The Midwesterners of the 17th and 72nd Indiana, the 98th and 123rd Illinois mounted infantry and the 18th Indiana Battery of Colonel John T. Wilder’s brigade peered with dismay through the curtains of smoke covering much of the West Viniard field and the La Fayette Road on September 19, 1863. At that point during the Battle of Chickamauga, pretty much all was confusion for the Union forces.
Retreating Federals streamed by Wilder’s men, driven before the thundering Confederate attack of General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. One member of the 72nd Indiana expressed shock at the sight of Union flight: ‘They ran over us like sheep.’
Wilder’s men, however, remained calm as they took up positions to stem the gray hurricane and peered through the man-made fog at the oncoming Southern battle line. The 18th Indiana’s cannons began dousing the Rebels with canister, while Wilder’s infantry cocked their Spencer rifles and let go with a fusillade of .56-caliber rounds that crumpled the Southern ranks. ‘Our Spencers,’ wrote Corporal Ambrose Remley of the 72nd Indiana, ‘[were] equal to the emergency.’ A private in the 17th Indiana confirmed that assessment: ‘Never did the enemy once reach us. We held our line intact.’
After several roaring attempts, the Confederate attack abated. ‘Bragg seemed determined to break our lines, but we held our position pretty well all day,’ was how Sergeant William Thompson of the 17th understatedly summed up the horrific battle.
The famous ‘Lightning Brigade,’ as Wilder’s regiments collectively were known, was one of the Civil War’s most unusual and successful fighting conglomerations, and the brigade’s 31-year-old commander was primarily responsible for both those characteristics. In 1849 Wilder had moved from his native Greene County, N.Y., to the Midwest, where he worked in a foundry as a draftsman in Columbus, Ohio. In 1857 he had established his own foundry in Greensburg, Ind. At the beginning of the Civil War he had hoped to form his own artillery battery, but Indiana had already filled its artillery quota. Instead, Wilder’s men were accepted into the service as Company A of the 17th Indiana Infantry.
Throughout 1861’s summer and autumn, Wilder’s men fought in western Virginia, and during that time he was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the regiment. Late in the year, the 17th Indiana was sent to the Western theater, where it would remain for the duration of the war.
Shortly before the Battle of Shiloh, Wilder became the colonel of the 17th, and he acquitted himself well in that fight. His superiors recognized Wilder’s command ability, and during Bragg’s autumn 1862 movement into Kentucky, Wilder was posted to command some 2,000 men guarding a vital railroad bridge over the Green River, near Munfordville. Bragg’s men soon approached, and Wilder and his troops found themselves surrounded. For two days his men beat back Confederate attacks. He refused to consider surrender offers, flippantly telling his foes to’stay out of the range of my guns’ if they did not want any more fighting.
Eventually, Wilder realized the inevitability of the situation and decided to consider surrender terms. He did so, however, only after he made the rare and astonishing request to survey the enemy lines to make sure the odds were indeed against him. The Confederates allowed Wilder to take a look at the 25,000 men and 45 cannons surrounding him. After a few minutes of reflection, Wilder gave the Rebel commander his decision: ‘Well, it seems I ought to surrender.’
Two months later, Wilder was exchanged as a prisoner of war and greeted back into the Army of the Cumberland in Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds’ 5th Division of the XIV Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. Wilder took command of the 1st Brigade, which included his old unit, the 17th Indiana. He structured the leadership to his liking, mostly from officers in the 17th, and improved the brigade in a number of ways.
By the turn of 1863, Wilder’s brigade, which at that time included the 17th, 72nd and 75th Indiana, the 92nd and 98th Illinois and the 18th Indiana Battery commanded by Captain Eli Lilly, was trying to stop Southern cavalry from raiding the Army of the Cumberland’s main supply route, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Frustrated with the futility of chasing on foot Confederate troopers, Wilder ordered some of his men to mount mules brought up from the wagon trains. The experiment largely failed–most of the animals were unused to having saddles on their backs–but the attempt gave Wilder the idea to permanently mount his brigade.
Wilder discussed the matter with the commander of the Army of the Cumberland, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, and ‘Old Rosey’ enthusiastically agreed to the idea. In February 1863, Rosecrans issued Special Field Orders No. 44, which gave Wilder sanction to mount his men. The army had precious few horses, and the would-be troopers had to round up their steeds in the countryside. Since the men were operating in ‘disloyal’ country, they simply impressed what horses they could find during foraging sweeps.
