Archive for January, 2010

Those Colt Rifles

January 25, 2010

I got a chance to examine the Quarterly ordnance Returns for the
Federal army this morning, looking to see what the 21st Ohio reported after the battle of Chickamauga.

For the 4th Quarter of 1863, the 21st reported 167 Colts, 82 Enfields, and 15 Springfields on hand – a total of 264 arms. The effects of the Chickamauga losses are still clearly evident, with the 21st still showing half the strength it carried into action on September 20th.

By the 1st Quarter of 1864, with a return dated in March of that year, they do show significant recruitment. More than 500 weapons are on hand, and presumably, the soldiers to use them. However, those weapons are now Enfields. No Colts are reported at all. Easier on the quartermaster, certainly, but I have to wonder how the old hands in the 21st felt about it. If I come across anything that might tell us, I will be sure to let you know.

The 21st Ohio and the Colt Rifle

January 17, 2010

Marc Grad’s question about the 21st Ohio seems worthy of a blog entry in its own right…

Not all of Rosecrans’ new tactical schemes came to complete fruition. Wilder’s brigade was not the only force intended to be converted to mounted infantry – the previously mentioned 39th Indiana got the nod, as well. However, other units were also intended for this honor.

Anyone who follows Chickamauga comes inevitably to the tale of the 21st Ohio. Now, it seems every regiment in the war has their own uniquely flavored story to tell, full of drama large and small, personalities that are remembered long after they are gone, or anecdotes of either pathos or humor that get told at every reunion. These men do not become faceless hordes, but real people, and I think this aspect is a major reason why the war is so often studied today. We are drawn to their stories, the more vivid the better.

The 21st is no different. I find them a fascinating unit for a variety of reasons. For example, they are the first regiment Tom Custer – George’s brother and ultimately a two-time winner of the Medal Of Honor – served in. Nine members of the 21st volunteered to join the Andrews’ Raiders and helped steal the locomotive “The General” in the spring of 1862, in an effort to destroy the Rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga. They were captured, and at least one 21ster was hung, but a number made their escape and rejoined the regiment.

But the regiment also suffered command problems, and was cited repeatedly for lax discipline. The first two colonels proved less than satisfactory for a variety of reasons, and at first blush, it might be hard to find a reason why the 21st Ohio would be selected in May, 1863, to receive Colt Revolving Rifles and be mounted, to serve as “cavalry, sharpshooters, or infantry, as occasion might require.” One reason might be a solid combat performance at Stone’s River, where they suffered 159 casualties and, on January 2nd, charged across the frigid river in a counterstroke that helped repulse Breckinridge’s last attack.

The Army of the Cumberland received an alotment of Colt Rifles at this time. The Army of the Potomac was getting rid of the weapon – carried by some eastern cavalry units – in favor of newly produced Sharps, Burnsides, and Maynard Carbines. Rosecrans, who had been begging for suitable weapons for his mounted force, took the cast-offs eagerly. As a result, eight of the 21st’s ten companies were armed with approximately 400 of the rifles.

Tactically, there appears to have been no new training to go along with the rifles. the 21st had been well drilled in Hardee’s during their first two years in service, and carried on with that manual. As skirmishers, they would be called upon to fight more often in open order, but that also did not apparently trigger a new drill method.

However, they did use their newly increased firepower to good effect. I have touched on their final stand in a previous post, and will try to avoid repetition, but I do note that in their only major engagement at Chickamauga, from 1-7 PM on September 20th, they fought mostly in a single line, almost shoulder to shoulder, and often prone. They were forced to do so in order to cover the ground they were assigned. Their line had to be denser than Wilder’s typical formation, as they took heavier losses. the Rebels assaulting them, however, found their firepower to be stunning, even demoralizing.

Ohio Lieutenant William Vance described Kershaw’s first attack in these terms: “at first the charging Johnnies, reaching the proper distance and receiving a volley from the regiment, returned the same and then started on the keen jump, expecting to reach us before we could reload. Before they had advanced ten paces….they would get another volley, and while they were pondering upon this circumstance, still a third; then they would scarcely get their backs turned…[to retreat]…before the fourth would catch them, and [then] on a dead run, the fifth came singing about their ears.”

At the end of the day, when the Ohioans were forced to surrender, Confederates from Preston’s Divisions were so impressed with the colts that at least one Rebel regiment re-equipped their color guard with them.

The 21st Ohio ultimately lost 243 of the 561 officers and men engaged on Horseshoe ridge, including 131 missing, presumed captured. Nor do these losses tell the whole story; due to the confused nature of the final retreat, a great many of the wounded were also captured, and stragglers were a problem. The next morning only 60 men were present; even three days later the regiment numbered no more than 100. A great many Colt Rifles were lost, as well, and so while some Colts lingered in the regiment through the war, most of the regiment reverted to rifled muskets.

A good cause…

January 17, 2010

Recently, I heard from Evan Jones, one of the organizers of the 25th annual West Coast Civil War Conference. I attended this event back in October 2009, to see and talk to an impressive line-up of speakers, all focused on – what else – Chickamauga.

The event was a success, and raised $7,500, which the conference has donated to the Friends of the Raymond Battlefield association. If you don’t know, Raymond was a small but important engagement of the Vicksburg Campaign. The Rebel defenders were Gregg’s Brigade, later to become Chickamauga veterans.

