Future President Benjamin Harrison and the 70th Indiana Infantry at the Battle of Resaca, Georgia
The 70th Indiana Infantry was formed in August 1862 and spent most of its time in service prior to May 1864 guarding railroads and in garrison duty in Kentucky and Tennessee. That month, the regiment went into action in Major General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign as part of the 20th Corps in the Army of the Cumberland. The easy, rear echelon duty the unit had experienced was finished for good and the regiment saw extensive action in Sherman’s campaigns until the end of the war.
The commanding officer of the 70th Indiana was Colonel Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States. Benjamin Harrison was a lawyer who was active in the Republican party in the summer of 1862. At that time, the Lincoln Administration had put out a call for 300,000 more men to serve in the military. Indiana was lagging behind its quota of enlistments, and in a conversation with Governor Oliver Morton, Harrison offered to recruit an infantry regiment if he could be allowed to serve in the field with his men. Morton accepted the offer, and though Harrison enlisted as a Second Lieutenant, Morton promoted him to Colonel and commander of the regiment. With no military experience of his own, Harrison reluctantly took command.
On May 14th, 1864, Sherman’s forces attacked General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates at Resaca, Georgia. The fighting was intense but inconclusive as Union assaults on the entrenched Confederates were beaten back. The next day, most Federal attacks were again stopped, but there was one that was successful. A four gun Confederate battery had been placed in a forward position in one sector of the line, and Brigadier General William T. Ward’s brigade, which included the 70th Indiana, was ordered to carry the artillery position.
Harrison led his regiment in the charge against the artillery battery. Many were shot down in the assault, but others, including Harrison made it to the earthen parapet surrounding the battery and went over it and into the battery enclosure. Fighting was hand to hand, but the Federals took the position and captured the artillery. The success was short lived, as Confederate fire from the flanks and rear drove the Union attackers out and back over the parapet walls on the opposite side. The Federals stayed on the outside of the parapet, and after dark dug a hole in its walls, retrieved the artillery, and dragged the guns back to Union lines. While the fighting of the 15th was going on, Sherman sent a division around to the Rebel left flank. With the left threatened, Johnston withdrew from Resaca that night.
Both Harrison and his men had fought well in the 70th’s first large battle. The regiment lost 26 men killed and 130 wounded, and these 156 casualties were the most of any Union regiment at the Battle of Resaca. Ward was wounded in the fighting, and Harrison took over brigade command. Here is Harrison’s official report of the fighting at Resaca:
HDQRS. SEVENTIETH INDIANA VOLUNTEER INFANTRY,
In the Field, near Cassville, Ga., May 20, 1864.
GENERAL: In obedience to your orders, I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by my regiment in the operations of our forces from the 13th to the 19th, inclusive:
On the 13th instant I moved out about four miles from Snake Creek Gap, having the advance of the brigade, and under orders from you formed line of battle on the Resaca road and moved up to the crest of a ridge connecting on the right with the forces under the command of General Mc Pherson, and having on my left one regiment of our brigade (One hundred and second Illinois Volunteer Infantry), which, with my regiment, constituted our front line and was placed by you under my command. Skirmishers were thrown out to cover the front of the line and every preparation made for a proper advance when the order should be received. Almost immediately after we had taken position the line on our right (General McPherson) was advanced and soon became engaged with the enemy, but suffered no loss. About 4 p.m., by your orders, our line was advanced, changing direction gradually to the left, and having emerged from the timber was massed on the left of General Harrow’s line, who was still skirmishing with the enemy. Shortly after dark we again changed position, relieving the regular brigade, of the Fourteenth Army Corps. My regiment was here located on the right of our brigade line and along the crest of a hill with a meadow of about 600 yards in width in front and extending from the base of the hill occupied by me to a hill opposite, which was strongly fortified and occupied in force by the enemy. As soon as day dawned on the 14th instant a sharp fire was opened by the rebel sharpshooters on my skirmishers, which was kept up quite briskly during
