The Story of Chicamauga

As Told By an Eye-Witness

By J. B. Dodge

I have always been of the opinion that the reason there is no more correct idea of what a battle consists of, than there is, is owing to the reticence of those who could give a vivid description of one, or, in many instances, of a great many, but cannot do it without speaking so much of themselves, as to lay themselves liable to the charge of egotism by the censorious. At the risk of this charge, I will try to give your readers a description of what I saw of "Chicamauga," at the same time utterly disdaining any attempt at self-laudation.

The word "Chicamauga" signifies the "River of Death," in the language of the Indians who formerly peopled the country through which it runs, and it has well preserved its name and reputation originally given it on account of the malarious diseases, caused by its sluggish, turbid current. At every place I ever saw it, although a good sized stream, it was full of dead and decaying timber, and covered with a filthy scum. I was in command of a brigade of infantry, consisting of the 77th Pennsylvania, commanded by Col. Thos. A. Rose, now of the regular army; the 79th Illinois, commanded by Col. A. Buckner, a prominent Methodist preacher; the 34th Illinois, commanded by Lt.-Col. __ Van Tussel, of De Irvin, Illinois; the 29th Indiana, commanded by Lt.-Col. D. M. Dunn, of Logansport; and the 30th Indiana, commanded [by] Lt.-Col. O. D. Hurd, of Ft. Wayne, and Capt. Grosskopf's 20th Ohio Independent Battery, and a truer man or a better soldier was not to be found in our army than either of them. Prompt and fearless in the discharge of every duty, they were each of them qualified to command the heroes of which their several commands were composed. On the 1st day of September, we crossed the Tennessee River at Caperton's Ferry, about two miles from Stevenson, Alabama, on a pontoon bridge that had been thrown across the river at that point. The river there is about one-half mile wide, and there are a number of beautiful islands in it just below the ferry. Not more than half a mile from the south bank of the river rises Sand or Raccoon Mountain, to a height of about 2,500 feet, the ascent of which is only practicable at a few gaps or passes in other places the sides are almost or quite perpendicular. I crossed early in the morning, and leaving Col. Rose in command, went up on the mountain, in company with a number of others, and after reaching the top, which was above the clouds at the time, waited until the mist rolled away below us, revealing the most magnificent sight it was ever my lot to behold. The river almost beneath us looked like a magnificent bed of silver studded with emeralds. The narrow bridge was filled with troops, their arms and accoutrements glistening in the sun, banners flying, and marching as only old soldiers can march. This all in sight, and the only noise that reached our ears, being the harmonious blending of the notes of music from the bands that were all playing, made a scene that will never be forgotten by those that enjoyed it. But this could last but a short time, when we had to leave, and see that our commands, with the accompanying trains, were pushing up the mountain. Although very steep, the entire corps (the 20th) camped that night on top of the mountain, with the exception of the 34th Illinois, which was detailed to guard the bridge, much to the annoyance of the Regiment and all concerned.

