Grand-nephew of Henry Speer, grandson of William Speer
The sources of this story are (a) a diary kept by Henry Speer, (b) “Ohio at Vicksburg” by W.P. Gault, and (c) my memories of what my grandfather [William S. Speer]told me. Gault's book is in the Kansas City, Missouri Public Library. Henry Speer's diary is in my possession.
The Seventy-Eighth Regiment of Ohio Volunteers was recruited in Zanesville, Ohio, in November and December, 1861. This was fifteen miles west of the Speer farm between Cambridge and New Concord. The regiment was mustered in February 2, 1862. They were issued muzzleloading Enfield rifles and other equipment. After only eight days of training they were sent to Cincinnati by train and down the Ohio by boat to the mouth of the Cumberland. They then went up the Cumberland in Kentucky to Fort Donelson on the Tennessee River. They arrived February 15, and were in reserve at Grant's great victory the next day. They were now in the right wing of Grant's army. They were in the Third Division under Lew Wallace, later to become famous as the agnostic who studied the Bible and ended up by writing the great Christian novel, Ben Hur.
They were now marched south along the Tennessee River toward Pittsburgh Landing near the Mississippi border. On April 6, as they neared their destination, they began to hear the sound of small arms and artillery. The next day they entered the battle of Shiloh. This was one of the bloodiest battles of the war and a Union victory. They were not in the more severe part of the action and had but one death and 9 wounded. They took over Jackson, Tennessee, and spent the rest of the year in reconnaissance and skirmishing. ·
The next phase of their story deals with the Vicksburg campaign and siege. I well remember my grandfather telling of their rough experiences in trenches and of the even greater suffering of the besieged people of Vicksburg. One thing that impressed me was that he said they were reduced to eating rats. Their part of the campaign begins with their being sent down the Mississippi to Lake Providence, Louisiana. They were now under the command of Sherman. Since Vicksburg was heavily fortified, Grant hoped to get troops south of the city for an attack to the rear. The Seventy-Eighth was now involved in a plan to open a waterway to the west of the Mississippi by using bayous that parallel the river. They tried to get through on the Macon and Baxter bayous. This project was abandoned.
They were then marched down the west bank in swampy Louisiana to DeSchroon’s Landing below Grand Gulf. They arrived April 29. They were then put on transports and taken to Bruinsburg on the Mississippi side. They carried nothing but hard bread, coffee, and salt. The Confederates sought to cut off their supply lines, but they didn't have any! They marched inland to Port Gibson and fought their first battle May 1. They kept skirmishing with the enemy and fought a severe engagement at Raymond. They were in reserve at taking of Jackson, the capital. On June 4 they won the bloody battle of Champion's Hill, losing 116 wounded and killed. On June 4 they arrived at the outskirts of Vicksburg. They were involved in siege operations until June 26, when they were sent to help repel Gen. Johnston, who was trying to come to the relief of the besieged city.
When I was a new intern in a Texas hospital in 1934, I was surprised to notice that nobody seemed to be celebrating July 4. I said something to one of my friends as we stood in the emergency room. An old man with a noticeable Scotch brogue spoke up and said, “No, that's the day Vicksburg fell.” And so it was. The only American city to be subjected to a real siege fell with the loss of thousands of men and tremendous store of equipment July 4, 1863. As Lincoln said, the father of waters could now flow unvexed to the sea.
The regiment re-enlisted at Vicksburg and were for the next several months involved in various expeditions and skirmishes. One expedition was to Monroe, Louisiana, their chief enemy being the rattlesnake. Sgt. Gault wryly [and sarcastically] comments that the purpose of the trip was to protect cotton for Northern cotton speculators. One is reminded of Rhett Butler's activities as told in Gone with the Wind.
Now begins the story of the greatest adventure of William and Henry Speer, the Atlanta Campaign. During the campaign Henry kept a diary. His last entry was July 21, 1864. The next day he was mortally wounded.
After a month's furlough in Ohio, the regiment assembled in Zanesville on May 6. They were issued the new breech-loading Springfield rifles. They went to Clinton, Tenn. by boat and marched across Alabama to Acworth, Georgia, arriving June 8. At this point they were in McPherson's Army of the Tennessee, Sherman's old command, and were on the left flank. They were in Corps XVII under Francis Blair of Missouri. Their divisional general was their former Colonel, Mortimer Leggett.
Henry Speer began his diary June 10, 1864. I will now put his entries in quotation marks and follow them with my comments. [Actual diary entries are bold, all the rest, commentary supplied by Dr. Frederick Speer, is in regular type. Slight editing or insertions for clarity by the webmaster are contained in brackets, as is this note.]
