by Reub Williams
I have heard the bugle blown
Where the Southern seas make moan;
And have followed east and west
By the mighty mountain's marge;
I have heard it wind the charge
Till old battles in my blood
Were a mighty tide at flood --Oh, bugle!
On the 17th of July, 1864, the Fifteenth corps received orders to close up on the east around Atlanta. It should be remembered that the Fifteenth and Seventeenth corps formed the extreme left flank of General Sherman's army during the advance upon Atlanta, following the successful crossing of the Chattahoochie river by his entire army. Decatur is a village that lay on the line of railroad that ran to Charleston, S.C., and also had connection with other lines leading up to Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy. In occupying the village of Decatur, railroad connection with the latter places on the part of the Confederates was severed and after the Federal line closed in about Atlanta, the Confederate forces possessed only one line of railroad, that leading to the south via Griffin to Milledgeville, Ga. It was during the march of these two corps in taking up their position near Atlanta, that the battle of Peach Tree creek was fought, and it was during this same period that General Hood superseded the Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, and while on the march the sound of that fierce struggle could be distinctly heard. Immediately on taking command General Hood at once inaugurated an entirely different policy from that which had thus far been pursued by General Johnston, the latter having acted wholly on the defensive from the starting of the campaign until the order placing General Hood in command reached him. The latter had won the reputation of a "fighter," and he doubtless deserved the name; but all wars have developed the fact that something more than brute strength and bulldog pugnacity is required in a commanding officer; for General Johnston, if nothing else was to show for his continual retiring before an opposing army had won the reputation--just as General Sherman had secured the name of "the great flanker" --of leaving nothing behind him of special value to his enemy, and it was remarkable how few prisoners fell into the hands of Sherman's forces following the retirement from any of his positions by the Confederate commander. Neither property nor prisoners to any great extent resulted from any one of General Johnston's retreats, while at the same time his opponent was getting further and further from his base. This point seemed to have been dwelt upon to a great extent by the Southern newspapers and many of the Confederate officers of higher rank, the reasoning seeming to be that Sherman's line of supplies was growing to so great a length that it would be impossible to subsist his army much longer. When it is remembered that there was not a day during the entire campaign that a short issue of rations was required, or a moment that both artillery, cavalry and infantry did not have a full supply of ammunition, it can be seen that the reasoning of the Confederates was faulty, but it was nevertheless indulged in to a great extent.
I have said that the battle of Peach Tree creek was a fierce one. It was more than that, for being Hood's first demonstration after he had succeeded to the command, he evidently intended to win, and really seemed to think that he would do so. On the Union side it was principally fought by Thomas' Fourteenth corps and Hooker's Twentieth. After the battle begun it raged with a ferocity seldom equaled during the war. The weight of the attack fell upon General Joe Hooker's corps, the noble men of which displayed the same heroic bravery for which they had already become celebrated under the command of their leader, while forming a part of the Army of the Potomac, and for which they had won the reputation of being hard fighters. General Jeff C. Davis' division of the Fourteenth corps, composed largely of Indiana troops, was hotly engaged and maintained its reputation, won on so many previous bloody fields. Time and time again General Hood tried to penetrate the Federal lines, meeting with a severe repulse after each effort, bravely though it was made. Both sides in this battle fought like demons, almost; and as a consequence, both suffered heavily as a matter of course. Hood threw his troops on exposed points with the reckless bravery for which he had become noted, only to be driven back with equal valor and with heavy loss.
