Running the Gauntlet: the 57th Ohio at the Battle of Atlanta

The fight for Degress' battery at the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864 marks one of the most poignant moments of that hard-fought battle. A desperate charge on the part of the Confederates swirled around the guns and forced back two brigades of General Morgan L. Smith's division of the 15th Army Corps. Among those troops was First Lieutenant James Dixon of the 57th Ohio who was right in the middle of the fight for the battery, and recalled some of the details of the hand-to-hand fight that ensued. "A Rebel officer with a red sash jumped upon the rocks and demanded the surrender of a lieutenant working the battery," he wrote. "The lieutenant rushed towards him with sword drawn, intending to strike him, but was met by a Minie ball from the gun of a Rebel soldier and fell dead by the works. A Rebel attempted to spike one of the guns and Bill Gibson of Co. D knocked him down with the butt of his musket. There was a general row. Bullets were flying in every direction. When the boys shot, they were as apt to kill friend as foe."

Dixon's account of Atlanta was originally published in a Bellefontaine, Ohio newspaper in August 1864. 

Knowing that a few words concerning the 57th O.V.V.I. will be interesting to those of the readers of your paper who have friends or relatives, or both, in the regiment and matters for once being pretty quiet in our front, I take the responsibility of writing a few lines for their satisfaction. 

15th Army Corps badge as worn by members of the 57th O.V.V.I. during the Atlanta campaign. The story of how the corps badge was devised goes back to the meeting of the troops of the Army of the Tennessee with those of the 11th and 12th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Upon being asked why all of the AoP men had stars and crescent moons on their headgear, the inquirer was told that those devices were corps badges. The Army of Tennessee vet supposedly tapped his cartridge box and said "This is the only corps badge I've ever needed." Without a doubt, the 15th Army Corps had some of the hardest fighting units in the western army and the Battle of Atlanta proved to be the tightest spot they were in during the campaign. 

          Early in the morning of July 22nd the pickets reported “no enemy visible in our front.”  General Morgan L. Smith, our division commander ordered his command into line, and calling for his horse, mounted it, remarking at the time that there was a “race for Atlanta.”  The skirmish line was ordered forward and the troops followed by the flank along the road.  We had not marched more than a quarter of a mile, when two or three 12-pound shells whizzed by us, which, by the direction they came, satisfied us they were of Confederate origin, and were unmistakable evidence that there were yet a few rebellious individuals in that vicinity.  We went up to the works which the enemy had evacuated during the night, and five or six regiments of our division were deployed along them, the others lying a few rods in the rear, in reserve. 

The capture of DeGress' battery at Atlanta on the afternoon of July 22, 1864. The 57th Ohio was right in the thick of the fight for the guns. 

          Our brigade was on the south side of the railroad and the Second Brigade on the north side.  The skirmishers, who had advanced half a mile in front of the works, became engaged with the enemy's pickets, and the 111th Illinois Volunteers was sent out to their support.  An hour or two later Captain George McClure was sent out with 30 men as a support.  The Pioneer Corps came up and the boys went to work attacking the Rebel works, which were of little account to us as they faced the wrong way.  At about 10 a.m., the enemy pounced furiously upon the 16th and 17th corps.  The 16th corps was on the extreme left of our line, and its left rested at Decatur, three miles in the rear of where we were.  It had an open field fight.  The 17th corps, which was between the 16th and ours, occupied the works abandoned by the enemy.  It seems from what I can learn that there was a gap between the 16th and 17th corps, through which the enemy passed and flanked around in the rear of the 17th corps. 

General Giles A. Smith

General Giles A. Smith, our old brigade commander, who was assigned to, and had taken command of a division in the 17th corps a day before the battle, came riding up to our regiment the day after the fight, and we flocked around him, glad to see the hero safe (we had heard that he was killed) and to hear what he had to say.  He told us that his division jumped the works at least six times-that they would drive the enemy out of gunshot range on one side, climb the works, and give them a turn on the other.  Said they would try to close in on him on both sides at once; but on account of the bad roads and inequalities of the ground they could not do it.

          While the fight was going on at the left, all the reserve regiments of our corps were sent there.  At half past 12 p.m., the fight had about ceased and the cheer after cheer that went up from our boys proclaimed them to be the victors.  The enemy shelled our boys so they passed through an open field on their way to reinforce the left, and of course knew that the line was weak, and I suppose Hood thought, “now is my chance.”  At 1 p.m. the pickets in front of our division saw two battle lines approaching, and gradually fell back, followed by the enemy’s skirmishers.  Captain McClure formed his men in the rear of the 111th Illinois, which had dug a rifle trench.  When the Rebels came within short range the boys poured a withering fire into them, and repulsed them in front, but as there were no troops on either side of the 111th, that regiment was flanked on the right and left.  Its commander ordered the men to fall back to the main line, which they did the best way they could, every man for himself, and Hood’s old corps for them all.  Many were shot down and many more were captured.  Ten of the boys of our company failed to get in and were probably taken prisoner.  I do not think any of them were killed, as we were over the ground the next morning and did not recognize any of the dead as having belonged to our company.

