The Battle of Chickamauga.

[Correspondence of the Cincinnati Gazette]


Monday, September 21, 1863

Another battle, and would that I could say another victory! but, alas! truth compels me to declare that, after a series of tremendous struggles, unsurpassed by anything similar in the present war, the Army of the Cumberland has been overwhelmed by numbers; has suffered immense losses in men and material, and has fallen back to a new position. It may console us to know, however, that it has saved its honor, kept its haughty foe at bay, and has inflicted upon the enemy as severe blows as it received.

The rebel army, after evacuating Chattanooga, retired to Lafayette, twenty-eight miles to the southward, concentrated his troops at that point, restored their courage and hopes by the promise of reinforcements, and awaited the arrival of the same. Mean time he took possession of the gaps in Pigeon Mountain, (which Gen. Rosecrans must cross in order to reach the Georgia State road, and the great railroad which formed Bragg's line of communication with Atlanta,) and careful fortified them. This obstruction delayed for some days the advance of our forces, which had already crossed the Raccoon and Lookout Mountains, and gave the enemy times not only to recover their spirits, but to receive a portion of their reinforcements. Hitherto our army had been marching in three great columns — Crittenden followed by Granger, by way of Chattanooga, Thomas by way of Trenton; and McCook with Stanley's cavalry, still further to the southward. The daily increasing numbers and boldness of the enemy compelled a concentration of our forces as rapidly as the nature of the case would admit, and by evening of the 10th inst. the whole army was in line along the West Chickamauga, between the Lookout and Pigeon Mountains, and just to the east of that low chain of wooded hills called Mission Ridge. On Thursday, the 17th, the army shifted toward the north, contracted its lines, and as the enemy's demonstrations became each hour more threatening, prepared for battle.

On Friday morning the extreme left of the army rested upon the Chickamauga, at Gordon's Mills, the point where the Lafayette road crosses the Chickamauga, about twelve miles southwest of Chattanooga. The right could only be loosely defined and was in a constant state of preparation to shift northward, in order to baffle the rebels who seemed bent upon turning our left and getting between us and Chattanooga.

When Friday night came few expected a battle next day: but the movements of Thomas and McCook toward the left, commenced this time and carried on under cover of the darkness, indicated to the reflecting that the rebel foe was still menacing our line of communication with Chattanooga, and that a final position was about to be taken up for the purpose of defending this line and giving battle to the enemy if he desired it; for it was not our intention to fight if we could just as well avoid it. I say this with great confidence. But the enemy had collected what he believed to be a sufficient force to crush our gallant army; the necessities of his situation would not allow him to wait; he could easily turn our flanks by reason of his superior numbers; he knew that we could not afford under any circumstances to allow him to get between us and Chattanooga; he saw his opportunity, and he determined to seize it.

All night long on Friday night the movement of Thomas' corps continued. Crittenden's was already in the position it was intended to hold the next day, so that Thomas passed it by and placed his divisions upon the left of the line. General Negley being in position at Owens' Ford, higher up the valley, for the purpose of preventing the enemy from coming into the breach which Thomas' movement would leave in our line, General Johnson's division, of McCook's corps, reported to Gen. Thomas, and marched with him to take position on the left of Crittenden. Generals Davis and Sheridan were, in the meantime, moving as rapidly as possible to wards the left, so as to connect with the right of Crittenden, and thus complete the line, which would be much shorter than it was the day before.

A night march of a large body of troops is a solemn thing. The soldiers scarcely speak a word to each other; the animals move with a dull, mechanical motion which hardly resembles life; the rattle of the wagon wheels seems strangely muffled, and almost the only sound you recognize is the heavy, measured, awful tramp of thousands of living men!

For the first half of the night during which the march I am referring to took place, everything was comfortable enough, but near midnight it turned freezingly cold, and as it was necessary, after passing Gen. Crittenden, to feel our way with caution, long, wearisome halts took place, during which skirmishers would scour the woods immediately upon our front and right flank. The boys who were not skirmishing, becoming very cold during these halts, began to kindle fires at every stopping place to warm themselves. At first they made these fires of logs of wood and rails taken from the neighboring fences, but afterward they ceased to trouble themselves about removing the rails, and set fire to the fences themselves whenever they chanced to stop. In the course of an hour, a line of fires stretching all along the Lafayette road illuminated the clouds above and showed the silent columns of General Thomas gliding by like an army of spectres!

At last the weary march came to an end, the artillery was wheeled into position, and the marching columns facing to the right stood in order of battle looking toward the east.

An hour or two longer, and the sun arose in glory, thawed the crisp, white frost which had collected upon the grass, dispersed the mists that had gathered around the tops of the mountains, and sending a flood of golden light into the valley of the Chickamauga, showed at least two-thirds of the entire Union army drawn up in battle array, Not that any individual, save old Sol, could see them all; for the peculiar nature of the ground, covered almost everywhere with thick woods, rendered it impossible in many places to see even the whole of a single regiment.