While these events were taking place in what might still be called the center of Sherman's army, the forces that had crossed the Chattahoochie, were in obedience to orders engaged in closing in on the east-northeast side of Atlanta in the following order. The Army of the Tennessee, composed of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth corps formed the extreme left of the Federal army. the Sixteenth corps--not wholly present--was held in reserve at Decatur. The Seventeenth for this reason became the left of Sherman's line is going into position; the Fifteenth next, on its right, and the Twenty-third corps still on the right of the latter. All the troops on the 20th of July, except the reserve at Decatur moved forward and took up their position in line about three miles east of Atlanta, forming an irregular arc of a circle about the doomed city. The Fifteenth corps covered the railroad, there being a portion of these troops on both sides of the road, the line of Confederate intrenchments compelling a like formation on the part of the Federals. Such was the position and situation when the Federal lines began to press the defenders of the city that General Hood had undertaken to hold in spite of Sherman. I remember very distinctly that along late in the afternoon after the troops had taken up position in front of the partially well-manned line of earthworks that along with a couple of staff officers and an orderly or two, I was engaged in finding a place to pitch my own headquarters' tent, and in doing so, we ascended a rise of ground in a forest thickly set with large pine trees, as the ground at some distance sloped away towards Atlanta and was heavily covered with a dense undergrowth. I had about decided on the spot when all at once a bullet whistled by me just as I was dismounting form my horse. Somewhat surprised for the reason that I could see in every direction except into the thick undergrowth I had mentioned, but I could perceive no signs of an enemy anywhere, unless some one or more was hidden in the undergrowth. The singing of another bullet quite near me induced me to remount my horse and make an investigation. by this time all the staff and orderlies had assembled, and I told them about the whistling bullets and directed that they should accompany me in ascertaining where the missiles came from. The party made about ten men, all mounted and knowing the direction from whence the bullets came, the party rode in that direction, the officers with their revolvers ready and the orderlies with loaded carbines. We proceeded in a body and as soon as we reached the edge of the underbrush a dozen or two confederate soldiers were discovered behind a fallen tree. an orderly had seen the hat of one of the men over the top of the log and going to a point where he could see lengthwise with the fallen tree, he came back to me and told me he thought there was a dozen or more of them altogether. I directed those present to form a line and we would make a dash upon them. Evidently these men had not discovered my party until they heard the noise occasioned by the horses' feet, and we were upon them in less time than it takes to tell of the incident. One or two men fired at random, but hurt no one and finding themselves surrounded they surrendered at discretion. There were eight of them in the party and none escaped. On the way back to the place I had selected for headquarters, one of them told me that the horses of the scouting party were hidden in a ravine to the west and somewhat north of the place where they were captured. I made a detail of a dozen men and placed them in charge of Lieutenant Henry Weaver, with directions to see if the horses could not be captured. Taking the man who had given the information along with them to show the place they returned with eight rather under-fed and small horses. Poor Weaver! Within a couple of days he was to give up his life to the cause he had espoused, as he was mortally wounded on the same day that General James B. McPherson, commander of the Army of the Tennessee was killed.
On that evening the army that had crossed the Chattahoochie river at Roswell went into line in front of the intrenchments occupied by the Confederates, said at the time to be three miles east of Atlanta, but I am confident that it was not so far. In closing up the lines there was considerable of vicious skirmishing at times and quite a good many men were killed and wounded during the approach. If I remember aright the entire Fortieth Illinois regiment, commanded by Col. Greathouse, and belonging to the Second brigade of the same division as my own, was placed on the skirmish line in a body on the evening of the 20th of July. At any rate, in leading his troops down a descent of about a half mile in extent he met with such heavy opposition that he moved his entire regiment up to the skirmish line as a support and became involved in a struggle with the enemy that cost our side dearly, for besides the killing of Colonel Greathouse, the regiment lost very heavily in killed and wounded. Great regret was felt over the death of this fine officer, for he was not only widely known in "Logan's corps," but was universally respected as a gallant, brave man, and I heard many of the enlisted men deploring his death, even outside of the regiment he commanded. The Federal line was drawn up quite close to the confederate intrenchments during the night and it was late in the afternoon of the day following the death of Colonel Greathouse that General McPherson with all his staff and General Logan, also accompanied by his staff, rode up to my headquarters on a sort of a reconnoitering expedition. The coming together of these two general officers with their respective staffs made quite a body of mounted men, and as my headquarters were slightly behind the summit of the rise of ground down where Colonel Greathouse had conducted the skirmish line, and as a good half mile of the intervening space was covered with a heavy pine forest, General McPherson expressed the desire to obtain a closer view by going down this descending ground to a point where he could make a closer observation of the Confederate position. I remember hearing General Logan objecting to the head of the army of the Tennessee unnecessarily exposing himself to the bullets of the enemy, there being too much at stake to risk the life of the officer second in command of the entire army. General McPherson, however, persisted and accompanied by Gen. Logan and with all the mounted men at hand--in all making over a hundred , I should guess. The party had gone something over half way down the descending slope, when it is evident that the watchful officer of some battery had discovered the body of mounted men through the trees, which grew more and more open as the approach was made to the Confederate line--our own lying at the bottom of the slope that was sheltered by the trees, for all at once a volley from a six-gun battery sent its shell apparently right into the midst and over the General and his attendants. Over a dozen were wounded and a couple killed by the free discharge of the hostile guns, and at the second volley a young man acting as purveyor for General Logan's headquarters, riding just at my side was struck by a fragment of shell and his right arm was literally torn from his body, the man falling to the ground at the same moment.
