Never in Such a Tight Place: The Battle of Atlanta

Today’s post features an excerpt from my recent book The Seneachie Letters: A Virginia Yankee with the 32nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry (available here) which provides one of the two accounts written by Private William Mosby McLain about the Battle of Atlanta.

          A little background on the author. William Mosby McLain was born in 1838 in Washington, D.C. and was raised in that city, but spent much time visiting his Mosby relatives in Virginia (he is a relation of John Singleton Mosby on his mother’s side) and at the outbreak of the war was living with his mother’s family in Richmond, Virginia having just completed his college education in civil engineering. McLain opposed secession and chose to return to his father’s family home in Champaign County, Ohio where he enlisted with his cousin in Co. B of the 32nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. McLain sent a regular series of letters to the Urbana Citizen & Gazette under the pen name “Seneachie,” a variation of the Gaelic word meaning historian or storyteller, a tribute to McLain’s Highlands Scottish heritage as a descendant of Clan Maclean.
32nd Ohio National Colors
(Ohio History Connection)

The 32nd Ohio saw active service in the east, taking part in several battles in Virginia including Camp Allegheny, McDowell, and Cross Keys before being caught up in the surrender of Harper’s Ferry. The regiment spent several months in parole camp before being exchanged and sent to join General U.S. Grant’s army for the Vicksburg campaign. The regiment, dubbed the “Harper’s Ferry Cowards” upon their arrival in the west, redeemed their reputation during the Vicksburg campaign especially for their role in taking a Confederate battery during the Battle of Champion’s Hill.

McLain’s health suffered during the regiment’s lengthy stay in Vicksburg and when the 32nd Ohio re-enlisted during the winter of 1864, the examining surgeon rejected McLain as unfit. The regiment, after veterans’ furlough, was then sent to join Sherman’s army in the drive on Atlanta. Once joining the army in June 1864, McLain was placed on special assignment with regimental headquarters. As a trained civil engineer, McLain was tasked with directing the construction of the regimental field works and he served in this role for the remainder of his service. McLain called himself the “director of ditching.”

This letter was addressed to Lydia Post Minturn, a friend of McLain’s who was active in the Sanitary Commission; Lydia saved hundreds of letters from Union soldiers and published them in 1865. McLain also wrote an account of the battle on July 30, 1864 which he sent to the editor of the Urbana Citizen & Gazette, but this version is a little more personal and in my opinion is a stronger piece.

Camp of the 17th Army Corps, near Atlanta, Georgia

August 8, 1864[i]
You may be aware that on the 22nd ultimo our Army of the Tennessee, to wit the 15th, 16th, and 17th Corps, distinguished themselves although about 2 p.m. of that day I feared very much that they would have been extinguished utterly before night. Truly our corps was never in as tight a place before.

Our regiment was at the extreme left of our corps and it was the intention for the 16th Corps to have joined us and formed as flankers, but instead of being in position at 9 a.m. as ordered they were lounging along at 1 o’clock and a great gap was left between their right and our left. The Rebs found this out at about noon and attacked us simultaneously in line on our flank and in column about the right of our corps and the center of the advancing 16th Corps, too. The first balls that were fired came in lengthwise of our work and it was scarcely any time before they came in perfect sheets. Our works were not complete, but they would have afforded considerable shelter had the attack been from the front. But they came upon us in every direction and from three points of the compass.
General Walter Q. Gresham
Led 4th Division of 17th Corps at Atlanta until wounded
on July 20th. Giles Smith succeeded him.

(Luzerne B. Hord of Co. B left a vivid account of his experiences at Atlanta. “I never saw war harness gathered up and put on so quick in all my army experience as on that day by our regiment,” he remembered. “The Rebels came first from the east, then from the south. One of our boys of Co. B, Al Wadsworth, was shot while our company was getting into line. When we first formed line of the battle, the right of the regiment rested on our breastworks while the left extended due north. Then we were ordered to right face and moved forward right over our breastworks a few rods where we were commanded to lie down. In that spot our regiment lost a great many brave boys, especially of Co. B as we were very near the Rebels when we were ordered to lie down.”) [ii]

Our first maneuver was to face by the rear rank and to form on the outside of our ditch, using it for defense. Here we repelled the first and second charge of the Rebs which came slantways from the northeast. But we were attacked then in our own rear and again jumped our ditches to reform on the other, or proper side, and here again we repelled a charge but they began to come too thick and the section of two guns of the 2nd Illinois Artillery which was on our left ceased playing, so we were ordered to change front and form at right angles with our own works.

