Inside the Crime of Pickett’s Mill: Voices from the 49th Ohio


The Battle of Pickett’s Mill, a relatively obscure battle fought in the opening month of the Atlanta campaign, occurred May 27, 1864 near Dallas, Georgia. It was a brief and ferocious fight and one of considerable importance to my family: my wife’s great-great-great grandfather George Saul was severely wounded during his regiment’s charge upon the Confederate works. Making it more tragic was the fact that Saul went into action with five of his cousins: at the end of the battle, three of them lay dead while he had been wounded. Only two of this group of six men escaped unscathed.
       
A wartime image of Private George Saul and who I believe is his cousin Corporal John Frees (sometimes spelled Freese)  of Co. F, 49th Ohio Infantry. George is standing at left. This image was taken between February-May 1864. George would be severely wounded at Pickett's Mills while his cousin John Frees was among the slain. (Photo courtesy of Dick Mann)
   
       George Saul was born March 7, 1845 in Liberty Township in Seneca County, Ohio to George and Mary (McEwen) Saul. In February 1864, the 19-year old farmer’s son and resident of Seneca County, Ohio chose to enlist in the 49th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The 49th Ohio was home on veteran’s furlough, having earned a hard-won reputation of a fighting regiment after participating in the battles of Shiloh, Stones River, Liberty Gap, Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge. The war had also redeemed the reputation of its regimental commander, Tiffin native William Harvey Gibson. Gibson had been forced to resign in disgrace from the office of state treasurer before the war, accused of covering up malfeasance in the office perpetrated by his predecessor who happened to be a relative. Colonel Gibson raised the 49th Ohio from Seneca, Sandusky, Putnam, Wood, Wyandot, and Hancock Counties and took it to war, earning a solid reputation in the army for his courage and leadership. During several engagements he had been called upon to lead a brigade and the talk was that a brigadier’s star was not too far in the future for this superbly eloquent attorney.

          Saul’s decision to enlist in the 49th Ohio may have been inspired by Colonel Gibson’s soaring reputation, but most likely it was family ties that convinced the young man to tie his fortunes with the regiment. In its ranks were six of his cousins on his mother’s side: Privates John W. Frees, Hiram Frees, and William McEwen of Co. E, Corporal John Frees of Co. F, Sergeant George W. McEwen and Private Thomas Clark McEwen of Co. H. George had been on detached service with the Pioneer Corps for more than a year but now had returned to his company and re-enlisted. Thomas, George McEwen’s younger brother, however, elected not to re-enlist.

Colonel William Harvey Gibson of the 49th Ohio poses with his war horse Morgan. Gibson earned a solid reputation as a field commander during the Civil War and was given a brevet promotion to brigadier general in 1865. His fame grew after the war and he was in high demand for his oratorical skills. He is honored with a statue in his hometown of Tiffin, Ohio. 

Service was an important value to the Saul family. George’s older brother John Saul had gone off to war as a Private in Co. F of the 55th Ohio but had died of disease in Baltimore in 1862. His older brother James Saul would enlist a few months later in Co. E of the 164th Ohio, a 100 days regiment.

          The 49th Ohio has been on campaign for three straight weeks by the time they arrived in the vicinity of Pickett’s Mill. Ambrose Bierce, then serving as a topographical officer on General William B. Hazen’s staff, wrote a short story on the 24th anniversary of the battle entitled “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.” Bierce had a front row seat in one of the shortest and sharpest engagements of the war, and one that the principal authors of the attack (namely Generals William T. Sherman and Oliver O. Howard) chose to forget rather than remember.
Indiana lieutenant Ambrose Bierce was a topographical
officer on General Hazen's staff at Pickett's Mill.

          Bierce sets the scene for this doomed assault: “For three weeks we had been pushing the Confederates southward, partly by maneuvering, partly by fighting, out of Dalton, out of Resaca, through Adairsville, Kingston and Cassville. Each army offered battle everywhere but would accept it only on its own terms. At Dallas Johnston made another stand and Sherman, facing the hostile line, began his customary maneuvering for an advantage. General Wood's division of Howard's corps occupied a position opposite the Confederate right. Johnston finding himself on the 26th overlapped by Schofield, still farther to Wood's left, retired his right (Polk) across a creek, whither we followed him into the woods with a deal of desultory bickering, and at nightfall had established the new lines at nearly a right angle with the old--Schofield reaching well around and threatening the Confederate rear.”