But it was an important position, and the safety of the army might depend on its preservation, and it could not be left in better or safer hands. The mountain is as level on top as one of our prairies, and where we crossed it is about ten miles wide. There were hardly any persons living on it, and those that did were in the most squalid condition of any people I ever saw. My command was in advance, and the officer of the day had orders to take no houses inside of my lines when it could be avoided, in posting the line of pickets. He reported, after performing that duty, that there was a house just outside of the line that was occupied by some women and children who were suffering from sickness and hunger. I went to the house with him, my brigade surgeon, and one or two other officers, and found three women and two children in a hewn log house, without any doors or windows, lying on the ground, with a little straw and leaves under them, sick with pneumonia or lung fever. There were three other children the oldest a girl about twelve years old who told me that she went every day about five miles and got a few ears of corn out of a cornfield, and that that was all they had had to eat since the rebels had left there which I knew had been twelve days before. The surgeon prescribed for the sick, and left a liberal supply of medicines, while the commisary sent them a quantity of flour, hard bread, coffee, rice, sugar, and meat. I have no doubt but his returns to his department came out all right. The women's husbands were in the rebel army. They were as ignorant as people could be, and at first thought we were going to kill them all, as we were the first Union soldiers they had ever seen. The next day we went down the other side of the mountain into Wills' Valley very pretty, and for that country, well cultivated valley. The people here were the most unsophisticated I ever saw. Owing to their peculiar location they were almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world, and it was amusing to hear their remarks as to our appearance. While going down the mountain, where only a few of our cavalry had preceded us, we saw by the upper side of the road, three or four faces peering anxiously over a log. We halted, getting out of the way so that the troops could pass, and wanted to know what the parties that owned them were doing. Presently a boy about fifteen years old replied: "We want to see you d--d Yank's." Said Capt. Davis, my Brigade Inspector, "what do you think of us, as far as you have got?" Boy, "you look pretty well so far, got all your good looking ones fust, ain't ye?" Davis, "no these men are as hard a looking lot as we have, (pointing to the 77th Penn., that was just passing, and a very fine looking regiment of men.) Boy, "Oh, h--ll where's your 'lop-eared' Dutch!" This raised the laugh on Davis who prided himself on his Dutch descent, he came to time, with "Why I am a Dutchman all of these men are 'Dutch,' I belong to the same regiment that they do." The boy gradually became bolder, and at this time was perhaps ten feet from Davis with his feet on a level with Davis' horse's back. He looked intently at Davis a moment, and turning to his companions said with an air of supreme disdain: "By hoky! I knowed it, every one of them fellows are deserters from our army, (the rebel) and the Yank's have cut their ears off so that they'll know em!" We rode on satisfied that we knew one rebel that was in need of reconstruction. For some little time previous two or three of our regiments had been getting lax in discipline and lawless as far as they dared to, in their conduct towards the inhabitants of the country. A soldier will fight men that are opposed to him a coward only fights women and children. After getting down into the valley, I went out about sundown to inspect my picket line as there was a rebel cavalry force in our front; when I returned at dark I found an order detailing me on duty on a "Drum-head Court Martial," to meet at Division Head Quarters immediately. The order had been left about fifteen minutes before. As my supper was ready I swallowed it as rapidly as possible, mounted my horse and rode about three-quarters of a mile to Head Quarters, and reported. I was informed that I would hear a report of the proceedings of the court in a moment. A number of officers were standing around a fire and we were talking together when the Provost Marshal came up and reported that the sentence of the court had been executed, that the man was hung. The facts were that a fellow that had deserted two or three times had been recaptured and sent to his regiment just before we started on this march, and could not get away. He had strayed away as soon as he had got into the valley went into a house occupied by an old lady was caught by some soldiers that were within hearing of the old lady's voice in the act of pillaging the house, and in less than an hour was hanging on a tree, as an example to others. It was severe on him, but was productive of good to the rest of our corps. We remained here for a number of days while Thomas with the 14th corps crossed Lookout Mountain in the direction of Trenton and Chattanooga. On the 10th our corps (the 20th) crossed Lookout Mountain going up Winston's Gap and down at Henderson Gap into McLemore's cove or valley. It was not very hard going up, but my command was in the rear that day and I had to see that all the trains and artillery were safely over before descending. The larger portion of my command got into the valley by 10 o'-clock. I got down with the last regiment just at sunrise the next morning, with the loss of six men, one gun, one caisson and the forge, (or blacksmith shop) all belonging to the battery attached to my command, and all caused by a teamster going to sleep on his mule. The gun etc. went over the side of the Mountain, taking 12 horses along, and never struck ground or anything else until they had went at least 300 feet. The men were drivers that went with their horses. We dropped on the ground utterly exhausted, after reaching the foot of the Mountain, in a dusty, hot, dirty and uncomfortable camping place, and got nothing to eat until noon the next day. My wagon train had been ordered off somewhere, I never knew where, by some one that had no authority. Just after we had got dinner, I was ordered to corps Head Quarters, and received orders with minute instructions to march out on the LaFayette road to spring and there, if the enemy was found to be in any force to take a position at the foot of the Mountain near there in a gap. The road down the Mountain there having been thoroughly obstructed by the rebels. I accordingly started out about sundown and marched rapidly about four miles when I met a large force of our cavalry, that had been sent out on a reconnoisance, coming back, and they reported that the whole of Bragg's army was at Rome and LaFayette. That was what General Rosecrans had been wishing for almost a month to find out. Bragg having skillfully concealed his movements in order to draw Rosecrans out and whip him by detachments, or one corps at a time. It was a dark night, and I had no one with me that knew anything about the country, but after the cavalry had passed I threw out a strong line of skirmishers, and advanced until we struck a marsh that run at right angles with the road, and thinking that would do us for a defence until morning, laid down on our arms in line of battle.

