Armed with their new, lethal seven-shot Spencer rifles, Wilder’s
Lightning Brigade was all that stood between the Union Army
and the looming disaster at Chickamauga Creek.
By Hubert M. Jordan
Historically, the Battle of Chickamauga is recorded as a two-day battle starting on September 19, 1863. For the men of Colonel John T. Wilder’s mounted infantry brigade, the fabled “Lightning Brigade,” the battle actually started a day earlier. And, as events would prove, the Lightning Brigade was not only one of the first units from the Army of the Cumberland to be engaged at Chickamauga, but also the last unit to leave the field.
The men in the Lightning Brigade reflected the fighting spirit of their combative commander. John T. Wilder was an imaginative man who took great pride in his work and was determined to build one of the finest fighting units in the Union Army. Originally from New York, Wilder moved to Ohio when he was 19 and took a job as a draftsman and millwright in a mill in Columbus. Later, he moved to Greensburg, Ind., where he established his own foundry. He became an expert in hydraulic engineering, erecting numerous mills in the North and the upper South.
When the Civil War started, Wilder was determined to form his own artillery battery, and he cast two cannons in his foundry. However, his application was turned down–the state of Indiana had already met its quota of artillery batteries. Undaunted, Wilder joined the 17th Indiana Infantry as a captain and was quickly appointed lieutenant colonel.
As an infantry unit, the 17th Indiana constantly skirmished with Confederate cavalry. One day, frustrated because there was not enough Union cavalry to protect the infantry, Wilder ordered his men to mount mules used to pull the regiment’s supply wagons. The mules were not used to being ridden and did not take kindly to the foot soldiers’ attempts to ride them. As fast as the men mounted the mules, they were thrown off, much to the amusement of the men from other units who had gathered to watch. Wilder, however, was convinced that his men should be mounted, and he requested permission to do so. Three months later, on February 12, 1863, permission was granted.
Wilder’s next goal was to provide his soldiers with the best weapons available, and he attended a demonstration of Christopher Spencer’s new repeating rifle. The Spencer had a tubular magazine that held seven rimfire cartridges and, it would soon prove to be one of the most deadly weapons in the Civil War. Wilder arranged for a bank loan back in Indiana to finance the purchase of the Spencers, while his men agreed to have money deducted from their pay to help reimburse their commander. In May 1863, Wilder’s men received their new rifles, becoming one of the first mounted infantry units in the Army of the Cumberland to be equipped with repeating rifles.
Wilder’s brigade at the start of the Chickamauga campaign consisted of the 17th and 72nd Indiana and the 92nd, 98th and 123rd Illinois. The brigade’s artillery support was supplied by Captain Eli Lilly’s 18th Indiana Battery, which featured six 3-inch Rodman guns.
The Lightning Brigade had been assigned to Maj. Gen. Joseph Reynolds’ division of Maj. Gen. George Thomas’ XIV Corps. However, the brigade had what amounted to an independent commission to support all three corps in Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans’ army during its advance through Middle Tennessee toward the strategic railroad town of Chattanooga, on the Georgia border.
Confederate General Braxton Bragg planned to lure Rosecrans into a false sense of security, hoping to make him think that the Confederate army was demoralized and retreating toward Atlanta. To convince Rosecrans that his army was in bad shape, Bragg had some of his men pose as deserters and report that the Rebel army was demoralized and unable to offer any resistance to the swift Union advance.
Bragg’s plan worked like a charm, and by early September Rosecrans’ army was spread out over a large area, with the three corps separated by 60 miles of mountainous, heavily wooded terrain. The rough terrain made it hard for the three corps to maintain contact. Each of the three corps commanders was operating in the dark, not knowing where the enemy army was located.
In truth, Bragg had concentrated his army on the east side of Chickamauga Creek, hidden in the dense forest from the eyes of the Union army. While Federals laboriously inched southward, Bragg’s army was preparing for battle. Bragg had been heavily reinforced with two divisions from the Army of Mississippi and an entire corps from the Army of Northern Virginia. The original plan was to attack Thomas’ corps as it crossed Chickamauga Creek and began its climb up the Pigeon Mountain, and to crush the corps before help could arrive. Other segments of Bragg’s army would wait for Maj. Gen. Thomas Crittenden’s corps and then attack it. Finally, the full weight of the Confederate army would be brought down on Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook’s corps, destroying the Army of the Cumberland corps by corps.