June 10. “Arrived at Big Shanty Station. Here our advance encountered the enemy.”
June 13. “Rained all day hard, which made the high peak of Kenesaw Mountain in our front look more gloomy than ever.” (Says Sherman in his Memoirs, “The rains continued to pour. There were no roads, and these had to be improvised.” (He was keeping his railroad line open, constantly protecting it from Rebel cavalry. He especially feared a raid by the dreaded Nathan Forrest.)
June. 15. “Brisk skirmishing along the line with a steady advance, gaining some important advantages. At 2 p.m. by a strategic movement on our left, a Rebel Colonel and 400 of his regiment were taken in out of the wet.” (At this point McPherson’s army had lapped well around the north end of Kenesaw Mountain. It was Sherman’s policy to keep flanking General Johnston, and here his left wing had done a good job.)
June 16. “Was waked at an early hour and was much surprised to see what a formidable breast work had been thrown up during the night under the supervision of our untiring colonel.” (Their colonel was Greenberry F. Wiles.)
June 17. “Was detailed with company for picket duty in the morning and was posted in the line about 200 yds. in advance of where it was yesterday, and there we amused ourselves pecking at the rebel pickets about 200 yards distant.”
June 19. “At 4 a.m. we moved forward in line of battle. The conditions of the country and hard, incessant raining made it horrible work going through the swamps and underbrush. By looking to our right the lofty Kenesaw loomed up before us like a dark shadow, and on its sides and adjoining spurs we could distinctly see Rebs hurrying to and fro as if they expected another movement of the Yanks.”
June 21. “Rained the principal part of the day. Wrote a short letter to Matthew.” (Sherman had an excellent mail service to his men. Matthew is another brother, a private in the Signal Corps.)
June 27. (This is the assault on Kennesaw Mountain. Leggett's Division was on the extreme left.) “Our division was formed to our rear and left and marched past our line and they made a steady advance across the field in our front, encountered the enemy from their position on the opposite hill. The casualties in the division during the day amounted to about 100 killed and wounded. Our regiment lost 2 mortally wounded. My brother [William Scott Speer] was struck by a piece of shell in the right hand, but nothing serious. Had a hard time finding our way back to the camp through the woods, getting lost once and coming very nearly running into the enemy lines.”
June 30. “Wrote a lengthy letter to John.” (The fourth brother, officer in the signal corps.)
July 2. At 8 a.m. had orders for packing up preparatory to a general move. Evidently somewhat important. Great speculation regarding our destination. Marched all night.” (Here Sherman very qu1etly moved McPherson's army clear over to the right to reinforce Schofield of the Army of the Ohio, threatening Marietta. They were ordered to muffle the drinking cups and frying pans dangling from their waists and to speak in whispers.)
July 3. “Marched all day through an extremely hot sun. Our position now extreme right instead of left. Johnny Reb came to the sensible conclusion that their formidable position on Kenesaw was no longer healthy and evacuated last night. Our army is in full pursuit with a prospect of disputing their passage of the Chattahoochee River.”
July 4. “About 4 miles from the Chattahoochie. Somewhat different auspices from last July 4th and Vicksburg.”
July 5. “Arrived at the Chattahoochie, skirmishing the principal part of the way. Arrived at river and found it a point about 9 miles northwest of Atlanta where there is a small ferry. We then were moved up the river about 1 ½ miles where we encountered the enemy in force in position on this side of the river with quite a formidable line of earthworks.” (Sherman now held the west bank of the river from Roswell, 18 miles above, to the mouth of the Sweetwater, 10 miles below.)
July 9. “News arrived of the crossing of General Schofield above us without any great opposition.” (Schofield crossed at Soap Creek, and by night was well entrenched on the east side with two pontoon bridges in place. The Rebels had been confused by demonstrations by the whole Union army up and down the river.)
July 12. “Went out in front of the line (on picket duty) and had a talk with Johnny Reb, but could gather nothing of interest from them but to be slurred by having the name of the traitor Vallandingham thrown in our teeth.” (Amazing to relate, there often was a code among pickets or outposts which provided for their not shooting at each other. The following is from “Sherman, Fighting Prophet,” by Lloyd Lewis: “Sherman scattered troops up and down the river hunting fords by which he might flank again. As a blind he sent the bulk of his cavalry one way to attract Johnston's horsemen, then seized crossings in the opposite direction. Johnston attributed the discovery of these fords to the fraternization between pickets. These outposts declared truces and bathed in the river, exchanging anecdotes and scrubbing each other's backs. Federal engineers, disguising themselves as innocent pickets, mingled with the bathers and in gabbling with the Confederates learned much topography.” In Chapter 31 Lewis tells a story on the somber Grant: ”Grant noted how rival pickets regarded each other with something more than the traditional absence of the killing instinct. They paid each other long social calls, stationing lookouts to announce the approach of officers. So absurd was the situation that Grant, riding the picket lines, saw Confederate outposts a few feet from him on the opposite side of the creek come to attention and salute him as politely as if he had been one of their own generals.” The “traitor Vallandingham” is the hated Copperhead of the peace party of the Northern Democrats.)
