Archive for January, 2011

Update on the March Seminar:

January 23, 2011

We are starting to get close to the March Seminar in the woods, so time for an update/reminder:

Dates: March 11 and 12, 2011.

Friday All Day: 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Mclemore’s Cove

By Bus, we will explore the near-battle of McLemore’s Cove, or Davis’ Crossroads. We will trace both Union and Confederate actions between September 9th and 11th that led to two Union divisions being exposed to disaster in McLemore’s Cove, and how they escaped. We will explore the Confederate decisions of the time, and the strained command relationships that let this opportunity slip through Bragg’s fingers. We will also explore how a significant defeat in McLemore’s Cove might have effected subsequent Union movements, and whether or not the battle of Chickamauga would have been fought at all.

Important Change: we now ask that you bring your own lunch, instead – we will be well out in the country, not convenient to any restaurants.

Start and end at the Visitor’s Center parking lot.

Saturday Morning: 8:30 to Noon. Viniard Field

Between 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on September 19th, 1863, a desperate struggle surged back and forth in and around the Viniard Farmstead. Elements of seven Union and five Confederate brigades struggled for control of the woods and fields in this sector, producing some of the most confused and bloodiest fighting of the entire Battle of Chickamauga. Tracking this swirling action can be extremely difficult, and interpretations vary on the exact sequence of events.

We intend to take the group through the action step-by-step, explaining why the fighting unfolded as it did, in an attempt to see the fight through the eyes of the various commanders attempting to manage it.

Car caravan from Visitor’s Center

Saturday Afternoon: 1:30 to 5:00 p.m. Mendenhall forms a line

In the late morning of September 20th, just before disaster struck the Union lines at the Brotherton Farmstead, Major John Mendenhall assembled a line of Union cannon atop a ridge overlooking Dyer Field. Mendenhall was the Union XXI Corps chief of artillery, and had already won notable fame for his used of massed guns at Stones River. There his cannon effectively shattered a Confederate attack on January 2nd, 1863, winning him a reputation as a heroic, even visionary gunner.

On September 20th, Mendenhall’s guns would not fare as well. Lacking infantry support and forced into a last-ditch effort to stop the Confederate breakthrough, many of Mendenhall’s guns would fall into Confederate hands that day. Several of the batteries involved were the same ones whose tales we told of their fight in Viniard Field in our morning walk.

We will discuss not only the formation of this line and the tactical outcome, but spend some time exploring the larger implications it raises in trying to determine William Starke Rosecrans’ intentions for his army’s constantly shifting right flank.

Car caravan from Visitor’s Center


Pre-registration Fee: $35 Due by February 1st, 2011

Send to:




Frank will hold your payments. If you pay by check, note that Frank will not cash those checks until we have sufficient entries, so that if we have to refund, Frank will simply send your checks back to you.

Please also note that this fee is NON-REFUNDABLE after February 1st, 2011. Once we are committed to the bus, we will be charged the booking fee.

On-site Sign up Fee: $40

So far we’re on track for having the 20 reservations we need.

See you all there!

Someone’s Reading!

January 22, 2011

the other day, I was surprised to see that The Chickamauga Blog made a list of “best” civil war blogs.


This is quite the honor, especially given the fine work done in so many of the other blogs listed. August company, indeed. All the more so because I don’t feel that I post very often, usually only about 1-2 times per month. Like my friend Eric Wittenberg, I can only say that I am humbled and pleased.

thanks to everyone who’s been reading along

The Curious Case of Sergeant Kane

January 14, 2011

First Sergeant John Milton Kane of Company A, 101st Indiana wrote little about his time in the war. Or at least little that has survived. He did leave us a detailed account of the battle of Chickamauga, however, in the form of an annotated and expanded set of diary entries for September 18-24, 1863. His account includes details not found elsewhere, including some disparaging remarks about both the Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment with which he was then serving.

Note that I don’t simply say “the 101st Indiana” in that last sentence. Why? Because his remarks and the details he provides suggest that he was actually with the 75th Indiana during the fight.