The attack at Pickett’s Mill was spearheaded by General William B. Hazen’s brigade which consisted of the 6th Indiana, 5th, 6th, and 23rd Kentucky, 1st, 6th, 41st, 93rd, and 124th Ohio. Hazen’s men took heavy casualties and didn’t make a dent in the Confederate lines. Colonel William H. Gibson’s brigade followed up Hazen’s foray and was similarly shellacked: it consisted of the 25th and 89th Illinois, 32nd Indiana, 15th and 49th Ohio, and the predominantly Scandinavian 15th Wisconsin. Both brigades belonged to General Thomas J. Wood’s Third Division of the General Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps.

          Attacking entrenched Confederate troops in the thick and twisted woods of northern Georgia was not for the faint of heart. The heavy foliage and lack of knowledge of the location of the enemy contributed to the fog of battle. Bierce wrote that “as to the rank and file, they can know nothing more of the matter than the arms they carry. They hardly know what troops are upon their own right or left the length of a regiment away. If it is a cloudy day they are ignorant even of the points of the compass. It may be said, generally, that a soldier's knowledge of what is going on about him is coterminous with his official relation to it and his personal connection with it; what is going on in front of him he does not know at all until he learns it afterward.”

          Bierce continued: “At 9 o'clock on the morning of the 27th Wood's division was withdrawn and replaced by [David S.] Stanley's. Supported by [Richard W.[ Johnson's division, it moved at 10 o'clock to the left, in the rear of Schofield, a distance of four miles through a forest, and at 2 o'clock in the afternoon had reached a position where General Howard believed himself free to move in behind the enemy's forces and attack them in the rear, or at least, striking them in the flank, crush his way along their line in the direction of its length, throw them into confusion and prepare an easy victory for a supporting attack in front.”

          The plan was for Wood’s division to stage the assault as a column of brigades: Hazen’s brigade in the van to be supported by Gibson. The hope was to strike the Confederates in flank and by surprise. It didn’t work. The Federals had moved too slowly and the perceptive Confederates had redeployed their line, transferring troops headed by the able General Patrick Cleburne to head off the threatened danger. Wood’s division wouldn’t be striking a lightly protected flank screened by cavalry- they would be marching smack into an entrenched line of some of the staunchest fighters in the Confederacy. It was a recipe for slaughter.

Map showing the assault at Pickett's Mill- the map can hardly convey the terrain at this field which remains wild and tangled. (Map courtesy of American Battlefield Trust)

General Hazen directed Lieutenant Bierce to perform a perfunctory reconnaissance of the ground in front of them before the brigade stepped off. Bierce wrote that the ground in their front was “uphill through almost impassable tangles of underwood, along and across precipitous ravines. I had pushed far enough forward through the forest to hear distinctly the murmur of the enemy awaiting us.” He duly reported this to Hazen but the command was given to drive the Confederates from their works. 

Hazen’s 1,500 men marched forward in tight ranks- veteran troops determined to do their duty. “We moved forward. In less than one minute the trim battalions had become simply a swarm of men struggling through the undergrowth of the forest, pushing and crowding,” Bierce wrote. “The front was irregularly serrated, the strongest and bravest in advance, the others following in fan-like formations, variable and inconstant, ever defining themselves anew. For the first 200 yards our course lay along the left bank of a small creek in a deep ravine, our left battalions sweeping along its steep slope. Then we came to the fork of the ravine. A part of us crossed below, the rest above, passing over both branches, the regiments inextricably intermingled, rendering all military formation impossible.”

“Suddenly there came a ringing rattle of musketry, the familiar hissing of bullets, and before us the interspaces of the forest were all blue with smoke. Hoarse, fierce yells broke out of a thousand throats. The forward fringe of brave and hardy assailants was arrested in its mutable extensions; the edge of our swarm grew dense and clearly defined as the foremost halted, and the rest pressed forward to align themselves beside them, all firing. The uproar was deafening; the air was sibilant with streams and sheets of missiles. In the steady, unvarying roar of small arms the frequent shock of the cannon was rather felt than heard, but the gusts of grape which they blew into that populous wood were audible enough, screaming among the trees and cracking their stems and branches. We had, of course, no artillery to reply.”

