This is Part 4 of my ongoing series of excerpts from Borden Hicks’ personal account in Glimpses of the Nation’s Struggle. Borden Hicks was a humorous young officer in the 11th Michigan Volunteer Infantry during the American Civil War. The 11th Michigan is the regiment chronicled in my upcoming novel, The Edge of Hell. I’ve included some photos from my research trip to the battlefield back in the ’90s.
We did not arrive on this battlefield till about 4 p.m., September 19th, having been engaged at Crawfish Springs for the day previous to this. We charged on the field near Widow Glen’s house [see my footnote], and drove the Confederates beyond the position our troops occupied.
At dusk we threw up a line of works, and sent one company out as skirmishers, then the balance layed [sic] down on their arms for rest. It was so cold that it was impossible to sleep, and we got very little rest. I was informed by one of the residents of the battlefield that ice formed that night. This was told to me some thirty years after the war, and his memory might not have been good, but it certainly was very cold, especially for men who had just loaned their blankets to Longstreet’s men.
On the morning of the 20th, urgent calls came from General Thomas on our left, for reinforcements, and our brigades was [sic] to take our place in the line. Our colonel, noticing that no troops had occupied our place and that the Johnnies were making for the works that we had just left, ordered us about, and it was a foot race for 20 or 30 rods, to see which would get there first. Whether we were nearest or the swiftest sprinters, I do not know, but we got there. In a few moments the order was repeated, this time so imperative that we had to go, and leave the gap in our lines, over which there has been so much controversy in history, as to who was to blame for this break in our lines, thus giving the enemy an entering wedge in our works. I have often speculated on what might have been the result of this important battle if our brigade had been allowed to remain, and hold this line, and thus prevent the Johnnies from gaining an entrance to our lines, and drive our right wing from the field of conflict.
We took up a new position in Kelly’s Field, just to the left of the road, where we concealed ourselves in the underbrush, and awaited the oncoming of the Confederates, who were now flushed with victories. When within two or three rods of our line, we opened fire on them, their front rank went down, the rear rank was nearly put out of business, and we captured nearly all of the balance, including General D.W. Adams, who was in command of the rebel forces making this charge. Our regiment captured General Adams, yet there are no less than six regiments who claim the honor of having captured him, but as the best proof I had his sword, other members of our regiment had his field glasses and revolvers, belt and so forth. I carried his sword on the charge we now made to the McDonald field, going into this charge with a sword in each hand, and looking as savage as a meat ax. Here we took many more prisoners. General Thomas, that grand old man and the hero of Chickamauga, was forming a new line on Snodgrass, or Horse Shoe Ridge, the intrepid defense of which was to save our army from utter defeat and route, and give us Chattanooga and give General Thomas the name of “Rock of Chickamauga” and the nation’s gratitude. We were ordered to fall back and take position on the ridge.
We arrived on the hill at twelve noon. The enemy was making for this point at the same time, as the key to our position. A fearful contest was now waged for the possession of this ridge, which is recorded in history as one of the most desperate and determined struggles that occurred during the Civil War. After the first repulse of the enemy, our lines were reformed, and we got together rails and logs, and made our position more defenseable. Here the command of the company was turned over to me, and I retained it for the balance of our term of service. Some five or six charges were made on our position during the afternoon by General Longstreet’s seasoned veterans. The slope in our front was strewn with the enemy’s dead, so thick that you could almost walk on them. Our men’s faces were black with powder smoke, their tongues fairly hung out for want of water. We replenished our supplies of ammunition and water by going among the bodies of the Johnnies during the lull between charges. About 6 p.m., they succeeded in planting a stand of colors at the toe of the ridge which we had to face for some time till our colonel [Colonel William Stoughton], who was now in command of the brigade, brought up the 18th Ohio, and with this added force of about 250 men, we charged and drove the Johnnies who were so gallantly defending them, from the ridge, and our work for the day was done.
About 10 p.m., we received word to quietly leave the battlefield and fall back to Chattanooga. This was the first intimation that we had received that the battle had gone against us. About midnight, we stacked our arms at Rossville just beyond Rossville Gap. There our quartermaster sergeant met us with needed supplies, and what was better than even something to eat, letters from the loved ones at home, for we had not received any mail from home since the commencement of the campaign. After preparing our midnight meal and drinking freely of the clear cold water from the creek, we lay down on our arms to get a much needed rest.
We were routed out at four in the morning to form a part of the rearguard defense of Rossville Gap. Our regiment was posted across the highway, with our flanks well protected by the other regiments who were detailed for this purpose. During the day, several spirited attacks were made on our position, but all of them were repulsed with loss to the enemy. I well remember in one of these attacks that we were momentarily thrown into a panic and started pell-mell for the rear. It was my duty as company commander to run as fast as possible and get ahead of the men, so as to allay their fears. I overtook one of my men and chided him for running from the enemy. He looked up at me very innocently and said, “Captain, what are you running for?”
At 4 a.m., on the 22nd of September, we quietly withdrew our battery and brigade, and marched to Chattanooga four or five miles away. As we passed inside of the defenses of Chattanooga, the rebels sent their farewell compliments after us in the shape of some six-pound solid shot, and as they came rolling along the ground, our men were tempted to play ball, but gave it up on more mature thought.
*Footnote: the brigade’s actual position at this point in the battle was the Brotherton field, not Widow Glen’s. They passed Widow Glen’s on the way to the Brotherton position.
Next time: the Siege of Chattanooga
For more reading on the battle of Chickamauga, I highly recommend Peter Cozzens’s book This Terrible Sound. One of Keith Rocco’s illustrations in the book is of fighting between the 11th Michigan and the 2nd Alabama Battalion on Snodgrass Hill. The monument to the 11th Michigan on Snodgrass Hill is topped by a statue of Colonel William Stoughton, who took command of the brigade on Snodgrass after Colonel Timothy Stanley was wounded.