Briefly, on September 19th both the 75th and 101st Indiana Regiments were part of Colonel Edward King’s 2nd Brigade, 4th Division, 14th Corps. The divisional commander was Joseph Reynolds, and at about noon the brigade was stationed in Brotherton field, acting as a reserve. At about 2 pm the 101st Indiana, along with the 105th Ohio and 68th Indiana, were moved south along the Lafayette Road in an effort to outflank the Rebels then engaging Palmer’s Division of the 21st Corps in the woods due east of Brotherton Field. Along the way, King’s three regiments had to move around two brigades of Horatio Van Cleve’s 3rd Division, 21st Corps, who were doing the same thing – entering the woods to the east.

The 101st Indiana, along with the bulk of King’s brigade and Van Cleve’s troops, became involved in a prolonged contest in those woods, was eventually outflanked by more Rebels coming up from the south, routed and driven back all the way across Dyer Field (at least 1000 yards to the west) by the end of the day.

In the meantime, the 75th Indiana remained in reserve, only to be committed to the fight at about 3:00 p.m. They also went into the woods to the east, but several hundred yards north of the 101st, separated by the 8 regiments of Van Cleve’s line. Unlike the 101st, the 75th fought largely alone, with no direct support on either flank. They were eventually driven back into and through the north end of Brotherton Field by Bate’s Confederate Brigade, to end up at Poe Field. The two regiments moved and fought completely isolated from each other, separated by anywhere from a minimum of 600 yards to more like a mile. They finally reunited that night, near Poe Field.

Kane’s account describes the 75th’s experience, not the 101st’s – at least most of the time. Therein lies the problem. You see, Kane not only mentions a number of officers that clearly belong to the 75th, but he also levels harsh criticism against both the 75th’s Colonel, Milton S. Robinson, and the Lt. Colonel, William O’Brien. He accuses them both of hiding behind a haystack during the fight, and says that O’Brien left the field early on the 20th with a “very minor wound.” In essence, he’s called them cowards. Peter Cozzens picks up on this in This Terrible Sound (p. 248.)

Kane also says that for part of the battle, the regiment was commanded by Captain Steele. On the face of it, there’s no reason to disbelieve Kane. But he wasn’t in the 75th, he was in the 101st, clearly shown by the post-war rosters published by the State of Indiana. Nor is there any Kane in the 75th, John or otherwise. So why is the First Sergeant of Company A, 101st Indiana, fighting with the 75th Indiana?

It gets worse. At one point, Kane describes the actions of Cushing’s Battery H, 4th US Artillery down in Brotherton Field. The 75th was never really in a spot to observe Cushing’s gunners. Did Kane suddenly switch to join his actual unit? There are two captain Steele’s as well: Captain Samuel Steele commands company A of the 75th Indiana, while Captain – now Major – George Steele is in the 101st Indiana.

Nor is there any corroborating evidence of bad behavior on the part of Robinson or O’Brien. There are several other men in the 75th whose letters or diaries have survived. None of them mention problems with their commanders. The regimental history speaks highly of both officers. While regimental histories are often quick to hide unflattering material, they do so usually by not speaking about the guilty parties as little as possible. They don’t praise them. Nor do officers so accused tend to remain in command after such an incident. Robinson commands the regiment at Missionary Ridge, and though he resigns in March, 1863, he commands up to that time. O’Brien leads the 75th after Robinson’s departure, serving all through the Atlanta Campaign and until the regiment is mustered out in 1865. This is not how officers who fail to measure up in combat get treated. The only – sort of – corroboration comes from General John M. Palmer. After the war Palmer related a story that had him refuting a rumor of Robinson’s cowardice that surfaced as part of a political campaign against Robinson in 1872. (again, See Cozzens, p. 249)

So I am suspicious of Kane’s account, vivid as it is. It gives us a good story, at the expense of Robinson and O’Brien, but there are just too many inconsistencies. I’m curious enough to check the files of both regiments at the Indiana Adjutant General’s office, the next time I go, and I think I might request Sergeant Kane’s pension file, to see if there is anything helpful there, as well. But I don’t intend to present Kane’s accusations as anything more than hearsay until I can resolve some of my doubts.

Colonel Smith Atkins

January 1, 2011

In the past, I’ve touched on interesting personalities, regiments, and the like. This post deals with both.

