The Highest Quality of Courage: George Gear at Atlanta

    George Rufus Gear spent most of his life in Marietta, Ohio; he was born there on December 1, 1840, attended Marietta College, and was a Baptist minister in town for many years. Gear died in Marietta October 2, 1931 at age 90, one of the city's last surviving Civil War veterans. 

    In August 1861, he signed his name to rolls of Co. B of the 39th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and spent most of the next four years far away from Marietta; he re-enlisted in 1864 and was successively promoted to corporal and then near the end of the war to the rank of sergeant. The regiment, sometimes called the Groesbeck Regiment, was originally armed with .69 caliber rifles altered by Miles Greenwood and was the first from the state of Ohio to enter Missouri, which it did in August 1861. 

    The 39th served entirely within the western theater. It first saw action at New Madrid, Missouri and Island No. 10 under General John Pope, then joined Halleck's army for the siege of Corinth, serving in the vicinity for much of the next year. It was part of the noted Ohio Brigade, which consisted of the 27th, 39th, 43rd, and 63rd regiments and it served with the 27th at Atlanta as part of General John Fuller's brigade of Veatch's division of the 16th Corps.  George Gear wrote the following account of that battle, the hardest one his regiment took part in during their whole service, for the Marietta College Quarterly magazine shortly after the war.

Private Frances Redman, Co. E, 39th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Killed in action July 22, 1864 at Atlanta

It is a sultry morning in July. All night long the woods have rung with the sharp crack of the rifle, with which there mingled occasionally the heavy boom of cannon. Gradually the noise has ceased and at morning’s dawn a strange stillness reigns. What can it mean? Cautiously the skirmishers advance and find that the enemy has fled. The long line of works, so lately filled with foes, is deserted. The outskirts of Atlanta are now distinctly visible. Columns of the enemy are seen in motion within the inner works that skirt the city. Evidently they are executing some change of position.

The morning wears away. Orders come: ‘Prepare your dinners early, in order to be ready to advance the lines at 12 o’clock today.’ The hour has nearly arrived. But hark! What means that sudden volley of musketry on our flank and in our rear? A cavalry dash on the pickets, perhaps. But no, the firing is too rapid and continuous. Can it be possible that the enemy has outflanked us? There is a sudden blast of bugles, a hurried shouting of orders: ‘Fall in! Fall in! We are attacked!’ Everything is wild commotion. There is a hurried buckling on of cartridge boxes and knapsacks, a quick grasping of rifles, a confused formation of ranks. ‘Forward, double quick!’ shouts the Colonel, and ere the ranks are half formed, we are hurrying toward the rear, where the sound of sharp musketry is heard. Through the woods, over stumps, and through underbrush, regiment mixed with regiment, on we dash impetuously. Soon we emerge into a large open field where we form our line. Five hundred wagons are here corralled. Teamsters are rapidly harnessing their teams and driving furiously from the scene of danger.

Private James M. Cook
Co. B, 39th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

The bullets now begin to fly thickly around us, coming from the woods a short distance in our front. Our skirmishers are retreating, keeping up a brisk fire. In an open field, at the foot of a gentle slope, our line is formed. We have no works, and there is no line in reserve behind us. We must hold our ground, at whatever odds, or there is no hope for us. Sharper and sharper grows the fire of musketry in our front. The reserve line of skirmishers, stationed in the edge of the woods, now greet the advancing enemy with the contents of the sixteen-shooters. Bending low, like a traveler before the storm, they now hurry to the rear, in order that the batteries and main line may have a chance to work.

Hark! Hear that fierce yell on our left, loud above the din of musketry! See the enemy yonder, swarming out of the woods! Our cannoneers spring to their guns. A bright flash from six heavily charged cannon, dense puffs of smoke, and a heavy boom, boom, boom, and a mass of grape and canister is hurled upon the Rebel line. The continued rolls of musketry from our line of infantry mingles with the crash. Three lines deep, hurrying grandly forward, stopping not for the fearful storm, on comes the foe. See that officer mounted on a horse, bearing a battle flag in his hand! Unscathed, he leads his column forward. Can our line withstand this furious onset of thrice their numbers? Fearful is the suspense.

Nearer and nearer come the opposing lines. More and more rapidly the cannon hurl the grape, opening wide gaps in their ranks at every discharge. That flag which waved so defiantly falls. Horse and rider roll together in the dust. Still our line shows no sign of wavering. But look! The Rebel column, fearfully decimated, slackens its pace. A moment they waver, and then turn and flee. What a shout from our lines! What wild excitement prevails! Men of the most phlegmatic temperament shout, and swing their hats with wild gesticulation.

