Harvest Time at Resaca with the Orphan Brigade
Recovered from a severe head wound sustained during the Battle of Chickamauga the previous September, Captain John H. Weller of the 4th Kentucky rejoined his company in time to take part in the Battle of Resaca. The action of May 14th, 1864, matched the intensity he remembered from Chickamauga and as Weller begins the article, “the next time I get into a battle where the shape of our line is a horseshoe, I want to be on the outside.”
Weller and his comrades in the 4th Kentucky soon found themselves under assault by Federals from both 14th and 23rd Army Corps. “The Union soldiers, after some delay, came tearing down the hill to the branch and pushing through made directly for us,” Weller wrote. “It was exciting. When within about a hundred yards, we turned loose on them and death in all its appalling forms commenced by hundreds on the 14th of May 1864. Column after column came down in full view and moved right toward us. Their colors were planted within 75 yards of us once and remained for some time standing alone toll another line came up and carried them away. Our boys all had black lips from biting cartridges and powder-stained faces in streaks as perspiration took a fancy to line their countenances.”
During the Battle of Resaca, the 4th Kentucky of part of General Joseph H. Lewis’s Orphan Brigade served beside the 2nd, 5th, 6th, and 9th Kentucky regiments as part of General William B. Bate’s division of William Hardee’s Corps. Captain Weller’s account of Resaca, written under his penname Fred Joyce, first saw publication in the July 1884 edition of Southern Bivouac magazine.
The next time I get into a battle where the shape of our line is a horseshoe, I want to be on the outside. However, I am very well contented to think I will never be in either again. The Army of Tennessee bent around like a hot iron at Resaca, and while the right filled their canteens from the Oostanaula, the line bulged out and around the little town (I suppose there was a town but I never saw it) and retired throwing the left on the same stream. The Orphans were not like hot iron but more like steel well-tempered. Their voices and arms rung out on the May morning like swelling chimes and the flames from the tortuous line waved like a Damascene blade. The whole army was well-nigh invincible as a trained hero sighted every gun.
At the break of day our brigade formed a line on an elevation overlooking a valley and opposite some pretty steep hills. A branch ran through the valley with bushes on its banks. In front and to the right of us was a hill which seemed the objective point of the enemy, for the heaviest fighting took place there. It was about sunrise when Co. FD of the 4th Kentucky started out as skirmishers. Bearing to the right we crossed the branch and swing our line perpendicular to the main body, while those on our left started up the hill in front. A halt was made, for we are now far from the regiment. Devil Dick, Lieutenants Williams and Lecompt and Reed Caldwell want more than we were giving them and advanced a couple hundred yards further up the valley.
Dick shot at the first blue coat he saw and, in less time, than you can tell it, they were busy fighting their way back to us. And before they reached us the hillside to our left, as well as the valley in front, was swarming with Federal soldiers and flags. It was exceedingly warm before we could get started back to our line. We had to run through this open valley several hundred yards, and the enemy popping away at us making a noise like a monster coffee mill. We finally reached our position in line and found a few rails thrown up against a log house for our protection. A company of artillery was string along the command. The Union soldiers, after some delay, came tearing down the hill to the branch and pushing through made directly for us. It was exciting.
When within about a hundred yards, we turned loose on them and death in all its appalling forms commenced by hundreds on the 14th of May 1864. Column after column came down in full view and moved right toward us. Their colors were planted within 75 yards of us once and remained for some time standing alone toll another line came up and carried them away. Our boys all had black lips from biting cartridges and powder-stained faces in streaks as perspiration took a fancy to line their countenances.
It was harvest time with the Orphan Brigade and every available contrivance was used for reaping the field before us. The artillery roared and belched great clouds of smoke which enveloped us and nearly blinded us. The enemy got onto a portion of the little hill to the right of us and enfiladed us terribly when their people were not charging. At the head of column four lines deep rode a splendid looking officer on a gray horse. John Gordon of Co. D drew a bead on him but was too anxious to make sure of his prize and sighted too long. A Minie ball struck him full in the forehead and his corpse quietly sunk down. All day we fought over him and crowded his lifeless form, and when night came our much-loved messmate was laid under the sod of Georgia.
The extreme left of the 4th Kentucky encountered an old log house and it was hard to say which we feared most: the missiles of the enemy or the tumbling logs. The bullets spatted against it like hail. Our gallant little corps of sharpshooters were called into action early and were placed to our left and about the right of the 2nd Kentucky. Their terrible rifles soon attracted the fury of the Federal artillerymen and the little command was torn and plowed with shot and shell till over half were killed and wounded. James T. Guilliam, one of the bravest of the brave, emerged from this terrible spot with his right arm hanging to his shoulder by a piece of skin and flesh, and walking back to the surgeon unaided had it amputated without taking chloroform. He was from Russellville and was a member of Co. I of the 4th Kentucky and was conspicuous as a fearless sharpshooter.
In the meantime, line after line charged is and fell back until the little branch in front seemed to be full of men lying down under its friendly bank; they fired incessantly with their repeating guns. Night coming on, we threw pickets a short distance in front and addressed ourselves to the important business of going in the ground. When daylight enabled our foe to open his batteries again, we were deep down with 16 feet of solid clay in front of us. We peacefully laid down in the bottom of our trenches and slept or listened dreamily to their incessant through ineffectual cannonading and the never-ceasing popping of their small arms.
By the second night, it was known that they were flanking us and we commenced to undo the horseshoe, once more stringing silently south. The open part of the shoe was so small that some confusion took place as we entered the little brigade over the Oostanaula. But the presence of our generals reassured us and we passed back with no fear of the future.
“A Hot May Day at Resaca,” Captain John Henry Weller, Co. D, 4th Kentucky Infantry (C.S.A.), Southern Bivouac, July 1884, pgs. 499-501
Would you like to walk the grounds at Resaca described by Captain Weller? Thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Resaca Battlefield in conjunction with the American Battlefield Trust, more than 1,000 acres of the original battlefield have been preserved including the Confederate line held by the Orphan Brigade to the east of Camp Creek. The Resaca Battlefield Historic Site is operated by Gordon County Parks and Recreation Department; you can visit their website here for trails, hours, and lots of other useful information.
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