The 21st Ohio was heading at the double quick toward Snodgrass Hill as midmorning of a warm September Sunday in 1863. They were sure something was going terribly wrong with this battle on the banks of the Chickamauga, but then, many things had been going wrong with this Union army lately.
The Army of the Cumberland had been given to understand that they were chasing Confederate General Braxton Brag’s army which was fleeing before them into Georgia. But the triumphant ‘chase’ had begun to have ominous overtones, and yesterday a big battle had flared in the dark woods. The fighting had raged all day. But even worse, some bewildering thing was happening off to the Union right among the tangled ravines and forests drained by Chickamauga Creek. One thing was certain. In the 21st’s front, the Rebels were running in only one direction-straight at the left wing of the Army of the Cumberland.
The 21st Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, hailed from the northwestern part of their state, a region that was still frontier in 1863. They came from the Black Swamp, a huge morass that for generations had turned back the tide of settlement. During the early part of their enlistment, an old man in Kentucky had found it impossible to believe these men lived in the dreaded Black Swamp. He had marched through it with General Harrison in 1814 and still remembered with horror its dark and brooding vastness.
Despite the legend that no white man (and few Indians) could live there, these men were taming the swamp when they were interrupted by Lincoln’s call for troops. They formed a very tough outfit, short on discipline but long on endurance. Perhaps for this reason, or for no reason, in May of 1863 they had been chosen to receive some rather special arms. They had turned in the usual motley collection of muskets carried by Western regiments and had been given in exchange brand new weapons. Two companies got English-made, muzzle-loading Enfields, but the remaining six companies were issued Colt’s Revolving Rifles.
Few of the men had seen any kind of repeating breechloader and this five-shot Colt was received with wonder. It was a .56-caliber percussion rifle with the distinctive Colt revolving breech mechanism. It had a solid frame and a Root patent side-hammer. The guns used a .56-caliber paper or linen cartridge, and with a little practice the Yanks found they could load five shots into the Colts in less time than it had taken to load one minié ball in their muskets.
They mastered their weapons so well they were given the dangerous honor of being brigade skirmishers and sharpshooters. As they marched and fought their way south, they neither knew nor cared that the Colts were ‘unsuccessful experiments’ in the family tree of gun design. If the Ohioans were appalled at the blast of gas from the cylinder, they failed to record it. If there were accidents from flying bits of the percussion caps, if occasionally all five cartridges exploded together, if they suffered powder burns on their jaws, the riflemen of the 21st made no loud or lasting complaints. Like most practical men used to bending a hostile environment with their own hands, they did not expect perfection. They weighed the fast-shooting, quick-loading accuracy of the Colts against the pitiful, junked European muskets carried by other outfits, and counted themselves supremely lucky. They adopted an unorthodox grip on the gun that lessened the danger to their hands and gloated happily over the fact that they could fire and reload the Colts while lying down behind a nice, thick tree trunk. As dawn that 20th of September the 21st Ohio, as part of the 3d Brigade, 2d Division, XIV Corps (Thomas’s), had been drawn up in line behind some sturdy breastworks they had lost sleep to build during the night. Though part of Thomas’s corps, they had recently been under McCook’s command. The men were sure the battle would resume, and skirmishing had begun on their front when orders came for the entire division to move out.
Like all soldiers, they were used to receiving orders for unknown reasons. That this particular one would initiate a chain of disaster for the Army of the Cumberland, they had no way of knowing. Its reasons, on the high command level, was a simple one.
In the morning Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Union left, had decided (correctly) that the main Rebel assault of the battle’s second day was aimed at his wing of the army. He called for reinforcements. Major General William S. Rosecrans, army commander, was sending him the 2d Division and Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s division was ordered to relieve them. A little later Rosecrans received a message that there was a gap in the line to the right of Reynolds’s division. Assuming that this accounted for Thomas’s call for more reinforcing, he ordered Wood to close up with Reynolds. Unfortunately, Brigadier General John M. Brannan’s division was nicely closed up with Reynolds and directly behind Wood and Reynolds; there was no gap in the line. As Wood obeyed Rosecrans’s order in the only way he could, by pulling out of the line and marching behind Brannan, the Confederates, under Lieutenant General James Longstreet, smashed through the now genuine gap left by Wood, and chaos engulfed two-thirds of the Army of the Cumberland.
