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The battle of Chickamauga. [from the New Orleans (La.) Picayune, November 9, 1902.]

An Eyewitness' thrilling story of the great conflict, as seen from the Federal side.

The following article was written by a newspaper correspondent present on the Federal side at the battle of Chickamauga, September 19 and 20, 1863. It appeared September 28, 1863, in the Cincinnati [179] Commercial, and is now reprinted as an interesting contemporary historical document, shedding light on the progress of the battle, and proving conclusively that the Army of Tennessee won a great victory on that bloody field. What the result might have been, had the Confederates pressed their advantage, no one can say.—Editor Picayune.

Morning broke cold and dim. A rank fog obscured the camp fires and transformed the flitting figures around them into gnomes. The rattling of wagons, the vehement rumbling of caissons, and the low, monotonous word of command were heard in all directions. A heavy white frost—the first, I believe, of the month—shone icily on the grass, as the glow of the muffled flames touched it redly.

The line of battle was fully established by seven o'clock. The divisions were not in the same order as they went into the fight on Saturday. Some had rallied, and in going back had deflected to the right or left, leaving gaps which other divisions must close. I do not believe that any mortal man can give the order of each brigade, as it was left by the ebb of Saturday's battle. But during the night the divisions had regathered their estray, but unshattered regiments, and stood ready once more to test the powers of the foe.

Thomas still held the left with Palmer's and Johnson's Divisions attached to his corps and thrown in his center. Brannan was retired slightly, his regiments arrayed in echelon. Van Cleve was placed on the west side of the first road, in the rear of the line, and held in reserve. Wood, Davis and Sheridan followed next, the latter holding the extreme right. General Lytle still held the position at Gordon's Mills, although now dangerously isolated from the right.

Thus it will be seen that three-fourths of the army was concentrated on the left, with the view of holding that vital point. The right was much too weak, but it was a question between defeat and destruction. We could afford to have our right shattered, but the left center must have all the troops they required, or the army was ruined-totally, irreparably lost.

Before the sun rose I rode slowly through the trains towards General Rosecrans' headquarters. They had been established the previous day at a loghouse, known as the residence of the widow Glenn. It was surrounded by corn fields, and commanding a view slight enough of itself, but more extensive than could be found in other places. The battle field was almost one vast forest. It was interspersed with fields and clearings, but it was seldom that the troops [180] held any position on open ground. When they were not drawn up in the forests, they skirted the borders of a clearing. A charge across one of these must carry the opposite wood, or the column fall back under cover in confusion. Nothing could live in these open fields on Saturday under the solid sheet of musket balls that tore across them hour after hour.

Arriving at headquarters, I found the staff servants rolling up the blankets, and the orderlies bridling their horses. Headquarters, like the army itself, must go further to the left. The widow Glenn's house had been selected the previous day, because it was thought that it would be near the center of the line of battle; but one day's fighting had completely unmasked it, leaving it just on the verge of our extreme left. The day before it was far to the rear of the line; now it was surrounded by grim lines of troops standing to arms, chattering with the penetrating cold of early morning, but grasping their guns firmly. A battery was driving through the garden and wheeling into position, and a moment after I saw it was General Lytle's. His brigade soon marched up and took position near the house. This startled, while it relieved me. We could not then afford to let a brigade lie idle—at such an important ford as Gordon's Mills, The enemy were at liberty to crush our right, and we were powerless to avert it. The only hope was that they would not attempt it, that they would mass everything on the right, just as we had massed it on the left.

General Rosecrans shortly aftewards emerged from the house. He was enveloped in a blue army overcoat, his pantaloons stuffed in his boots, and a light brown felt hat of uncertain shape was drawn over his brow. A cigar, unlit, was held between his teeth, and his mouth was compressed as if he were shortly biting it. He stalked to a heap of embers where I was standing, and stood a moment silently by my side. An orderly brought a raw-boned, muscular, dappled gray horse to him, and mounting it without a word, he rode down the lane toward the road, his staff clattering after him, and understanding his mood, perhaps, as silent as himself.