the day, inflicting some loss on my regiment. Early in the day of Saturday, the 14th instant, instructions were received from your headquarters that we would be ordered to assault the works in our front at some time during the day, and orders were also given by you to strengthen the skirmish line. In compliance with the order, I deployed Company D of my regiment, Captain Tansey, relieving the skirmishers under Captain Carson, who had been placed upon the line the preceding night, and a few hours subsequently communicated to Captain Tanseyan order received from your headquarters to advance his skirmishers, which was promptly though cautiously done, the men availing themselves of such meager shelter as the open field afforded. About 1 p.m., and while our line was resting behind the crest of the hill to avoid a troublesome fire which the rebel sharpshooters continued to pour in
upon the crest, the “attention” was sounded in the regiment on my left and was repeated in my regiment. Not having received any intimation of what movement was intended, I called to Brigadier-General Ward, who at that moment approached my left, to know what the orders were. His reply was, “The orders are to advance.” Knowing that an assault on the works in our front had been in contemplation earlier in the day, and supposing that the order involved such an assault, or at least that it involved an advance until a halt was ordered by the brigade commander, I put my regiment in march when the regiment on my left moved and passed over the crest of the hill and down its slope to a fence at its base, where I had previously instructed my officers to halt for a moment to reform their line, as they would necessarily be much broken in passing down the hill, which was very steep in some places. Under the cover of the fence I halted, and passed an inquiry to my major, who has on the left, to know whether the One hundred and second Illinois was still advancing with me. His answer was that this regiment had halted on the crest of the hill. After some time I was given to understand by one of the brigade staff, calling to me from the summit of the hill, that it was not intended that I should pass the hill, but that I should have halted on the crest, which had not been previously explained to me. By retiring the men singly or in small squads I was able without further casualties to resume our former line behind the crest of the hill. My losses during the day were as follows: On the skirmish line–killed, enlisted man, 1: wounded, enlisted men, 3; in advancing over the crest of the hill to our supposed assault–killed, enlisted men, 2; wounded, enlisted men, 10; wounded, Lieutenant Martin, Company I, slightly in the leg. During the night of Saturday, the 14th instant, under orders, I constructed, with the assistance of Lieutenant and the brigade pioneers, a line of rifle-pits along the front of my line, and had moved in at daylight four companies to occupy them as sharpshooters and watch the enemy, when we were suddenly relieved By another brigade and marched around to a new position on the left of the Fourteenth Army Corps. In our new position we were informed that our brigade, supported by the other brigades of our division, was expected to assault the enemy’s rifle-pits, and without delay our brigade was formed in column of battalions in order of rank. My regiment leading, passed from the crest of an intrenched ridge, occupied by our forces, across an open field in the valley and up a steep and thickly wooded hill to the assault of the enemy’s breastworks, whose strength, and even exact location, was only revealed by the line of fire which, with fearful destructiveness, was belched upon our advancing column. I moved my men at the double-quick and, with loud cheers, across the open space in the valley in order sooner to escape the enfilading fire from the enemy’s rifle-pits on our right and to gain the cover of the woods, with which the side of the hill against which our assault was directed was thickly covered. The men moved on with perfect steadiness and without any sign of faltering up the hillside and to the very muzzles of the enemy’s artillery, which continued to belch their deadly charges of grape and canister, until the gunners were struck down at their guns. Having gained the outer face of the embrasures, in which the enemy had four 12-pounder Napoleon guns, my line halted for a moment to take breath. Seeing that the infantry supports had deserted the artillery, I cheered the men forward, and with a wild yell they entered the embrasures, striking down and bayoneting the rebel gunners, many of whom defiantly stood by their guns till struck down. Within this outer fortification, in which the artillery was placed, there was a strong line of breast-works, which was concealed from our view by a thick pine undergrowth, save at one point, which had been used as a gateway. This line was held by a rebel division of veteran troops, said to be of Hood’s command. When we first entered the embrasures of the outer works the enemy fled in considerable confusion from the inner one, and had there been a supporting line brought up in good order at this juncture the second line might have easily been carried and held. My line having borne the brunt of the assault, it was not to be expected that it could be reformed for a