Memories of War Times

Personal Reminiscences of Happenings That Took Place From 1861 to the Grand Review

by Reub Williams

O, the battle-scarred trees have oft budded in Spring-time,
While the trailing arbutus by brook, bank, and dell,
Now creeps o'er the mounds where our comrades lie sleeping,
To clasp with its tendrils the rust-covered shell;
And as our life's sun lower swings to its setting,
And we rest 'neath the flag of our Nation made free,
We will sing of that day and the chieftain who led us,
Who hat fought his last Shiloh by Death's Tennessee.

The reader will bear in mind that my last article closed with a brief description of the hasty return to the intrenchments we had been occupying ever since we had taken up our position in what has since--was then, in fact--called the battle of Dallas. They were barely in time in filling the breastworks they had left, and a delay of but a few moments more would have compelled us to make a fight for their possession "in the open." As it was, my brigade, at least, was there in time to deliver a couple of volleys at short range. My own judgment is that the Confederates were surprised to find the Federals still occupying the line from which they were confident they had been withdrawn. This surprise was wholly in our favor, for the enemy believing that the intrenchments were entirely empty--to use an unmilitary term for such a state of affairs--were not only surprised, but greatly disconcerted, and almost at once began to fall back to the lines they had occupied for a week or more. The entire division having re-occupied our own works resumed their duties much as before the attempt to vacate them had occurred, and for two days the skirmishing again went forward, each side establishing a heavy line of pickets. After these two days had elapsed, the attempt was again made, so that General Sherman's plan to envelope General Johnston's Confederate line was only deferred for that length of time.

During these few days the wounded were conveyed in ambulances to the rear of the line that the Fifteenth corps was to occupy after relieving General Hooker, preparatory to making a second withdrawal from the enemy's front, and I want to say right here that the withdrawal of a line of troops from the front of a vigorous and active enemy is a very ticklish thing sometimes, as there is nothing a soldier dreads more than to receive a volley in the back, which is the only manner he can receive the fire of the enemy when in the act of withdrawing from his front. Of course, too, the withdrawing troops are always caught in the open, and while they may be the bravest of men, yet a continuous fire from the rear very generally has the effect to accelerate their speed. It is also usual in such movements to leave behind a heavy skirmish line to occupy the works intended to be vacated as long as possible in order to convey the idea to the enemy that the lines were as well-manned as usual. This course always has the effect to make the attacking force move forward carefully and to only slowly develop the fact as to whether the intrenchments are still occupied or not. The withdrawal of my own brigade from the front of the enemy was one of the most unpleasant trying duties I ever had to perform, although I never had to do so more than three times during the campaign then on, and in every case it was to take up a new position in the line at some other point, as was the case in the one I am now so briefly describing. In the incident of which I am writing the skirmishers held the line so closely and kept up the firing so vigorously as to deceive the enemy so long that the main body was fully three miles on their way to the new position ere the enemy discovered that they had been held back by a strong skirmish line only, consequently all danger from a rear attack had passed. Very soon afterward the division to which my brigade belonged reached its destination and went into the position assigned them on the extreme front.

General Hooker's forces--perhaps the largest under any one of the higher officers--had been on their way to our left and the enemy's right for some time, and this in part accounted for the fact that the troops on the extreme right of General Sherman's line had not been pursued further than to ascertain to a certainty that a large body of the Federals had been withdrawn, and it was during the night of June 4 that General Joe S. Johnston abandoned his position and fell back towards Marietta, occasioned, of course, by General Hooker's over-lapping line on the Confederates' right. Thus another "Sabbath day's journey" had been made towards Atlanta, the destination of both Federal and Confederate commanders-in-chief. The retreat of the Confederate forces permitted a brief rest on the part of General Sherman's army, although this short cessation of hostilities became necessary, owing to the condition of our communications. Cars were running from Chattanooga to Etowah river, the railroad bridge over that stream being still in an incomplete condition, although large bodies of soldiers, including a regiment of engineers were busily engaged in building a new one. It was at this point that I heard the story, although I cannot vouch for its truth, and that was that during all of the preceding months following the battle of Missionary Ridge and while all of Sherman's army lay in winter quarters at Chattanooga and the outlying country adjacent, Sherman's spy system was so efficient that he had secured the plan of every bridge between Chattanooga and Atlanta and under the presumption that when the campaign opened in the coming spring, the enemy would of course destroy all bridges left behind, he had new ones constructed during the winter and piled up ready-framed along the line of railroad ready to be sent forward when called for. I have said that I cannot say that the story is true, but I heard it from an apparently reliable source while the army was awaiting the construction of the bridge across the Etowah. As General Sherman was, previous to the war fairly well acquainted with that section of Northern Georgia, the tale told me then may have been a fact. While he was a First Lieutenant in the regular army, General Sherman was stationed for a time at Bellefont in northern Alabama and also at Marietta, Ga., the handsome little village that lay under the southern slope of Kenesaw mountain--a point for which his present command was then reaching for with out-stretched hands and which was within a short time to be within his grasp.

