Negley’s Choice

Crossposted from Facebook:

QUESTION: Well, it’s been since October 5th since we’ve done a “Fridays with Dave” segment, and you’ve been pretty darn busy! You’ve been traveling, speaking, researching, and writing. I can only imagine the lifestyle of a jet-set Civil War historian lol. I hope we can slow you down for a few minutes and get your views on an important, but seldom talked about, episode of the Battle of Chickamauga.

This week I’d like to ask you about Union Major General James S. Negley. On the afternoon of September 19, it was Negley’s division that drove back elements of A.P. Stewart’s Confederate division who had actually achieved a breakthrough at the Brotherton farm when Van Cleve’s division had disintegrated. Negley held the Union line at the wood line on the western edge of the Brotherton field until relieved by Thomas Wood’s division mid-morning on September 20 (a controversy for another day). Negley’s division was rushed north (minus John Beatty’s brigade that was moved earlier) to reinforce Thomas. At some point Negley was also tasked with forming and being responsible for an “artillery reserve,” which was gathering on the ridge in the north Dyer Field. Then “The Breakthrough” happened.

Men from the divisions of Brannan, Negley, Van Cleve, and Wood all began rallying in the Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge sector. Brannan and Negley had a quick conference in which it was agreed (at least in Brannan’s mind) that Brannan would defend the left of the Federal line and Negley the right. Many stayed, but in all the confusion, and to the great anger of Brannan, Negley ultimately abandoned the battlefield (without notifying anyone) before the first Confederate attack on Horseshoe Ridge with some 2,500 men and 35-40 pieces of artillery–all which were sorely needed on Horseshoe Ridge.

Can you shed some light on this little known but important episode of the battle?

DAVE POWELL: By the time of the battle, James Negley was one of the senior Major Generals in the army and well respected, though not a West Pointer. He was instrumental in defending Nashville in 1862, when the rest of the army went to Kentucky to chase Bragg. Fort Negley in Nashville is named for him.

His troops were among the last to reach the battlefield on September 19, having been left to defend Glass Mill that morning, where they had an engagement with Breckinridge’s Division of Hill’s Corps. As that fight concluded, Negley’s men were summoned north to the main battlefield, which is how they ended up counter-attacking through Dyer Field and then defending the line of Brotherton Farm overnight. Today, many of Negley’s regimental monuments mark their line on the western treeline of Brotherton Field.

Negley was detached from Thomas’s XIV Corps for much of this action, and Thomas wanted him back – him specifically, not just a division in his place, which is how we get to the controversy on the morning of September 20. Thomas bombarded army commander Rosecrans and Negley both with couriers (13 or so over a two hour time span) urging Negley to move to the Union right and prolong Thomas’s flank into McDonald Field.

At one point, Negley felt so pressed that he began to pull out of line without seeing his replacement; until severely reprimanded by Rosecrans for doing so. Rosecrans then relented enough to let John Beatty’s brigade depart ahead of the rest of the division, since Thomas’s need seemed so urgent. Beatty departed, leaving Negley to fret that his division would be dismembered and scattered in piecemeal fashion across the battlefield.

This is exactly what happened. Beatty arrived at the north end of Kelly Field, until Thomas directed him to stretch his frontage across a divisional width in McDonald Field. Beatty would not see his divisional commander again until after the battle. At about 9:45 a.m., Beatty’s thin line was struck and overrun by Breckinridge’s division of Hill’s Corps – the same men who faced his troops at Glass Mill on the other end of the Union line the day before.

In the meantime, with Wood’s men now up, Negley’s other two brigades departed for the Union left. This move was equally disjointed. On the way, Negley and his next brigade were met by yet another courier from Thomas, redirecting Negley, not to support Beatty, but to move to Snodgrass Hill and establish an artillery position there.

Negley never talked to Thomas in person that day, and never really seemed to grasp what Thomas intended. It appears that Thomas wanted Negley to establish a powerful artillery position on Snodgrass Hill, which could then fire into McDonald Field so as to break up any Confederate effort to turn Thomas’s left flank. Instead of holding that ground with a thin line, Thomas decided that he could better guard his flank with an artillery concentration, backed by Negley’s infantry on Snodgrass Hill.

Negley, however, never really grasped this concept. He deployed some troops and artillery on the open ridge of Snodgrass Hill, but facing southeast, not northeast (as he would have needed to if he were going to control McDonald Field) and deployed additional troops and artillery farther south, on what today is called Harker’s Knoll or the South Carolina Monument Knoll.

