By James B. Ronan II
Brigadier General John King’s disciplined brigade of Union Regulars found itself tested as never before at Chickamauga. For two bloody days, the Regulars dashed from one endangered spot to another, seeking to save their army from annihilation.
In the cold, clear predawn of September 19, 1863, the last of some 1,500 men of the Regular brigade filed into position near the Kelly farm in northwest Georgia, 13 miles south of Chattanooga in the valley of West Chickamauga Creek.
Comprising five infantry battalions and a battery, the brigade was the largest body of U.S. Regulars west of the Appalachian Mountains. Although some of the officers and sergeants were veterans of the prewar army, most of the troops had no previous military experience. The soldiers accepted the stern ways of the Regulars because their state regiments had no vacancies or were slow to be mustered into state service. The battalions themselves were “New Army” outfits formed in the 1861 expansion of the standing army.
The Regulars comprised the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, XIV Corps, of the 57,000-man Army of the Cumberland. The army had been fighting in the Western theater of the Civil War since 1861 to prevent the Southern occupation of Kentucky and to dislodge the Confederates from Tennessee. During June and July 1863, army commander Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans had maneuvered the Confederates out of central Tennessee in the brilliant and nearly bloodless Tullahoma campaign. In August 1863, the Cumberlanders advanced to give battle over the prize city of Chattanooga, a rail hub linking Virginia to Georgia and situated at a gap in the Appalachian Mountains that was the gateway to the lower South. Possession of the city would deprive the Confederacy of a vital conduit for foodstuffs and military stores and give the Federals access to central Georgia.
The Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by the bilious General Braxton Bragg, opposed Rosecrans’ army. Bragg’s combination of physical debilities and personal deficiencies, plus the touchiness and insubordination of his subordinate commanders, threatened to fracture the chain of command. His army had already been driven out of Kentucky and Tennessee. This dearth of success, plus Bragg’s harsh views on discipline, hardly endeared him to his 71,000 soldiers.
On August 16, Rosecrans moved south from Tullahoma. To confuse Bragg, Rosecrans divided his four army corps, moving the XXI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Thomas Crittenden, north of Chattanooga to threaten Bragg’s right flank, while the XIV and XX corps traveled in an arc south of the city through northeastern Alabama and into Georgia. A reserve corps under Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger followed to reinforce the army. By September 8, Rosecrans had forced Bragg to evacuate Chattanooga.
Seeking to further damage the Confederate army, Rosecrans began a risky pursuit, during which he failed to keep his corps in supporting distance of one another. Twice the Confederates missed a chance to destroy the widely separated Union columns, and reports of the Rebels’ proximity made Rosecrans realize that Bragg had ceased to retreat and had concentrated his army to give battle. At that point, Crittenden’s XXI Corps was in contact with Confederate forces on the banks of West Chickamauga Creek, near Lee and Gordon’s Mill. Major General George Thomas’ XIV Corps was six miles southwest at Pond Springs, and Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook’s XX Corps was 10 miles away, on south Missionary Ridge. During the next six days both armies began to concentrate in the area north of La Fayette, Ga.
Brigadier General John King’s Regular brigade, under the divisional command of Brig. Gen. Absalom Baird, was among the many brigades that left their bivouacs early on the morning of September 18 and plodded northeastward as the army consolidated. Both Thomas and McCook were moving toward Crittenden to ward off what Rosecrans correctly perceived as a threat to his left flank and main supply route through Chattanooga.
Bragg had determined to fight to protect his supply train and artillery park. He hoped to cut off the Union army from Chattanooga and drive the Northerners back across the Tennessee River.
The Regulars and the rest of the Union army had no idea what the terrain was like on the battlefield. From their new position in the Kelly farm field on the La Fayette Road, King’s men could see little ahead of them, and their officers had no chance to perform reconnaissance.
The terrain was thickly wooded all the way to Chickamauga Creek. In fact, Thomas described it in his official report as “original forest timber, interspersed with undergrowth and in many places so dense it was difficult to see 50 paces ahead.” Visibility would be worse during the battle, with gun smoke hanging at ground level in opaque clouds. Unit commanders were unable to see both ends of their line of battle, and the artillery had a difficult time functioning. While the trees provided concealment, when hit by shellfire their wood and bark burst into hundreds of lethal fragments. Sparks from rifles and cannons would also ignite the underbrush, causing fires that immolated the wounded.
Small farms dotted the area, and their names–Kelly, Poe, Brotherton and Snodgrass–came to be associated with some of the bloodiest fighting in America. Chickamauga Creek flowed along the east side of the battlefield. Studded with fords, it was easy to cross, but the few poor roads that traversed the battlefield made the massing of troops difficult and their movement slow.