Our regiment, by this new disposition of the division, was thrown out of the works entirely into the edge of a cornfield while the Iowa brigade formed a continuation of the line inside our trenches. This we did under a hot fire from infantry and from two or three pieces of artillery which the Rebels had just gotten into position on our left, or rather where the extension of our left would previously had been. I was overseeing ditching when the attack first began but with the chaplain I soon found a musket and fell in with our company on the left and now. When formed, we lay down and it stood us in hand to lay close for the unevenness of the ground was our only shelter. Without thinking of that, I had lain down and now I found that we were on a little crown or hillock and entirely unsheltered.

We were afraid to get back further where the ground was lower on account of a lot of recruits who were in our company and close by us and whom I could occasionally see casting furtive glances to the rear. The chaplain and the sergeant major were both alongside me (the chaplain always assumes the weapons of carnal warfare when the regiment goes into action) and on my right were three others of my comrades. We lay there until the Rebels got within 30 yards of us when they took possession of our old works and then we had it hot and heavy.
Society of the Army of the Tennessee Medal

For nearly an hour we fought without change of position until the word was brought that the Iowa brigade (inside the works) had fallen back from our alignment and the Rebels were now completely between us and the rest of our forces. I looked at Lieutenant St. Duncan, assistant adjutant general of the brigade, and saw that he thought it a bad position of affairs, but he didn’t despair so I concluded I wouldn’t. He ordered us to fall back to the woods in our rear a company at a time, and they began with Company A on the right. We kept up a steady fire from our flank to protect the maneuver and soon our turn came. I was starting when one of my comrades on my right was shot through the chest, turned his face, and said, “Oh, Will!” I thought he wanted water but I knew we couldn’t carry him off, so I stooped to give him my canteen but he didn’t want water and caught me by the hand. He tried to say something but could not and while he held me his gasped his last.[iii]

I rose up from my knees and looked around. The company was out of sight in the timber but the Rebs were in sight and plenty of them I saw it was too late to run and as there was nothing larger than a cornstalk to hide behind, I had to come up with a strategy. I lay down on my face and lay stark and stiff as if I were as dead as poor Mitchell beside whom I lay. On came the rush. I expected every moment to feel a bayonet thrust through my ribs or a musket butt on my head. But they passed, and I was safe! Still the balls were falling around me from our own men and the battle raged fiercely on top of the hill about 100 yards off, but it was in the woods and there was only one line of Rebels and I felt confident that our regiment was good for them ,so I began looking for a hiding place to bide my time. I had no desire to be captured having tried that twice during my three years. But here came the Rebels flying back, their line broken and mangled; while our boys raised such a shout as I never heard a regiment give before. Oh, I wanted to add to it to the top of my lungs, but I didn’t dare as I had to play dead man again. I tell you it was a terrible moment. I wouldn’t take a thousand dollars to pass another such moment. Still the good God was overseeing all and he preserved me. Never did I utter a more fervent prayer of thanks than I did that night.
Detail from Kurz & Allison print of the Battle of Atlanta, July 22, 1864

The Rebels passed in retreat and I took a gun and drew my revolver to be ready for any straggling or wounded Johnny that might be between me and the regiment for I was determined to get to it or die, so off I started. But there were only dead and badly wounded along my route and they let me alone, so I didn’t bother them and I regained the regiment. We numbered 102 less men than we had an hour previous and Company B was short by 11 files, 22 good men and true. I mentioned the men who were around me at first. Of the five, two were dead. Chaplain Bennett, Sergeant Major Hyde, and my cousin were all severely wounded and I, worthless and unworthy of such a favor, was unscathed.

(Chaplain Russell Bennett displayed conspicuous courage in this engagement. “At one time during a few moments’ lull in the battle, the 32nd Ohio was laying down in the edge of a cornfield waiting for the next attack. Chaplain Bennett cautioned the boys to lie very still and protect themselves the best they could and advanced into the cornfield to make a reconnaissance and mounting a stump 40 or 50 yards in front of the line, discovered the battle line of the enemy rapidly advancing, and moving back to his regiment, passed the word along the line that the enemy was close upon them. He took the musket of William B. Mitchell of Co. B and fired on the advancing line. Mitchell, lying on the ground, would rapidly reload the gun and again Bennett would fire, all the time exhorting the boys to “lie low” until the enemy was close upon them and then to “fire low.” All this time he stood erect, not seeming to have any thought of his own safety, but only solicitous for the soldiers was of the regiment. Mitchell was killed where he lay and his body falling into the hands of the enemy was never recovered.”) [iv]
The 32nd Ohio as part of Colonel Benjamin Potts First Brigade (53rd Illinois, 23rd and 53rd Indiana, 3rd Iowa, and 32nd Ohio) fought on both sides of their breastworks on July 22nd, breastworks which William McLain helped design.
(Map by Hal Jespersen)

Yet our regiment was separated from the rest of the Union troops and we were half a mile out of the line of works but we soon formed a line in the woods and a portion of the Third Division, our own glorious old Buckeye brigade (we were transferred in early July to the First Brigade, Fourth Division) made a sortie out of the works. We being on the other side of the Rebels they attacked, charged down the hill at a double quick and with a cheer and taking the Rebels by surprise forced a number of them into our works where the provost guard soon took care of them and they went to the rear.

