The Swampers Finish the War (Chapter 5)

1968.51.1

The Mississippi Swampers of Company B had come a long way from home since June 11, 1861 when they were mustered into Confederate service, but they would have still further to travel before the war ended.  The men had seen the loss of many of their fellow soldiers, while others had simply gotten tired and went home.  Colonel A.K. Blythe and Captain Robert H. Humphreys had been dead over a year.  The regiment was now the 44th Mississippi Infantry.  They had seen victories and defeats, but nothing to prepare them for what was coming.

After their greatest victory of the war at Chickamaugua, the Army of Tennessee had settled into the trenches surrounding Chattanooga.  The Union army had withdrawn there after their defeat.  General Braxton Bragg advanced and laid siege to the city.  During this lull though, he had given the Federals time to reorganize and receive reinforcements.  By November, General U.S. Grant had arrived after his victory at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.  With him came thousands of Union veterans ready to drive Bragg off his mountain positions.

The Confederate army stretched out in the bluffs from Missionary Ridge across to Lookout Mountain.  His men were spread from the tops of these impressive peaks down to outposts held by infantry.  The 44th was part of Patton Anderson’s Brigade headed by Colonel William F. Tucker of the 41st Mississippi.  They were in the center of the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge near the Bird’s Mill road.

After amassing his army, General Grant decided it was time to end the siege.  The Battle of Chattanooga would take place on November 24 – 25, 1863. General Tecumseh Sherman began the battle by attacking the right of the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge, but it was held by General Patrick Cleburne who held strong. Although he came close, Sherman was forced to halt his attack after losing almost 2,000 men.  At a little before 4 p.m. General Thomas moved to attack the center of the Confederate line where the 44th was located.  He would bring nearly 23,000 men against only 9,000 defenders. As the Union men charged screaming “Chickamaugua” the Confederates along Bird’s Mill road began to break first.  Tucker’s men either surrendered or fled for their lives.  Although Colonel Tucker was able to rally his men, it was too late.  Union troops poured in to the right and left rolling up the southern positions. Without stopping, the Army of the Cumberland under Thomas took the ridge.  It was a complete Union victory with Grant taking more than 4,000 prisoners.  Bragg retreated back toward Dalton, Georgia.  Tennessee was now firmly under Federal control and Chattanooga would become a base for the upcoming Atlanta campaign.

This is the official report from Company B of what happened at Missionary Ridge written at Dalton, Georgia:

“On the 24th of November, the enemy commenced active operations by driving in our pickets in front of our brigade.  My company was formed behind the breastworks and was soon ordered forward as skirmishers to check the advancing enemy which we succeeded in doing and that evening was sent out as the advance pickets.  Remained all night and the next day.  On the morning of the 25th, we were again ordered to fall back in behind the breastworks and about 4 o’clock was ordered to fall back to the top of Missionary Ridge, there to await the advance of the enemy which they did about 30 minutes after 4 o’clock.  The center of the brigade giving way and the brigade on the right fell back – forced us to give up our position.  Falling back to Chickaugua River. There bivouac for the night and after two hard days march arrived at the place and night of the 27h November 1863.”

At Dalton, Captain Robert Kelsey counted noses in his company to see how they fared.  He had been commanding the Swampers since the death of Captain Humphreys at Shiloh.  Although the army and brigade had suffered a terrible defeat, his company had came away fairly intact.  He had lost only one man killed at Missionary Ridge.

After the disaster at Missionary Ridge, Braxton Bragg stepped down as commander of the Army of Tennessee and was replaced by Joseph E. Johnston.  As the army reorganized, the Swampers were down to less than twenty men.  In January 1864, Colonel James Barr was commanding the combined 10th and 44th Mississippi regiments.  On March 31, 1864, Captain Kelsey was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.  J.F. Steward became captain of Company B.  The men of Tunica and Coahoma counties now braced themselves for the struggle they knew was coming.

The Atlanta campaign began in the first week of May 1864 when General Sherman advanced into Georgia.  The 44th was part of Tucker’s brigade of Hindman’s Division.  The regiment was part of the repulse of Sherman at Rocky Face Ridge on May 8, 1864.  It was then on the field, but not actively engaged at the Battle of Resaca.  According to General Edward C. Wathall who commanded another brigade in the division, this is what happened.

“The fifth brigade, which was posted in my rear for support, though it had the shelter of the ridge sustained considerable loss, mainly from the enemy’s artillery.  It’s commander, Brig. General W. F. Tucker, was severely wounded while observing the enemy’s movements from my position during the first day’s engagement (May 14 ), and was succeeded in command by Colonel Jacob H. Sharp, of Blythe’s Regiment.  To both these efficient officers I am indebted for valuable suggestions and repeated offers of assistance for which their command was kept in a constant state of readiness.”

After this, the regiment was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel R.G. Kelsey.  The 10th Mississippi would also be under his combined command.  As the Army of Tennessee fell back, there was constant skirmishing and battle. Captain J.F. Steward was killed on picket near Turner’s Ferry on July 7, 1864.  Then on July 17th, the army changed commanders.  John Bell Hood took over and decided to change the direction of the campaign.  He would attack Sherman’s army aggressively.  This first played out in the Battle of Peachtree Creek on July 20th. Then on July 22nd, Hood ordered his army to attack the federals in what would become the Battle of Atlanta. The 44th Mississippi was involved in a diversionary attack against the Federal XV Corps.  Their division overwhelmed the Union defenses north of the railroad, but it was costly.  Four men of Company B died on July 22nd at the Battle of Atlanta.  Stephen D. Lee took over the corps on July 27th. A few days later, on July 28th, the Army of Tennessee struck again in what would become the Battle Ezra Church.

