The Wanderers

The other day, on a wargame discussion board, someone asked about how, at Antietam, the 5th Texas ended up fighting apart from the rest of their brigade. The person asking wanted to know if this was somehow unique to Texans.

Of course, it isn’t. Similar examples abound on every battlefield. In fact, controlling a sizable brigade on a civil war battlefield is probably one of the more difficult command tasks to be found in 19th Century warfare. Brigade command remained hit or miss throughout the war, but in general, the quality of that leadership improved over time, with experience. Part of that improvement, however, was also due to attrition whittling regimental sizes down to a more manageable 3-400 men, instead of 1,000. A brigade of 1,600 was far more controllable than one of 3-4,000.

And that is just one factor. Terrain, formation, enemy action, experience, training, morale – all have their roles to play also. So perhaps the real question is not why did units fragment, but how did they stay together?

I could provide a host of generalized examples, as I am sure many readers and bloggers could as well. We all have our favorite battles, favorite units, favorite famous (or infamous) officers. So instead, I thought I’d look at one specific unit, and see what happened to them.

When I think of trouble with unit cohesion, I automatically think of Law’s Alabama Brigade. It’s one of my favorite commands, though not perhaps for the usual reasons: I don’t have an ancestor in one of the regiments, nor is it an especially famed command like Hood’s Texans, Gibbon’s Iron Brigade, or one of our the many Irish units. Instead, it’s a bit of a hard-luck outfit, with at least its fair share of leadership issues. More important to this post, it suffered some serious cohesion problems at both Gettysburg and at Chickamauga.

For those of you jumping the gun, I suspect you are now saying to yourselves,’ Ah Ha! Here comes a story about Colonel William Claude Oates.’

Not quite. Don’t get me wrong. I am interested in Oates, who led the 15th Alabama against Joshua Chamberlain’s erstwhile 20th Maine for control of Little Round Top (all alone, to hear them tell it) on July 2, 1863. Oates is a fascinating study, as numerous historians have discovered; perhaps the best exploration of his life and career is found in Glenn LaFantasie’s excellent Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates.

Oates is a distinctive (and disruptive) character, well worth examining in greater detail, but not really the point of this post. He’s really worth a post or two just by himself. In fact, I expect to mine Law’s Brigade for a whole vein of posts in good time, touching on several aspect of command and control.

This time, however, I want to talk about the 4th Alabama Infantry.

The 4th Alabama came into being not far from Chickamauga. It was organized out of a number of disparate companies at Dalton, Georgia, in May of 1861. This wasn’t so unusual, as Dalton was on the Western & Atlantic rail line, and a logical gathering place for troops staging to the then seat of the war in Virginia, but it struck me as odd that an Alabama regiment would be first organized in another state, and I also like the idea that the regiment was ‘born’ just a few miles from the battlefield. How familiar were they with the region when they returned to it in September 1863, I wonder?

The 4th was, by the standards of the civil war, a regiment long in the tooth by the time of the battle of Chickamauga. Their battle honors included First Manassas, whereas none of the other regiments in Law’s Brigade saw combat until a year later, in the summer of 1862. They had plenty of combat experience, fighting through all of Lee’s campaigns but Chancellorsville. They were a veteran, tested unit but also much reduced by this service: their ten companies numbered only 249 officers and men as they were ordered into the fight at about 3:00 p.m. on September 19th, 1863.

At that time, Law’s Brigade was in a single line of five regiments, with the 44th Alabama on the extreme right and the 4th next on the 44th’s left. Law’s Brigade was in the front line of Hood’s Division, on Robertson’s right, with Benning’s Brigade in the second line. Law commanded the Division, since Hood had the Corps; this meant Colonel James Sheffield of the 48th Alabama stepped up to Brigade command.

Right from the start things went badly, not just for the brigade, but the whole division. As deployed, Law’s (Hood’s) Division was alongside and to the north of the three brigades of Bushrod Johnson’s Division. When Hood ordered the advance, however, for some reason Johnson’s men angled northwest, while Law’s line angled southwest, creating what Dr. Glenn Robertson has come to call the “X” maneuver. Johnson’s line forged ahead, so that they two divisions did not actually collide, but instead Law’s men fell in behind Johnson’s. Perhaps that was the intention, to create a deep column of assault. We’ll never know, because neither Hood, Law, nor Johnson ever explained.

The men of Sheffield’s (Law’s) Brigade, however, never really turned to the southwest. First contact with the enemy occurred on Robertson’s front and flank, which further pulled the direction of movement southwest, but despite being notified of Robertson’s change of front, the Alabamans did not conform. Before they’d even entered the fight, Sheffield’s five regiments lost contact with the rest of the division. This entire movement was conducted in the timber south of Brock Field, which no doubt contributed to the problem, but in any case, it was a bad start.

