A Dose of Lead in the Breadbasket: the 16th Wisconsin at Atlanta

    After the fall of Atlanta in September 1864, General John A. Logan looked back over the events of the campaign and examined the July 22nd Battle of Atlanta as the key point. Despite the heavy casualties sustained by the Army of the Tennessee in that crucial battle (more than 3,700), the Federals ultimately held their ground and inflicted much heavier casualties on their opponents. An element of luck played into the Federal victory on several fronts (the lateness of the Confederate attack, the opportune positioning of the 16th Corps, etc.), but he stated that credit for the victory rested on "the splendid bravery and tenacity of the men and the ability and skill of the officers." 

    One of the brave men of the Army of the Tennessee whose name is lost to history wrote the following missive describing the battle to the editors of the New York Sunday Mercury shortly after the event; this newspaper, despite being published in far-off New York, was a popular read with the soldiers of the western armies and regularly ran letters from soldiers in all theaters of the conflict. "Cousin Tom" as he signed this letter was serving in the 16th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry which was part of the First Brigade, Third Division, 17th Army Corps of the Army of the Tennessee. The 16th Wisconsin had served since early 1862 and saw its first action at Shiloh where it lost 245 men.

This George Barnard image from September 1864 captures a portion of the Confederate works that ringed the city of Atlanta during the summer battles. The heaviest fighting of the campaign came during the battles of Peach Tree Creek on July 20th and Atlanta on July 22nd. Under pressure from Richmond to strike back at Sherman's legions, General Hood endeavored to recreate the success he gained back east when his aggressive actions as a brigade and divisional commander brought success to the Confederacy. At Atlanta, it led to a heavy butcher's bill and little to show for it other than to again prove that the soldiers of the Army of Tennessee possessed bravery and guts in spades. To borrow a phrase from the movie Gettysburg, "They charged valiantly, and were butchered valiantly."

Camp near Atlanta, Georgia

August 4, 1864

          We have seen some very hard fighting since July 13th as we have since that time crossed the Chattahoochee River. On that night we received orders to fall in line as still as possible, which we did, and marched continually until noon the following day, then we halted for two hours and drew our rations. Our line of march was then continued toward the left wing of the army. As our men had rebuilt a bridge which the Rebels had burnt in their retreat, as soon as we had finished drawing our rations we resumed our march, crossing the river and camping four miles from it where we enjoyed a good night’s rest. Nothing of any note took place until the morning of the 20th when we took Decatur after a little skirmishing.

          The 16th Army Corps was in the advance but stopped at Decatur to destroy the railroad. Our corps (the 17th) took the advance and soon commenced skirmishing, driving the Rebels before us until dark without much loss to us. After a good deal of maneuvering around, we finally got into position in a heavy piece of timber near the edge of a cornfield in a deep ravine. Then we were ordered to lie down in line of battle and not take a thing off and there we slept what little was left of the night. We all well knew that the Rebels were not more than 40 or 50 rods from us, as we could distinctly hear them working all night making breastworks. In the morning, as soon as twilight could be seen, we were ordered to fall in for a charge, but the rest of the brigade was not quite ready.

Designating flag of the First Brigade, Third Division, 17th Army Corps of which the 16th Wisconsin served during the Atlanta campaign. Colonel Manning Force of Ohio led the brigade which consisted of four Illinois regiments (20th, 30th, 31st, and 45th) and two Wisconsin regiments, the 12th and 16th. (Image courtesy of National Museum of American History)

          We did not start until 9 o’clock when we were ordered to fix bayonets and move forward at the double quick, which we did with a yell and the moment we reached the top of the small hill which covered us from their fire during the night, we found ourselves on a level field with nothing larger than a cornstalk for protection facing strong works which were filled with double our number of Rebels. But onward we went through the most murderous fire than any man were ever in, cutting our men down by the dozens, but we carried the works, jumping right in among them and charging some 50 rods after them with the 12th Wisconsin on our right. We captured 300 prisoners. The Rebels fought desperately, worthy of a better cause. Hardly any of them left their works until we had got within two or three rods of their works and many of them remained in their position until we compelled them to surrender.

