Senator James Nesmith

Rarely do you come across a completely new account of the breakthrough at Chickamauga, let alone a new view from Rosecrans’s Headquarters.

James W. Nesmith

But thanks to Senator James W. Nesmith of Oregon, we have one.

Senator Nesmith was a War Democrat, elected as the Junior Senator from Oregon in 1860, a year after Oregon became a state. He was asked to run in order to replace Joseph Lane, who was elected to a special term in 1859, but who declined to stand for re-election in 1860, choosing instead to run as John C. Breckinridge’s running mate as the Democratic party fractured that election cycle.

Lane’s pro-slavery, pro-secession stance destroyed his political career in Oregon, a free state with strong abolition sentiments and an abhorrence of secession. Oregon Democrats, afraid of a Republican sweep, asked Nesmith to step in. He won.

Nesmith, despite his Democratic affiliation, came to be a steady supporter of the Lincoln administration. He served on the military affairs committee, was asked by Stanton to help provide oversight of the Union draft to make sure it was fairly administered, and undertook frequent inspection trips for the administration. He was the only Senate Democrat to vote for the 13th Amendment.

In early September, 1863, Nesmith traveled to join General Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland as they campaigned around Chattanooga. He reached Bridgeport on September 15th, in company with Colonel Henry C. Hodges, chief quartermaster for the Department of the Cumberland, and proceeded on to join Rosecrans. Nesmith met with Gordon Granger at Rossville on September 17th – Granger was an old friend, having served in Oregon with the US Mounted Rifles in the 1850s – and then moved on to Rosecrans’s headquarters at Crawfish Spring on the 18th. He and Colonel Hodges remained with Rosecrans until midday on September 20th, when they became separated from the army commander by the Confederate breakthrough.

Nesmith’s mission is still a bit unclear to me. This seems to be an official trip, and in discussing the topic with Jim Odgen at Chickamauga, Jim suggested that Nesmith’s inspection might be connected to the ongoing issue of supply. Rosecrans not shy about sharing his logistical difficulties during this campaign, especially with regard to the huge demand for horses and mules. The War Department in Washington tended to downplay those complaints, regarding Rosecrans as prone to exaggeration (to be polite about it.) In later weeks Union Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs would come to Chattanooga on just such a mission, whereupon Meigs immediately informed the War Department that Rosecrans was not embellishing a thing.

However, there is very little paper trail to follow. Nesmith is only mentioned a couple of times in passing in the Official Records. There is a note from Granger introducing “his good friend” the Senator to General Rosecrans, and General Hazen mentions him briefly as a witness to a dressing-down given to Hazen by Rosecrans on the night of September 18th. That episode affronted Hazen, and he mentioned Nesmith as a witness in a later effort to clear the matter up. If not for that mention by Hazen, I am not sure I would have tumbled to the fact that Nesmith was present during the battle. But that passing mention got me to wondering.

Nesmith described his trip both privately, in letters home to his family, and publically, in a lengthy epistle to the Oregon Statesman, under the pen name of Tillicum.

In a private letter, Nesmith noted that “from Bridgeport to Chattanooga is a terrible rough mountainous country, [with] as bad a road as I ever traveled over in Oregon.” Interestingly enough, he describes the dust as “shoe mouth deep,” a phrase that re-occurs often in descriptions of the time, including by Confederates. I wonder how common that phrase was in regular usage.

On the 18th, Nesmith recorded that the mood at army headquarters was uncertain. There was action unfolding at both Reed’s and Alexander’s Bridges, where Minty and Wilder held back many thousands of Confederate infantry, but Nesmith only noted “that the enemy is now in our front and skirmishing going on . . . there may be a battle at any moment though I hardly think that Bragg will attack our present positions and the . . . firing I imagine is only to feel our lines.”
On the 20th, Nesmith was near Mendenhall’s gun line north of the Dyer House when the crisis arrived. “The first intimation that we had of an attack in that quarter was our troops flying through the cornfield pursued by immense masses of rebel troops. Twenty pieces of artillery opened at once on the advancing host of rebels and mowed them down with great slaughter, but their numbers were such as to fill up the gaps, and advancing on the battery upon the crest of the ridge, took it with little opposition.”

After that, Nesmith rode west out the Dry Valley Road, through McFarland’s Gap, and into Rossville. Along the way he would only say that he “saw enough of cowardice and imbecility to disgust any . . . man.” Along the way, he must have encountered Alexander McDowell McCook, who did not leave a favorable impression. “McCook ought to try some other business besides fighting,” Nesmith confided to his cousin.

