“Gentlemen, this is serious business.” A 57th Ohio Captain Recalls Kennesaw
In April 2021, Columbian Arsenal Press will be releasing Ohio Regimental Chronicles: 57th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry, 1861-65 by Robert Van Dorn. Bob has been a lifelong collector and student of the Civil War and this work on the 57th Ohio was originally issued as Narratives of the 57th O.V.V.I. in the early 2000s. Bob and I have been friends for many years and he had indicated an interest in re-visiting the regiment’s history and having his work republished as a hardbound book (the original was spiral-bound), so this project has been a labor of love for both of us. This updated version will feature newly discovered accounts and images that enhance the original work. This title has been released as of April 5, 2021.
Today’s blog post provides a sample from this upcoming title. This account of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia was penned by Captain Alvah Skilton of Co. I of the 57th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Skilton gives his memories of the hours leading up the Federal assault on Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864 and the desperate fight that ensued. As the senior captain in the regiment, Skilton was part of Colonel Americus V. Rice’s “inner circle” and described General Giles Smith’s instructions to the regimental commanders. Captain Skilton distinguished himself in this battle, noted for carrying the regimental colors off the field at the conclusion of the engagement as he describes below. Less than a month later, Captain Skilton would be captured during the Battle of Atlanta.
The 57th Ohio formed a part of General Giles Smith’s First Brigade of General Morgan L. Smith’s Second Division of “Black Jack” Logan’s 15th Army Corps. The brigade had seven depleted regiments in its ranks including the 55th Illinois, 111th Illinois, 116th Illinois, 127th Illinois, 6th Missouri, 8th Missouri, and 57th Ohio.
Captain Skilton’s account begins on the evening of June 26, 1864; he with the commanding officers of the 57th Ohio are enjoying a quiet dinner sitting around a camp chest in the Georgia forest when a courier arrived with an order…
The short Southern twilight had suddenly ended and darkness settled down upon the camp, hiding alike under its mantle the rocks, trees and stern implements of war. For a time, silence reigned, broken only by the low murmur of the men as they talked of loved ones at home, dead or absent comrades, or told tales and laugh provoking jokes to pass the time. And I well remember a group that gathered that night about a camp chest under the shadows of the pines to eat a scanty supper by the light of a single tallow candle.
|Captain Alvah Skilton|
Co. I, 57th O.V.V.I.
This little group consisted of Colonel Americus V. Rice, commanding the 57th Ohio Regiment; Lieutenant Colonel Samuel R. Mott, Adjutant William M. Newell, Quartermaster Louis L. Parker, and myself. The meal was nearly finished when an orderly was heard inquiring for Colonel Rice. On being directed to him he delivered an envelope, gave a salute, and rode away into the darkness. Rice broke the seal deliberately, read the order and without comment passed it to Colonel Mott, who read it and gave it to me. So, it was read in silence and passed around the table. It was an order for the brigade to move silently out of the works and proceed to a designated spot near the gap, or depression, between Big and Little Kennesaw mountains, and at daylight on the 27th form part of a forlorn hope, or storm column, in an endeavor to make a lodgment inside the enemy’s works.
In an hour the regiment was underway and marched a greater part of the night before we arrived at the place assigned us, which was in a dense field of underbrush and close up to the enemy’s works. Here we laid down for a little rest. It seemed as though I had scarcely fallen asleep when someone was shaking me and whispering in my ear that Colonel Rice wanted me. I reported at once and found that General Giles Smith had sent an order requiring the three ranking officers of each regiment of the brigade to report at his headquarters. Colonels Rice and Mott, and myself as senior captain, proceeded to report at once and were, I believe, the first to arrive.
General Smith had established his headquarters under a hickory tree with a small circular grass plot about 40 feet in diameter to the south of it. The plot was surrounded by a dense growth of underbrush. In a short time, there were assembled here the three ranking officers from each regiment in the brigade and the members of General Smith’s staff.
When all had reported General Smith addressed us as follows: “Gentlemen, I have sent for you to advise you of what is expected of us today and to make such provision as is possible to prevent confusion or misunderstanding. This column has been selected as a “forlorn hope” and we are expected to carry the enemy’s works in our front. Should we succeed in doing it, we are to hold them at all hazards for at least 10 minutes when ample reinforcements will be sent to enable us to hold the works. Gentlemen, this is serious business and some of us must go down. I do not say this to frighten you, for I know that is impossible, but to impress on your minds that if I fall you must look to Colonel [James S.] Martin of the 111th Illinois for orders. If he falls you must look to Colonel Rice of the 57th Ohio.” Turning to Colonel Rice, who stood nearest to him, he said, “Of course, Colonel Rice commands his regiment. Should he go down, Colonel Mott succeeds and in the event of his falling, Captain Skilton will assume command.”
General Smith addressed the officers of each regiment in like manner, calling each officer by name and rank, thereby showing how perfectly he was acquainted with them and how thorough was his knowledge of his command. When he was finished, he said, “Gentlemen, go back to your respective commands, impart this information to your men and when the bugle sounds, charge. And may God bless and protect you all!” No event of the war has left a more vivid or lasting memory in my mind then that meeting at early dawn under that hickory tree at the foot of Kennesaw. But for how many was it their last meeting on earth, and how few of those who met for that brief consultation are now living and how many of the living are maimed and crippled for life?
We returned to our regiment. The bugle sounded the charge and in an almost incredibly short time we were in the very jaws of death, carrying the enemy’s front and outer works. Gallantly the brigade endeavored to perform the task allotted it, but flesh and blood could not endure the withering fire poured into it, and the charge failed. It cost our beloved colonel one of his legs. Our gallant Lieutenant Colonel was caught on the mountainside where it was impossible for him to get out until night, where he lay exposed to the burning rays of the sun without food or water, and at evening was exposed to one of the most terrific artillery fires I ever witnessed. When we stopped it happened that I was about 10 feet below the place where our color bearers lay. After remaining quiet in the brush for a time and seeing no chance to do anything more, I whispered to one of the boys to work the National banner down to me, which he did. I hugged the mountainside as close as possible, twisting the flagstaff in my hand until the flag was rolled around it. Waiting a while until there was a lull in the firing, I made my way down the mountainside some five or six rods. By this time some of the boys were beginning to creep out. I gave the flag to Sergeant Samuel T. Winegardner of Company C, placed him in a protected place and commenced forming the regiment on the colors.
About this time some of the boys came out of the brush carrying Colonel Rice who was terribly wounded. I assisted in tying two guns together with a gun strap, put some blankets upon the guns, thus forming a rude stretcher on which we placed the colonel. Raising him onto the shoulders of two of the boys, he was sent to the rear. In the course of an hour the majority of the regiment had gotten back and formed on the colors. I assumed command and reported to General Smith, who assigned the regiment its position and sent us tools. We built a line of works and remained in them until dark. Soon after Colonel Mott returned to us uninjured and took command of the regiment.
My recollection is that there was not a regiment of our brigade came out of the charge with the same officer in command that started in with it. The charge at Kennesaw cost us the lives of many, many brave men and inflicted but little injury upon the enemy. It was barren of any good results, and I believe General Sherman has been more severely criticized for this charge than for any other order he ever issued.
To read more about the service of the 57th Ohio, click here to purchase a copy of our new book.
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