“Standing at the right of the line I had an unobstructed view of the narrow, open space across which the two lines fought. It was dim with smoke, but not greatly obscured: the smoke rose and spread in sheets among the branches of the trees. Most of our men fought kneeling as they fired, many of them behind trees, stones and whatever cover they could get, but there were considerable groups that stood. Occasionally one of these groups, which had endured the storm of missiles for moments without perceptible reduction, would push forward, moved by a common despair, and wholly detach itself from the line. In a second every man of the group would be down. There had been no visible movement of the enemy, no audible change in the awful, even roar of the firing--yet all were down. Frequently the dim figure of an individual soldier would be seen to spring away from his comrades, advancing alone toward that fateful interspace, with leveled bayonet. He got no farther than the farthest of his predecessors.”

“As the wreck of our brigade drifted back through the forest we met the brigade (Gibson's) which, had the attack been made in column as it should have been, would have been but five minutes behind our heels, with another brigade five minutes behind its own. As it was, just 45 minutes had elapsed, during which the enemy had destroyed us and was now ready to perform the same kindly office for our successors. Neither Gibson nor the brigade which was sent to his relief accomplished or could have hoped to accomplish anything whatever,” Bierce acidly concluded.
 
Pumpkinvine Creek on the Pickett's Mill battlefield in an image I took in the pre-digital camera days on 2001. It is a haunting place to visit. 

George Saul and the remainder of the 49th Ohio moved forward through the debris of Hazen’s shocked and begrimed survivors. The scene could hardly have been inspiring: Federal dead lay strewn along the hillsides and scores of bloody wounded men streamed back to the rear. The woods, clouded with the blue smoke of thousands of black powder muskets punctuated by the bright flashes of muskets and artillery, had to be a scene of unknown terrors. The roar of battle must have been deafening and unrelenting. The men deployed from marching by file into two ranks, and as the officers dressed the line, George lined up shoulder to shoulder with his comrades and prepared to charge.

It was not George’s first experience with battle; that had occurred three weeks before at Tunnel Hill. It had cost him one cousin already. This had all the makings of a first-class disaster. As a 19-year-old recruit, I can only imagine the thoughts that went through his mind. Perhaps he looked to his cousins, all veterans of some of the toughest battles of the war, for encouragement. Perhaps he spied Colonel Gibson as he encouraged the men, or perhaps he looked to his company officers and NCOs for courage. Perhaps he prayed, turning his fortunes over to the God of battles. He may have shook with fear or been a cool as a cucumber eager to cross bayonets with the Rebels. All is speculation. One thing we do know was that he was hungry. Family lore passed down the story that he had not had an opportunity to eat that day. He soon would have cause to be grateful for that inconvenience.

General Hiram Granbury's Texans held back both assaults
on his line at Pickett's Mill, inflicting very heavy losses on
Wood's division. 

The 49th Ohio charged against the Confederate works held by Hiram Granbury’s hard fighting Texas brigade consisting of the 6th, 7th, 10th Texas Infantry regiments along with the dismounted 17/18th and 24th/25th Texas Cavalry regiments. Unfortunately, there are few accounts from the 49th Ohio giving their experience at Pickett’s Mill: roughly half of the regiment’s 400 men were shot down in the engagement. But the best account comes from Corporal William S. Franklin of Co. H who crafted the following account for the National Tribune in 1898.

During the day we were marching and halting and moving over high hills and deep gullies heavily timbered. Late in the afternoon our division was halted for some time and many of the boys took a nap. When they awoke to march, some said that they had presentiments of a calamity before us. But our column had orders to march and soldiers under marching orders cannot stop for presentiments. In our front was a high ridge covered with timber. We ascended this, then marched down the other side into a deep gully some 80 rods from the top. As we were descending a Rebel battery just to our right poured grape and canister, shot and shell into the right flank of our brigade, dealing out destruction.