Smith Dykin Atkins was Colonel of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry at Chickamauga, and one of the more outspoken (and often abrasive) personalities to be found in the Army of the Cumberland. he was born in 1836, and thus only 27 years old by the time of the battle, but he was already a very successful man. He was both a newspaper owner/editor and a practicing Lawyer by the time he was 21. Born in New York, his family moved to Illinois when he was 9, and settling in Freeport, near Rockford. He studied at the Rock River Seminary in Mount Morris, (today simply known as Mount Morris College) working at or editing various newspapers all the while. By the time he was 17, he and a friend had purchased the Savannah Register in early 1854. He passed the Illinois Bar at 19. He worked for a judge in Chicago for eighteen months, and then returned home to open his own practice. In 1860, he was elected State’s Attorney (state prosecutor) for his district.

Clearly he was a young man on the make, opinionated, and determined to leave a mark.

With war, he enlisted in what became the 11th Illinois Infantry, reputedly the first man in Stephenson county to sign up. Naturally, he was elected Captain of Company A. The Regiment’s first colonel was W.H.L. Wallace, who was mortally wounded at Shiloh. Atkins, who at the start of the war wrote in a letter that “I want to go through or fall in a fierce battle before this war ends,” got his wish. He fought at Donelson and Shiloh, the latter on the staff of General Stephen Hurlbut, despite ill health before the battle. After Shiloh he returned home for a time, to recooperate, and in the summer of 1862 helped raise – and became colonel of – the 92nd Illinois.

Most volunteer regiments tend to have a certain flavor, and more than a whiff of politics about them. Readers might recall the troubles of the 81st Indiana, where their outspoken dismay of the Emancipation Proclamation got more than a few of that command’s senior officers in trouble. Such would not be a problem among the 92nd. The rank and file were strongly abolitionist from the start, and viewed the EP as an obvious – if too long delayed – step in winning the war. Smith himself had been outspokenly anti-slavery since the 1850s, and everything he had seen of the South in 1862 only reinforced that opinion. His active recruiting efforts naturally brought a number of like-minded men into the command. the 92nd’s abolitionist streak would create problems down the line.

For the most part Atkins was well liked, even admired for his combat experience, though some took his posturing with a grain of salt. John King of the 92nd considered him “a peculiar man, A talented lawyer by profession…[who] used his talents to save wrong-doers from getting justice done to them….He had a slick tongue,…was fond of speech-making, and had a high appreciation of what he said and did.” (Presumably King was unaware of Atkins’ election as State’s Attorney, a job which ‘saving’ wrong-doers was not usually a consideration.)

In the fall of 1862, in Kentucky, Abolitionism proved a problem. The 92nd spent nearly three weeks in and around Mount Sterling, deep in the heart of the Bluegrass, where large plantations, slavery, and pro-Confederate sentiment were the norm. The men of the regiment welcomed negroes into their ranks, hiring them as servants, sheltering runaways, and even, according to giving some of them uniforms and weapons.

The locals hated the 92nd, and for many Yanks the feeling was reciprocal. “Slavery is not the God we worship, wrote Private William Boddy on November 18th. “As far as I am concerned, I am satisfied with the record we have left with these people, for I despise and hate them worse than I do a rattlesnake, the mother of their favorite Confederacy.” That same day, as the regiment was departing to head south, they had to march through town, and fighting almost erupted. John King related a tense confrontation between himself and several officers of the Federal 14th Kentucky, who had come to try and take their blacks back. With bayonets bared and weapons loaded, the 92nd faced off against the angry Kentuckians, and though many pistols were brandished, no shots were fired.

That wasn’t the end of it, however. Atkins was indicted for “nigger stealing,” as he contemptuously put it, though when the Sherriff tried to arrest him, the 92nd prevented it. The Regiment was then serving under Absolam Baird, part of Gordon Granger’s Reserve Corps, and though Atkins felt that Baird was sympathetic, Granger was not. Atkins was forced to issue an order to the regiment directing that all blacks be returned or sent out of camp, except for those properly and legally hired as servants (three to a company.) Still, Atkins felt the need to embellish: in that same order he also informed the locals that they should keep their slaves “at home, as no part of my command will be in any way used for the purpose of returning fugitive slaves.” later he added that “it is not necessary for Illinois Soldiers to become Slave-hounds in order to demonstrate their loyalty.”

