Fighting on Both Sides of the Works: The 20th Ohio and the Battle of Atlanta

          In the aftermath of the Battle of Atlanta, Adjutant Henry O. Dwight wrote the following account of the battle for publication in the New York Times which appeared on the front page of the August 12, 1864 edition. 

    At 8 o’clock on the morning of the 22nd, it was reported that the Rebs had evacuated. Our picket officer Lieutenant Abram C. Urquhart [68th Ohio] asked me to go out with him and take a look at the city. So, we went out, passed the Rebel works, and sat gazing at the great city. We could still see some Rebels about town and the young ladies at the seminary were waving white handkerchiefs and had a large sheet hoisted over the building by way of a flag of truce. We looked long and carefully with my fine glass and saw enough to decide us that the town was not evacuated and Urquhart was confident that there was a trap for us somewhere.

          I left my glass with him and returned to report my reconnaissance and was considerably afraid that the trap would not be seen by General Frank Blair [commanding 17th Army Corps]. Had he moved forward as was his first intention, I would have been eating cornbread at Macon now with poor Urquhart instead of being before Atlanta.

Adjutant Henry O. Dwight, 20th O.V.V.I.


          By noon, we had decided that all was right and had discussed as improbable the flank movement which several had thought the Rebs were executing. As we sat at dinner, someone remarked that we had been lucky so far in not losing so many men in this campaign. Just then a shot was fired exactly in our rear, then another, then a volley, and as we sprang to our arms, we heard amid the din of battle the well-known yells which answer the purpose of cheers in the Southern army. Confident that our rear was covered, we formed in our rifle pits facing Atlanta expecting an attack from the front. Soon it became evident that our flank was to be crushed as the yells of the enemy grew nearer and the musket balls and shells began to pass among us. I saw which way the thing was going and led my horse outside the works where I hitched him. Returning, I found the Fourth Division broken and coming back like a flock of sheep followed by the Rebels.

          Colonel Fry and several others of our officers tried to rally the panic-stricken crowd, but not to much avail for at that instant the Rebels came in sight in the woods and commenced a brisk fire upon our brigade as it stood with its back toward the enemy. Our boys were accustomed to wait for orders and so they stood until the order was given to leap the parapet and fire from the outside.

          On came the Rebels at the charge with triumphant shouts waving their insignificant little battle flags on high. A dead silence prevailed along our line. Nearer they came and a long line of gun barrels glistens in the sunlight and at last comes the shout ‘fire!’ and a blinding flash, a vindictive rattle, and the magnificent line of the enemy is gone. Upon the struggling remnants, a constant fire is kept up and we think to ourselves “Bravo” when another volley of bullets comes from behind our backs as a line comes out of the woods from Atlanta.

 

“We had good works and if the Rebs had been compelled to fight us from the front, they would have fought us until doomsday without gaining any advantage.” ~ Captain William W. Updegraff, Co. F, 20th Ohio

 

          Quick as thought, the word is given to leap the parapet again and as they come up on the charge, they are met with a good dose of lead which drives them back once more. Again, we have to jump to the outside of the works to repel another charge from the inside and here Colonel Fry is wounded. The Rebels now come up on our flank at a point where they could rake the left of our regiment as it laid outside the curve of our works, so the left was swung around.

The Ohio History Connection has this set of 20th O.V.V.I. national colors which includes the battle honors for three engagements near Atlanta on July 21st (Bald Hill), July 22nd (Atlanta), and Ezra Church (July 28th). Following the successful conclusion of the Atlanta campaign, the 20th Ohio would march with Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas before mustering out of service on July 15, 1865. It was one of the longest serving regiments from the state of Ohio. 


          Now thing began to look interesting. They were shooting at us from three sides; our ammunition was nearly out and when I went back to see where I could get some more cartridges, behold the Rebs had possession of the works between us and headquarters so that we were cut off. Of course, all of us went to work gathering cartridges from the bodies of the dead and wounded. A pile of half a dozen boxes of ammunition stood by a big tree midway between us and the Rebels and three of our boys made a charge on the tree. The first one seized two heavy boxes of a thousand rounds each and shouldering them came back in triumph. The second man did likewise but just as the third was bringing in his prize, a Rebel seized him by the nape of the neck and lugged him off into bondage. A Rebel becoming obstreperous and coming too near our works, a little fellow of Co. H reached over and took him by the hair of the head and drew him in out of the wet.

