The Unselfish Acts of One Private Soldier
As daylight closed on Thursday July 21, 1864; Seventeenth Army Corps, commanded by Major General Francis P. Blair, continued to receive reports of the Confederates defending Atlanta gradually moving off to his left flank. The corps commander then occupied the extreme left of the army and in order to protect that flank, Fourth Division had been maneuvered to extend the left of Third Division who had taken the better part of a rebel beating that day. Pickets and outposts were sent out ahead of the line which then bent east refusing the flank; if an attack was to be executed the following day, it was well expected to come from that direction. The unprotected left flank lacked any kind of cavalry screen as the horse soldiers assigned this portion of the army was detached in performance of a raid on the Augusta railroad.
As the enemy had withdrawn from their entrenchments, the soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee occupied and threw up extensions to their left. Major General Grenville Dodge had been ordered to take his Sixteenth Corps and extend the left of the line; however by morning there still remained perhaps a mile of ground open between the two commands.
A small body of the rebel cavalry made an attack on the hospitals in the federal rear; then within a half hour a sharp skirmishing developed before the Sixteenth Army Corps. The sound was all too familiar to the veteran commands, who soon understood a grand attack was coming. All of Lieutenant General William J. Hardee's Army Corps had engaged, where the two divisions of Major General Patrick R. Cleburne and Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham managed to get inside the one mile gap between the two federal army corps. Hood's old corps came straight out of Atlanta and slammed into the right of the Seventeenth Corps enveloping it as well as that of the Fifteenth Corps further to the right.
In spite of the advantages gained the day before, it was the intent of Major General William T. Sherman to extend his advance by the right flank and did not wish to over extend the left; should the Confederates intend to display serious resistance. He had been in company with Major General John Schofield when General James McPherson joined them; and all retired to the Howard House; amidst some significant shelling, to discuss the course he wished for the day. It was near noon when the appearance of staff officers indicated that a movement was in progress against the left and General McPherson rode off to attend to it.
A half hour hadn't passed when Lieutenant Colonel William T. Clark, the Army of the Tennessee's Adjutant General rode up and reported that his army commander had either been taken prisoner or was dead on the field. He knew nothing more at the time. General McPherson had exhausted his staff on various errands; all of his orderlies were away ensuring communication was not lost, and he gave no mind to riding out towards the general attack all by himself.
The raiding party identified as Jayhawkers struck small towns and hamlets all over the surrounding area of Opelousas, Louisiana representing themselves as Confederate soldiers, looting and robbing houses, and among whom happened to be free men of color forcibly entered and threatened the families. Mr. Joseph Young, happened to be molested twice on the 13th of February 1864; for after he left to pay a visit to a neighbor, another band of marauders, fully armed had taken from him another horse, saddle and bridle. Convinced no Confederate soldiers would treat their citizenry in such fashion, it was believed the band to be Jayhawkers.
Colonel William W. Belknap's 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry found itself on this particular mid morning on the extreme left of Seventeenth Army Corps. The previous evening, Company B, then commanded by Lieutenant William P. L. Muir, of Company E, was sent out on the picket detail. Companies C and E were also marched out placing a strong skirmish line between the enemy and flank of this portion of the federal line.
About 12 noon, sharp firing was heard and the skirmishers fell back, first the right side of the line and then the left. Those in front of the 15th Iowa advanced again but were out in front a few minutes before being driven back to the main battle line once more. The Confederates were advancing into the Seventeenth Corps in heavy force. A part of the 53rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry was thrown in on the left of the 15th Iowa Volunteers as flankers, together with a company of the 13th Iowa Volunteers, but the enormous pressure bearing down soon compelled them all to abandon their position and the left of the line was soon turned.
One private, George J. Reynolds of the 15th Iowa Volunteers found himself on the skirmish line that day and in the performance of his duties was severely wounded in the arm. While he attempted to save himself from capture he stumbled across his army commander, Major General James McPherson recently fallen with a mortal wound. Postponing his own hike to the field hospital, the soldier continued to stay with the army commander, providing canteen and whatever comforts were within his power to bestow. As General McPherson passed on, Reynolds went in search of a couple staff officers, returned to the body and assisted in placing his fallen commander in an ambulance, before ever tending to his own needs.
The act was brought to the attention of the Seventeenth Corps Commander, and in consideration for his gallantry and noble, unselfish devotion, General Orders No. 8 was issued on July 26, 1864 conferring upon him the gold medal of honor and having the order read before every regiment, battery and detachment within the corps.
Marked by a wound of bravery under fire, there was no telling whom one would come across on their journey to the rear area, with the element of necessity thrown in along the way; the priority changed when coming to the aid of a fellow soldier, let alone one soldier's army commander. His selflessness would mark him further as a hero that Major General James McPherson would pass in the care of a friend and promptly returned to those whom he had just rode away from only minutes before.
* The author regrets not being able to secure a photograph of Private George J. Reynolds, Company D, 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. Perhaps remembrance of him in word is sufficient for the historical recognition he deserves.
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