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A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry/The siege of Atlanta

The Siege of Atlanta

On the day that I rejoined the Regiment the army moved forward across the Chattahoochee River. During the next three days a farther advance was made across Peach Tree Creek, and we were now but a few miles from the fortifications of Atlanta. On the afternoon of the 20th, General Hood, the new Confederate commander who had succeeded Johnston, came out of his entrenchments and made a furious attack on our lines. The brunt of it fell on our Corps, which was somewhat in advance of the others. Our Regiment being in the second line was not engaged, for the first line repulsed the enemy along the entire front. The fighting was very severe, the Confederates coming up to the attack again and again. The loss in our Corps was about 2,000 killed and wounded; that of the enemy must have been double that number.

On the night of the 21st I went on picket duty with instructions to advance my picket line if possible, for the enemy's pickets were so close that their stray bullets were causing much annoyance in our camp. We were not very successful during the night; but in the morning, when the whole Brigade picket line under Major Smith of the One Hundred Fiftieth New York, moved forward, the enemy had disappeared. As was now becoming quite usual, a number of their men remained behind to be taken prisoners.

Major Smith's orders were to advance until he found the enemy. So we slowly pushed forward through their strong but abandoned works, and encountered no serious opposition until within about a mile of their fortifications immediately surrounding the city. We met their picket line on a hill, and drove it back a half mile, but they brought out against us such a strong force that we in turn were obliged to fall back, taking our stand on the hills where we had first met their pickets. From this position they did not seriously attempt to dislodge us.

From our vantage we could see all of their manœuvers. Apparently there were not more than 2,000 or 3,000 troops to prevent our entry into the city. I have always believed that if there had been someone high enough in command to have used the troops where I was that day, Atlanta could have been captured much more easily than it was six weeks later. At about six o'clock our Corps came up, and our picket line, once more moving forward, drove the Confederate skirmishers to within two hundred yards of their forts.

The next day a battery of twenty-pound parrot guns was planted on the hill and commenced throwing shells into the city over our heads. The enemy replied with spirit, and we received many of their compliments that were intended for the battery. Our men protected themselves by throwing up an earthwork in front of the camp, with a ditch behind it wide enough and deep enough to shelter all in case of necessity. The officers all had heavy earth barricades built in front of their tents, and these furnished fairly good protection.

I remember to have been one night in the Colonel's tent when the shells were flying pretty lively. We were just discussing whether his embankment would stop a shell, when one came along and buried itself in the ground a little in front without exploding. The Colonel went out and found that it had gone two feet into the ground. One of the other officers present expressed the opinion that it would have gone through the breastwork if it had struck properly. The words were scarcely out of his mouth when another shell struck the work, penetrating about two-thirds of the way, and exploding without damage.

At another time we were not so fortunate. A shell struck the barricade of Captain Orton of Company K, passed through, and exploded in the tent, mortally wounding him and seriously wounding Lieutenants Barager, Blanchard, and Schweers, who were with him. Lieutenant Barager served until the end of the war; but a few years after its close, he became, as a consequence of that shock, a physical and mental wreck.

The enemy's sharpshooters were close enough to us to keep dropping their bullets incessantly into our camp. It was at first rather annoying to have them come pattering around whenever any one moved, but in time we became so accustomed to the missiles, that we went about our ordinary business as though there were no Confederates within forty miles. On one occasion the Thirteenth New Jersey went out in front of the line and captured thirty-five of the enemy's pickets, and burned the houses where the marksmen had been stationed.

On July 28 General Hooker was at his own request relieved of the command of our Corps. He had taken offence at being jumped by General Howard for the command of the Army of the Tennessee, after the death of General McPherson in the battle of July 22. I do not believe that the highest officers generally sympathized with Hooker, but the Corps as a whole felt that his loss was a serious blow. He had large personal influence on his troops. During an active campaign, virtually every soldier in his Corps saw him almost daily. If there was a picket line to be established, he personally examined it; if an assault was made on the enemy, he was with the foremost, always brave to the extreme of recklessness. He was, moreover, careful of the welfare of his men. He made his commissaries attend strictly to business, and his Corps would often be furnished with the delicacies of army rations when others were short or had nothing but hardtack and salt pork. It was a common remark all through the army that Joe Hooker fed his men the best, and fought them the best, of any of the corps commanders. Of course his men worshipped him and under him were invincible; for the same reason the enemy dreaded him worse than anything else mortal.