For the next couple of months, Wilder’s brigade spent its time adjusting to its new mounts by undertaking various expeditions in the vicinity of Murfreesboro. They would ride to a location, dismount and leave their animals with comrades appointed as ‘horse holders,’ and fight or scout like infantrymen.
During the shakedown period, Wilder realized that conventional muzzleloading muskets were too unwieldy for mounted soldiers. The enterprising colonel wanted his men to move quickly to their destination and hit hard when they got there. He did not favor breechloading carbines carried by cavalry troopers because their range was limited, and he began to study the worth of some of the new rapid-firing, breechloading rifles that were being developed.
Wilder first considered the Henry repeating rifle, but passed on that weapon after meeting Christopher Spencer. Spencer had been touring the Army of the Cumberland that March to promote his new repeating rifle in hopes of a finding a major purchaser. The Spencer rifle had a tubular magazine that held seven rimfire, .56-caliber metallic cartridges. The magazine was inserted into the stock, and the rounds were fed into the breech by lever action.
Wilder was stunned by the firepower of the weapon and decided to equip his brigade with them. To avoid Army red tape, he decided to try and persuade his men to buy their own Spencers at $35 apiece, and put the idea to a vote. They agreed, and handed $35 of their own money over for the weapons. Wilder co-signed for those who needed a promissory note to buy one of the rifles, and in May the weapons began arriving in camp. The 72nd Indiana was the first regiment to get the Spencers, and the men were ecstatic about the firearms. Corporal Benjamin Magee liked the weapon’s reliability. ‘It never got out of repair,’ he recalled. Private John M. Barnard produced a more bloodthirsty assessment of the weapon: ‘I think we can bring down a reb with them,’ he boasted. He would soon get his chance to try doing just that.
Shortly after the Spencers began to arrive, the 75th Indiana, the only regiment that had not agreed to become mounted, was swapped out of the brigade in exchange for the 123rd Illinois, a veteran regiment eager to put spurs on their boots and mount up. In just a few months, the innovative Wilder had reshaped his brigade, changing it from a conventional group of line infantry regiments to fast-moving, rapid-shooting mounted infantry.
In late June, Wilder’s brigade got its first chance to prove itself in a major campaign. Rosecrans, after months of fitting out his army, prepared to move southward from Murfreesboro against Bragg’s line along the Duck River. Bragg had a strong position and held the critical gaps in a series of hills through which the Army of the Cumberland would have to pass.
Rosecrans decided to use Wilder’s brigade to push through at Hoover’s Gap. On June 24, Wilder’s men pounded up to the gap, dismounted and drove forward. In a surprisingly easy fashion, they hammered through the defile, forcing out the outgunned Rebel troops. The Confederates regrouped, got reinforcements and tried counterattacking back into the gap. After three hours of fighting they gave up. Wilder’s men triumphantly held Hoover’s Gap as the rest of the Army of the Cumberland approached.
The fight at Hoover’s Gap was a key moment in what was called the Tullahoma campaign, during which Rosecrans pushed Bragg back toward Chattanooga. It was an eye-opening battle for Wilder and his Midwesterners. The brigade saved many Union casualties by taking the gap so swiftly. ‘The effect of our terrible fire was overwhelming to our opponents,’ Wilder reported. Colonel Wilder was so pleased with his men that he conferred a new sobriquet on his commands, sanctioned by his order: ‘Wilder’s Lightning Brigade.’
The rest of the summer was spent in camp in the vicinity of Tullahoma. The Lightning Brigade spent the time raiding and foraging in the countryside, obtaining horses, liberating slaves and skirmishing with Confederate cavalry and guerrillas. In the meantime, Rosecrans planned his next move against Bragg, who had fallen back to Chattanooga.
The Army of the Cumberland advanced late that August, with Wilder’s brigade in the van for much of the time. By the 21st, Rosecrans’ men were just across the Tennessee River from Chattanooga. For several weeks Rosecrans shelled the town while his army maneuvered around Bragg’s fortifications. On September 9, the Confederates abandoned Chattanooga.
Reports streamed into the Union lines indicating that the Army of Tennessee was in disarray and in full retreat to Atlanta, with stragglers falling out in droves. Convinced he had Bragg on the run, Rosecrans opted to split his army into three sections and try to cut Bragg off. Thomas’ XIV Corps comprised the center of the push, with Maj. Gen. Alexander M. McCook’s corps to the right and Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden’s XXI Corps on the left. Bragg’s ‘retreat,’ however, was a ruse. He had planted soldiers to fall out and trickle into Union lines with accounts of total defeat. In fact, Bragg knew that troops from Mississippi and also Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s I Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia were on the way to reinforce him. Bragg realized that he would have numbers equal to his opponent for one of the few times in the war.
