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William Stuart Walker enlisted as a musician on May 25, 1861, in Co. K, 17th Illinois Infantry. At the time of his enlistment, Stuart identified himself as an “artist.” Enlistment papers recorded him standing 5′ 7½” with brown hair and brown eyes, light complexion and unmarried. Though he enlisted for three years, he was discharged prematurely at Pittsburg Landing after a year in the service suffering from chronic diarrhea only a couple of weeks after the Battle of Shiloh in which he was a participant. His discharge date was recorded as April 24, 1862. After returning home to Illinois, Stuart apparently regained his health to a degree and volunteered to serve in a civilian capacity with the boys of Mason City who had enlisted in the 85th Illinois infantry. 

After the war, Stuart returned to Mason City where, in 1869, he married Margaret (“Maggie”) Montross. In 1870, at the age of 31, Stuart was the editor of the Mason City News in Mason City, Mason Co., Illinois. His wife, Maggie, 22, was keeping house and caring for their infant son named William. By 1880, Stuart had moved his family to Los Galos, California, where he found employment as a printer. He died in San Jose on Nov. 29, 1907, and is buried in Los Gatos Memorial Park at San Jose, Santa Clara, California. His headstone is of the standard Union soldier shield design, identifying him as a “musician” in Co. K, 17th Illinois.

On Feb. 8, 1862, the 17th Illinois Regiment were taken by boat to Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. On the 11th, they received orders to take two days’ rations and leave all tents and camp equipage in charge of a camp guard, and report to Gen. John A. McClernand, commanding the right division of the advance on Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. They arrived within view of the outer defenses of the fort on the 12th. The brigade to which the 17th Illinois was attached also included the 48th and 49th Illinois Regiments and Capt. McCallister’s Battery.

On the 13th, Gen. McClernand ordered the brigade to make an assault on the enemy’s works with a view of capturing a battery which had been annoying our troops very much. After charging up to within a few yards of the works, it was found impossible to get inside; the order was given by General Ulysses S. Grant to withdraw, which was done in good order under a severe fire of shot and shell from the battery. Colonel Morrison of the 49th Illinois (leading the Brigade) was severely wounded while on his horse leading the charge; loss of the 17th regiment was quite severe. On the 14th of February, the 17th regiment lay under fire all day; during the afternoon it rained and by night turned quite cold, and by morning of the 15th there was two inches of snow on the ground, much to the discomfort of the troops. While in line waiting for orders, the regiment was a target for the gunners in the fort, who got such good range that the second shell killed four men in the four right companies and wounded two others.

On Sunday, the 16th of February, the 17th Illinois regiment was in line ready for the general assault which was to be made all along the line, when, to the joy of all, a messenger came galloping up with the information that the enemy had surrendered to General Grant. The regiment was soon inside the works. The loss of the regiment was: killed, 14; wounded, 58; captured, 7; total, 79. From the date of the surrender on the 16th of February to the 4th of March, the 17th Illinois remained in camp at Fort Donelson.

Walker wrote the following letter during his time at Fort Donelson.

This letter is one of thousands of letters transcribed by William Griffing as part of his online repository of Civil War letters, Shared & Spared. For more of the compelling letters he makes available to read, visit the Spared & Shared Facebook page.

Fort Donelson
February 20, 1862

Dear Brother,

As Hibberd got here this evening. I feel so full of enthusiasm that I must give vent to some of it by writing to you. I cannot give you much of an idea of the big battle in which we were engaged but it was terrible indeed. The enemy had once one hundred cannon playing at us for four days. I thought I had heard nearly all kinds of music but I never heard such music as was played over our heads around Fort Donelson.

Jim, you must not be startled when I tell you my idea of the loss. I speak of both sides. I wrote to Captain and told him I thought the loss on both sides would come up to three thousand. Since then I have been over the field and have heard lots of officers’ opinions in regard to it and I believe that on both sides in killed and wounded will exceed seven thousand. The loss on both sides are about the same. Perhaps the Federal loss was the heaviest. Just think of it. Last Wednesday we attacked the Fort, and this is Wednesday again and there are still poor soldiers laying on the battlefield unburied.

You may want to know how I like fighting. I will only say that I will follow the 17th [Illinois Infantry] to the gates of death but I am in hopes we may never get in such a place as we was last Thursday. Look a here, James, last Thursday 10 minutes after 2 o’clock P.M. until nearly 3 o’clock, we were within 100 yards of the enemy’s entrenchments with two field batteries playing on us all the time besides about 2,000 infantry. They rained a perfect storm of iron hail amongst all the time. Our regiment and the 49th Illinois stood the whole  brunt without flinching till we was ordered to fall back under the hill. Almost every tree and bush was cut off and some of our boys was hurt by the falling timber. A bomb shell burst within two feet of [Andrew J.] Bruner and me and flew all over us and tore one man’s gun that was next to us all to pieces. How our company escaped so well, I don’t know without it was owing to our laying so close to the ground.

What we will do next, I can’t say. There are various rumors. I understand that Clarksville is evacuated and the garrison fallen back in Nashville. This is a lovely place now. Our camp stretches for miles up and down the river. It was worth a lifetime to see the State of Illinois marching into Fort Donelson. Our bands came in playing Dixie and then covered it up with Yankee Doodle. The Rebels all had blankets made of fine Brussel’s carpet. They was fixed as well as I ever seen soldiers anywhere. If I had have had any way to have got them home, I could have got a great many things that I would have liked to have had. As it was, I only got a fine English rifled musket (shoots 900 yards) and a big knife of the Mississippi Butcher notoriety and a secesh blanket (having thrown mine away in the fight) and a canteen and some other little things home as mementoes.

Our boys are getting along fine although many are near worn out — myself among the rest. We never knew what soldiering was till lately. 18,000 prisoners — that’s so.

Hibberd says George is coming tomorrow. I will be glad to see him. Tell Cap I seen Pete Smith and Jo Bowers today. They were on the Louisville in the action. The gunboats only dismounted one gun. The Rebel guns commanded the river for 2 miles. Their big Dalgrens played the very devil with our war boats. They threw a long ball weighing 166 lbs. clear through the Louisville.

Jim, I wish you was here to see Hibberd. He is sitting out by a big fire with all our company around him. Everyone is talking and Mo Esy [Frank Moseley?] is going through all the antics of a monkey.

I will close as tis late. write soon. Tell Cap we would all like to see him very much. We don’t get any papers here, no letters, and no nothing anymore.

Dick Yates came down here this evening with about 1200 men for nurses. Bully for him, Tell Cap he is no cow.  Don’t fail to write the next you hear from us. We may be at Nashville or some other seaport. Tell all the girls to look out for promising young men about home as the great southern expedition — when it returns — will find many of the Illinois boys on the missing roll. I will write to all the friends whenever I get a chance.

Stamps are a great deal scarcer than Rebels. I will send you a rebel stamp that I got in the fort and Jim, I wish you would send me a Union stamp. What d’ye say? Yours as ever, — W. S. Walker

Tell Cap to write soon.

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