The battlefield was bisected by the La Fayette Road, which provided good north and south movement. The road was not only connected to the fords on the Chickamauga, but was also the principal artery running to Chattanooga via the Rossville Gap, about eight miles from the battlefield. If the Rebels cut that road, the Union army would be cut off from Chattanooga.
The western boundary of the battlefield was Missionary Ridge, a huge mass of rock running 30 miles southwest from the Tennessee River. Only two gaps in the ridge, McFarland’s and Rossville, allowed passage from the battlefield to Chattanooga. If they were captured, the Army of the Cumberland would be pinned against the ridge and crushed.
While Rosecrans consolidated his army, Bragg planned a holding attack around Lee and Gordon’s Mill by one of his army corps. Three others would cross the Chickamauga north of the mill via Thedford’s Ford, Alexander’s Bridge and Reed’s Bridge, sweeping west and south to seize the La Fayette Road and cut the Yankees off from Rossville Gap.
While the armies moved, Union cavalry stood watch on Chickamauga Creek around Reed’s Bridge, and a small clash occurred in the vicinity on September 18. The next day, Saturday, September 19, Colonel Daniel McCook engaged some troops of Confederate Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson’s division. McCook believed a Rebel brigade was alone west of the stream. Burning to attack, he noticed dust clouds rising off the La Fayette Road around 6 a.m. The troops raising the dust were at the head of Baird’s division, moving into position at the Kelly farm. McCook rode to find Thomas and informed him of his estimate of the situation. Thomas could not resist the temptation to capture the Confederate brigade; he agreed to supply infantry for the operation.
As Baird’s division moved into line of battle, the third of Thomas’ divisions, commanded by Brig. Gen. John M. Brannan, moved past their rear and fell in north of Baird. King’s Regulars, on the left of Baird’s line, were soon ordered to move east in search of the enemy. About three-quarters of a mile into the dense forest, Brannan’s men initially found Rebel cavalry, swiftly reinforced by the infantry brigades of Colonel Claudius C. Wilson and Brig. Gen. Matthew D. Ector.
The sounds of battle soon alerted Thomas to the fighting, and he ordered Baird to move forward and reinforce Brannan. Baird’s three brigades plunged into the dense forest, King’s brigade on the left, the brigade of Colonel Benjamin F. Scribner on the right and the brigade of Brig. Gen. John Starkweather trailing, also on the right.
As the Regulars moved forward, each battalion detached a company of skirmishers who formed a line 375 yards wide, about 250 yards ahead of the main body. Left to right, the first in line was the 1st Battalion, 19th U.S. Infantry, commanded by Major S.K. Dawson. Next was the 1st Battalion, 16th U.S. Infantry, its 308 men led by one of the few West Pointers of the brigade, Major Sidney Coolidge. On the right was the 300-man 1st Battalion, 18th U.S. Infantry, Captain G.W. Smith commanding.
This two-rank line of battle was followed by the 130 men of Lieutenant H.M. Burnham’s Battery H, 5th U.S. Artillery. One hundred fifty yards to the rear, moving in column to provide support, was the brigade’s second line. Captain Albert B. Dod formed his 276-man 1st Battalion, 15th U.S. Infantry, on the left. To his right was the 2nd Battalion, 18th U.S. Infantry, 287 men strong, commanded by Captain Henry Haymond. King and his staff rode in the formation, ready to direct the actions of his five battalions.
The advancing Federals met the Confederates several hundred yards northwest of Jay’s Mill. King later recalled admiringly that as his Regulars moved through Brannan’s position and attacked the Rebels, they began “pushing everything to the front, my first line driving the enemy three quarters of a mile.” As Wilson’s Georgians and Louisianans fell back, so did Ector’s brigade on Wilson’s right flank. Major Dawson ordered his men to open fire, and the 9th Texas, passing in front of the Regulars, fell apart, most running away but some joining the 200 prisoners bagged by the Union that morning.
Disordered by moving through the heavily wooded terrain, the Regulars began torturously advancing their right flank to the south to seal off their portion of the Union right. Battery H was unlimbered and the 16th Infantry was in position to support it when Scribner’s brigade suddenly poured through the woods, closely followed by the pursuing Confederates of Colonel Daniel C. Govan and Brig. Gen. Edward C. Walthall.
The 16th Infantry was first to feel the weight of the Confederate counterattack. Lying in front of the guns, the battalion was confronted by five regiments of screaming Mississippians who burst from the trees like wildfire. Ordered to support the battery, the 16th met the onslaught and was overwhelmed. Nearly 200 Regulars were captured. King stoically reported, “I lost the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry.”