          After we pursued those who skedaddled, we returned and took possession of their works and commenced fixing them to suit ourselves. Then we started with 300 men in our regiment on the charge and in less time than it takes for me to write it down 98 of that number were killed and wounded. Our lieutenant colonel Thomas McMahon was badly wounded, and I helped to carry him from the field. We now expected to have a little rest after such a loss, or at least have a chance to fight them from their works which we did on the 22nd ultimo.

General Mortimer Leggett

          We heard heavy firing in our rear and our left flank, so that it left our Rebel works entirely useless as a defense for us. Then we hurriedly threw up a small works of rails and dirt facing our flank, but did not get half enough done before we saw our men coming and running in great confusion toward us with the Rebels close behind them, yelling at the success they had accomplished, expecting to drive everything before them. Just before they came in range of our guns, General Mortimer Leggett came riding up to our regiment and said, “16th Wisconsin! Hold this position at all hazards.” But even if he had not said that, it would have been done at any rate. But on came the drunken rascals. We reserved our fire until they within four or five rods of us when we let them have it right in the breadbaskets which turned them tail to in a hurry, but very few of that line got back to tell the tale. They did not expect such a sudden check until they run against the veteran Badgers.

          But it seemed that they were not satisfied with what we gave them for in about an hour after, we saw them coming in four solid lines of battle against our single line. We had no support as our supports were sent off to reinforce another part of the line, yet they did not scare us, nor could they even if they had a hundred lines. We fixed bayonets and double charged our guns, determined to die in the ditch before we would let them cross our little works, but we hadn’t more than got ready to receive them before their first line made its appearance. We gave them the contents of our guns, cutting their first lines all to pieces, and serving the second the same, but the others were a little more successful than them for they charged up within 50 steps of our works. Behind a small work that one of our company had built for flank-firing (but not occupied at the time), they planted three stands of colors on it while others came closer up to our works and were shot or bayonetted. They kept their colors on the little work until dark until after having them shot down more than 50 times; but they always raised them up again and we kept up a heavy fire on them all night and they returned our fire with a will. What was left of them scrambled off before daylight in the morning.

Unidentified Confederate soldier wearing a Georgia state seal belt buckle. By the time of the Atlanta battles, Georgia troops made up a sizable portion of Hood's army with more than 30 regiments of infantry and cavalry along with several batteries of artillery. These men were literally fighting to defend their home state on their home ground and fought with a determination both noticed and understood by their Federal opponents. 

          Such a sight as that battlefield presented in the morning it would be useless for me to try to describe. There were some 80 dead Rebels laying behind these small works which were not more than 30 feet long, while the ground around was covered in piles. We lost 42 men during that day and 142 during both days’ fighting. We fought harder the second day and lost less men. We found that the fighting from behind works is better than to fight them in the open field.

"The fundamental reason for Hood's failure on July 22 is that he tried to do too much with too little in too short a time." ~ Albert Castel, Decision in the West: the Atlanta Campaign of 1864

We are now within one and a half miles of the doomed city; the Rebels have a heavy battery planted with three-quarters of a mile from us. They throw a shell over us every once in a while. Our skirmishers keep up a considerable fire all the time so as to keep the Rebel skirmishers from crawling up to us to shoot our men over in our works, but still they shoot a good many balls over for all and kill a man once in a while.  They killed one man of my regiment this morning, a Welshman in Co. A. This man was killed by a stray shot coming over the works while he was cooking dinner for his company. I did not receive a scratch in the fight while my comrades were falling all around me. I can never see how I escaped in that desperate charge where the balls flew like hailstones without receiving a wound or losing my life, but I may be like others: spared for another time.


Letter from “Cousin Tom,” 16th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, New York Sunday Mercury (New York), August 14, 1864   



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