But in the freshness of the morning, as the 2d Division was moving out, the leathery veterans of the 21st Ohio knew nothing of the high-level commands given or high-level mistakes about to bear fruit. They only knew they had a march of a mile and a half to make, leaving their hard-won breastworks for one of Wood’s regiments to use.
As they marched behind the Union front on the way to their unknown destination, without warning disaster exploded around them. Suddenly the division was gone, the brigade was gone, and all that was left was a swirling mass of men, horses, wagons, cannons, screaming shells, and utter disorganization.
In the midst of the roaring thunder of guns, running troops, smoke, dust, and careening wagons, the regiment paused. To the 21st’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel D.M. Stoughton, only one thing was clear in the bewildering storm of a thousand unclear things. He would hold the regiment together and continue to the position he thought the 3d Brigade was aiming for. To carry out his decision, the regiment had to push through fleeing remnants of the center of the army and find the right of Brannan’s division.
As the moment, Brannan’s division, or what was left of it, was trying to curl itself around some high ground to check the Confederate waves advancing through the broken line. Stoughton and the 21st didn’t know that the whole right and center of the Union army had come apart and was streaming in a disorganized retreat back to Chattanooga. They didn’t know that Thomas had determined to hold his single corps steady and anchor its flank on a small rise called Snodgrass Hill to try to prevent annihilation of the Army of the Cumberland. They knew only that they had been given orders to reinforce Thomas, and if they could find him, they would carry out those orders.
Stoughton’s determined march brought the 21st Ohio into contact with some of Brannan’s men, who were standing off what looked like all the Rebels in the world. After a brief halt at the foot of Snodgrass Hill, Stoughton got some shouted orders and the wave of an arm from a frenzied officer. The 21st again moved…over the hill, through the woods, past a huddled log house and down over the southwestern brow of the ridge.
Here, too, were gray – and butternut-clad soldiers advancing. And here, too, a quick glance showed the men of the 21st Ohio that there was no one – literally no one – to their right. They were the anchormen of Thomas’s stand. Fate, garbled orders, and sheer luck of the draw had put, at the far end of the crumbling Union line, a regiment of veterans armed with repeating rifles.
Longstreet was hurling 17 brigades of infantry, supported by artillery, at the remaining third of the Army of the Cumberland. He knew that victory would depend upon slashing through the broken line and coming in on the flank and rear of Thomas. If the Confederates could break through on the southwestern slope of Snodgrass Hill, they would be in Thomas’s rear and directly across his line of retreat-a situation no Civil War army could stand without dissolving. Rebel soldiers were within an eyelash of doing just this when the 21st Ohio arrived on the scene.
Acting instinctively, the Ohioans threw themselves to the ground and opened fire on the charging Confederates. A solid sheet of flame leaped from the repeating Colts. The sheer firepower of the defense appeared to stun the enemy. They were expecting musketry-a volley, followed by ragged shots. Instead they ran head-on into an unbroken wall of blazing bullets that offered no pause and no intervals. The Rebel line slammed against that wall, wavered, broke, and fell back. The 21st used the breathing space gained to back up the hill and form a firm line behind the hillocks of the ridge. Almost simultaneously, the gray lines again swept up the hill, and again the Colts’ staccato bursts threw them back. The Ohioans lay close to the ground, making difficult targets for their attackers, and poured the rapid fire of the repeaters into the assaulting ranks.
Yet even while the men of the 21st prayerfully gave thanks for the power of their guns, an uneasy, silent chill swept the regiment. For much as they respected the ‘Five-Shooters,’ they knew their fatal weakness was ammunition. From the day they had begun to carry the Colts they had refused to rely on routine ammunition procurement. Ordnance Sergeant John Bolton had been detailed to personally obtain cartridges for the repeaters. It was never an easy job, and when the army was deep in enemy territory and dependent on a precarious supply train from the North it became even harder. Yet a sufficient supply of .56-caliber cartridges was literally the lifeblood of the 21st OVI.