At day-light the men were wakened up and formed in line without making any noise, and we marched swiftly on. A strong force of the enemy was continually in sight, but they fell back as rapidly as we advanced, firing but a very few scattering shots. I had a description of the entrance of the gap, and knew I could hold it. I could not go back without being utterly destroyed by the rebel force, who were falling back for the express purpose of making our capture certain. We therefore passed on by the road turning into the gap, which was over a mile to our left, until the column had entirely passed. The command was given to "about face" and marching to the quickest possible time; we were in possession of the gap before the rebels realized the situation. It was a natural fortification, more impregnable than many redoubts, and some forts that I have seen, and in a few moments we were ready to defy an attack from five times our number. The rebels understood the matter, and posted a brigade of infantry on the road that led out in the direction of LaFayette, and a cavalry force on the road back to Henderson's Gap. McLemore's cove or valley, where we were now, is from three to four miles wide, and then there is a range of sharp-peaks connected together, of no great height but impassable except at certain gaps, called Pigeon Mountains south of the range is Broomtown valley along which runs the road from Roam to Ringgold and Chattanooga. The valleys are level and rich, the Mountains rugged and sublime. But we must get back to our gap. We immediately after providing for defense in front, detailed as large a force as could be spared to clear out the road to the top of the mountain. I could get my men out of trouble if defeated in front after three or four hours work, but it was impassible for the artillery, and could not be made otherwise with the tools we had. From the top of the mountain, Bragg's army could be seen extending for miles, on its march to Steven's Gap which if he had gained would have cut McCook's 20th corps entirely off from Thomas, and would have enabled him to crush Crittenden with his 21st corps who was in the neighborhood of Chattanooga before he could have been interfered with. A detachment of cavalry had been sent to report to me as couriers, on top of the mountain. As soon as I discovered the movement of the rebel troops I sent a courier to General McCook with the report and an hour after for fear something might have happened I sent another with a similar report. The very consoling replies I received to each, was "Tell Dodge he is mistaken he need not be afraid." I sent no more reports that day. That night we lay on the ground on our arms, and without fires. A little skirmishing going on along our lines, but not enough to make it interesting. The next day was occupied in watching the rebel columns as they moved up the valley flags the sun glistening on their arms, even the accoutrements of their officers could be distinctly seen by the aid of a glass, from the top of the mountain, and after night the sound of their bugles, drums and fifes was plainly heard. Almost under my feet, apparently, were my own men; off to my right six miles distance on an air-line, 20,000 loyal soldiers sleeping in peace, now, in front, and almost in sight was 60,000 men who were determined to destroy the Union their fathers helped make, if it was possible. I sat that night and long and anxiously thought of the thousands of those brave men who would soon be writhing in anguish from wounds, or sleeping the calm sleep of death; and of the thousands both north and south who would within a very few days at the furthest, mourn over the loss of father, brother, husband or lover God help them war knows no mercy. All was quiet as death except the occasional flash of a gun, and a moment after the sound of its report would come up the mountain, as I slowly descended and threw myself on the ground for what little rest I could get. The next day passed slowly. The rebels were getting more anxious to find out what we were doing, and their cavalry were re-enforced about noon. About that time a large force, equal in number to our corps, I think, started straight across the valley towards Henderson's Gap. As I was deliberating as to whether my superior officer might think I was afraid or not, if I reported this to him; a courier dashed up his horse ready almost to drop with exhaustion, and gave me an order to "fall back to Henderson's Gap by way of the valley, to not stand on the order, of my coming to come down the valley if it took the last man and gun I had."

