River of Death: Chickamaugua and the 44th Mississippi

After their defeat at Murfreesboro, the men of the Army of Tennessee slogged southward.  Major Thompson retained command of Blythe’s regiment.  According to company records, they marched from January 4th to Shelbyville which was about 25 miles.  They then marched about 28 miles to another location and then back to Shelbyville. It was here that they were rejoined by Colonel Sharp who was made post commander at Shelbyville. On the 4th of March, while on picket duty, the company had a skirmish with Northern cavalry.  One horse was killed, but no soldiers were hurt.  By order of the war department on June 6, 1863, “the Mississippi Regiment commanded by the late Colonel A.K. Blythe, shall be styled the 44th Mississippi Regiment.”  During this time, Patton Anderson had moved up to Division command and Colonel Sharp was over the brigade.  That all changed in July.

Battle of Chickamaugua

1-battle-of-chickamauga-1863-granger

General Patton Anderson

general patton anderson

The ever confident Thomas C. Hindman returned to the Army of Tennessee from Arkansas.  General Anderson returned to brigade command and Colonel Sharp was leader of the 44th.  The men of the brigade had not seen Hindman since the Battle of Mumfordville when they had lost a number of casualties in a confused attack.  The 44th were probably not pleased by this new development because several men took the chance to end their service in the war.  In July and much of August, the 44th was on picket duty at Bridgeport, Alabama.  On August 12th, General W. H. Lytle of the Union Army wrote the following letter to Major General Phillip Sheridan:

“Howell and Allen, deserters from the 44th Mississippi report five regiments opposite.  Brigade is picketing about twelve miles of river from Island Creek to Bottle Creek.  Rebel force about 2000.  I think the bridge is prepared to burn.  Think if Orders Number 175, Department of the Cumberland, was circulated to Anderson’s Brigade.  It would cause a stampede.  Men are afraid of being conscripted if they desert.  Mississippians are anxious to get home, now that Vicksburg has fallen.  About 25 or 30 rebel pickets fired on Island Ford, probably at deserters, our men did not reply.”

General Bragg began to make his plans to attack the Union Army as it advanced.  He had received reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia and so the 44th was moved again. By the 24th of August, they had arrived around Chattanooga.  Instead of fighting, though the army withdrew into Georgia.  They were encamped around Lee and Gordon’s mill until September 10th, when the division was ordered to march five miles and go into line of battle against one of the Federal columns coming through the mountains.  A battle was expected on the 11th, at Davis’ Crossroads, Hindman to be supported by Buckner’s Corps, but only a skirmish occurred.  Colonel Sharp was in command of the brigade during these movements.  According to company records, this is what happened:

“When last mustered, we were on picket at the mouth of Chickamaugua River. Left there on the 2nd of September coming back to Chattanooga, remained there until the 9th, was ordered to McLemore’s Cove, Georgia and drawn up in one of battle.  The enemy retreating, we then continued on our march to Lafyette.  remained there until the 13th.  Again ordered to the front forming line of battle at Rock Springs.”

In his after action report of this movement, General Anderson said this of his division:

“I cannot close this report without expressing my high admiration for the spirit, ardor, and endurance of the troops of the division.  Many of them barefooted and on short rations endured the toilsome night marches, hungry, thirsty, sleepy, not only without murmuring, but with real cheerfulness, their only regret being caused by the failure of the enemy to stand and confront them.” 

On September 17th, General Hindman once again gave up command of the division to Patton Anderson because he was sick.  This was not a good sign as the army prepared for battle. However, Brigadier General Anderson was a capable and respected leader.  He moved his men into position as the mighty Army of Tennessee, backed now by veterans from Virginia under Longstreet and Hood, looked forward to a victory.  General Rosecrans finally began to realize the situation he was in and began to attempt to bring his army together.  They had separated going through the various mountain passages of the area.  It was this movement that the Confederates experienced earlier.

On the evening of September 19, at about 5 p.m., Major General Hindman assumed command of the division again.  Anderson went back to brigade and Sharp to regimental command.  This happened on the West Bank of the Chickamaugua River, not long after the division had crossed to that side and being put into position for the upcoming battle. The men slept on the field for the night and prepared for the upcoming attack ordered on the 20th.  Although the attack was to begin at daylight, there was a delay.  Anderson didn’t move forward until between 10 and 11 o’clock. When they did advance,  the line surged forward firing.

General Anderson split his brigade into separate parts to meet a threat from posted batteries just ahead of his movement.  He ordered the 7th and 44th Mississippi to move against the Eleventh Indiana Artillery posted on a hill near Glenn Field.  The others would move off left toward a Missouri battery.  The 7th and 44th sprinted toward the battery, each anxious to get to the guns first. Caught off guard by this sudden advance, Captain Sutermeister yelled for his section commanders to limber their pieces.  A volley from the Mississippians wiped out the horses of the rifled section, topple five drivers, and wounded the section commander.  Sutermeister abandoned his two rifled cannons to the advancing Mississippians.  Directly up the hill stood the 24th Wisconsin and Union Brigadier General  William Lytle.  Lytle earlier had written that these same Mississippians which were now attacking him were ready to desert and go home.  His words were about to take his life, as these men from the Magnolia State charged toward him.  After being hit twice, he fell from his horse and died.  Lytle and Anderson had been friends before the war.  As General Anderson followed his men up the hill, he came upon the body.  Overcome with grief, he dismounted and took Lytle’s wedding ring and several other items for his wife.  He also posted a guard, but he continued on with his brigade.

