Chickamauga Sept. 20, 1863: As the Union Line Collapses, Two Immigrants Held Firm

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The culmination of the Battle of Chickamauga

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Chickamauga was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. It came after a lightning campaign by the Union army under General William Rosecrans pushed the Confederates out of much of Eastern Tennessee and captured Chattanooga. The Battle of Chickamauga was fought as Rosecrans moved south into Georgia and was struck by the Confederate Army of Tennessee commanded by Braxton Bragg. The Union Army had acquitted itself well in the first day of heavy fighting on September 19th, but as evening fell the men in German General August Willich’s Brigade knew that the victory they hoped for might be slipping away.1

A letter from General Willich’s adjutant, Carl Schmitt, contained the news that “The evening [of September 19]…proved to us that we not only had Bragg’s army in front of us, but also Longstreet’s Corps from the East.” This meant that “the enemy was a significantly larger force.”2

Willich’s men were on the left side of the Union line when the Confederate outflanked the division division to their left that morning of September 20.  Willich reported that as the Confederates moved around the Union regiments to his left, “the storm broke loose; first in small squads, then in an unbroken stream, the [Union] defenders rushed without organization over the open field, partly over and through my brigade, which was formed in two lines.” Willich acted quickly to stabilize the Union position and defend its endangered artillery. A justly proud Schmitt reported that the Confederate “attack was repulsed and the day…was saved by Willich’s genius and daring.”3

Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was an accomplished warrior by September, 1863. Following the death of Stonewall Jackson, he became Robert E. Lee’s most trusted subordinate. After the war, he would break with his former comrades by endorsing Emancipation of the slaves and voting rights for black men.

Unfortunately for the Union army, at the same time Willich’s initiative had helped save the Union left wing, its right wing was being shattered by the very Confederate general whom Adjutant Schmitt had detected arriving from the East. General James Longstreet was one of the most accomplished fighters in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He had become the man Robert E. Lee relied on the most since the death of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson four months earlier. Longstreet had launched a massive attack on the center of the Union defensive line just as the regiments holding that line pulled out in a tragedy of errors for the Union commander Major General William Rosecrans. As Willich’s men dealt efficiently with the threat on their left, a tidal wave of Confederate troops was moving in from the right. Within an hour, a third of the Union army would be in full retreat from Chickamauga, leaving Willich and a depleted remnant of the Union Army of the Cumberland still on the field of battle.4

Although many units of the army were melting away and fleeing towards the rear, Willich’s brigade held together. As Sergeant Alexis Cope wrote later “with General Willich in command…all looked to General Willich as the directing mind, trusted him with the utmost confidence and followed him implicitly.” In what would be a disastrous day for the Union army, Willich and his men were among the last to retreat from the field.5

Willich’s men were not the only German immigrants on the field at Chickamauga. This illustration shows the charge of the German 9th Ohio against Kershaw’s South Carolinians on the slopes of Snodgrass Hill on Sept. 20, 1863. August Willich had briefly served as an officer in the 9th Ohio before taking over command of the German 32nd Indiana.

Willich had been an officer in the Prussian army who had been forced to flee his country following the suppression of the Revolution of 1848. A radical socialist, he had become committed to the anti-slavery cause after he immigrated to the United States. As one of the best-trained brigade commanders in the Army of the Cumberland he led his men intelligently and won this praise from his immediate commander Richard Johnson: “He was always in the right place, and by his individual daring rendered the country great service.” Willich himself was most concerned with the great loss of life among his men. The regiments of his brigade had once mustered more than 3,000 men. He wrote after the battle; “Looking back on the manner this brigade and so many others have done their duty, I cannot repress a regret to see our best troops melt away to a mere nothing. My brigade now numbers scarcely eight hundred rifles. Now the veterans day by day die out.”6

This map shows the situation at Chickamauga at midday on Sept. 20, 1863. The Confederate breakthrough is shown at “A.” The postion of Turch and Willich is shown at “B.” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chickamauga#/media/File:Chickamauga_Sep20_2.png

Not far from Willich was the brigade of another European radical refugee. Ivan “Peter” Turchin was a Russian nobleman who had joined the revolutionary movement in his own country. He too was part of the remnant of the Union army making a stand on a series of hills now called Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill. By 2:00 PM he had already seen the flight of thousands of Union soldiers off the battlefield. When one of his officers asked him what he intended to do, Turchin answered “Do! This brigade stays right here until we are all cut to pieces, that’s what we’ll do!”7