By September 10, Rosecrans had begun to realize that Bragg’s army was not in retreat. Units from Thomas’ corps began to report the presence of large Rebel units. Major General James Negley’s division encountered a strong Rebel force when it crossed the Chickamauga, and Negley was forced to retreat. Thomas reported back to Rosecrans that the enemy was no longer falling back in disarray, as they had been led to believe. Both Thomas and McCook were concerned about being spread so far apart. After consulting with Thomas, McCook started making plans to shift his corps northward and closer to Thomas’ corps.
Wilder’s brigade was now attached to Crittenden’s corps and on September 11 had marched near Ringgold, Ga., where it had skirmished with Colonel J.S. Scott’s brigade of Confederate cavalry, driving it toward Tunnel Hill, then skirmished for half an hour with a second Rebel force before driving the enemy back toward Buzzard Roost.
The next day the brigade was ordered back to Ringgold. About four miles from its destination, the brigade encountered pickets from Brig. Gen. John Pegram’s division of Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry. The brigade attacked and drove Pegram’s units down the road to LaFayette. Soon Wilder learned that Brig. Gen. Otto F. Strahl’s Confederate brigade was deployed across the road to Lee and Gordon’s Mill. Wilder’s brigade was cut off, virtually surrounded by enemy forces. Luckily for Wilder, the Confederates hesitated to attack his brigade, not knowing the composition of the Union force that had suddenly appeared in their midst.
At dusk, Wilder ordered his men to build fires over a large area to make the enemy believe that a large force was camping for the night. While the 72nd Indiana and the 98th and 123rd Illinois formed a line of battle with Lilly’s battery, the 17th Indiana started searching for a way out. Scouts were sent out to round up some local inhabitants who were threatened with death if they failed to lead the Union forces out of the trap.
By 8 p.m., the 17th Indiana had found a way out, and the brigade began to march north past the pickets of Strahl’s brigade. The brigade got out of the situation without losing a man. Wilder’s brigade reached Crittenden’s position about midnight, tired and exhausted from the long and arduous march, yet happy to have escaped certain capture.
With more and more units reporting encounters with Rebel units, Rosecrans decided to unite his three corps, and messages were sent to Thomas and McCook to concentrate their forces on Crittenden’s corps. The Army of the Cumberland was still vulnerable to attack–and now Bragg was ready to attack.
On September 15, Bragg announced his final plans at a meeting of his senior officers. He intended to march northward and then west to interpose the army between Chattanooga and the Union forces. This would force Rosecrans to either fight or fall back across the Tennessee River to keep his supply line open.
By September 17, the forces on both sides were moving northward, and it was only a matter of time before they would collide with each other. Rosecrans realized that the vital crossings over Chickamauga Creek needed to be defended, yet he was still not fully convinced that the Rebels had anything more than a few cavalry units in the area. To counter any threat by Confederate cavalry, he ordered Wilder’s brigade, along with Colonel Robert Minty’s cavalry, to defend Reed’s and Alexander’s bridges. The two brigades were all that would stand in the way of Bragg’s effort to cut off the Union army from Chattanooga.
To complicate matters, Wilder’s five regiments were now reduced to four. The 92nd Illinois had been sent to Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga to guard the courier line for the army. Minty’s brigade consisted of the 4th Michigan, 7th Pennsylvania and 4th U.S. Cavalry troops, along with a battalion of the 3rd Indiana. Supporting his brigade was a section from the famous Chicago Board of Trade Artillery Battery. Due to sickness and lack of fresh remounts, both the units were under strength. Minty’s brigade numbered less than 1,100 men, while Wilder’s brigade numbered about 2,000.
On the morning of September 17, Wilder’s brigade headed for Alexander’s Bridge, three miles north of Lee and Gordon’s Mill, while Minty’s brigade was sent to Reed’s Bridge. Both commanders saw evidence of strong Confederate forces in the immediate area. Dust clouds could be seen rising from the east side of the creek. Minty reported his concerns to Crittenden, who discounted the reports, believing that it was only scattered Confederate cavalry.
In spite of continued reports of increased Confederate activity in the area, the Union commanders failed to realize the importance of safeguarding the crossings over the Chickamauga, in effect leaving only two undersized brigades to defend the entire left flank of the army against 16,000 Confederates. During the night of September 17, Minty sent several worried dispatches to Crittenden, stating that he could hear train after train arriving at Ringgold and unloading Confederate infantry. Convinced that an attack was imminent, Minty had his men awakened before daylight. They fed their horses and ate their meal as the first rays of daylight came over the mountains. At daylight, the horses were saddled and the artillery harnessed. Camp was struck and the gear loaded and sent to the rear.
