Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

From every valley and hill they come,
The clammoring voices of fife and drum;
And out on the fresh cool morning air
The soldiers are swarming everywhere.
Fall in! Fall in! Fall in!
Every man in his place--
Fall in! Fall in! Fall in!
Each with a cheerful face--
Fall in! Fall in! Fall in!
---Michael O'Connor

General Sherman having fully determined to withdraw his left and extend his right flank clear around the west of Atlanta had made every possible preparation for a movement that always involves many difficulties in the transfer of large bodies of troops. I have already stated that the withdrawal of an army from the front of a vigorous and active foe was a movement that was always attended with danger and at all times required the careful handling of the men and a watchfulness on the part of the commander of the forces that are being withdrawn. This could be explained in many ways, but the most plausible one, it seems to me, lies in the fact that the enemy always has the advantage of the troops that are being withdrawn, as it can always make a rear attack and can often put its foe to flight for the very reason that they are falling back, and consequently present their backs to the pursuers. However, in the movement of Sherman's army from his own left to his extreme right--or rather that of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth corps of his army, the plan was that these troops should move over to the extreme right of the Federal army in the rear of all the other portions of the troops that were at that time confronting Atlanta. the Twenty-third corps previous to the beginning of the movement had thrown up a long line of entrenchments at right-angles with those that surrounded the beleaguered town. These entrenchments were manned by the Twenty-third corps, thus permitting the three corps referred to, to pass through a gap left in the line, which, after the rear of all the troops engaged in the movement from left to right had marched through the gap, was at once closed up leaving the pursuers--no matter how large a force it might have been composed--to confront a long line of breastworks, well manned and in sufficient force to prevent any further pursuit. All this was done, of course, previous to the commencement of the movement that was to transfer three corps from the extreme left to the extreme right. To tell the truth, the Confederates made only a half-hearted pursuit, and it is a fact that but very few men--owing to General Sherman's wise arrangements--were lost on our side in killed and wounded--in fact was exceedingly small when the great dimensions of the transfer is taken into consideration. It is altogether likely that the loss of the enemy was fully as great in the pursuit as it was on the part of the withdrawing troops.

All of the 27th of July, 1864, was taken up in the move to the extreme right of the Federal line, the troops making this march camped that night in a sort of haphazard way--in fact, taking up positions wherever camping ground could be found, and I remember that it was well after dark before mown command had secured suitable grounds to lie down upon, and take their rest after a wearisome march often delayed by some check at the front of the troops that were in motion; and it is not out of place to say that frequent stoppings of the kind mentioned is almost as wearisome and far more annoying to marching troops than if the movement was a steady one with no hindrances whatever--the standing around with a knapsack on one's shoulders, momentarily expecting to hear the order to move being wonderfully annoying, and of course tiresome. At an early hour on the 28th day of July, the troops breakfasted and the order soon came to move forward. This time it was not a movement in "four ranks" and the usual "route step" on a public highway, but with each division, brigade and regiment formed in line of battle, ready to meet the enemy at any moment; and besides the line moved forward in that way, no matter what might be the obstruction. I remember that I received orders to place two regiments in front in line of battle, with the third on the right flank moving forward in what was known in the army as "four ranks," this latter regiment so placed that it could be ordered forward at a moment's notice to reinforce the two in battle front, should its service be required, but its main duty was to guard the flank. We had moved forward in this order for more than a mile, I should think, when an order came to halt. The order was obeyed, the two regiments preserving their battle front, while the other that was marching at right angles with the other two, either stood still or lay down just as they were. All at once we could hear the vicious "spitting" of skirmish firing out at the front. It was neither active nor prolonged at first, but as there was a slight eminence a few rods tin front of the line, I directed that the two regiments should move forward to its top, and as there was a fenced field down the opposite slope, right in front of this position, I directed that the soldiers should remove all the rails and place them right in front of their line, and while this was in progress I rode over to the left to see the position of the brigade that joined mine there. I found Colonel Oliver, of the Fifteenth Michigan at breakfast and it was while talking to him that I heard a regular fusillade among the skirmishers over in front of my own command. Colonel Oliver made the remark that "It was nothing," and suggested to me to "jump off my horse, and take a cup of coffee with him." I was about to comply when the skirmishers broke out again, and I flew back to my command with all the speed that a splendid animal was capable of making and reaching the rear of my two regiments in line behind the ranks spoken of, I found them engaged in repelling the first assault of a battle since known by the appellation of "Ezra Church," fought on the 28th day of July, 1864. From that time forward, during all that day there was sufficient work to keep my men employed without a moment's intermission--or at least only enough of delay on the part of Hood's forces to reform and make another assault, only to be repulsed, time and time again. Chaplain Gage in his "History of the Twelfth Indiana Infantry," says that the Confederates made seven distinct charges on the Federal line on that day. For myself I know that the number was great, but in every instance, the enemy was handsomely repulsed. In some of the charges they came very close up to the line of rails referred to but whenever driven back the line was strengthened, the men using their bayonets to dig the ground and their tin plates and hands to scoop up the dirt over the rails and each assault found the improvised works in a still better condition for defense than it was in the previous one. It was a miracle almost when one looked at the few rails that was all of the defenses for the first assault to see what a splendid line of defense had taken their place an hour or two afterwards and all done by bayonets, plates, tin cups and bare hands.

