Nathan Mills was born in Indiana in 1844. He joined the Union Army in Indianapolis on October 19th, 1864, enlisting as a substitute for a man who had been drafted named Pasco Pedles. Hiring a substitute was very common- in fact, only 6% of all men drafted during the Civil War actually saw service in the army. Pedles would have paid Nathan Mills probably between $200 to $400 to take his place, but the price and terms were completely negotiable between the draftee and the substitute. The term of the enlistment was for one year, and in addition to the fee paid to him by Pedles, Mills would also draw the pay of a Union Army Private, the princely sum of 13 dollars a month.
Twenty years old, and 6’1’’ tall with dark hair and dark eyes, Nathan was assigned to Company G of the 38th Indiana Infantry. The regiment had been organized in September of 1861 and had fought in some of the toughest battles in the Western Theater- Perryville, Kentucky; Chickamauga, Georgia; Stones River, Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge, Tennessee; and the battles in and around Atlanta in the summer of 1864. Atlanta is where the 38th was when Nathan joined them in early November of 1864. He was about to embark on one of the most notorious campaigns of the Civil War, Sherman’s March to the Sea. General William T. Sherman was setting out, in his own words, to “make Georgia howl.” His goal was to bring economic ruin to the Deep South by destroying its agricultural and industrial capacity. The farms and plantations had been feeding the Confederate soldiers, the cotton crops had been providing the Confederate government with much needed cash, and the factories had been manufacturing the cannons and gunpowder which had been killing Yankees for over three years. Sherman and his army of 62,000 tough, mostly veteran soldiers knew they were embarking on the most pivotal campaign of the whole war, and many of them relished the thought of bringing their particular brand of warfare directly to the Southern population.
They started by burning Atlanta. On the night of November 15th, 1864, Sherman ordered the city’s business and industrial areas put to the torch. No dwellings were to be burned he ordered, but the fire soon spread to civilian areas as many drunken Union soldiers embarked on an all-night spree of looting and arson. By morning, almost half of the city was in ashes. Sherman and his soldiers turned toward the east, splitting into two wings to maximize the total area encompassed. One wing, with Private Mills and the 38th Indiana, headed toward Augusta while the other headed toward Macon. True to his word, Sherman and his men brought destruction everywhere they went. They burned all the crops. They burned all the cotton. They burned all the plantations. They heated up and twisted all the iron rails used for the railroad, wrapping them around trees into misshapen objects that came to be known as “Sherman’s Neckties.” The sky glowed orange from the hundreds of fires, and at times the sun was completely blotted out by the thick black smoke that covered the landscape. Young Nathan, who one month earlier had been a Quaker farmer back in Indiana, must have felt as though he had stepped into a scene from Dante’s Inferno. The path of destruction was in some places 60 miles wide, and parts of the region didn’t fully recover economically for 100 years.
Sherman and his army reached the coast and the city of Savannah by late December. From there they turned north and set their sights on South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union and judged by many in the army as the birthplace of the rebellion. They took the state capitol, Columbia, on February 17th, 1865 and burned it to the ground. Next they headed into North Carolina and at Bentonville on March 20th fought the only pitched battle against a large Confederate army of the whole campaign, defeating 25,000 Confederates under General Joseph Johnston. Two weeks later General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General U.S. Grant in Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War.
Private Mills was in poor health during the North Carolina campaign. A friend from his regiment recalled that he had to be put on the wagon train and “his eyes were yellow, and he looked real bad.” After the surrender the 38th marched from Raleigh, North Carolina to Washington, D.C., a trip that took 21 days. Private Mills’ shoes gave out along the way, and he had to march part of the distance barefoot. Private Mills and the 38th marched in the Grand Review in Washington in late May, a two-day parade of the victorious Union Army. From there they took a train to Louisville, Kentucky, and were mustered out of service on July 15th, 1865.
Nathan returned to Indiana and married Louisa Beard in 1866. They had 4 children, 1 boy and 3 girls. He continued his pre-war occupation as a farmer and also found work as a part-time Quaker preacher. After stops in Michigan and Kansas he moved to Garden Grove in 1888, Long Beach in 1890, and finally settled with his family on a 10-acre ranch in Santa Ana in 1893. His wife died in 1890, and he remarried later that year. In 1891 he was one of the founders of the Friends Church in Garden Grove, which still stands on Magnolia Street. He also joined the Santa Ana G.A.R. post, as did most of the Union veterans in the area. His son was killed by a horse in 1892, and in 1901 Nathan was admitted to the Pacific Branch, National Home for Disabled Veteran Soldiers in Los Angeles due to declining health. He died there on January 15th, 1905, at age 61 and is buried in Magnolia Memorial Park in Garden Grove.