As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in the process of reworking a Civil War novel I wrote back in the ’90s (while at the same time still working on Jack Mallory’s tales), so I thought I would share an article of mine that was published in the July 1998 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. When I had originally submitted it for consideration with the magazine, they had asked me to expand it so they could use it as a feature story. Drawing from the many sources I had used while researching my novel (The Edge of Hell), I happily obliged. The article is reproduced here in parts.
This article covers a small battle that was fought prior to the battle of Chickamauga, near a remote crossroads in northern Georgia. A small battle yet, like pieces in a larger puzzle, one piece builds upon another until the larger picture is seen. I’ve always “puzzled” over how little has been written about the battle of Davis’ Crossroads, and it was this void that I hoped to fill with my article.
NEAR MISS AT DAVIS’ CROSS ROADS
“Let the memory take a step backward to September 8, 1863, and we find the 11th Michigan, the vanguard of [Major General George H.] Thomas’ army corps, on the top of Lookout Mountain at the head of Stevens’ Gap. The passage down the mountain was blocked by fallen timber. A detail was made under Lieutenant S.P.Marsh to clear the obstructions. This was done and the regiment reached the foot of the pass in [Mc]Lemore’s Cove at two o’clock p.m., it being the first Union force to reach the valley in rear of Chattanooga.”
Thus began an oration by Sergeant James W. King of the 11th Michigan Infantry. He delivered this speech years after the Battle of Chickamauga, when soldiers from both armies returned to the battlefield to dedicate their unit monuments. King knew–as did many others–that the true beginning of the great struggle in north Georgia had taken place days before the actual battle.
The 11th Michigan was indeed the first unit of Major General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland to descend into the valley east of Lookout Mountain and south of Chattanooga. The rest of the army was precariously spread out across the treacherous mountain passes as Rosecrans pursued General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee south from the strategic rail hub of Chattanooga. The 11th Michigan, a veteran unit of the Battle of Stones River, where it suffered 31 percent casualties, found little Confederate resistance beyond Stevens’ Gap. The regiment–numbering barely more than 400 men–pushed back the small force of Rebels confronting it.
“Toward night the command took position at the base of Lookout and formed in lines in a semicircle around the foot of Stevens’ Gap,” King recalled. “About half the command were on picket that night and the rest lay on their arms and were soon asleep. At midnight a staff officer came down the mountain with orders from [Major General James] Negley for Colonel [William] Stoughton to march his command to the top of the mountain [to rejoin the division]. Both officers and men protested, but, as the orders were imperative, the regiment formed in line and reached the summit at two o’clock in the morning [of September 9].”
Stoughton commanded the 11th Michigan. The men of the regiment held the 36-year-old lawyer from Sturgis, Michigan, in high regard. After the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862 – January 1, 1863), Ira Gillespie of Company A had written, “Colonel Stoughton won from his men that esteem that will last while life lasts.” A year and a half later, during the Atlanta campaign, the men of the 11th would weep as their beloved colonel, grievously wounded by a shell, was borne along the battle line. His life was saved, but he would lose a leg and leave the service. On that September night at Stevens’ Gap, Stoughton–always mindful of his men–regretted having to countermarch the regiment back up the mountain after such a long day of hard work. Stoughton would have agreed with 1st Brigade commander Brigadier General John Beatty’s assessment of travel in the area: “The roads up and down the mountain are extremely bad; our progress has therefore been slow and the march hither a tedious one.”
Colonel Timothy R. Stanley’s 2nd Brigade, to which the 11th Michigan belonged, returned to McLemore’s Cove on the morning of the 9th, followed by the balance of Negley’s division, its artillery and supply train. When Negley ordered a reconnaissance toward Pigeon Mountain, the Union forces discovered that Dug Gap was heavily barricaded and protected by an unexpected Confederate force. Isolated in McLemore’s Cove, Negley’s division fell back to the safety of Stevens’ Gap to bivouac for the night.
Rosecrans, however, wanted nothing less than continuous pursuit of the Confederate forces. He was confident that Bragg’s troops were in headlong retreat toward Rome, Georgia. Negley’s hesitancy irritated Rosecrans, who complained to Negley’s immediate superior, George Thomas, commanding the XIV Corps. Thomas supported his subordinate in correspondence to the commanding general: “The difficulties of the ascent and descent of Lookout Mountain, together with the obstructions placed in the road by the enemy were such that I do not see how it was possible for him to advance farther or more rapidly than he has.” Rosecrans, however, insisted that Thomas order Negley to continue the eastward movement toward Pigeon Mountain.
(Stay tuned for Part 2)