I knew, for I had seen old Rosecrans often and under widely differing circumstances, that he was filled with apprehensions for the issue of the day's fight. I recognized a change instantly, although I could hardly say in what it consisted. Rosecrans usually is brisk, nervous, powerful of presence, and to see him silent, or absorbed in what looked very much like gloomy contemplation, filled me with indefinable dread. Remember, this was but for an instant, [181] and when the leader thought he was entirely unobserved. Rosecrans is too good a soldier to let his face reflect to his men, either his hopes or his forebodings.

An hour passed by and the battle had not been revived. The troops, wearied of standing, in expectant phalanx, reclined on the ground, but where they could regain their places at a single bound. Eight o'clock came, and the sun had lifted the fog and sent a grateful warmth to the long, shivering lines of humanity. A few shots on the skirmish line betrayed the fact that both armies were ready, and, apparently, each waiting for the other to open the initial fire.

Nine o'clock, and even the pickets were quiet. I rode over toward the left, and hearing no firing, I turned my horse's head directly toward the front. Here was Brannan's Division, with its regiments retired one after another as a sort of reserve. My heart sank again as I looked upon the slender regiments. This was the first battle for that division. First commanded by Thomas, three or four of its regiments distinguished themselves at Mill Springs, but after that they missed the great battles of Shiloh and Stone River. Saturday morning they mustered nearly 8,000 bayonets—nearly double the average strength of the division.

The next day there were few regiments that numbered 200 men. The day before it was almost a pistol shot from the colors to the flanks. Now a child could have easily spanned the distance with a pebble. Thrice had they driven the enemy, and thrice had they been driven, and the slight—slight lines called a regiment—attested that they were veterans, though fighting their virgin battle. There was the Eleventh Ohio, scarcely numbering two small companies, coolly waiting for the shock. Beside was an Indiana regiment, a year and a half younger in the service, but, alas! as stinted of men as its battle-battered companion.

Moving forward to our foremost line of battle, I struck upon Palmer's division holding a slight hill, on the crest of which they had erected a little palisade of logs and rails. Over this a dozen cannon were peering, and the men stood in lengthened groups listening to the straggling skirmish fire which had again broken out. The Second Kentucky was there, and while I was shaking hands with old friends the firing in front swelled up, until the crack of a hundred rifles startled the air. The soldiers sprang to their palisade without a word, and rested their guns calmly across it. Old soldiers and true soldiers, they needed no command to warn them to their post.

Returning to the rear, I passed many of the dead of both armies. [182] Here I stopped my horse to gaze on the sweet face of a mere boy, in rebel uniform, who had been shot through the heart. I never saw a lovelier smile than that which death had imprinted on his face. His eyes, moist and blue as in life, were wide open, and expressed an excited state, if ever I saw it in human face. His lips were parted by a winning smile. I have seen pleasure on the faces of the slain before, but never anything that was so unequivocally happy. The dead boy could not have been more than fifteen. He was enveloped rather than dressed in a loose gray uniform, as neatly kept as it was clumsy. His loose stockings had fallen around his worn shoes, revealing a white and slender leg. What mother was robbed of her tender child when this poor boy fell?

Not far off reclined a German Federal artilleryman, with a patriarchal beard and a face as composed in death as if modeled after Socrates' own. He had bled to death from a wound in the neck, and his features wore the placid look of all who die from that cause. One arm was thrown under his head; the other lay loosely by his side. His fingers had almost clasped a delicate mimosa that ran near, but its fragile leaves had opened with the morning. An infant's breath would shut up its tender foliage—it would almost shrink together from the touch of the wild bee's foot—but its stem twined between the dead soldier's fingers, with leaves as open and blooming as if it loved the cold carcass.

Turning again to the rear, I passed into a hospital. Here I found a number of the Woodward boys, one of the first companies to leave Cincinnati. It had taken twenty-eight men into Saturday's fight; of that number two were killed and eleven wounded. There was little Jesse De Beck, who once discharged from service as a minor against his will, ran off from home with his company, went to Western Virginia and re-enlisted. He lay shot in three places—leg, right arm, and a hideous wound through the mouth. He extended his left hand to me, with an apology for not giving me his shattered right—the little hero. ‘I am nearly shot to pieces, ain't I,’ he said, as well as he could utter the words through his torn palate and jaw, but not a word of complaint, not a sigh of pain or discomfort would he utter.

