A blood-red autumn sun burned off the dense ground fog as it rose over the gently rolling Georgia hills into a cloudless turquoise sky on Sunday, September 20, 1863. But Lieutenant Colonel William Kinman took little comfort in the beauty of the tranquil Sabbath morning. He had had a premonition. “We shall have a desperate battle today, many of us will be killed, and I expect to be among the number,” he told a fellow officer in the 115th Illinois Volunteer Infantry.
About 300 yards away on a hillside behind McAfee Church, Lt. Col. Isaac Clarke was more optimistic. He assured a comrade in the 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry: “I have no fear for myself. I shall go into this fight, and go through it, and comeout of it all right.”
Kinman and Clarke were officers in the Reserve Corps of the Union Army of the Cumberland, 5,400 men and three artillery batteries, many of whom had never before been in battle. On that Sunday the Reserve Corps would shed its untested status and experience warfare’s fury, fighting Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee on the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga. The maelstrom would prove Kinman’s vision and destroy Clarke’s optimism. Before the sun set, the two officers and hundreds of their comrades in arms would lie dead or maimed on the bramble-covered slopes of Horseshoe Ridge.
Major General Gordon Granger, commander of the Reserve Corps, was Regular Army, West Point class of 1845. The gruff New Yorker had served in the Mexican War, fought Indians in Texas, and seen action at Wilson’s Creek, New Madrid, Island No. 10 and the siege of Corinth. But Granger knew little more than his men about the role his command would be expected to play in the fighting taking place just a few miles up the La Fayette Road. The last order he received from Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, came late Saturday night, directing Granger to place his corps on the eastern slope of Missionary Ridge to provide support to the corps of Maj. Gens. Alexander McCook and George H. Thomas.
That command did not make much sense to Granger.
From his position at the junction of the Ringgold and Cleveland roads, his troops were in poor position to assist McCook’s XX Corps at the far right of the Union lines. Their best route to Thomas’ XIV Corps on the Union left would be a march of more than four miles along the La Fayette Road. To Granger, it seemed the only thing he was in a good position to do was protect the Rossville Gap and keep the road to Chattanooga, Tenn., open.
As mid-morning approached, a growing volume of gunfire soon reached Granger’s ears, but he had no new orders from Rosecrans. Granger vacillated. Should he go to support Thomas, who hadn’t asked him for help, or hold his position and guard the road to Rossville and Chattanooga? Staff officers sent to Rosecrans for guidance returned, unable to reach the commanding general.
Between 10:30 and 11 a.m., Granger and his chief of staff, Major J.S. Fullerton, climbed a haystack to get a view of the action. When Granger climbed down, one account has it that Colonel James Thompson, his chief of artillery, remarked that Thomas was “having a hell of a fight over there.” That convinced Granger it was time to move and “if we don’t hurry it will be too late.”
Major Fullerton’s version, however, has come down through history as the more popular account. He wrote that after 10 minutes of watching on the haystack, Granger “jumped up, thrust his glass into its case, and exclaimed with an oath, ‘I am going to Thomas, orders or no orders.’”
“And if you go,” Fullerton replied, “it may bring disaster to the army and you to a court-martial.” “There is nothing in our front now but ragtag bobtail cavalry,” Granger replied. “Don’t you see Bragg is piling his whole army on Thomas? I am going to his assistance.”
The men of the Reserve Corps were ready to march in less than 30 minutes. Around 11:30 a.m. 1st Division commander Maj. Gen. James Steedman put the 1st Brigade of Brig. Gen. Walter Whitaker, the 96th and 115th Illinois, the 40th and 89th Ohio, the 22nd Michigan, 84th Indiana and the 18th Battery of the Ohio Light Artillery, on the march for the La Fayette Road. Right behind them came Colonel John G. Mitchell’s 2nd Brigade, comprising the 78th Illinois and the 98th, 113th and 121st Ohio supported by Battery M of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery. Granger left his remaining five regiments and an artillery battery under Colonel Daniel McCook at the McAfee Church, charged with keeping the escape route to Chattanooga open.
