Major Williard G. Eaton and the 13th Michigan Infantry

Civil War tourism is often about connections. Certainly it is for me.

The field pictured below was taken at Bentonville North Carolina in October, 2016. It is a fairly innocuous image; it could be of anywhere, in any number of states.

eaton-field

But I find it a significant place. Here Major Willard G. Eaton of the 13th Michigan Infantry was killed on March 19, 1865, a scant month before Appomattox and Durham Station brought the Civil War virtually to an end. A few skirmishes and an additional surrender or two were still in the future, but the major fighting was over.

Eaton, nominally still a major, had been the acting colonel of his regiment since February, and was leading it forward into action at the moment of his death.

I need not describe his role at Bentonville, the North Carolina state park website has done a fine job of that here:

Besides, this blog is devoted to all things Chickamauga. And Chickamauga is where I first met Major Eaton.

The 13th Michigan faced a brutal fight in that earlier action; blooded on both September 19 and 20, 1863. They entered the battle on the afternoon of the 19th down in Viniard Field, facing off mainly against Hood’s Texans. They suffered a heavy loss that day, including the wounding of Colonel Joshua Culver. Eaton assumed command.

13th-michigan

the 13th Michigan monument, Viniard Field

Eaton and his men faced their toughest moment the next day, in Brotherton Field. The 13th Michigan belonged to Buell’s Brigade, of Tom Wood’s division; it was their fate to be caught in the very center of the maelstrom that was the Confederate breakthrough, shortly before noon on September 20.

brothertonmidnecornerlookingssw

Brotherton Cabin and Field

They were not in line. Instead, they were moving to the left, marching in column, with the brigade battery (the 8th Indiana light artillery) just to their west.  the 26th Ohio was close by.

When struck, the 13th and 26th fronted, and opened fire. the 26th Ohio then began a fighting retreat back through the timber and towards Dyer Field. Eaton and the 13th made a gutsy move. Eaton  ordered a charge  – directly into the teeth of Bushrod Johnson’s advancing Confederate brigade (currently commanded by Col. John S. Fulton) which outnumbered the battered 13th by a ratio of about four to one.

There are plenty of such moments in the war where the men simply refuse to advance, into what looks like the very jaws of death. In this case, that didn’t happen. The 13th followed, 130 bayonets strong, and slammed into Fulton’s ranks. Surprisingly, the Rebels gave ground.

Eaton was not indulging in reckless heroics. He had a plan. As Fulton’s men fell back, Eaton ordered the 13th to break off their charge and fall back, firing; emulating the 26th Ohio.

the 13th Michigan’s charge bought enough time for both the Wolverine regiment and the 26th Ohio to retreat in an organized fashion. They came to rest on the west side of Dyer Field, supporting a Union gun line. There they would face another desperate fight, outnumbered and almost alone, until they finally were forced to fall back through McFarland’s Gap.

The 13th Michigan took 220 men into action at Chickamauga. Losses were 106 killed wounded or missing. they almost certainly would have been higher (especially in captured) if not for Major Eaton’s cool nerve on the battlefield.

 

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One Response to “Major Williard G. Eaton and the 13th Michigan Infantry”

  1. James F. Epperson Says:

    Neat stories like this is why I check your blog out from time to time. I remember reading about the incident in your second volume.

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