At the top of the other ridge we had to ascend were two lines of Rebel breastworks, hastily thrown up, one just on the summit and other one nearer us down the slope, so the second line was the most exposed and they could not reinforce the first line after the heavy firing from our musketry began. As we advanced, I heard out boys say they saw white flags waving, that our men had the works. “Let us go on,” they said, and we did, over rocks and other obstructions that required all our courage and strength to overcome. When the battle line got within a few feet of the Rebel breastworks, the enemy arose and opened a terrific fire of musketry into our ranks. Our men replied with great fury and for an hour at least death and destruction reigned supreme. Those of who lived through that struggle cannot forget what surrounded us.

The regiments of our brigade, like most all others, had been greatly reduced in numbers, yet our loss in the division was 1,600 men. Our regiment went into the charge with 414 and it came out with 207 men; fifty percent of our men were thus numbered among the killed, wounded, and missing. After the charge, we held our line near the enemy’s works that we failed to take and kept up a continuous firing so that the Rebels had to keep closely behind their works. It was during the first half hour of fighting that so many of our boys lost their lives. When darkness came over that bloody scene, the firing ceased and our soldiers lay in line of battle with one load left in their guns and with fixed bayonets waiting for orders. Finally a faint whistle was sounded all along the line for us to fall back. We were in too dangerous a place to have retreat sounded from the bugle. We fell back into the hollow and marched up the slope northward where the 14th Corps had built heavy works. General Wood’s division, or what was left of it, was marched to the rear for rest.

It was afterwards ascertained that 19 of my company were dead. [Sergeant George McEwen was one of them.] Those soldiers who survived that conflict fired about 100 cartridges each. Our gun barrels were hot all the time, so that we were compelled to hold the stock while loading and firing at the enemy. We had 60 rounds of ammunition each to start with and many of the officers emptied the cartridge boxes of the wounded and dead to distribute among the fighters. Lieutenant [Francis R.] Stewart, afterwards Captain, gave me four boxes full of cartridges and I fired all but one charge. My tongue became thickly swollen from biting off the ends of the cartridges for loading purposes and I could hardly talk for several days afterwards.

When our men were leaving the slaughter pen in the darkness, those of our comrades who were severely wounded raised dismal cries and appealed to us to take them along to the rear, but we could not, for we were nearly helpless ourselves.

Colonel William Harvey Gibson, 49th Ohio


Among the wounded Franklin described lay 19-year-old George Saul. He had been shot through the abdomen.  It was said that he tried to make his way to the rear but the pain was too severe. A passing comrade saw that he was wounded in the gut and concluded that young George was probably a goner: most abdominal wounds sustained during the Civil War proved fatal due to the inability of Civil War-era surgeons to adequately address the inevitable internal bleeding that resulted. So George was left on the field.

Perhaps shielding himself from the flying lead by crawling behind a log or in a depression of the ground, I can only imagine his thoughts as he lay upon the field. He must have known that he was dangerously wounded and that there was a good chance that he would die that night at age 19. His whole life lay ahead of him: a wife, children, a farm of his own, all of this hung in the balance at that moment. His future and in a sense that of the future generations hung on whether he could find a way to survive. George’s pain had to be excruciating. Was he one like Franklin described who “raised dismal cries and appealed to us to take them to the rear?”

Perhaps he looked around and saw the wreckage of his company. Lieutenant Silas W. Simons lay dead nearby, as did the bodies of Alexander Bowman, John Wisebecker, and John Woster. John D. Williams lay close to the Confederate lines shot through the bowels. He would die that night in agony. Sergeant Aaron Lohr’s right thigh had been hit while William Redfern’s left thigh was shot through; Corporal Albert Dildine was shot through the groin while Corporal William Henry Harrison Leach had been shot through both arms and a leg. Corporal Oliver Jacob’s shoulder had been mauled. Thomas Fye lay gut-shot and would soon fall into enemy hands. Isaac Neiderhouser lay gut-shot nearby and would die of his wounds three days later. Josiah Zimmerman’s jaw wound was ghastly.

Pickett's Mill casualty list for Co. E, 49th Ohio as published in the July 14, 1864 issue of the Tiffin Weekly Tribune

Perhaps he spied the torn and broken bodies of his three cousins who lay dead upon the field. George McEwen of Co. H was on the hill; Hiram Frees of Co. E lay nearby with a fractured arm but would be captured by the Confederates during the night and never be seen again. John Frees of Co. F, promoted to Corporal while on veteran’s furlough in February, also lay dead. The scene had to be horrific beyond description.