Captain George McClure, Co. A

          On came the Rebels and our division, the Second, the Fourth and part of the First, were soon pouring a terrible fire into them.  There is a deep cut in the railroad where it passes through the line of works.  There were two guns of Battery A, 1st Illinois Artillery, between the right of our regiment and the railroad, and four guns of the same battery on the north side between the 47th Ohio and the railroad-the battery and railroad occupying eight or ten rods of our front.  We repulsed the Rebels in front of our regiment, but they poured through the deep cut, and got over the works on the north side of the railroad between the guns.  If we had had a few more men-a company or two to guard the railroad cut, and a few placed between the guns, matters would have stood quite differently. 

As it was the enemy poured through the cut and over the works at the guns by hundreds, and the first thing we knew they were firing down our lines and into our backs. Affairs for a while were quite exciting-Battery A boys stood by their guns and continued firing until there were about as many Rebels as Yankees around them.  A Rebel officer with a red sash jumped upon the works and demanded the surrender of a lieutenant working the battery.  The lieutenant rushed towards him with sword drawn, intending to strike him, but was met by a Minie ball from the gun of a Rebel soldier, and fell dead by the works.

          A Rebel attempted to spike one of the guns, and Bill Gibson, of Co. D, knocked him down with the butt of his musket.  There was a general row. Bullets were flying in every direction.  When our boys shot they were as apt to kill friend as foe.  Three of the boys of our company were here killed dead and lay within a few steps of each other-Sergeant Wilson Wiser; privates Thomas Parrish and Abraham Harris; the two first veterans—three were mortally wounded-William Timbers, William Kenney and James Martin-all veterans and all now dead; two were badly wounded, John Elstan and George W. Martin-and one severely, Joseph Slusser.  “Surrender!” was the war cry of every Rebel soldier, and a great many of our men did surrender, but the most of us ran the gauntlet, leaving Batteries A and H in the enemy’s hands, and got to the works we had left that morning, where we reformed as well as we could.  The 116th and 127th Illinois, and the 6th Missouri of our brigade, at this time came up from Decatur (where they had gone to reinforce the 16th corps, but got there too late to take part in the fight.)  We were ordered to retake the works.

One of the 83 men of the 57th Ohio who were captured during the Battle of Atlanta on July 22nd was Captain Alvah Stone Skilton of Co. I. "The enemy was able to get possession of part of Battery A of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery," he wrote. "They were soon able to form a line of battle in the rear of the regiment and owing to our position in the line, many men of Co. I were taken prisoner including Captain John Underwood and myself. We were sent to Atlanta to the Provost Marshal's office, registered, and marched to East Point at about 11 p.m. Nearly all of my company was taken with me as well as a number from Co. H, 83 men in all captured from the 57th O.V.V.I."

          Part of the First Division, which occupied the works on the right or ours had not yet been engaged.  They changed front to the left and swept down on the inside of the works, while we charged directly in front.  After considerable charging and rough and tumble fighting we were successful—respecting the works—all of Battery H’s guns and two of Battery A’s, the enemy getting away with the other four on the north side of the rail road.  And thus the fighting on that day ended-dear enough for our small company-six are now dead, three in the hospital wounded and 17 missing.  We miss them all.  To the relatives of the dead, we can but extend our heart-felt sympathies.  “I know that my wound is mortal and that I am going to die,” said James Martin to one of the boys, a short time before he died, “but,” he added, “I die in a good cause.”  Yes, he died in a good cause, and that should be a great satisfaction to those that have husbands, sons, or brothers, to fall in this war, to know that they fell while battling for their country’s very existence.

          I was at the hospital on the 27th and saw John Elstan, Joseph Slusser, and George Martin.  Joseph was shot in the shoulder and was walking around—guess he thinks he has a “soft thing,” as his time will be out by the time he is ready for duty.  John was shot twice, once through the right arm, and once through the side, his arm was amputated, and he had to keep his bed, but if one was to judge by his continence and conversation whether there was anything the matter with him or not, the decision would be that he was “playing off.”  Little George was shot through the side and it was thought he would hardly get well, but I hear today that he is improving rapidly.

Captain John Underwood of Co. C was also captured at Atlanta


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