That Bloody Hill: Hilliard’s Legion at Chickamauga book review

That Bloody Hill: Hilliard’s Legion at Chickamauga, by Lee Elder. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. 239 pages, $35.00 paper) Endnotes, Bibliography, maps and photographs.

www.mcfarlandpub.com, 800-253-2187

Review by David A. Powell (this review also appears on Emerging Civil War)

It wasn’t that long ago that single-volume overviews of the battle of Chickamauga – let alone individual unit micro-studies -were a rarity. Thankfully, that particular gap in Civil War Studies is closing. This most recent contribution to that body of work, penned by author Lee Elder, focuses on one of the more unusual formations to fight in that battle.

Hilliard’s Legion was an Alabama unit, raised in 1862, with a muster strength of nearly 3,000 men. As envisioned by its first commander, Henry W. Hilliard, the Legion consisted of three infantry battalions, one artillery battalion, and a cavalry battalion; essentially a combined-arms brigade structured to mirror similar organizations raised in the American Revolution. Several such were raised across the South. By 1863 the formations were deemed unwieldy however, their battalions broken up and assigned to cavalry or infantry brigades. Hilliard, frustrated at the dissolution and seeing his hopes of a brigadier generalship dashed, resigned in December 1862. At Chickamauga the Legion consisted of four independent infantry battalions (all but one company of the artillery having been converted to foot soldiers) with the cavalry battalion merged, along with the 19th Georgia Cavalry Battalion, into the 10th Confederate Cavalry Regiment.

The Legion served mainly in East Tennessee and Kentucky, seeing much marching but little fighting. They were brigaded under Brigadier General Archibald Gracie III, in Brigadier General William Preston’s Division of Simon B. Buckner’s Infantry Corps. Chickamauga would be their first major engagement, with their commitment to action coming at the very end of the last day, September 20, sent to attack Federal defenders on what history now knows as Horseshoe Ridge.

Though the battle lasted three days, with the heaviest action coming on September 19 and 20; the men of the Legion were seriously engaged for only about 2 – 3 hours, from 4:00 p.m. until perhaps 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. on the 20th. Despite this, they faced a terrifically stubborn defense, mounted by Union defenders under George Thomas, and suffered among the heaviest Confederate casualties of the entire battle. Gracie’s brigade, which included the 43rd Alabama and 63rd Tennessee as well as the four battalions of legionnaires, suffered 725 losses out of 1927 engaged, 38%; with the Legion’s 1st Battalion losing 59% of their men. Given the duration, it was a brutal engagement; centered largely on Hill One of the Horseshoe Ridge complex, near to the Snodgrass farm.

Like many similar works, the author’s interest in this project was generated by a family connection. That inspiration has clearly led to a deeply researched and well-developed story. Elder briefly sketches the Legion’s origins and outlines, but the heart of the work is devoted to their experiences at Chickamauga. Fortunately for the telling, several members left letters and memoirs concerning their epic fight on that September Sunday afternoon, sources which Elder uses well.

I should add a note here about style. Elder writes in a conversational, often casual tone; I confess that at first, I was put off by that choice. In the past, I have found this technique tends to override and obscure the writings of the veterans, introducing a jarring modernity that contrasts negatively with the period letters and other writings of the men who where there. As I read farther, however, I found myself enjoying Elder’s flair, which proved witty without being overbearing. His subjects’ voices were not drowned out at all. The writing flows along at an enjoyable pace.

Organizationally, That Bloody Hill includes thirteen chapters, ten appendices, and rosters for all five battalions of the legion, drawn from service records. Frankly, some of the chapters could have been appendices, and vice-versa. Chapter 13, for example, titled “The end of the story,” consists of summary biographies of some of the men quoted in the text; a nice touch, but contrast that with Appendix 1, detailing the Legion’s subsequent service in East Tennessee and Virginia after Chickamauga. These two items seem better off reversed. Additionally, Appendix 5 examines whether the Confederate Army of Tennessee should have pursued the Federals on September 21. It is preceded by appendices detailing the death of General Gracie in 1864, two affidavits from members of the legion detailing their experiences on September 20, and a short examination of Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s supply woes during the campaign. In another example, chapter 9, “Was there a fake surrender?” delves minutely into the question of an incident where each side, Union and Confederate, accused each other of falsifying a white flag of surrender to trick the other into an ambush – to me, this chapter also should have been set aside as an appendix. In places the book’s structure is choppy and disruptive, the focus uneven. A heavier editing hand could have been used here.

However, the good news is that Elder’s work is concise. Extraneous information is limited. Some additional background on the Legion’s composition could have been useful (how many were slave-owners? How did they feel about the war?) but Elder’s focus in the battle and the Legion’s engagement is laudatory. The book reads quickly and to the point.

This reviewer is no stranger to Chickamauga, having written several books on the subject, and so I would be remiss in not mentioning that my own works get some scrutiny from Elder. In Appendix 8, “The charge of disloyalty,” Elder disputes my own finding; namely that charges of treason and excessive desertion were later leveled against some in the Legion. Elder presents convincing evidence to suggest that these charges were unwarranted, or at least overblown. I found this section especially interesting and would like to know more. Perhaps some future work will provide a more systematic social history of the Legion, such as a modern regimental history.

In sum, I enjoyed This Bloody Hill, and recommend it. Spend some time with the Legion at Chickamauga.

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