With One of Opdycke's Tigers at Kennesaw

    Continuing on the theme of looking back on the key events of the Atlanta campaign brings us to the following account of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain written by First Lieutenant Hezekiah Newton Steadman, a member of "Opdycke's Tigers" also known as the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Before the war, Steadman worked as a teacher and started his military career as a corporal in Co. B in August 1862; he was successively promoted to commissary sergeant, second lieutenant, first lieutenant, and ended the war as the captain of Co. K. After the war, he went into farming and at the time of his death in 1882 was a minister.

    Kennesaw Mountain was, in Steadman's words, "one of the bloodiest days in the history of the 125th Ohio," especially for its officers. The regiment lost 9 officers and 44 men in its charge upon the Rebel works which Steadman described for the readers of the Chardon Jeffersonian Democrat. Steadman's letter was written in September 1864 and published in the October 21, 1864 edition of that newspaper. The 125th Ohio was attached to the Third Brigade (Harker) of the Second Division (Newton) of the IV Army Corps (Stanley) during the campaign.

Corps badge for the Second Division IV Corps
(Image courtesy of Union Drummer Boy)

Atlanta, Georgia

September 17, 1864

          Passing the minor incidents that transpired, we come to the history of the 27th of June, a day never to be forgotten by those who participated in its terrors before Kennesaw-one of the bloodiest days in the history of the 125th Ohio. I do not presume to give you anything like a description of the terrible grandeur of the scene which occurred around Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia on the eventful 27th of June, for it is beyond my power to paint in words the sweeping line, the rushing column, and the deadly charge. The army of Johnston had been forced back step by step, ever retreating but fighting still until their lines reached one of the strongest positions, both naturally and artificially, which it is possible to imagine. Their right rested on rocky and precipitous Kennesaw, their left crossing the town of Marietta, while their whole front was protected by massive and almost impregnable works. For reasons best known to our generals, it had been determined that a general assault should be made upon portions of the enemy’s works, and the morning of the 27th selected as the time of trial.

At an early hour, the 125th Ohio was moved out, and taken to that part of our line occupied by Stanley’s forces and was here deployed as skirmishers, crossing the front of our brigade (the Third) and joined on the right and left by other regiments from other divisions, the whole skirmish line being under the direction of Colonel Emerson Opdycke. The command of the 125th Ohio devolved on Lieutenant Colonel David H. Moore, aided by Major Joseph Bruff. Our line was formed immediately in rear of our outer works, and here waited the signal that was to send us forward like a living crushing avalanche upon the foe. 

General Emerson Opdycke

As we lay deployed, I took a hasty view of the ground over which we were to pass. Immediately in front of our left (where I was stationed) was an open field, extending down to a piece of timber some 40 rods distant, in the edge of which were the enemy’s rifle pits which were filled with the best troops of Johnston’s army. About 15 rods in rear of these pits was the main line of the Rebel works and within range of our own. The right companies were similarly situated, while the center of the regiment was more protected by a belt of timber which extended nearly to the enemy’s line. It was not over 55 rods from our breastworks to those of the enemy, and in passing over this space we were not only exposed to a fire from the rifle pits, but also that of the main works. Such was the nature of the ground that there was no shelter from the instant we crossed our works to go forward until we reached these Rebel pits. Our orders were to “take those pits.” Once over our own works, there could be no safety but in instantaneous movement and success.

This map from the American Battlefield Trust shows the primary aim of the Union assault being the Dead Angle held by Maney and Vaughan's Confederates, and Harker's brigade was right in the thick of it. Despite the determined efforts of Steadman and his comrades, the Union assault ultimately failed and is considered one of Sherman's most serious mistakes of the entire campaign. 

Colonel Opdycke commanded “Forward” and the 125th Ohio led by its gallant lieutenant colonel and major, had passed the last works that could shelter them from the enemy’s fire and rushed upon the enemy. The enemy’s fire was most terrific. Secure behind their works, their infantry deluged us with balls while their artillery swept our depleted ranks with grape and shell, pouring upon us an unceasing tide of death. Many of our brave boys fell close to the enemy’s abatis. Lieutenant [Alson C.] Dilly [Co. C] fell dead within a few feet of the works while gallantly leading his men. Lieutenant Burnham fell pierced by four balls close by the ditch. Captain [Elmer] Moses [Co. E] was badly wounded at the head of his company. No line of skirmishers could storm those works in the face of such a fire. The assailing columns advanced to support us, but could not reach us, so severe was the fire.

A fine portrait of some of the officers and enlisted men of the 125th Ohio from the Photographic History of the Civil War. The stories these men could have told...

At this instant, General Charles Harker fell from his horse mortally wounded; the regiments on the right and left of the 125th Ohio fell back, drawing upon us the whole fire of the enemy in our front. No troops could live under such a fire, and the orders came for the 125th Ohio to fall back to the captured pits and to hold them. Slowly and sullenly we fell back, and did hold these pits, though the enemy came out and made the most desperate attempts to wrest them from us. But in vain, for every pit was a “Tiger’s” lair, held by men who would have perished rather than have yielded them. We had accomplished all we were ordered to do in taking and holding the rifle pits, for it was not expected that a skirmish line could successfully storm such main works as those of the enemy. The storming columns had been withdrawn before the 125th Ohio was ordered back to the rifle pits, and the attempt abandoned for the time. In due season, the regiment was released and what remained of it was taken back to the ground occupied by it before starting out in the morning. Our loss was severe, numbering 44 men and nine officers killed and wounded. This almost unprecedented loss of officers arose from the fact that we were so close to the enemy that it was an easy matter for them to single out officers from the men.

A flank marker belonging to the 125th Ohio (Ohio History Connection)

A few instances of personal daring and address. As we were rushing upon the rifle pits, a Rebel officer seeing our lieutenant colonel in advance of the line, sprang toward him and with a drawn saber, demanded his surrender. Colonel Moore’s argument being the more powerful, the Rebel yielded his sword to the Colonel who sent him to the rear. In the heat of the engagement, I had to pass along the line to execute an order which had been given me, and in so doing found Colonel Opdycke mounted on his favorite horse, riding as coolly along the skirmish line as though on a pleasure tour, instead of being in the midst of a storm of balls. I also saw a Private in Co. B named Isaac Brown rush into a rifle pit and capture its entire contents of five Rebels. These instances came under my own observation. No doubt but there was many other deeds of personal daring, for it was a day of daring deeds. A truce was shortly after agreed upon, for the purpose of allowing us to bury our dead, which we did, and they now fill soldier’s graves. The motto of the 125th Ohio “A glorious victory or an honorable grave,” and it is a common saying here in the 4th Corps that where Opdycke’s Tigers cannot go, no other troops need try.


Letter from First Lieutenant Hezekiah N. Steadman "Victor," Co. E, 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Jeffersonian Democrat (Chardon, Ohio), October 21, 1864, pg. 1


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