On the Skirmish Line Outside Atlanta With William Holden

by Fred Ray on May 26, 2012 · 1 comment

Sorry for the gap in posting—I have been down with a nasty G-I bug most of the week. I’ve been wanting to post parts of another William Holden letter I acquired, one of which I have posted already. Holden, an Iowa farm boy, was by 1864 and experienced soldier and held the rank of first sergeant in the 2nd/3rd Iowa Consolidated. As I’ve mentioned before, Holden is an excellent observer and describer of the actual tactics being used—something rare then and now. Most writers stick to the operational and strategic level, but he gives you a much better idea of what the nearly continuous small battles on the skirmish line were like. This particular one took place August 4th, 1864, and the letter was written two days later.

We had a sharp engagement in our front on the evening of the 4th Aug. Our batteries opened at 7 o’clock and under cover of these guns a column advanced to make a reconnaissance; the enemy’s skirmishers were driven in their main works, and a company of sharp shooters kept one of the enemy’s batteries silenced. The “Jonnies” soon got tired of this and came out, drove back our line, after a sharp fight. Our regt was ordered out to support the very heavy skirmish line. We went. Our Co. and Co. E were thrown out as skirmishers and were ordered forward. We gave a cheer and rushed upon the enemy’s skirmish line, driving it before us until we occupied the ground that had been gained in the first advance but lost. Our skirmish line was nearly as heavy as a line of battle, and so was [that of] the enemy. Our Co. had one man killed and 8 wounded. The regt had 19 wounded and one killed. Our Co. lost […] being in advance of all the rest of the line. The firing was kept up until after dark when we built rifle pits.

Couple of things worth noting here. First, the “recon” force moved out in column, which was by far the fastest way to move but also very vulnerable to enemy fire, especially artillery. To get around this the Yanks have employed a sharpshooter company to silence the Confederate batteries during their advance. Presumably the column deployed before hitting the enemy skirmish line, which they drove into the main line.

Second, the “Johnnies” respond with a counterattack, which brings out reinforcements from Holden’s regiment, leading to a pitched battle in No Man’s Land. Holden’s description is interesting—altho he states that two companies were “thrown out” as skirmishers (pretty standard practice) it would seem that both sides ended up deploying in more or less open order and that the resulting skirmish lines were nearly as thick as lines of battle but gave a lot more flexibility, provided you were dealing with experienced soldiers. I find this to be common in both theaters by 1864—the line of battle was still used, but commanders were beginning to prefer looser formations.

For Holden, however, the battle is not quite over.

After the engagement was over I had a very narrow escape. It was very dark in the woods and thick underbrush. There was a gap in the line on our right between us and the 4th Division skirmishers and I started to find the right of our line and got in the gap. I heard men talking about 30 yards from me and supposing they were our men walked towards them. When I got near them I stepped on some brush accidentally, which made considerable noise, and bang, bang, goes two guns and two balls came close by. I stopped still and stood there for several moments, and then moved silently away, thanking the rebs for firing when they did. If they had waited a minute longer I would have been right up to their line and they could have killed or taken me prisoner. I went back to my fort concluding that it was not healthy to hunt up skirmish lines after dark in the woods.

All in all a great letter from the soldier’s point of view.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

WD May 29, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Reminds me of an old article from CWTI from the 1960’s entitled “Every Man His Own Engineer”. It was an account that a soldier either sent home as a letter, or perhaps to his home paper, detailing the character of daily life during the Atlanta Campaign.

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