After moving several hundred yards, now on their own, and still in the trees, the brigade next encountered Federals on their right. The 44th Alabama nearly blundered into a line of Federals not more than 60 yards off, lying prone, who immediately opened fire. As a result the 44th halted and returned fire. The rest of the brigade did not.

Though not explicitly stated by Colonel William F. Perry, this fire must have come on his right flank, and from Federals of Grose’s Brigade, Palmer’s Division, then fighting in and around Brock Field. The Alabamans had moved up behind Confederates from A. P. Stewart’s Division, fighting in this area since about 1:30 p.m.; Perry reported passing two lines of Stewart’s men – belonging to Clayton’s and Brown’s brigades, respectively. He was also operating in the rear of Stewart’s remaining brigade, commanded by William B. Bate. Bate was having his own problems. His brigade had already split into two parts one facing north and one west, by the time Perry’s 44th stumbled into the fray.

When Perry’s regiment became engaged, the 4th Alabama, next in line to the south, had a problem. The regiment’s right flank was expected to retain contact with Perry’s line, but the regiment’s left flank was supposed to keep pace with the 47th Alabama in the center of Sheffield’s line. Essentially the 4th was literally pulled apart by these two conflicting imperatives.

So what should they do? Brigades had a protocol to help define what to do in a situation like this. When a line of regiments moved, one regiment would be designated the ‘guide.’ If the command were to ‘guide right,’ then the rightmost regiment would be in charge; all other regiments were expected to conform – as best they could – to the movements of the that right-hand unit. If the guide were left, the roles would be reversed. ‘Guide center,’ obviously, would place the control with the 47th Alabama.

We don’t really know who was directing the movement of the brigade, because niether Law nor Sheffield left any reports to tell us. We can infer that the guide for the brigade was probably to the center, and that because Robertson had to inform the divisional commander when he was forced to change front, that the Alabamans were probably controlling the whole division’s movement.

We do know that the 4th did not stop. However, neither did it wholly go forward. In fact, it split into two parts. An unknown number of men conformed to the 44th, and lost contact with the rest of their regiment. The rest of the regiment hurried to keep up with the 47th. The regiment would not be rejoined for the rest of the day’s fight.

Almost immediately after that, another complication arose. As the remainder of the 4th moved forward, they found themselves in the middle of yet another regiment, the 15th/37th Tennessee. (These two units had been combined before the battle and were operating tactically as a single regiment.) The 15th/37th was also standing still, exchanging fire with men of the Union 75th Indiana. The Confederates intermingled. The 4th Alabama, and indeed the rest of the brigade, now had no idea where they were going or what they were expected to do, and so the whole line halted here for a time. They were surrounded by the noise and fury of battle, but for the moment had nothing to do.

At this point, I should point out that the chain of command for both the Brigade and the 4th Alabama were badly compromised. First, Law seems not to have been with the brigade, nor really any of the three brigades in his command. Second, Colonel Sheffield was out of action. At the start of the movement, a shellburst startled his horse, throwing him and injuring him badly enough to force him from the field. Colonel Perry was next in command, based on seniority, but when the time came to pass the word, no one could find him – he and his 44th Alabama had already peeled off to the right and lost contact with the rest of the line. eventually, one of Law’s aides informecd Colonel Oates that he had the command, but Oates and his 15th Alabama were all the way out on the left flank, and it took some time for that word to reach him.

Thus, at a critical point in the movement, just as things started to fall apart, no one was in charge.

Similar confusion was playing out in the ranks of the 4th Alabama. The 4th’s Colonel, Pinkney D. Bowles, ranked both Perry and Oates and should have assumed command of the brigade upon Sheffield’s departure. However, despite being listed as in command of the 4th in the Official Records, Bowles was actually absent sick at LaGrange Georgia, according to his Compiled Service Record. This makes sense, given the way command of the brigade was actually passed. It also left the regiment in the hands of Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence H. Scruggs.

The only detailed account of the 4th’s involvement is a widely quoted history of the 4th written many years after the war by regimental Adjutant Robert T. Coles. Coles makes no mention of the encounter with the 15th/37th Tennessee, or of the earlier loss of contact with the 44th. He does remember the 4th resuming the advance into Brotherton Field. The 4th did this while still intermingled with the 15th/37th, after the 75th Indiana fell back. Another regiment of Alabamans – the 58th, under Colonel Bushrod Jones, also belonging to Bate – was fighting alongside them here, and the combined weight of all these Confederates broke the Hoosiers. They fell back, and everyone in gray pursued.

