The Army of the Cumberland’s ‘Elite Battalions’

In January 1863, Major General William Starke Rosecrans had an idea. The Army of the Cumberland had just finished what seemed like the fight of its life, a desperate struggle fought over the new year, at Stone’s River. Rosecrans set out to attack Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, and was instead himself attacked.

The two armies were evenly matched. Each numbered roughly 40,000 men, and losses were more than 25%. Despite near disaster, the Federals rallied, held off Bragg’s Confederates, and then repulsed a second effort two days later. Eventually Bragg retreated, converting a stalemate into a Union victory, though one defined only by the narrowest of margins. Coming in the wake of terrible news from Fredericksburg in mid-December, not surprisingly the Administration and the whole of the North embraced Stone’s River as a Union triumph. Congratulatory telegrams pouring into Rosecrans’ headquarters. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton informed Rosecrans that “There is nothing you can ask within my power to grant to yourself or your heroic command that will not be cheerfully given.”

Rosecrans had always been a man of grand ideas and great passions; the Secretary of War’s apparent blank check appeared to give Rosecrans free reign. In the early months of 1863, he asked a great many things of the War Department, including, among other things, direct authority over the Union Navy vessels then patrolling the Cumberland River. Most of the things Rosecrans wanted he would not get, and his relationship with Washington DC soured over time, until Stanton’s promise seemed a hollow one.

One such idea merits some additional investigation. Most of Rosecrans’ concerns had to do with the tenuous nature of his supply lines, and how to deal with the raiders and guerillas infesting Tennessee and Kentucky. The all-important Louisville and Nashville Railroad was Rosecrans’ lifeline. Without it his army would starve. He also found himself desperately short of cavalry. Rosecrans might outnumber Bragg’s army in overall strength, but the Rebels had a lot more horsemen, and 1862 had been a good year for them. Confederate raids by Forrest, Armstrong, Morgan and others had badly disrupted Union supply lines across the whole of the department.

Hence Rosecrans’ latest brainstorm. In the wake of Stones River, Rosecrans decided that one way to inspire his army was to have each regiment select the bravest of the men who had proved themselves in the recent fight, and publically acknowledge their valor. On February 14, 1863, General Rosecrans published General Order #19, proposing the creation of a “Roll of Honor” to “establish a method of pointing out to this army and the nation those officers and soldiers of this command who shall distinguish themselves by bravery in battle, by courage, enterprise, and soldierly conduct.” This roll was to be kept from company to brigade level and compiled at each division’s headquarters.

Next, Rosecrans wanted each brigade in the army to hand-pick men from these regimental rolls and assign them to a new and unusual unit. Rosecrans detailed his intentions to General-in-Chief Halleck on February 1st. From this roll, each regiment would supply all the named privates, one officer, and five sergeants or corporals to form an elite battalion for each brigade. Additionally, and rashly, he “promise[d] them the best of arms when I can get them, and will mount them for rapid field movement, like flying artillery….We must create military ardor,” he concluded. When organized, this concept would add another thirty or so mounted battalions, or roughly 6,000 men, to Rosecrans’ mounted arm.

For the United States Army in the 19th Century, this was a radical idea. It was also illegal. Rosecrans had no authority to raise new units or add formations to the existing establishment; and he was infringing on the various States’ rights to raise and officer new commands. Moreover, the weapons Rosecrans wanted to give them were repeaters. Seven-shot Spencer or Sixteen-shot Henry rifles, if possible; Colt Revolving rifles if he had to settle for less. A veritable bombardment of telegrams were soon headed off to Washington, as Rosecrans pressed his case with his usual zeal. “You can’t have all the best weapons” came the response from an exasperated Henry Halleck. Other armies needed them also.

Most people will doubtless recognize this idea in the form of Colonel John T. Wilder’s Lightning Brigade, who did eventually mount themselves and acquire Spencers. But the elite battalion idea died aborning, and would never be revived. Interestingly enough, the Rebel army did something like this when the Confederate Congress passed legislation in April 1862, authorizing the formation of sharpshooter battalions to be created at the brigade level. the Federals, however, were less inclined to such tactical experiments.