To see more on Raymond, try this link:

Tactics: Wilder’s Brigade

January 10, 2010

Most students of the war have heard of John T. Wilder and his mounted infantry. The story of the conception, conversion, and equipping of the brigade is well known and need not be discussed in detail again. Suffice to say that Rosecrans, short of cavalry going into the spring of 1863, liked Wilder’s idea to convert his brigade to mounted infantry by confiscating local livestock, and arming them with repeating weapons of some sort for added firepower. These proved ultimately to be Spencer rifles, tubular magazine-fed seven shot repeating arms that Wilder originally personally guaranteed loans for the purchase of, until the Federal government agreed to pay.

The genesis of the idea probably did not come from Wilder, however – though he certainly took credit for it later. In January, 1863, shortly after the battle of Stone’ s River, General Rosecrans informed the War Department that he was in the process of organizing a series of light battalions of elite troops, one for each brigade, hand-picked for bravery and combat skills. The brigades were supposed to prepare “rolls of honor,” naming individuals who had performed well in the fight, and the elites would be further picked from those rolls. Rosecrans intended that these elite battalions be mounted and armed with either repeating or revolving rifles. They would serve as scouts on the march, but unlike cavalry, dismount and function as elite combat troops on the battlefield.

Like the Confederate skirmish battalions that evolved in both the eastern and western theaters, these elite troops would be excused normal fatigue and camp duties so they had extra time to train. In addition, Rosecrans thought that he could use them to better counter Rebel raiders while the Federal forces were inactive, this sparing the need for so many scattered infantry garrisons that drained his army of combat power at the cutting edge.

Rosecrans’ idea was quashed by Halleck, primarily because the Federal government lacked the legal authority to establish these units from volunteer forces. (The Confederacy circumvented this legal objection by passing a specific law allowing the creation of these battalions in April, 1862.) But clearly, Wilder’s brigade – and the 39th Indiana, also re-equipped on this model – bore many of the same characteristics as Rosecrans’ Elites.

As an aside, Wilder and the 39th Indiana gave Rosecrans approximately 3,000 troops in six regiments. If his first plan had been implemented (assuming that enough weapons could be found, a big if) he would have created 12 to 15,000 elites in thirty battalions. I suspect that their effect on subsequent operations would have been profound.

While the 39th Indiana eventually became full-fledged cavalry – renamed as the 8th Indiana Cavalry in October 1863 – Wilder’s men resisted the notion that they were cavalry of any sort. They eschewed sabers or other cavalry accoutrements. They dismounted to engage wherever possible. In 1863, they carried early model Spencer rifles, not the later carbines, and those rifles lacked the cut-off that allowed a soldier to load a single cartridge into the chamber without having to empty the magazine or withdraw the tube. The cut-off would be a huge boon to later troops, as it allowed men to both fight from horseback much more easily, and to preserve the full firepower of the magazine for critical moments while still maintaining methodical single shots as needed.

However, Wilder’s troops learned quickly to exploit their still-significant firepower advantage over muzzle-loaders. Initially, they drilled as regular line infantry, in two ranks, shoulder to shoulder. This changed quickly. After the war, Wilder himself noted that in combat, the regiments instead formed a single line, with each man spaced about a yard apart. He preferred close fire, engaging at a hundred yards or so – and reserving full fire until the enemy was brutally close. Then, Wilder noted, the Federals emptied their magazines in a burst of fire that overwhelmed and shattered Rebel lines.

This is the kind of fire Manigault’s men ran into on September 20th as they reached the vicinity of the Widow Glenn Cabin. As they ascended the rise just west of the house (by then on fire) they met Wilder’s bluecoats coming up the other side of the small ridge, and described the Yankee fire as a veritable storm of lead.

Wilder’s preferred formation could best be described as a reinforced skirmish line. Far denser than a textbook skirmish line, formed in two ranks about 5 yards apart, and with five yards also separating each man, Wilder’s line had at two to three times as many men per yard – and of course, those Spencers. In addition to being more than a match for a conventional battleline in firepower, Wilder’s formation also helped reduce losses. A shoulder-to-shoulder formation was just a much more vulnerable target in a firefight, and it showed. At Chickamauga, despite hard fighting over all three days, the brigade reported 122 losses out of 2283 engaged – 5%. Average losses for most regiments, by contrast, ran 20-30%, with the highest topping 50%.

In postwar manuals, both American and European, the use of breechloading and magazine weapons would increasingly allow infantry to adopt looser lines akin to Wilder’s. In 1867, Emory Upton’s A New System of Infantry Tactics, Double and Single Rank, Adapted to American Typography and Improved Fire-Arms called for use of very similar deployments.

The young soldiers from Illinois and Indiana who comprised the Lightning Brigade were confident, tough, and hardened by war. By the time of Chickamauga, they had the habit of victory, dominating their opponents in dozens of small engagements. I want to close with one anecdote, not of combat, but of an encounter on September 18th, that I think reflects this confidence, and also war’s impact on soldiers in general.

Before dawn on September 19th, Francis Carlisle of Company D, 42nd Indiana was sent to man a picket post in the yard of an abandoned log house on the east side of Chickamauga Creek, down near Glass Mill. He and his partners replaced men from the 17th Indiana, one of Wilder’s Regiments. A dead civilian lay sprawled on the porch. The civilian had been killed by a member of the 17th. The story as told Carlisle was that the man had rushed out of his house upon their arrival the day before, insisting “that no ‘Damned Yankee’ could come in his house.” The Federals pointed out the obvious, that they both outnumbered and outgunned him, and demanded that the civilian give up. Foolishly, he refused, saying “he would not surrender to any ‘Damned Yankees.’” At that time” continued Carlisle, “he was on the North porch, and one of the 17th Boys fired, killing him instantly.” The rest of the family fled, leaving only the anonymous corpse crumpled on the porch for Carlisle to contemplate as the sun rose.