When Turchin’s corps commander, General George Thomas finally ordered his men to the rear two hours later, the way to safety was blocked by a Confederate brigade commanded by Daniel Govan. Turchin was told to “clear them out.” Turchin went among his men and told them “When I say charge, you not charge in then charge back again, but go right through them.”8

Turchin quickly moved his men into the line of battle, ordered them to fire into the surprised Confederates, and shouted; “My brigade, charge bayonet, give ’em Hell, God Damn ’em!” As his men sprang forward, Turchin’s horse was struck by a cannon ball and killed, sending the immigrant general down. In spite of his own injuries, Turchin joined in the charge, now on foot.9

There were heavy losses on both sides in the Battle of Chickamauga. While the battle was a Confederate victory, the Confederates actually sustained greater casualties. Source: https://www.civilwar.org/learn/civil-war/battles/chickamauga

“So sudden was our attack that we had our bayonets in their teeth before they knew it and in 15 seconds the whole plain was a mass of fleeing” Confederates, wrote Private Rob Abney after the war. The speed of Turchin’s late afternoon attack brought him upon another Confederate brigade, this one commanded by General Edward Walthall. These Confederates were out of position to repel an attack and they too were routed by Turchin.10

The Confederate division commander General St. John Liddell reported later that Turchin “struck my left flank and captured over one hundred men…. The thing was done so suddenly that it was incomprehensible. The enemy, passing my left flank in overwhelming numbers, took with him all of my men within reach.”11

Turchin’s offensive had cleared the path for the battered army to retreat to Chattanooga, to live to fight again.12

The fighting at Snodgrass Hill by James Walker shows the scene from behind Union lines on the afternoon of Sept. 20.

Video: Animated Map of the Battle of Chickamauga

Sources:

  1. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992); 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 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); The Maps of Chickamauga: Opening Moves and the First Day by David Powell published by Savas Beatie (2009);  Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns (Great Campaigns of the Civil War) by Steven E. Woodworth published by University of Nebraska Press (2009) August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006); The Fifteenth Ohio Volunteers and its Campaigns by Alexis Cope published by the Press of Edward T. Miller (1916); The Chickamauga Campaign, Volume I: A Mad Irregular Battle, by David Powell published by Savas-Beatie, LLC, (2014); The Chickamauga Campaign, Volume II: Glory or the Grave by David Powell, published by Savas Beatie, (2015); The Chickamauga Campaign, Volume III: Barren Victory by David Powell published by Savas Beatie, (2016); General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War by Frank Varney published by Savas Beatie (2013); From Conciliation to Conquest. The Sack of Athens and the Court-Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin by George C. Bradley, and Richard L. Dahlen, Richard L.published by University of Alabama Press (2006);  John Basil Turchin and the Fight to Free the Slaves by Stephen Chicoine published by Praeger (2003); “Lincoln’s Russian General”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 52, No. 1, Lincoln Sesquicentennial (Spring, 1959), pp. 106-122 by Ernest E. Ernst; “A Monotony Full of Sadness”: The Diary of Nadine Turchin, May, 1863-April, 1864”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Feb., 1977) by Mary Ellen Mcelligott; Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2016).
  2. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 155.
  3. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 155-157; This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) Kindle Locations 9899-9900.
  4. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) Kindle Locations 3214-3216
  5. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) Kindle Locations 3214-3216
  6. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) Kindle Locations 10667-10669; August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) pp. 240-241
  7. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) Kindle Locations 9773-9774; John Basil Turchin and the Fight to Free the Slaves by Stephen Chicoine published by Praeger (2003); “Lincoln’s Russian General”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 52, No. 1, Lincoln Sesquicentennial (Spring, 1959), pp. 106-122 by Ernest E. Ernst.
  8. The Chickamauga Campaign, Volume II: Glory or the Grave by David Powell, published by Savas Beatie, (2015) p. 603
  9. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) Kindle Locations 9794-9795
  10. The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, Including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22 – September 23, 1863 by David Powell published by Savas Beattie (2009) p. 244
  11. The Chickamauga Campaign, Volume II: Glory or the Grave by David Powell, published by Savas Beatie, (2015) p. 604
  12. Generally, Peter Cozzens and David Powell have written the most accessible books on the battle and its aftermath.

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