An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

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Irish Colonel Minty's Union cavalry were memorialized after the battle.
Irish Colonel Minty's Union cavalry were memorialized after the battle.

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Union Colonel Robert Minty was unable to convince his commanders in the Army of the Cumberland that a large Confederate force from Virginia had just arrived in the mountainous borderlands between Georgia and Tennessee near Chickamauga Creek. The recent immigrant would not accept their dismissal of the intelligence he had carefully gathered that part of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was now hundreds of miles away from where the War Department said it was. 1

At dawn on September 18, 1863, the Irish colonel in Union blue sent one hundred of his men forward to find out what the Confederates were up to.2

The thin cavalry column rode over a small watercourse called Pea Vine Creek, where they saw the leading edge of fifteen Confederate regiments moving towards them. Minty did not even have four regiments under his command. Although the one hundred cavalrymen were badly outnumbered, their sudden appearance delayed the Confederate advance for more than an hour, allowing Minty the opportunity to organize his defense.  When the one hundred were finally forced to fall back, Minty had already deployed a second defensive line of his cavalrymen supported by artillery. When they opened fire, the Confederates were again halted. 3

The, Confederates, who were supposed to sweep rapidly to the far north of the Union line, now spent hours fighting Minty. When they finally resumed their advance, the Irish colonel unexpectedly ordered nearly half of his outnumbered men forward in a saber wielding cavalry charge. The lead Confederate regiment scattered before Minty’s troopers. 4

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Monument depicting saber charge of the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry

The Union line was now near the home of the Reeds, a farm family. According to his aide, Colonel Minty ” in the midst of his pressing duties” rode to warn the mother of the house, Mrs. Reed, that she needed to evacuate immediately with her children. A staunch Confederate, she viewed the advancing Southern soldiers as her liberators. Minty begged her to leave, but she said that if he tried to forcibly remove her she would physically resist. As Minty and his men retreated, she came out of her house to mock him and his men. Just then Confederate artillery opened fire, cutting her down. Minty’s aide recalled later that the colonel “regretted not having had her forcibly removed.”5

Seeing Minty retreating, the Confederates plunged forward, not realizing that the colonel had prepared an ambush for them. Union artillery, concealed in an orchard, opened a devastating fire on the unsuspecting Confederates, again halting the attack. 6

Minty’s men used the time gained by the artillery to ride back across the Chickamauga Creek over Reed’s Bridge, tear up some of its planks to further slow the Confederates, and set up still another defensive line. At 3PM, nine hours after Minty had first sent his troops forward, the Confederates had still not secured the vital crossing. His command of fewer than 1,000 men had delayed a Confederate force many times its size. It was only near 4:00 PM that Minty ordered his men back from the battlefront. Colonel Minty had given the Union commanders vital time to redeploy to meet the unexpected Confederate threat. 7

Minty’s troops fighting at Reed’s Bridge

Peter Cozzens, the leading modern historian of the Battle of Chickamauga, would write 120 years after the fight for Reed’s Bridge, that Robert Minty was “as fine a cavalry officer as the Army of the Cumberland produced.”8

Eric Wittenberg, a leading historian of cavalry during the Civil War, wrote more recently about Minty’s actions at Chickamauga:

Minty conducted one of the most effective covering force actions of the Civil War at first Pea Vine Ridge and then fell back to Reed’s Bridge, across Chickamauga Creek. Minty made a determined stand on Pea Vine that morning,… and then covered his retreat across Reed’s Bridge with mounted charges from a battalion of the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which was known as the Saber Regiment. Minty’s stand is especially impressive because his brigade fought all day, with 900 men, opposing the four infantry brigades of Bushrod Johnson, numbering roughly 5000 Confederates…

This was a textbook delaying action every bit as effective and every bit as important as that fought by John Buford at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. Unlike Buford, who could disengage after a couple of hours and let the I Corps take over, Minty’s troopers were engaged from perhaps 10:30 am until at least 4 pm. However, and also unlike Buford’s stand, it got little attention and even less praise, perhaps because Chickamauga was a debacle for the Union while Gettysburg was a signal Union victory. The tactics were identical, and the results nearly so. 9

reeds-bridge-chickamauga

Reed’s Bridge over Chickamauga Creek

VIDEO: I Wanna Be In The Cavalry

Note: This is a modern song by Corb Lund.

Sources:

1. Minty and the Cavalry: A History of Cavalry Campaigns in the Western Armies by Joseph Vale (1886); This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) pp. 102-103; Bushwhacking on a Grand Scale: The Battle of Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863 (Emerging Civil War Series) by White, William Lee (Oct 6, 2013); The Chickamauga Campaign (Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland) by Steven Woodworth (2010); Guide to the Battle of Chickamauga (The U.S. Army War College Guides to Civil War Battles) by Matt Spruill Army War College (1993); The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, Including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22 – September 23, 1863 Paperback by David Powell published by Savas Beattie (2009); Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West by Glenn Tucker and Dorothy Thomas Tucker (1995); General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier: A Biography by Jeff Wert, published by Simon & Schuster (1993); The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era) by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2012).
2. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 102-103.
3. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) pp. 102-105.
4. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 105.
5. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 104-105; Minty and the Cavalry: A History of Cavalry Campaigns in the Western Armies by Joseph Vale (1886) pp. 233-234.
6. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 105.
7. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 103-106.
8. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 94.
9. Robert H.G. Minty by Eric Wittenberg

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

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