Confederate Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s right wing was attacking Thomas, just as it had done the day before. But soon Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, sent west with three divisions to bolster Bragg’s army and in command of the Confederate left, would order Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood and 11,000 men concealed east of the Brotherton farm to advance.
Elements of Hood’s division poured through a gap in the Federal lines a quarter mile wide near the Union center. Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood was withdrawing his division and moving it to the left even though he knew he was following an order from Rosecrans that was based on faulty information.
Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson, who assumed command of the attack after Hood was wounded, described the scene as “unspeakably grand.” Union staff officer Ambrose Bierce wrote that he “saw the entire country in front swarming with Confederates; the very earth seemed to be moving toward us!” Decisive leadership and the courage of small groups of soldiers from splintered Union regiments, probably numbering no more than 2,000 men in all, would slow the pace of the Confederate juggernaut just enough to ensure that there would still be a Union army for the Reserve Corps to save.
Granger moved his column at quick time, and Major Fullerton recalled the narrow road “was covered ankle-deep with dust that rose in suffocating clouds.” When the column reached the La Fayette Road near the Hein house, Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest’s Rebel cavalrymen began to lob shells into the blue ranks. Provoked, Steedman sent out skirmishers and unlimbered Battery M of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery.
Granger reined in Steedman, re-formed the column and decided that the La Fayette Road was too dangerous. The open fields southwest of the Cloud Church offered a safer and more direct route to Thomas. He also sent Major Fullerton back to the McAffee Church with orders to bring up McCook’s brigade to deal with Forrest. Granger had now fully committed his corps.
The column now moved at double-quick time directly toward the Snodgrass cabin, with the lead regiments of the Reserve Corps arriving there between 1 and 1:45 p.m. While the tired Confederates were regrouping at the foot of Horseshoe Ridge, Thomas ordered the new arrivals to fill a half-mile gap in his line between Colonel Charles G. Harker’s brigade of battered Ohioans and the division of Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds on the far right of the Kelley farm field.
Before Steedman could deploy his winded regiments, the sound of musketry to the right of the XIV Corps made Thomas change his mind.
If there were Confederates advancing around the right, the rear of Thomas’ entire defensive perimeter would be exposed. A courier soon galloped up to confirm that attacking Rebels faced only remnants of the 21st Ohio on Horseshoe Ridge.
“Those men must be driven back,” said Granger. Thomas agreed, then asked, “Can you do it?” Granger said: “Yes, my men are fresh, and they are just the fellows for that work. They are raw recruits and they don’t know any better than to charge over there.”
“Those men” were Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman’s Division, comprising Brig. Gen. Patton Anderson’s Mississippi brigade, Brig. Gens. Zachariah C. Deas and Arthur M. Manigault’s Alabama regiments, and Bushrod Johnson’s Tennesseans. The mostly untested soldiers of the Reserve Corps would receive their baptism in blood that day against these veteran regiments on the boulder-strewn slopes of Horseshoe Ridge.
Determining time on a Civil War battlefield is an imprecise science at best, and proves especially difficult in accounts of Chickamauga. But Captain Seth Moe, Steedman’s assistant adjutant general, reportedly said, “[A]nd as this is likely to be an important event, gentlemen, just remember that it is now ten minutes past one o’clock.”
It was now a race to the crest of the ridge. Steedman flung Whitaker’s exhausted brigade forward in a double line. In front were the 96th and 115th Illinois and the 22nd Michigan. Behind them came the 40th and 89th Ohio and the 84th Indiana. They sprinted uphill for almost 400 yards through oaks, fallen trees, boulders and brambles.
After traversing a series of shallow ravines, the brigade ascended a long ridge where it encountered the first sporadic shots of the Rebel skirmishers approaching from the other end. As the hard-charging blue lines reached the crest of the hill, they got their first glimpse of the disciplined Confederate regiments aligned scarcely 60 yards below them.
Their bayonets fixed, the Union attackers assaulted their foes with an élan that momentarily stunned the Mississippians. The Confederates quickly regained their poise, however, and—supported by a battery of six guns pouring out solid shot, grape and canister—halted the headlong Union advance about 100 yards down the southern slope. Then Colonel Cyrus Suggs’ veteran Tennessee regiments began to counterattack and slowly pushed the exhausted Union regiments back up the ridge.
For the next 30 minutes, the two sides thrust and parried at each other, often at almost point-blank range. The 22nd Michigan, the first Reserve Corps regiment to come under enemy fire, suffered about 100 casualties in its first two minutes of battle. Every officer in the 115th Illinois was hit, and Colonel Kinman’s death premonition became a reality during the regiment’s first charge. The Confederates succeeded in pushing the first wave of Steedman’s troops off the crest.
While General Granger remained with Thomas at the Snodgrass cabin, General Steedman chose to lead from the front. As the series of savage engagements seesawed up and down the slopes, he observed the decimated 115th Illinois again falling back in apparent disorder. When Colonel Jesse Moore told the general that his regiment had no fight left, Steedman told Moore he could go to the rear in disgrace if he wanted to. Then Steedman grabbed the regimental standard from the color bearer and ordered the stunned troops to follow him back to the top of the ridge. They did. There, after his horse was shot out from under him, Steedman continued to rally his troops on foot.
The 96th Illinois was also breaking in the face of determined attacks by Suggs’ Brigade, now reinforced by Colonel John Fulton’s Brigade of Tennesseeans. Lieutenant Colonel Clarke’s optimism about coming through the battle unscathed ended abruptly when a Minié ball hit him in the chest, knocking him off his horse and killing him.
But the timely arrival of Steedman’s 2nd Brigade under Colonel Mitchell pushed through the tattered remnants of the 96th and succeeded in extending the Union line beyond Fulton’s left flank. Mitchell formed his brigade into a double line in dense woods and moved up the ridge.
The Confederates, fearing enfilading fire from Mitchell’s regiments and Battery M of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery, fell back toward the protection of their own batteries. An eerie silence enveloped Horseshoe Ridge about 2:45 p.m.
Just a few minutes earlier, Thomas and his beleaguered defenders had received a second contingent of unexpected but welcome reinforcements. Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer had pulled his 1,200-man brigade out of the line above the now quiet Kelley field and, also without orders, marched his troops toward the sound of fighting. Thomas immediately ordered Van Derveer to relieve the tired remnants of Brig. Gen. John M. Brannon’s troops of the XIV Corps’ 3rd Division, who had been under a blazing sun and continuous gunfire since 1 p.m.
The sun was not bothering General Longstreet as he sat under a large shade tree, confidently following the Confederate offensive. A courier from General Bragg’s headquarters at Jay’s Mill cantered up, prompting Longstreet to ride to Bragg to report on the fight and ask for reinforcements from General Polk to hold the ground he had taken.
When Bragg turned down the request, Longstreet was dumbfounded. Bragg didn’t seem to comprehend how close the Confederates were to total victory. Nonetheless, Longstreet was determined to finish what he had started. “There was nothing for the left wing to do,” he wrote in his memoirs, “but work along as best it could.”
“Old Pete” may have been long on fight, but he was short on strategy. Two options other than directly assaulting Horseshoe Ridge were available to him. Either from ignorance or choice, he took neither of them.
During a reconnaissance before lunch, Longstreet came under fire from some Union pickets near the half-mile gap in the Union lines that worried Thomas. Longstreet practically rode right by it, and Maj. Gen. Alexander Stewart’s Division spent much of the afternoon ignorant of the fact that it was almost in front of it. At the very least, the presence of skirmishers there should have resulted in a reconnaissance in force to ascertain Union strength in the area.
The gap wasn’t plugged until Captain Charles Aleshire and his 18th Ohio Light Artillery limbered up and fled to the rear in the face of furious Confederate counterbattery fire. He took his guns back to the Snodgrass cabin, where Colonel James Thompson, Granger’s chief of artillery, promptly directed the battery to cover the potentially lethal break in the Union lines. Longstreet fully lost this window of opportunity late in the afternoon when the brigade of Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen moved into the gap from its original position above the Kelley farm field. Longstreet also had the option of bypassing Horseshoe Ridge altogether and moving his brigades up the Dry Valley Road to the McFarland and Rossville gaps, thus cutting off Thomas’ retreat route to Chattanooga.
While Longstreet rode back from his disappointing meeting with Bragg, Bushrod Johnson decided to renew his assault on Horseshoe Ridge at about 3:30 p.m. In his official report, he correctly deduced “that this position on the extreme left was one of the utmost importance and might determine the fate of the day.”
From a deep gorge and a nearby hill, Deas and Manigault’s Alabama regiments again surged forward with Fulton’s Tennesseans. In reserve was Colonel David Coleman’s brigade of mostly Arkansas men. Johnson rode along the line himself to position the brigades before sending them off for another crack at Steedman’s severely battered regiments.
The two sides slaughtered each other for another 30 minutes before Deas’ Brigade broke and two regiments of Manigault’s Brigade, the 28th and 34th Alabama, refused to re-form and attack again. Coleman’s brigade almost crested the summit before it too was forced to retreat. By 4 p.m., Confederate soldiers not already dead or wounded withdrew under a curtain of canister fire from their artillery batteries to quench their thirst, redistribute ammunition and perhaps marvel that Providence had spared them.
Longstreet had one more hammer to hurl at Horseshoe Ridge, and about 4 p.m. he decided to throw it. General William Preston’s Division of about 4,000 men had seen limited action and, compared to the troops opposing them, were fresh and full of fight. But the Confederates were again bedeviled by poor command and control. Preston’s largest brigade, mostly Alabama men commanded by transplanted New Yorker Brig. Gen. Archibald Gracie Jr., moved out before the rest of the division was positioned. An angry General Preston realized he could do nothing but order in his other partly formed brigades.
Gracie attacked uphill across the Vittetoe Road in a single line of battle against the entrenched remnants of Harker’s brigade, some of the original defenders of Horseshoe Ridge. On a low slope of the ridge, Gracie’s line splintered. Some regiments halted while others advanced, but all suffered significant casualties. James Henry Haynie’s memoir of the 19th Illinois recalled: “[T]hey come so swiftly that we can hardly count their volleying….Through the thick smoke suddenly we see a swarm of men in gray, not in battle-line, but an on-coming mass of soldiers bent on burying their bullets in resisting flesh.” Gradually the Union defenders fell back, but Gracie’s bloodied regiments were too low on ammunition to press home their attack.
Johnson, however, was still determined to seize the ridges on which so much blood had been spilled. About 4:30 p.m. he ordered a third assault by the splintered brigades of Fulton, Suggs and Manigault, now numbering only about 800 men. Most of the Union defenders were almost out of ammunition, and John Batchelor of the 78th Illinois later confided in his diary, “We were fighting Indian fashion—every one doing the best he could under the circumstances, without regard to tactics or alignment.”
Yet another hour of savage fighting would finally force the Reserve Corps to withdraw. Steedman’s regiments were hopelessly intermixed, and since the Reserve Corps had no stretcher-bearers, many able-bodied men helped wounded comrades to safety, never to return to the line.
The redoubtable Battery M of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery covered the withdrawal with volleys of double-shotted canister. According to the unit’s official history: “Our fire was reserved until they were so close as to be able to recognize an acquaintance, had there been one there, when our battery opened on them at short range, throwing them into disorder….We then fell back to a high hill a short distance to the rear.” Before it pulled all six of its guns off the field sometime after 6 p.m., Battery M had poured out 360 rounds of canister and 276 of spherical case.
By 6 p.m., 23-year-old Colonel John Kelley and his motley collection of Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia men, now reinforced by Colonel Robert C. Trigg’s small brigade of three Florida regiments plus the 54th Virginia, began to secure a foothold on the lower slopes of Horseshoe Ridge. But General Thomas had decided to abandon it.
