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Feature Article on Atlanta Battle. Topic: CIVIL WAR
Written by Rich Wallace in July, 1996

ATLANTA OLYMPICS RECALL GREAT SACRIFICE OF SHELBY COUNTY SOLDIERS

The eyes of the entire world are on Atlanta, Georgia this week as the pomp and pageantry of the Centennial Olympics unfolds. Over ten thousand athletes from around the globe and millions of visitors marvel at this sports spectacle, and the crown jewel of the south the city of Atlanta has become. So much has changed. One hundred and thirty-two years ago this same soil bore witness to a decisive struggle between two massive, determined armies. At the epicenter of the Battle of Atlanta were many men from Shelby County. July 22, 1864, marked the turning point in the battle, and some say in the entire Civil War, as the Union army defeated the Confederate forces led by General John Bell Hood, and went on to capture Atlanta. From there, General Sherman led the Union Army on the decisive "Sherman's march to the sea." More Shelby County boys died on that day than on any other in the history of our county. This is the story of that dark day.

The Twentieth Ohio Volunteer Infantry was recruited from Shelby and surrounding counties in May of 1861. Of the nearly one thousand recruits, four hundred were from Shelby County. Although the regiment saw early action at the battles of Fort Donelson and Pittsburgh Landing in 1862, the men first experienced the reality of war at Raymond, Mississippi when they along with other Union units were ambushed by several Confederate brigades. The Twentieth lost twelve men that day. The soldiers also participated in the battle of Vicksburg, and after the war told vivid stories of General Grant and his steely-eyed determination during the battle.

However, nothing was to compare to the horrors that would confront the soldiers from Shelby County as they marched to the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia late in July of 1864. This story is written in part from the first person accounts of Capt. E.E. Nutt and Pvt. William W. Updegraff of the Twentieth Ohio. Nutt recalled the action in a letter he wrote in 1884, and Updegraff reported his experiences in a letter to the Sidney Journal on August 7, 1864. The twentieth, sixty-eighth and the seventy-eighth Ohio Regiments were ordered into the Union line on its far left flank during the afternoon of July 21, 1864. For most of the night, the men dug fortifications and braced them with logs cut from a woods nearby. No one expected any action. The next day dawned hot and hazy. The soldiers lounged around, tired from the night's labors. To the west, Rebels could be seen leaving Atlanta in a steady stream, heading south. Perhaps there would not be a fight after all. Capt Nutt remembered sitting on a log writing a letter when the first salvo opening the battle was fired. It was just after noon. The men scrambled for their weapons. What was going on - weren't the Rebs retreating?

Disaster struck with thunderous suddenness as the Confederates launched a surprise attack on the left flank of the Union line from the woods where they had gathered and hid. Nutt recalled "the Johnnies coming at us like a storm." The Union soldiers, who were originally positioned behind fortified barricades, had to scramble to the other side of the barricades and use them as defensive positions as the Rebels attacked them from the rear. As the Rebs attacked from different directions, the twentieth Ohio performed the same movement of changing sides of the fortifications, being fired upon, and repulsing the enemy four separate times.

As rifle fire swept the Shelby County boys, the Confederate soldiers captured a union gun and turned it on the Union line, raking the men with canister fire. As the battle raged on, the soldiers ran out of cartridges. The dead were stripped of rifles and ammunition as they lay on the ground.

own the Union line, out of sight of the Twentieth, General James McPherson was surrounded, then shot in the back by Confederate skirmishers. McPherson, from Ohio, was the most beloved general in the union army. General Grant, on hearing of his death, wept. McPherson's death galvanized the Union troops. General Logan rallied McPherson's men with the cry: "McPherson and revenge, boys, McPherson and revenge!" William Updegraff reported that during the height of the battle the color bearer of the twentieth was shot. Another soldier grabbed the flag and began to retreat. Capt. Henry Wilson snatched the colors from him and, rushing forward, planted them on top of the fortifications, calling on the boys of the twentieth to "rally around their flag."

Mathias Elliot and his brother, Robert had been with the twentieth since the regiment was formed. The boys were the sons of William and Mahala Elliot, who were farmers in Dinsmore Township. Mathias had been awarded the Medal of Gold for meritorious service at several battles, including Shiloh. Pvt. Updegraff described the action concerning the Elliot brothers as follows: "Mathias Elliot, of Company F, was killed. His brother Robert stood over his body fighting until he had fired every cartridge. He then clubbed his musket and fought until he was literally shot to pieces."

By this time, the fighting had been raging for more than four hours. The lines surged and clashed together amidst dense smoke and incredible noise. Capt. Nutt later remembered: "Now it was hand to hand; bayonets, butts of muskets and fists were used; men were pulled over the works from both sides. We captured a number of prisoners, and recaptured a number of our boys, and then sprang back to our own side." Updegraff recalled seeing Capt. Nutt run a Rebel through with his sword.

At one point amidst the smoke and din, the men observed a white-haired drummer boy, dressed in union blue, running toward their breastworks. Panic was etched on his face as he dove for the safety of Nutt and his men amid a shower of musketry. The boy made it safely.

As sometimes happens during the heat of battle, men get separated from their comrades. Nutt and other members of Company A of the twentieth were swept away by a surge from the Confederate line, and found themselves behind the makeshift fortifications of a fort near an area of the battlefield known as Bald Hill. Along with remnants of other units, the men defended the outpost from wave after wave of Rebel attackers until after 11 o'clock that night. At that point, Capt. Nutt recalled, "men went to sleep while loading their guns, and snoring was as common as shooting."

As the Rebels withdrew, the dead from both the Union and Confederate armies littered the field. In front of the Union line, the twentieth buried, by actual count, in excess of 600 dead enemy fighters.

At the time of the Civil War, it was common practice for men from the same geographic area to enlist in the same regiment. That practice took a fearsome toll on Shelby County that day. As the smoke cleared from the battlefield, each company of the twentieth grimly reported in. Thirty-one men from this county were killed or were listed as missing and presumed captured or dead. Captured soldiers were sent to the infamous Andersonville prison, a hell-hole that few men ever survived. Many years later, it would take the combined toll of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts together to equal that number of lost men from Shelby County.

For many years afterward, the survivors of the Twentieth met at yearly reunions to remember their comrades in arms. The men always met on the anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta. Many reunions were held in Sidney. General M. F. Force of the Twentieth summed up the collective memories of the veterans with his remarks to the group in 1890: The Twentieth never gave back under fire, never was thrown into confusion, never failed to carry a position it was ordered to take, never failed to hold a position it was ordered to hold, and never lost a wagon by capture. Bless the survivors of that gallant band. It is worth more than pensions or money to be able to say: 'and I too belonged to the Twentieth Ohio.'

Each year at the reunion, the names of those who died in the past year were read aloud. One by one, the comrades of the Twentieth passed on. The memory of their gallant deeds in large part passed with them. On July 22, 1996, we celebrate the deeds of heroes of another era. The pageantry and drama of athletic competition mesmerizes us in almost a surrealistic way. It is ironic that this struggle for medals and personal glory is being played out on the same ground on which so many boys from Shelby County struggled just to survive 132 years ago this week. We should all take a moment to remember, and say a silent prayer of thanks.

 

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