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Biography of Gen. Smith D. Atkins
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Smith D. Atkins, who is a lawyer, soldier, journalist and politician, was born on the 9th of June, 1836, near Elmira, Chemung Co., N. Y.; he came with his father’s family to Illinois in 1848, and lived on a farm until 1850. He then became an apprentice in the office of the Prairie Democrat, which was the first paper published in Freeport. He was educated at Rock River Seminary, Mt. Morris, Ill., working in the printing-office and studying during his spare hours, and in 1852 obtained the foremanship of the Mt. Morris Gazette, while he was yet a student in the seminary. In 1853 he became associated with C. C. Allen, who, during the war, was a Major on the staff of Maj. Gen. Schofield; they bought this paper and established the Register at Savanna, Carroll County. In the fall of the same year he entered the office of Hiram Bright, in Freeport, as a student of law, and was admitted to practice June 27, 1855. After his admission he continued to read law for some time in the office of Goodrich & Scoville, of Chicago, Ill., and then entered upon his practice in Freeport, dating his entry into the active duties of his profession Sept. 1, 1856.
In 1860 Mr. Atkins made a spirited canvass for the election of Lincoln to the Presidency and one address of his delivered in this memorable campaign, which was a careful and thorough review of the Dred Scott decision, went through several editions. He was elected States’ Attorney for the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of Illinois, and on April 17, 1861, while trying a criminal case in Stephenson County Circuit Court a telegram was received stating that President Lincoln had issued his first call for troops to suppress the Rebellion. He immediately in the court room drew up an enlistment roll, which he headed with his own name, being the first man to enlist as a private soldier in this county. He then announced to the Court and jury his decision, to prepare without delay for service in the Union army. Leaving the half finished case in the hands of a brother attorney he hastened out of the court room with his enlistment roll and went into the streets of Freeport to find men to enlist. Before dusk 100 had signed the roll, and in the evening a company organization was formed with him as its Captain. He and his companions in arms went to Springfield, where they were mustered in as Company A of the 11th Illinois Infantry. Upon the expiration of his three months’ service he re-enlisted for three years as a private, and was again mustered in as Captain of Co. A, 11th Ill. Vol. Inf., at Bird’s Point. He was at Ft. Donelson with the unexpired order of leave of absence on account of sickness, in his pocket, when the command of “Forward” was given. He took sixty-eight men into this desperate engagement and came out with but twenty three, having been in the very thickest of the carnage.
For gallant service at Ft. Donelson Capt. Atkins was promoted to the position of Major of the 11th Regiment, and by the special assignment of Gen. Grant, went on the staff of Gen. Hurlburt as Acting-Assistant Adjutant General, and in that capacity was engaged with Hurlburt in the battle of Pittsburg Landing. His bravery and conspicuous service here secured special mention in general orders after that fight. Ill health brought on by exhaustive labors and exposure compelled his resignation after the battle of Pittsburg Landing, and he spent the two subsequent months on the sea coast. He recruited in time to take the stump to raise troops under the call of 1862, and enlisted in the 92d Illinois Infantry, which was mustered in, with himself as Colonel, on September 4 of that year. He remained in command of this regiment until Jan. 17, 1863, when he was placed in command of a brigade. While the 92d was at Mt. Sterling, Ky., Col. Atkins being in charge of it, a grave issue arose. It was the first Yankee regiment which had visited that section and hundreds of slaves flocked to camp begging for protection, and offering their services to fight for freedom. They refused to return to their masters, and when their owners demanded them as chattels, Col. Atkins declined to entertain the peremptory request, not feeling that his force should be used to drive them back. The owners appealed to the commander of the brigade, a Kentuckian, who ordered Atkins to return the slaves, but the latter persistently declined to do this, and never did; his reasons being that he was not responsible for the escape of the slaves, and that his men had not enlisted to act in the capacity of blood-hounds to hunt them down and drive them back.
The order issued is worthy of preservation and is as follows: HEADQUARTERS CAMP DICK YATES, MT. STERLING, Ky., Nov. 2, 1862. GENERAL ORDER No. 1.
In compliance with General Order No. 1, issued from the Headquarters of Demi-Brigade, I hereby assume command of the post of Mt. Sterling and vicinity.
Loyal citizens will be protected as such, and the civil authorities assisted in the enforcement of the laws.
All loyal citizens and soldiers in Mt. Sterling and vicinity are commanded to give information of the whereabouts of any one who is now, or has been in any capacity in the confederate service, and to arrest all such parties found in Mt. Sterling or vicinity and report them in custody to the commander of the post for further proceedings.