King ordered Burnham’s gunners to limber up, but it was impossible. The Rebels were immediately in the midst of the guns. Musketry killed or wounded 31 cannoneers, including all three officers, and 65 of 117 horses. Another 13 men were captured as they vainly struggled to save the guns.
Walthall’s attack lost impetus as the Southerners sought to haul off the Union guns and loot the prisoners. The commanders of the four remaining Regular battalions felt the lessening Rebel pressure and disengaged. Through the chaos of Baird’s dissolving division, gun smoke, flying bullets and wood splinters, the Regular brigade retired 400 yards to a hill behind the right flank of Brannan’s division. Eventually, the Confederate attack was repulsed.
The attack also cost the Confederates heavy losses. The commander of the 29th Mississippi reported severe casualties, and the 34th Mississippi lost seven killed and 54 wounded. In captivity, the men of the Regular brigade continued to deceive their captors. Walthall and his division commander, Brig. Gen. St. John Liddell, recalled capturing prisoners who claimed to be in six Regular regiments that were not even on the field.
Following the repulse of the Confederate avalanche, Baird’s division was ordered to the Reed’s Bridge Road, southeast of the McDonald farm. This position–the extreme left flank of the army–they were ordered “to hold to the last extremity.” The Regular brigade consolidated and reorganized after its battering earlier in the day. Only 62 men of the 16th Infantry remained with the brigade, and King consolidated the survivors within the 19th Infantry. Second Lieutenant Robert Ayres reported losses totaling 67 men, including Major Dawson. The other battalions had suffered similarly, and their battery was out of the fight. But here the training and discipline of the Regulars paid off. They had stuck together before through rough times at Shiloh and Stones River. Although chagrined at the outcome of the present fight, they were not discouraged.
Fortunately for the Regulars, the battle moved well to their right. About 1 o’clock, the Confederates made six separate attempts to pierce the Union line from the Reed’s Bridge Road to the Viniard farm. The Army of the Cumberland, however, was determined to hold the La Fayette Road. In one or two places, the Rebels actually crossed the road, but were driven back. When darkness fell the road was still secure.
In the desperate fighting along the La Fayette Road, Rosecrans was able to feed brigades into the fight where they were most needed. Although these tactics allowed him to hold the road, his battle line was disrupted. Corps commanders were stripped of their brigades for emergencies in another part of the line, and they were reinforced in turn by other commands when the firestorm of Rebel attacks reached their fronts. It became increasingly difficult for divisional commanders to know where their forces were at any one time, and almost impossible to efficiently transmit orders.
As the fighting sputtered out around 7 p.m., both sides began planning for the next day’s fight. Rosecrans’ primary concern was “the safety of the army and the possession of Chattanooga.” To protect the vital roads, he ordered Thomas to maintain his position on high ground east of the La Fayette Road. McCook’s corps would stretch from Poe’s field southwest to the Widow Glenn cabin. Crittenden’s corps would station itself on higher ground northwest of the cabin and be prepared to move to the assistance of either Thomas or Crittenden. The Reserve Corps, from its position well to the north, was guarding Rossville Gap.
Bragg’s plan was to attack the Union line in the north around Reed’s Bridge Road, turning Rosecrans’ left flank. The attack was designed to push the Union troops south into McLemore’s Cove and seize the La Fayette Road and Rossville Gap. As the Federals gave way, the impetus of the attack would be kept up by a series of attacks running the length of the Union line. Bragg divided his army, placing one wing consisting of two corps under Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk. He would attack at daylight and be followed by the right wing under the newly arrived Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who would command his own corps and one other.
The initial Confederate attacks were to fall on Thomas, who took the position delegated him by Rosecrans to help hold the gap. The attacking Confederates would be moving uphill from the West Chickamauga Creek valley. Thomas was responsible for a 2,200-yard front manned by five divisions. On his extreme left was the Regular brigade. King had been ordered to extend his line as far as McDonald’s, but because he was down to 1,000 men, his line fell one-half mile short.
In order to accomplish his mission, King organized his brigade in four lines. The 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, was in front, behind breastworks of logs two feet high. Next was the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry, with orders to support the front line. The third and fourth lines were made up of the 15th and 19th infantries, respectively, with orders to support the front line or to wheel to the left to protect the open flank. The 18th sent skirmishers to the front, while members of the 19th Infantry took up position about 400 yards off the left flank.
Breastworks were constructed to fortify the Union position. Confederate Lt. Gen. Daniel H. Hill reported that “the ringing of axes could be heard in our front all night.” The labor made the cold night more bearable for the healthy, but for the wounded there was no respite. Unattended on the field, they could find no relief from the chill night air or their relentless thirst.
