hearing and the olfactories.

Every soldier had carried away a huge chunk of pickled pork stuck on the end of his bayonet.

My brother, coming in from a detachment service with two comrades, called me up at ten o’clock at night in a private home, where I had been allowed to stay until his return – right in the midst of this awful hubbub and confusion. The legion had gone on hours before. My pony had been stolen from the orchard. I jumped up behind my brother. We braved the pike in the jam amid the rattling and clanking of wheels, when a terrible rain began falling, and at the first town we rode into an old blacksmith shop, tied the horses to some rings, spread our wet blankets on the hard work benches and stayed – not rested – till morning.

The seemingly unending line of artillery and wagons jamming the pike, we decided to try the by roads, which was a perilous proceeding, going through mountains full of bushwhackers.

We took our  sleeps in the woods well away from the roads and were four days on our way. We were fired on several times and narrowly escaped being captured or killed. At Cumberland Gap we were halted by guards, to whom we told our story of special service, but as we had no official papers they would not let us pass. We moved back well out of sight and awaited some wagons we knew. Those of Colonel Maddox’s regiment came along. We were allowed to hide, each, in a wagon, with horse tied behind, and thus we evaded the guards, finding our command over the mountain.

I saw my pony (I had gotten me another one by this time), a boneyard sujeet, turned out on the barren commons fronting an infantry command, too poor and weak for rescue. Some “webfoot” had had a good ride out.

At the gap – it was in October – a snow fell three feet deep. We built great log fires and laid down at night with our feet to the fire. I took sick from the exposure and was carried to a farm house, where I was placed on a pallet with my feet to the fire. My feet cracked open and ran blood.

So much for the kindergarten. I don’t reckon I would have counted my service if it had ended here, and I was allowed to go home. So were most all, for the infantry and cavalry must separate in the legion, to be recruited into two regiments and everybody must induce recruits. These regiments were the 6th Georgia Cavalry and the 65th Georgia Infantry.

The first great engagement we took part in after I rejoined the command was at Chickamauga. In the battle there I will leave it to a comrade, John W. Minnich, to narrate the scene after the 6th and other cavalry had held the enemy back, as follows:

Just then we saw coming across the open field a long line of gray, at a quick step, with the stars and bars and St. Andrews cross floating grandly in the breeze – the line almost as correct as if on dress parade. It was Liddell, of Walker’s division. It was the long waited for and earnestly prayed for infantry relief. With the exception of a few stray shots from our friends in the bush, they had almost ceased firing, but we prayed there was still some life on the ridge. Then we gave a yell when the infantry came in sight. We threw our dusty hats into the air and danced about and shouted out the relief we felt. Our friends in the bush no doubt knew the meaning of those exultant shouts. Liddell entered the edge of the wood and when about sixty yards in advance of our line and about a hundred and fifty to our left there rose in front of him and us a double line of blue, and instantly we heard to our left front the loud command ‘Fire!’ The line of gray stopped still like a man who receives a staggering blow in the face. Hundreds went down under the scathing fire. Then we heard the commands, ‘Steady, men! steady!’ ‘Close up!’ ‘Fire!’ Only twice did they deliver their fire; and then again we heard the order, ‘Forward!’ The enemy poured in a murderous fire, but that line of gray was not to be checked. Bleeding at every step, it moved as one man in the face of a melting fire. It reached a point forty yards from the line of blue, and then above the infernal din we heard in clearest tones the order to charge. With a wild yell the boys in gray again leaped forward and the line of blue melted away. In less than two minutes blue and gray were out of sight in the wood. All this did not take fifteen minutes of time.”

After Chickamauga our regiment took what we called the long night ride. It was from McFarland Spring, Ga., to Panther Spring, in east Tennessee, a distance of sixty miles.

We were engaged in a fight with Yankee cavalry at Philadelphia, Tenn., and were with the Longstreet forces in his fall and winter campaign ’63-’64 in east Tennessee. The Georgia brigade of cavalry had been formed, composed of the 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, and 6th regiments. We were attached to General Will T. Martin’s division, of Joe Wheeler’s corps. For privations and peril I am satisfied there was no more trying service in the war. It seems to me we never had a whole night’s sleep, the sharp notes of the bugle bringing us to saddle at all hours from dark to dawn. The weather was severe, with snow on the ground most all the time and the streams which we had to ford times and times again, which included the Holston, the Clinch and the French Broad rivers, were filled with mush ice, dangerous, always, throwing a horse violently from its footing.

We fought at Mossy Creek, Lenoir’s Station, Dandridge, Russellville, Concord, Bean’s Station and other places, at some times dismounted and side by side with infantry. It would make this sketch too long to go into details regarding these engagements, which were exciting enough, but I wish to make especial mention of one.

At Bean’s Station we had been feeling for the enemy all day and found him just before night. The videttes were run in. We dismounted. From my position with the led horses on the side of the road I could see the movements in the field to our left. Our men charged, and just before entering a wood and simultaneous with a broadside which sent shells and grape among our horses to panic them, a musket volley was poured into them from part of a line said to be a corps of infantry, their position concealed in the wood. Seeing the odds they were against, our men went to horses and made their way back up the Holston, and on the night ride we slept in our saddles.

After Longstreet left for Virginia, heads were turned to Georgia, our cavalry making its way around through North Carolina.

From Dalton to Atlanta our company was escort for General Joseph E. Johnston.

At Resaca I saw the troops sling their knapsacks to be picked up by the wagons and on double quick, to enter the battle, and I never will forget the serious expression each man wore on his face as he pushed himself on to what he knew was danger, and perhaps death. Each countenance was as rigid as a stone.

The same Yankee batteries that were sending shells thick as hail around the headquarters wagon where we were eating breakfast just across the river sent several shells and cannon balls crashing through the Jim Hill house, where General Johnston had his headquarters.

At Cassville, riding beside the headquarters wagon, as we halted on the public square, I could see the forces forming their lines of battle on the hills above the town. Soon the shells fell thick where we were.

At Kennesaw Mountain General Johnston would sit on a camp stool and watch the signal corps on the mountain top. The Yankees, with field mortars, would try to dislodge the signal corps and the balls would fall thick and regular all about the headquarters camp. I thought I would like to move away from there every time a ball fell dangerously near, but the General was paying no attention to them. There is no greater test on one’s sticking courage than in the suspense of inaction in or near the source of danger, as I have heard men say who were put to supporting a battery.

After Johnston’s removal our company was put in charge of beef cattle for the army. We turned cow boys.

Now I will end this sketch with a narration of facts perhaps but little known and never, as I have seen, put in print. A small bunch of ex-confederates called on General A. P. Stewart, who succeeded Polk, when he visited my old home town. General Stewart told us Johnston had fully planned to give Sherman fight at Chattahoochee River and his three corps Generals had understood and agreed to it. The plan was to await Sherman’s start to cross the stream, as he would do, in three places, then from breastworks attack him in midstream. The evening before the planned battle, a telegram came from the war department to General Hood that he was put in command of the army. Before General Johnston knew of this, Stewart and Hardee, who did, went to Hood and asked that the war department be telegraphed to hold up the order till after the intended battle. Hood agreed. The answer came back, “The order is irrevocable. General Hood is in command.”