Sorrowfully I turned from the place, and next found myself where Van Cleve was stationed as a reserve. Here was Sam Beatty with what he brought out of his brilliant charge of the day before; 390 men were all that were left of the 1,400—our regiments in all averaging less than 100 men each. These figures I took from his [183] morning report, and if I felt alarmed at the smallness of the battalions before, the infallible logic of figures did not reassure me.

A quarter to 10 I rode over to a cornfield in the rear of the lines and threw a few ears of corn to my horse—a lean, stubborn colt—stubborn to lack of bridle knowledge rather than any inherent vice. A funny animal was that colt. Indeed, army correspondents seem to get an eccentric beast through some fatality. My colt had a very confident way of selecting a tree at any stage of a journey, and siding up to it to be tied, and it required all the pointed eloquence of my heels to stir him. But he was green rather than vicious, for he would take my companion's clucks as soon as my own, and increase his gait accordingly.

While he was munching his corn a sharp scrimmage broke out on the left; a battery followed with four rapid discharges, the musket fire rekindled, and in a moment there was a crash—a heavy volley of musketry, such a one as no line of skirmishers ever fired. I say by my watch that it lacked five minutes of ten.

The enemy opened a battery, and a grapeshot, wide of its destination, struck within a few feet of me and glanced off up the hill. I tried a knob further along, but an occasional minie whistled by vehemently. It seemed as if there was no place within sight of the battle-field that was absolutely safe.

The thunder of battle deepened, and for an hour there was no pause. The musketry was furious, drowning the thunderous throbbing of a half dozen of our batteries in fierce action. For two miles I could see the gray-blue smoke arise from the trees, tufted here and there by whirling spheres of vapor, as they vomited from the hot and cavernous artillery.

There came a rife of stragglers to the rear—negroes leading officers' horses, wounded men, and some, I thought, only feigning to be wounded; they drifted slowly up the hill where I stood, their pace accelerated occasionally by the chance vagrant minies. These are the legitimate refuse of the fight, I thought. Every battle is the same thing—and I was thankful that there were no more of them. The stream stopped, and the battle grew more and more noisily terrible.

Suddenly, a frightful cheer broke out along our entire left. Not a round, manly cheer—not a Federal cheer—but a frantic prolonged yell, pitched almost to a childish treble. It grew plainer and plainer, and I felt that the enemy was making the grand charge, for which he had been gathering himself during the morning. I could see [184] the smoke from the fresh batteries arise; and I could tell that every musket in more than half our army was unflinchingly belching death's flame into the very faces of the surging foe. How anxiously I watched those forests from which if overpowered, our forces must issue in confusion. Thank God, not a man came out. The wild cheer often vieing with the clangor of battle for ten minutes—an eternity it seemed to my ears—dwindled away, then gushed out again, but further off. At last it died out slowly, prolonged shrilly toward the end, as if some Winkelried refused to follow his flying comrades, and was defying death in the shower of iron that seemed to rip and shiver every atom of space save where he was standing.

The terrific charge on the left had failed, but the thunder did not slacken. There were times when the elastic air and the impassive earth seemed to throb with the pulse of battle. At 12 o'clock the firing extended toward the right. We opened fresh batteries, and all, save Davis and Sheridan, were fighting. The terrific fury of the firing at this time cannot be described. It brought the hearts of those who were listening, in the rear, to their mouths. A dozen awful claps of thunder at the same instant might have been heard above the din of that fearful noon, but it could hardly have sensibly increased the crushing volume of sound.

Brannan, Baird, Negley, Reynolds, Johnson, and Palmer were engaged in deadly conflict. They had repulsed the great charge of the day, but at heavy cost. The enemy had plenty of reserve, and massed them again on the left. He pushed his lines forward, and the weakness of our brave right was beginning to show. At the end of one short hour Van Cleve was no longer in reserve. He was fighting with Thomas, for the left—that terrible, gluttonous left. Wood, too, has been shoved in that direction, under a heavy fire, that cost him heavily; but he cannot stop to answer. He pushed forward and faced to the front, and his men at last returned shot for shot.