Until the Rebels reached the vicinity of the Brotherton Farm. There they ran into the 9th Indiana, newly rushed to the sector, and another vicious firefight ensued. Adjutant, Coles remembered that attack: “Advancing blindly and rapidly through a dense undergrowth, we ran unexpectedly right into a column of infantry which poured a deadly fire into our ranks.” Adding to the confusion, Lieutenant Colonel Scruggs was shot here, struck “close to his sword belt buckle and had come out through his sword belt on the opposite side. We pronounced him mortally wounded,” added Coles, ” and so informed him, but on closer examination found that the ball had struck the edge of the buckle and passed halfway around his body…very much bruising him but scarcely breaking the skin. While the regimental staff was mis-diagnosing Scruggs, Coles admitted that “for a moment the regiment was stunned and dazed from the suddenness of the fire.”

Coles also fails to mention the 4th’s Major, Thomas Coleman, who should have superseded Scruggs. We know he was present, and did command the 4th until being wounded in the leg on the 20th (a wound he would eventually die from.) However it is impossible to determine if Coleman was with the bulk of the 4th here, with that fragment off with Perry, or some other faction. We also know, however, that officers in the 4th were becoming scarce. Authors J. Gary Laine and Morris M. Penny, in their comprehensive history of the brigade (Law’s Alabama Brigade In the War Between The Union And The Confederacy, 1996) report that by the end of the fighting on the 19th, only four of the ten companies were commanded by captains. With no field officers and virtually no company commanders, the regiment was in bad shape.

They did help win the fight against the 9th Indiana, but they did so only at the cost of further cohesion. Colonel Robert Tyler, commanding the 15th/37th Tennessee, reported that at this point he also picked up about 40 or 50 men from the 4th Alabama, whom he formed as an ad-hoc company attached to his command – which might also have included Major Coleman.

The 4th took 249 men into battle. They suffered 90 casualties in the two days’ fight. If we assume that between 75 and 100 men became lost and fell in with other units (the 44th and 15th/37th) and that at least half of the casualties fell on the 19th, no more than about half of the starting strength were still with the colors after the fight with the 9th Indiana. And we haven’t even accounted for other stragglers, men helping wounded friends to the rear, skulkers, and the like; I think it’s quite possible that we could halve that number again just to account for those absentees.

Once in Brotherton Field, the fight was largely over. Oates halted the rest of the brigade somewhere in the middle of that field, once it was cleared of Yankees, and hunted around to find someone to tell him what to do. While he did so, Coles reported that the 4th also moved into the field to re-organize, and we can infer that they rejoined the brigade at this point. Oates, however, had no success in gaining orders or a new mission, and as dusk started to fall, with Federals now threatening to counter-attack from several different directions, the brigade fell back into the woods from whence they came. Eventually they found Colonel Perry, the 44th, and the wayward fragments of the 4th.

The next day they would get to do it all over again…

5 Responses to “The Wanderers”

  1. Chris Evans Says:

    Excellent post. It really makes clear how confusing a Civil War battle was and especially Chickamauga. It’s a wonder sometimes to think they were able to get anything done in all the smoke and confusion.

  2. Dave Powell Says:

    Combat is a process of continuous degredation, and not just from casualties. A formed unit might enter the fight in perfect order, but the longer they are in it, the more disorganized they become. Thus, it is quite possible to imagine a unit disappearing completely by the end of a fight, only to re-collect and reform over time, ready for the next round.

    I think the 4th’s experience reflects that process and serves as a perfect illustration of it at work.

  3. Understanding Battles: Multiple Sources « We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France Says:

    […] If you read Eric Wittenburg’s or David Powell’s blogs, you get to see a lot of evaluations of sources. Recently, Eric wrote about the four cannons firing at Brinkerhoff’s Ridge at the start of Stuart’s visit to the East Cavalry Field that provides a good example of this kind of evaluation. Dave performs a similar task at Chickamauga in this post. […]

  4. Len Jolley Says:


    I am researching my ggg uncle, Capt. John Cussons VADC to General E M Law. Originally from my home town in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, UK. Though I have a small ACW library, with info on the 4th Ala. and Law’s brigade, with snippets about J C., I wonder if anyone on the forum has any info on him. I’ve picked up some in the web, which I’ve proved to be romanticized, exaggerated and completely fictitious.


  5. Carol Pike Says:

    Wasn’t his middle name actually Calvin?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: