John W. Hagan Encounters the Georgia Melish

The Civil War letters of John William Hagan document in part the actions of the Berrien Minute Men, a Confederate infantry raised in Berrien County, GA by Ray City settler, General Levi J. Knight. In his letter of July 7, 1864, Hagan writes about the retreat of the Confederate States Army towards Atlanta.  On July 5, the CSA made a brief stand at “Johnston’s River Line,” a defensive line  on the north side of the Chattahoochee River which included earth and log works known as  “shoupades,” after Confederate engineer Brig. General Francis A. Shoup.

About the time the Berrien Minute Men were taking up positions on the River Line the regular Confederate States Army troops were reinforced by Georgia Militia state troops  which Hagan’s letter optimistically describes as “10,000 effective men.”  

Gustavus Woodson Smith,  major general of the Georgia state militia,  considered his troops creditable but unseasoned.

Albany Patriot
July 14, 1864

JOE BROWN’S PETS UNDER FIRE

          The Atlanta Appeal is permitted to make the following extract from a letter from Gen. G. W. Smith to a gentleman in this city. Gen. Smith is not given to adjectives and adverbs, and means always what he says.
         “The enemy ran up square against my State troops yesterday about 5 p. m. The cavalry were forced back and passed through our lines and the yankees cam on us right strong. Some misapprehension of orders caused a little confusion for a few moments only upon the left of our line, and perhaps twenty men left the trenches, but were back in a few minutes. The militia behaved very creditably; they stood their ground and stopped the advance of the enemy. We had only six men wounded and two missing, the dirt they had thrown up saving them from much loss, and enabled them to hold their ground against superior forces. They have rendered a good service to the army and the country, and have found out that every ball fired by the enemy didn’t kill a man. The militia will do. I watched them closely, and consider them all right – not yet veterans – but they will fight.

After the Battle of Atlanta, the Georgia Militia was praised in the press.

Augusta Chronicle & Sentinel
July 31, 1864

Our gallant militia officers have fairly won their spurs…They have been styled “Gov. Brown’s pets,” but are now, also, the pets of the army and the people. They have done infinite credit to their patron; and neither he nor they will ever be ashamed of the sobriquet. He has given them a rough handling, for pets, but it has been all the more glorious and advantageous for them. He has been unusually careful of their military education, and they have not failed to profit by their training in the school to which he sent them.

But others would be less complimentary of the state troops.

W. G. Lewis, an Arkansas soldier with the regular Confederate States Army,  encountered the volunteer soldiers of the Georgia militia near a pontoon bridge the Confederates had built across the Chattahoochee at Paces Ferry.  The skirmish at Paces Ferry, fought July 5, 1864,  after which the Confederate forces retreated across the river and attempted to cut loose the pontoon bridge.

The disdain of  regular CSA troops for the state militia, or “Melish” in the soldiers’ derisive vernacular,  is apparent in Lewis’ reflections, published in the Sunny South newspaper January 21, 1899:

        Many stories have been written for this page about the old veteran soldiers, and I hope many more will find their way to these columns ere the old soldiers are numbered with the things of the past.
        There is a time in every individual’s life when we love to live in the past. “Days that are gone seem the brightest” was said by some poet long ago, and this adage, it seems to me, is applicable to nearly every phase of life. From the most exalted to the lowest walks of life, we all love to think of the days that have long since passed away. The old soldier has arrived at that period when he loves to look back and live over again those turbulent scenes he was once an actor in. Then let us tell our stories while we may, for there will come a time when this page will be devoted to another class of literature than that of stories from the old soldiers, for there will soon be none left to write them.
        Some of these stories have been pathetic, some humorous, while others told of heroic deeds of this or that command or individual soldier.  I do not remember of ever seeing anything on this page about the Georgia militia. They took part in the campaign around Atlanta, and I thought a brief sketch of the militia as I saw them upon one occasion, together with a humorous incident which befell them shortly afterwards, might be interesting to those who love to read this page. Although the main features of this sketch or matter-of-fact story that I here present to the reader are humorous, and I might say ludicrous when viewed from a military standpoint, it will be borne in mind that it is not the intention of the writer to cast an odium upon the fair state which these men represented or any of her soldiers, for the incident here related is nothing more than what would happen to any body of untrained soldiers.
        The historian as well as the old veteran who fought side by side with the Georgians knows their courage as soldiers cannot be questioned.
        But war with all its grim realities has its humorous as well as its dark side sometimes; and there is not a company or regiment of soldiers who participated in the civil war but at some time or other has not seen the “funny side.” The Georgia militia was no exception to this rule: though what was fun for our boys in this instance was “death to the frogs,” as the old saying goes.
        So with this explanation I hope that if kind providence has spared even one or more of these good old men who form the of this sketch, and if he should read these lines that he will forgive the writer and join in a laugh over the inevitable which happened so long ago.
         But a sad thought intrudes upon my memory here, when I reflect that in all probability there is not one of them left to tell the story, for most of them were then past the meridian of life.
          It was on one beautiful evening, the 4th of July ’64 if I remember correctly, late in the afternoon, when Johnston’s rear guard reached the pontoon bridge which crossed the Chattahoochee river, on his retreat to Atlanta. This rear guard was composed of the brigade of cavalry to which I was attached.
         A desultory artillery fire was being kept up o us from a distant battery, so far away, though, that their shots were spent by the time the reached us, and would come rumbling over the bluff where we were waiting our turn to cross the river. They could be plainly seen before they struck the ground, ricochetting in the air, and giving the boys time in one instance to get out of the way. They had the exact range of our bridge, though, and had their shots been shells, might have done considerable damage; but they were solid shot and did but little execution. An amusing incident happened while we waited at the bridge. A darky seeing one of these spent balls come turning end over end, and lighting near where he stood, ran over and picked it up, when he dropped it quicker than you would a red-hot poker and ran like a good fellow. “What’s the matter?” asked some one. “That thing’s hotter than h—” shouted the darky as the boys roared with laughter. There was only one casualty from these balls in our brigade. A trooper in the First Mississippi cavalry had one of these cannon balls to strike his hand as he held his carbine, cutting his hand off and killing his horse.
        This is distressing somewhat, but we will come to the militia now pretty soon. As we crossed the pontoon and ascended the eastern bank the sun was casting his farewell rays for the day just over the tree tops that stood on the western bluff.
         Away to our left across an open field, I saw a body of soldiers marching in columns of fours.  As our respective lines of march converged, we were soon in speaking distance and near enough to see who they were. A glance at their clean, new looking uniforms, their superfluous trappings and plethoric haversacks, their snow-white beards in many instances, told us without an introduction, that this was the veritable Georgia militia, of which we had so often heard.
        No sooner were we in speaking distance than such another tirade of jests and gibes that they were greeted with from our boys I had seldom ever heard before, and their very odd appearance amused them very much. It is proper to state here that several of the southern states had given nicknames to their soldiers, which they went by till the end of the war. The North Carolinians, for instance, were called the “Tarheels,” the Floridians “Sand Diggers,” Alabamians “Yellow Hammers,” while the Georgians were called “Goober Grabbers.” Hence the reader will understand what our boys meant by their mock earnestness concerning the Georgians’ peanut crop.
        So the militia were greeted with such gibes as these: “Here’s your Georgia goober grabbers!” “Here’s your melish!” and “Lay down melish, I am going to bust a cap,” and “I say, old man, how is your peanut crop this year?” One tall, lank old fellow, who carried a pack that looked more like the pack that belongs to a pack mule, was accosted by one of our boys thus: “I say, my friend, what state are you moving to?” “Why do you ask?” said the unsuspecting Georgian. “I see you have all your household goods. What did you do with the furniture?”