July 16. “Was called out of bed at 2 a.m. with orders for marching. Started at daylight and marched until 11 a.m., when we stopped and lay in the shade until 5 p.m., when we again marched at a slow gait until we came to Marietta, Ga., a distance of about 16 miles from where we started.”
July 17. “Had a good night's rest and was waked up at 3 a.m. and left camp at 4, striking out in the direction of the pontoons across the Chattahoochie about 20 miles distant. Marched very rapidly until 1 p.m., when we arrived at Roswell, a small village 18 miles from Marietta, where we stopped and cooked some dinner and had a little rest. Starting again at 5:30 p.m., crossing the river and marched about 3 miles beyond and encamped for the night.” (This 23 miles march with equipment, in severe summer heat, with bad food and under arms is unbelievable. Years later Sherman spoke of the Army of the Tennessee as “never checked, always victorious, so rapid in motion, so eager to strike, it deserved the name of the ‘whiplash.’ It swung from one flank to the other as danger called, night and day, in sunshine and storm.” – From Lewis, chap. 37. This was exactly what they were doing, making a wide sweep from the extreme right of the Union lines to the extreme left. And, [the 78th Ohio] . . . was on the extreme left of them all Sherman was swinging out to the left to make a great encircling movement to the east, investing Atlanta.)
July 20. “Marched through the beautiful village of Decatur, taking from thence a southwesterly direction until we encountered the pickets of the enemy about 3 ½ miles from town at 2 p.m. and were thrown into battle. A charge was made by the 4th Division of our corps resulting in the repulse of the enemy and the taking of a good position with but a very slight loss, mostly in wounds. Among the list was Gen. Gresham, commanding the 4th Division. We rested for the night in battle line, ready for any emergency.” (This was the battle of Leggett's hill, named after their Division general. Gresham survived and became an outstanding statesman and jurist.)
July 21. “Battle began at an early hour on our right. At 8 a.m. a charge was made on the 4th Division and part of ours by the Rebs. They were quickly repulsed with heavy loss. A charge was then made by our lines, driving the Rebs from their position, which our troops(noon)occupy, and firing has somewhat ceased.”
The next day was the battle of Atlanta. The Confederates managed to make their way through thick woods and surround this division on the left flank. The Union victory that followed was one of the crucial events of the war. In it, the commander of the Army of the Tennessee, James B. McPherson, was killed. Mortally wounded was: Lieut. Henry Speer. His brother, [William Speer] . . . accompanied him to the rear. He died in August of [his] wounds. My grandfather [William Speer] told me that he was wounded by a Rebel officer's sword while defending his flag from an attacking Confederate.
In Grant Park in Atlanta may be seen the great Cyclorama depicting this battle. The night before, the Rebels had attempted to circle behind McPherson's army and nearly succeeded. They came on Leggett’s division, and the 78th regiment was in the midst of the most violent fighting. Leggett later said, “The engagement in front of the 68th and 78th Ohio regiments became finally a hand-to-hand fight, in which the sword, bayonet, and even the fists were effectively used, and the enemy finally was repulsed with a slaughter I never before witnessed . . . I am fully convinced that my division killed and wounded more Rebels than I had men engaged.”
Atlanta later fell and was burned. . . .[though the extent of the burning caused by Sherman’s men and that caused by the fleeing rebels is still in much dispute]. Sherman's army then marched through Georgia to the sea, north through the Carolinas and Virginia, [and on]to Washington for the Grand Review.
It is hard to overestimate the value to our country of this campaign against Atlanta. This was the summer of an election year, and the reelection of Lincoln was very much in doubt. Sherman's victory along with Farragut's at Mobile Bay made the difference. My grandfather told me how they passed around a coffee pot for them to drop in their votes. He didn't need to tell me he voted for Lincoln.
They were mustered out in Louisville, Kentucky, July 11,1865. It was estimated that they had gone 4,000 miles by foot, 3,000 by water, and 2,000 by rail. They were never defeated. No wonder they were proud.