The enemy has not yet charged directly in our front. They have made a great mistake in not moving their whole line at once. But the rapidly flying bullets tell is that our turn has come. ‘Forward’ is the command, ‘we will meet their charge!’ With a terror-inspiring cheer. Forward we move, our colors unfurled to the breeze. An impetuous enthusiasm pervades the column. The top of a slight elevation is soon reached, when we find ourselves face to face with the enemy not over 50 paces distant we, sweeping on toward them, they toward us. But our column pauses not. Pouring into their ranks our destructive fire, forward we go with bayonets fixed for the charge. Not thus is it with the line of the enemy. They instantly turn and flee. We follow them to the edge of the woods and then pause.

Major George T. Rice, 39th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
At Atlanta, Rice was serving as the first lieutenant of Co. I but had served nearly two years in Co. B as a second lieutenant, and no doubt knew George Gear very well given their lengthy close service together.

A new and unforeseen danger now confronts us. The enemy has flanked our position on the right, and pours a raking fire along our line. Again, they form in our front, and commence firing. Critical indeed is our position. The order now is ‘fall back!’ The deadly fire tells fearfully in our ranks, and comrades fall fast on every side. The enemy may at any moment come in our rear and cut off our retreat. Is it any wonder that the line is thrown into confusion in its backward movement? Can it be stopped, and reformed at the proper time? It is a question of momentous importance. Are we to lose our reputation? Are we to suffer our line to be broken? These are the anxious queries of more than one officer and man. A panic seems imminent. Many who feel the great importance of the occasion strive to evoke order out of confusion. Their efforts are successful, and the column halts when ordered, and faces about, though under a galling fire. A few volleys are sent back in return, but the enemy is concealed in the woods and we fire at random. The order now is ‘lie down in your places.’ We fall flat upon our faces.

Still the Rebel musketry slackens not. Thickly flying balls which hiss and screech like so many demons thirsting for blood fill the air. Frequently the dull thug as they enter the flesh, and the sharp cry of anguish from the wounded man, tell of the execution they are doing in our ranks. A battery in our rear opens upon the enemy now, and the grape flies directly over our heads, scarcely three feet above us. In an open field, under the scorching heat of a Southern sun, on one of the warmest days in July, thus we lie exposed to a heavy fire for two long hours. To maintain such a position requires far stronger nerve than to stand up and fight, or make a charge. 

During an actual engagement there is a keen excitement that buoys up the spirit, and renders a man comparatively insensible to danger. The noise in his own line prevents him from hearing the sound of the enemy’s bullets. He has no time to think about aught save his present duties. But when the soldier is compelled to maintain his position under circumstances of danger like these; when he is compelled to listen to the constant whiz of balls; when he frequently hears the sharp cry of anguish from wounded comrades; when he has not other thought to occupy his mind save that he is in constant peril of his life, that the messenger of death may at any moment strike him down…then it is that a soldier is called upon to display the highest quality of courage.

Private Henry Guckert
Co. D, 39th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

The fire of the enemy gradually slackens. We fall back a short distance to a better position and throw up fortifications. The enemy also leave the battlefield and retreat. Our skirmishers advance and take possession of the field of conflict. The battle is over. Dead and wounded from both the contending armies strew the ground. The enemy, although outnumbering us three to one, had been repulsed in an open field fight. They have been foiled in an attempt which was well conceived, but poorly executed. It was their intention to turn our left by throwing upon us an overwhelming force. If they had succeeded, the result would have been disastrous. The blessing of God upon the stern bravery of the men who fought in the Union ranks rendered their plan a failure.

But our victory has cost us dearly. Our beloved commander General James McPherson has fallen. The grief of the army is very great. He was beloved and respected by all. No general ever possessed in a greater degree the confidence and affection of his troops. In our own regiment, 400 men answered the morning roll call. Tonight, 123 of that number are missing. Twenty of them will never answer to it more.

Everything is quiet now. Details are busily engaged in removing the wounded. It is pitiable to see the fearful way in which some of them are mangled. Talk of the battle is in everyone’s mouth. Each has his own experience and feelings to recount. More than one can show the marks where bullets have grazed their skin or torn their clothes. For my own part, I am devoutly thankful, not only for the preservation of my own life amidst such danger, but for what is far more important, the fact that our army has gained a brilliant victory, where everything seemed to threaten an overwhelming defeat.



“Atlanta,” written by Corporal (later Sergeant) George Rufus Gear, Co. B, 39th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Marietta Collegiate Quarterly, August 1866


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