The newspapers of the day said that the appointment of General Howard was the work of President Lincoln. But it was reported in the Corps, that General Sherman had been the prime mover. It was freely whispered among us that Sherman, with all his great talents and acknowledged ability, was affected with the same weakness that was said to have troubled Napoleon—the not being able to look with complacency on the great personal popularity of a subordinate. Sherman was reported to have allowed this feeling to break forth into positive insult of General Hooker and his Corps in the presence of subordinates. For instance, on the night after the battle of Peach Tree Creek, before any returns of casualties had been made, Hooker told Sherman that he had lost that day nearly 2,000 men. "Oh pshaw!" answered Sherman, "that's nothing; they'll all be back in the morning." Later it was found that 1,700 members of the Corps had been killed or wounded, and that they had successfully repulsed the whole Confederate army with a reported loss to the latter of 6,000.

Before leaving, General Hooker invited all the colonels in the Corps to call on him, and told them frankly his reasons for resigning. He said that during the whole campaign he had been subjected to unbearable insults and indignities, and his Corps and its performances had been under rated and disparaged. And now, to have promoted over him a junior officer from this Department, whose rank and service were far below his, was the last straw; his reputation as a soldier and his honor as a man would not, he said, admit of his remaining.

The enemy's picket line had been temporarily quieted by the advance of the Thirteenth New Jersey, but was now again annoying us. These pickets were on a ridge about two hundred yards in front of their main line of works, and not more than four hundred yards from our camp. They had lines of pits dug all along their position and could at any time communicate with their main line. Our pickets were also located in pits, but could only be relieved at night. It was determined to reverse this order of things. So at day light on July 30, at a preconcerted signal, our whole Brigade picket line, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Morse of the Second Massachusetts, jumped out of their pits, crossed the intervening space at a run, and captured the enemy's entire line, numbering seven officers and ninety-seven men.

A regiment was immediately sent out to reënforce our men, and breastworks were hastily thrown up. From their forts and main breast works, the enemy poured into us a shower of shot and shell; but our men held their position all day, many of them firing as much as two hundred rounds of ammunition. At night the position was made impregnable against anything save a movement in large force; and in the morning the enemy were compelled to withdraw their artillery and close the embrasures of their forts.

For some weeks there was not much change in the situation, so far as we were concerned. There was much hard work for the men in the trenches, and they were all getting anxious for the capture of Atlanta. I believe nine-tenths of them would rather have fought the matter out in an open battle than to have kept on scraping and shoveling to dig them out. It seemed to us at the time that between our army and that of the Confederates, there had been enough dirt dug, from Louisville to Atlanta, to have built all the railroads in the United States.

For a time in our advanced position, firing on the picket line was constant, and there were many casualties. In a week or two, however, a sort of truce was established, and firing ceased. Just before I had rejoined my Regiment on the Chattahoochee, our pickets had been quite friendly with the pickets of the enemy. They had traded coffee for tobacco, and had offered to take letters and send them to Union prisoners in their hands. I should at this time have liked to send a letter to my brother. But now they would not go as far as that; nothing would induce them to meet us between the picket lines for trading; to all our advances they replied that their orders forbade them to do so.

On August 25 important changes were made in the disposition of our troops. Our Corps was withdrawn from before Atlanta and moved back to the Chattahoochee River. The rest of the army was moved around to the south of Atlanta, temporarily abandoning its communications; this was in order, by threatening his flank, to compel Hood to come out of his works and fight us in the open.

Throughout that day our heavy guns poured a constant stream of shot and shell into the city. As soon as darkness had settled down on the camps, we silently folded our tents and moved back. I had been on picket duty that night; it was still and clear, and the slightest sound could be heard at a great distance. As I passed along the picket line, from man to man, and gave them the word to follow instructions—which were for each man, as I passed him, to leave his post and go back silently to the rear—I could hear the Confederates changing their relief just a little in my front. In one case I heard the old sentinel tell the new one to "keep a sharp watch on those Yanks over there," for they were up to something and he believed they were going to attack.

At the railroad bridge over the Chattahoochee, where we took position, earthworks had already been built. We strengthened them and built new ones, so that by the night of the 26th we were in condition to fight the whole of Hood's army. Hood was, however, too busy south of Atlanta, where Sherman now was, to trouble us; and we had several days of complete quiet. It was a great relief, after our experiences in the trenches, to be able to walk around without hearing the bullets whistle about our ears. Not the least of our enjoyment was, to have a good river close at hand to bathe in.

During our stay here, General Slocum arrived and took command of the Corps. When he made his first tour around the camp, he was given a royal reception by his old command. They had all been anxious to have as their leader someone who had been identified with them in the Army of the Potomac. With that army they had won their laurels, and they wished still to be known as a part of it.

Slocum was a very different type of man from Hooker. The latter was brilliant and dashing, and in the excitement of battle his ardor and personal courage carried him where the fire was hottest. Slocum, on the contrary, reminded one of the descriptions of Marlborough. Cool and unimpassioned he directed a battle as he would a review. Without particularly avoiding danger, he would not rush recklessly into it. Hooker was an inveterate boaster. Slocum usually said nothing. I think most men would have considered Hooker the better leader, and Slocum the better man.