All loyal citizens are commanded to give information to the commander of the post, of the whereabouts of any citizen who has at any time during hostilities given any aid or comfort to the common enemy.
Farmers are invited to bring their marketable products to the town and camp for sale, and will be granted protection in so doing.
Dealers in intoxicating liquors are commanded not to sell, or in any way to dispose of any intoxicating liquors to any soldier. Anyone doing so, will, for the first offense have his stock-in-trade destroyed; and for the second offence be severely punished and confined.
Loyal citizens who are owners of slaves, are respectfully notified to keep them at home, as no part of my command will in any way be used for the purpose of returning fugitive slaves. It is not necessary for Illinois soldiers to become slave-hounds to demonstrate their loyalty, their loyalty has been proved upon too many bloody battlefields to require new proof.
By command of SMITH D. ATKINS, Col. 92d Ill. Vol. Com. Post. I. C. Lawyer, Adjt.
With reference to the order the General editorially says “The last paragraph of that order gave us no end of trouble. The colored people would flock into camp; at night all who were not employed as officers’ servants would be turned out of camp; some of them would streak it for the North star, while others would return to their masters; our own servant was a colored man born at Elkhorn, Wis., but we were held responsible for every one of our fellow-citizens of African descent who disappeared from the plantations about Mt. Sterling. After the regiment was ordered away, the Judge of the Circuit Court convened a special grand jury and we were duly indicted for stealing niggers; we were not arrested because the Sheriff found it inconvenient to take us in custody, there being too many blue-coated soldiers around; Champ Furgusson, a rebel guerrilla, went to Mt. Sterling, and some of the citizens of Mt. Sterling being loyal people, and belonging to the Episcopal Church, Furgusson set fire to the Episcopal Church, from which the courthouse caught fire, and was burnt up, including the indictments. We have never heard anything of them since then. In the end the war freed all the colored people of Kentucky, and of all the States where slavery existed. The South, when there was no danger of the abolition of slavery in any of the states, took up the sword to save slavery, and thereby lost slavery. Those who took up the sword perished by the sword.” Col. Atkins on June 17, 1863, was placed in command of the 2d Brigade, 3d Division, Army of Kentucky, which he commanded while in the Department of the Ohio. When the 92d Regiment was removed to the Department of the Cumberland he was placed in command of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, of the Reserve Corps, and when the regiment was mounted and transferred to Wilder’s Brigade of Mounted Infantry he accompanied it and commanded it until transferred to Kilpatrick’s Cavalry Division.
When Gen. Kilpatrick reformed his division preparatory to the great march with Sherman, he assigned the command of the 2d Brigade to Col. Atkins. When Sherman advanced southward he aimed to throw his army between the rebel forces and Savannah. The task of deceiving the enemy and holding them while the movement was being effected was given to Atkins by Kilpatrick and his brigade, and he skillfully accomplished it. At Clinton he charged the enemy and drove them fourteen miles to Macon. He assaulted their lines about the city and forced them into the works, and held them there until Sherman swept to the eastward, leaving him with the enemy in his rear, and nothing before him to impede his rapid progress.
In all the engagements in which he participated with his brigade Col. Atkins greatly distinguished himself, and especially so at Waynesboro, where Wheeler and his cavalry were overwhelmingly defeated. While leading the charge of his troops against the rebel columns his color-bearer, Gede Scott, was shot down by his side, and his brigade flag attracted the attention of the enemy, who poured upon it their concentrated fire. In this terrible storm of leaden hail he bore a charmed life, leading prominently in the van and cheering on his troops to victory. At Savannah he was brevetted Brigadier General for gallantry, and was assigned to duty under his commission as Brevet Brigadier General by special order of President Lincoln and at the close of the war, when he was mustered out, he was brevetted Major General for faithful and important service. In all his stations as commanding officer he was popular with both rank and file. He was a perfect disciplinarian and was kind and considerate to the men under him. His courage and his judgment as a strategist won their confidence and they readily and heartily supported him wherever he went.
After his military service Gen. Atkins returned to Freeport where he has since resided. For many years he has been and is now the able editor of the Freeport .journal, a daily and weekly, and since 1871 has held the office of Postmaster of the city of Freeport during every republican administration. His life has been one of great activity, and whatever part he played in public affairs has been with great energy and fidelity, and we take pleasure in presenting his portrait with this brief sketch of his life.
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