Colonel Smith Atkins

In the past, I’ve touched on interesting personalities, regiments, and the like. This post deals with both.

Smith Dykin Atkins was Colonel of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry at Chickamauga, and one of the more outspoken (and often abrasive) personalities to be found in the Army of the Cumberland. he was born in 1836, and thus only 27 years old by the time of the battle, but he was already a very successful man. He was both a newspaper owner/editor and a practicing Lawyer by the time he was 21. Born in New York, his family moved to Illinois when he was 9, and settling in Freeport, near Rockford. He studied at the Rock River Seminary in Mount Morris, (today simply known as Mount Morris College) working at or editing various newspapers all the while. By the time he was 17, he and a friend had purchased the Savannah Register in early 1854. He passed the Illinois Bar at 19. He worked for a judge in Chicago for eighteen months, and then returned home to open his own practice. In 1860, he was elected State’s Attorney (state prosecutor) for his district.

Clearly he was a young man on the make, opinionated, and determined to leave a mark.

With war, he enlisted in what became the 11th Illinois Infantry, reputedly the first man in Stephenson county to sign up. Naturally, he was elected Captain of Company A. The Regiment’s first colonel was W.H.L. Wallace, who was mortally wounded at Shiloh. Atkins, who at the start of the war wrote in a letter that “I want to go through or fall in a fierce battle before this war ends,” got his wish. He fought at Donelson and Shiloh, the latter on the staff of General Stephen Hurlbut, despite ill health before the battle. After Shiloh he returned home for a time, to recooperate, and in the summer of 1862 helped raise – and became colonel of – the 92nd Illinois.

Most volunteer regiments tend to have a certain flavor, and more than a whiff of politics about them. Readers might recall the troubles of the 81st Indiana, where their outspoken dismay of the Emancipation Proclamation got more than a few of that command’s senior officers in trouble. Such would not be a problem among the 92nd. The rank and file were strongly abolitionist from the start, and viewed the EP as an obvious – if too long delayed – step in winning the war. Smith himself had been outspokenly anti-slavery since the 1850s, and everything he had seen of the South in 1862 only reinforced that opinion. His active recruiting efforts naturally brought a number of like-minded men into the command. the 92nd’s abolitionist streak would create problems down the line.

For the most part Atkins was well liked, even admired for his combat experience, though some took his posturing with a grain of salt. John King of the 92nd considered him “a peculiar man, A talented lawyer by profession…[who] used his talents to save wrong-doers from getting justice done to them….He had a slick tongue,…was fond of speech-making, and had a high appreciation of what he said and did.” (Presumably King was unaware of Atkins’ election as State’s Attorney, a job which ‘saving’ wrong-doers was not usually a consideration.)

In the fall of 1862, in Kentucky, Abolitionism proved a problem. The 92nd spent nearly three weeks in and around Mount Sterling, deep in the heart of the Bluegrass, where large plantations, slavery, and pro-Confederate sentiment were the norm. The men of the regiment welcomed negroes into their ranks, hiring them as servants, sheltering runaways, and even, according to giving some of them uniforms and weapons.

The locals hated the 92nd, and for many Yanks the feeling was reciprocal. “Slavery is not the God we worship, wrote Private William Boddy on November 18th. “As far as I am concerned, I am satisfied with the record we have left with these people, for I despise and hate them worse than I do a rattlesnake, the mother of their favorite Confederacy.” That same day, as the regiment was departing to head south, they had to march through town, and fighting almost erupted. John King related a tense confrontation between himself and several officers of the Federal 14th Kentucky, who had come to try and take their blacks back. With bayonets bared and weapons loaded, the 92nd faced off against the angry Kentuckians, and though many pistols were brandished, no shots were fired.

That wasn’t the end of it, however. Atkins was indicted for “nigger stealing,” as he contemptuously put it, though when the Sherriff tried to arrest him, the 92nd prevented it. The Regiment was then serving under Absolam Baird, part of Gordon Granger’s Reserve Corps, and though Atkins felt that Baird was sympathetic, Granger was not. Atkins was forced to issue an order to the regiment directing that all blacks be returned or sent out of camp, except for those properly and legally hired as servants (three to a company.) Still, Atkins felt the need to embellish: in that same order he also informed the locals that they should keep their slaves “at home, as no part of my command will be in any way used for the purpose of returning fugitive slaves.” later he added that “it is not necessary for Illinois Soldiers to become Slave-hounds in order to demonstrate their loyalty.”

Atkins imagined that Granger bore him a grudge, and acted against him with special malice from then on, but in fact there is no evidence of this. Granger was simply enforcing both the law and army policy as it stood at the time. Atkins was commanding a brigade (as senior colonel) within Baird’s division within weeks of the incident, and no one outside of the 92nd seems to have been aware of any special animosity directed at the regiment or its commander. Within the command, however, a number of men chafed at the idea of serving under Granger, who as far as they were concered was a “West Point Dahm Phool” in the words of private James A Colehour.

