Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Heavy and solemn,
A cloudy column,
Through the green plain they marching come--
Measureless spread, like a table of dread,
For the cold grim dice of the iron game,
Looks are bent on the shaking ground,
Hearts beat low with a knelling sound;
Swift by the breast that must bear the brunt,
Gallops the Major along the front. "Halt!"
And fettered they stand at the stark command;
And the warriors silent halt.

Of course, the approach upon Kenesaw Mountain, after the Confederate commander gave up his position at big Shanty, was carefully conducted. In following an enemy this is a very essential point, for the retiring troops can, and often do arrange for an ambuscade that unless due caution is observed, may inflict a heavy loss on the pursuing forces; but the Federal army had learned much during this campaign, and it was very seldom that any great loss occurred from this source, owing to the careful approaches and the thorough covering of the front by the "advance guard," a force nearly always of sufficient number to hold their own against anything except the opposing main body of the retiring troops. Of course there were some quite lively skirmishing with General Joe Johnston's rear guard--almost amounting to a small battle, at times--but as it was well known in the Confederate army that its next stopping place was Kenesaw mountain, these rear guard contests were usually of short duration, the enemy hastening t get into the position that even its humblest private soldier knew was prepared for the retiring troops long in advance of their use. In fact, the Kenesaw line seemed to be an easy one to hold from its natural position, and when to this was added fortifications laid out, planned and efficiently constructed by competent officers--and it should be remember that the Confederate army was well supplied with officers who had learned the art of war at West Point--it is not much wonder that the line that Sherman's army was then approaching was deemed almost impregnable by both armies--the Confederates knowing that much labor had been expended upon its natural defenses, while the Federals readily perceived the importance of a line that permitted the army holding it to incorporate a mile and a half of a rugged, rocky, very steep mountain into its defense thus permitting the troops of the enemy to operate on either flank of such a natural defense.

The new position taken up by the Confederates was developed slowly but surely. In approaching the enemy there would be a lively skirmish here, another one there, but all the time, the enemy was slowly retiring into a line that its commanding general knew the plan, while the pursuing forces had to feel their way up. In the skirmishing that ensued in the approach upon Kenesaw there was some vicious fighting between the skirmish line of both armies and it was on or about the middle of June that John N. Runyan--a first lieutenant in the Seventy-fourth Indiana Infantry, and still a representative citizen of Warsaw, and at the present moment the president of the association to arrange and provide for the forthcoming State encampment of the G.A.R. Department of Indiana next June--lost his leg while in command of the skirmish line of his regiment and while driving the Confederates out from behind the rocks and forcing them back, out of the very strong position that had been taken up. A shot from a Confederate sharp-shooter struck him in the leg just below the thigh, but which was so severe that amputation was at once necessary; but that was not all--he has since withstood two additional amputations and until the last one, had suffered untold agonies. Many men were killed and wounded in this way and in advance of a regular battle, and in this particular case the enemy held on so tenaciously because they were provided with excellent defenses among the numerous and rugged rocks behind which the main line of Sherman's army was finally formed, my brigade lay right under Kenesaw not far from its center, the mountain lying east and west right across the path of the Federal army. The main line of my brigade was perhaps a hundred feet up the side of the mountain on a sort of a natural shelf, sufficiently level for the troops to occupy. The skirmish line in front was perhaps, half way up the mountain, and it was a rugged climb to reach it.

On Sherman's right, his line extended far to the west and clear past the length of Kenesaw mountain, and I may add right her, that I heard it remarked at the time--and the story was doubtless true--that Sherman's army just previous to developing his opponent's line, extended for a distance of twenty-two miles. Of course, there were open spaces in this line of such an advancing army of men, but the introduction of the telegraph into the army movements had come into play not only successfully, but very efficiently. Each division was applied with a telegraph outfit, carried in its own wagon and consisting of instruments; a plenty supply of wire and with poles something similar to the "jacob-staff" carried by surveyors, so that when the division went into line the telegraph corps would wire the half mile--or whatever the distance might be behind each division--string the wire on these "jacob-staffs," the connections being made with each division of troops so that within probably a half hour--not to exceed an hour at farthest--the entire twenty-two miles would be in telegraphic communication with General Sherman's headquarters. The war for the union was the first one to utilize the telegraph in this very effective way, and it is easy to see how many orderlies and overworked horses were saved from the oft-times hazardous duty of carrying written orders over a line of such an extent.