Was McCook counted among the “cowards and imbeciles” who raised Nesmith’s ire? The Senator doesn’t say. When he returned to Washington in early November, however, his opinions concerning the late disaster and the state of affairs at Chattanooga were much sought after. Publically, he reassured everyone that Chattanooga was a splendid position, that the troops – now under Grant and George Thomas – were still full of fight and in fine spirits, and that the Rebels, if they dared attack, would be soundly defeated. I have not found evidence of what he told Lincoln or other members of the government in private, but I suspect it wasn’t much good about Alexander McDowell McCook.

Nesmith’s account isn’t going to set our interpretation of what happened at Chickamauga on its head. But it is a fascinating new window into what was happening atop that knoll at just about noon, Sunday, September 20th, 1863.


10 Responses to “Senator James Nesmith”

  1. mitchell werksman Says:

    Thanks for this new info Dave.It something which should be examined in more depth if any written records coud be found,especially about McCook.You always seem to enlighten me and expand my knowledge….thanx Mitch

  2. Mark McLain Says:

    Actually, Oregon was not a stronghold of abolition. The 1860 election went to Lincoln in Oregon because the Democrats split themselves – as in the rest of the country – between Douglas and Breckinridge, with Lincoln getting 36% and the other two sharing around 30% – Breckinridge getting slightly more than Douglas. Oregon had a Democratic majority in its early years as a State and there more pro-Slavery Democrats than free-staters.

    Oregon’s other Senator at the start of the War also had an interesting history – short as it was. Edward Baker, friend of Lincoln from law days in Illinois, became Senator for Oregon at the same time as Nesmith, as a result of a coalition of Oregon Republicans and free-state Democrats. He rode with Lincoln in the same carriage at the Inauguration. Baker was a possible cabinent appointee for Lincoln but because Lincoln needed as much Republican support in the Senate at the time – Oregon’s Democratic governor would be able to name a Democrat to replace Baker – he remained in the Senate.

    As war brewed, Baker was on the same list that Lincoln sent to the Senate for appointment to Brigadier General as US Grant on July 31, 1861. In fact, the War Department notified Baker that Lincoln had appointed him to Major General – September 21 – but Baker declined going into battle as a colonel in command of a brigade in Charles Stone’s division guarding fords along the Potomac upriver from Washington. On October 21, Baker became the only US Senator to ever lose his life at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Lincoln cried when he heard about his friend’s death.

    Baker was replaced by a proslavery Democrat.

  3. Lee Elder Says:


    I take it from the blog that the material you found is one letter written by Nesmith. Is the letter digitized anywhere that you know of? It would be interesting to read, if so.

    Lee Elder

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Lee, The Oregon historical society has Nesmith’s papers, but nothing is digitized. I had them send me some of his letters from the right time. Two bear on Chickamauga. Additionally, I have a newspaper account he wrote under a pen name, which appeared in The Oregon Statesman. That is also not digitized. I suspect that there is more out there, correspondence he sent to other politicos that now resides in other collections, but I need to find out more along this line. I hope to find out if he has thoughts on the McCook and Crittenden courts of inquiry. Dave Powell

  4. mitchell werksman Says:

    Keep us in the loop on what may be some great new finds.i envy your research abbilities

  5. Mark McLain Says:

    Fascinating information regarding one of Oregon’s first senators. Like you mentioned, Nesmith was constantly accompanying Union armies in the field gaining a closer view of the Federal war effort. Also, as you noted, he had been elected to replace Joseph Lane who had been appointed Oregon’s first Senator when the State joined the Union in 1859.

    Oregon was actually not a strong abolition-leaning State. Many of the new emigrants had come from Border States or other areas with similar leanings – ie southern Illinois and Indiana. Technically a free State, Blacks were prohibited from coming to Oregon – free or otherwise. The presidential election of 1860 in Oregon mirrored the results seen in the nation as a whole – Lincoln got 36% of the vote and the two Democrats – Douglas and Breckinridge – took about a third of the vote each. The State was largely a Democratic State but the party was deeply fractured largely as a result of the North-South divide which was furthered along with other local splits – especially where people stood with or against Joseph Lane, a man who cast a long shadow initially in the State. Anti-Lane Democrats got together with Whig/Republicans to elect Edward Baker – a Republican – balancing the senate ticket with Nesmith. Nesmith was known as “Colonel” Nesmith, an honorific picked up during days with Territorial militia actions against the local natives. Baker was an actual Federal colonel – he liked to come to the Senate in full uniform. Lincoln had much larger plans for Baker but he, of course, went on to become the only US Senator to die in battle early in the war. Interesting to see that Nesmith could have made it into that dubious column that September day in 1863.

    Thanks for bringing new enlightments to an already large work of educating.

  6. Chris Evans Says:

    Excellent post.

    I found mention on another site that ‘shoe mouth deep’ was/is Southern slang.


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