RESACA’S BLOODY FIELD
Reminiscences of a Confederate Soldier
of Newton County
by Terry Terrell Lange
John C. Portis was born February 3, 1837 at Murphreesboro, Fayette County, Tennessee, to Elijah Goodwin Portis and Joanna Underwood. The 1850 Federal Census enumerates the family in Fayette County, Tennessee. In about 1858, the Portis family moved to Neshoba County, Mississippi, where they were enumerated on the 1860 Federal Census. John was then age 25, and his occupation was farming. Living next door was the Boyd family, including daughter Margaret, age 19, who was to become John’s bride. In 1861, a son, William E. Portis, was born to this union.
On May 11, 1862, John C. Portis enlisted from Neshoba County in Company I of the Sixth Mississippi Battalion Volunteers, Confederate States Army, under the command of Lt. Col. Balfour and Capt. W. J. Hoye. He served for about a month before leaving the service due to chronic rheumatism. John later enlisted in Company B, 8th Mississippi Volunteer Infantry, and remained in service with this unit until surrender.
Company B had many hard conflicts. It fought with General Bragg in his famous Kentucky and Tennessee campaigns. It was in the battles of Mumfordsville, Perryville, and Stone River. Company B was at Missionary Ridge on Lookout Mountain, called “the battle above the clouds”, and, in the words of Private Portis, was the “most sublime conflict recorded in the history of modern warfare.” On the 20th of September 1863, it was in the battle of Chickamauga, considered one of the most desperate battles of the war, where the number of deaths was higher than in any engagement of the war1. Portis was in the opening of the Georgia campaign in 1864, and May 13 of that year found his Company in Gordon County, Georgia, where Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had withdrawn to the hills around Resaca.
On the 13th, the Union troops tested the Rebel lines to pinpoint their whereabouts. The next day full scale fighting occurred, and the Union troops were generally repulsed except on the Rebel right flank, where Sherman did not fully exploit his advantage. It was on this date that young Portis was injured.
The letter, which follows, written by John C. Portis, vividly describes the events of that fateful day.
June 17, 1896
Mrs. J. E. Simmons
I send herewith $1 stamps to be used in your society on soldier’s cemetery at Resaca. I have no brother or other near or even distant relative sleeping on that glorious field, that I know of, but seven of my regiment lie there. I will append the names that I remember.
My good right arm lies about a mile south of Resaca, just north of a church, at the root of a large oak or chestnut tree. It was put in a board box and buried by a comrade; hence, you see, I feel an interest in the wild hills of Resaca. I was a private in Company B, Eighth Mississippi Regiment, Volunteers Infantry.
Sunday morning, May the 15, about 8 o’clock, my right arm was amputated at the shoulder joint. Thirty-two years have passed since then, and strange as it may seem, the boy soldier that few thought could live is writing his reminiscences of those two days of carnage.
Never shall I forget the morning of that fateful 14th of May , when at early dawn the signal gun told us, in tones of thunder, that both armies were ready for the work of death. Bright rose the sun, tipping mountain peaks with glinting rays of silver, and bathing valley and woodland in a flood of golden light—a scene never to be witnessed again by hundreds of the boys who wore the blue and the gray.
In the streets of Resaca that day I saw enacted a deed of heroism which challenged the admiration of all who witnessed it. A wagon occupied by several ladies was passing along north of the river, and just west of the railroad, when a Yankee battery opened fire on it, and, until it had passed over the bridge, poured a storm of shells around it. A young woman stood erect in the wagon, waving her hat, which was dressed with red or had a red ribbon or plume on it, seemingly to defy the cowards who would make war on defenseless women. I felt then, as I do today, for that woman a man could freely die. Many a rebel boy felt as I did that day.
I was wounded in the right shoulder and throat about dark in a charge on enemy works, on a hill just west of a village on the north side of the river. I was carried back to the bluff below the bridge where about 300 or 400 poor fellows were lying torn, bleeding, and some dying. After a time I crossed the bridge, and, faint and sick, I was trying to make my way to Cheatham’s division hospital, which was in the church.