Not far from where my brigade was stretched out along the side of the mountain, but somewhat retired from the infantry line, two batteries were "parked" and although their officers were aware that but little execution was probable, yet the men were permitted to indulge in firing three or four shells from each battery at the Confederate artillery situated upon the summit of Kenesaw, and often when there was not much going on save the never-ceasing picket-firing, I rode over to the battery having been "given a tip" from some one of the officers that they were going to practice for a short time. I was sure to be there unless something more important was going forward, when they would hand me a first class field-glass so that I could watch the shots and their effect. Of course the gun's muzzle had to be greatly elevated for such a shot, but our battery got so it could make the "Johnnies" seek the safe places they had provided beforehand for cover. The distance was estimated at somewhat over a mile and I am sure that at times their shots were effective, for on two or three occasions I saw Confederate soldiers hastening to a given point, very much as though they were hurrying to the relief of a killed or wounded man. My own troops lay almost directly under this Confederate battery and consequently I took considerable interest in it, for if the time should come when a general advance would be ordered, this battery would fall to the lot of my troops to capture, and the men in the trenches, very generally expected to get just such an order at almost any time.

It was while our army occupied this first position taken in front of Kenesaw that the Northern newspapers told the story that Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy visited Johnston's army and after viewing the opposing Federal forces from the summit of Kenesaw Mountain, he made a speech to the troops urging them to do their duty and to stand firm for the cause; that the position the Confederate then occupied was impregnable if the solders held fast to their lines. He then went on to say that he had just received news from Gen. Wheeler, who was in command of a large body of cavalry and had informed his department that he had severed Gen. Sherman's lines back in Tennessee; that the latter's communications had been so severiously destroyed that in all probability the latter would have to withdraw his forces, and fall back upon Chattanooga. Just about the time he made this remark, a locomotive hauling a long line of freight cars pulled up plainly in sight, and immediately behind this train were three or four more engines puffing and screeching; their screeching whistles easily heard on top of the mountain, when a Confederate soldier with little fear of President Davis' rank, or who heard him--sung out; "Like h-ll the lines are broke, back in Tennessee; the whole d--d Federal army is just before us with supplies to give away. I know what I am talking about for I traded some tobacco last night for a pound of coffee!" the reporter for the Northern journals said that this interloper so punctured President Davis' speech that he stopped right there leaving his remarks unfinished amid the cheers and some jeers over the "broken communication." However, it is only fair to say that Wheeler's cavalry had made a raid on the railroad between Chattanooga and Nashville, but he was followed so closely by a Federal mounted force that he only broke the railroad in a few places, and these only sufficiently serious as to retard our trains for a few days only. In any event, Chattanooga was crowded with supplies and ammunition, as Gen. Sherman all the previous winter had accumulated large amounts of both rations and ammunition for just such an emergency.

The army had occupied the line already alluded to for several days when I received word from Gen. Logan that my brigade would be selected to form a force composed of one brigade from each division of the Fifteenth corps to assault the enemy's works. Of course I felt flattered at being selected for a duty so important; but Col. Charles Wolcott in command of the Second brigade of Gen. Harrow's division on the question of out-ranking me in date of commission, claimed the honor of being selected. Col. Charles Wolcott in command of the Second brigade of Gen. Harrow's division on the question of out-ranking me in date of commission, claimed the honor of being selected. Col. Wolcott was a very brave and competent officer and beside had previous to the war taken a course in a military school in Kentucky, and insisted on his brigade being taken instead of mine, owing to his having held the Commission of Colonel longer than I had; and beside, I have always thought, very greatly more than I did, desired to have a eagle in his shoulder-strap, replaced by the star of a full-blown brigadier-general; and so it was finally decided that Wolcott's Second Brigade should be selected, and after the whole affair was over I never regretted that mine was not chosen, for the reason that the slaughter was great--terrible, in fact.

