Saturday, April 20, 2019

'Afraid of soldiers' ghosts?': A reporter's 1882 visit to Resaca

An 1864 illustration of Confederate dead inside their entrenchments at Resaca, Ga. (Library of Congress)
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"Fallen and wasted away," poplars and oaks bore scars of war at Resaca, 18 years after William Tecumseh Sherman's Atlanta Campaign victory in northern Georgia.  "The trees," Philadelphia Times correspondent George Morgan wrote of the bullet- and shell-riddled wood there in late-summer 1882, "are always the tell-tales on a battle-field."

In 1881 and 1882, Morgan traveled to Civil War battlefields in Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia, reporting for a remarkable series of stories later published in The Times and other U.S. newspapers. Nearly two decades after the end of the war, the gifted writer often found evidence of combat in plain sight -- in farm fields, in woods and elsewhere.

At Resaca, a local man told Morgan of finding 10,000 pounds of lead and iron on the battlefield since 1864. Years before the reporter's visit, the man said he made a shocking discovery: six skulls arranged in a row in the remains of Union breastworks.

"Plentiful Reminders of a Sharp Struggle," a headline read above Morgan's Page 1 Resaca story published in The Times on Sept. 25, 1882. Here's the full account of his visit to the battleground where Sherman's armies slugged it out with Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee from May 13-15, 1864:


Special Correspondence of The Times

RESACA, Ga., September 21

I found all Resaca playing checkers. When the Chattanooga express, dropping its only passenger for this point as though I were a mail-pouch instead of a bag of bones, had shrieked on and away across the Oostanaula river, I confess that the small boy's "I-want-to-go-home" feeling crept over me. What I saw upon looking around were four rows of small frame houses, forming a sort of square, a dozen villagers seated on a store porch drawing excitement from the aforesaid game, and the upper red rim of the sun fast sinking beyond tree-tops in the west. At this first sight Resaca, named from General Zach Taylor's battle-ground of Resaca de la Palma, "ravine of the palm," was a disappointment. I had expected from the name to find the town in a narrow valley, but there was no hint of a ravine anywhere in sight. Indeed, it occurred to the object of distress in a duster that he had mistaken the station, and he was gazing down the railroad with the idea of whistling to the vanishing train for heaven's sake to come back and pick him up when one of the checker-players advanced and took him hospitably in.

A place of many battle-scars


The scarred landscape of Resaca, site of May 13-15 1864, battle. (Library of Congress)
But in spite of the displeasing first impression, Resaca proved to be a nice little village, and here, so to say, I was destined to cut the watermelon of my battle-field trips. The place grew upon acquaintance and so did the people, for in the morning all whom I met took pains to show me what was to be seen. The objects pointed out were such things as bullet-marks in weather-boarding, holes made by cannon balls and in one corner of a storeroom I saw lead and iron enough to start an Egyptian war or to run a rifle match for a week.

"Are you not afraid of soldiers' ghosts?" I asked a lad who was leading me into a dark cellar that he might indicate some of Sherman's relics there to be found.

"No, indeedy," replied the little shaver; "that's what I'm feared of, though!" and he introduced me to a ten-pound shell, which, having passed whirling and whizzing through the building, had imbedded itself in a sill, there to remain unexploded for eighteen years.

Forts that will outlive the builder


Veteran Joe Johnston, worn with the rubs of war and marked under the harness of many political heats, must end his campaigning soon in surrender to the grim fellow with the scythe, but the cover that he built for his army at this place bids fair to stick the century out in perfect form. When Storekeeper Brown, who became my guide, shut up shop and led me a few hundred paces westward to the southern end of the rebel line of works, I was surprised to see how well the fortifications are preserved. We were near the Oostanaula river, and it was our purpose to walk along the works more than three miles to the Conasauga. At the time of the battle Johnston's army was in the elbow made by the two rivers, which unite above Resaca, and Sherman was stretched across the country to the northwest. On some battle-fields it is hard to understand the positions of the opposing forces, but at this place the scratches upon old Mother Earth are too plain to let the visitor lose the trail. The reason for the good condition of the works may be found in the peculiarity of the soil, which is of yellowish slate. Bits of slate cover the sides of the mound, which runs waist-high on an average wherever it passes through timber.


A walk on the breastworks


A war-time view of the Resaca battlefield. (Library of Congress)
At the point where we struck this remarkable relic we went up a hill, climbing constantly over banks of upturned sub-soil. Passing out of these remnants of artillery fortifications we followed a path that wound along the top of the embankment for infantry. At short intervals we came upon traverse sections where there were double lines and, down the slope, we saw many rifle pits. As it seemed to me the line was more complete even than [Winfield Scott] Hancock's line which remains undisturbed along the Brock road in the Wilderness. I was interested to learn that the planters use the trenches as outlets for water, nor was it less curious to hear that the banks left by Johnston serve in the place of fences here and there over the battlefield. As we tramped along through woods of ash, elm and water oak, we saw wild ipecac and sweet-william growing at the sides of the odd pathway, and having asked the name of a curious kind of grass I was delighted at the story that then came out.

