Artillery Hell?

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Chickamauga is not known as an “artillery” battle. Just the opposite, in fact. All the woods make it very much a soldier’s battle, one into which artillery ventured at their peril. The Union XIV Corps lost a division’s worth of artillery on September 19, and several other Union batteries were overrun as well.

If anyone thinks of artillery at Chickamauga, they likely turn to Ambrose Bierce’s powerful description of Union guns in Poe Field, stopping Confederate General William Bate’s charge on the late afternoon of September 19:

“the field was gray with Confederates . . . .Then the guns opened fire with grape and canister for perhaps five minutes – it seemed an hour – nothing could be heard but the infernal din of their discharge and nothing seen through the smoke but a great ascension of dust from the smitten soil. When all was over, and the dust cloud had lifted, the spectacle was too dreadful to describe. The Confederates were still there . . . but not a man was on his feet . . . and so thickly were all covered with dust that they looked as if they had been reclothed in yellow. ‘We bury our dead’, said a gunner, grimly.”

 A vivid word picture.

But there are cannon all over the field at Chickamauga, not just lining the north end of Poe Field. They have their stories to tell, as well.

Take, for instance, the 4th Indiana Battery position on Battleline Road. You can find the 4th Indiana’s guns just south of Tour Stop #2, where the Regular Army monuments stand, not far south of where the Shell Pyramids for Brigade Commanders Colquitt and Helm memorialize the deaths of those two men. Not many people pay a great deal of attention to the 4th, I suspect, as the monuments come thick and fast down the length of Battleline Road; too many to stop and think about each one individually.

But the 4th Indiana is special. Take a closer look. Note that that guns are angled, pointing northeast and southeast, not simply facing outward at random. Also note that the cannon are in the apex of Battleline Road’s most eastward bend, directly astride the ridge that defines George Thomas’s second-day position.

The battery began the fight on the 19th under command of Lieutenant David Flansburg, and was one of units which came to grief that morning. Flansburg was wounded and captured, and the battery lost five guns. Those guns and enough limbers were retaken during the day to restore four pieces – two Napoleons and two James Rifles – into full effectiveness. They were now positioned here, commanded by First Lieutenant Henry J. Willets of Valparaiso.

Taking advantage of a small bend in the ridge, Willits’ guns were posted at the curve in Baird’s line, between Scribner’s and Starkweather’s brigades, and angled forward so that in addition to firing straight ahead, their fire could also sweep the length of the Union front to either the north or south. Due to the cedar glade, “a clear space averaging 75 yards,” the Hoosiers’ field of fire was excellent, extending laterally to the left as far as the Reed’s Bridge Road. Any troops moving west against a Union line would thus expose themselves to a flanking fire from a brace of Union cannon.

If you walk the length of the Kelly field line heading south from the 4th Indiana, you will see a number of other cannon. Johnson’s and Palmer’s divisions formed here, and they had plenty of artillery. Baird’s batteries, however, were all wrecked on the 19th; of the eighteen guns taken into action on Saturday morning, now only four were fit for action. Willits would be the division’s only artillery support for the entire day on Sunday.

The Hoosiers acquitted themselves brilliantly. 

First to come to grief was Helm’s Brigade of Kentucky Orphans. The brigade split here, with half going on out into McDonald Field, while the other half were pinned down in front of the 4th Indiana. A gap opened between Helm’s men, who were Breckinridge’s left flank, and Confederate Brigadier Lucius Polk’s Brigade, comprising Cleburne’s right.  That gap would become an obsession with Daniel Harvey Hill, who spent the rest of the morning trying to plug it. Colonel Peyton H. Colquitt of South Carolina fell victim to this obsession about noon, attempting to move his brigade into that position; and at different times both the brigades of Edward C. Walthall and John K. Jackson also were sent in here.