At 5 a.m., Minty sent out two reconnaissance parties of 100 men each to try to locate the Rebels. Men of the 4th U.S. Regiment were sent toward Leet’s Tan Yard, and 100 men from the 4th Michigan and 7th Pennsylvania, under the command of Captain Hebert Thompson, were dispatched toward Ringgold. By 6 a.m., Thompson reported the enemy moving in force toward his position. Minty moved the 4th U.S., the 4th Michigan and a section of artillery east about a mile and a half to a ridge overlooking Pea Vine Valley. To buy more time, he reinforced his pickets and sent them halfway down the east slope of Pea Vine Ridge. Meanwhile, the Thompson scouting party fought a skirmish with units of Colonel John S. Fulton’s infantry brigade, supported by a battery of Georgia artillery. The intense musketfire, coupled with deadly artillery, forced Thompson and his men to fall back and take cover on Pea Vine Ridge.
At 11 a.m., Minty sent the following message to Brig. Gen. Thomas Wood: “Sir: The enemy has driven in my scouts from toward Ringgold and are following up apparently in force. Cavalry and infantry are reported. I am now skirmishing heavily. I have had one man killed and several wounded. Please report my signal to Generals Rosecrans and Crittenden.”
For the men of Wilder’s brigade, the morning of September 18 was clear and beautiful. The men had foraged for breakfast, and by midmorning the smell of eggs, bacon and chicken wafted over the area of Alexander’s Bridge. Units of the 72nd Indiana and 123rd Illinois had been posted on the east side of the bridge to act as pickets. For time being all was quiet, until men of the 72nd Indiana who had been foraging on the east side of the creek returned suddenly, reporting Rebel infantry to the northeast. “Boots and Saddles” was blown by the buglers of each regiment, immediately followed by orders to fall in. The entire brigade took up positions in preparation for battle.
From atop Pea Vine Ridge, Minty could see long lines of Confederate infantry marching toward Dyer’s Bridge and ford a mile to his north. Both crossings were unprotected. Minty sent a courier to Wilder asking him to send reinforcements to guard the crossing points. Shortly after 11 a.m., Wilder received Minty’s request and promptly dispatched seven companies of the 72nd Indiana, along with the 123rd Illinois and a section of Lilly’s battery.
After sending the units northward, Wilder deployed the 17th Indiana to the right of Alexander’s Bridge, with the 98th Illinois on the left side. Dense woods in the immediate area around the bridge on the west side of the creek helped shield the two units. The creek at that point was narrow and deep with steep banks. The enemy had no choice but to try to take the bridge or find another place to ford the creek. Four hundred yards southwest of the bridge, the four remaining guns of Lilly’s battery were emplaced on a knoll. Wilder had fewer than 1,000 men to oppose 8,000 Confederate infantry, plus part of Forrest’s vaunted cavalry, all supported by artillery.
At Reed’s Bridge, the 123rd Illinois was deployed to occupy and hold Dyer’s Bridge, while the 72nd Indiana was sent to guard the ford farther downstream. As one company of the 72nd moved near the ford, it was ambushed by enemy troops who had already crossed the ford. A sharp skirmish ensued, driving the 72nd back toward Dyer’s Bridge. A few minutes later, the 72nd was ordered to withdraw and report back to Minty.
Minty, in the meantime, had regrouped his command east of the bridge and ordered an advance against the lead elements of the enemy corps, driving them over the ridge and back into the Pea Vine Valley. The Confederates now established a crescent-shaped line that extended from the creek above Dyer’s Ford across the ridge into Pea Vine Valley. The men in gray numbered nearly 10,000, including 15 regimental stands of colors.
Minty’s men were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the enemy and unable to hold on to the eastern side of the bridge. The best they could do would be to try to delay the Confederates as long as possible before withdrawing across the bridge. To that end, Minty formed a new line 500 yards east of the bridge with the 4th Michigan, two battalions of the 4th U.S. and the remaining companies of the 7th Pennsylvania. He ordered the artillery and one squadron of the 4th U.S. to set up an ambush near the bridge in a densely wooded patch. The rest of the 4th U.S. was ordered back across the bridge. There they formed on the high ground immediately west of the creek.