The only sources of water were at Lee and Gordon’s Mill and the Widow Glenn homestead. So many wounded crawled to the pond at the widow’s homestead that their blood stained the water–it was thereafter called “Bloody Pond.”
The Confederate chain of command, already attenuated by jealousy and faction, was further weakened by the casualties of the 19th and finally snapped under the strain of Bragg’s reorganization. His generals failed to get their troops ready on time, and the dawn attack was delayed almost two hours while the Federals worked vigorously to improve their positions.
Second Lieutenant Ayres reported that “action commenced on the picket line about 7 a.m.,” as the Confederates moved into attack position in front of the Union lines. Polk had organized his wing into two massive lines of battle. The first line, extending north from opposite the Poe house to Reed’s Bridge Road, was composed of the divisions of Maj. Gens. Patrick Cleburne and John C. Breckinridge. Breckinridge’s three brigades were commanded by Brig. Gens. Ben Hardin Helm, Daniel W. Adams and Marcellus A. Stovall. Their line extended well beyond the Union left, with Helm’s brigade opposite the Regulars.
From their attack position about 700 yards from King, Rebel skirmishers moved out to probe the Union line and quickly engaged the skirmishers of the 18th Infantry. Helm was compelled to reinforce his line with the 4th Kentucky, a move that cost him time in launching his assault.
About 9 a.m., “the enemy drove in my skirmishers and advancing in force attacked my front and flank,” reported King. The two battalions of the 18th met the assault and were “warmly engaged,” while the 15th and 19th wheeled to the left to ward off a flank attack. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. John Beatty had moved away toward the McDonald farm, leaving a large gap between his brigade and the Regulars. They had no choice but to refuse their left flank.
The Regulars began their methodical destruction of the Confederate attack as Helm’s brigade cleared the trees and surmounted the high ground about 120 yards to their front. Crouched behind their breastworks, the Regulars poured a galling fire into the hapless Confederates. Since Cleburne’s division had not yet attacked on Breckinridge’s left flank, Scribner’s brigade on the Regulars’ right was able to enfilade the Rebel line, trapping them in a murderous fire. The assault was repelled, but the Confederates came on again, only to be repulsed once more. A third time they advanced into the terrible fire, which finally destroyed their assault and killed General Helm (President Abraham Lincoln’s brother-in-law). As the Rebels retreated, King shuffled his battalions. The 15th moved forward and relieved the 18th, which moved to the left to protect the flank.
The Confederates advanced through the woods about 400 yards, the La Fayette Road forming a boundary between them and acting as an arrow pointing to the heart of the Union rear. Colonel Joseph B. Dodge’s brigade gave way under the attack and added to the welter of retreating Federals on the north side of Kelly’s field. The 18th U.S. Infantry moved back as well to a second line of defense.
The 47th Georgia entered Kelly’s field but was driven back by a Union counterattack. During the Confederate attack, the consolidated 1st and 3rd Florida, commanded by Colonel W.S. Dilworth, became separated from their brigade by a rivulet. Captain G.W. Smith of the 18th Regulars laconically reported, “I charged the enemy’s line advancing about 600 yards.” King noted: “This charge was the most gallant act of the day. The enemy was again repulsed and my brigade retained its original position.”
While the Confederate generals bickered over their roles in the battle, the Union generals strengthened their lines. Dodge’s brigade was moved to King’s left, and the Regulars contracted their own line, concentrating their firepower. The luckless 24th North Carolina was inauspiciously sited to receive the Regulars’ volleys, and one-third of the command was either killed or wounded. The mangled Confederate brigade fell back, and the door to Rossville Gap remained barred to Braxton Bragg. Still, as Baird recorded, “Immediately after this attack on my left ceased, the sound of a tremendous conflict reached us from the southwest.”
The sound was the unraveling of the right wing of the Union army and the military career of William Starke Rosecrans. Misled by the quiet on this front and Thomas’ requests for reinforcements, Rosecrans had issued orders for much of his army to close on and support the hard-pressed army commander. Rosecrans–who was having a difficult time keeping track of his fluid brigades and believed a gap existed in his line where none actually did–ordered Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood to move out and plug the phantom opening, inadvertently creating a real gap in the Union line.
Longstreet chose that moment to launch a five-division attack aimed precisely at the gap. Across the Brotherton farm, Lytle Hill and the Dyer field rolled the Confederate assaults. From 11 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., they destroyed or brushed aside Northern units in their path, curving northward toward Rossville. Finally, the attack slowed at Snodgrass Hill, where Thomas had coalesced his line.
