Through This Dismal Region: The 51st Ohio Marches Towards Atlanta
By the summer of 1864, Lieutenant John Purvis of the 51st Ohio had been keeping the readers of the Tuscarawas Advocate apprised of the doings of his regiment for more than two years. But the nature of the fighting on the Atlanta campaign was unlike anything the Ohioan had experienced before.
It was fighting marked by the constant digging of entrenchments and the persistent singing of Minie balls flying through the air. “We are slowly winning our way- each day gaining some point of importance which we always hold,” he wrote. “Our men are in excellent spirits and the general health is surprisingly good considering the exposure, anxiety, and loss of sleep during the last six weeks. But we sadly need a change of clothing- for a more ragged, dirt-begrimed lot of mortals was never seen than we are at the present time. We care little for this, however. We are confident of success and will, with God’s help, finish the rebellion this year.”
Lieutenant Purvis’ account of his regiment’s operations in mid-June 1864 was originally published in the July 15, 1864 edition of the Tuscarawas Advocate.
Camp of the 51st O.V.V.I., near Marietta, Georgia
June 24, 1864
Since the enemy was forced from his position around Dallas, we have driven him from stronghold after stronghold-from mountains and ravines, formidable in their rugged nature and doubly strengthened by interminable masses of earthworks. But every inch has been contested fiercely and stubbornly. By hard fighting we have won our way and many have fallen. And the end is not yet. The hitherto beaten foe is standing desperately at bay now- resisting fiercely every movement and hurling himself in vain attempts against our invincible columns only to be driven, shattered and torn back to his mountain fortresses. We are slowly winning our way- each day gaining some point of importance which we always hold.
After leaving Dallas we marched one day to the eastward in the direction of Marietta. We rested two days- having had a rough time and needing rest. On the 10th instant, we moved forward again, our corps having the advance. Skirmishing soon began, and in the afternoon we came close upon the enemy in force on Pine Top and Lost Mountain. We then halted and threw up breastworks in a good position; the enemy shelled us from the top of the mountain but did little harm. It had been raining day and night for nearly a week and the atmosphere being heavy they could not see us well- they too were invisible to us, save when a rift in the musky rain clouds showed us their tents gleaming white on the mountainside.
On the 14th, the sky cleared and our artillery opened upon the enemy on the mountain, who soon struck their tents and laid low in their rifle pits. That day Bishop General Polk was killed and the next the Rebels evacuated Pine Top Mountain, which we immediately occupied, taking a number of prisoners. There was a grand view far and wide over the surrounding country, but the eye met only a vast cheerless wilderness of mountains and forest. Southward lay the Lost Mountain, a tall, isolated peak; and east of that the Kennesaw Mountain, the latter crowned with a Rebel fort and bristling with Rebel guns; between lay a vast broken region of hills, ravines, swamps, densely wooded, and in these the Rebel hordes were concealed.
Through this dismal region we fought our way day after day till on the 19th we came within range of the Rebel guns on Kennesaw Mountain. Our brigade took a position along the foot of a hill on the top of which was the enemy’s skirmish line and beyond which lay their main line of works. Three companies of our regiment were deployed as skirmishers, who got within a few steps of the Rebel line during the morning of the 20th but were not strong enough to carry it. In the evening, the remainder of our regiment and the 27th Kentucky charged the hill and carried it, taking all the Rebels prisoners who were on it. Our movement was so rapid that they could not get away. I never before saw a hill climbed with such celerity- we started with a ringing cheer and were to the top in a minutes’ time. But we were not strong enough to carry the Rebels main works which were less than 200 yards distant from the position we held. We then threw up a hurried barricade of such material as was at hand, logs, rails, and stones. The 99th Ohio and 35th Indiana had by this time come up and taken a position on our left, also throwing up breastworks.
|The next big challenge of Sherman's campaign was the Confederate lines at Kennesaw Mountain as depicted in this drawing from artist Alfred Waud.|
It soon became evident that the enemy would attempt to gain the ground they had lost, and in the glimmering of the evening on they came yelling like demons. A sheet of flame and a storm of lead leaped from our guns into their forces, followed by volley after volley of the same kind which soon sent them howling back. But in their rage they charged again and again, coming on six times before midnight. They succeeded in driving the 35th Indiana back, and also a portion of the 99th Ohio. But the old 51st stood firm as a rock, holding the position determinedly until the 40th Ohio assisted by a portion of the 96th Illinois retook the ground that the 35th Indiana had lost. These regiments fought nobly- Whittaker’s “Iron Brigade” sustained its old reputation through the whole affair. In the morning, the ground in our front was covered with rebel dead.
The next day the enemy opened a battery upon us, sending grape, solid shot, and shell at us in a terrific storm. The ground was torn up and scattered over us, and the trees were shattered over our heads. But we held our position- their cannon were no more successful than their bullets and bayonets had been the previous night. That night we strengthened our works, toiling the whole night through in the rain, which had been pouring pitilessly down for three days and nights with scarcely an intermission. We had to keep low in the wet, muddy ditch, to avoid Rebel sharpshooters. During the night of the 22nd and the morning of the 23rd, our army moved a considerable distance to the right, the 14th Corps taking our position and we the position Hooker had held. On the afternoon of the 23rd, our skirmishers advanced and drove the Rebel skirmishers from the pits, capturing a large number. Captain Slade of the 51st Ohio brought in a Rebel lieutenant and eight men; the officer was very sulky but the men seemed well pleased with the change.
Our men are in excellent spirits and the general health is surprisingly good considering the exposure, anxiety, and loss of sleep during the last six weeks. But we sadly need a change of clothing- for a more ragged, dirt-begrimed lot of mortals was never seen than we are at the present time. We care little for this, however. We are confident of success and will, with God’s help, finish the rebellion this year.
Letter from Second Lieutenant John H. Purvis, Co. I, 51st Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Tuscarawas Advocate (Ohio), July 15, 1864, pg. 2
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