This incredible and highly descriptive letter was written by Pvt. William F. Keay (1845-1915) of Franklin, Indiana, who mustered into Co. D, 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry as a recruit on 16 February 1864. He mustered out of the service on 8 August 1865.
William was born in 1846 in Pennsylvania, the son of William Keay — a stone mason — and his wife Mary, both natives of Scotland. In the 1850 US Census, the Keay family was enumerated in Philadelphia’s South Ward, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They shared a residence with William and Ann David, also from Scotland; William David also being a stone cutter. They resided next door to Anita Farquahar, a native of Cuba, who ran a boarding house.
In the 1860 US Census, the Keay family was enumerated in Washington, Morgan county, Indiana. William’s siblings included: James (age 15; a twin?), George (age 10), Margaret (age 7), Annie (age 5, and Catharine (age 2). Mentioned in the letter are siblings George and Anna Keay who resided, I believe, in Franklin, Ripley county, Indiana, at the time.
After the war, William settled in Indianapolis where he became a career civil servant, working as a state government clerk. He married Laura Ann Shallenbarger. He died in December 1915.
In this letter, Pvt. Keay tells his brother of the fighting by the 17th Indiana in front of Atlanta during the period from late May when they dismounted and took a position on the right of McPherson’s army. They repulsed a charge by the enemy on 28 May 1864 and on the 29th moved to Burnt Hickory. On June 9, they made a reconnaissance beyond Big Shanty where they dismounted and drove the enemy 5 miles. On the 19th and 20th June, they moved out to Noonday Creek, and skirmished heavily with the enemy.
From May 10 until Oct. 31, the 17th Indiana was constantly engaged in the cavalry and scouting operations incident to the Atlanta Campaign, being in many skirmishes and the engagements at Pumpkin Vine creek, Big Shanty, Belle Plain road, Kennesaw mountain, Marietta, Chattahoochee river, Stone mountain, Flatrock, New Hope Church, Rome and Coosaville.
As a mounted infantry unit, Wilder’s Brigade was recognized for its swiftness and endurance that revolutionized military tactics and caused it to become known as the Lighting Brigade. The units that comprised the brigade were the 17th and 72nd Indiana Infantry Regiment, the 9th and 123rd Illinois Infantry Regiments, and the 18th Indiana Battery of Light Artillery that was commanded by Capt. Eli Lilly of Indianapolis.
In camp near Atlanta [Georgia]
August 13th 1864
I received your letter of the 24th of July in answer to one I wrote you while at Louisville. I was glad to hear all was well. I will excuse you this time though I ought not. You could have had Uncle Brown to have backed one for you long ago. Don’t you think so? But never mind. Do better in the future.
Well, brother, I received your letter after dark with four others — one from father and two other correspondents in Franklin. I was glad to get them. I lit a candle and read them while within one mile and a half from the booming of the 64-pound cannon throwing its deadly missiles into the City of Atlanta. And when the shell passes through the air it makes a noise just like thunder and if a person is close to them when they burst, why it makes the hairs stand on his head about — or nearly — strait for I have been several times under the fire of Rebel artillery.
Once in front of the Atlanta Mountains, our company was supporting 2 of cannon 12-pounders belonging to our brigade. There is 3 brigades in our division. The [cavalry] division is commanded by General Girard [Brigadier General Kenner Garrard]. There is 2 pieces of artillery with each brigade, 6 pieces in all, which constitutes a whole battery. Well, our company was supporting our battery. We were then on the extreme right of our army. Well we built breastworks and lay behind them till nearly night when a brigade charged us. We were ready for them and they did not come so as our regiment could see them, but directly in front of the 98th Illinois of our brigade, they were told we were a brigade of niggers. But they soon found out we were white men. They opened on them a volley from the Spencers ¹ when their officers told them to get out of there. We were [Col. John T.] Wilder’s men and they did get out the 98th. Immediately after they turned back, jumped over their breastworks, and [went] after them. Our battery opened on them also with grape and canister and after they had got back, they opened a battery on us and their shells came on and burst pretty close, I thought — as close as I wanted them to come to me. But by good luck, we had no one hurt in our company. We only lost two in our regiment — one wounded and one killed, both from Company I.
Well the little bullets passed over thick and whistled cousin as they came over, but we told them to pass on as they were no kin to us. Well, I have been where the bullets pass closer than after that. Our brigade charged one day and took 4 lines of good works from the Rebels. [We] drove them before us like sheep. Well, we were charging and the bullets came close, you had better believe. It was very hard on us too, the weather extremely warm, and then so much running. We run for about 3 miles hard as we could. How would you like that? And the bullets whistling by you?