Only a few miles from Chattanooga, he halted his forces and turned them around for a fight. The key to a decisive victory for the Confederates was to cross Chickamauga Creek and strike the Union corps scattered up and down the stream’s valley east of Missionary Ridge. Then the Confederates hoped to cut off opposing forces backpedaling along the La Fayette Road, crushing them one corps at a time. The plan was well-founded, but for it to succeed the Confederates would have to push through two advanced brigades of Federals, Colonel Robert H.G. Minty’s cavalry regiments and the Lightning Brigade. While the bulk of Wilder’s regiments operated together, the 92nd Illinois had been detached and sent on its own scouting mission.
By September 12, the Lightning Brigade was near Ringgold, Ga., and Colonel Wilder was quickly becoming aware that the Army of Tennessee was not retreating and demoralized, as his superiors had hoped. Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s Confederate division had actually surrounded the Midwesterners as the Rebels turned and headed back toward Chattanooga. Cheatham’s pickets bumped into Wilder’s videttes, but the Rebels had no idea how many men they were facing and were hesitant to attack. Wilder knew he was in trouble, and his men had to slink cautiously to the west to escape.
For the next several days Wilder’s men spent their time carefully picking their way through the Confederate-infested countryside. By September 17, his mounted infantrymen were at Alexander’s Bridge over Chickamauga Creek. On September 18, at Reed’s Bridge two miles north of Wilder’s position, Confederate Brig. Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson’s division pushed across the creek and attacked Minty’s cavalry.
Minty needed help in order to cover yet another bridge, Dyer’s, on his left flank, and pleaded to Wilder to send him reinforcements. The Indianian complied, sending the 123rd Illinois, most of the 72nd Indiana and a portion of Lilly’s battery. Only 1,000 men, half of the Lightning Brigade’s strength, remained at Alexander’s Bridge to face an oncoming force eight times their number.
Wilder’s men made the most of the surrounding terrain to help even the odds. The dense woods and steep banks of the creek near the bridge would force enemy units to make a frontal attack at the span, and the 98th Illinois deployed on the left side of the bridge and the 17th Indiana on the right, with the remaining Company A of the 72nd Indiana guarding the bridge itself.
During the midmorning hours of the 18th, Wilder ordered Company A of the 72nd Indiana to wreck the bridge by pulling up its wooden planks. At 1 p.m., three of Brig. Gen. Edward C. Walthall’s Mississippi regiments attacked the position, but the rapid-firing Spencer rifles thwarted any Confederate attempts to cross the creek.
While the infantrymen fought, the four guns of Lilly’s battery left at Alexander’s Bridge traded shots with an Alabama battery. One of the first shells fired by the Alabamians hit and bounced off the Alexander cabin, which stood north of the bridge along the Alexander’s Bridge Road, and landed among Lilly’s gunners. ‘I don’t think I will ever forget the awful, unearthly screeching that shell made….We all knew…it would strike some place close by,’ recalled a batteryman. As the projectile’s fuse sputtered, Private Sidney Speed picked up the round and heaved it past the cabin before it exploded, undoubtedly saving lives.
By midafternoon the Confederates were finding other ways to ford the creek to the South. Word also filtered down from the north that Minty had withdrawn. After hours of fighting, Wilder’s brigade was beginning to be surrounded.
Wilder’s men began to pull out in a slow and orderly fashion. Lilly’s battery fell back first, followed by the 17th Indiana, then the 98th Illinois. Company A of the 72nd Indiana was the last to leave the bridge. Wilder’s regiments had inflicted more than 100 Confederate casualties and held off two Rebel brigades in defense of the bridge, while suffering only a few casualties.
A few miles to the southeast, along the Alexander Road, a narrow trace that connected the La Fayette Road with Alexander’s Bridge Road, the Lightning Brigade set up a new defensive line facing to the northeast. The regiments sent to Minty’s aid rejoined the group. In the dim hours before sunset, some of Wilder’s skirmishers traded shots with the lead elements of Bushrod Johnson’s division. The Federals fought mounted. One soldier of the Lightning Brigade recalled that his horse bucked so hard every time he fired that he was nearly thrown off. The stiff Union resistance convinced Johnson he was up against a large force, and the Confederate general halted his troops for the night.
