THE INCOMPARABLE LIEUTENANT HICKS – Part 5

This is Part 5 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.

Our first duty was to finish the quite [extensive] works that had been planned for the defense of the city. Our cracker line to Bridgeport [Alabama] via the river road was soon cut off, and it was only possible to get supplies by a very circuitous route through the mountains to the north of us, a distance of sixty miles, and our supply trains were so harassed by the Rebel cavalry that we were reduced to quarter rations, which meant go hungry. Even a dog straying through our camps stood little show of escaping the soup kettle.

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View of the Sequatchie Valley, west of Chattanooga. The supply line mentioned by Hicks wound across these mountains.

 

A member of my company whom we called “big foot” Ennis, to distinguish from his brother, would go out to the stock corrals where they were butchering beef dried on the hoof, and await his chance for the lights [sic]. The boys said that the only way that he could cook the lights [sic] was to stand on them, and thus hold them in the frying pan.

BATTLE OF LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN

On the 24th of November, we were on the picket line at the foot of Lookout Mountain, near the Rolling Mill at the mouth of Chickamauga Creek. Here we were in plain sight and had the privilege which seldom comes to men in the army of seeing the gallant fight of Hooker’s men, until they were hidden by the clouds from our view. At night the flash from ten thousand rifles made a most wonderful display of fireworks. On the morning of the 25th, our friends the enemy, who had occupied the other bank of the creek and with whom we had been chummy all the day before while our brothers were fighting for the possession of Lookout Mountain, were not to be seen. As the mist cleared away from the summit of Lookout, we beheld Old Glory proudly waving over its brow. I took a detail and crossed the creek and advanced into the valley, but no traces of the enemy could be seen, and we came back and reported.

BATTLE OF MISSIONARY RIDGE

About 8 a.m., we left the picket line and marched back into our camp. Soon we were ordered in line of battle in front of the Rossville Road at a point about a half mile to the right of General Bragg’s headquarters. Here we waited till nearly four in the afternoon, when word was brought to our brigade commander, Colonel Stoughton, to charge the line of works at the foot of the ridge. In our front was a cleared field half a mile to a line of breastworks at the foot of the ridge, then on up the side of the mountain at an angle of forty-five degrees for three-quarters of a mile to the works on top of Missionary Ridge.

Away we went on the double quick. Soon our line met a terrific fire of musketry from the entrenched line at the foot of the ridge, and a blinding storm of shot and shell from the summit. Then we broke into a run as it was a question of life or death, and the safest thing to do was to make the foot of the ridge in the shortest time possible. Over the works we jumped and landed in the midst of our friends of the day before, who chanced to occupy this position. The most of them surrendered, but a few made their escape to the summit.

After we had remained here sufficient time to get our second wind, a voice was heard, “On up the ridge.” Whose voice it was has never been known to the 11th, but no one of the 11th or of our brigade will ever forget it. There was no faltering, though the mountainside was swept by musketry and cannon shot. On and up we went, climbing the steep and difficult ascent, when within five or six rods of the crest of the ridge the line slackened and waited for a few moments to get breath, wondering what would be the outcome if we failed, but there was no thoughts of failure.

I wish I could give you a word painting of the battle as it now appeared to us. As you face the ridge, you behold a rugged mountainside extending up and down the valley for three or four miles. This whole distance was covered by the Army of the Cumberland, whom General Grant had characterized as a ragged half-starved army, in whom there was no fight. Nearly two hundred regiments were engaged in this battle under the eye of its beloved commander General Thomas. Their line had gradually assumed the form of regimental flying wedges, with their colors forming and leading the apex, which made a wonderful sight to behold. I placed myself behind a tree about six inches in diameter. Kindly remember that I was not as fleshy then as now, and besides we had a knack of shrinking ourselves to about the size of a match when exposed to fire.

As I stood behind this tree facing to our right, watching a battery of six guns, whose position projected to our front, with my sword hanging in the left hand, a Johnnie up in front thought it would be well to pick off an officer, so he blazed away at me. His bullet struck my sword, the sword struck me on the leg, making a black and blue spot for a few days, and this was the only wound I received while in the service except the numerous times my feelings were wounded by my superior officers not taking my advice as to the conduct of the war.

I cast my eyes to the left and noticed that our colors were down. Twice before, they had been shot down, but willing hands had picked them up and waved them defiantly in the face of the enemy. Captain Coddington of Company A noticed them at the same time, and we both started for the colors, he taking one stand and I the other. Then we started for the summit, and over the works we went.

The line had been broken, and soon the enemy were fleeing down the other side of the ridge like a flock of sheep. Our men followed down a few rods. The orderly sergeant of my company took position behind a large tree, about five or six rods down, and some man up on the summit loading and firing left his ramrod in his gun. When he fired, it struck into the tree behind which the sergeant stood, and the butt-end of the ramrod whipped around, securely binding him to the tree. Tom Downs has always persisted in calling this a falsehood on my part. I told him I would prove its truth by producing the ramrod, so when I went down to the dedication of Chickamauga Park, I went to this tree, but alas, Tom had been there before me and maliciously stolen the ramrod and sold it for old iron, so that now all there is left to substantiate my story is my well-known reputation for truth and veracity.

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Marker at the top of Missionary Ridge for the 11th Michigan, which lost its commander, Benjamin Bennet, during the advance up the ridge. The day before, Bennet had said, “A lot of us will die tomorrow on that ridge. I shall not come out of battle alive.”

Just as the sun was sinking behind Lookout Mountain, we gathered around our colors, and such a time of handshaking, hugging, and kissing the Old Flag, I never saw, or expect to see again. Soon up the ridge we saw coming my servant Jim and the company’s boy, carrying between them a camp kettle of hot coffee. These faithful colored servants had brought this from our camp in Chattanooga over two miles away. The boys were welcomed, and we made out a good meal.

Now that our victory had been so complete, and the enemy driven from the whole line in our front, we must follow up our victory by pursuit. We followed five or six miles, when we came up to them on the Ringgold Road. It was very dark and about midnight. We formed line of battle facing the road. Strict orders were given not to fire without the word of command. Soon we heard the rumbling of wheels coming up the road, and we knew by the sound that it was a battery. When they were in our front, some man over on our left got excited and fired his gun, then the whole line commenced to fire, and the company commanders in front of their companies made quick work in falling to the ground and commanding, “cease firing.” We captured the battery known as Ferguson’s battery, sixty horses, one flag and sixty prisoners. The premature firing had given the Johnnies a chance to skip in the timber on the other side of the road, otherwise our capture of prisoners would have been much larger.

The next morning our regiment was detailed to guard the battery and prisoners back to Chattanooga, and thus ended our part of the Chattanooga Campaign.

As showing the depletion of the regiments at this time, I give the strength of our brigade, composed of seven regiments. We went into the Battle of Missionary Ridge with sixty-six officers, and one thousand, four hundred and forty-five enlisted men, making an aggregate of one thousand, five hundred and eleven.

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Chattanooga National Cemetery, with Lookout Mountain in the background. The cemetery is not far from Orchard Knob, where General Grant had his headquarters during the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

Next time, the commencement of the Atlanta Campaign.

For further reading on the battles around Chattanooga, I highly recommend Peter Cozzens’s book The Shipwreck of Their Hopes.

 

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