Licked Up By Fire: Marching through Georgia with General Fuller

     Brigadier General John Wallace Fuller was intimately familiar with the power of fire to change a life.

          Writing to an old neighbor in Toledo, Fuller wrote “it would have amused you to see the manner in which the public buildings were destroyed in the “Gate City.” The depot, for instance, a fine brick structure, was brought down by the old Roman battering ram. A heavy rail of T-iron was the ram; it was suspended on wooden horses and swung like a pendulum (except that the rail was, of course, horizontal). The end of the rail speedily battered down the brick columns supporting the building and laid everything in ruins. What was not smashed in this way was soon licked up by fire.”

The English-born brigadier, born in 1827 as the son of a Baptist minister, had emigrated to New York at six years of age and in his teen years worked an apprenticeship at a bookstore in Utica. Fuller so enjoyed the profession that he decided to make it his life’s work, becoming a partner in the firm while also becoming involved in the New York State Militia. “He was generally known as one of the best tacticians in that part of the country,” Whitelaw Reid noted. In 1853, he married Anna Rathbun and the couple would eventually have six children, three boys and three girls.

Brevet Major General John W. Fuller (1827-1891)

          All of that would change in 1858 when Fuller’s business was destroyed in a fire. The business was a total loss, but the plucky Englishman packed up his family and moved west to settle in Toledo, Ohio where he opened a new book publishing firm, John W. Fuller & Co; this firm would later merge with Anderson & Co.  The outbreak of hostilities in April 1861 led to Fuller leave the business, don a blue uniform, and pulling some local political connections, he secured a position on Adjutant General Charles W. Hill’s staff.

          His militia experience stood him in good stead: by August he was commissioned colonel of the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and soon was in Missouri. The regiment took part in the campaigns to seize New Madrid and Island No. 10 in the spring of 1862, then moved east to join General Halleck’s large army besieging Corinth, Mississippi. The 27th Ohio would participate in the Battle of Iuka and would play an important role in holding Battery Robinett at the Battle of Corinth in October 1862, General Fuller later remembering that he saw Colonel William Rogers of the 2nd Texas charging his position. “He presented the appearance of a drunken man, pale as a corpse, but intent on his purpose,” Reid reported. “Colonel Rogers led his command literally to the mouths of the National guns and fell almost at Fuller’s feet.”

Fuller’s brigade would later see action at the Battle of Parker’s Crossroads on December 31, 1862; it spent much of 1863 on garrison duty before being sent to Chattanooga to join Sherman’s army then preparing to march on Atlanta. Colonel Fuller was commissioned brigadier general on January 5, 1864 and would lead his brigade with distinction throughout the Atlanta campaign, and serving temporarily as a division commander, Fuller played an important role in the July 22nd Battle of Atlanta. Fuller would also lead his brigade in the chase after Hood in the aftermath of the Atlanta campaign, especially at Snake Creek Gap in October 1864.

During the March to the Sea, General Fuller had command of the First Brigade of General Joseph Mower’s First Division of Frank P. Blair’s 17th Army Corps. The brigade was newly assigned, having previously been assigned to the 16th Army Corps. His brigade consisted of four regiments, his old command the 27th Ohio, the 39th Ohio (both regiments had served in Fuller’s all-Ohio brigade for much of the war), the 18th Missouri, and Yates’ Sharpshooters, the 64th Illinois.

General Fuller’s letter was written to a neighbor in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio and first saw publication in the January 10, 1865, edition of the Daily Toledo Blade.

 

The course of Frank Blair's 17th Army Corps is traced in this map by a dot-and-dash line stretching from Atlanta to Savannah on the Atlantic coast. The corps operated in conjunction with the 15th Army Corps to form the Right Wing under the command of Major General Oliver O. Howard. The 17th Corps marched as the right-center column of the Union advance while the 15th Corps had the army's right flank throughout the march. (Map by Hal Jespersen)

Headquarters First Brigade, First Division, 17th Army Corps

Near Savannah, Georgia

December 13, 1864

 

My good neighbor,

          We are lying still today waiting for something to turn up, or rather waiting for one of our divisions to take possession of Fort McAllister which opposes the approach of our fleet. As I think the job will be done while I am sitting here and some movement may be ordered tomorrow, I’ll tell you now something of our movements since we cut loose from our communications north.

          Saturday morning November 12th my command was ordered to march to the north side of Kennesaw Mountain and beginning near where we had fought so severely in June, to destroy the railroad working southward toward Marietta. Every tie was taken up and burned and every rail more or less twisted or bent from Kingston all the way to Atlanta. On Sunday (for the work was so divided and sub-divided that it was all done in a day and a night), the army was marching southward. I reached Atlanta on Sunday evening the 13th and on Tuesday the 15th the heads of the different columns were moving southward and eastward from the city.

