The DeGress Battery at the Battle of Atlanta


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AUG

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"DeGress' Battery" by Don Troiani

During the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864, the 66th Illinois Infantry (aka Western Sharpshooters), armed with Henry repeaters, retakes the guns of Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery at 4:30 PM. Battery H was commanded by 24-year-old Captain Francis DeGress and consisted of four 20-pound Parrot Rifles. It was overrun by Brig. Gen. Arthur M. Manigault's Brigade of Brig. Gen. John C. Brown's Division, Cheatham's Corps.

Frances DeGress was born in Cologne, Germany, on February 10, 1840. He mustered into Federal service as a 2nd Lieutenant in Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery on January 1, 1862, at Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Promoted to Captain on December 25, 1863, he then assumed command of the battery. DeGress mustered out June 14, 1865, with the permanent rank of Captain and brevet rank of Major. After the war he ran a firearms business. He died in 1883 in Mexico City and is buried in the Mexico City National Cemetery.

On July 22 his battery was positioned on the northern side of the Troup Hurt House, just alongside the Georgia R.R. Two Ohio regiments also supported Battery H, the 30th Ohio and 37th Ohio Infantry. They were positioned on the right flank of the Federal Army of the Tennessee.

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Map showing the position of the DeGress Battery. Note that the Confederate attacks did not take place all at once, as the map might imply.

After Hardee's Corps had hit the left flank of McPherson's Army of the Tennessee throughout the morning of July 22, at about 3:30 p.m. Frank Cheatham sent his corps forward to attack the center.

Confederate Brig. Gen. Aurthur M. Manigault's Brigade was one of those in Cheatham's Corps sent marching toward the Federal center that hot afternoon. Manigault, a native South Carolinian, had two Palmetto regiments in his brigade - the 10th and 19th SC Inf. - along with three Alabama regiments - 24th, 28th, and 34th AL Inf. As they advanced, the two SC regiments took a heavy shelling from eight cannon of DeGress' Battery and Battery A of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery positioned on either side of the Georgia R.R. Col. Samuel Benton's Brigade and Col. Jacob H. Sharp's Brigade followed Manigault's men, both consisting primarily of Mississippians.

Manigault's Brigade ran out of the trees they had been taking shelter in and charged the Federal works, defended by Col. Wells S. Jones. They not only took fire from infantry to their front, but were enfiladed by DeGress' guns north and Battery A to the south. DeGress' guns fired canister out of their 20-pound Parrotts, consisting of 48 shot in each round. Reeling under the sheets of lead, Manigualt's Rebs eventually broke, flying back into Sharp's Brigade. Col. Samuel Benton then moved up with his brigade. The 57th Ohio and 55th Illinois, positioned to their front, waited till Benton got within 60 yards and fired a devastating volley that send Benton's men falling back as well. Benton was wounded twice with a bullet through the foot and a shell fragment in the chest. Next came Sharp's Brigade of Mississippians. Manigault rallied his men and went back in with Sharp. This time they charged through the cut of the Georgia R.R. and were able to penetrate the Federal line.

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Part of the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama depicting Manigault and Sharp's men fighting along the Georgia Railroad cut.

The two brigades then went on to capture Battery A, 1st Illinois Light Artillery, commanded by Lt. Samuel S. Smyth, around the cut. The battery was easily overrun by the mass of Confederate infantry and all six guns were captured by the 10th South Carolina. Manigault and Sharp's Brigades then set their sights on the DeGress Battery, north of them. Thick smoke covered the battlefield. Col Wells S. Jones' Brigade and DeGress could not tell such a large breakthrough had occurred to their left. The Confederates suddenly burst out from the south and the east, flanking them from the railroad cut. The two Ohio regiments were suddenly overwhelmed and fled. Jones begged DeGress to withdraw his guns, but it was too late. DeGress ordered his two guns on the left to swing south and fire canister on the flanking Rebel troops. The two Parrott Rifles were fired at the Confederates less than 20 yards away, then DeGress ordered the guns spiked. He and his crew abandoned the field.

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The capture of the DeGress Battery depicted by Joseph M. Brown, The Mountain Campaigns of Georgia: Or, War Scenes on the W. and A.

Federal infantry to the north started peeling away as the gap in the lines was exploited. By 4:30 p.m. more than 2,500 Confederates had penetrated the Federal lines of the XV Corps. Maj. Clemens Landgraeber, with six guns to the north, fired south into the area around the Troup Hurt House where the breakthrough had occurred. The fire from those guns as well as others helped slow the advance of Manigault's and Sharp's brigades. Gen. Logan rallied his corps and Col. August Mersy's Brigade, from Sweeny's Division of the XVI Corps, also arrived in support. Mersy's Brigade consisted of four regiments, though one - the 9th Illinois - was mounted, so three would take part in the coming counter-attack to restore the line: the 12th Illinois, 66th Illinois, and 81st Ohio. The 66th Illinois was armed almost entirely with Henry repeating rifles. They met up with Logan about half a mile east of the Troup Hurt House. The 12th Illinois was aligned on the left, the 81st Ohio in the center, and the 66th Illinois on the right. They formed an attacking column 500 yards across.