All the while, the Confederate and Federal troops kept up an incessant skirmish fire over and through the bodies of the dead and wounded. As night fell, the firing subsided and the woods became quiet, punctuated only by the moans and screams of the suffering wounded. He survived the night and early the next morning he was retrieved from the field and sent 20 miles back to a field hospital. His lengthy ride in a harsh-riding ambulance over the rutted roads of 1864-era Georgia must have been an experience in agony.

George’s wound, horrible as it was, was a ‘million-dollar wound' if one can say being gut-shot is a ‘million-dollar wound.’ The Confederate .58 caliber lead bullet that struck him from behind first struck a small package he was carrying: a collection of pins, needles, and thread known as a housewife. The “housewife” was carried by soldiers to fix up and repair their clothing; usually given by a loving wife, mother, or sister; George’s likely came from his mother. And it proved his salvation. The bullet struck the housewife and drove the fractured pins and needles into his abdomen, but the “housewife” deflected the bullet enough that it missed all of his vital organs. Had the bullet not struck the housewife (or had George eaten when the regiment was resting in the afternoon), the bullet likely would have hit his stomach or intestine and he would have bled to death that very day.

A typical Civil War-era housewife complete with safety pins, needles, and thread. Shards of metal from pins and needles like these worked their way out of George Saul's abdomen for many years after the Battle of Pickett's Mill. 

Pickett’s Mill was a devastating blow to his family: Sergeant George W. McEwen of Co. H was killed, John Frees of Co. F was killed, Hiram Frees of Co. E was missing and his body would never be found. George himself was severely wounded. His cousin and company mate John W. Frees has been wounded three weeks before at Rocky Face Ridge and would be discharged in 1865. Somehow his company mate William McEwen had escaped harm, as did Thomas C. McEwen of Co. H. Thomas had bled for his country once already, being wounded at Liberty Gap the previous year.

To recap: seven cousins embarked on the Atlanta campaign: within three weeks, three of them were dead and two of them had been wounded so severely that they were no longer fit for service. This sad news would filter back to Seneca County and cast a pall over the community.

A family portrait dating from the early 1920s shows George Saul circled in the back row. His wife Mary Ellen (Zeis) stands to his front left while his daughter Viola Belle (Saul) Doran stands in the lighter colored dress at left. Standing behind her is her husband James Sheridan Doran while on the far right is James Walter Doran, my wife's great grandfather. Had George lost his battle for survival at Pickett's Mill, none of the folks pictured with the exception of his wife Mary would have existed. 

As it was, George survived the war: he spent the remainder of his service in a series of hospitals before being discharged for disability in July 1865. George lived a long and active life: he married and had two children, and a few generations hence one of his many descendants would give birth to my wife. For years after the war, George was no doubt often reminded of his wound and of the terrible day the 49th Ohio lost half its numbers at Pickett’s Mill. Over time, chunks of metal, remnants of the shattered needles that were driven into his body on May 27, 1864, would work their way to the surface of his skin and he would remove the shards and show them to his family. I can only imagine his thoughts when he did so.

George died November 1, 1924 and is buried in Shiloh Methodist Cemetery near Cromers, Ohio, with Co. E, 49th O.V.V.I. carved on to his stone. 

Viola Belle (Saul) Doran was born to George and Mary Ellen Saul in 1874. 


Comments

  1. G'Day Dan,

    Excellent article on your wife's ggg grandfather, a soldier in the 49th Ohio that fought and was wounded at Pickett's Mill. What an amazing tale of survival! Great photos!

    I have the Ohio Veteran's Medal of 1866 that was posthumously awarded to John M. Brish of Company K of the 49th. John died in the attempt to take the rebel works at the battle. Here, below, is the account of his death as published in the local Seneca paper...