          It would have amused you to see the manner in which the public buildings were destroyed in the “Gate City.” The depot, for instance, a fine brick structure, was brought down by the old Roman battering ram. A heavy rail of T-iron was the ram; it was suspended on wooden horses and swung like a pendulum (except that the rail was, of course, horizontal). The end of the rail speedily battered down the brick columns supporting the building and laid everything in ruins. What was not smashed in this way was soon licked up by fire. Private residences and such buildings as were not of importance to military operations were not molested.

17th Army Corps badge


          Marching through McDonough, on Thursday the 17th we reached Jackson and here by General Oliver O. Howard’s order I sent a non-commissioned officer and squad to guard every house in the village. The next day we laid our pontoons and crossed the Ocmulgee River. At the river a large cotton factory and extensive flouring mills were, I understand, destroyed by our rear guard.

          On the 19th we marched through Monticello, the prettiest village we had seen since leaving Marietta; thence via Hillsboro and Blountsville to Gordon, the junction of the Milledgeville and Savannah railroads, which place we reached on the 22nd. Here again we went into the railroad business and destroyed the road leading towards Milledgeville for five or six miles, and the main track up toward Macon and eastwards toward Savannah to within a few miles of the latter city.

          On the 26th we crossed the Oconee and next day found our march running side by side with (fold in newspaper prevents deciphering this line) who had been with the left wing of the army, joined our column and had since pitched his tent within the lines of our corps. We crossed the Ogeechee on the last day of November and on the 2nd reached Millen, the place where our prisoners had been held, and where the people had been telling us for days that we would “catch hell.” We found some rifle pits here but nary a Reb.

 

Brigadier General John W. Fuller

“When we crossed the Ocmulgee, we destroyed the government factories there and all the mills on the road. Foraging the country as we went, we fared sumptuously for we found the land flowing with milk, honey, and Confederate scrip. Our jaded horses and mules were turned out and fine animals conscripted to serve in their stead, and we progressed finely, and waxed fat and fully.” ~Surgeon James S. Reeves, 78th O.V.I., 17th Army Corps

 

          But we left Millen on the 3rd of December after “doing it” (to borrow a tourist’s phrase), and we “did” the railroad all along down to within 40 miles of Savannah. Here, at the Little Ogeechee, we found a little opposition, but one volley and a charge with a single regiment hurt the feelings of the Rebels so much that they abandoned the strong position where a large amount of fortifying had been done and ran off without even firing a volley.

          On Friday the 9th we found the enemy more disposed to retard us and as the road on either side is flanked for miles by swamps, it was an easy thing for a small force to keep back temporarily a large one. My men marched over five miles in line of battle through swamps, which, under other circumstances, would be regarded as impossible. In many places the water was 2.5-3 feet deep and the brush and briars so dense that I could not see the line of battle if 20 yards from it. But we drove the enemy behind his entrenchments and now find that in addition to the ordinary swamps, the Rebels had cut levees and flooded nearly the entire country. In fact, we can’t see any way into Savannah today except on the causeways which the Rebels guns enfilade from end to end.

Early war 34-star flag of the 27th Ohio with their battle honors for New Madrid and Island No. 10. 

          A day or two, however, will doubtless change the aspect. We shall open communications with our fleet today I think and then, well, you will probably here what by the time this reaches you. I have not given you any account of the fighting for the reason that I don’t know very much about it. Walcott’s brigade had a fight near Macon, which was regarded as a handsome affair. The Rebel militia had their eyes opened, a good many of them for the last time. Kilpatrick has had several engagements with the enemy’s cavalry and had uniformly whipped Wheeler. At least, that is our understanding.

          Our troops on this march have lived well; plenty of everything needed has been found up to within 10 miles of Savannah. I have not lost over ten men since left Atlanta. Lieutenant Hamrick of the 39th Ohio was killed on the 9th and few men of the 27th were wounded. One man of the 39th has been killed since we took position opposite the enemy’s batteries and some others have been wounded. But my letter is already too long.

 

P.S. Our boys are now cheering over the announcement of the capture of Fort McAllister which was stormed by our infantry at 4 this afternoon. Now we shall hear again from home and learn what Hood has been doing and whether any change has taken place at Richmond.

 

Sources:

Letter from Brigadier General John W. Fuller, Daily Toledo Blade (Ohio), January 10, 1865, pg. 2

Letter from Surgeon James Reeves, 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Morgan County Herald (Ohio), January 20, 1865, pg. 1

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