Of course it did not take long for those who remained mounted--there were several of the party unhorsed--to get out from under the range of those vicious guns, and I remember of hearing General Logan once more impressing on General McPherson the folly of exposing his person to such an extent when whatever information was required concerning the confederate position, could be furnished him from other sources, without risking the life of the commanding officer, when an accident to him might disarrange the movements of the entire left wing of the army. The incident occasioned many comments among the"rank and file" of the army, so soon to be replaced with an incident of much more significance, and ending in a deeply regretted tragedy, the gallant,efficient and brave officer of whom I have been writing being the principal in the affair. Such was, briefly told, the situation of affairs in the immediate vicinity in which the writer was a spectator; but over to the right and all through the night, the great Federal anaconda was slowly but steadily drawing closer its folds about the beleaguered town. The Twenty-third corps, the Fourth, the Fourteenth and the Twentieth--the latter the largest in size of any one in Sherman's army--were all engaged in going into position on the north of Atlanta and each and all joining as rapidly and as closely as it was possible--as some of the movements had to be made in the night time--but all, when the movement was fully completed, forming a continuous line covering the east to such an extent that the left of our line would lie slightly to the southeast of the town to some extent, and from thence being carried clear around to an extent that placed some troops to the west and turning southwest. it is always a big undertaking to close up an army in the act of commencing a siege. The enemy is always just as active as its opponent. In many cases the ground coveted by the besieging force has to be fought for, while in others it is given up, being defended by only a line of skirmishes. All of the creeping up has to be carefully and watchfully done, and it must be borne in mind that when even no special contest is under way, yet men are being killed and wounded every hour in the twenty-four. In the battle of Camden in South Carolina, during the Revolutionary war, Baron Dekalb commanded just about two thousand men all told. During the Atlanta campaign the loss was greater on several occasions, and coming just from the "wear and tear" of the opposing armies being in close proximity, before breakfast, when no battle was in progress, than was the American loss at the battle referred to and nothing more than the picket firing was in progress, and no mention was made of the loss in the general summing up, save by company and regimental reports.
On the east side of Atlanta the picket firing during all of the night of the 21st of July had been extremely lively. following the exceedingly stiff skirmish fight in which colonel Greathouse lost his life, as already mentioned, and there was scarcely a moment that one could not hear the short, vicious snap of musket-firing, and occasionally a shell would be tossed over into the Federal lines, but seldom doing any damage; but all of this went to show that the enemy was active and vigilant. A half-dozen times during the night I visited the skirmish line to see that the men were awake and attending to their duties; for there was nothing I feared more than a surprise. I am aware of the fact that I have on many occasions when near the enemy, walked the whole length of my own picket line, when scarcely a man composing it ever knew that I had visited it at all. I have always owned up that I did this through fear, rather than bravery--the fear that the enemy, through excessive vigilance might find a weak spot; that through fatigue some men may have gone to sleep; or, at least become so drowsy and weary that if there was a weak spot, the enemy might find it and rush the line, and as I could not sleep through the fear to which I have referred, when the enemy was near, I put in my time very often in visiting the picket line.
There were no indications of any impending battle when the troops of the Northern army lay themselves down to rest, rolled in their blankets, even the "dog ten" being disposed with, and the men using only the canopy of heaven for a covering. Of course, everyone knew that the skirmish fire was at times quite rapid and seemed to be heavier in places than usual, but few--unless it may have been the high-up officers--were aware that we were on the eve of a battle, that among the many that were fought between "Rockey Face," "Buzzard Roost" and the "Gate City," would assume the character of and the synonym of "The Battle of Atlanta," but so it was. The next sketch will concern the great struggle that was fought on July 22d, 1864.
Warsaw Daily Times December 5, 1903
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