This is the fourth and concluding installment of a reprint of an article of mine that was originally featured in the July 1998 issue of the magazine “America’s Civil War.”
Stanley, “finding that it would be necessary…to remain on or near the left in order to observe the enemy in that quarter…gave Colonel Stoughton, who was on the right, direction to act at his discretion with his regiment and the section of artillery on his right.” Stoughton also sent out one of his companies as skirmishers. But he soon found his hands were full, directing the men of his regiment as well as the section of artillery to keep the determined enemy at bay. Captain Robert J. Waggener, Stanley’s assistant adjutant general, seeing the crisis developing on the right, assisted Stoughton by ordering the 18th Ohio from its reserve position to strengthen the flank. The Ohio regiment struggled to hold back the Rebel tide.
To the brigade’s front, the Confederates who were in the field between Stanley’s defenders and Chickamauga Creek remained on their bellies. Yet one of their batteries, Stanley noted, threw “shell and grape with remarkable precision.”
Stanley rode to the hard-pressed right flank to check with Stoughton. Smoke rolled over the crouched Federals as they rapidly fired and reloaded, showing no signs of hesitation. With deep concern, Stanley and Stoughton watched the Confederates as they slowly, stubbornly pressed their way forward through the corn, threatening not only the right flank but also the brigade’s route of retreat toward Bailey’s Cross Roads and the rest of the XIV Corps. As King related, “The battle raged fiercely for more than an hour. The enemy kept advancing his line despite the destructive fire poured into him from Union troops.”
Major Bennet described the action plainly: “We had a sharp battle for an hour, it was terrific, but we held the rebels in check until we had our ammunition and provision train all in motion to the rear.”
When the division train had been safely withdrawn toward Stevens’ Gap, Negley ordered Stanley to have his brigade fall back. Speed was essential. Negley told Stanley that the four pieces of artillery that had been protecting the brigade’s left “were withdrawn without my order, this leaving me at that point at the mercy of the well-directed fire of the enemy’s artillery.”
The small 18th Ohio continued to buckle under the pressure of the enemy’s advance. Seeing this, Stanley ordered it to be withdrawn first. Captain Waggener managed to rally the scattered regiment and help reform it while the artillery on the right flank limbered up and retreated to the rear.
“When the enemy reached within twenty rods of the line of Union breastworks the brigade fell back over the ridge,” James King recalled, “the most of the men leaving their knapsacks and blankets where they had laid them when they built the barricade.” Twenty-year-old Daniel Rose of the 11th Michigan lamented, “We had to withdraw in a hurry and left our knapsacks with [the Confederates] so I lost nearly everything I had: paper, envelopes, and stamps and my pictures.”
Lieutenant Bordon M. Hicks of Company E left behind a tongue-in-cheek appraisal of the regiment’s hasty departure: “We had thrown off our knapsacks in order to work more freely, I had hung my haversack on the limb of a tree, we were ordered to fall back and take position behind one of the other brigades. The enemy were so close on us that the boys left their knapsacks, and never saw one again while in the service. I had gotten back about two or three rods, when I realized I had deserted my base of supplies, so back I charged into the teeth of the enemy, and snatched my haversack from the teeth of the enemy. This was a very brave and heroic deed, and yet it was not reported to the General Commanding, neither had Congress ever voted me a medal of Honor, and no song has ever been dedicated entitled, ‘Oh save my knapsack.’ ” Hicks, always a wag, was referring to the song “Who Will Save The Left?” which George Root had written about the 19th Illinois after Stones River.
Stanley’s brigade did not disintegrate before the pursuing enemy, however. The regiments retired in line of battle, faced by the rear rank, ready at any time to confront the enemy. Descending the ridge, the brigade moved by left flank into the road and retreated to a position at the rear of the other brigades. When the Confederates reached the ridge vacated by the 2nd Brigade, they were raked by a terrific fire from Sirwell’s and Beatty’s brigades, which caused them to recoil and seek shelter behind the ridge.
Evening found Thomas’ corps safely concentrated around Stevens’ Gap, along with nearly 400 wagons from Negley’s and Baird’s divisions. If not for Hindman’s hesitation and the stubborn rear-guard action of Stanley’s brigade, a large portion of XIV Corps might have been destroyed, and portions of Braggs’ army would have been wedged dangerously between Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s XXI Corps to the north and Major General Alexander M. McCook’s XX Corps to the south. Stanley reported his losses as five killed, 29 wounded and four missing. After the battle, Rosecrans recommended Stanley for promotion to brigadier general.
A week later, at the Battle of Chickamauga, Stanley would be wounded and Colonel Stoughton of the 11th Michigan would take command of the brigade. Again Stoughton’s men would fight a rear-guard action against Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. This time it would be on a hill owned by a farmer named George Washington Snodgrass, and the stand at Snodgrass Hill would save Rosecrans’ army one more time. Had it not been for the stands at McLemore’s Cover and Snodgrass Hill, the Confederates might have crushed the Army of the Cumberland, retaken Chattanooga and quite possibly reversed the entire course of the Civil War.