Diary of a Union Soldier in Georgia – The Fall of Atlanta, Part I

For several weeks, this blog has been knee-deep in British history. So, I wanted to do something different and a little closer to home. I ran searches on Civil War diaries and came across the diary of Union soldier William Grunert, detailing his regiment’s battles in Georgia and other states. For the sake of chronological order, I will begin with several posts excerpting Grunert’s book, starting with the fall of Atlanta.

From History of the One Hundred and Twenty-Ninth Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry, by William Grunert.

July 9, 1864 From a high mountain the houses of Atlanta were to be seen, but also the intermediate forts and camps of the enemy; and it seemed not, as though the enemy would allow our early entrance into that city. We received orders to pack up and support the line of skirmishers—we remained in camp, however. Heavy cannon firing on our right and left, and insufferable heat. A shell exploding in one of our ammunition wagons, wounded the driver and killed five mules.

July 10. At 2 o’clock a. m. we received orders to be ready by sunrise; at the appointed time we marched a couple of hundred steps, when we halted, remained quiet some time, and again returned to our old camps. A rebel major with 1,400 men was captured near the river, while the balance of the enemy’s forces were crossing from the north to the south side of the river. In the night we drew rations.

July 16. Our pickets were now on the north side and the enemy’s pickets on the south side of the Chattahoochee river. Not a single shot was fired by the pickets of our brigade at the rebels, or by those at us, but the rebels were prohibited from speaking a single word to our men and would not allow them to go into the water. Our men generally were out of tobacco and continually asked the rebels for some, who did not answer, but now and then tied a piece of tobacco on a stone, and threw it over the river.

July 19. We remained quiet and made our breastworks stronger—the heat was intolerable. Heavy cannonading and skirmishing was going on near us. Gen. Hood had relieved Gen. Johnston in the command of the rebel army, the latter having declared his inability to keep Atlanta from the Yankees’ grasp.

Fortifications in front of Atlanta — Mathew Brady

July 20. As the noon sun was very hot, we went in the shade of a neighboring thorny thicket, others went after water for the dinner coffee. We had scarcely seated ourselves, and long before the thirsty ones could get their coffee ready, a tremendous roar of musketry in our front was heard, coming nearer every second. In a few minutes our pickets were driven in, who reported that the enemy was coming, three lines of battle strong and was approaching fast. As soon as the firing had commenced, every one rushed for his gun, and before the enemy, who approached in double quick time, could open his fire on us, we were on the top of the hill, meeting them, and thereby preventing a surprise. The rebels, being thus unexpectedly confronted by a line of Yankees, lost some of their courage, and instead of rushing on us, they stretched themselves behind a rail fence on the top of the hill, waiting until we had advanced to within ten steps of them. The fire between the two armies now became most violent and no member of our regiment who expected death on that day, will ever in his life forget the slaughter, while the powder smoke rose slowly up to heaven between the fighting parties,—where one gallant lad after another was snatched from our side! He will never forgot, how after a short continuation of this wholesale butchery, on our left, cheers were given, like a prairie fire leaping to the right, and all our men rushed on the enemy with the bayonet, like so many devils! The scene was a bloody one, but glorious one after all to the Union heart! The rebel lines behind the fence, not accustomed to such bravery, rose to their feet and ran away as fast as their legs could carry them. Now our harvest had come and we paid back the enemy in the same coin they had given us. Every man now aimed at an enemy running in his front, who went down before such a fire as the ripe wheat before the scythe of the mower. The enemy ran about 300 or 400 steps and then gathered and began to return our fire again, thereby endangering his own wounded in our front. The fire, which commenced at 2 o’clock p. m., continued until night; but as we were protected somewhat by the fence, our loss was smaller than at the beginning. While we were thus fighting with the enemy, the troops on our right and left had to do the same thing, as the rebels under Hood were trying their best to whip the Yankees, and had attacked our whole line. Both wings had to give way to the enemy several times, who had even taken several cannons from them, when they again rallied, until the enemy had been whipped everywhere. Although the rebels can say “at Peach Tree creek we did good work,” yet they cannot say that the work was a master-piece. They had no master-workman in Hood as we did in Sherman, and where the “boss” is of no account, what can you expect from the “jours” and boys? Our loss on this day was large, smaller however than the loss of the enemy. All our wounded were collected during and after the fight, and cared for in the hospitals as well as possible. Our regiment lost 10 killed, but many of the wounded died afterwards in the hospitals. Our division took seven flags from the enemy, (one of which was taken by our regiment;) the bearers of three had to be killed before the flag were taken. The rebel wounded, by no means a small number, were collected after dark and cared for. They were very thankful for our care, and as they were well provided with tobacco, which our men were in want of, they willingly divided with us. As our own wounded were very numerous, best little medical aid could be rendered the rebel wounded during the night. We had but little sleep, as we were busy erecting breastworks, for which, however, we had no use, as the rebels made no attack in the night