At 1 o'clock the roar of battle had not abated in the least. Another stream of stragglers break to rear, heavier than the first one. Again I tried to convince myself that this is all legitimate. Men with guns pour out, and I cannot see that they are hurt. Four caissons trot out briskly and take up the hill obliquely, hurriedly, it is true, but not panic-stricken. I gallop over and ask the name of the battery. ‘One of Johnson's’ is the reply, ‘and that is all that is left.’

Once more the stream abated. A thousand men, perhaps, had [185] left the field. ‘A brigade whipped, only,’ I argued; ‘no occasion for an alarm.’ The firing sounded nearer, but not much. Two o'clock came and it had neared alarmingly. Shortly after, for the third time, the stragglers issued from the woods. Now they come in great waves, some taking the nearest road toward Chattanooga, many crossing the hills to strike other roads. A colonel rode out, followed by forty or fifty men, and took his way down the road leisurely. The streams poured out disorganized, but not aprently alarmed. A moment more, and they seemed to issue by brigades. Great God! was the whole army—the flower of the Yankee service, as its enemies had termed it—to blot history with another Bull Run?

The caissons of two more entire batteries were mingling with the retreating army. Down the road the mass pushed, horses and men filling it, and struggling through the open forests on either side. I looked back, and still great waves of men came out, defeated and disorganized. There was no panic and but little visible hurry in this broken mass of men. As the line pushed on toward Chattanooga the trains that had been parked along the roadside at different points poured into the throng and took the same direction. Not another Bull Run, after all, I thought, for even the teamsters are collected.

For an instant, however, there was a panic. A shrill shout came up from behind and the stragglers scattered from the road, thinking that the enemy's cavalry was upon them. The next moment their alarm was quieted. A deer which had been hunted from its fastness by these two great searching armies, bounded down the road and darting through the disconcerted teams, dashed up the hill, while a thousand contiguous stragglers clutched vainly at his fleet limbs. The rout again became leisurely.

I learned that after the withdrawal of Wood from the center, Davis and Sheridan were necessarily called upon to fill the gap. Davis moved rapidly to the left, but after getting his position he could not alone breast the storm. The enemy began to perceive he could not pierce our left, and massed his reserves on our right. Sheridan, whose division, like himself, is unfaltering, brave and hopeful, was compelled to abandon his strong position of the morning and move by the flank on the double quick to the left. He found Wood and Davis falling to pieces rapidly. His own men were falling thick—shot down while they were marching. He ordered his second brigade, Colonel Leiboldt, to deploy at the run and charge. The veterans made the charge nobly, but before they can reach the foe a [186] brigade of Davis is in enfiladed, and the men, able to escape only to the right, overrun the charging columns and tear it to pieces.

General Lytle had barely fronted his brigade when he was struck by a bullet in the head. His third battle and his third wound! Struck at Carnifex Ferry and grievously hurt at Perryville, on both occasions he had requested those around to leave him, exclaiming that he was mortally hurt. Falling in the arms of one of his volunteer aids, he again begged to be abandoned. Not until the enemy had almost closed around him did the aid obey his desires, and then the General was apparently dead. Heaven grant that as at Perryville he may survive to the country. His brigade, their leader lost and without support on the right, fell back with the rest of Sheridan's Divisions, fighting the while.

This was the story I gathered from some of Davis' retreating men, but I could find none of Sheridan's. The rebels cut our army in two, and Sheridan, isolated on the right, is captured bodily, was the only intelligence I could get concerning him. Gloomy enough! I never felt more certain of anything in my life than that Rosecrans' army was utterly lost. I could not understand why the firing on the left was unabated any more than I could understand why this vast column of retreating men was unmolested.

A rumor came back to several of Rosecrans' staff that he had last been seen leading a charge. He was either missing or dead. I heard it, and thought involuntarily of the Libby Prison.