As soon as the sun was fairly risen, I mounted my horse, intending to ride to the extreme left of our line, and thence proceed from the left to right, so as to get as accurate an idea of it as possible before the real work of the day should commence. Riding about a mile, I saw troops coming into the road from the woods to the east of it, and had I were habited in blue, I should have judged from the direction whence they came that they were a portion of the rebel army. Suddenly I saw a courier shoot out from the crowd and coming to me hatless and with frantic speed. As he came, a dozen rifle cracks from the woods skirting a corn field along which he was passing, informed me that hostile demonstrations of some kind were being made in our immediate vicinity I halted until the courier came up. He delivered his dispatches to another horseman, who immediately started with them toward the headquarters of Gen. Thomas. I then asked the hatless courier what troops were ahead. He informed me that they were the two brigades (Col. Mitchell's and Col. McCook's) of Gen. Gordon's corps, who had been skirmishing the day before in the neighborhood of Reid's bridge and of Ringgold, as I have already described. They had come to form a junction with the main army, had halted and were waiting for orders.

"Are you going back to them now?" I inquired of the courier.

"I am," he replied, "but it is hazardous business, for the woods just on the other side of that cornfield are lined with rebel sharpshooters, who fire at any one passing along the road; just now they fired quite a volley at me as I came through."

As I wished to reach these troops of Gen. Granger's in order to learn from them what they had been doing the day before, this answer was a little discouraging. Nevertheless my curiosity finally prevailed over my apprehensions, and myself and the courier started back upon a full gallrp. Of course the sharpshooters paid us their respects, and more than one bullet whistled uncomfortably close to our ears while we were running this dangerous gauntlet. But fortunately none of them hit either of us, although one cut the hair from my horse's mane.

Scarcely had I reached our troops in safety, when an order from Gen. Rosecrans directed the two brigades to fall back at once to Rossville, get a supply of rations for three days, and hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment's notice. As the close proximity of the rebels rendered it somewhat difficult just then to reach Gen. Baird's men, who were nearest to me on the right, I "fell back" with Gen. Granger's troops, and remained in the vicinity of Rossville until the sounds of battle in the direction whence I had come attracted my attention. A wild gallop back to the left immediately ensued. I was accompanied in the ride by a member of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, attached to Gen. Rosecrans, and a citizen who had accompanied him in the morning on an excursion undertaken for the purpose of gaining knowledge of the surrounding country.

All three of us agreed that it was a hazardous experiment to attempt making our way back to the army, the nearest portion of which was distant half a dozen miles. But the citizen wanted to get back, the engineer said he ought to go back, and my own duties in that direction were absolutely imperative. So off we started.

At the very first note of danger our citizen friends turned back toward Chattanooga. I did not blame him much. He had been giving information damaging to the enemy, and in all probability his proximity to the rebels caused lively images of a scaffold and halter to dance through his brain.

My engineering friend continued with me, although he became exceedingly, and at last provokingly anxious to avoid the main road and take off upon any bridle path or by-path which turned westward.

A few miles riding brought us so far on the way that we began to get glimpses of that stream of wreck, debris, mingled life and mangled humanity which always flows from a battle field. For a time we asked the news of each one we came to, and the replies filled us alternately with sorrow, with indignation, with keen apprehension and with hopes.

One said the battle had been going on several hours, and our arms had met with disaster along the whole line.

Another declared that although unsuccessful at first, our troops at length recovered their ground, and were now driving the enemy.

From every quarter came rushing up the scattered fragments of the regiment; with magic swiftness they reformed the ranks; with General Reynolds at their head they charged the insolent enemy and after a moment's struggle every rebel in front of them not killed or wounded was in confused retreat.

The example of the 6th Ohio was communicated to the flying fragments of other regiments, and it is a fact which will long be memorable in the history of this battle, that these rallied stragglers, principally from Palmer's division, reformed ranks almost of their own accord, and drove back the enemy who had been vigorously pressing on.

The stream grew stronger and stronger. — Stragglers were run over by wagons dashing back towards the rear. Ambulances, filled with wounded, came in long procession from toward where the battle was raging. Men with wounds of every imaginable description not effecting their locomotion came staggering by on foot, and scores even of those who had been shot in their lower limbs, hobbled slowly on through blinding masses of dust, which at times concealed everything from view.

At length we reached the hospital for Gen. Brannan's division. The house had already been filled. The outhouses had been brought into requisition, and large numbers of sufferers were lying on the ground in the yard. — In one corner was an operating table, beneath which lay the usual quantity of legs, arms, hands, feet, fingers and toes. Here and there among the wounded were some cold stiff, the seal of death upon their countenances. These had died after being carried to the yard.

During all this time the roar of battle in front of us never ceased for a moment, and now we began to get authentic intelligence of the progress and incidents of the fight.

The flame of battle had first broken out upon the extreme left, where Gen. Brannan's division was posted. The troops composing it behaved most gallantly — some of the regiments had covered themselves with glory; but they were compelled to retire at length, leaving uncovered the left flank of Gen. Baird, upon which the enemy at once threw himself with great force.

The brigade commanded by Col. Scribner, 38th Indiana, was left particularly exposed, as its right flank had been somewhat too far advanced. Almost before its pickets were driven in, it found itself literally surrounded by thrice its numbers, who came on with their infernal yells, pouring volley after volley of deadly bullets into the very bosom of this gallant brigade. For a moment it was thrown into confusion, and that moment sufficed to place the rebels upon its front, flanks and rear. But it was not destined to surrender. The 2d, 33d and 94th Ohio, the 38th Indiana, the 10th Wisconsin, and Loomis' Battery gathering together their broken ranks under the infernal fire which every instant mowed them down, and following their heroic leader, they charged the dense legions, surrounding them, and like a whirlwind in a forest, tore their way through.

The guns of the immortal 1st Michigan battery, were left behind. They were commanded now by Lieut. Van Pelt. Van Pelt loved his pieces with the same unselfish devotion which he manifested for his wife. In the dreadful conflict which broke around Scribner's brigade, he managed the battery with much dexterity and coolness, and for some moments rocked the very trees over the heads of the rebels by the fiery blasts from his guns. But his horses were shot down. Many of his artillerists were killed or wounded. The infantry supporting him had been compelled to turn and cut their way through the enemy, and a horde of traitors rushed up to the muzzles of the now harmless pieces. — Van Pelt, almost alone, stationed himself in front of them and drew his sword. "Scoundrels," said he, ‘dare not to touch these guns!’ The miserable barbarians unable to appreciate true heroism, brutally murdered him where he stood. The history of the war furnishes not an incident more touching or more sublime than the death of Lieut. Van Pelt.

All of the guns of the battery, save one, fell into the enemy's hands.

It was between ten and eleven when Cranton's brigade, of Brannan's division, going down to a ford over the creek, just opposite their position, encountered the enemy, who was advancing in force, and, after a gallant combat was driven back. Reinforcements immediately coming up from the remainder of Brannan's division, the rebels were in turn driven pell-mell toward the ford. Another terrible charge by a largely increased force of the enemy pushed back the whole of Brannan's division, involving Gen. Baird, who at once became fiercely engaged. The regulars, outflanked, after the withdrawal of Brannan's men, fought like tigers, but were rolled back and over Scribner's brigade — the right of which, being rather too far advanced was crumpled up, and the brigade literally surrounded, until, by unparalleled gallantry, it cut its way through. The storm, rolling, from left to right, fell next upon Johnson, and almost simultaneously upon Reynold, who both fought with desperate valor, wavering at times, but again regaining their firmness, giving back a little but again advancing until the troops of Brannan and Baird, rallied by their able leaders and by the personal exertions of Thomas himself, whose courage was as conspicuous as his coolness, came up once more to the work.

Then the order was issued for the entire line to advance, and nothing in history exceeds in grandeur the charge of that powerful corps. Longstreet's men from Virginia were directly opposite to the troops of Thomas, and although they fought with stubborn determination, they could not for a single instant check the slow and stately march of our battalions. In vain they rallied and re-rallied; in vain they formed double lines, which fired simultaneously; in vain they wheeled their cannons into scores of new positions. Thomas moved resistlessly on. Much of our artillery lost in the morning was recaptured. Seven pieces were taken from the enemy. They had been pushed already three quarters of a mile, and Longstreet was threatened with actual annihilation, when a new danger caused Thomas to halt.

While our left was remorselessly driving the rebels, Polk and Hill, collecting their chosen legions, threw them with great impetuosity upon Palmer and Van Cleve, in order to effect a diversion in favor of Longstreet. An obstinate contest ensued, but the overpowering numbers of the enemy speedily broke to pieces large portions of our two divisions, especially Van Cleve's. In fact, the rout of this part of our line was becoming as complete as that of the enemy's right, when Davis, who had been marching up rapidly as possible to intersect with Van Cleve's left, arrived upon the ground, went in most gallantly, and, for a time, restored in that locality the fortunes of the day. But the enemy, knowing that all depended upon his effecting a diversion in favor of the defeated Longstreet, massed nearly the whole of his available force, hurled it upon Van Cleve and Davis, drove the former to the left and the latter to the right, and entered boldly the opening thus made. It was just at this juncture that Thomas' troops, whose attention had been called to the extreme danger of our center, began to return. Reynolds immediately sent the heroic Wilder to the assistance of Davis, and the celebrated brigade of mounted infantry at first scattered the enemy in terror before them. But the persevering rebels, rallying again, and charging in fresh numbers, even Wilder began to fall slowly back. Gen. Sheridan, who had been following after Davis, now came up and led Col. Bradley's brigade into the fight. It held its own nobly, until the rebels, in large force, getting possession of a piece of timber near its flank, opened upon it an enfilading fire, which, compelled it to give way.