Early on this Sunday morning, Bolton had scoured the ordnance train to gather every Colt Repeater cartridge he could find. He had seen to it that every round had reached the regiment. The 21st had in supply about 25 rounds per man. Bolton had issued 70 rounds more, which gave each soldier 95 rounds. At dawn, this had seemed adequate, but no one had foreseen the disaster of Chickamauga or the role the 21st would be called to play.
After the regiment had single-handedly beaten back the first great charge of Longstreet’s men, the attack became a steady pressure. Some of Brannan’s regiments fell into the right and left of them, and later, Granger’s providential arrival reinforced the hill’s defenders. But they were still dangerously few, and the Confederates continued to mount massive assaults. The steady, unbroken fire of the Colts kept lancing down the hill, taking a tremendous toll. But the 95 rounds were dwindling alarmingly, even as the ranks of the 21st were thinning from the constant barrage of artillery and rifle fire.
By 2:00 in the afternoon, the indefatigable Bolton was pulling men out of line under cover of the fire and sending them out to retrieve cartridges from the regiment’s dead. Runners were sent to the field hospital at the Snodgrass house to strip the 21st’s wounded of their unused rounds. By using these gleanings and making every shot count, they held their vital part of the hill all during that fiery afternoon, against the strongest assaults the enemy could mount.
How successfully they did so was illustrated by the stunned surprise of a Confederate soldier captured in one of the last Rebel charges. He looked dazedly around him at the thin ranks and blurted, ‘My God, we thought you had a division here!’ But as the shadows lengthened on the hill, disaster was building for the 21st Ohio. The Colts were running out of ammunition, and for them there could be no more. Although every man knew how to load his gun with loose powder and ball in place of factory-made cartridges, the balls had to be .56-caliber. Like castaways on the ocean, surrounded by water and dying of thirst, they were surrounded with ammunition they couldn’t use. Everywhere on the hill lay abandoned stores of mini balls-.58-caliber, and useless for the repeaters.
In desperation, men tried what they knew was hopeless. All caution forgotten, they tore open the paper-covered .58’s, dumped powder in the Colt chambers, and frantically hammered the oversized balls into their guns. The guns jammed, burst, or exploded. Major Arnold McMahan, commanding the regiment since Colonel Stoughton had been carried from the field, ordered the regiment to fall back. As the men emptied their guns, they moved back over the ridge to gather in companies beneath two sheltering trees.
It was very late in the afternoon, and the major noted with unease that the firing on the Union side had dwindled to almost nothing. Although the major couldn’t know, Thomas had accomplished his miracle. He had held the Confederates at bay long enough to allow the shattered Army of the Cumberland to retreat through McFarland’s Gap to safety in Chattanooga. Then he had gradually disengaged the XIV Corps and sent it in an orderly withdrawal to shelter behind Missionary Ridge. The men on Snodgrass Hill were part of the remnant left to keep the bruised Confederates from noticing that the battle was over. Now they, too, were to set out quietly for the gap.
The sun was slipping behind the darkening hills when a staff officer wearing colored glasses galloped over to the dazed survivors of the 21st Ohio. He shouted an order for them to get back over the brow of the hill and charge the enemy. Major McMahan, his square jaw tightening, explained that his men were out of ammunition. ‘It doesn’t make a God-damned bit of difference,’ bellowed the officer. ‘Fix bayonets and charge!’ With that, the unidentified officer wheeled his horse and rode rapidly in the direction of Chattanooga.
Major McMahan, by methods even he forgot, produced enough ammunition for one round each for the remaining men. Then the Ohioans moved out, slightly to the right of the position they had held so long. A soldier of Granger’s command, lying wounded on the field, saw them coming and wrote later:
‘While lying on the ground just as twilight was coming on…I suddenly saw a line of blue from our rear coming on the charge. It seemed to me I never saw a steadier or better line on review or dress parade. As it reached me, files dropped out to avoid treading on me, then the gap was filled and the line sent on. A few moments, and a fragment of that line came back…. It was the only time I ever saw that regiment which I soon after learned was the 21st Ohio, but I shall remember it as long as memory lasts. That charge was, as I believe, the last charge made at that battle. It was made against overwhelming numbers and hopeless from the first, but it was made with remarkable coolness and bravery.’