It looked to me as if some one else had discovered what I had known 24 hours before. During the day a deserter from the rebel army came into my lines that knew every foot of the country; and I had got pretty well posted on the topography of the roads in my vicinity. After I had verified his information, by that received from a negro that came in, I found that the road had a number of years before run along close by the foot of the mountain instead of a mile or a mile and a half distance, as now, also that nearly the whole distance of the old route was now in corn fields. In a few moments we were on the march, with a strong force of skirmishers between my main column and the rebels. I made a feint as if I was going out the same way I came in. The rebels spedily drew back, to a strong position that we would have had to pass. Their infantry and artillery came around from the LaFayette road on the run, and just as they had got ready to welcome us with "Hospitable hands to Bloody graves" Col. Rose with the 77th Penn. which had been deployed as skirmishers disappeared from their sight, and before they had realized the actual state of affairs we were over a mile from them. It was excessively hot, but there was no such thing as halt; soldiers marched or run until their tongues utterly hung out; but we reached Henderson in first-rate order, and took our place in rear of the troops that were ascending the mountain as rapidly as possible.

We reached the top after dark some time, and Gen. W. G. Lytle, commanding (I think) the 3rd Brigade of Gen. Sheridan's Division (who Lytle, by the way was one of the most accomplished gentlemen and gallant soldiers it has ever been my good fortune to see the world knows all about "Little Phil,") with our Brigades went into camp. The rest of the corps moving rapidly on to join Gen. Thomas with the 14th corps, some 20 miles further on in the direction of Chattanooga, at Steven's Gap. Lytle and I rode back to where a heavy guard was stationed on the road up the mountain, and there were at least 25,000 (Breckenridge's corps I believe) rebels encamped on the ground we had left not three hours before.

So narrow had been our escape. We were in camp in a place of romantic interest. There is quite a good sized stream as large as the Tippecanoe river is two miles below Warsaw, at an ordinary stage, flowing along the top of Lookout mountain for 15 or 20 miles, (and I don't know but farther) where we halted there is a fall of 50 or 60 feet, the water then running on through one of the wildest gorges imaginable. Just below the falls the stream makes a very abrupt turn, and on the inner side of the turn there are the remains of an ancient stone fort, the outlines of which were more distinct than those of many heavy works, that were built during the rebellion; steps were cut down the face of the cliff a short distance to the entrance of quite a large cave that was probably used as headquarters by the commander of the fort. I am not responsible for the truth of the assertion, but it was said that DeSoto, in his march from San Augustine to the Mississippi river built the fort and occupied it for some time. At any rate, Lytle and I staid [sic] till late that night peopleing [sic] it with the followers of that most romantic of all soldiers, until, if it had not been for the outrageous braying of a miserable mule, I am not certain but we should have apologized to the spirit of DeSoto for taking possession of his quarters without asking his leave. We staid [sic] at that place the next day and night while Col. Post commanding a brigade in Gen. Jeff C. Davis' division was getting the trains together, and along on a road running parallel with the north side of the mountain, when we started to overtake our corps on a road running parallel with the south side. We moved leisurely, taking pains to attract the attention of the rebel force in the valley, so as to keep them from concentrating too rapidly.

On the 16th of Sept., we were met by a large force of cavalry under Gen. D. H. Stanley, and as there was a large force of rebel cavalry moving up the valley in the direction of Gen. Thomas, he concluded, to use his own expression, to "Warm 'em up a little." Lytle and I marched our men out in plain-sight of the rebels below at the head of a gap running down the mountain as if we were going to descend. The rebels made preparations to receive us, when Stanley with his cavalry went thundering down the side of the mountain, at a rate that was dangerous to riders, and ruinous to horses, and went dashing in among them.

From the rock that projected out from the side of the mountain, on which a party of us stood we could look straight down 2,000 feet, and see and hear the fight going on beneath us. Stanley's command deployed as fast as they reached the bottom spreading out like an immense fan, each man as soon as he came into line was under fire, but, for some reason our fire was greatly more destructive than that of the rebels, and while our line was like a rock their's was moving would break at times, and only be reformed by the greatest efforts on the part of their officers. Finally just at sundown Stanley's line was complete, he had a half mile of open country before him. The charge was sounded; every man and horse sprange forward as though the result of the battle depended on him alone 6,000 horses and men were in a moment in one fighting, struggling, reeling mass all was one almost inextricable mass of confusion. The rebels tried to use their carbines and pistols; ours depended upon the sabre alone. The excitement was intense, but no one had a doubt as to the result. The blows fell fast and furious, and there was a storm of riderless horses rushing to the rear. All at once, the center of the rebel lines gave way. With a wild hurrah, our men redoubled their strokes; it was too much for flesh and blood to stand, and the rebel line broke and went flying across the country. This was one of the most spirited cavalry fights of the war, not long in duration, but a fair and square stand up fight, and I doubt if it had its superior in that respect. It being dark by this time in the valley, the recall was sounded and the cavalry returned to the top of the mountain. Our loss was trifling. That of the rebels about 50 killed and seriously wounded, and was the means of detaining a rebel division of infantry so that it failed to catch up with the corps to which it belonged until after a spirited fight at Steven's Gap the next day, and which might have resulted differently to us if it had been on hand.

