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.