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Reminiscences of the last campaign of the army of Tennessee, from May, 1864, to January, 1865.

By P. D. Stephenson, Private Piece 4, Sergeant Thomas C Allen, Fifth Company Washington Artillery, Captain C. H. Slocomb, Commanding.

Paper no. I.

[note by the writer: This is not from a ‘diary.’ Early after the war, in June, 1865, the writer sat down and began to put on paper, merely for his own future satisfaction, what was still fresh in his memory of that famous last campaign. What is written is from a [33] private's standpoint. Its only merit is sincerity. On the principle that everything may be of use that bears upon the war, it is offered for what it is worth.]

‘After Missionary Ridge.’

It was whilst we, the shattered remnants of Bragg's army, lay cowering among the hills of Dalton, Ga., in the winter of 1863, that General Joseph E. Johnston came to us and assumed command.

He arrived on the 27th of December, and immediately bent all his energies to the almost superhuman task before him: the task of shaping from a starved, ragged, ill-used mob of men, a disciplined command, which in three months time was to be the sole defense, the sole obstacle, against the mighty and splendidly-equipped army of Sherman.

I call his task a superhuman one—and justly so. The calamity which preceded his arrival, and, indeed, made his presence necessary, was one of the most mournful events in our Confederacy's mournful existence, and it had a lasting influence on the subsequent fortunes of our ill-fated cause. Following so soon after the overwhelming victory of Chickamauga, the defeat at Missionary Ridge was an astounding revelation of bad management some-where, and of the rapidity with which a fine army can be demoralized.

The battle of Chickamauga was won by hard fighting. It was emphatically a victory for the men. But indifferently armed and equipped, with little discipline, they turned on a pursuing army, onethird larger than their own, carried their breastworks, forced them back from their positions, and at last put them to an overwhelming rout.

This was the work of men who had just retreated one hundred and eight miles. It seems strange that under such depressing circumstances they could have preserved so well their morale, and so gallantly have done their duty. But it is easily explained. Every veteran soldier knows that a well-regulated retreat does not materially affect the spirits of the men. Our withdrawal from Tennessee was such an one. It was conducted quietly and systematically. Although the rigors of military law had then little or no existence in our camp, and we, therefore, were not in a high state of discipline, yet our march was an orderly one, and the men were cheerful and well-disposed. They had many good causes for being so. They had never known defeat, and although that absurd notion, that their foes were naturally cowards, had long been abandoned, their experience [34] on several fields had sufficed to give them just confidence in their own ability. Their experience at Corinth, Miss., had amply proven to them that a retreat is not always a disaster, for had they not afterwards turned around and threatened Cincinnati itself? ‘Who knows,’ said they, ‘but this falling back is but the presage to another advance into Kentucky, more glorious and more permanent than the first?’ And, again, their confidence in their leader, General Bragg, although not great, was still sufficient to preserve them from demoralization. They knew that he was a skillful officer, although not a great commander. They thought he was safe and careful, and therefore, although not likely to do great deeds, yet was, on the other hand, not likely to expose them to great disaster. All this they felt towards him, although he was never personally popular. His men never forgot his harshness at the outset of his career, and all his subsequent laxity of discipline could never wipe out the first impressions of his ‘tyranny.’ But their wants had in a measure been supplied. Their rations were sufficient, their clothing passable, they had not been through the extreme privations and destitutions which were the daily attendants of their subsequent campaign. So they preserved a hopeful and buoyant disposition, and can be said to have been in as high a state of efficiency as a volunteer army could, under the circumstances, arrive at.

Under such encouraging auspices did Bragg fight at Chickamauga. He had received large reinforcements from Virginia, consisting of two divisions of Longstreet scorps, and also other accessions from different portions of the country. His whole force was about seventy-five thousand men; but for some reason not over fifty-five thousand were actually engaged. Rosecrans carried into battle an army which equalled, if it did not exceed, our entire command.

From the unusual combinations on our side, it looks as if our leaders intended to verify the hopes of the men, and after completely annihilating the enemy, to advance and take permanent possession of Tennessee and Kentucky. The opportunity seemed a golden one. Rosecrans had, in his eagerness, placed himself in the snare made for him. His forces were divided, and ours for once, equal in numbers to the foe, formed one united and enthusiastic band. The battle, as has been said already, was fought with but a little over two-thirds of our entire army, and Bragg had a force of over twenty thousand fresh men, with which to complete the rout. Why he did not do so, I have not the means of determining. He charged General Polk with negligence, and the latter was relieved temporarily of his command. [35] Yet General Bragg's complaint could not have made much impression at Richmond, for Polk, after remaining under suspension a few days, was given an even more responsible position than he had held before.