Late on the night of September 1 , while I was on picket duty, I heard in the direction of Atlanta what I at first thought was artillery. The rumbling kept increasing in intensity until it seemed like the heaviest firing I had ever heard. Finally, a number of terrific explosions lit up the air. At six miles distance they seemed like bright flashes of lightning. I knew then that the enemy were blowing up their powder magazines. I supposed, however, that Sherman was fighting his way into Atlanta from the south.

At daylight a reconnoitering party was sent out toward the city. They found it evacuated, except for a small rear guard of cavalry which was soon driven out. The remainder of the Corps moved up in the afternoon, our Regiment reaching the city at about dark. Sherman's flanking movement had been completely successful. He had met Hood on the Macon Railroad, near Jonesboro, and had beaten him terribly. The Confederate commander had been obliged to evacuate Atlanta at once, blowing up eighty cars of ammunition which had been cut off by the capture of the railroad at Jonesboro. He had been compelled to destroy, also, the large rolling mill of the city, which was said to have been the only mill in the South where plating for gunboats could be manufactured.

We found more Union sentiment in Atlanta than anywhere else in the South. As our Brigade entered the city, at about nine o'clock at night, many of the women brought out buckets of water for us to drink. They were very bitter against Hood's army, which they said had robbed them of everything that could be carried off, with the excuse that the Yankees would steal it anyway. They were agreeably disappointed to find that the Yankees did not rob them of a thing.

Immense quantities of tobacco were abandoned by the Secessionist citizens who left town. This fact ruined the sutlers' trade in that article. On the day before Atlanta fell, tobacco sold in our camps at a dollar a plug, and fifteen cents for cigars. On the day after, plug tobacco passed about for five cents, and cigars were twenty-five cents a hundred. Our men found tobacco in every conceivable place. One lot of twenty boxes was dug out from under a big ash-heap. It was, however, the only plunder obtained, for the most stringent orders were issued against pillaging occupied houses.

The effects of the Union bombardment could everywhere be seen in the city. Almost every house had the marks on it of shot and shell. One man showed me a dozen shells that had struck in his garden. The families remaining in the city had all built in their yards bombproofs, to which they had fled for safety whenever the shelling was in progress.

On September 6 Sherman's army came back from Jonesboro, and went into camp in the vicinity of town. For a time we enjoyed the luxury of complete rest, after our four months of continuous campaigning. On September 23 our Regiment received from Wisconsin 200 fresh recruits, who had just been secured under the draft. Every one was a substitute, and a splendid lot of men they were physically, representing almost every nation in Europe—English, Irish, Scotch, Welsh, Germans, French, Norwegians, and I don't know how many others. Some of them could not speak a word of English. Over a dozen were full-blooded Chippewa Indians, who until they put on the uniforms of the United States Army, had never worn the clothing of civilized people. They were all excellent raw material, and in the course of time made good soldiers. I recall only two of the entire 200 who deserted.

About the first of October, Hood set out on his trip to the North, in the attempt to starve us out of Atlanta. On October 3 Sherman started after him with all of the army except our Corps, which was left to hold the town. Our camps were now changed around so as to defend the city on a shorter line. Our Brigade was moved from the south to the northwest side, and set to work to build new breastworks, or rather to rebuild the old ones of the Confederates.

The enemy succeeded in getting upon our railroad to the North, and for about twenty days we were completely cut off without news or provisions. However, they had left us the whole of the country southward to forage in; and this, together with the rice we had captured in the city, and the "beef dried on the hoof," as the men called the cattle that were driven in, kept us a long way from starving. Every week our forage trains would run out into the country to the south, and gather in from 500 to 700 wagon-loads of corn, besides living, while they were out, on the best that the land afforded. Moreover, we had our provisions all to ourselves; for on September 10 Sherman had ordered all the citizens of the town to leave either to the North or to the South.

On October 11 our Regiment went out for the first time on a foraging expedition. There were 2,500 men in the detachment, and a train of about 500 wagons. About fifteen miles south of Atlanta we found plenty of corn for the animals; and for the men, abundance of sweet potatoes and other dainties not laid down in the army menu. In two days we had our wagons laden with all that could be hauled away. About a fortnight later we went out again and brought in over 800 wagons of corn.

The forage which we thus gathered was the salvation of our animals and beef cattle. The mules had been on half rations of grain all summer, quite without hay, and the whole country in the vicinity of Atlanta had been grazed over until it was as bare as a city street. The beeves that had been driven down from Louisville, had for weeks nothing to eat save the leaves and sprouts on the bushes. It was a standing joke among the men that the commissary always killed for beef those animals that could not survive until the next day.