Further, Negley’s remaining brigade under Timothy Stanley never reached this new Snodgrass Hill position, but instead was pulled into the fighting raging to the east, in the woods south of McDonald Field, where John Beatty used it to support his own battered brigade as they ultimately repulsed Breckinridge’s command.

When the breakthrough happened, Negley witnessed the collapse of Wood’s and Brannan’s men, feeling singularly alone as he did so – bereft of Dick and Beatty, having not seen his corps commander or the army commander since 7:30 a.m.; and now watching thousands of Federal troops routed and streaming back from his old position. And he was sick. Very sick. In fact, he probably should not have tried to command his division that day. He had been ill for a week, down with something very much like dysentery, and he had only just returned to duty.

As Negley watched the situation deteriorate before him, he sought help. Curiously, he did not seek out Thomas, even though Thomas was not that far away. Negley knew that Thomas was at least as close as Kelly Field, and in fact, the burly Virginian was a lot closer: probably only a few hundred yards away, with Harker’s brigade of Wood’s division in North Dyer Field, where they were engaging John Bell Hood and his old command, the Texas Brigade.

Instead Negley dispatched two couriers to find William Rosecrans. This was a curious decision, since unlike Thomas, Rosecrans’s last known position was now on what was the other side of the Confederate breakthrough. Amazingly, both couriers got through, reaching Rosecrans and even returning with an answer to Negley’s plea for support. Unfortunately, no help was coming. Rosecrans had nothing to give. While those aides were away, Negley could directly observe an even more disturbing phenomenon. Confederate infantry (Arkansans of Govan’s Brigade) were moving across the LaFayette Road north of Snodgrass Hill, up in McDonald Field. To Negley, this movement suggested that he was about to have both flanks turned, not just the one.

Negley had no way of knowing, of course, that Govan’s Confederates were not turning his flank – instead, they were seeking escape after having their own flank turned by Federals in Kelly Field beating back yet another attack. Negley either failed to observe (or simply couldn’t see) Govan’s men moving back east across the LaFayette Road farther north a short time later.

Sometime shortly before 1:00 p.m. Negley met with John Brannan, whose division had been shattered in Poe Field after the breakthrough, and who was now seeking the next place to make a stand. Brannan was trying to rally a force on Hill One, some few hundred yards south of the Snodgrass Cabin. He intended to connect his reforming line’s left to Negley’s position on Snodgrass Hill, and further asked for the loan of a regiment to hold his right flank on Hill Two. Negley acceded, sending the large 21st Ohio to Brannan for that mission.

Brannan would later claim that Negley promised to hold his right flank securely during this meeting. Negley would later deny making any such overt promise, and of offering only the one regiment. Shortly after that meeting, Negley made the fateful decision that he must retreat or be surrounded and captured. As a result, Brannan’s right was completely uncovered by 1:00 p.m. or so.

Negley’s decision was astounding, mostly for what he failed to do – in his hurry to retreat, Negley never told Brannan he was going, nor notified the now-orphaned 21st Ohio, nor, in fact, several other of his own regiments. Negley did take with him three quarters of William Sirwell’s brigade and most of John Beatty’s brigade of his own division, part of John Connell’s brigade of Brannan’s command, half of George Dick’s brigade of Horatio Van Cleve’s division from the XXI Corps, and approximately 50 artillery vehicles gathered from all along the line. At a rough estimate, Negley departed the field with between 2500 and 3000 formed infantry, 35-40 guns, and numerous limbers and ammunition wagons. He told no one he was leaving, including at least three regimental commanders, who had to discover the departure for themselves and struggled to catch up.

It is important to note that Negley’s men were not under direct assault when he decided to leave. He made his decision in order to avoid what he saw as inevitable disaster, before it came to pass. It was a decision that would haunt him the rest of his life.

Union generals John Brannan and Thomas Wood were furious at him, accusing him of cowardice. More quietly, George Thomas also seethed, especially at losing the XIV Ammunition wagons. Lack of ammunition would force Thomas to abandon Snodgrass Hill by the end of the day. Negley went on sick leave right after the battle.

He never returned to command. He demanded, and received, a court of inquiry, which effectively cleared him of any technical wrongdoing, but no one wanted him back with the army. When he attempted to return in the Winter of 1864, Grant (then the commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi) had Negley intercepted at Nashville and ordered him back north across the Ohio River, out of the department. Negley returned to Pittsburgh to await orders that never came.

Undoubtedly sickness and exhaustion played a part in Negley’s fateful decision, but such excuses can only extend so far. Negley insisted that he never lost his nerve or his presence of mind that day – that composure backed up by testimony from his loyal aides – but the fractured, disjointed method of departure, with so many of his own men poorly informed, suggests otherwise.

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