At last night came and oh how glad we were! Towards the afternoon we moved to a bottom where the Rebels had charged our men three times and where numbers of the graybacks paid the penalty of their treason. A little stream trickled through the bottom and our boys hadn’t had water since morning. It was muddy and dead and wounded men lay thick alongside it. But our boys were forced to drink it or to parch; so they drank it, blood and all.

(William Burson, a member of Co. A, 32nd Ohio, was captured that morning at a little brook like the one McLain described. After depositing a wounded comrade under a tree, Burson went to get him some water. “I immediately commenced filling my canteen and as soon as I had done so, some videttes came running toward us saying that the Rebels were close after them. The picket officer who was present said that escape was impossible. There was a deep ditch through which the brook ran. The officer told us to jump into this ditch and give them the best we had. Obeying his command, I jumped into the ditch and raised my gun to my shoulder. I was about to dispatch a Rebel captain who just that moment came into full view when a half dozen or more voices a little to my left exclaimed ‘Throw down that gun you damned rascal, you!’ Seeing a half dozen against one, I had not long to decide what to do. It was either throw down my gun or run the risk of being killed outright; so down went my gun and I was ordered to the rear.”) [v]

Close by was a wounded lieutenant calling crazily to his mother to give him water. Poor traitor! Can’t you pity him? His mother lives in Athens in this state and after he died, one of the boys took a photograph from his pocket which is very probably hers. The chaplain gives me the credit of killing a colonel or field officer commanding a regiment and I know that I did my best. I drew as level a bead on his belt as he waved his sword and cheered his men forward as ever I drew on a squirrel, and I know I can cut a pigeon’s head off with the same gun at the same distance he was and I know too that when my smoke blew away his saddle was empty. Sometimes I wonder if it is right for a man to single out his mark that way but I couldn’t help it. That colonel was doing more against us than any man I could see and I felt it would help us the most to drop him. Was I justified?

Our army was broken up a great deal, many men losing their commands and even brigade commanders losing their brigades in the turmoil. But not a man of ours did I see that wanted to do anything but fight, fight, fight, until the foe was driven back. In one place when our regiment crossed the works among our old friends of the Ohio brigade it got broken up and scattered. But two or three cries of “Rally here, Company B! Here you Thirty-Twos!” brought most of them back. In one place in the 16th Corps a party of stragglers gathered in a rifle pit for shelter. They were unsupported, having been thrown out as skirmishers, and were in front of the main lines. The Rebels made a charge upon them and as the Johnnies first came in sight, our boys raised a white rag on a bayonet intending to surrender. The Rebels took no notice of it but continued firing when the boys took down the white flag and went to work and whipped the Rebel line that charged them, holding their ground until they were reinforced. Many such incidents I’ve heard of, some not so much to our boys’ credit. In one portion of the line the Rebels reached the works and the bayonets were freely used. Both our men and the Confederates lay dead from bayonet wounds there the next day.

A flag came from General Hood the next day to bury the dead and there is no telling (it will never be known) how many were buried. Our loss, notwithstanding the disastrous nature of the attack upon us, and our bad success at first, was not heavy being not over 3,300 at the very outside while our division passed under the flag over 1,700 Rebels dead. But the usually allowed proportion of five to one wounded to dead will not hold good in this battle. Three to one will fully cover the wounded I believed for our fire was terribly deadly.

[i] Minturn, Lydia Post. Soldiers’ Letters, 1865, pgs. 400-407
[ii] Luzerne B. Hord, ‘An Atlanta Experience,’ National Tribune, January 19, 1899, pg. 3
[iii] McLain is referencing the death of Private William D. Mitchell of his company.
[iv] Curry, William L. War History of Union County, containing a history of the services of Union County soldiers in the War of the Revolution, the War of 1812, the War with Mexico 1846-47, and the War of the Rebellion, 1861-65. Marysville: np, 1883, pg. 46
[v] Burson, William. A Race for Liberty; or My Capture, Imprisonment, and Escape. Wellsville: W.G. Foster, 1867, pg. 24


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