 

“Matt Elliott of Co. F was killed and his brother Robert stood over his body fighting until he had fired every cartridge and he then clubbed his musket and fought until he was literally shot to pieces. The 20th and 78th Ohio were fighting sides by side and their color bearer was shot down. Charley Stevenson of Co. F saw their colors were down, he ran forward, got them, and sticking them in the parapet, called out ‘There 78th, there are your colors, now protect them!’ Several times nothing but the breastworks separated the men; the color bearers of the 20th and some Rebel regiment beat each other over the head with their flag staffs.” ~ Captain William W. Updegraff, Co. F, 20th Ohio

 

          At one time we made a charge and for a few moments we were mixed up pretty thoroughly with a regiment of Rebels who had been bothering us with their impertinent language. Three Rebels were cut down by officers’ sabers. I was in the thick of it, but everybody that I saw wanted to surrender and I found nobody to fight. One big fellow in Co. A knocked down a Rebel with his fist. A Rebel made a grab at our tattered old flag and one of the color guard ran his bayonet through him and threw him over the work. One of our boys took the Rebel flag and tore it in pieces before they could prevent him. Thing continued growing interesting until about 4 p.m. when we had to leap the works a couple of times more and by this time the boys began to beg for cartridges worse than any famished people begged for bread.

Captain William W. Updegraff of Co. F resigned his commission in 1863 but accompanied the 20th Ohio during the engagements at Atlanta with his close friend Lieutenant Colonel John C. Fry.  Updegraff and Fry started a mercantile business in Vicksburg after the siege ended in July and eventually both of their wives joined them in Vicksburg to help run the establishment. It proved to be an ill-fated enterprise, however.  Colonel Fry's 22-year-old wife Mattie J. (Harrison) Fry became ill and died at Vicksburg on November 2, 1863. Captain Updegraff had married Colonel Fry's younger sister Sallie; she, too, had joined her husband at Vicksburg but became ill and passed away  August 9, 1864 in Sidney, Ohio while her husband was away at the front. Both Updegraff and Fry, although young men in their 20s, did not remarry but didn't live terribly long after the war either. Colonel Fry died on December 21, 1872 in Sidney at the age of 33 while Updegraff died of consumption just three months later on March 14, 1873 in Cincinnati at the age of 32. Both men and their wives are buried near one another at Graceland Cemetery in Sidney, Ohio. 


          Things looked dark. Cut off from the rest of the army, we had been fighting for four hours and no help coming yet. Then the Rebs began to pour in canister and shrapnel from the Atlanta side and at last they ran up two pieces of artillery to two of the embrasures on the inside of our breastworks and began to give us canister as we lay on the outside. Just then information came that a gap had been opened for us to retreat through and the order was given to fall back. Falling back about 300 yards brought us to the rest of the division and we formed line again, repulsed three more assaults, and wearied out, slept on our arms all night.

 

“I was captured near dark in the small fort outside the large one which the regiment held all night. They tried to kill me there but did not quite accomplish it. I was hit on the head with the butt of a musket after which I surrendered my sword and scabbard. The sword I threw back into the big fort. I bled quite profusely yet was not hurt much, but had a scandalous black eye for a week or ten days and was sore all over for more than a month.” ~Captain Reuben M. Colby, Co. K, 20th Ohio

 

          Such was the most awful battle I have ever been in and I most heartily pray that I may never see another like it. I never saw such awful slaughter as took place among the Rebels. They literally laid in piles as I went over the ground the next morning. How the Rebel army can withstand such wholesale butchery I cannot see. A Georgia colonel taken prisoner was looking sadly around the field of battle and someone asked him how many men Hood had left. “Oh, about enough for two more such killings,” he replied.

According to Quartermaster John W. Skillen, the 20th Ohio suffered the loss of 33 killed, 46 wounded, and 59 missing during the Battle of Atlanta.

Sources:

Letter from Adjutant Henry O. Dwight, 20th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry, New York Times (New York), August 12, 1864, pg. 1

Letter from Captain William W. Updegraff, Co. F, 20th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Sidney Weekly Journal (Ohio), August 5, 1864, pg. 2

Letter from Captain Reuben M. Colby, Co. K, 20th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Sidney Weekly Journal (Ohio), October 28, 1864, pg. 2


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