As they advanced, Confederates to the west opened fire, wounding Col. Mersy's horse, Billy. Mersy was then wounded slightly in the leg and turned over command to Col. Robert N. Adams of the 81st Ohio. Thomas Shelley of the 81st Ohio remembered, "As the order was given the boys started with wild yells that would have given credit to a whole tribe of Comanche Indians." They ran through a thicket of woods and saw the captured works on the other side. Mersy's Brigade eyed the captured guns of DeGress and rushed for them, with the railroad to their left. Three Confederate brigades were around the Troup Hurt House, though non could turn and fire the spiked guns of the DeGress Battery. There was no time to bring off the heavy 20-pound Parrotts before Mersy's Brigade smashed into them. Gen. Morgan L. Smith called it "as gallant a charge as I have ever seen during the war." Mason R. Blizzard of Co. I, 81st Ohio was the first man to reach the guns. Manigault's and Sharp's men retreated back over the works as the three Federal regiments poured a devastating fire into them, the 66th Illinois keeping up a constant rate with their Henry repeaters. Pvt. Prosper O. Bowe, armed with a Henry repeater in the 66th Illinois, later wrote to his sister that "I stood and fired nearly ninety rounds without stopping. My gun was so hot I could not touch it - spit on it and it siz."

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Another view of the capture, or recapture, of the DeGress Battery from the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama. The Troup Hurt House is seen to the left.

Captain DeGress road in the rear of the column, eager to get his guns back. When he road back to the position where he had left them and saw that they were all still there, he was in tears over the recapture of his beloved Parrott Rifles. He road up to Col. Adams, took his hand and thanked him and his men for their actions.

Col. Robert N. Adams:
The charge of this brigade that followed, was quickly and hansomely made, and on reaching the works it poured a deadly fire into the ranks of the retreating enemy. It also turned the recovered guns upon the enemy and succeeded in cracking one of them in the operation. After the firing ceased we found fifty Rebels couching behind the works, who preferred Northern prisons to the risk of an attempted retreat. Among these prisoners was a darkey, and the only darkey I saw during the war firing the wrong way. Captain DeGress, who sat upon his horse near General Logan while the charge was being made, came hurriedly to the front when he witnessed the results and coming in sight of his battery, wept like a child as he not only saw the dead horses but several of his brave men who had fallen at their post when the guns were captured. The captain grasped my hand and said, so that the men as well as myself could hear, "I want to thank you and your brigade for what you have done."

With the battery back in his hands, Captain DeGress helped ten infantrymen and his battery crew unspike the rest of the guns. The 81st Ohio thought they knew how to load an artillery piece, having watched Laird's and Blodgett's Batteries earlier in the day. The Buckeyes loaded one of the guns with two shells and fired on the retreating Confederates. The gun burst under the pressure, though not one man was injured. Four of the six guns of Battery A to the south were later recaptured, two having been hauled off by Manigault's South Carolinians. The 41st Mississippi made one last desperate attack near the Georgia R.R., driving back the Federals a second time, but were quickly driven back over the works.

The line was back in Federal hands by 5:00 p.m. The order to withdraw was painful for Manigault's and Sharp's Brigades after they had lost so many men taking that portion of the field; however, they managed to capture two guns and hundreds of Federal troops in the attempt.
 

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Here is an excerpt from Brig. Gen. Arthur M. Manigault's memoirs:

"Seeing at last that the other brigade on my right appeared to be in readiness, the order to move forward was given, and on clearing the brow of the hill, there stood the enemy in their breastworks, not over two hundred and fifty yards from us. Their flags fluttering lazily in the breeze indicated the length of line occupied by each regiment, and the number opposed to us. I saw and noticed all this only for a moment, and thought it looked very pretty, but in the next instant the whole scene was shut out, everything enveloped in smoke. A deafening roar smote upon the ear, and a storm of bullets and cannister tore through our ranks and around us. The men by this time were well under way, and altho the lines staggered and reeled for a moment, it quickly recovered and went forward. The space that separated us being half cleared, or perhaps as much as two-thirds of it cleared, the fire became more deadly and alarming. The pace at which the men were moving slackened; large gaps were visible here and there. The line had lost its regularity, warbling like the movement of a serpent, and things looked ugly, but our supports were coming up in capital style, not more than one hundred yards in the rear. The men saw them, and gathered confidence. All the field and most of the line officers played their part well at this crisis. The gallant examples set by so many overcame all hesitation, excepting in small portions of two regiment, and the brigade nearly as a whole, dashed forward and over the works, rifles and artillery flashing in their faces. At the last rush, most of the enemy broke and fled. Still a goodly number fought on, until they saw that further resistance was useless or were killed or overpowered. Many of our men were killed or wounded in the work itself, among the latter, Colonel Pressley, shot through the shoulder with a rifle ball, fighting hand to hand with several Federal soldiers."
 
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