Peachtree Creek battlefield

July 21. We buried our own dead and some of the enemy’s, whereby most of the day was spent. Gen. Hooker rode along our line as we were collecting the enemy’s dead, and as the General was a favorite of the men, cheers were repeatedly given. He stopped a while and looked at the staring dead, and was soon surrounded by our men. He could not, however, control his feelings, tears came in his eyes, and he rode off. The enemy retreated quite a distance during the night, to make another stand around Atlanta. The 14th corps, which formed our left wing, swung around, thereby approaching our destination, Atlanta. During this maneuver there was frequent heavy firing on the left. We remained for the night on the battle-field.

July 22. Without taking breakfast we left the bloody field in pursuit of the flying enemy, to avenge our fallen comrades and the losses we had sustained, determined not to rest until the rebels had been completely whipped. In the afternoon, about 14 miles from Atlanta, we found the enemy’s pickets and saw the rebels busy perfecting their fortifications. We pressed as near to the enemy as possible, until our pickets could advance no further without suffering loss. We stopped and entrenched ourselves. The enemy gave us time for this work until night, when he began his artillery fire; by this time our breastworks afforded us good shelter. Our left wings, having pushed forward yesterday, had to fight with the enemy and whipped him again, as on the 20th.

We suffered an irreparable loss in the death of Gen. McPherson, who was killed by a rebel ball.

Location of General McPherson’s death

July 23. The enemy opened a heavy fire on us in the forenoon and compelled us to seek shelter behind our breastworks. A shell struck our breastworks in front of company A and exploded, doing, however, no other damage than throwing the earth up high in the air. At noon our pickets were driven some distance by the enemy, being in too close proximity to him; but when our pickets advanced again, the enemy retreated and our men resumed their old position. The night was rest and sleepless, the enemy’s fire continued, while we were in the ditches behind our breastworks.

July 24 Artillery and musketry fire as yesterday. Two negroes were struck by pieces of a shell, and instantly killed. Gen. Sherman demanded the surrender of Atlanta, but was refused by Hood; after which we made preparations to bombard the town and compel the enemy to surrender. Many women who had fled from the horrors of the war and had been in the woods heretofore, prepared to come into our lines instead of those of the enemy, and were admitted. A false alarm robbed us of our sleep again tonight, and we had to remain on guard behind our breastworks. even after the cause or no cause of the alarm had been found out.

July 28. Heavy fighting was going on at our right wing; we had marching orders to go there in case of necessity. About 10 o’clock we left our breastworks, and immediately fired at by the enemy who had noticed our movement. After having marched several miles we received orders to return, as the enemy had been completely whipped and our troops were able to withstand the enemy in their front. We returned to our former position, but with the order, not to make ourselves too comfortable there.

Maj. Gen. Hooker gave up the command of the 20th army corps to go North. The men were not well pleased with this change, as all loved and adored him as a prudent and good General.

July 29. The whole third division went to the extreme right. Our army led past yesterday’s battlefield, on which the rebel dead and wounded were scattered in every direction yet. To judge from the balls lodging in the trees yet standing and fallen down, the fight must have been a hard one. The troops stationed there were in the best humor, standing and sitting, jesting and laughing between wounded and dead rebels, talking of the events of the day just passed—how the enemy had approached and afterwards the slaughter, in which the enemy suffered severely, where, after the rebels had given leg bail in the most amusing manner. These men belonged to the 17th army corps which had suffered heavy losses too, but which the men did not mind, as their wounded were cared for, and as they themselves had been victorious. At night our division formed the extreme right flank and erected breastworks on all four sides to be protected against attacks by cavalry and infantry. The night passed quiet.

