The Legend of Leatherbreeches: Hubert Dilger in the Atlanta Campaign

During the Atlanta campaign, Captain Hubert Dilger and the six guns of his Battery I, 1st Ohio Light Artillery were nominally attached to the artillery battalion assigned to General Richard W. Johnson's First Division of the 14th Army Corps. I say nominally because Captain Dilger's reputation as an artillerist gave him essentially "carte blanche" to roam the battlefield at will and pitch in with his guns where he thought they would do the most good, a unique honor for any battery in Sherman's army. 

    Dilger's reputation for daring followed him from the Eastern theater where his heroism during the Battle of Chancellorsville [ see "A Few Rounds of Canister: Bowling with Dilger at Chancellorsville."] was so marked as to eventually make him a Medal of Honor recipient. Likewise at Gettysburg, Dilger fought his guns with marked professionalism and gained a high reputation amongst his peers as a man who knew how to fight a battery. The following spring, now assigned to the 14th Corps, Dilger's penchant for bold action followed throughout the Atlanta campaign such that "Leatherbreeches" became a legendary figure amongst Sherman's army. A few incidents from Dilger's storied career during that campaign help illuminate his legend...


Adolph Metzner of the 32nd Indiana sketched this famous view of Captain Hubert Dilger in action, placing his guns during the Battle of Resaca in May 1864. "He fired by volley when he got a good thing and the acclamations of the infantry drowned the reverberations of the cannon's roar," Ira Owens of the 74th Ohio recalled. "On all such occasions, Captain Dilger impressed everyone by his fine appearance. He always wore buckskin breeches with top boots and stood by his gun in his shirt sleeves during the battle, eliciting the admiration of the whole army by his coolness and intrepidity in action." 

He was born Hubert Anton Casimir Dilger on March 5, 1836 at Engen in the Dutchy of Baden-Wurttemburg. Educated at the Karlsruhe Military Academy, he served in the Grand Duke of Baden's horse artillery. In early 1862, he took a leave of absence to travel to America and volunteered his services to the Union army. Commissioned captain on April 26, 1862, Dilger was given command of a battery mountain howitzers operated by loyal Virginians known as the "jackass artillery." He and his "jackasses" fought at Freeman's Ford and Second Bull Run; by November 1862, he was given command of Battery I of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery. The key tenets of Dilger's operations included close support of the infantry, accuracy, and an emphasis both mobility and rapid firing. 

    The following three accounts written by his western theater comrades speak to Dilger's services with Sherman's army during the Atlanta campaign. 

Who of the Army of the Tennessee or the Cumberland does not remember “Old Leather Breeches” and his battery of 10-pdr Rodman guns? A characteristic of this officer was the strange method of his firing. You could always tell where Leather Breeches was by the sound of his guns. When the first section or gun was discharged, the other five would follow in regular but rapid succession- this, one, two, three, four, five, six! This battery of light guns was always on duty, being easily handled, and not infrequently a gun or two would be crowded forward to the skirmish line and bang away for awhile, then get back.

          The commander wore a nondescript uniform of a blue jacket with beaver teen pants and other goods quite as odd. His beaver teens gave him the name by which he went, and the Rebs soon learned to know where Leather Breeches was as well as we did. One incident illustrates this. A number of us were passing along the line, noticing what was called an ‘artillery duel’ between a Rebel battery and Leather Breeches’ little guns. As we passed the battery, we observed an old German some distance to the rear who was spinning around like a top. He would take a step or two, then whirl around, shaking his fists and gesticulating in the most ludicrous manner.

          Of course, we went up to him and inquired the cause of the strange maneuvers but could get an indistinct jabbering about “dot Repel pattery und dot Yankee pattery.” Upon closer examination, it was discovered that a shell or shot from a Rebel cannon had passed between his arm and side, tearing around a portion of his blouse. The force of the shot, of course, stunned the man, but there was scarcely a break of the skin. Yet as the cannon continued to roar within a few rods of him, the old gentleman executed a war dance that would have put Geronimo on his mettle to beat. ~Bloody Shirt Papers No. 30 

         



          Ira S. Owens of the 74th Ohio shared this story of Leatherbreeches. “On June 20, 1864, the 74th Ohio moved in front to Leatherbreeches’ or Buckskin’s battery. This Leatherbreeches right name was Captain Dilger. He was one of the most skillful and plucky officers in the Union service. In all the battles which occurred with the Army of the Cumberland during the Atlanta campaign, Captain Dilger was on hand. He was the first to open fire on the ever of a battle, taking his guns nearly up to the skirmish line. One the eventful day of the Hooker and Johnston contest [June 22, 1864], Captain Dilger took his guns up to the skirmish line and for half an hour poured a raking fire of grape and canister into the enemy. So conspicuous and marked were his movements that he became at one time the target for three Rebel batteries and lost seven men during the day.

          He fired by volley when he got a good thing and the acclamations of the infantry drowned the reverberations of the cannon’s roar. On all such occasions, Captain Dilger impressed everyone by his fine appearance. He always wore close buckskin breeches with top boots and stood by his gun in his shirt sleeves during the battle, eliciting the admiration of the whole army by his coolness and intrepidity in action. I have seen him sitting in a port hole of the works with his glass, watching the effect of his shots upon the enemy.

         

Captain Hubert Dilger, Battery I, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery

          At Peach Tree Creek, General Richard W. Johnson, commanding a division in the 14th Army Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, had a few things to say about Leatherbreeches. “He was a gallant fellow and when an engagement took place generally rushed his battery out to the skirmish line. I was in constant fear that through his rashness the battery might be captured, so I had instructed him not to go in front of the main line unless ordered. In the battle of the 20th, regardless of my orders, he moved forward to the front line and had several of his cannoneers killed by the enemy’s sharpshooters.

          After the battle, I sent for him and said, “Captain Dilger, you violated my orders by going too far to the front, and in doing so you have lost some of your men." To this, he replied, “No, no General. I did not lose any men.” I told him it had been reported to me that several of his men had been picked off by the enemy’s sharpshooters. “Oh yes,” said he, “mit dem leetle balls.” Belonging to the artillery, he did not count a man killed unless by a cannon ball or shell.

 Sources:

“Bloody Shirt Papers No. 30,” Jackson Standard (Ohio), May 27, 1886, pg. 1

“Something About Old Leatherbreeches,” Ira S. Owens, 74th Ohio, National Tribune, June 12, 1884, pg. 7

“How Atlanta Fell,” General Richard W. Johnson, National Tribune, May 13, 1897, pg. 3

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