In retiring his lines the Confederate commander yielded to us Altoona Pass, the point that followed the fall of Atlanta became somewhat celebrated for General Corse's defense of the "pass" with its two millions of rations, at the time that General Hood undertook its capture on his watch to the Tennessee river, while General Sherman was planning and arranging for his ever memorable "march to the see." The arrangement was to have the railroad completed to Acworth with all possible speed, and it was at that point that General Sherman assembled the principal part of his army, using his immense wagon trains in forwarding supplies over the still unfinished section of the railroad, and it was here that General Blair joined General Sherman with that portion of the Seventeenth corps that had been left behind at the opening of the Atlanta campaign. This additional force was just about sufficient to make up the losses of the army incurred from Dalton and Resaca to the position then held, and these troops were warmly welcomed by their comrades, who in and about Vicksburg had fought together in all of General Grant's operations around that stronghold. The rest to which I have referred did not last long although it was badly needed by those who had been on duty of every kind pertaining to the soldier in wartime, both night and day and whose weariness--much of it at least--was caused by the inability of the men to keep clean by bathing and their clothing being constantly stiffened with the red clay that stuck to them with a tenacity of modern mucilage, and which was always a source of discomfort. How the troops welcomed a camp near a river or even a small running stream for it gave them the chance of limbering up their pantaloons, shirts and socks so as to make them somewhat more pliable than had been the case for over a month past. It was about the middle of June, if I remember correctly, when Sherman once more put his army in motion. It was known that the enemy was located on both side of the railroad at Big Shanty. Here General Joe Johnston, with increased additions to his forces that had reached him from various unthreatened points in the South, held on for three or four days; but General Sherman by extending his lines on both flanks enveloped the enemy to such an extent that he was forced out of the excellent entrenchments the Confederates had constructed and was now compelled to retire to his defenses at Kenesaw Mountain, where heavy lines of work had previously been prepared and was deemed by the enemy as impregnable. The Kenesaw line was the last one available to the Confederate commander north of the Chattahoochie river and a strong feeling prevailed even in our own army that serious and severe fighting was before us.

Kenesaw Mountain is situated in a comparatively level country and rises directly from the plain that at the period of the war was quite free from forest growth. Right out of this level plain it arose to quite a height, although I am not prepared to give the number of hundreds of feet. It is about a mile and a half in length and the north and west sides exceedingly abrupt--so much so, indeed, that on the north side it was difficult to climb--a fact that I well remember, for it was on this side that my brigade was finally stationed when the real work commenced. The mountain lay directly across the path of the Northern army. Very wisely General Johnston had incorporated Kenesaw into his line, and by placing a battery on its summit and covering each flank of the battery with a strong skirmish line, the mountain was in that way made to take the place of what would have required a full corps organized as the latter were in the Federal army, and required but a few men comparatively to hold it. On each flank of the mountain but particularly the western end, the Confederate line stretched all the way to Pine and Lost mountains--two detached mountains, the latter being the last one of the chain that extends all the way from New York and under various names to the last one appropriately designated as Lost Mountain, and it was either at one or the other of these mountains, though I think it was at Pine, that the Confederate General, Bishop Polk, was killed in the earlier stages of the approaches to the Confederate line. By the way, it was an Indiana battery that fired the shot that cost the life of the great Episcopal Bishop and Major-General, whose home before the war was at Holly Springs, Mississippi. The battery was commanded by Captain Simonson, of Columbia City, where the company was mostly raised. It was largely a railroad battery, Captain Simonson, Lieutenants Morrison and Rankin, with a large proportion of the men making up the battery being employees of the old Pittsburg, Fort Wayne & Chicago railroad--now known as the "Pennsylvania company." It was known all over the army of the Cumberland as "a crack" battery, and I have always lamented the fact that Captain Simonson did not live to reach home, having been killed outright on the field of battle. He was a very brave and gallant gentleman, well-educated and although a volunteer had fully conquered all the intricacies of artillery to such an extent that no regular army officer knew more about that arm of the service than Captain Simonson, For a good many years after the war I met and kept track of Lieutenants Morrison and Rankin, as both went back to their old duties on the railroad after peace came, such being the promise made them by the railroad company , but for the past ten or fifteen years I have lost sight of these two most excellent artillerists and perfect gentlemen.