August 5. Shortly after the enemy had been driven from the Chattahoochee river, the building of a bridge was commenced with for the Railroad. The bridge was done now and today the first train reached the front before Atlanta. The locomotive was received with tremendous cheers by our soldier, and the shrill whistle must have sounded defiantly to the rebels. As provisions had become scanty, we were glad at the arrival of the iron horse, as sufficient quantities could now reach us, despite of the guerrillas.

August 8. The city had been bombarded for several days, and the fire today was more rapid than before. Siege guns had arrived yesterday and been brought into position immediately. We could hear plainly, particularly at night, when the shells struck a house and exploded inside—the sound of which resembled the crash of a falling building, followed by the tremendous explosion in the upper story or cellar. The inhabitants of the city, as we read in the Atlanta papers (which we exchanged from the rebel pickets for coffee,) fled to the most distant parts of the city, or sought refuge in cellars, or dug caves in the ground, where they remained during the bombardment and only left their hiding places, when compelled to by hunger or thirst . The war is a scene of horror, and it was particularly so the case with Atlanta, full as the city was with refugees from the neighborhood all around. What would the enemy have cared for the women and children, if the reverse had been the case and the city of Atlanta in Union hands, besieged by rebels? How did the rebels act towards the women and children in Pennsylvania and Maryland? And what cared the rebel bushwhackers for women and children, or the passenger trains, when they tore up the rails and hurried hundreds of them to an untimely grave and death, and even robbing them of the little they had left. Not so did Sherman act. As the surrender of the city had been refused by Hood, Sherman had told him to order the women and children out of the city. Hood did not fulfill this request, hoping thereby to compel Sherman to forego the bombardment, a foolish supposition indeed. Sherman had done everything to prevent loss of life and cannot be called cruel, as has been done by the rebels for the bombardment of Atlanta— Hood is to blame and to be held responsible for every innocent life sacrificed there, as he knew of Sherman’s purpose,—to him the spirits of the innocent, the cripple now begging in the South, must be held responsible and accused of murder, of wantonly sacrificing the lives of his men

August 13 The brush that was between us and the enemy before the fighting around Atlanta commenced, had been shot away or crippled by the musket balls and shells, whereby the enemy gained a clear view at our works at many points, and whenever our men showed themselves at such points and kept not close behind the breastworks, they were fired upon by the enemy. The rebels had become very good marksmen and but seldom the balls went overhead, but hit either the works or the men behind at work or cooking; wounding or killing them. To prevent any further losses we lightened the breastworks several inches; while at work we again lost one man- of our regiment, who was shot through the abdomen; Lieut. Fisher, of the 195th Illinois regiment, was also shot when on picket duty. The bombardment of the city still continued and several times houses had been set afire by our shells—the alarms could be distinctly heard by us—but the fire was quenched by the military and citizens before it could make much headway.

August 14. The enemy’s fire in our front slackened somewhat, our artillery was the busier in bombarding the city. The enemy made another attack on the 17th corps on our right, and tried very hard to break through our lines. He had to give up his efforts, after a loss of’500 killed and wounded, and 400 prisoners. During the night heavy firing was again going on at our right. Close to our left a fort was built, opposite an enemy’s fort. The weather was rainy.

August 18. Before daybreak the enemy opened a most dreadful fire from all his guns, the shells went howling over our heads and exploding further back without doing any damage, however, excepting tearing holes in the ground. In a moment our men were under arms behind the entrenchments, as each firing was generally the commencement of an attack, and we were prepared for the worst. The game of the enemy should not last long and our artillery was preparing to make the “erring brethren” hush. They commenced and soon the enemy cooled down, while our artillery continued as long as they pleased. On our right heavy firing was heard. Gen. Kirkpatrick, with his cavalry was in the enemy’s rear, destroying railroads and other valuable rebel property, south of Atlanta.

August 22 The bombardment of the city continued without interruption, but the picket fire was very light. Several houses in the city were again set afire by our shells.