The real cause of the blunder is open to conjecture. It was generally remarked at the time that Bragg did not seem to know how complete his victory had been. The bold front which Thomas made with his single corps, had the same effect on Bragg which General Forrest's conduct on a similar occasion, a year after, had on himself. Many officers, it was said, high in rank, were for marching into Chatanooga, even after a lapse of several days. The reports of the people by whose doors we passed in our advance to Missionary Ridge, confirmed the universal conviction of the complete demoralization of the enemy. Yet we contented ourselves, with what we had done, and soon afterwards, from the heights of Missionary Ridge, in the rapidly increasing fortifications of the foe, and his daily reinforcements, beheld the real fruits of that contest grow more and more impossible to obtain.

Our sojourn on Missionary Ridge was the introduction to that series of privations, which, imposed, as it seemed to us in the ranks, by the incompetency and indifference of our leaders, did more to ruin the army than almost anything else.

General Bragg, although beseiger, began to make preparations to resist an attack. During several days while he was entrenching, the enemy was summoning all his energies to strengthen his ranks, and it was not long before we heard of immense reinforcements, pouring through the mountains to the rescue. General U. S Grant was with them and they gave prompt notice to Bragg of their approach by surprising his extreme left, and thereby opening a way to Chattanooga. Their arrival swelled their numbers to over a hundred thousand men, and, combined with the presence of their one successful leader. Grant, gave new zeal and courage to the old whipped army of Rosecrans.

Our commander made but feeble attempts at entrenchment, and after his enemy had made the great accessions to his forces above referred to, General Bragg detached Longstreet's corps and hurried it off to besiege Knoxville. Even the day before the battle, our command was withdrawn from our position on the Ridge (I was then in Cleburne's command) and we lay some time, irresolutely at the depot, waiting, as we supposed, to be sent to reinforce Longstreet.

Thus, by his own act, our commander seemed to make his position [36] untenable. Had it been held by sufficient numbers, Missionary Ridge could never have been stormed. The real cause and manner of its capture will appear hereafter.

Our stay on ‘The Ridge’ was attended with a great deal of suffering. It was mid-winter, and the low-grounds behind us (that fearful ‘Chickamauga bottom’), over which ran our roads of supplies, were nearly all the time covered with water. ‘Corduroy roads’ were built for miles, yet every rain would undo all our work and make it worse than before. The weather was stormy, and the camps would be flooded day and night. Winter quarters were not allowed to be built, and we therefore had no shelter. Starvation seemed to stare us in the face. For weeks at a time, we subsisted on two meals a day, and those ‘meals’ were a small ‘pone’ of corn-bread, and a cup of ‘corn coffee.’ Our duties, meantime, were increased, for our ranks had been lessened, and the enemy were becoming active and annoying. Sickness, for the first time since our stay in and around Corinth (Miss.), broke out in our ranks, and many were swept away. Demoralization spread fearfully among those men, who, but a few days before, had gained one of the bloodiest victories of the war. ‘Our sufferings are great,’ said they, ‘but we could bear them, if we felt there was no help for it.’ It was their secret conviction that there was help, and that they were the victims of official blunders. Their disaffection was increased by the rumors of bickerings among our leaders. Reports of quarrels between Bragg and his leading officers came down to us, and his removing from command, on the eve of the battle, one of the most popular Generals in the army, Frank Cheatham, looked very much like a confirmation of the reports. So, between the dissensions of the leaders and the various causes of discontent among the men, the army grew rapidly demoralized. The withdrawal of Longstreet to East Tennessee, together with the sickness which existed, had thinned the ranks greatly, so that at the time of the battle we did not have thirty thousand men. (In many places in the line, our men were in single rank, and sprinkled seven or eight feet apart, and there were gaps where there were no men at all.) Our sufferings from hunger were such that Bragg was on the point of withdrawing (such was the general impression) when the attack of the enemy began. It was thought, too, that it was a doubtful question: which was the most famished, the besiegers or besieged? General Grant must have had very accurate accounts of our condition; for, unless he did, his movement was a very bold one. Had those thirty thousand men been able to cover all the ground, he [37] would have lost terribly, ere he had gained his point. Even as it was, it is likely that starvation alone pushed him to that venture. It was a struggle for life on both sides, with this difference: that whilst Grant was wielding four times our force, and had an army revived in spirit and enthusiastic in its confidence in him, our little remnant, torn by dissensions, and shorn of strength, was placed in such a condition that a victory was an absurdity, and a defeat our only salvation. We were expected to defend a front of six or seven miles, exposed for the whole distance, by the nature of the country, to surprises and snares, but particularly so upon our left. That portion of our line rested on Lookout Mountain, but was cut off from the rest by the deep ravine which separated the mountain from the ridge. It was first attacked and routed, and what few men we had there nearly all killed or captured. That deep, intervening ravine was the door through which ‘fighting Joe Hooker’ entered and gained easy access to our rear, for the simple reason that there was no one for him to ‘fight.’ We had not men enough to guard the point. Whilst the storming of the ridge was going on, the enemy were pouring, almost unmolested, through this road, and had not the defection of our troops taken place, we would all have been captured by night. As it was, our centre broke, almost without striking a blow. The men on the left and right were compelled to give way, and before nine o'clock that night the Yankees, with loud and prolonged shouts, were busy lighting their campfires along the whole length of the ridge.