They were able to escape the clutches of the “dahm phool” in August 1863. For a long time, Atkins wanted to get into a “fighting command.” As part of the Reserve Corps, the 92nd could expect to spend time guarding Rosecrans’ supply lines, far from the front, perhaps garrisoning some rear area town like Nashville or Murfreesboro. As Atkins later told it, in July Wilder came across the 92nd building a bridge, and decided he liked the unit, agreeing to accept it into his brigade if Atkins could arrange it. As it happened, the Army of the Cumberland’s Chief Quartermaster, Colonel John W. Taylor, was brother-in-law to Atkins’ partner in his legal practice back in Freeport.

Whatever the reason, Atkins managed the transfer. He couldn’t have picked a better unit, if he wanted active service. Wilder’s men were at the height of their fame over Hoover’s Gap, and their new mounted status would guarantee them a place at the forefront of any future campaign. In August, the 92nd received several drafts of horses, mounting most of the men, and enough Spencer rifles to arm five companies. The remaining five would have to make do with their Enfields for the duration of the campaign, and would carry those muzzleloaders on the field at Chickamauga.

On September 19th the 92nd fought in Brotherton Field, detached from the brigade, and got caught up in the rout there near the end of the day. They had been sent to support Reynolds’ Division, and faced at least two brigades of Confederates that afternoon.

On September 20th, the 92nd was back with Wilder, helping repulse Manigault’s Alabamians near the Widow Glenn homestead. And here is where Atkins, in later life, would give himself considerable credit. At midday, Wilder’s brigade held their ground, but the rest of the Union right was in full retreat. Wilder later claimed that he faced a choice – the safe option was to fall back to the west. The bolder course would be to cut through to Thomas, fighting their way through unknown hordes of Rebels en route. The most famous part of this story, of course, is the sudden arrival of Assitant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who convinced Wilder that trying to reach Thomas was folly, and he should instead fall back towards Rossville.

Wilder and Dana had different versions of this story, naturally. Wilder eventually told the story three different times, and in three different ways, each time making Dana seem more panicked and officious. Atkins had a lot to do with maximizing the histronics of those later versions. Atkins told his own version of the story at reunions, for newspapers, and the like. His published representations of the incident make Dana out as a scared fool, himself as the wise councillor to Wilder, and the man who urged Wilder to go to Thomas in the first place. Of course, at the time Wilder elected to take the safer path, and no dramatic ride to Thomas happened, much to Atkins’ chagrin.

The truth, of course, is that the encounter was much less dramatic, and the option to cut their way through to Thomas was a bit foolhardy. Fortunately for the men of the brigade, Wilder elected to fall back and cover the retreat, which would have been his most important duty that afternoon. Deep down, I suspect Wilder knew that, and acted accordingly.

This story is a typical ‘old soldier’s tale’ and the embellishments found in it – in both Wilder’s and Atkins’ versions – are also typical of the 1880s and 90s, when war stories were popular. But it also illustrates the self-promoting nature of Atkins, with his “slick tongue” and political instincts.

Atkins remained with the army, commanding his regiment and a cavalry brigade during Atlanta and then with Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas. Interestingly enough, in 1865 Atkins met and eventually married Eleanor “Ella” Hope Swain, daughter of the president of the University of North Carolina and State Governor David Swain, in classic romance novel fashion.

I’m interested in Atkins because he was both a capable soldier and a bit of a blowhard. I suspect that to endure his company, you had to be prepared to sit through a great deal of him talking about himself. (I hope Ella was a good listener.)

Beneath the bluster, however, Atkins gives us some very interesting information regarding Chickamauga, and the 92nd is especially rich in terms of other sources, which make for a useful check on the Colonel’s own accounts. In addition to his official report, Atkins left us a couple of newspaper accounts, a monograph entitled “Chickamauga: Useless, Disastrous Battle” (can you guess what he thought of Rosecrans’ willingness to accept battle?) and, I suspect, played a major hand in writing parts of the otherwise anonymously authored regimental history.

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17 Responses to “Colonel Smith Atkins”

  1. Jay Johnson Says:

    Dave Powell, Your Chicamauga Blog immediately was of interest as my great grandfather James A Colehour was shot there Sept. 19, 1863. Imagine my surprise when I found that you quoted him. James A Colehour was actually 1st corporal and before the war was educated at Francis Shimer Seminary in Mt. Carroll, IL – preparing him for the ministry. His word knowledge and spelling was excellent by today’s standards, and I’m sure the misspellings were intentional. The comand to “fix bayonets” when they faced-off against the Kentuckians was given by Lieutenant David B. Colehour, James’ brother. James (according to his letters) despaired under Granger’s command, especially after a forced infantry march chasing Confederate Cavalry resulted in 1/2 dozen deaths. He recovered from that wound, was shot again and recovered and fought in Wilder’s Lightning Brigade until the end of the war. According to my sources, when the 92nd received the new McClellan saddles and the new Spencer repeaters, they still had no horses. So the troops were sent foraging for food and horses, and came back with 1700 horses. I have James Colehour’s diaries, his Spencer rifle, over 175 letters, and a very large collection of Civil War artifacts and memorabilia of his that I am still trying to get transcribed and organized. I also have letters from Atkins and Wilder and a book addressed to James Colehour from Atkins. If I can be any help in your research, please let me know. Stop and Visit my Museum sometime (Prospect House and Civil War Museum – Battle Lake, MN). Yours in F., C. & L., Jay Johnson