Thomas had no idea what had befallen the rest of the army, but he knew that he had to hold out on Snodgrass Hill to ensure a safe passage for the retreating troops. Around 4 p.m., Thomas received orders from Rosecrans, now in Chattanooga, “to assume a threatening attitude” at Rossville. Given positive orders to withdraw and form a defensive line, Thomas decided to withdraw the Kelly field line first, starting with Reynolds’ division. Last to go would be Baird.
The struggle at Snodgrass Hill did not mean quiet on the Kelly field line. “Heavy skirmishing continued along my entire front during the entire afternoon, until about half past four o’clock,” King reported. “The enemy again made an attack on my front and flank, my command being exposed to a terrific fire of musketry and canister.” Once again Regular discipline prevailed, and their fusillades pinned down the attacking Confederates.
Just before the final Confederate assault, Baird received Thomas’ orders to withdraw and sent out aides to deliver the order to his brigade commanders. As they held their position, Baird’s men were passed by the divisions of Maj. Gen. John M. Palmer and General Johnson. It was now time for the Regulars to go. As they pulled out, the Confederate brigades of Brig. Gens. George Maney, Marcus J. Wright and Colonel Randall L. Gibson charged “with a deafening hurrah and rapid shock” and tore into the retreating Regulars.
Gunfire, surging lines of soldiers and shouted commands made the fighting so confused that Lieutenant A.B. Carpenter of the 19th Infantry could locate only six men of his company. In the 15th, one company pulled out of line heading for rear and 1st Sgt. John Mars tried to steady the men. Captain Dod headed them off and ordered them back. Mars saluted and reported that his company was out of ammunition. Dod ordered, “Go back and fix bayonets.” Mars, a Shiloh veteran, obediently headed back but was killed almost immediately. Both battalions of the 18th pulled out and marched over a cornfield, then faced about, fired and moved to the rear. The 19th did not receive the order to retire, and they continued to fight until all were killed or captured.
For about two hours, fighting continued on Snodgrass Hill as the six remaining Union brigades held the attackers at bay. At dusk, Thomas ordered them to retreat, and they followed the rest of the army to Chattanooga. By 10 p.m., the Battle of Chickamauga was over.
Soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland were stunned. Never before had they been compelled to leave a battlefield and abandon their dead and wounded. The army had suffered a staggering 16,000 casualties. A defensive line was formed at Rossville, and the army moved back to Chattanooga to lick its wounds and reorganize. General Rosecrans lost his job over the debacle. He was relieved of the command of the Army of the Cumberland in October and replaced by Thomas. In November, Thomas helped plan and lead the operation that broke the Federals out of Chattanooga.
The Army of Tennessee was also stunned after Chickamauga. The Confederates found themselves unexpectedly in possession of the battlefield, but the army’s squabbling chain of command failed to organize a timely pursuit. More than 18,000 Confederate casualties lay on the field, intermingled with dead and wounded Northerners, and precious days would go by before the army was ready to move.
For the Regular brigade, the battle had been disastrous. Casualties ranged from 20 percent in Battery H to 42 percent in the 19th Infantry. One-third of the officers in the brigade were lost. Ayres found himself in command of a battalion totaling three officers and 51 men. Although the numbers of those killed and wounded were low in the 16th Infantry, 58 percent had been captured on the morning of the 19th. In all, 497 Regulars had been captured during the battle. Only 36 officers and 573 men remained with the colors.
Never again would King’s Regulars fight as a separate brigade. Reinforced with volunteers, however, they would continue fighting from Missionary Ridge to Atlanta, and they would play a major role in crushing Confederate Lt. Gen. John B. Hood at Jonesborough, Ga., in October 1864. That fall, they would be withdrawn from combat along with other Regular regiments to ensure there would be a standing army to occupy the South and reoccupy the West after the war was over.
The Regular army regiments went on to fight their way across Europe and Asia during the nation’s ensuing wars. Mementos of all their campaigns are displayed on their coats of arms, but most prominent are those commemorating their Civil War service. Both the modern 15th and 19th infantry prominently display “The Rock of Chickamauga” on their crests. Also emblazoned on the 19th’s emblem is the shoulder strap of an infantry 2nd lieutenant, a symbol of Ayres’ gallant stewardship of the regiment and the courage and tenacity displayed by the U.S. Regular Army in helping to preserve the Union.
Retired U.S. Army Major James B. Ronan II of Charlotte, N.C., frequently writes about the U.S. Regulars in the Civil War. For further reading, see: This Terrible Sound, by Peter Cozzens; or Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West, by Glenn Tucker.
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