Fall of General Lytle

fall of lytle

After their initial victory over Sheridan’s section of the line, Anderson was ordered to report to General Bushrod Johnson around Horse Shoe Ridge. Because of topography, he would only be able to send his men forward two regiments at a time.  He selected the Tenth and Forty-fourth to make the assault.  The others would be in reserve. They would attack what was called Hill Three.  Laid out for the Mississippians to see was a horrible field of death.  Confederates had tried to take the hill already and failed.  Because it was dry, the intense heat from the battle had caused fires to break out and a number of men were burned to death.  It was now about 2:00 p.m. and Anderson ordered his men to advance.  Out of the smoke emerged the Mississippians. The 21st Ohio opened fire, but the Mississippians pressed on.  The Ohio soldiers had colt rifles which took deadly effect on the men.  They came within thirty feet of the 21st Ohio before being forced to retreat. One terrified Mississippian dropped his rifle and came into the ranks of Company C to be taken prisoner. Seeing a single line of Yankees, he asked, ” Where are your men?” “Here they are,” replied a soldier, waving his hand along the rapidly thinning line of Ohio men. “My God!” said the Mississippian, “I thought you had a whole division here.”  Anderson was at the foot of the hill to greet his Mississippians as they stumbled back down the slope in retreat after just ten minutes in action.  He immediately sent his other regiments forward to renew the attack. Although the colt rifles stopped them again, the Mississippians did not retreat.  They held on and began to slowly inch up the hill and return fire.  However, the 21st was too much.  Fighting was starting to slacken around them as well. Around 4:00 p.m., Anderson ordered his regiments off the hill.  They had taken at least one strong position, but could not take the second.  The battle was over for the 44th and the rest of Anderson’s Division that day.

The 21st hold the hill against the Mississippians

ohio holds the hill

This would be the largest battle of the western Civil War and prove to be a major defeat for the Union. Both flanks of the Army of the Cumberland were rolled up and thousands of troops captured. If not for the strength of General Thomas and his command, the entire army would have been wrecked. Colonel Sharp wrote his official report of the battle on October 5, 1863.

“I have the honor to report the following as the action of my regiment in the recent engagement on the Chickamaugua.  I omit mention of events preceding the fight of Sunday, September 20:  About 10 a.m. on the morning of the 20th ultimo, we were ordered forward into action. We passed over breastworks from which the enemy had been driven by the line in front of us; crossed an old field and charged up a hill upon which the enemy’s artillery was posted just as the above first mentioned line was wavering.  Seeing support at hand they moved forward with us.  We carried everything.  I took no count of guns or prisoners captured.  The last, in great numbers,  were passed through the lines. We captured two stands of colors.  Having advanced 2 miles, and the enemy making no stand, we were ordered to retire.  We were then carried to the support of a brigade on our right.  Here we were ordered forward against the enemy, strongly posted behind the top of a hill.  We were repulsed three times in confusion.  It is but justice to state that the men were each time reformed and moved forward against the heavy odds confronting them.  We went into action with 272 officers and enlisted men and lost 81 killed and wounded.  Among the killed was Major John C. Thompson, fearless among the fearless.  He fell as he had wished to fall, fighting the foe that had invaded his home.       I am captain, very respectfully, your obedient servant, J.H. Sharp, Colonel, Commanding, 44th Mississippi Regiment

Among the wounded was John W. Busby of Company B.  He had already been wounded once at Murfreesboro and returned to duty.  After this wound at Chickamaugua, he would be furloughed home and captured in Coahoma County.  C.J. Lewis was captured.

Night fell and the fighting began to lessen.  At 11 p.m., Major General Hindman sent for General Anderson and turned over command of the division to him.  He had received a contusion which disabled him from further service at that time.  Colonel Sharp then reassumed command of the brigade.  The Union army was able to withdraw that night and fell back to Chattanooga.  Anderson’s Brigade had proven it’s merit on the bloody battlefield Chickamaugua.  The brigade numbered 156 officers and 1,709 enlisted men on the morning of the 20th.  The loss was 558, of whom 80 were killed, 454 wounded, and 24 missing.  General Anderson made the following statement about the loss of Major John Thompson:

“Among the killed I regret to record the name of Major John C. Thompson, of the 44th Mississippi Regiment.  A man of education and position at home, of  an age far beyond that prescribed by the laws of the land for involuntary service, at the first tocsin of war he enlisted in the ranks and fought as a private at Belmont and Shiloh, having been severely wounded at the latter.  his gallantry and services marked him before the men of his State for promotion, which he soon after received, and he commanded his regiment with his usual gallantry at the battle of Murfreesboro.  On the memorable field of the Chickamaugua, his devotion to the cause of his country has been sealed with the blood of a patriot.”

Company B records for the Battle of Chickamaugua: (Note: it was common that reports often exaggerated on the number of cannons and prisoners taken.)

“The enemy again falling back to Chattanooga we marched back to Lafayette, remaining until the night of the 17th, again receiving orders to go to the front.  Forming line of battle on the 18th in front of Gordon’s and Lee’s Mills, changing our positions occasionally until 11 o’clock a.m. of the 20th when we were ordered to advance against the enemy completely routing them, taking 16 pieces of artillery and fifty prisoners, large quantity of small arms, 2 stands of colors, winning our greatest battle of the war. Moved to Chattanooga on September 23, 1863, doing picket duty.”

Years later, a graying soldier from the 44th wrote about what happened after the death of Major Thompson and how they honored him.

“Major Thompson was killed while leading one of the last charges on Snodgrass Hill.  That night, a squad of his devoted comrades, of which I was one, carried the brave old body to the rear, made a crude coffin of boards from Lee and Gordon’s Mill, and reverently committed it to rest with a few words from our Chaplain.”

Remembering their losses and celebrating a great victory, the Mississippi Swampers along with the 44th Mississippi surrounded the Union Army at Chattanooga.  None of them could imagine how this victory would be squandered or what would happen toward the end of 1863.

to be continued:

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