August 23 Part of our army retreated today, but was not compelled to by the enemy—it retreated in consequence of Sherman’s own orders. The 97th Ohio regiment of our brigade marched back to the Chattahoochee river, there to build fortifications, and we took the place of this regiment behind the breastworks, at the same time each brigade had to stretch out a little, so that we stood but one man deep on some points, in order to fill the gap. Not a shot was fired in our front, as the enemy had not noticed the movement, and as only such troops were moved that could without being noticed by the enemy. It had been determined upon to move the 20th army corps, that was stationed on the right and left of the Chattanooga-Atlanta Railroad, in a direct line back to the Chattahoochee liver, to make the enemy believe that the whole army had retreated. At the same time the five other army corps were to fall back a distance and thence approach the Atlanta-Macon Railroad. The retreat of our division was commenced as soon as it became dark, the brigade music band was to give the signal by playing, as usual, the customary marches and finishing with the Yankee Doodle. As soon as the enlivening notes of the Yankee Doodle were heard, our regiment formed and marched without making the least noise to its destination. Our pickets were to remain in front of the enemy and then to retreat slowly in our wake. Our siege guns had been moved the night previous, and as they were quiet the entire day, the enemy must have thought it rather queer; and when even towards evening an unexampled quietness reigned in his front, the enemy must have come to the conclusion that we had retreated. The enemy seemed certain that our whole army had retreated and called to our few pickets left: ”Never mind, Yankee, we’ll find you again in the morning!” The retreat was made very slowly, sometimes we lay still for long periods, and did not reach the river until 4 o’clock a. m.

Sept 1.  We got the news that the rebels had left Atlanta and that our army had overtaken them at Jonesboro and whipped them soundly. This happy news created the wildest excitement and the whole day nothing but songs and cheers were heard.

City Hall and 2nd Massachusetts

Sept 2 We received further news about the fight at Jonesboro between our troops and the rebel army. The army under Hood, according to the report, had been split in two, and had been compelled to leave its dead and wounded behind, and was still pursued by Sherman and Thomas. In the city many rebel wounded were found, and a number of prisoners had been captured, consisting principally of such men that had left the army with the firm belief, that the rebel cause was lost, and had left the sinking ship in time to save themselves. All siege guns which the enemy had used against us in his fortification, fell in our hands, though they had been spiked and made useless for the present. The arsenal from which the whole rebel army had been supplied, had been blown up by the enemy. A large number of railroad cars, filled with ammunition, guns, &c., had been set afire by the enemy, as they could not be moved on account of Sherman taking part of the road before the rebels were aware of it. The town itself resembled a building having passed through a gale and threatening to tumble down every minute. In the northern part of the city not a house was left uninjured and many either leveled to the ground entirely or completely riddled, and nothing but a skeleton of the former stately mansion left standing. The streets were a complete morass, here and there plowed up by shells or solid shot. The inhabitants looked shy and frightened from their shattered dwellings at the victorious Yankees, coming in by the thousands, receiving them, of course, not as friends, and never believing until it became reality, that such men could take Atlanta! The wealthy and arch rebels had fled with the rebel army, taking their light aid movable property along with them, but leaving their homes and firesides and ”last ditch,” for, and in which, they were going to die so gloriously as—rank traitors to the Union! The goods from the stores had principally been moved, but nevertheless some things been left, which were being stolen before our army arrived. Here and there old women or children were seen with small parcels, kegs, baskets, &c., hurrying through the streets to take the captured things to their homes in some remote corner or cavern. We never found out what the armed rebels thought about the loss of their stronghold, Atlanta, but many of the inhabitants believed firmly that “their men” would take the city again in about ten days, and had retreated merely to get in our rear, then to return and starve us out. Such suppositions and threats were laughed at by such men as Sherman had in his army. Atlanta will remain in our hands, and if it should be evacuated, there will be nothing left of it but a heap of ashes! These were our answers to such impertinent remarks of the haughty enemy. To strive is not fashionable in an inimical state like Georgia, and if our communication with the North is cut off, we have learned to forage, was another answer. To subjugate us by powder and lead requires courage, and this we have shown at Dalton, Resaca, Marietta, &c., on the 20th of July, while your men lost the last bit of courage at Atlanta and Jonesboro, were the remarks of our boys. The more angry the men became with the Copperheads in the North, of whose doings we learned by letters, and threats were uttered frequently with the expectation of calling the rebel sympathizers in the North to an account some day. At noon we had garrisoned Atlanta, and reached the object of the campaign.

I will post more of William Grunert’s diary in the coming days. 

2 Replies to “Diary of a Union Soldier in Georgia – The Fall of Atlanta, Part I”

  1. My husband is hooked on the American Civil War (as well as English Civil War) and we have that wonderful TV series, Chesnut diaries on Kindle, and shelves of books about it. Also visited battlefields in 2004 when I focused on the 3D photography! I shall show him your blog! Brilliant!

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