In developing the right of the Federal line some time after, the army had closed in on Kenesaw and the adjacent region, especially to the west of the mountain, the Fifteenth Corps was removed to that point where General Sherman decided to assault the enemies intrenchments, as a supporting force. This assault was made on the 27th of June. Of course, the Confederates held a strong position--one, as they conceived it to be--almost impregnable, but it seemed that General Sherman had grown weary of the reputation he had won as "the great flanker," and intended by this assault to show to the world--but especially the "copper-head" press of the North that had been twitting him over the fact that thus far in the campaign there had been but little real fighting and that Sherman's only success lay in his ability to "out-flank his enemy." This was not the first time during the war that the opposition press of the North had done an unwise thing, for the First Battle of Bull Run was forced upon Gen. McDowell before he was ready by Greeley's Tribune making its incessant howl of "On to Richmond" --and finally McDowell, in obedience to a wonderfully worked up public feeling created by the Tribune to engage the enemy under General Beauregard, when otherwise he would have waited a week or two, and received soldiers from the North whose term of service was for "three years or during the war," instead of being compelled to use many regiments whose term of service--three months--had already expired, and in all of them their term of enlistment was nearly up. Perhaps General Sherman should not have permitted himself to listen to anything of this sort. the press in the earlier stages of the war had criticized Sherman frequently and severely, and I know of my own knowledge, that he had no special love for the newspapers. They had persisted in calling him "Crazy Bill," when, directly after the First Bull Run, he had declared that it would take a hundred thousand men to over-run Kentucky, and from the New York Tribune down the newspapers had jeered at him for placing the number so high. After the war, when any and everybody could see that his estimate was not out of the way, and after he had shown his soldierly qualities in the command of large bodies of men, many of the leading newspapers of the country apologized for their earlier remarks, and were loud in their praises of the man, who next to Grant did more to suppress the rebellion than any other officer of high rank in the Union army.

Full preparations were made for the assault the ground in front being as closely examined and scanned as it was possible to do with an active enemy well bestowed behind jutting rocks, the intricacies of the broken field between the lines, with a heavy line of skirmishers and sharp-shooters occupying every point of vantage, and then the main line of the enemy behind intrenchments that were practically unscalable. Such was the work mapped out for the heroic men who were to make the assault. The place selected to deliver the blow was of course, formidable, as was that of any portion of the enemy's line, but if carried here would secure the utmost advantage to the Union lines and on that account was settled upon as the most advantageous. The brave men that were to grapple with the enemy were formed under the cover of the pine forest and the undergrowth, one line behind the other, until the number on the ground was deemed sufficient, and when the bugle sounded the charge, the command, "forward!" rang out from dozens of officers, and the murderous conflict "was on." right up into the face of the enemy these gallant men pushed forward without a waver in their ranks, preserving their formation splendidly in the face of the multiplied obstructions, although these brave heroes of Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Vicksburg were falling in scores. Never was there a greater exhibition of true bravery than that of the men who made the assault on Kenesaw Mountain; but the position being impregnable as the Confederates had claimed, the odds were too great--the defenders being behind impervious intrenchments, while the attacking troops were "in the open," it was only murder to longer hold them there, or to send other troops to their support, and hence the order was given to retire to the original line from where this gallant band of devoted men had left but a short time before, while the awful shot and shell covered all of the ground over which they had to retire, the losses in going up and returning being very great--over 3,000 killed and wounded, according to the histories of the war. Among those who were killed were Generals Harker and McCook, the latter a Brigadier-General, and one of the family of that name known before the war was over as "the Fighting McCooks." If I remember correctly there were five brothers in all--three bearing the single star, and one of them two stars--the remaining one carrying the eagle of the Colonel of his regiment.

No further battles took place of a general nature during the presence of the army in the front of Kenesaw, other than the usual picket-firing, which never ceased night or day, and in which many noble men perished. The development of the right flank was continued by the Twentieth (Hooker's) and Twenty-third corps and had proceeded to such an extent that the Confederate commander became alarmed for the safety of his communications with Atlanta as our lines extended a long distance to his left and was closing in on his rear, thus compelling General Johnston to continually reform his lines, until at last he decided not to hold Kenesaw longer, no doubt being fearful that his army might be caught by General Sherman at the crossing of the Chattahoochie, which at the point of the railroad bridge, if I remember aright, was seven miles from Atlanta. Therefore on the night of the 3d day of July the Confederate commander gave up the formidable line of Kenesaw Mountain, brought about by the skillful handling of his troops by General Sherman. It certainly was the strongest line the enemy had occupied since the opening struggles of the campaign at Resaca, Buzzard Roost and Tunnel Hill, and to be maneuvered out of position the enemy had deemed impregnable was most mortifying to General Johnston as well as disheartening to his soldiers. Even the great majority of the Federal army was surprised at his yielding the position with only the one vigorous onset to which I have so briefly alluded to, and he acing wholly on defensive in that. There was a growing feeling among the Confederates that General Johnston should be superseded. This feeling did not exhibit itself among the troops General Johnston commanded in the slightest degree; but it was hatched and encouraged by Confederate officers belonging to the other commands than General Johnston's and was favorable to General Hood, a man who had the reputation of a "fighter" but not much of a commanding officer. Each position given up by the confederate army accentuated this feeling, and it is said to have been entertained and encouraged by Jeff Davis himself, and so when the Confederate forces fell back across the Chattahoochie river, General Johnston was removed from his command and General Hood named as his successor.

Warsaw Daily Times November 21, 1903

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