As the Confederates swept by the Reed house on the battlefield, the ambush was sprung. The four guns of the Board of Trade Battery opened up on the surprised Rebels, raking them with double-shotted canister. When the Southerners stopped to redeploy, Minty sent the 4th Michigan across the bridge, followed closely by the 7th Pennsylvania. To cover the withdrawal, a squadron of the 4th U.S., led by the Lieutenant Wirt Davis, made a brave saber charge that gave the beleaguered cavalrymen time to get across the bridge. Crossing the bridge behind them, Davis and his men stopped under heavy fire and ripped up the flooring on the bridge, tossing the planks into the creek.
Minty now formed a line on the high ground west of the bridge. For the next two hours his brigade held the entire Rebel force in check. But by 3 p.m. the Confederates had crossed the bridge, and other forces were finding shallow places to cross the creek as well. Seeing that he could no longer hold out against vastly superior numbers being brought to bear on his tired troopers, Minty sent word to the 123rd Indiana to withdraw, adding that he was unable to hold out much longer.
Meanwhile, at Alexander’s Bridge, Wilder and his two regiments were engaging another large Confederate force. At 10 a.m., a company of Southern infantry made the first attempt to cross the bridge, but was quickly driven back by the pickets of the 72nd Indiana. After the initial attack, members of the regiment ripped up the planking on the bridge and built a lunette fort on the west side of the bridge astride the road. Thirty-seven men from Company A then took up positions in the lunette, waiting for the next Confederate attack.
Lilly’s battery of four rifled guns opened fire with long-range canister and percussion shells. Captain William Fowler’s Alabama battery returned fire. One of the Rebel battery’s first shells landed near Lilly’s No. 2 gun, ricocheting and hitting the corner of the Alexander house and bouncing back among members of the battery. Private Sidney Speed alertly ran over, picked up the live shell and hurled it over the log house, where it exploded harmlessly.
For the next several hours, Wilder’s men traded fire with the 30th and 34th Mississippi, who had taken positions in a cornfield on the east side of the creek. The Confederates continued to charge the bridge, only to be driven back by Company A, reasonably secure in their lunette.
For almost five hours, Wilder’s brigade held off the Rebel attack. But eventually Confederate units began to find places where they could cross without opposition. With Minty withdrawal from Reed’s Bridge, the Southerners gained a secure foothold on the west side of the creek. At 4 p.m., Wilder reported the crossing of the enemy: “The enemy are crossing [infantry and cavalry] Chickamauga Creek at Alexander’s and Byram’s Ford below. Colonel Minty has fallen back toward Roseville; has two of my regiments. Colonel Minty reports cannonading toward Cleveland last night. This forenoon a column of dust arose in Napier Gap; three hours in passing. A large camp fire is now seen at Napier’s. The column that attacked me came through Napier’s Gap; another column came from the direction of Peeler’s. Colonel Minty reports infantry flanking him on both flanks.”
Wilder’s men were being pressed from all sides. Time was rapidly approaching when they could no longer hold their position and would have to withdraw. Wilder had already received word from Minty that he was being forced to withdraw from Reed’s Bridge. With Minty gone, the Confederates began streaming across Chickamauga Creek and heading south towards Alexander’s Bridge and Wilder’s left flank.
At 5 p.m., Lilly’s battery fired its last rounds, limbered up its guns and withdrew. The 17th Indiana covered their withdrawal, and the 98th Illinois slowly fell back, fighting as they withdrew. After these units started withdrawing, the men of Company A realized they would soon be surrounded and captured if they did not try to escape. The men knew that they could not all leave at once, so they decided to let two men at a time slip away. Sergeant Joseph A. Higinbotham, in running 30 yards, was shot five times–in the head, face, right arm, left side and right leg. Remarkably, he recovered from his wounds, but later died at Corinth, Miss, in January 1864. In all, the company lost two wounded, as well as 31 of their 37 horses killed.
Wilder’s brigade fell back about three miles before stopping and setting up a new defensive line. There they threw up breastworks of fence rails, rocks and trees. The horses were sent to the rear, and the brigade prepared to meet another onslaught from the Confederate army. The 72nd Indiana and 123rd Illinois rejoined the brigade and were placed in line on the left. Minty’s brigade took up positions to the right of Wilder’s brigade.