Or did it die entirely? The Rolls of Honor were published, and while the elite battalions were never offiically created, there are intriguing references in the regimental literature to suggest that some of Rosecrans other measures were taken.
One such example can be found in Chaplain John J. Hight’s History of the Fifty-Eighth Regiment of Indiana Volunteer Infantry (Princeton Indiana, 1895). On page 337 there is a picture of Sergeant Gilbert Armstrong, of Company E. Armstrong is holding a Henry Rifle, and in a footnote, the author informs us that the rifle was “presented to him by some of his friends in the regiment, for bravery shown in the battle of Stones River.”

The recognition afforded Armstrong sounds very much like what Rosecrans intended, down to and including the distribution of the most modern weapons. It suggests that in some regiments, at least, Rosecrans’ idea had begun to bear fruit, even if it was later quashed by higher authority. There are other passing references to Henry Rifles in Chickamauga accounts, either as captures by Confederates, or made by Federals in regimental histories, memoirs and the like.

Armstrong’s rifle was captured by the Confederates, on September 20th, 1863. Sergeant Armstrong was actually wounded in the chest on September 19th, but passed his rifle to Lieutenant H. J. Barnett of Company F. Unfortunately, Barnett was wounded on the 20th, and the rifle fell into enemy hands. (See the Stones River National Battlefield website for more on the Armstrong rifle: )

How many weapons were issued, and to how many different regiments? So far, I have been unable to find that information out. A number of them obviously made their way into the hands of various infantrymen, but there is no official record of them being issued. The Union Army Quarterly Ordnance Returns (Q.O.R.) do not even have a category for either Henry or Spencer repeaters. The 58th’s returns for March or June, 1863 do not show any such weapons on hand. Armstrong’s rifle, and any others in the regiment, were ‘off the books.’

Nor is there any concrete evidence that these well-armed men were routinely detailed as skirmishers or sharpshooters. They might well have been, given their extra firepower, but I have yet to see any proof of any more formal tactical role.

The idea, however, is fascinating to think about. Wilder’s Brigade proved to be very effective, but there virtually of the men in an entire command were armed with Spencers and could deliver massed firepower. Under Rosecrans’ initial concept, each brigade would have a battalion of heavily armed skirmishers, but with only 200 or so rifles per brigade, would they have had the same impact? Would the concept have evolved over time? Each corps would have had ten or twelve such battalions to call upon, which would have given the Federals at least three brigades similar to Wilder’s to employ tactically. Another question worth asking is whether or not Wilder would have been allowed to mount and equip his brigade with repeaters if Rosecrans had been allowed instead to form his elite battalions? Did Rosecrans see Wilder’s request as a way around the restraints of army bureaucracy?

I continue to look for references to repeaters in the Army of the Cumberland. If anyone comes across one, please let me know about it. It’s a subject worth some additional exploration.


14 Responses to “The Army of the Cumberland’s ‘Elite Battalions’”

  1. Andy Papen Says:


    Interesting stuff. I don’t have any references to repeaters, but I remembered a reference in a report from Sheridan’s division after I read your post. Colonel Laiboldt, while commending certain officers and men of the brigade also stated, “The company of sharpshooters (Captain Ernst) did the work assigned to them faithfully.”

    Perhaps a reference to a company of picked men as you discuss?

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Andy, Yes, I think it is. There are some other references like that scattered around as well. But the whole thing was very informal, and you only tend to stumble across them by accident. Dave

  2. Brad Butkovich Says:

    Several of the regiments in Sheridan’s division had Colt Revolving rifles and Sharps rifles, in quantities ranging from 17 to 5. Not much, but I wonder if distributing them had its genesis in this idea, or if they were just private purchases.

    • Dave Powell Says:


      I think the Colts in the 21st Michigan were state purchases, and as such, pre-date Rosecrans’ tenure. However, I think that at least some of the other weapons were as a direct result of the elite battalion concept. It’s very hard to track down, however. If you have any specific cites, I’d appreciate seeing them.