In the gathering dusk, the 21st waited. On either side of them lay the decimated ranks of two other regiments, the 89th Ohio and the 22d Michigan. No command had come for retreat and the Westerners would not leave the battlefield without one. In the gloom, figures could be seen advancing. Then, from the upper side of the hill, more and more men, moving warily, closed in. The 21st was surrounded, holding empty guns.
But one last stroke of luck awaited them. Peering through the dimness, the Confederates moving down the hill mistook for an instant the ranks moving up the hill for Yankees. A scattered volley of musketry erupted, and a momentary confusion ensued. Seizing their chance, almost 100 powder-blackened men of the 21st melted into the twilight. For the 116 who could not escape, surrender came, quietly and wearily.
The 100 lucky ones made their way slowly back to Chattanooga through the moonlit forest. They left 48 men dead on the field and 101 wounded scattered in a dozen different places. Of the 116 prisoners taken that evening, less than half would survive Southern prisons.
But the Army of the Cumberland had escaped. Thomas, by holding on the left with a single corps against Bragg’s entire army, had earned undying fame as the Rock of Chickamauga. Just two months later, he would command this defeated army and watch it roar up Missionary Ridge to win the most spectacular victory of the war.
The 21st Ohio Volunteers had been an indispensable part of Thomas’s feat at Chickamauga. Although their role in the battle was obscured for a variety of understandable reasons, it is indisputable that they were a vital key. Due to their detachment from brigade and division, few high-level officers knew where they were and what they did. Most of the battle reports couldn’t have evaluated the 21st’s contribution even had they known of it.
This little backwoods Ohio regiment, with their odd-looking guns, had demonstrated that every military textbook in the world was obsolete. The scholarly experts who, in the quiet days of the future, were to dismiss the five-shot Colt Rifle as a fault-laden failure were not behind the guns on Snodgrass Hill. For while it was inferior even to contemporary breechloaders like the Sharps, it was there when it counted. Not a single man, on either side, who survived the battle ever denounced the Colt Repeating Rifle.
Although it would slip into oblivion as the metallic-cartridge breechloaders came into general use, it had provided the extra punch needed at a desperate moment. It also had, by its very existence, produced new tactics which seemed impromptu to the fast-thinking men who were using them. Three years later, and thousands of miles away. Prussia would defeat Austria in the Six Weeks War. Military strategies would unite in praising the genius of the Prussian Von Moltke’s tactics, while noting in passing that the Prussians were equipped with ‘needle-guns.’ Every army in the Western world spent the next 60 years studying Von Moltke. They would have profited more by studying the actions of the 21st Ohio, part of the ‘armed rabble’ as Von Moltke termed soldiers of our Civil War, on a September afternoon in Georgia.
Major McMahan, who had been captured, was exchanged early in 1864. He waged a bitter and fruitless campaign to win recognition for the 21st’s heroic stand at Chickamauga. He also tried to find those responsible for the useless sacrifice of the regiment at the day’s end.
He accomplished neither. The commanding officers of the 2d Division had their hands full explaining to Boards of Inquiry just why they had arrived in the streets of Chattanooga instead of on Snodgrass Hill. They were not about to become advocates of the single regiment which had succeeded in doing what they had been busily explaining was impossible. And no one sprang to volunteer that they were responsible for leaving the regiment deserted to its fate. The Western armies were gathering for the last great campaigns, and there was no time for postmortems on a lost battle, however unjust it might be.
So the 21st Ohio went on to the end. It was considered a peculiarity of their that any strange officer who wore colored glasses in their vicinity was inviting harsh treatment. They arrived, like many others, in Washington to participate in the Grand Review of the Armies of the Republic. Here they discovered that the glory-covered New Englanders of Berdan’s Sharpshooters had discarded the Colt Repeater early in the war in favor of the superior Sharps. Some of the knock-down brawls the Ohioans had with Eastern soldiers may have been precipitated when they pointed out that they had done more marching, more fighting, and won more battles with their inferior Colts than Berdan’s men had done with the great Sharps. On the second day of the Grand Review, looking unnaturally neat and clean, the Western armies marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. The 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry marched among them. In perfect step, carrying proudly and with honor their battle-scarred Colt Revolving Rifles, they marched into history; ‘unsuccessful’ guns in the hands of ‘unmilitary’ men, who had accomplished unparalleled things.
This article originally appeared in the January 1967 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.
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