A bonanza left behind 


'That," said the guide, in answer to the question, "is what we call Egyptian clover. We didn't have it before the war, and none of us ever saw it or heard of it until Sherman and Johnston came. The seed was left on the ground by the armies, and now we wouldn't take anything for it." The grass, which has a tiny leaf more like that of the native white than that of the red clover, grows all over the hillsides, at the edges of the woods, along the earthworks, and even forces its way into the tilled fields. In its growth it chokes out other herd grass and all weeds, though fortunately it may be killed itself by plowing, or there might be too much of the good thing. Horses and cattle get fat upon it, so that on the battle-field there is pasturage in places where before the fight nothing of value grew, This, truly, was an odd revelation --- that two opposing hosts, halting here, like beasts of the jungle, to snap up trees, to tear the ground, to burn and to slay, should leave behind not bones to bleach only, but seed wherefrom has sprung dainty carpets and soft borders of green that enrich the waste places.

Many signs of gallant work


In a Theodore Davis sketch for Harper's Weekly, Federals charge at Resaca on May 14, 1864.
Along strode the guide and after him plodded the sight-seer. Now on the right we saw a stretch of lowland, with a few darkeys picking cotton, and again, looking through trees far to the west, we caught sight of the range of hills beyond Camp creek, on the crest of which had been the Federal line. It seemed that we had walked more than three miles, never losing trace of Johnston's line, when the guide, halting significantly, said: "This is the place of Hooker s big fight; look at the trees!" The trees are always the tell-tales on a battle-field. Here, where hundreds of large oaks and poplars, now fallen and half-wasted away, bore their innumerable marks, the Twentieth Corps had breasted a bloody tide. Every foot of earth roundabout had been trodden by the quick heel of advance. The stream of spring water now trickling at the foot of the slight slope had caught red drops that belonged of right to the hearts of boys in the Adirondacks and of fellows who still should be chopping for bread in the Northern Tier. Good Asa Churchill once sat on this hill pressing his death wound as he sent his Bible and his love to his wife in Bradford, and even now may be found pitiful relics of other men who here left the ranks of the One Hundred and Forty-seventh Pennsylvania not again to see their homes.

An expert in bullet picking


Pieces of cartridge-boxes, rusty canteens, breast-plates and the what-not scattered in the onslaught were engaging my attention when a man came striding up through the underbrush. His home was a short way beyond, near where the Federal line had been.

"Picken 'em up like hickory nuts, are ye?" he said, pointing to a number of bullets in my hand. "No; I haven't found many."

"It's kase yo dunuo how to spy 'em out; there's one by yor toe an' there's another by that saplin'."

Sure enough, he was right, and after that I did not doubt his assertion that he had picked up ten thousand pounds of iron and lead on the battle-field since the fight. He brought up the rear as we walked along the earthworks, and it was amusing, until it grew monotonous, to hear him say every half minute "Here's another." Not the least grim of this entertaining native's stories was one to the effect that he got a shock several years ago at the sight of six skulls ranged in a row under the head- log of some Federal breastworks. These works are not nearly as numerous nor as well preserved as the rebel lines because Sherman, being the assailant, built few fortifications.

In this way Guide Brown showed me the whole line of defense until we came to the thick timber on the western bank of the Conasauga, where the works end. Having seen this line and having visited several points occupied by the Union troops, we found ourselves almost at the end of our Resaca rope. A ruined house or so, with chimneys standing in the midst of rank weeds, particularly fine patches of Egyptian clover, to which now clung romantic interest, and a few forgotten graves in the woods served to make the rest of the ramble interesting. Nor were those populous acres found at every place of combat left unvisited. The Federal dead of Resaca were moved to Marietta, but the Southerner who fell remains on the field. Many Georgians, Alabamians, Tennesseans and men from Mississippi rest in a cemetery near the village. Some of the graves have white headboards, while others are marked by iron plates shaped like scrolls. A marble monument is to be seen in one corner of the enclosure, while in the centre is a granite cross topped with cannon balls.

The game of strategists


The Resaca antagonists: William Sherman and Joseph Johnston.
When a person finds a perch upon some grass-grown fort here at Resaca and looks out beyond the hills there come thoughts that feel more inspiriting to the thinker than they seem in everyday type. For it was at this spot that one grand army, handled by a great strategist, was brought to bay by another grand army, at the head of which was a leader equally skilled as a follower of Mars. Two men of Ciceronian pitch put as antagonists in debate, two Goldsmith Maids sweeping the circle, two Jacks of brawn bruising each other in a ring --- with a dozen like circumstances wherein the cry is give and take --  catch the eye of the people, fetch from them the shout and cause the hat to be tossed high into the air. And if such contests, with nothing other than trifles at stake, please us; if a horse-race can cause a community to split its throat, or if a base ball match can hold ten thousand spectators bending forward in acute suspense until they lose their suppers -- how ought he who follows, even in books, such a campaign of giants as this to bite the sunny side of history's peach. There cannot be found in the chronicles of any land a defense more admirable than that made by Johnston; nor was there ever anything in strategic science more perfect than the way Sherman drove his sword clear to the hilt into the side of the Confederacy.

G.M.

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2 comments:

  1. Excellent, well researched information. My cousin,( many times removed) Lucien Hubbard ran away from his home in Ct. to be a Drummer Boy. He was approximately 13 years old. He was in the battle at Antietum; helped carry the wounded off the field, Our family has his letters (with stick drawings of various battles)which are quite remarkable, written by one so young. He died in Richmond, Va, of illness, and malnutrition. He was captured and imprisoned

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  2. "A war-time view of the Resaca Battlefield." Has been mis-labeled. It's not Resaca. I think LOC corrected it or mad a footnote that it's another location. Great article. Enjoyed reading.

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