The battle of Ezra church was certainly one of the most satisfactory to the men engaged and myself than any one of the previous and nmerous engagements that had fell to our lot, from the fact that the enemy was more severely punished than in any other, while our own loss was greatly less than was ever made. It seemd that General Hood had divined the movement General Sherman was making, or else he had absolute information--and there would be nothing strange about the latter, where every man, woman and child was ready to give full information of the movements of the "Yankee" troops, and did so all through the war, whenever and wherever it could be done. In any event General Hood, knowing that his own left flank would be in danger and the only railroad leading out of Atlanta at all--the one to the eastward having already been destroyed for a distance of not less than thirty miles--resolved to attack the Federal forces while they were making the move, as his best means of defending his only communication with the outside world and it was for this reason that he massed a large force on his left and made the repeated charges and assaults on this long summer day of July, 1864. I have said that every assault was repulsed, and so they were, and with terrible slaughter as well. Sometimes the assailants came three and four lines deep, when the withering fire of the defenders would so decimate the first and second lines that the third and fourth knew that they were moving to certain death, and would retire, sometimes in confusion, but at others with an orderly retreat. The onsets and repulses lasted all day long, and the last one late in the evening made was so feeble that I have often since thought it was only made to recover a portion of the ground which was covered with their dead in order to secure the bodies of some of them for a more decent burial than could be given them in the field.

Many incidents came under my observation on the day of that fiercely conducted battle; fought all day long, it must be understood, without a shot from artillery, only the infantry participating. Just why this was so I am unable to explain, but that it is a fact every one engaged in the struggle of "Ezra Church" will remember. Very soon after the forming of the line in the early morning, General Logan and a protion of his staff rode along the line, and as my three regiments--the other one being still in charge of Marietta--and made the remark: "Colonel Williams, you have a very important position here on the extreme right of the army, and you must hold it at every hazard. Other brigades will be sent up as rapidly as possible, and will be added on to your right in order to extend the flank to the north." I replied by telling him that "I would hold the position till the last man was killed or disabled." But a few moments elapsed after he had given me this verbal order, until the enemy made its first assault, which was so gallantly repulsed, that even tothis day I look back at the scenes of that day and wonder how it was possible that in every one of the six--or seven as the men claim--charges the Confederates were invariably driven back. The assaulting columns always out-numbered the defenders greatly; for there were occasions when the enemy came in four lines. alll the time, however, betwen these repeated assaults my men were as busy as bees in strengthening the intrenchments until along sometime in the afternoon they wre nearly the equal of those made with ample time at command, and with plenty of picks and shovels.

What worried me the most and caused the greatest fear on my part, was ammunition. The troops had marched forward to the position they occupied through a forest, without roads, and not a man in the command had any idea where the ordinance wagons were located, nor had any one, to my knowledge been informed. Being a purely infantry fight, the troops were using up ammunition at a rate that alarmed me, for the supply we had when the fight began was rapidly diminishing, and whre to send for another supply I did not know. fortunately just about the time that the men selected for the purpose were carrying up to the battle-line, the last half-dozen boxes, an ordinance train belonging to the Sixteenth corps passed along about a half-mile in the rear of my troops. I was at once informed of the passage of the ordinance train containing, I should think, ten or twelve wagon loads. The officer in charge refused to issue to any other than troops of his own corps, and the staff officer I had sent with the request to let us have two wagon loads, returned announcing the refusal. It did not take me long to stop that trains, and alter the officer's protest. I took two wagon loads up to the rear of the brigade and had them unloaded in a close patch of shrubbery. I saw there was no time to "mince matters," and if the ammunition could not be had in a kindly way, there was the plan of force, and surely I would not miss such an opportunity to supply my troops with an article so badly needed. Some idea of the amount of ammunition that is used in such a battle can be formed when it is stated that the Twenty-sixth Illinois fired 70,000 rounds and the other three in like proportion. One very large and very rugged man engaged in carrying boxes of cartridges up to the line, was overcome with fatigue and heat and dropped dead on his way to the line, with a box of ammunition on his shoulders. A box of cartridges weighs an even hundred pounds and ther were 1,000 rounds in a box.

In one of these charges that was made, the enemy came clear up to the line before they were completely repulsed. A Lieutenant Colonel, belonging to a Tennessee regiment was at the head of, and was encouraging these brave men, and came so close to the improvised works, that Captain Sam Boughter, formerly of this place, but for many years a passenger conductor on the Big Four railroad, reached over and caught him by the collar, and pulled him inside our lines, and to this day the Captain has in his possession the three gold stars on each side his collar--six in all--that were indications of his rank in the Confederate service. He was the sulkiest prisoner that I had ever seen and for more than half an hour he showered the most vindictive curses upon us, one and all.

