Brigadier General James A. Deshler’s Brigade of Texans, in Pat Cleburne’s Division, experienced two very different engagements on September 19th and 20th, 1863. The first, an almost bloodless night action that resulted in the capture of several hundred Federals, was a heady experience, while the second, a static firefight against an entrenched enemy, proved fruitlessly deadly. they also participated in the final assault on the Union Kelly Field line at the end of the day on the 20th, but since the Federals were already retreating, they faced very little actual opposition in this last effort.
Deshler’s men were all trans-Mississippians: seven regiments of Texas infantry and dismounted cavalry formed into two units for tactical reasons, and two regiments of Arkansas infantry similarly consolidated. Thus, Deshler’s brigade operated as three regiments with a combined infantry strength of 1693 officers and men. Based on their ammunition consumption, about 1/3 of them were likely armed with smoothbores, the rest carried rifles.
Initially on the morning of the 20th, Deshler’s regiments formed on Cleburne’s right, but circumstances would eventually place them in the center of the division. Major General A. P. Stewart’s line shifted north, at Longstreet’s orders, in order to link up with Deshler’s line, but mistakenly, Stewart’s men masked the front of Deshler’s line instead. As a result, when Cleburne was ordered forward between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m., Deshler’s men had to move to their right and fall in behind Brigadier General S. A. M. Wood’s Brigade, then occupying Cleburne’s center. Wood – who had already performed poorly the evening before – promptly lost contact with Brigadier General Lucius Polk’s Brigade, on his right, and halted in confusion. Deshler’s line came to rest behind Wood.
Sometime after 10:30, Cleburne found Wood and sent him into the fight alongside Stewart’s men, who faced the Federals in Poe Field. The command system had broken down; Bragg was ordering divisions into action peicemeal, and Stewart requested support from Cleburne. Wood’s brigade shifted to their left to come up on Stewart’s right, which opened a hole in Cleburne’s center. Deshler’s men were sent to fill that gap.
By the time Deshler’s troops advanced , the rest of Cleburne’s Division had already been repulsed. Polk’s large brigade had been in action for nearly an hour and was already retreating, having made no headway against the Union line. Wood’s brigade was fragmented and also in retreat, severely crippled by a deadly Federal crossfire at the north end of Poe Field. Deshler’s men would now act as a rear guard for the other two brigades.
Dutifully, the brigade advanced to within 200 yards of the Union line, reaching the crest of a wooded ridge from which part of Wood’s Brigade had been driven earlier. So far, they advanced under Union artillery fire, but losses were slight (15 or 20 men.) As they crested the ridge, however, they found themselves about 200 yards from the main Union line, held here by the men of Brigadier Generals Charles Cruft and William B. Hazen, formed in a double line behind breastworks, and supported by two batteries of artillery.
At the crest of the ridge, the brigade halted, to advance no farther. Deshler was killed almost immediately, cut in half by an artillery round. Cleburne ordered Colonel Roger Mills to hold on, but not attack. All of the OR reports cite the distance as 200 yards; and since the Rebels held the ground the next day, the commanders had a chance to examine the position after the fight was over. their estimates were pretty good: the actual distance from where Deshler’s brigade tablet now stands to the line of Union monuments marking Hazen’s position is 240 yards.
The Rebels held this ground for several hours. Mills initially ordered the brigade to return fire, but then quickly ordered them to lie flat, and once their ammunition was largely expended, he retired the bulk of the brigade behind the ridge and held the crest only with sharpshooters. Initial exposure was probably something like 15 minutes in line, and another 45 or so while prone. By far the heaviest loss happened early in the fight. Jim turner of the 6th Texas noted that “the enemy’s fire was simply terrific.” Lt. R. M. Collins of the 15th Texas echoed that sentiment: “as we reached the crest of the hill in our front, we struck the same sawyer that had knocked Wood’s brigade out at the first round. The rain of lead that the Federals poured into our lines was simply terrific. Our loss in officers and men for the first few minutes was alarming in the extreme.” Sam Moore, of the 17th Texas, remembered that “the Yanks had two batteries a playing on us as well as the infantry pouring minnie balls at us as fast as they could load and shoot.”
Deshler’s Brigade lost 447 killed, wounded, and missing over the course of the battle. Of those, approximately 400 fell here, most in the first few minutes; for a loss rate of 25%. the Federals opposed Deshler with approximately 2000 infantry, but with no more than 1000 rifles on line at any one time. Hazen later reported his own losses for the entire action at no more than a dozen men, which he attributed largely to the breastworks hastily erected that morning; Cruft suffered similarly lightly.
Certainly the two Union artillery batteries had an impact, but the majority of fire came from the infantry. Artillery, even rapid firing double canister, would only be throwing 54 projectiles per tube per minute, (about 650 per minute for all twelve guns) and could keep that up only for a couple of minutes before they ran out of the proper ammo. 1000 infantry would add between 2000 and 3000 rounds per minute, assuming a normal rate of fire, and with 100 rounds apiece, and another 1000 men in support ready to step up when the front line emptied their boxes, the infantry’s fire could be sustained for a much longer time.
Of course, the initial volume of fire would taper off quickly to a more sustainable pace, until by midday, it had dwindled to sniping and the occasional harassing volley. But we do have here a very strong argument that infantry fire could be very deadly at between 200 and 250 yards. This instance alone would add 3 Confederate and 8 Union data points to any regimental range database, all at over 200 yards, even factoring in things like monument placement.