The night of September 18-19, however, provided little comfort for Wilder’s brigade. During the last skirmish with Johnson, most of Wilder’s men had sent their horses, blankets and tents to the rear. As the soldiers shivered during a particularly chilly night, the two massive armies began arriving and maneuvering for the morning’s fight. At about 4 a.m., the men were finally removed from the front and took up a new position on the far right of the Union line in front of the XXI Corps.
On September 19, Rosecrans sent two brigades and one battery of guns under the command of Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis in front of Wilder, across La Fayette Road and into the East Viniard Field. One of Davis’ brigades, led by Colonel Hans Heg, stumbled into a Tennessee and Texas brigade of Johnson’s division, and the Battle of Chickamauga began to swing into full fury. Davis’ men were pushed back over the La Fayette Road and into a ditch in the West Viniard field.
Wilder’s men received orders to hustle to the West Viniard field and help the overwhelmed Federal line. They arrived to find the 3rd Arkansas and the 1st Texas of Brig. Gen. Jerome Robertson’s Texas Brigade, a portion of Longstreet’s corps, dangerously close to the 2nd Minnesota Battery. The 72nd Indiana and 123rd Illinois ran in to shatter the Texans and Arkansans.
Wilder then deployed his regiments along the western side of the West Viniard field with Lilly’s battery on the left flank supported by the 98th Illinois. Running to the south, the 17th Indiana was next in line, followed by the 123rd and 72nd. As the Confederate attack developed, the 98th Illinois and 17th Indiana, along with two of Lilly’s cannons, wheeled to the left to fire at the 39th North Carolina and 25th Arkansas of Brig. Gen. Evander McNair’s brigade. The sputtering Spencers and roaring cannons compelled the Confederates to withdraw. Within a short time, the momentum of a major Confederate advance across the La Fayette Road had been halted and pushed back by the Lightning Brigade.
But at 3:30 p.m., after a short lull, the Texas Brigade came on again. After another full hour of fighting, Robertson’s men fell back across the La Fayette Road. ‘Our…seven-shooters were too much for them. The ground was gray with the dead and wounded,’ remembered one of Wilder’s men. Colonel George P. Buell’s brigade of the XXI Corps pursued them into the East Viniard field.
The fight was not yet gone out of Robertson’s men, however. Around 5:30 p.m., Robertson’s brigade aligned with Brig. Gen. Henry Benning’s Georgia brigade and came storming back across the La Fayette Road, herding Buell’s men before them and heading once more toward Wilder’s men at the edge of the West Viniard field.
Ammunition was dumped on the ground within easy reach of the Lightning Brigade soldiers. As the Rebels came on, Ambrose Remley of the 72nd claimed, ‘[We were] ordered to wait until we could see the whites of their eyes…’ Once that happened, Sergeant Ben Magee of the same regiment recalled he was not alone in ‘working’ his’spencer rifle for all it was worth.’
Outnumbered nearly 2-to-1, Wilder’s men kept the Southern attack in check, and the Rebels slipped into the West Viniard field ditch for cover. Robertson and Benning looked for a battery to help blast the Midwesterners, but none was found. Meanwhile, Lilly’s battery rolled forward and enfiladed the Rebel-filled ditch with canister, causing it, said one gunner, to become ‘full of killed and wounded.’ The Confederate attack fell apart, and those who got away retreated back across the La Fayette Road. Many were captured. One Rebel prisoner queried his captors, ‘What kind of guns have you got over here?…You jus’ kept on shootin and shootin.”
While the battle raged in the West Viniard field, the 92nd Illinois was fighting for all it was worth a short distance to the north in the Brotherton field. There, the regiment had done all in its power to stop the flight of a rattled Union brigade and slow down an onslaught of Tennessee and Texas troops. They had been only partially successful, and when they went to withdraw, the Illinoisans discovered that retreating infantrymen had made off with many of their horses.
Later that night, the 92nd rejoined their brigade on its left flank. For the second day in a row, Wilder’s men had helped save the Army of the Cumberland from total disaster. On the third day of fighting, however, events out of their hands would lead to a full retreat of the entire army.
On that day, September 20, an aide for Rosecrans was surveying the field and failed to see part of Brig. Gen. John M. Brannan’s division in the center of the Union line. He reported the apparent hole to Rosecrans, who called on Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood’s nearby division to fill the gap.