While Johnson was urging his weary soldiers to summon their courage once more, Rosecrans’ chief of staff, Brig. Gen. James Garfield, after riding through Dan McCook’s skirmish line, arrived on the field. He made Thomas aware for the first time of the disaster that had befallen the rest of the Army of the Cumberland. Nearly one-third of the army had already fled the field northward to Chattanooga. A telegram from Rosecrans, then in Chattanooga, arrived between 4:30 and 5 p.m., ordering Thomas to assume command of all remaining forces and “take a strong position and assume a threatening attitude at Rossville.”
Thomas was not a man to countenance defeat. He had at first intended to hold his position and withdraw toward Chattanooga only under the cover of night—still several hours away. He began to organize the final phase of the Battle of Chickamauga, a fighting withdrawal in which the Reserve Corps would lose, perhaps unnecessarily, a large portion of two regiments.
With still two hours before dark, Thomas decided to begin withdrawing the divisions facing the Kelley farm field first. He sent Captain John D. Barker of the 1st Ohio Cavalry, the commander of his escort, with orders for General Reynolds to begin. Then Thomas turned over command of the forces on Horseshoe Ridge to Granger and rode off toward the La Fayette Road so he could personally position Reynolds’ division to cover the retirement of the rest of the army.
At about 7 p.m., with the only noise coming from the crackling of burning brush and leaves, the men of Trigg’s Brigade crept up yet another ridge toward the remnants of the 21st Ohio. Lieutenant Wilson Vance later wrote, “Wrapped in the fog, they looked like so many phantoms on a ghostly brigade drill, and it gave one a creepy sensation to look at them.” When challenged, the gray wraiths replied, “We’re Jeff Davis’ boys.” Thinking that their relief had finally arrived, since Jefferson C. Davis was a Union general, the beleaguered defenders rose up only to find their “benefactors” belonged to the 7th Florida. After six hours of continuous fighting, the valiant remnants of the 21st Ohio downed their muskets and surrendered. To their right, the men of the Reserve Corps’ 89th Ohio quickly followed the example of their Buckeye brethren.
On another ridge Lieutenant William Hamilton of the 22nd Michigan, the first Reserve Corps regiment to come under fire, was crouched behind his men. Out of the gloom came a heavy line of troops, and Williams would later write: “It was now so dark we could not distinguish the color of their uniforms. They marched towards us, guns at charge and when within two or three rods of us began to call on us to surrender.” Outnumbered and out of ammunition, “the men sprang to their feet and became prisoners.” The men of the 54th Virginia captured almost 250 of the Wolverines.
Misery had been the order of the day for the Union Army. The dead were left unburied, and many of the severely wounded lay under the stars, each man enduring his suffering and thirst alone. Charles Partridge wrote, “[T]he survivors still recall it as a hideous nightmare.”
It was not much better for the dazed and wounded survivors as they stumbled through the cold night, heading as best they could toward Rossville. Partridge remembered wounded horses carrying wounded men and “ammunition wagons were halted and filled with human wrecks…men were carried in blankets for miles…toiling on wearily through the hours, and along the road that was at once so strange and so long.”
Even though it missed the savage fighting on Horseshoe Ridge, McCook’s brigade achieved a historical footnote. Its men had been successfully keeping the Confederate cavalry occupied, perhaps preventing it from closing the McFarland and Rossville gaps. His men were the last Union forces to leave the field when they limbered up their guns and, at about 10 p.m., filed off the low ridge near the McDonald farm.
Chickamauga had lived up to its Indian name, “river of death.” The casualty lists for the Reserve Corps of the Army of the Cumberland reflect the ferocity of the fight. Granger and Steedman took 3,700 men to Horseshoe Ridge. In just over five hours of combat, they lost 16 officers and 200 enlisted men killed, 66 officers and 910 enlisted men wounded, and 35 officers and almost 600 enlisted men missing and captured.
As much as any battle in the Civil War, Chickamauga was a soldier’s battle. Charles Partridge said the men of the 96th Illinois were “lions while the battle lasted.” He easily could have been speaking about all the men of the Reserve Corps.
This article was written by Gordon Berg and published in the January 2007 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!