General Jeff C. Davis' division of the Fourteenth corps had been ordered in the early morning to march to a point a few miles to the right of the forces to be engaged on that day, and after going that distance he was to move down on the flank of Hood's attacking forces. It was afterwards ascertained that General Davis' division took the wrong road at a point where several roads diverged, and did not get into the position assigned him until about the time the Confederates made their last feeble attempt on our lines. It is easy to see "with the hind sight," of course, of course, but even those who know but little about war can see what the result would have been had Davis' splendid division of a magnificent corps, the Fourteenth, swept down on the flank of Hood's forces, just as they were making one of their four-line deep charges! Blunders cannot be avoided even in military matters, where one man's word is law. The mistake was easy to make for the march was wholly in heavy pine timber with only wagon tracks for a road. Had the blunder not have occurred it is plain that all that portion of Hood's army would either have been put to a full rout or have become prisoners.

After the battle had opened and we had repulsed the second charge of the enemy, Walcott's Second brigade of the same division to which myself and troops belonged--General Harrow's--was pput in position on my right, which up to that time was the extreme right of the entire Fedceral line, as it was discovered that the enemy was extending his line in that direction. It was to the right of Wolcott's brigade, wherre there was a small mounted force, that there was an example during the day of what one such man as General Logan could do by his own personal bravery and daring. Sure enough when the next charge was made it over-lapped, wven Wolcott's brigade, and came in such headlong force that these mounted men and one regiment of infantry gave ground; but just as this critical moment General Logan, with major Hotelling, a staff officer, were riding by. The General at once discovered the signs of stampede and wiwth the Major at his horse's heels he threw himself in front of the hundred or two men who were rapidly becoming panic stricken and with a few very strong and emphatic expletives--more emphatic than ornate, and for which I feel he will be forgiven--and by slapping one or two soldiers over the back with the flat of his sword, he closed the already widening gap in the line within a few moments, that had he not done so, might have become a disaster, at that point at least and so in telling this story I have often made the statements that his presence there at that moement and the course he pursued, was as much as a brigade coud have accomplished.

During the battle of the 28th of July, generally and historically known as "Ezra Church," the Fourteenth corps lay to the left of the troops engaged about two miles. Belonging to this corps was the Seventy-fourth Indiana Infantry, Lieutenant Colonel Myron Baken commanding it at that time, the late Colonel C. W. Chapman, of this city being its Colonel. The late Dr. J. K. Leedy, also of this place, was the surgeon of the regiment, and on the day before--the evening rather--I met him while I was on the march to go into the position held on the 28th of July. We had not seen each other for a long time, but had been personal friends for many years; hence, I was not so much surprise on the morning following the battle to find him at my headquarters at a very early hour. He was aware, he said, that we had been having a big battle at our end of the line, and he could not reset until he came over to see if I and a good many others he knew in my regiment--there were two full companies from this county in the Twelfth--had escaped and he was wonderfully glad to see me. Therefore, after breakfast was over, I suggested to the Doctor that we take a ride over the battlefield of the day before. Being a physician, he was most willing to comply, and as we had but a short distance to go, we were soon among the wounded and the dead. Teams were engaged in gathering up the former and carrying them to the already improvised hospital. A corps of colored pioneers were engaged in burying the dead. This was done by digging a long trench and piling the dead into them until they were considerable above ground. The Doctor counted 202 in a single trench, and as the weather was exceedingly sultry the stench was almost insupportable, and it was for this reason that the white soldiers could not bear up under the conditions, that the colored pioneer corps was detailed to do the work. Some idea of the destruction of life could be gleaned by the statement that in front of my two regiments--one was held in reserve--there were 800 dead gathered for burial. The usual estimate for battles similar to the one of the 28th of July, is five wounded to one killed. This would give 4,000 wounded and 800 killed before two regimental fronts in the repeated charges at Ezra Church, and as our own loss was small, owing to the Union troops being behind breastworks, I feel that I am safe in saying that it was the most satisfactory battle in which my regiment participated during the war--the loss of the enemy being very great and their own exceedingly small.

there was another thing, Dr. Leedy being a physician called my attention to , and that was the great proportion of blonds among the killed, compared with the brunettes, and it was a fact that there were about four sandy-completed men among the killed to one with back hair. It was a South Carolina regiment in front of my troops, and I can speak it as a truth that nearly all of that command was killed. The Doctor accounted for the disparity by saying that the sandy-headed man went farther towards the enemy with his sanguine temperament, than the dark-haired brunette, with his more phlegmatic nature. The reader can guess for himself, but it is a fact that the red and light-haired very greatly outnumbered all others among the dead in that sanguinary battle, I can most truthfully attest.

Warsaw Daily Times December 25, 1903

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