      In this way we exchanged jokes as long as we were in sight of each other, the Georgian taking it all in the very best of humor, and giving our boys back as good as they sent.
        Away back in my rear as far as I could see down that long line of cavalry, the boys were still having their fun with the militia, and every now and then a shout of laughter would go up, telling that some one had been the butt of a joke.
        These men were as robust and fine looking a body of men as I ever saw. The commander in particular was as fine a military looking man as I ever saw. He was tall and handsome, with a fine gray uniform: he was the finest looking officer I had seen during the war.  He did not seem to be an old man, and I am sorry that I can’t remember his name at present.
        We soon passed out of sight of the militia, and I had almost ceased to think anything more about them in the many shifting scenes of soldier life for the next week or so,  when the next time I saw them—well,  I didn’t see them. I only saw where they had been a few minutes before.
General Johnston, the good old economical general. I called him, because when an article is scarce, then it’s time to be economical, this was General Johnston. He knew that Confederate soldiers were scarce. He, therefore, never rushed his men over breastworks continually to have them shot down, but instead husbanded his troops, and never fought unless he had the advantage. Well, as I was going to say, this wise old general, after we had crossed the Chattahoochee, knew we needed a rest, after our arduous campaign around Kennesaw, in all that rain and mud, and we were completely worn out.  So, to give us rest and at the same time season the militia who had never been under fire, he placed them on picket duty instead of the regular soldiers. That, of course, helped us considerably. The militia was camped on or near the river, while the main army rested some distance back from the river. One day while the army, I might with propriety say, “lay peacefully dreaming” (even if it was day time), a terrific cannonading opened from the opposite side of the river. We were somewhat surprised at this and some one said they thought the Federals were going to force a passage of the river nearly in our front, but the enemy had no such idea. Pretty soon a detachment of cavalry from our brigade was galloping to the front, to see what was up. When we arrived on the scene of action, that which which met our sight caused us to laugh, even in the midst of danger. It was the militia camp, but not a sign of militia could be seen. Their camps had been hurriedly deserted, while their baggage, rations and everything else lay in profusion about the camp. There were turkeys and chickens tied to trees, old country hams hung conveniently from overhanging limbs, butter and eggs in the camp, and even pickles, preserves and all the delicacies of home life. They left blankets, and their quilts that their good old dames bad supplied them in some cases with, and some of the boys said they found a feather bed in the camp, but I did not see this. Well, you should have seen the boys loot that camp in less time than I can tell it. Did the officers control them? Well, I guess not. There, amid an occasional bursting of a shell, they set about feasting, as they had not for many a day. The Federals had silently masked their batteries on the opposite bank of the river and without the least warning, had suddenly poured in upon them a shower of shells which was so sudden and unexpected that the militia, at once sought safety in flight. It has always been a puzzle to me whether the Yankees had been informed by some deserter of the location of the militia camp, and who they were or whether they had looked through their field glasses and saw how sumptuously they fared, and had envied them to that extent that they concluded to shell them out for spite. Be that as it may, this was one time when to the victor belonged the spoils was reversed, for while the Federals had the satisfaction of routing the militia, our boys had the pleasure of appropriating the spoils to themselves. The shells soon ceased, while our boys took the place of the militia and order was again restored.
         A short time after this incident I was very much amused at a story I heard one of our infantry tell on a militiaman. This soldier went out to relieve him from picket duty, when he found the old gentleman sitting at the foot of a tree, his gun across his lap, smoking his pipe, despite the strict army regulations prohibiting smoking while on duty. As the old man straightened up the soldier noticed he had no cartridge box. “Where is your cartridge box, my friend?” observed the soldier. “Oh,” said the militiaman, “the pesky thing chafes me and I threw it away. I carry my cartridges here,” and the old man went down in the coat tail pockets of his long, civilians’ coat that struck him about the heels, and produced a handful of cartridges. “This is where I carry them,” said he, with an air of indifference.
Months went by and the militiaman was transferred to some distant part of the line in the siege of Atlanta, where no doubt he served his country with honor, as there was plenty of fighting all along the line, and I never heard anything more from him until after the fall of Atlanta, when Governor Brown issued a proclamation disbanding the Georgia militia in order that they might go home and cut their crop of sorghum cane. No doubt some of the old soldiers who were in the Georgia campaign remember how the soldiers joked and commented upon this. All the southern papers had something to say about it, and one of the papers in commenting wound up with a verse of doggerel poetry, which ran something like this:

“Three cheers for Governor Brown
And his sweet proclamation.
Likewise the “Georgia Militia,”
With their cane knives raised on high:
For they will drive away starvation.
In the sweet by and by.
When they cut the Georgia sugar cane,”
They will suck sorghum till they die.”

W. G. LEWIS
Co. K. Ballentine’s Reg. Cav., C. S. A. Hope. Ark.

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