Following is the report of Brigadier General Jacob H. Sharp:

‘On the 27th of July this brigade- consisting of the 9th Mississippi battalion of Sharpshooters, 7th, 9th, 10th, 41st, and 44th Mississippi Regiments- was ordered to move from the position it had occupied in the trenches to the east of Atlanta, and bivouacked that night in the suburbs west of town.  During the morning of the 28th we were hurried out along the road a distance of three miles to check the enemy, who was attempting to cross that road.  As we arrived near the position to be contested the enemy had already engaged our cavalry.  The enemy being reported in possession of the road, the head of my column was oblique into the woods on the left and my line formed with the right resting near the road.  The battalion of sharpshooters being too much reduced by casualties during the campaign to cover the front of the brigade, one company of the 10th and another from the 41st regiments detached to cooperate with them, and deployed 200 yards in advance of the lines.  About 11 a.m. I was ordered to move forward and engage the enemy and drive him form his position.  The brigade moved forward in handsome style, the skirmishers driving the enemy’s skirmishers and forcing a section of artillery posted on the line to retire.  After advancing a short distance we entered an open field, where the command was halted and reformed.  Deas’ brigade was on my right and Walthall’s on the left.  We moved forward across the field under fire and descended a hill, where we entered the woods and commenced the ascent of the hill upon which the enemy were posted.  The distance we moved under fire was 800 yards. I soon found that my right was unable to carry the enemy’s position.  This was because the enemy’s line was so formed that he had an oblique fire along my right.  I hastened to the left of the brigade to move the 41st Regiment around to the support of the right, but found it so scattered that it was impossible to handle it as an organization.  The fire on the right was too severe to be withstood.  The 44th, which was on the the extreme right, had lost within two of half its entire numbers, while the gallant 10th, on its left, had been almost as severely punished, besides losing 5 color bearers. These two gallant regiments, never known to falter when the order was to forward, were forced to retire.  The other regiments of the brigade were advancing steadily, when they were forced to retire because the right had been repulsed.  The 41st and 9th, on the left, had driven the enemy from his position with but little loss.  The brigade was then retired and reformed when we were again moved forward.  This assault terminated as the first. The left advanced until it was fired into obliquely from the right, while the right was unable to advance even as far as in the first assault.  Walthall’s division was then advanced, and we were ordered to retire.  We were not again moved against the enemy.  My entire loss during the engagement was 214 killed, wounded and missing. The number engaged was 1,020.  We have to report many of our most valuable officers killed and wounded. “

Company B suffered two wounded in this battle.  General Patton Anderson took command of the division and the men entrenched a line of battle along the hills, constantly approached by the Federal works with incessant skirmishing, which continued until Lee’s Corps marched to Jonesboro to meet Sherman’s flank movement. The Battle of Jonesboro took place on August 31, 1864.  General Anderson wrote the following about this battle:

“the troops of his front line were lying down within sixty yards of the enemy’s breastworks, and at many points much nearer, keeping up a hot fire upon everything that appeared above the defenses.  From these defenses, the enemy , too poured an unremitting fire upon the assailants.  Sharp’s gallant Mississippians could be seen pushing their way in small parties up to the very slope of the enemy’s breastworks.  Officers could be plainly observed encouraging the men to this work.  One on horseback, whom I took to be General Sharp, was particularly conspicuous.”

While riding up to Sharp’s line, General Anderson was actually wounded.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert George Kelsey was killed at Jonesboro.  With his death, company records for the Mississippi Swampers ended.  Only a small number of the original company and regiment remained. The Atlanta campaign would prove to be a disaster for the Confederates though as General Hood almost wrecked his army. General Sherman eventually took the city forcing Hood to withdraw.  Finally the Confederates decided to leave Sherman in Georgia and advance in one final Northern drive.  Hood would invade Tennessee and threaten the north.  Of course these were dreams, but he got the remnants of his army together and marched north.  The Mississippi Swampers and the Army of Tennessee were about to open the last chapters of this great conflict.

The next battle for the 44th would be at Franklin, Tennessee.  In the assault at Franklin on November 30, 1864,  the regiment would charge the works.  Sharp’s brigade was distinguished in the desperate struggle, taking three battle flags and leaving their dead and wounded in the trenches and along the works.  Among the wounded was Lieutenant Colonel Sims, commanding the 10th and 44th.  Adjutant Humphrey Hardy was the only field officer of the regiment, and was missing after the battle.  The companies had been combined and no officer was left in the Swampers after Jonesboro. Lieutenant B.T. Robertson commanded companies A,B and K; Captain T.A. Maxwell commanded companies C,D,E,F and L. The total casualties of the already decimated regiment were 2 killed and 13 wounded. One of the wounded and captured was James Byrd of Company B. The following battle of Nashville took place on December 15 to 16th, 1864.  What was not destroyed at Franklin was lost at Nashville as Hood’s army was put into retreat.  E. M. Curie was wounded and captured here making him the last casualty of the Mississippi Swampers in the Civil War.  The 44th also lost their flag on December 16th.

The Confederates recrossed the Tennessee River on December 26th and the brigade was furloughed until February 12, 1865 in North Mississippi. So decimated was Sharp’s Brigade that it was consolidated into the Ninth Regiment. Only a few men from the 44th Mississippi remained to surrender in North Carolina.  This did not include any of the Mississippi Swampers though.  What few that were left after Nashville simply did not or could not report back to the army.

The Mississippi Swampers, or Company B, of the 44th Mississippi Infantry had experienced all the emotions of the Civil War.  They had marched confidently away from Austin, Mississippi in 1861 only to limp defeated back into the delta in 1865.  Whether they were heroes or villains can be debated in other places.  They were simply men from the Delta caught up in a sweeping conflict that would forever change the lives of this nation.  For that, they must be remembered.

 

The End

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