A man came into the road with an ox wagon loaded in part with beds, which appeared to be very white. Someone called him Motes and asked him about his (Motes’) family. He said they had gone on to Calhoun. Mr. Motes insisted that I should ride, and said his wife would not care if all her beds were dyed with rebel blood. He carried me to the old church. I would like to know what became of Mr. Motes. The night was dark, and I could not see his face.
I was taken from the church to a brush arbor on the west side of the railroad, where I was expected to die. A middle-aged woman, dressed in black, came with nourishments and (God forever bless her) fed me, and during that awful day ministered to the wants of the wounded and dying. If I remember correctly, she came often to me with food and drink. Who she was, I may never know, but she was a noble woman.
Will you, kind lady, bear with me while I relate another incident of that Sunday. Perched upon the top of a lofty tree near the church was a mocking bird, warbling his sweet notes of joy and gladness, every now and then darting out to catch a Minnie ball as it went singing by. My comrade told me my little bird sang on ‘til dark. I first called attention to that sweet songster, which it seemed was trying to cheer me in the dark hour of my young manhood.
I am now nearly sixty years old, and my head is almost white. I have a noble son, who was then a babe, now a prominent teacher. I have two sweet daughters, and have five little grandchildren who never tire of hearing grandfather tell of the time when death seemed so near. They shed tears with me while looking in my empty sleeve. I tell them my good arm is sleeping in Georgia and that some time, in the morning of the resurrection, God will restore my arm, but they cannot understand and become indignant at the Yankees.
I fear I have worried you, and if you do not wish to keep this among the papers of your society, you can destroy it. I felt that I would like to write this, and that maybe someone would see if the tree is standing and perhaps find my lost arm a place in the soldier’s cemetery. If not, it can rest on until God shall bid it rise and meet its long severed companion when war’s dread alarm will be heard no more.
May God bless the noble women of the sweet, sunny South in their work of love and devotion to the memory of the heroes who fell battling for “the lost cause”.
I hope that I may live to contribute something more to aid you in your loyal task. Again, God bless you dear ladies is the prayer of,
John C. Portis returned from the war, located in Newton County and, no longer able to farm, pursued other endeavors. In 1871, he was elected County Assessor of Newton County and served one term. He was the first Mayor of Union, was a Congregational Methodist Minister, and owned a store in the town of Union, where his wife ran a boarding house.
Private John C. Portis
Company B, 8th Mississippi
Volunteers, Infantry, CSA
J. K. Jackson’s Brigade,
He was elected County Treasurer in 1875, and served four terms. One evening in November of 1882, while returning home from Decatur where he had been on business connected with his office, he was attacked by two masked highwaymen just south of Union, taken from his horse and robbed of $1,380. No definite clue was ever obtained as to who committed the crime. Portis and his bondsmen, who composed some of the best men in the county (twenty-six in number), promptly paid the full amount of the deficit to the county treasury. He continued to hold the office until his term expired. The amount paid by his bondsmen was secured to them by Portis, which required the liquidation of nearly all his real and personal property to satisfy the indebtedness. The robbery was thoroughly investigated before the grand jury, but no proof was ever brought before that body that satisfied them of the identity of the parties committing the act.3
Rev. Portis was a pastor at Mt. Zion Congregational Methodist Church, and is shown seated behind the table in the photograph, which follows.
John and Margaret Portis had three children: William E. Portis, born 17 August 1861; Emma Augusta Portis Harrison, born 30 April 1865; and Maria H. Portis Wells, born 6 April 1871.
Mt. Zion Church/School
Rev. Portis is seated behind the table, and has a white beard.
John died 3 October 1909, and his wife Margaret died 21 February 1899. Both are buried at Union Cemetery in Newton County. John’s “good right arm” still rests just south of Resaca in the hills of northwest Georgia.
1. HISTORY OF NEWTON COUNTY, A. J. Brown, p. 451, 452
2. THE NEWTON RECORD, Thursday, June 14, 1906
3. HISTORY OF NEWTON COUNTY, A. J. Brown, pp. 452, 453