Atkins imagined that Granger bore him a grudge, and acted against him with special malice from then on, but in fact there is no evidence of this. Granger was simply enforcing both the law and army policy as it stood at the time. Atkins was commanding a brigade (as senior colonel) within Baird’s division within weeks of the incident, and no one outside of the 92nd seems to have been aware of any special animosity directed at the regiment or its commander. Within the command, however, a number of men chafed at the idea of serving under Granger, who as far as they were concered was a “West Point Dahm Phool” in the words of private James A Colehour.

They were able to escape the clutches of the “dahm phool” in August 1863. For a long time, Atkins wanted to get into a “fighting command.” As part of the Reserve Corps, the 92nd could expect to spend time guarding Rosecrans’ supply lines, far from the front, perhaps garrisoning some rear area town like Nashville or Murfreesboro. As Atkins later told it, in July Wilder came across the 92nd building a bridge, and decided he liked the unit, agreeing to accept it into his brigade if Atkins could arrange it. As it happened, the Army of the Cumberland’s Chief Quartermaster, Colonel John W. Taylor, was brother-in-law to Atkins’ partner in his legal practice back in Freeport.

Whatever the reason, Atkins managed the transfer. He couldn’t have picked a better unit, if he wanted active service. Wilder’s men were at the height of their fame over Hoover’s Gap, and their new mounted status would guarantee them a place at the forefront of any future campaign. In August, the 92nd received several drafts of horses, mounting most of the men, and enough Spencer rifles to arm five companies. The remaining five would have to make do with their Enfields for the duration of the campaign, and would carry those muzzleloaders on the field at Chickamauga.

On September 19th the 92nd fought in Brotherton Field, detached from the brigade, and got caught up in the rout there near the end of the day. They had been sent to support Reynolds’ Division, and faced at least two brigades of Confederates that afternoon.

On September 20th, the 92nd was back with Wilder, helping repulse Manigault’s Alabamians near the Widow Glenn homestead. And here is where Atkins, in later life, would give himself considerable credit. At midday, Wilder’s brigade held their ground, but the rest of the Union right was in full retreat. Wilder later claimed that he faced a choice – the safe option was to fall back to the west. The bolder course would be to cut through to Thomas, fighting their way through unknown hordes of Rebels en route. The most famous part of this story, of course, is the sudden arrival of Assitant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who convinced Wilder that trying to reach Thomas was folly, and he should instead fall back towards Rossville.

Wilder and Dana had different versions of this story, naturally. Wilder eventually told the story three different times, and in three different ways, each time making Dana seem more panicked and officious. Atkins had a lot to do with maximizing the histronics of those later versions. Atkins told his own version of the story at reunions, for newspapers, and the like. His published representations of the incident make Dana out as a scared fool, himself as the wise councillor to Wilder, and the man who urged Wilder to go to Thomas in the first place. Of course, at the time Wilder elected to take the safer path, and no dramatic ride to Thomas happened, much to Atkins’ chagrin.

The truth, of course, is that the encounter was much less dramatic, and the option to cut their way through to Thomas was a bit foolhardy. Fortunately for the men of the brigade, Wilder elected to fall back and cover the retreat, which would have been his most important duty that afternoon. Deep down, I suspect Wilder knew that, and acted accordingly.

This story is a typical ‘old soldier’s tale’ and the embellishments found in it – in both Wilder’s and Atkins’ versions – are also typical of the 1880s and 90s, when war stories were popular. But it also illustrates the self-promoting nature of Atkins, with his “slick tongue” and political instincts.

Atkins remained with the army, commanding his regiment and a cavalry brigade during Atlanta and then with Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas. Interestingly enough, in 1865 Atkins met and eventually married Eleanor “Ella” Hope Swain, daughter of the president of the University of North Carolina and State Governor David Swain, in classic romance novel fashion.

I’m interested in Atkins because he was both a capable soldier and a bit of a blowhard. I suspect that to endure his company, you had to be prepared to sit through a great deal of him talking about himself. (I hope Ella was a good listener.)

Beneath the bluster, however, Atkins gives us some very interesting information regarding Chickamauga, and the 92nd is especially rich in terms of other sources, which make for a useful check on the Colonel’s own accounts. In addition to his official report, Atkins left us a couple of newspaper accounts, a monograph entitled “Chickamauga: Useless, Disastrous Battle” (can you guess what he thought of Rosecrans’ willingness to accept battle?) and, I suspect, played a major hand in writing parts of the otherwise anonymously authored regimental history.