On September 11th, 1863, five brigades of Federals – 8,000 men in Negley’s and two thirds of Baird’s Divisions, 14th Corps – were nearly overwhelmed by roughly 25,000 Confederate troops in McLemore’s Cove. Bragg attempted to bring no less that four of his own divisions: Hindman’s, of Polk; Cleburne’s, of Hill, reinforced by all of Buckner’s Corps, to bear on Negley’s combined column. That effort failed, but only by the narrowest of margins, mostly due to the timidity of Hindman and Buckner. It remains the battle that almost was.
Wallace W. Darrah of the 10th Wisconsin was a member of Starkweather’s brigade, Baird’s command. Writing home on the 13th, Darrah described the events of September 11th. Darrah’s narration is a little breathless; I have tried to lightly edit it for clarity.
Dear Sister Helen,
The morning of the [11th] we marched out whare Negley layed and stopped thare a little and the pickets was drove in and then we mooved out into the field and formed a line and the rebel skirmishes was drivein [driving] Negley’s men in pretty fast and our line relieved them and took the front. Co. B . . . was sent out to skirmish and while we was out thare fighting our men fell back and our 3 companies came pretty near bein captured. We was so near the rebels we could hear their officers give commands. Thare was a rebel battery mooved in front of us and I heard the Captain give the command ‘battery forward into line,’ and we thought it was our one battery.
While we was in line of battle we took off us knapsacks and when we went onto the skirmish line we left them thare and they was left when the line of battle fell back and they was left on the field and captured so the rebs got every thing we had packed over the mountains. While we was falling back I found a rubber blanket & tent so I am all right for now.
The rebs had one division and one corps in this valley and two small [Union] divisions had no business with them but they did not get much out of us for we fell back to the [Lookout] mountain and then they could not surround us no[r] flank us. In one time thare they was on three sides of us pouring their best licks and if had not been for the mountain they would have gobbled us every man.”
Milwaukee resident Lieutenant William Mitchell of the 1st Wisconsin, also in Starkweather’s brigade, described a similar experience:
In line of battle, foot of Lookout Mountain, Sep 12, 1863,
We crossed the Tenn. River on the 4th and have had the toughest time I have ever experienced in crossing Raccoon [Sand] and Lookout Mountain. The artillery and wagons were handed up by doubling the teams & by men from the infantry. In some places the road led up the Mt. at about an angle of 45 degrees. In descending all the wheels were locked and men holding back with ropes. The road is strewn with broken wagons & dead horses & mules. The march I think rivaled Bonaparte’s over the alps.
We arrived in the valley yesterday morning, our division having been hurried forward to reinforce Negley . . . We went into line about 1 PM yesterday, the pickets firing during the time. . . . A large rebel force appeared on our left coming down the valley and threatening our rear, between us and Lookout Mountain. . . .So we commenced a retrograde movement by Genl Negley’s order. It was the first time the brigade was forced to fall back. Starkweather’s brigade covered the retreat, which was conducted in fine style. Segile [he means Franz Sigel] could not do it better.
As soon as the enemy . . . saw the movement, he threw his cavalry in heavy force upon us. For over two miles we retreated, our skirmishers & battery emptying rebel saddles by scores. About 5 PM at one of our halts (we halted at every good position & gave them grape & cannons) I was ordered to take Cos. C & D and relieve Goodrich. I did so but our battery persuaded the rebs that it was safer for them to remain at a distance, so my line never fired a shot, while Goodrich had his hands full.
Now Tom, please don’t publish this. We are a rough looking set, worn out & covered with dust. I never wanted to fight as bad in my life as when these d-d rebs pound their volleys . . . and Yelling after us with “Run you Yankee sons of b-s.”
Unfortunately, Confederate accounts of this incident are harder to find. William E. McNally of Company K, the 37th Tennessee, was in A. P. Stewart’s Division, Buckner’s Corps, opposing Darrah and Mitchell.
September 15, La Fayette Georgia,
On the 11th we had a considerable skirmish on the Graysville Road between Rock Spring and [La Fayette.] The enemy were completely routed and would, it is said, have been captured had it not been for a blunder of one of our officers. There has been skirmishing in every direction from this place and a general engagement is daily expected.
Our young country’s prospects now look dark indeed. The enemy is advancing on every side, the country is flooded with a greatly depreciated paper currency, which is the Government’s “promise to pay.” This is worth with speculators – which class have overrun the whole land – about one fifteenth as much as gold or silver; besides this, there is much dissatisfaction in the army and among citizens; but with all these disadvantages, I still feel confident of our final success.