That day was not one of universal defection. Indeed it is a well known fact that we, on the extreme right, did not even know of any disaster until, after dark, the word came to fall back. We had been fighting all day, and had repulsed the enemy at every point. That was a disgraceful day for us, and yet never did battle-field witness grander heroism than was seen on the right of our line. Both sides showed it. Sherman (for we fought Sherman) threw his blue waves fiercely against us again and again, all day long, and several times they dashed up to our very barricades. (We had thrown up a hasty shelter of logs, rails and whatever we could find on the ground at the moment, on arriving there that morning). One standard bearer, a mere boy, planted his flag on our breastworks, and our men, in admiration, refused to shoot, but contented themselves with capturing him. Several of our regiments got out of ammunition, and fought them back with stones and clubbed muskets. We took several hundred prisoners. The conflict ended only with the night. [38]

We were resting and congratulating ourselves on the events of the day, when the news from the centre and left came, and we found that we were defeated; nay, that the enemy already had possession of the ridge, and that we were in danger of being cut off. We were compelled at once to withdraw, and by rapid marching throw ourselves between the enemy and our retreating army.

The humiliating incidents of that rout, I shall never forget. Yet one thing occurred which relieved in part the monotony of our shame. The enemy pursued us closely, and flushed with victory, grew rash. They came after us without even throwing out the necessary skirmishers. A severe check given them at ‘Ringgold Gap,’ by our division, General Cleburne's, then the rear guard of the army, not only taught them caution, but virtually stopped the pursuit. We held the field until evening, then retired about a mile, to a more commanding position, and after waiting for them to come on, leisurely sauntered off under cover of the smoke of our camp fires, which we had ostentatiously built, and which we fed anew just before retiring. The enemy barely made an appearance before this new position and that was all. The extreme, gingerly way in which solitary individuals, one by one, tip-toed towards us and at last showed themselves, was absurdly conclusive of the fact that their rashness was cured. We had fought ourselves into a good humor again, and satisfied that the worst was over, trudged along after the rest of the army.

One little incident in that sharp fight (or rather battle, for I suppose there were twelve or fifteen thousand men engaged, taking both sides) reminds me of General Taylor's ‘a little more grape, Captain Bragg.’ Our regiment was placed right across the gap, and our company right in it (Thirteenth Regiment, Arkansas Volunteers). We were supporting two pieces of a battery, double-shotted with canister, placed there to sweep the railroad which ran through the gap. Down the railroad, right towards us, came a solid body of men, in marching order, column of fours (a part of Osterhaus's division, we understood), unsuspecting, and thoroughly off their guard; on, on, until I suppose those poor creatures got within almost fifty yards of us. Then, General Cleburne, who was in our midst, watching them through field glasses, almost sprang into the air, clapped his knee, and in his broad Irish brogue, shouted, ‘now, Cawptain, give it to 'em. Now’!!

Poor fellows! That was a fearful blast! It went full into the head of the column. Our guns continued for some time, volley after volley. [39] After the smoke cleared away, that solid body was no where visible—only patches of men scattered all over the field, and running to the rear as fast as their legs could carry them.

But to return.

Such partial victories, however brilliant, could not alas! retrieve the completeness of our rout. When the remnants of the Army of Tennessee had reached Dalton, Georgia, all order had well-nigh vanished. The men for the most part, cowed and disheartened, both by the humiliating rout they had undergone, and the sufferings they were enduring, began to desert in large numbers. General Bragg himself, left us soon after we reached Dalton. Whilst on the ridge he had done his best to rally the men, but he found his voice unheeded. It was then he discovered how little were the love and respect his soldiers bore him. He was forced to see all personal example entirely unnoticed, all threats and entreaties entirely disregarded, whilst the men shorn of that prestige which had always been theirs, and of that sturdy selfconfidence which had served to win all former victories, worn out with two months famine, privation and dissensions, execrated and denounced him as the author of all their misfortunes.

It was in this state of mind that we arrived at Dalton. Our sufferings were such as we had never known before, for the winter was upon us with all its rigor. And conscious of having inflicted one of the greatest calamities of the war, upon the cause we fought for, and of acting as a body, ignominiously, and yet feeling that we were not responsible for the result of affairs, and were not deserving of the stigma which the whole country would certainly put upon us, we were controlled by a feeling of reckless despair, when Johnston arrived.

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