Archive for June, 2019

Friday’s with Dave Powell #13

June 22, 2019

Reposted from the Facebook page:


A conversation with Chickamauga’s leading author.

QUESTION: Dave, a lot of visitors come to the battlefield and think of Wilder’s Brigade as a brigade of cavalry. Can you shed some light on this brigade of infantry originally in Joseph J. Reynolds’ Fourteenth Corps Division, its development, and its actions in the Battle of Chickamauga? As a follow-up, one does not hear much of Wilder’s Brigade after their wildly successful fighting at Chickamauga. Why is this?

DAVE POWELL: Wilder’s brigade never included any cavalry; instead the brigade was comprised of four (later five) regiments of infantry who mounted themselves initially on local livestock seized from Middle Tennessee in the spring of 1863. These four regiments were the 17th and 72nd Indiana, and the 98th and 123rd Illinois. Later, the 92nd Illinois joined them when the 92nd’s Colonel, Smith D. Atkins, agitated for a transfer to Wilder’s “fighting command” that summer.

Wilder always claimed that he conceived the idea for a brigade of mounted infantry, armed with Spencer repeating rifles, on his own, based on his frustrating experiences chasing Rebel raiders in 1862. This may well be, but in fact the concept dovetailed with a larger scheme that army commander William Rosecrans developed: to create a picked battalion of sharpshooters from each infantry brigade, mount them and arm them with similar weapons. These units, which Rosecrans dubbed “Elite Battalions” would serve as scouts and an elite strike force, mainly designed to counteract the Confederate superiority in cavalry. Rosecrans never got his elite battalions; the War Department said no. But he did get the go-ahead to mount several regiments of foot soldiers. When Wilder’s proposal reached him, Rosecrans quickly authorized the Indiana Colonel to proceed.

Wilder’s troops were the best-known of these forces, but at least one other regiment followed suit: the 39th Indiana in McCook’s 20th Corps. The 39th is less well-known, mainly because it never really served with Wilder’s command and later formally converted to become the 8th Indiana Cavalry, but it performed similar service in 1863.

Wilder’s brigade first proved their worth at Hoover’s Gap on June 24, 1863; during the opening stages of the Tullahoma Campaign. Wilder’s four regiments, supported by Eli Lilly’s 18th Indiana Battery, thundered through this gap in the Highland Rim (south of Murfreesboro) to seize its southern end and defend it against Confederate counterattacks for the rest of the day. The gap proved crucial in Rosecrans’s advance on Manchester Tennessee, and its capture forced Bragg to retreat from Shelbyville. According to Wilder, no less a figure than George Thomas informed him that capturing Hoover’s Gap so quickly saved the Federals a thousand casualties.

Though Wilder’s brigade nominally remained a part of Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds’ 4th Division, 14th Corps during the ensuing Chickamauga campaign, Wilder was not fond of Reynolds, who felt the brigade was too free in their foraging, and was therefore delighted when Rosecrans detached Wilder’s force to use it mainly as an army asset. During the entire Chickamauga campaign, Wilder acted independently of the division, usually reporting either directly to Rosecrans or to one of the Union corps commanders.

Wilder’s value was proven during the campaign. He helped deceive Bragg as to the Union army’s intentions prior to Chattanooga’s capture; and led Crittenden’s 21st Corps south along the railroad towards Dalton on September 10 and 11. Thomas wanted Wilder returned to his control during the advance on LaFayette, going so far as to write that he felt sure he would have captured the gaps in Pigeon Mountain by September 10, if Wilder had been with him.

Of course, Wilder’s role in the fighting on September 18-19-20 is justly famous. Elements of his brigade held Alexander’s Bridge on the 18th, and his whole brigade (minus the 92nd) was in action on the 19th, at Viniard Field, and on the 20th, at the Widow Glenn farm. His encounter with Charles A. Dana happened shortly after the action at the Glenn Cabin, where Dana attempted to order (or not, according to Dana) Wilder’s men to escort him back to Chattanooga.

John T. Wilder’s health was not good by 1863, and he took leave right after Chickamauga. He would return only intermittently, and never again commanded the brigade in an active campaign. The brigade’s next important service was in October, pursuing Joe Wheeler’s Rebel cavalry as it attacked Union supply lines in Tennessee. Under command of Col. Abram O. Miller of the 72nd Indiana the brigade attacked and shattered Wheeler’s troopers at Farmington, Tennessee, on October 7. They captured nearly 300 Rebels in that action.

As a result, the brigade, while it served well in 1864 and 1865, suffers from a lack of name recognition. The brigade was transferred to the Army of the Cumberland’s Cavalry Corps in 1864, and they served under Miller for the duration of the Atlanta campaign. In the fall of 1864, after Atlanta fell, the brigade was sent to Kentucky to obtain remounts; returning to the field only after the battle of Nashville. Miller and the Lightning brigade, however, were a key element of Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson’s celebrated cavalry raid across Alabama to Selma in 1865.

It is worth noting that neither Thomas nor Sherman used Wilder’s men in the way Rosecrans employed them; as a specialized army asset that could strike rapidly and hard, on missions of more than usual importance. In part, this was because by 1864 the Federal cavalry in general was greatly improved, both in skill and equipment. Spencer carbines were now in full production, and their rapid-shooting firepower was much more common in the army.

Also, however, Thomas and Sherman were simply more conventional thinkers than was Rosecrans; they took fewer risks and disliked unusual formations. Under Rosecrans, the Lightning Brigade drew special note; under Sherman and Thomas, they served as well but more anonymously.

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