That night after I had gone to sleep I was awakened by some one speaking my name, in talking to a guard I at once inquired as to who it was and in a moment found myself shaking hands with Lieut. Col. Leslie of the 4th Indiana cavalry, who had just found out that the 30th was in his neighborhood. Leslie was a brave soldier; straight and unbending in his discipline, and careful of his men, either in camp or in battle, reckless of exposure himself, he was always in the front of battle. We parted at day-light, having spent the entire night talking of home and friends, that he was destined never to see in life. He had earned the highest praise from his commanding officers in the fight that evening, and was in great spirits. Poor Leslie! We moved on the next morning early, and in the afternoon descended the mountain at Steven's Gap. Here we found the evidence of a fight that Gen. Higley (I think) commanding a division of the 14th corps had had that day. He held the foot of the gap, had had just time to throw up some slight fortifications when he was attacked by a largely superior rebel force, but he held them at bay until he was reinforced when the rebels were forced to withdraw. We here found that our entire army consisting of about 50,000 men was concentrated being in line along what is known as the Ringgold road, extending some 8 or 10 miles. The left, covering Chattanooga, and in a position to be thrown to any point that Bragg the rebel commander-in-chief might see fit to attack. Bragg's force has been estimated (and I think he says so himself) at 75,000 men. That night we moved about three miles to the left and front to cover a gap in the Pigeon mountains. Nothing occurred here except some very sharp picket firing from the rebels who were securely posted on the side of Pigeon mountain, which we did not return.

Picket firing, in nine cases out of ten, is nothing more nor less than murder, it decides nothing is generally harmless, and is demoralizing to the army that practices it, unless it is done by an entire line for the purpose of disturbing the enemy, or distracting his attention from some movement being made. The next morning, Sept., 19th, after the men were supplied with 60 rounds of ammunition each, we received orders to join the division on the left and center. After marching about two miles, during which there had been a continual dropping fire from the rebels along our right, we halted near Gen. Rosecran's Head Quarters, for directions by which to reach our commands. We were instructed to await further orders, as we might be needed where we were. Just then the rebels made an attack in force just in front of us, and it was evident tha the battle for which we had been marching, skirmishing and maneuvering for almost three weeks had opened. Our line of battle was on a slight-ridge about 100 yards to the right of the road on which we were marching, that was covered with a small growth of "oak grubs." As the bullets came singing and whistling through these bushes, and the shells and solid shot came tearing along, it seemed as if h--l itself had broken loose. Soon came evidence of the terrible work going on, first came a poor fellow, hobbling along using his gun to support himself one leg terribly shattered; then they came by two's and three's staggering and reeling, and the hospital attendants with stretchers, on which laid poor fellows with their life blood rapidly oozing away. Although we were in that place 10 or 15 minutes, we did not see one single straggler not a man but was compelled to be there. As an illustration of the uncertainty of life, Gen. Lytle, Col. P. P. Baldwin, of the 6th Indiana, commanding the 1st brigade, in the division (I was in Johnson's) Capt. Stevens, 26th Pennsylvania battery; Lieut., Col. Hull, 88th Illinois infantry; and Capt Strader, on Col. Baldwin's staff were sitting on our horses in the road talking together, at the time I am speaking of. Some one of the part, said he wondered how many of us would be left when the battle was over. Lytle spoke solemnly, and slowly, and said "Good bye all! it will not be me that is left." Not another word was said on that subject, but in a moment all was life again. In 24 hours from that time I was the only one alive except Capt. Strader and he was mortally wounded.

Northern Indianian Thursday Feb. 4, 1875 front page

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