  3. Brad Butkovich Says:

    Sorry, I have no other primary data other than what’s in Major Michael John Davis’ Master’s thesis The Role of Ordnance Logistics in the Chickamauga Campaign.

    Other than the 21st Michigan, it lists the following

    22nd Illinois- 15 .52 Sharps
    27th Illinois- 6 .52 Sharps
    42nd Illinois- 12 .52 Sharps
    51st Illinois- 5 Colt Revolving rifles

    Interesting that every regiment in Bradley’s 3rd Brigade has some quantity of breach-loading or repeating arms. Perhaps in response to Sheridan’s performance at Stone’s River?

  4. Jeff Graf Says:

    My Great Great Grandfather Lewis Sippy, who was in the 40th Indiana Infantry(Wood’s, then Sheridan’s division of the AOC) was issued a Spencer rifle after returning from his reenlistment furlough in March 64.They were issued to the Veteran Volunteers and NCO’s of his unit.

  5. Jeff Graf Says:

    Actually, the Colt repeaters were Govt. issue, having been rejected by Berdans 1st and 2nd sharpshooter units as unreliable. They were crated up and sent west, where men(21st Ohio Inf.) who had greater mechanical aptitude made great use of them at Chickamauga.

  6. Todd Koster Says:

    There is evidence of units of Rosecrans’ failed light battalions maintaining their Henry Rifles even after the idea was outlawed by the War Department. The 1st and 93rd Ohio of Baldwin’s/Berry’s Brigade had a handful of the Henry Rifle at Chickamauga. There is an account where a member of the failed light battalions sold his Henry to another member of his unit. The 51st Illinois also had about a dozen, though I don’t know if this was a result of the light battalions.

    A interesting note is that the scout company of Wilder’s own 17th Indiana had Henry rifles prior to the rest of the brigade receiving their Spencer rifles. Even after the Spencers arrived many members of the 17th retained their Henrys through the Tullahoma Campaign and into the battle at Chickamauga Creek. I have researched this from an unpublished diary of a member of the 17th Indiana.

    Because of the lack of ordnance returns listing repeaters it is difficult to determine the actual number of Henrys present in the 17th. Period accounts puts at least 25 Henrys amongst the 17th and newspapers report that at least half (approximately 200) of the 17th was armed with Henrys with the balance armed with Spencer rifles. I believe the number lies somewhere in between.

  7. Andrew L. Bresnan Says:

    Wilder’s Brigade was most noted for being armed with the Spencer repeating rifle. The interesting thing is that the scouts were also armed with Henry rifles. For an excellent article check out the following link.

  8. Andrew L. Bresnan Says:

    The problem with trying to look in the Quarterly Ordnance Reports is that they general show what was issued by the government. They do not include private purchase firearms. I have two spools of microfilm for the Ordnance reports for 4th quarter of 1863 and the 1st quarter of 1864 and have yet to find any Henry rifles. What the Ordnance reports do show is ammunition on hand if the government purchased it. It was common for the government to purchase ammunition for privated purchased rifles such as the Henry and Spencer. However this also gets confusing in that a lot of the cartridge ammunition is lumped together so it is difficult to determine how much of each particular caliber there actual is on hand. Another problem is that once a unit was mounted such as Wilder’s Brigade the reports just mentions the fact that they were mounted but no further details. I am not sure if their reports were then transferred to cavalry instead of infantry.

    For information concerning the use of Henry Repeating rifles in the Civil War the following link is an indepth look at which units were armed with the Henry rifle as well as how they were used but the men that were issued the Henry rifle.

  9. SouthernMuse Says:

    I believe the 2nd Michigan Cavalry Vols had Colt repeaters. One young man, Robert McDougall, of Company G, was chosen for Rosecrans’s elite corps, which was then cancelled. Later, he became a division scout for Gen. Elliott (per his military record), though his biography said he was selected by E.M. McCook–it did not mention Elliott. I’m not sure where I got the info about the Colt repeaters–it either came from McDougall’s letters, or from Thatcher (who wrote the regimental history).

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Yes, the colts show up for several michigan regiments. both infantry and cavalry. The 2nd had mostly colts, as shown in the ordnance returns.

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