March 31, 2020

Aaron Riker at the Siege of Atlanta

This excerpt from the Civil War journal of Aaron Denton Riker (1830-1914) of the 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry describes his regiment's role in the siege of Atlanta in Georgia (account edited for spelling, punctuation, and consistency).
At that time in the summer of 1864, the regiment was part of the Army of the Cumberland,  commanded by Maj. Gen. George Henry Thomas. The regiment (Lieut. Col. Eugene Powell) was in the first brigade (Col. Charles Candy) of the second division (Brig. Gen. John W. Geary) of the twentieth army corps (XX Corps), led by Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams.

Atlanta, Georgia, July-August 1864

July 22nd
Our troops advanced to within shelling distance of Atlanta, where they established their lines and threw up strong [earth]works under the guns of the Rebel forts.

The enemy have kept up a vigorous shelling but have done us no injury up to the morning of the 27th of July. Everything seems to work very well, and the siege of Atlanta may be said to have fairly commenced. Heavy guns are being worked on both sides; many of our heavy shells have been thrown into the city. The enemy will make a stubborn resistance here as their last hope seems to be to hold their city and works. It must fall, though, and that soon.

Union soldiers at the siege of Atlanta. Library of Congress.

August 2nd
Our army still circles around a good portion of Atlanta. Changes have been made in our lines from left to right. The 15th, 16th, and 17th Corps moved on the 27th of July from left to right. They moved with such caution as to gain their position before the enemy were fully aware of the move. A charge was then made by our forces, which resulted in the capture of two lines of works and a thousand prisoners. The loss in killed on the side of the enemy amounted to several thousand. Ours was not heavy.

Today the 14th Corps have advanced their lines. Their skirmishers now command one of the enemy's forts, which must be a source of annoyance to the enemy as they cannot work their guns as sure is the aim of our sharpshooters. The 23rd Corps, or Army of the Ohio, have moved from our left to the right.

Union forces occupy a captured Rebel fort. Library of Congress

Heavy cannonading has been kept up along our lines. The enemy have not replied, only with occasional shots. The weather is very hot, with occasional showers of rain.

August 6th
The movement of troops from left to right has been for the purpose of gaining on the enemy's flank sufficient to hold the Macon and Atlanta railroad. On the 4th, our troops advanced to a point commanding the road, but were forced back. Heavy skirmishing at times is kept up along our lines, then again the firing ceases for a time and all becomes quiet.

The cannonading at times is also very rapid and heavy from both sides. The enemy seem determined to make their final stand for the defense of Georgia. Their position is a very strong one. A regular chain of forts encircles the city, with strong breastworks running from fort to fort around the entire city.

Rebel fortifications and guns in a fort defending Atlanta. Library of Congress

Our lines are being shortened and made secure by strong earthworks, with abatis in front, so that it will require an overwhelming force to break any portion of our lines. We feel sure of yet capturing the city together with the greater portion of the garrison.

Defensive breastworks and palisades link Rebel forts encircling Atlanta. Library  of Congress

August 7th
A Sabbath stillness reigns along our front today, though far on our right the sound of artillery is heard during the greater part of the afternoon. There has been no artillery fired in front of the 4th, 20th, and 14th Corps today and but little musketry.

Union picket post. Library of Congress

While all is calm in front, let us take a survey of the rear of a great army. As we fall back from the entrenchments, we pass the headquarters of the brigade, next the division, and still further on the headquarters of the corps commander.

At a distance of from a half to three-fourths of a mile, we come to a large cluster of tents in some cool shady spot among the pine and cedar. This is the hospital. Let us go among the tents and see who occupies these canvas houses as we go the rounds of the camp, which occupies perhaps an acre of ground.

Here we see men suffering from wounds received in action. One has lost a leg, another an arm, another is shot through the lungs, in another the head or face has been cut by shell or ball. In fact we see wounds of every part of the body, some but slight, others mangled and torn in the most shocking manner.

We pass the amputating table. An ambulance has just come in bearing a wounded man shot through the arm. He is carried to a table and laid down on his back. Surgeons examine the wound and find the bone fractured in such a manner that amputation is necessary. A cloth wet with chloroform is placed to the mouth and nostrils of the patient, and he inhales the chloroform and is soon lost to all sense of pain. The knives and saws are brought into requisition and soon the arm is off and cast into a hole dug in the ground, where we see legs, feet, arms, and hands in large numbers that have preceded it. The patient is now allowed to recover from the effects of chloroform. He finds that while he slept his arm has been taken off and that he was insensible to the pain.

Battlefield surgeon at work. Library of Congress

Let us leave this place. The groans of the sufferers are not pleasant sounds, so why linger longer here. We pass a pine grove, a beautiful shady retreat. In among these shady trees, we see a cluster of tents while a large number of orderlies can be seen going from point to point, carrying orders along the road.

We see a square tent before which is standing a lot of Rebel prisoners. Their names are being registered. This is the Provost Marshal's office. A little to the right of this and almost hidden from view about 300 feet back, we see the starry flag floating in the still air.

In rear of this flag in a plain wall tent is General Thomas's quarters. The surrounding tents are for his staff officers. General Thomas's headquarters are in rear of the 20th Corps, about one mile from the front.

Maj. Gen. George Henry Thomas. Library of Congress

Passing this we come to the immense trains of wagons, packed in solid mass in rear of each Corps. Here we find the ammunition trains of each division and also the general ammunition train, the medical supply depot, supply trains of forage and rations. Strong guards are posted in and around all these.

Mules pulling a supply wagon. Library of Congress

One not accustomed to such views would naturally suppose that a large portion of our army was used as guards and hands in the employ of the various departments. The noise in the rear is sometimes greater than the noise in front. A mule gets loose and fifty voices holler "whoa." Another kicks the driver and crack goes the whip for 10 minutes, and at each cut a curse that may be heard a mile off if the voice was not drowned by the yelling of teamsters, the braying of mules, or the rattling of wagons.

A Union regimental band. Library of Congress

Night now comes on. Everything becomes more quiet, when the brass bands commence playing, making the hills echo with the soul-inspiring music of some national air. Far in the night, we retire to our couches and sleep shuts out the vision. We dream of home, happy home, and loved ones there. Such is a soldier's life.

August 13th
A new battery of 40-pound guns has been planted on a hill occupied by the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, 20th Corps. These guns opened [fire] on the evening of the 9th. They threw shells into the heart of the city. We could distinctly hear them strike some object and burst, and the sound as from buildings failing could be plainly heard. Yesterday, while firing this battery, one of the guns burst, rendering it unfit for further use.

Along the right of our lines, there has been some heavy fighting, resulting in the defeat of the enemy at every charge they have made. Our lines have made regular approaches daily and are now so strongly entrenched that a small force can hold any part of our lines. Thus, men can be spared for operations elsewhere.

The weather for a few days has been showery, and the atmosphere has become cooler so that men can work or watch in the trenches with some degree of comfort. Colonels [Charles] Candy and [Eugene] Powell have both gone to the rear to recruit their health. Colonel Pardea of the 14th Regiment is commanding the 1st Brigade; Major McConnell is commanding the 66th Regiment.

August 14th
Last night, a portion of the city was in flames. Fire bells were ringing, and there seemed to be great consternation among the soldiers and citizens in the Rebel lines. And to add to their panic, our batteries kept pouring in shell.

All has been as quiet as usual in our front. There has been as usual fighting on our right. Both armies seem to have thrown their forces toward the Macon road. Only a single line occupies the lines on the left.

August 15th
Another large fire was seen in the city last night. Our large gun batteries keep up a regular fire on the city. Deserters from the Rebel army keep coming in almost every night in front of our division. Several hundred come in weekly along the line of our army. A great many prisoners are sent north every week. Thus we are continually weakening their army, while ours is being strengthened by recruits and convalescents.

August 17th
This morning, orders were received for each quartermaster to be in readiness to move at short notice. Commissaries were ordered to supply the troops with three days rations.

We have had no mail since the 15th. We hear of cavalry raids on our line of communications. The railroad has been cut in several places. The force operating in our rear is estimated at four thousand. One brigade of the 4th Corps was sent back on the morning of the 17th. There was some brisk skirmishing along the front of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, 20th Corps this evening; a few shells were thrown from both sides. I heard of no casualties.

August 18th
At four o’clock this morning, a spirited artillery duel opened between the 1st and 3rd Divisions, 20th Corps and the Rebel batteries. Some of the Rebel shells burst near our trains. The duel was kept up until 7 a.m.

The orders for an immediate move have been countermanded. It was the design to move a portion of the troops from the left to the extreme right in order to gain the Atlanta and Macon Railroad and, at the same time, abandon a portion of our lines on the left by drawing the troops off and establishing a new line to the [Chattahoochee] river.

Our generals obtained information that a large cavalry force had been detached from the Rebel army and sent to operate in our rear. On obtaining this information, General [Hugh Judson] Kilpatrick with his cavalry force was at once ordered to the right to cut and hold the Rebel line of communication. Hence, the countermanding order changing our lines on the left.

It appears the enemy supposed our forces were changing position. This morning, when they opened their batteries on the 2nd Division, 20th Corps, the casualties of their shelling was two or three wounded in Captain Bundy’s battery.

August 19th
This morning at 4 o’clock, the batteries in front of the 20th Corps opened on the enemy, firing twelve shots per gun. The roar, as it sounded through the still morning air, was almost deafening. The enemy did not reply. They have been very still today.

We have had no mail for several days. The monotony of camp life becomes almost unbearable when we cannot get regular mails. There is nothing seems to do a soldier as much good as kind letters from loved ones at home.

August 23rd
Yesterday was the most quiet day along our lines we have had since we came in front of Atlanta, scarce a gun being fired during the day.

Our communications are once more unobstructed, and supplies are coming through in abundance. Our mails also reach us daily, and the newsboys visit our camp with daily papers. We get Cincinnati papers in four days after publication, yet they sell very readily. We can get Nashville papers two days old containing the same telegraph news as the Cincinnati papers.

The monotony of a soldier's life would be intolerable if no mails were permitted to reach us. A kind letter from dear ones at home encourages the heart of a soldier more than anything else. With what anxiety do we watch the opening of the mails. If a letter is handed us bearing our address, with what joy we take it, and with light heart and buoyant step we hurry to our little tent or perhaps seek the shade of the quiet wood where we open and carefully note every word until we commit to memory the kind words of our loved ones. Could our friends see and know how much we prize their letters, they would be encouraged to write often.

There is both cannonading and musketry along our front this morning. Our siege guns are tossing shells into the city again. We can hear the loud reports of the bursting shells far away among the houses of Atlanta. Very often we hear them strike the buildings with a terrible crack, the shell bursting in the building, very often setting the building on fire.

August 24th
At 2 p.m., we have orders to leave camp and proceed across the Chattahoochee River. Many hard words are spoken; the teamsters have the idea that we are going to retreat. Those of us who understand the move are well pleased. We know that it means rest to the 20th Corps.

I have just returned from the front and have supplied the regiment with three days rations in full. I have been very unwell today and have been suffering with neuralgia in my left jaw and eye.

August 25th
We left camp with the train at 3 p.m. yesterday, crossed the Chattahoochee River at 4 p.m., and camped about one and a half miles from the river. I have been most crazy with neuralgia, all afternoon of yesterday and a portion of last night. I feel much better this morning.

We moved camp again today to within half a mile of the railroad bridge spanning the Chattahoochee River. We have a nice camp now among the pine and cedar trees. They form for us a beautiful shade.

August 26th
Last night and this morning, the troops in front of Atlanta commenced moving the entire army, with the exception of the 20th Corps, to the right. The 20th Corps fell back to the river to guard the various fords and the bridge with the base of supplies.

The 1st Division occupies the hills and positions covering the railroad bridge and base of supplies. The 2nd Division, 2nd and 3rd Brigades, are stationed at and covering the ferry at Pace’s crossing. The 1st Brigade occupies the range of hills known as the Chattahoochee Heights. This brigade forms a line from the 1st Division to the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of 2nd Division. a distance of two miles. Two brigades of the 3rd Division are stationed at Turner’s Ferry, below the 1st Division. One brigade of 3rd Division is stationed near the railroad on the north side of the river.

Map showing the location of a defensive earthwork near Pace's crossing on the Chattahoochee River. Library of Congress.

September 2nd
The news of the capture of Atlanta reached us at 10 o’clock today. One brigade of the 3rd Division of 20th Corps were the first to enter the city. This brigade was very soon reinforced by one brigade of 2nd Division. The 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, was now ordered to the left to guard Pace’s Ferry, relieving the 2nd and 3rd, these two brigades being both ordered to Atlanta.

See also "Aaron Riker at Cedar Mountain," "Aaron Riker in Dumfries," "Aaron Riker at Chancellorsville," and "Aaron Riker at Gettysburg."

Aaron Denton Riker (1830-1914) of Champaign County, Ohio, enlisted as a private in the 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry on October 11, 1861. The regiment was mustered in for three years service on December 17, 1861, under the command of Colonel Charles Candy. In April 1862, while in Strasburg, Virginia, during the Shenandoah campaign, Riker was assigned to the commissary department, handling supplies for the troops. In October of that year, he found himself in charge of the regiment's commissary and subsequently attained the rank of sergeant while his regiment was stationed in Dumfries, Virginia.

Riker was mustered out of the regiment in 1865 as a first lieutenant.

Aaron D. Riker, Columbus, Ohio, July 27, 1865.

Riker kept a journal recounting his experiences during the Civil War. The journal is now housed at the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine. JournalTranscript.

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