Five Confederate brigades moved down the west bank toward Lee and Gordon’s Mill. Marching as fast as they could, they ran right into Wilder’s brigade. The Southern skirmish line was halted immediately by the deadly fire of the Lightning Brigade’s Spencer rifles.
Captain Joseph Vale of Minty’s command found General Crittenden, accompanied by General Wood and Wilder, at the Viniard house. He reported that Minty had been engaged since 7 a.m. Crittenden asked the captain: “Who is it that is coming? What have you been fighting out there?” Vale responded, “Buckner’s corps, Hood’s division of infantry and artillery, and some of Forrest’s cavalry.” Crittenden refused to believe the report, saying, “Wilder has come in with the same outlandish story; there is nothing in this country except Pegram’s dismounted and Forrest’s mounted cavalry, with a few pieces of artillery.”
Minty himself rode up a few minutes later and reported to Crittenden that the Rebels were now on the west side of the creek and advancing toward his position. Crittenden, still believing that the enemy did not have such a force in front of them, ordered Wood to take a brigade of infantry and drive off the Rebel units. While Wood was organizing his brigade, Wilder and Minty rode back to their units.
Wood moved his brigade up to Wilder’s position and, accompanied by Crittenden, rode up to Wilder and demanded to know where the enemy was. Wilder replied, “Ride forward, General, ten paces, and you will see for yourself.” Wood ordered his brigade to form a line of battle in front of Wilder’s men. Crittenden added a further dig at Wilder, smirking, “Colonel, we expect to hear a good report for you.”
Wood’s infantry advanced into the woods and suddenly met a tremendous volume of musketry from both front and flank. The infantry broke and ran, bowling over Wilder’s and Minty’s men in panic. Wilder turned to Minty and remarked loudly, “Well, Colonel Minty, the general has got his report.” Wilder and Minty then rushed forward to counter the enemy attack. Meanwhile, Wood galloped off toward Lee and Gordon’s Mill, but not before exclaiming, “By Gad, they are here!”
The Confederates advanced toward the rail barricades behind which Wilder’s and Minty’s men waited. When the Rebels got within 30 yards, Wilder ordered his men to open fire. Both brigades sent a hail of bullets from their Spencers into the enemy. The Confederates were cut down in droves. The graybacks wavered and fell back, leaving many casualties on the field.
The survivors of the first attack re-formed in the tree line and emerged again with fresh units, advancing toward the men of the Lightning Brigade. As soon as they were close enough, the brigade again opened fire, supported by Lilly’s battery, and whole sections of the Confederate line ceased to exist. Again the Rebels were forced to withdraw to the safety of the woods. The Confederates gave up and broke off the attack around 10 p.m.
For the men of Wilder’s and Minty’s brigades, the fighting finally came to an end. The night of September 18 was cold and miserable, made even worse by the lack of blankets and food for the men because their horses had been moved to the rear, along with their bedrolls and equipment. No fires were allowed, so the exhausted men just lay down in their positions and went to sleep.
All night long, as Wilder’s men tried to catch some sleep, the sounds of thousands of marching infantry and hundreds of caissons and wagons filled the night air. The entire Union army was on the march. Rosecrans had ordered a realignment of his three corps, and Thomas was ordered to march his XIV Corps north beyond Crittenden and extend the line northward in order to neutralize Bragg’s flanking maneuver.
At 4 a.m., Wilder and Minty were relieved and moved their brigades to the west out of the Viniard house. For the first time in 24 hours the men and horses were fed–sweet potatoes for the men and two ears of corn for each horse. Wilder and his officers met to discuss the actions of the previous day and to prepare plans for the upcoming battle. The day before they had been the left flank of the Union army. Now they found themselves protecting the right flank, as the Union forces had shifted position during the night.
The bravery of the men of Wilder’s Lightning Brigade and Minty’s cavalry had prevented total disaster from befalling the Army of the Cumberland. Without the valiant Union stand on the banks of Chickamauga Creek, the Confederate army would have swept down the Union flank, and the Battle of Chickamauga would have been lost on the very first day. Once again, the Spencer rifles had proved their worth.
Author Hubert Jordan’s great-grandfather served in the 17th Indiana, part of Wilder’s Lightning Brigade. For further reading, see Lightning at Hoover’s Gap: The Story of Wilder’s Brigade, by Glenn W. Sutherland; or Chickamaiga: Bloody Battle in the West, by Glenn Tucker.
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