  2. Dave Powell Says:

    Jay,

    Thanks for your comment, and for pointing out James Colehour’s correct rank. It can be surprisingly hard to confirm what rank a Federal soldier held at a given time. With Confederates, It’s actually pretty easy, since I can view their compiled service records via Footnote.com. With Federals, however, I can usually find state rosters and the like.

    It sounds like you have a real treasure trove of Wilder Brigade stuff.The Colehour document I quoted from is a reminiscence of his from the Abraham lincoln library in Sprinfield IL, and it looks like he drew on a diary or letters to write it – which you have now confirmed.:) I also agree that the mispelling was probably intentional – the rest of the document is perfectly literate.

    Frankly, I’d love to see those letters and the pertinent diary entries for Chickamauga, not to mention all the other stuff.

    The 92nd has a lot of sources, both published and unpublished, that help fill out the story. (My bibliography for just the 92nd lists about 16 different items.) They all tend to be pretty consistant. Most of them seem to hate Granger, for example, and several of them mention the same horse expedition you describe.

    Again, thanks for sharing all that.

  3. Suzy Barile Says:

    Dave — I’m sorry you found my great-great grandfather blustery and abrasive — the implication seems to be that he used the Army to make something of himself. He already was a state’s attorney when the war began, following the profession he’d trained in, so in that respect, there was no need to prove himself. He did, as you note, hate slavery (though as a younger man, he favored it), and that was his impetus for joining the Army. Do read my book “Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General” to obtain a better understanding of this man. I think you’ll find he had a tender side — Ella certainly found it!

    • Dempsey Atkins Says:

      Suzy we must be related, since I am a descendant of George.G Atkins! So we are both related to Adna. Hope your doing well take care -Dempsey Atkins

  4. Terry Baker Says:

    Who was in command of the 92nd during April 1864? I know Sheets resigned, but he signed the reports re Nickajack Trace (April 23), and he is reported to have protested in writing the order to picket the gap.

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Terry,

      Don’t have a good andwer for you here. I don’t know who was running he 92nd by that point.

    • Suzy Barile Says:

      Perhaps this account of the 92nd will be helpful to you: http://archive.org/stream/ninetysecondilli00illi/ninetysecondilli00illi_djvu.txt.

      It may take some deciphering, as often names are omitted, but it should hold the clue. It does say that Sheets and Bohn had resigned and took their leave on the 23rd, and it appears that Smith D. Atkins is in command.

      Prior to the 1915 reunion, Sheets writes of his dismay at resigning and notes “Col. Atkins, the Commander of the regiment…..”

      Hope that helps.

      • Dave Powell Says:

        Thanks, Suzy, for the help. Dave

      • Terry Baker Says:

        Thanks for the link. I’ve read this and John King’s book, but they are a bit hazy. “The Colonlel” is often used in these sources rather than personal names, making it hard to be sure who is meant. April saw some changes in the command, E.H. Murray sometimes commanding the brigade, sometimes the division, etc. Kilpatrick assumes command of the division, but seems not to have been in actual command on April 23. Gen. Baird also signed off on the reports that went to Thomas re the Nickajack incident, along with Murray and Sheets.

  5. Suzy Barile Says:

    As folks continue to find Brig. Gen. Smith D. Atkins of interest, please read my “Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General.” Readers will find that tender side of Atkins that remained after the war, as illustrated in his love for his family. Enjoy!

  6. June Feist Says:

    To Dempsey Atkins. In your comment you mentioned you and Suzy Barile were both related to Adna. Adna Stanley Atkins was my grandfather who died in 1913. I am looking for info on him. Was he the same Adna you mentioned.since it is not a common name. If he is could you email me at feistjune@gmail.com

  7. June Feist Says:

    To Dempsey Atkins, the Adna Atkins you and Suzy were talking about was the grandfather of my grandfather Adna. They have the same name so confusing. Adna Atkins son George G Atkins married Betsy Windsor and they were the parents of my grandfather Adna. I had been looking for him for over twenty years so happy I finally found him. Adna 1 father’s name Was David. Thanks to you and Suzy for your help.

  8. June Feist Says:

    To Dempsey Atkins, I am descended from George G. Atkins also. Could you tell me your line. I thought George only had one son with Betsey and that was Adna the second. Would like to know if you are from one of my Mother’s siblings? I didn’t know all her sibling’s children. Your name doesn’t sound familiar so don’t remember if anyone that I knew spoke of you. I am descended from Bessie, possibly your Aunt Bessie who married Frederick R. Rathbun.

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