Things I have learned on the way to Atlanta – All roads lead to Rome

On May 17, 1864, Union Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis’s division marched to Rome, Georgia, confronting a mixed force of Confederate infantry and cavalry.

Davis’s division was well beyond any immediate support, thirty or more miles from the nearest other Federal infantry, but Davis pressed on to Rome looking for bridges over the Oostenaula and Etowah Rivers, as directed by George Thomas. Two miles north of Rome, he encountered the Rebels. There was a fight that afternoon, though not a sustained battle – the Confederates were in the process of evacuating Rome in order to join the Army of Tennessee, then hear Calhoun and Adairsville.

One of the Federal regiments involved was the 86th Illinois Infantry. I am not going to describe the nature of the fight here, suffice to say, the Federals occupied Rome the next morning. But the 86th Illinois did not have an easy afternoon on May 17, and it was roiled by internal controversy. Here is how two members of the regiment described what happened:

Allen Fahnestock as a company commander

Lt. Col. Allen L. Fahnestock, commanding the 86th Illinois Infantry: “Our brigade moved into position,” he wrote, “the 86 in advance. We . . . moved over a hill then moved by the Right Flank then in line of battle to a fine Residence on the left of our Regiment. The Rebbles soon opened fire on us we returned the fire and fought some time when the order was given to move the right back, which was done. We then charged back to the first position and then moved 50 yards in advance the Rebbles having fell back whipped. They opened artillery on us so I had the men to lay down. . . . The 22 Indiana was on our right and suffered severely.” The brigade report noted that “the lines were but just formed when the enemy made a vigorous attack on the Twenty-second Indiana, throwing it in some confusion and pressing it’s right back about sixty yards, where it rallied behind a stone fence. A part of the Eighty-sixth Illinois in the mean time pouring a well-directed fire . . . into the enemy’s advancing lines.”[1]

Capt. James Burkhalter, commanding Company F of the 86th, had a considerably more jaundiced view of the day’s fight. “Our men were very much excited,” he wrote, “and thanks to the inefficiency of our field officers, became almost beyond control.”  As Davis attempted to bring all three brigades into line as described above, Burkhalter noted that “the enemy counter-attacked in considerable force on [our] front. . . . This rebel jab hurt and gave rise to  great excitement in our ranks and quite a bit of wavering backward and forward, amid great volleys of musketry.” Burkhalter, who disliked Fahnestock intensely, blamed him for the mess. “The regiment was badly managed, the colonel having sought shelter behind a tree and remained there like a frightened puppy without uttering a word or giving a single command throughout the entire engagement. . . . Only the obstinate courage and stubborn fighting of the men gained us the victory. The imbecile officers and incompetent commanders could not cheat the boys out of a victory which hard fighting brought them. The 22nd Indiana was the heavy loser . . . and was equally badly managed.”[2]

Captain Burkhalter

The 86th lost five men killed and twelve wounded in the fight. The 22nd Indiana suffered eleven dead and thirty wounded, including Lt. Col. William Wiles, Maj. Thomas Shea, and five other commissioned officers. Shea’s wound was slight, but Wiles, struck in the throat, was incapacitated for some time. Another regimental source recorded the 22nd’s total loss at 43. Davis reported that the divisional loss “did not exceed 150.” Burkhalter’s stinging condemnation of Fahnestock, as well as his opinion that “both officers and men [of the 86th] vie in the opinion that the colonel is a contemptible coward, unworthy of the high and honorable position he now holds,” is not echoed by other regimental sources. Indeed, the regimental history, written just a scant year after the war, claimed that upon the resignation of their previous commander in March, “the regimental and company officers held an election, and unanimously voted Major Allen L. Fahnestock [Lieutenant] Colonel of the regiment,” and he proved “worthy in every respect [of] the honors of the position.” Burkahalter’s company lost two of the five men killed in the 86th, which might have colored his opinion as to Fahnestock’s worth.[3]

[1] “Entry for May 17,” Allen L. Fahnestock Diary, ALPL; OR 38, pt. 1, 609.

[2] “Tuesday, March 17,” James L. Burkhalter Diary, ALPL.

[3] OR 38, pt. 1, 629, 726; “Tuesday, March 17,” James L. Burkhalter Diary, ALPL; J. R. Kinnear, History of the Eighty-sixth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry During its Term of Service (Chicago: 1866), 46. It is possible that Burkhalter harbored ambitions of promotion himself and became resentful when Fahnestock was elevated instead. This would not be the first such instance of war being an extension of local politics by other means within volunteer regiments.

from the forthcoming Atlanta Campaign, Vol. One, to be published by Savas Beatie.

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