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Erie unit had major role in pivotal Civil War campaign

By September 1864, troops in Erie's 111th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Union Army regiment had been truly battle-tested in the Civil War, having fought at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Chattanooga.

On this date 150 years ago, they were among the first Union Army soldiers to occupy Atlanta after that vital southern rail and industrial center fell after the evacuation of Confederate forces.

One of the first two Union Army flags hoisted above the Georgia city was a bullet-riddled, bloodstained silk U.S. flag from the 111th Infantry, according to George Deutsch, an Erie native and Civil War historian who lives in Catonsville, Md.

At that time, the 111th Regiment, composed of men from Erie and Erie County, was part of the Union Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Gen. William T. Sherman.

The regiment, which was organized in Erie in December 1861 and January 1862, was assigned to the Union Army's 20th Corps, 2nd Division, 3rd Brigade.

From early May 1864 through the end of July, the Army of the Tennessee slowly fought its way from northern Georgia to the outskirts of Atlanta -- slightly more than 100 miles.

The 111th Regiment, commanded by Col. George Cobham Jr., of Warren County, was involved in numerous fights along that route, Deutsch said.

When the Erie regiment left Bridgeville, Ala., in early May, it had 573 men, according to Deutsch.

By mid-July, battle casualties had reduced its ranks to about 200 troops.

The regiment's costliest fight, however, occurred July 20, 1864, at the Battle of Peachtree Creek, just north of Atlanta.

"The 111th was in the front line of the Federal Army and they got caught in a ravine and were almost completely surrounded and cut off,'' Deutsch said. "It was a fierce struggle. They fought hand-to-hand and made a stand almost alone until they finally retreated.''

Cobham was shot and killed.

The regiment entered the fight with about 200 troops and suffered a 40 percent casualty rate (18 killed and 62 wounded), according to the book "Soldiers True: The Story of the 111th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry,'' written after the Civil War by John Boyle, the 111th Regiment's adjutant officer.

Some of the regiment's troops after the Peachtree Creek fight were taken prisoner by the Confederates and were transferred to the South's most notorious Civil War prison at Andersonville, Ga., Deutsch said.

Erie's battered 111th Regiment did not fight in the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864, but operated on the Union siege lines north of Atlanta for the next several weeks.

After the Battle of Jonesborough on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, Confederate forces evacuated Atlanta after the last of the Confederate-held rail lines leading into the city were seized by Union troops.

After Cobham's death, command of the 111th Infantry was assigned to Lt. Col. Thomas Walker, of Erie. After the war, he was elected Erie County Sheriff in 1871.

On Sept. 2, 1864, Union command sent the 111th Infantry, the 60th New York Regiment and troops from several other regiments on a reconnaissance mission to Atlanta.

"They found the Confederate trench lines empty and they continued to the city,'' Deutsch said. "When they reached City Hall, they gathered and raised their flags. Walker proclaimed the capture of the city on behalf of General Sherman.''

Union Gen. John Geary, division commander in the 20th Corps., wrote in his official report: "To these two regiments of my division belongs the immortal honor of placing upon the rebel stronghold the first Union flags and to give the first practical announcement that the long campaign had ended in victory -- that the gate city of the South was ours.'''

After entering Atlanta, the 111th Regiment camped outside City Hall until mid-November, then participated with Union forces when Sherman continued his destructive March to the Sea, Deutsch said.

The fall of Atlanta and the Atlanta Campaign received significant coverage from Northern newspapers and was a huge boost to Northern morale. It also played a significant role in President Abraham Lincoln's re-election that fall against his Democratic opponent -- former Union General George McClellan.

"In late August, Lincoln was convinced he would lose the election, but it was primarily the capture of Atlanta that basically turned the tide of the election,'' Deutsch said. "It was one of the most important events of the war. Atlanta clearly was the most important factor in turning the political fortunes of Lincoln around.''

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© 2014 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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