Rosecrans, with some of his staff, had thrown himself under fire and endeavored to rally the ranks that had been scattered by the seemingly fatal attack on the left; but his heroic appeals were disregarded. Mortal courage could not have rallied the men on that field. Their ranks torn to pieces, their flanks passed at pleasure by the cunning enemy, they fled. But they fled as brave soldiers flee—without a panic.

Reaching Missionary Ridge, six miles from Chattanooga, I found a line of infantry and cavalry drawn across the ridge to stop the retreating column. The men stopped without a word. No longer subjected to a hellish fire, they could reform at last, and they fell into line again, not only with alacrity, but with an appearance of relief.

Meantime, the fighting still progressed on the left. The right of Thomas' line was ragged and uncertain, and the enemy was soon enveloping it. Thomas finding his right doubling back upon him, fell back just as his troops began to show symptoms of confusion. Taking a position on a strong ridge, he rallied and inspired his lines, [187] and rode up and down them with drawn sword. When General Thomas flourishes his sword the danger must be great, for, modest and unaffected as a child, his courage is of that high moral order that shrinks from display. He fights from principle, quietly, stubbornly, inflexibly, and he expects no less of his troops.

I shall not attempt to say who remained with Thomas throughout that day. I shall mention some, however, who should have done so. The masses of men who drifted back toward Chattanooga included hundreds of every division in the army save Sheridan's, who had been completely cut off. There were hundreds of every division in the army who were with Thomas, and fought with him gallantly all that bitter day, although their own corps commanders were among the few armed men who passed the rallying line on Mission Ridge and made their way to Chattanooga.

The whole army had fought well. Overpowered in numbers, it had been partially crushed, but its spirit was indomitable. It would be rank injustice for me to single out the generals or divisions that remained with Thomas, for others were gathering together their broken lines, and Sheridan, the gallant Little Corporal of the army, though utterly isolated from the army, was heard from before the next morning gloriously enough.

Not knowing that Thomas still showed the bold front, although I heard the constant rattle of artillery towards his position, which I thought was from the guns of the slowly pursuing enemy. I passed on to Chattanooga, my belief that the army was utterly lost not lessened by seeing Major General McCook and Major General Crittenden in town without commands. I expected to see the whole army streaming into Chattanooga at their heels. But beyond a long line of Union soldiers slowly hobbling along the road, and perhaps a thousand stragglers who gradually found their way into the place, the signs of a retreating army lessened until the road was cumbered only by wagon trains, trotting calmly into town on several roads, and thence across the Tennessee as rapidly as they could move over the pontoons.

About 5 o'clock a courier from General Thomas arrived and reported that he was driving the enemy again. Reinforced by General Gordon Granger, he had turned upon the enemy, who was himself beginning to exhibit signs of grogginess. I felt the thrill of joy at this wholly unexpected announcement. I had thought the destruction of the army inevitable—Thomas, at least, entertained a different opinion. He had taken a position on Missionary Ridge, where he [188] still covered all ingress to Chattanooga. What was left of the 20,000 fighting men in his corps were with him and remnants of other divisions formed on his right. The position was a strong one, and the enemy in vain attempted to carry it. Their efforts were much feebler than in the morning, though there was still danger in them.

From this time Thomas, glorious Thomas, baffled them at every point. Charge after charge he rolled off with his troops, reinspired by Granger's timely brigades. As the efforts of the enemy grew feebler, he threw forward several brigades and drove him back almost beyond his old position, regaining one of the most important hospitals.

I firmly believe that the sudden giving way of the right division insured the salvation of the army. The right had been denuded of troops to re-enforce the left. The brave divisions that remained endeavored to close up the gaps on the double-quick. But many, as I have already said, were shot down on the march. Cut up piecemeal by that artful massing of the rebels on their own left, they must either have been surrounded or have given way as they did precipitately.

There is every reason to believe that the sudden disappearance of these two divisions threw the enemy into equal disorder. Some of his attacking brigades were opposed and driven away in confusion; others advanced slowly through the forest, expending their ammunition on the vacant air. At sunset on Sunday, Bragg's lines must have been as curiously disposed as our own.

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