Wood’s departure, ironically, did create a major hole in the middle of the Union line where Longstreet had planned a full attack with a fresh division. The result was a major Confederate breakthrough. Longstreet began wrapping up the Union line in quick fashion, with fleeing Union troops streaming past Rosecrans’ headquarters at the Widow Glenn farm.
Wilder’s men, McCook’s Corps and more specifically Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s division, which had arrived in the West Viniard field area late on the 19th, were cut off by Longstreet’s drive. In a vain attempt to stop the attack, Rosecrans sent two brigades of Sheridan’s men to the left. Wilder was ordered to fill the gap created by their departure.
Sheridan’s men hit a tidal wave before they even got into position. Like most of the Union line at this point of the battle, utter chaos prevailed, and they started fleeing. Rosecrans gave up trying to rally his troops, and fled his headquarters.
With Sheridan’s division routed, the last semblance of hope on the far right of the Union line lay with the Lightning Brigade. Wilder brought his regiments out of a small patch of woods to the right of the Widow Glenn’s and set up Lilly’s battery within striking distance of Glenn field, saturated with Confederate colors at this point.
The rush of the Lightning Brigade surprised the advancing gray columns. With Lilly’s guns in play and the Indiana and Illinois regiments sweeping the field with their Spencer rifles, they were able to halt the Confederates.
The action soon turned into a Union counterattack, with Wilder’s men routing one enemy regiment, the 34th Alabama, and forcing the 28th Alabama to fall back. By the time the brigade had fully secured the field, they would tally 200 prisoners.
A lull ensued in the vicinity of the Glenn property, though sounds of fierce fighting could be heard to the north. Wilder ordered his men back to their horses. While the unit regrouped, he was deciding on a course of action. The rest of Thomas’ corps was doing the fighting to the north, and all evidence pointed to the fact that it was what remained of the Union line. Although cut off by Longstreet’s breakthrough, Wilder reasoned he could re-form his unit and push north, wrapping up the Confederates while he slashed his way to his corps.
Wilder sent dispatches to McCook and Sheridan, hoping that both would follow his lead and form up beside him along the attack. Meanwhile, he set up his brigade in a hollow square, with two regiments up front, two on the flanks, one in the rear and Lilly’s battery in the middle.
Just as Wilder was about to put his plan into action, a hatless, shaken civilian came galloping toward him: Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana. After inquiring what command he had stumbled across, Dana demanded to be escorted back to Chattanooga to send word to officials in Washington of the retreat. In his own personal account of the battlefield encounter, Wilder said he had offered Dana a few scouts, to which Dana had agreed, but again emphasized to Wilder to fall back to Chattanooga and guard the withdrawal.
Dana would later disagree with accounts of what happened, stating he had not given Wilder any orders and had decided to ride to Chattanooga himself. Regardless, the Lightning Brigade withdrew from the field and covered the retreat of the Union army, finally taking a position along Missionary Ridge east of Chattanooga. That left the field to Thomas, who held out on Snodgrass Hill until the last possible moment in order to save the army from total defeat.
Wilder’s brigade had certainly proven itself in the Battle of Chickamauga. It had held back an entire Confederate division from crossing Chickamauga Creek on September 18, pushed back the elite Texas Brigade the following day and deflected part of James Longstreet’s advancing attack on the 20th. At a cost of 125 casualties, the five regiments and their accompanying battery had been the plug in multiple holes and the catalyst of a couple of crucial counterattacks.
Wilder’s Lightning Brigade remained a force in the Western theater for the remainder of the war, but its commander did not. Soon after his brigade was assigned a defensive position in Chattanooga, Wilder fell ill and requested a leave of absence. While he was at home the Army of the Cumberland broke the siege of Chattanooga, and he rejoined his brigade in April 1864 in time to take part in Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign.
By October, however, he decided the physical demands of the campaign were too much for his fragile health and resigned, never having received a commission of brigadier general. That slight was also a factor in pushing him out of the military, though he did receive the lesser honor of brevet brigadier general. In an ironic twist, Wilder returned to Chattanooga after the war and became wealthy operating a factory that made railroad rails.
He even became the mayor of the city he had once ordered Lilly’s cannons to fire upon. Wilder died in 1917 and was buried in Chattanooga, his military accomplishments largely overlooked until a later generation of military historians began to research and analyze the successes of the innovative and deadly Lightning Brigade.
This article was written by By Graham Garrison and Parke Pierson and originally published in America’s Civil War magazine.