Walthall’s deployment was especially unfortunate, not because Walthall’s Mississippians took heavy losses here – they did not, advancing very cautiously and not entering the Cedar Glade – but because Walthall’s line was stripped away from St. John Liddell’s division just as Liddell was supposed to advance and support John C. Breckinridge, then attempting to attack into Kelly Field from the north. the result: Liddell advanced too late with his remaining brigade, under Govan, and was repulsed in turn.

All morning long, the 4th Indiana helped break up attack after attack, and Rebels from each of the brigades unfortunate enough to face them recalled the heavy cannonading facing them – all from just four guns. The advantage terrain can sometimes provide should not be underestimated.

At about 11:00 a.m., in an effort to silence Willits’ storm of steel, Cobb’s Kentucky Battery tried to engage, with no success.

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At about 1:00 p.m., looking for a place to be useful, Mebane’s Tennessee Battery tried the same thing, from virtually the same spot – another failure.

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With that failure, the Confederate Right Wing ground to a halt. The fighting on the Kelly Field line would not re-commence until much later in the afternoon…

 

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8 Responses to “Artillery Hell?”

  1. mitch werksman Says:

    Great post Dave, very informative.Can’t wait to the release of your new book.Thanks again and keep us posted…mitch

  2. Lee Elder Says:

    The men of the 73rd Tennessee probably would have included Chickamauga among the battles where artillery played a significant role. On the 20th, the 73rd advanced with Archibald Gracie’s brigade toward Horseshoe Ridge. The 73rd was on Gracie’s far right and somehow managed to head in the wrong direction, marching into the teeth of the Federal artillery stationed in the Snodgrass cornfield instead of attacking the Ridge. The 73rd was out of action very quickly after making the mistake.

    The men in the Second Battalion of Hilliard’s Legion and those of the 43rd Alabama Infantry, both under Gracie’s command, also took losses from the cannons in the cornfield.

    While I agree that it is easy to say of Chickamauga that the battle was not largely decided by artillery work, men on both sides were impacted by the heavy guns.

    Lee Elder

  3. Lee Elder Says:

    Clearly I have a stupid typo in the post above. It was the 63rd Tennessee, not the 73rd. Please excuse the fumble-fingers typing style!

  4. Chris Evans Says:

    Excellent post. Really love the detail.

    Another Northern battery that seemed to wreak destruction at Chickamauga was Eli Lilly.

    Chris

  5. John Foskett Says:

    This is great material. The “redlegs” too often get shortchanged in battle coverage – especially the Yankee units in the “West”. One of the biggest gaps in the literature is a unit study of the federal gunners in that broadly-defined theater. The ANV has one (although ancient and biased); the AoftheP has one (although dated). And the Rebels in the “West” have one. I’ve never figured out why nobody takes this on – whether it’s because there were to some extent two distinct federal armies for the bulk of the war, a much smaller amount of OR information and other primary sources, or plain old lack of interest.

    • Chris Evans Says:

      I agree.

      Union artillery officer John C. Tidball in his writings from the 1890s that were put together in the book ‘The Artillery Service in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-65′ has some fascinating Western theater related articles on Union artillery at Shiloh, Chickamauga, etc.

      Chris

      • John Foskett Says:

        Chris: It says something about the state of the literature that Tidball’s might be the only entry in this category despite the following: (1) it covers only three western fights; (2) the essays were written in the early 1890’s; (3) Tidball’s sources are not all that clear (as opposed to his personal experience and acquaintance with the other participants in the Army of the Potomac’s battles); and (4) his focus on “teaching” the concept of combining batteries into larger, more useful forces. It’s a good starting point but somebody needs to take this on – at least from the perspective of one of the two important armies.

  6. Chris Evans Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’d love to see artillery books done on the respective armies.

    I think more detail could be done on the Army of Tennessee artillery. I guess that’s why I love Hughes wonderful book on the Washington Artillery so much.

    It is still amazing that after all these years (and books) so many gaps remain in the literature. I guess it shows what a towering subject the war is and writers not wanting to get too far off the beaten path.

    Chris

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