second assault in time. The enemy in a moment rallied in rear of their second line, and poured in a most destructive fire upon us, which compelled us to retire outside the first line to obtain the cover of the works. At this point some confusion was created among our forces in and about the enemy’s works (several of our battalions in rear of me having come up) by a cry that the enemy was flanking us. This caused many to retire down the hill, and had for a time the appearance of a general retreat. I strove in vain to rally my men under the enemy’s fire on the hillside, and finally followed them to a partially sheltered place behind a ridge to our left, where I was engaged in separating my men from those of other regiments and reforming them preparatory to leading them again to the support of those who still held the guns we had captured, when I was informed that General Ward was wounded, and was ordered to assume command of the brigade and reform it, which duty I discharged and then urgently asked General Butterfield for permission to take it again to the works we had carried and still held, and bring off the guns we had captured. This was refused, and by his order the brigade was placed in a new position on a hill to the left of the point at which we had assaulted, to assist in repelling an attack made by the enemy. To sum up the account of the day’s fight, I will add that detachments from my regiment, and, I believe, from each of the other regiments of the brigade, held the rebels from re-entering and taking the guns we had captured until they were brought off at night by a detail from the First and Second brigades. I would respectfully call your attention to the following points: First, my regiment entered the enemy’s works in advance of all others, and my colors, though not planted, were the first to enter the fort; second, the enemy’s lines were not penetrated at any other point than that where we entered, although assaulted by other troops on the left; third, my regiment, being in advance and having to bear the brunt of the assault, accomplished all that could have been required of them in entering the works and driving the enemy out. The work of carrying a second line of defense belonged to the support which followed me. The day following the battle my regiment, together with our whole brigade, remained on the battle-field burying our own and the rebel dead, and collecting abandoned arms and other property. Leaving the battle-ground about 5 p.m. of the 16th, were joined the division at —- Mill. In the engagement with the enemy near Cassville on the 19th instant my regiment was under quite a heavy fire of shell, but suffered no loss. I append a list of killed and wounded in my regiment.
I desire, in conclusion, to acknowledge the gallantry of my officers and men. Though never before under fire they have the testimony of the veteran foe they overcame that they bore themselves with conspicuous courage. I could not, of course, observe every individual act of gallantry on the part of my company officers, but must commend to your notice the following as especially worthy of mention for their determined and successful efforts to hold the captured guns: Capt. William M. Meredith, Capt. H. M. Scott, Lieut. M. L. Ohr, Capt. P. S. Carson, Capt. H. M. Endsley, Lieut. William C. Mitchell, Lieut. E. B. Colestock. Captain Tansey, who was severely wounded, also bore himself most gallantly. Lieut. C. H. Cox, acting adjutant, was conspicuous for his coolness and his efforts to rally the men. Lieutenant-Colonel Merrill and Major Ragan did their whole duty, and have need of no higher praise from me. Dr. Jenkins A. Fitzgerald, assistant surgeon, during all of our series of operations was always found with his regiment, dressing the wounds of those who had fallen under the heaviest fire of the enemy, manifesting a thorough disregard of his own safety in his humane desire to give the wounded the promptest surgical relief. Rev. A. C. Allen, chaplain, deserves mention for his untiring labors night and day to relieve the wants and sufferings of our wounded.
I am, general, with the greatest respect, your obedient servant,
Colonel Seventieth Indiana Volunteer Infantry.
Brig. Gen. W. T. WARD,
Comdg. First Brig., Third Div., 20th Army Corps.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 38, Part 2.
By all accounts, Harrison was a popular commander who cared about his men and led by example, showing much personal bravery both at Resaca and in subsequent battles.
After the war, Harrison served as a U.S. Senator from Indiana in the 1880’s, and was elected the 23rd President of the United States in 1888, serving one term before being defeated for reelection in 1892.
Battle of Resaca: Botched Union Assault by Michael J. Klinger. America’s Civil War, September 2001.
A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick Dyer
Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864
by Albert Castel
Life and Public Services of Honorable Benjamin Harrison by Lew Wallace and Murat Halstead
Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865 by William Fox