Life Behind Breastworks: Skirmishing During the Atlanta Campaign with the 50th Ohio

     “Skirmish fighting often requires as great courage and stubborn staying qualities as it does to face a line of glistening steel or face death by charging a battery of death-dealing guns,” Corporal Erastus Winter of the 50th Ohio wrote in 1905. Corporal Winters found the intense skirmish fighting that marked the opening months of the Atlanta campaign as “a rather new experience for us and we found it quite different from guarding railroad bridges back in Kentucky and Tennessee. While it is true that skirmishers have the right to shield themselves behind trees, stumps, logs, or any other object that presents itself to them, yet in advancing on the foe through open fields, very seldom anything of that kind comes in the way; there is only the body of the soldier to stop the ball of the deadly sharpshooter or to arrest the progress of the ragged fragments of the bursting shells. And a soldier must also be well blessed with courage and grit to advance through the woods and underbrush where he knows the enemy is concealed behind some tree, ready to put a Minie ball through his body on sight. I sincerely believe we did our full share. I want to say we took positions from the enemy on this campaign that it required nerve and bulldog grit to hold. I would always prefer an enemy I can see while advancing on them than one that is hidden.”

The 50th Ohio had been raised in the Cincinnati area in the summer of 1862 and after serving in the city’s defenses during Kirby Smith’s invasion of Kentucky, it transferred to Louisville where it joined Don Carlos Buell’s Army of Ohio and played a small role in the subsequent Battle of Perryville. The 50th Ohio then spent the next 16 months bouncing around from post to post in Kentucky and Tennessee; weary months of monotonous guard duty combatting guerillas and the odd Confederate cavalry raid.

In May 1864, the regiment, assigned to Colonel Silas Strickland’s Third Brigade of Milo Hascall’s Second Division of the 23rd Army Corps, left Tennessee to join Sherman’s army at the front. “On the morning of the 20th of May, the 50th Ohio flung her banner to the breeze and stepped off toward the firing line which was then near Kingston, Georgia. The weather was extremely warm for May and the boys being a little soft from laying in camp so long suffered accordingly. Colonel Strickland, being a bit out of humor, marched us pretty hard, so hard in fact that the surgeon of the regiment called him down and told him that if he continued at that pace, he would kill all the boys before they reached the front. After that, he took a somewhat slower step.” The regiment joined Sherman’s army in late May as it faced Joseph E. Johnston’s army near Dallas, Georgia. Corporal Winters related much of the day-to-day experience of life on the line in his 1905 memoir entitled In the 50th Ohio Serving Uncle Sam: Memoirs of One Who Wore the Blue, a portion of which is reproduced below.

 

"I would always prefer an enemy I can see while advancing on them than one that is hidden," Corporal Erastus Winters recalled. The thick trees and underbrush of northern Georgia posed special challenges to the men of both armies as they skirmished for weeks on end. "It was a wild-looking country well adapted by nature for defense," he added. (Photo by Kati Wiggs) 

On the way to the front, we got a look at Buzzard Roost, Snake Creek Gap, and Rocky Face Ridge. It was a wild-looking country well adapted by nature for defense and we could not help being surprised that the Confederates would give up such positions without greater struggle. A good deal of rain fell during the first part of the campaign and the weather was very hot and sultry, so that when we were advancing or marching to a new position, we suffered from the heat of the sun and when it rained which made it very disagreeable for us. We finally reached the front and were placed on the firing line. The place we were in line was a dangerous one for the picket line; it was in the woods and the underbrush was very thick.

The position of the 23rd Corps was mostly on the flank and in taking a new position, if we found the enemy, we would push them back until we got our line where we wanted it and then we would build breastworks. We lay down in the woods and there was a detail made from each company to build works in our front. The workers had men to watch; whenever they would see a puff of smoke, the watchers would cry out, “Lie down” When the shell would pass over or burst, they would all jump up and go to work again. We worked nearly all night and built good, solid works and as they rake our works end-ways with one of their guns, each company built works to protect their right flank.

One morning the enemy’s pickets drove in our pickets all along our front and came up almost to our works. We raised up and gave them a volley or two from our main line. That stopped them. Colonel Elstner then called on Co. K to drive them back. We deployed along our regimental front and at the word of command, we jumped over the works and went for them. They fired on us as we made the leap, but their aim was bad as they did not hit a man at that time. We had the advantage of them now, and we made them hump back where they came from. We came on them behind trees and logs loading their guns. There were several of the enemy killed and wounded and a few prisoners taken.

Lt. Col. George R. Elstner
50th O.V.I.
Killed in action
August 8, 1864 at Utoy Creek

John Pouder of Co. K was killed out in the woods after we had driven the Rebels back to their places and Co. K was called in again. Colonel Elstner complimented the company very highly for what they did. A squad of four or five men volunteered to go out and bring in the body of Comrade Pouder, but just as they were ready to pick up him, John Klotter was shot in the neck, so they gathered up Klotter and brought him in. He lived only a few minutes after he was brought back. We did not recover Pouder’s body as it lay in a very exposed position. We learned that the troops that relived us two nights later recovered the body and buried it.

I was on post here one day and we all stood behind trees and fired at the smoke of each other’s guns; the tree that fell to my lot was not large enough to hide my body entirely and I suppose some Johnny caught sight of the blue behind it for the way the bullets rained about that tree soon convinced me that if I ever expected to see Cincinnati again, I would have to hunt a larger tree at once. The tree was about 12 inches through. I was laying flat on the ground with my head behind it. I would lie on my back and load, turn on my breast, watch for a puff of smoke, and then fire at it, but they got my range down too fine for me.

One of their bullets brushed the leaves within three inches of my right limb, the full length of it. So I began to look for a safer position. A little to my left and rear, I espied a large stump of which I soon took possession but did not feel a great deal safer there for some poor fellow had got his death there or been badly wounded as there was a large pool of blood behind it; however, I stuck to the stump until I was relieved. It would have been safer back of the Ohio River most anywhere than it was in that woods, so we all thought at that particular time.

 

Source:

Winter, Erastus. In the 50th Ohio Serving Uncle Sam: Memoirs of One Who Wore the Blue. East Walnut Hills: Erastus Winters, 1905, pgs. 82-87

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