Well also, since that, I went out with the rest of the command in front of our lines at Kenesaw Mountain to reconnoiter and the Rebels flanked us. Our battery has been shelling them for 3 hours but did not reply by theirs, but all at once we found they had flanked us and opened a battery on us and I tell you, if we did not get back from there. Why they threw them right in amongst us killing some in the next company to us. We fell back to our works, they more than shelling us all the time. When we got [back] we massed our battery and soon silenced theirs.
Well that was Sunday. Next day we was out and we had to come back in a hurry [as] they had flanked us again. The bullets came down our lines thick and in front the infantry came in three lines of battle. We was flanked and had to get out of there or get gobbled so we did get out and crossed two creeks — one neck deep, the other over our heads with gun & 50 rounds of cartridges and it had been raining on us for 3 hours. Maybe you think that was not hard on us?
Well we got into camp after dark. We made coffee out of a branch which the rains had swelled. You may know how thick it was with dirt. It was like molasses when it was done but it drank bully to hungry soldiers. When we got our coffee, we went out and laid at the breastworks all night and it was not long before we made the Laddie bucks get out of that.
The skirmishes I have been in I could not begin to tell without going to my detail. I have kept a detail of every day’s work since I left Louisville. Well the boys — or most of them — are out and have been out laying at the breastworks for 10 or 12 days, their horses back in the rear of them 6 miles. I am with them. There is a detail — I was one — to take care of 4 horses, water, curry & feed, on night before last. The Rebs made 3 charges on our men and was repulsed every time. The same number the night before that with the same success. Our men shell Atlanta from any part of our lines.
Some Rebel women came into our lines under a flag of truce and said we had threw enough solid shot and shell into Atlanta to pave the streets of the City. Nearly every house a shell has passed through. Our men just finished a fort [as we are] going to siege the place. There is in [it] two 100-pound guns. We have Mr. [John Bell] Hood in a pretty tight place. Things have been remarkably quiet today — some cannonading and skirmishing on the right, but few to what has been for a good many days back.
Atlanta has a population of 15 or 20 thousand inhabitants — Whites. I don’t know how many blacks. Brother, if you could see the Rebel soldiers around here buried and great many not buried at all and the breastworks made by both armies, see the bullet holes and holes made by cannon balls through the trees, the tops cut off, you would see some of [the] ravages of war. This war, brother, will leave its mark for centuries to come.
Brother, it is getting nearly night. I must tend to my horses. I have to get my own supper. I ain’t got no mother to cook for me now so I will quit for today. It being Saturday and tomorrow the Sabbath, the mail don’t go out before tomorrow evening. I will write more tomorrow.
Well, brother, tomorrow has come. It is the Holy Sabbath and people of their different denominations are assembling at their different places of worship to hear the word of God, dispensed by a minister of the Gospel. But not so with the soldier. The cannon is the preacher — or seems to be — [and] preaches death and destruction to Rebels and their property, about here anyhow. Things though are very quiet considering which does make it seem a little like the Sabbath though the cannon booms every once in awhile and the skirmishers exchange a shot every now and then to let each other know they are still there. There was very heavy cannonading all last night.
Well, I expect you will go to church and hear a sermon but none such for me or any other soldier now a day. I have not heard a sermon since I left home. We have no chaplain in our regiment. Well, the sun shines warm. You asked me if I could not or was not pretty near far enough south to find warm weather. If you were down here, you would think so. It is awful warm. When I was at home, I heard and have read stories of the Sunny South and I know it to be so now for I have experienced some of it. You don’t see any warm weather where you are nor any flies. We have had plenty of rain. I wish we could get shut of some. I know I would let you have some of it and glad to do it if I could. I hope you will have some for being as as the wheat is good, I hope corn will be. I was glad to hear your wheat turned out so well.
I was glad George and Annie had been to visit. I hope they may enjoy themselves well. How is all the folks? Give my regard to Uncle and Aunt Martin & the children and do not neglect writing any more. Write soon & often. I remain as ever your affectionate brother, — Wm. F. Keay
Direct to William F. Keay, Co. D, 17th Ind Vol. via Chattanooga, Tennessee, in care of Capt. [William A.] Owens to follow regiment.
More anon. You must answer right away. The boys are all well with the exception of [Samuel] Chal. Dunn. He shot himself in the foot the other night while on picket. It is getting better. It was not a serious wound. Excuse these few hurried lines. From your brother, — Will
¹ The men in Wilder’s Brigade were issued Spencer Repeating Rifles in May 1863, not long after they were mounted. They obtained the rifles on their own, through private financing.