    For the Seneca Advertiser.
    "Cherish the Memory of the Heroic Dead."
    Died on the battle field of Pickett"s Mills,
    Georgia, on the 27th of May 1864, John M.
    Brish, in the 29th year of his age. The de-
    ceased served three months in Western Vir-
    ginia, in the 21st O.V.I. After the expira-
    tion of his time he returned with his Regt.
    and then joined the 81st Regt., at Lima, and
    marched to Missouri, serving as 1st Lieut. in
    one of its companies. Not liking the service
    in that region, he resigned his commission
    and returned to his home near Tiffin. Soon
    after, he followed the 49th O.V.I. under Col.
    Wm. H. Gibson, then on the march in Tenn-
    essee, and enlisted in the company of Capt.
    James M. Paterson, to which he was attached
    at the time of his death. The following is an
    account of his death by the Captain:

    In the Field near Ackworth Ga.,
    June 9th 1864 }
    Mrs. Wm. Brish.- Respected Madam: It be-
    comes my painful duty to inform you that
    your son, John M. Brish, is dead, his mission
    on earth is ended, all of him that was earth-
    ly now fills a hero's grave on the terrible
    field of "Pickett's Mills." He was shot
    through the neck when within ten feet of the
    rebel rifle pits, his death was instantaneous.
    It was on the 27th of May at near 6 o'clock
    P.M. I was compelled to leave his body on
    the field, which they held for six days,
    when they in turn were driven off. Our
    dead had all been buried by them in a de-
    cent manner in trenches.
    I deeply sympathize with you in your be-
    reavement and can say as words of condo-
    lence to you that your son is gone, but that
    he died a true hero, at his post. I say hero,
    for he had won that name on more then a
    dozen hard fought fields. But such is the
    ways of war and our cherished jewels are
    thus plucked from us.
    I am with great respect, Madam, yours & c.
    JAMES M. PATTERSON,
    Capt. 49th O.V.I.

    Cheers,

    Rob Grant

    Far North Queensland, Australia

    email: chillagoe49@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rob, thank you so much for the comment. What a great addition to the 49th Ohio story!

      Delete
  2. Dan,
    Very interesting but sad story. Two of my relatives fought at Pickett’s Mill with the 49th Ohio. George Daniel Harris and Albert Harris were privates in the 49th, Albert being in Company I, I believe. They fought through the war with the 49th at all the big engagements, but at Pickett’s Mill Albert was declared missing in action and presumed dead, his body has never been found. This was only two weeks after their other brother, William Harris of the 65th Ohio was killed in action at Resaca. George Daniel Harris was the only brother to survive the war. I unfortunately have no photo of Albert and only one photo of George D as an old man.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dan,
    Very interesting but sad story. Two of my relatives fought at Pickett’s Mill with the 49th Ohio. George Daniel Harris and Albert Harris were privates in the 49th, Albert being in Company I, I believe. They fought through the war with the 49th at all the big engagements, but at Pickett’s Mill Albert was declared missing in action and presumed dead, his body has never been found. This was only two weeks after their other brother, William Harris of the 65th Ohio was killed in action at Resaca. George Daniel Harris was the only brother to survive the war. I unfortunately have no photo of Albert and only one photo of George D as an old man.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dan,
    Very interesting but sad story. Two of my relatives fought at Pickett’s Mill with the 49th Ohio. George Daniel Harris and Albert Harris were privates in the 49th, Albert being in Company I, I believe. They fought through the war with the 49th at all the big engagements, but at Pickett’s Mill Albert was declared missing in action and presumed dead, his body has never been found. This was only two weeks after their other brother, William Harris of the 65th Ohio was killed in action at Resaca. George Daniel Harris was the only brother to survive the war. I unfortunately have no photo of Albert and only one photo of George D as an old man.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for the article, Dan. James Sheridan Doran was the brother of my great-great grandfather, John W. Doran

    ReplyDelete
  6. I recently picked up the war time letters of Lucius Strong of the 49th Ohio Volunteer Infantry which will be published by Faded Banner late in 2022, including one written to his future wife while still bleeding from a shoulder wound received in this battle. He wrote a lengthy letter about Pickett's Mill home to Mollie Milliman about a week after and one during the battle when he came to the rear to change a bloody shirt and dress his wound.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry that is Luther Strong and I should have edited before publishing. He later served as a two term Congressman from Ohio and was a judge until his death.

      Delete
    2. Were the Strong letters ever published? I do not find them on Faded Banner's website.

      Delete

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