From the summit of Kenesaw Mountain could be had a fairly plain view of Atlanta, the objective point of General Sherman's campaign, and of course it being in possession of the enemy, from its top every movement of the Federal line could be watched and perhaps some of them checkmated, for the position was one of immense advantage to the enemy in many particulars--it not only took the pace of a fairly large corps, but it aided the enemy to see the position of the Federals below and to watch and head-off the smaller attacks that often precede a general advance, or even a battle. I remember that in approaching the mountain, and two or three days before General Sherman occupied the final line that was held until Johnston retired across the Chattahoochie river that about a mile to the left of Kenesaw as one moved southward, there was quite a large grove of trees. This grove was entirely detached form the mountain, with an open country all around it making it assume the appearance of an island. It was discovered that this grove was occupied by the enemy, and I have sometimes since thought that whatever Confederate troops occupied this piece of timber must have done so through a mistake; a misunderstanding of orders or a blunder of some kind; for these troops being so far away from the main line could not hope to escape by an attempt to cross over the wide-open country between the grove of trees and the east end of the mountain in an effort to join their friends. Whatever may have been the cause of their being there, it was resolved to capture them and for the purpose of doing this, my own brigade and a portion of the Second was ordered to "gather them in," if it were possible. With this end in view two guns from an Iowa battery were sent with orders to report to myself. The infantry had been drawn up behind a rise of ground that wholly hid them from the view of the enemy so that in rushing them forward a few fee their muzzles would have nothing intervening between the men and the guns, and the enemy in the timber. All of the infantry was drawn up in the same manner and was ordered to lie down to await the bugle sounding the charge and then to make all possible speed to get to the enemy and capture all that were in the woods. Of course, the intervening ground could not be examined without giving information to the enemy; and hence it was a great surprise to one and all in that mad charge, to find between them and the timber an exceedingly crooked and yet very deep, sluggish stream. Of course, the line was broken as it struck this crooked stream; but holding their muskets high above their heads the men splashed through, some climbing out over the very steep banks and others helping one another until all were crossed. There had been an order issued to do away with all horses so that the enemy could be more easily surprised, but I had held on to mine and was the only officer present on horseback. I looked at the stream and concluded that my horse could jump it and riding back thirty or forty feet to give my horse the advantage of the impetus thus gained, I sent him at the stream full tilt. His hind feet broke in as they landed on the opposite shore, but he soon scrambled up and I was ready to take command of the remainder of the charge and did so. The result was the capture of something over fix hundred of the enemy, all of whom were marched back into our lines with their own colors flying as well as our own. Queerly enough, three or four guns on the eastern summit of Kenesaw opened up on the retiring troops, who were, of course, in open view, though more than a mile distant from the guns, but aside from killing two of our prisoners and wounding several others, did no further damage. The troops under my command received a very complimentary note from General Logan commending them for their bravery and the splendid results following the affair. The incident concerning the big jump of my horse was commented on for a day or two and in order to settle the distance a squad of enlisted men went over to the stream to measure the distance and found it to be twenty-three feet from the starting point to the place where his hind feet broke the sod on the opposite side. The jump was not great for distance, but there were but few horses that would have leaped a stream like that under the conditions. "Old Tom" went out and came back with the regiment and lived till he was thirty-one years of age and during his entire career was the pet of the regiment and his name has been mentioned at every reunion the Twelfth has held since the war.

Warsaw Daily Times November 14, 1903

Back to YesterYear in Print