An Army of Immigrants Retreats and Starves at Chattanooga

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Chattanooga from Lookout Mountain.

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When the Union Army of the Cumberland made its way back into Chattanooga after its defeat at Chickamauga on September 20, 1863, its men had to assess their unexpected situation. They had moved rapidly through Confederate Tennessee just a couple of months earlier and pushed their enemies out of the main railroad center in the eastern part of the state, Chattanooga. They had penetrated into Georgia and seemed to have the Confederates under Braxton Bragg on the run. Then they had been hit with a sharp counterattack at Chickamauga. It was only after the battle had commenced that they realized that a large part of Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia had been moved by rail hundreds of miles to join in the attack on them.1

Captain John Otto of the 21st Wisconsin was a German immigrant who had enlisted just the year before Chickamauga in Company D. He was part of the retreating Union throng.2

Otto was an old soldier.  He was an officer in the Prussian army before he deserted and came to the United States in the early 1850s to avoid serving in the third war of his Prussian military career. He moved to Appleton Wisconsin, married, and had five young children when the Civil War began. He happily sat out the first year of the war, but in August, 1862 he was approached by Major Frederick Schumacher in a tavern. Schumacher had served in the same Prussian army corps as Otto in Germany and he wanted Otto to join the newly forming 21st Wisconsin.  Otto enlisted as the regiment’s first sergeant. Years later he recalled that day:

The National Flag of the 21st Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.

“At 11 A.M. August 12 1862 I stepped into the recruiting Office and entered my name on the list of Defenders of the Country. There was something about this act which struck me as remarkable…: Twelve years ago I had deserted the prussian Flag in order to get rid of military rule…I disserted to Holland from thence…to England and finally to New York, glad to find a country where the Army is subject to the Civil Authority. Now I was to face the same music again, to brave the same hardships and dangers, but of one thing I was sure; Let come what may, I would never desert again…”3

Otto was put in charge of recruiting German immigrants for the regiment. As the regiment filled up, he began to drill the immigrants using their native German. The American-born members of the regiment mocked their immigrant comrades and called them “the dutch squad” recalled Otto, “in a way that indicated inferiority and contempt.” If the Germans were initially embarrassed by the name, they soon turned the tables on their tormentors and adopted it as “a term of respect and good fellowship” within their company.4

The Confederates occupied Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge and other high ground overlooking Chattanooga giving them apparent command over the Union forces in the city.

Now those early days of the regiment seemed far off. Bragg’s Confederates nearly surrounded the Army of the Cumberland, with only a few poor roads through rough terrain for mule drawn wagons to supply the sixty thousand Union men in Chattanooga. The Confederates were dug-in on the mountains outside city. Otto wrote that the “lofty position” of the Confederate army “enabled them to watch and see everything we did below.” Bragg did not attack the Union troops because, Otto believed, he had decided to “obtain by starvation” of the Union Army “what fighting would not give him.”5

The lack of supplies was apparent to everyone as soon as the men realized that they were almost encircled. Otto writes that “when we reached Chattanooga…the first thing done was to put the army on half rations.” It got worse; “A few days after we had been put on half rations the allowance was further reduced…” Soon the men in his company were apportioned only one cracker per meal.6

Capt. John Otto

The trials of the next month were not on the battlefield, but in the stomach. Otto recalled the great hunger:

“It cannot be imagined to what desperate means man will resort to satisfy the craving hunger. They would go to the places the rebs had butchered [livestock] weeks…before and dig up the rotten heads and legs the rebs had thrown away, scrape off the maggots they were covered with, wash them in the water, boil and eat the nasty, stincy stuff and call it “stewed beef…”7

The heavy fighting that had preceded the retreat to Chattanooga, the poor rations and the knowledge that they were constantly under the gaze of the Confederates on the heights took its toll on the mental health of the men of Otto’s regiment. In his memoirs, Otto told the story of his colleague Captain August Steffans, a Belgian immigrant. Steffans had first been a soldier at the age of sixteen back in Europe. He had been shot in the leg in the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky in 1862. At Chickamauga, a shell fragment gave him his second wound. Now, under siege, Otto wrote, “it seemed he was no more the same man.” He was possessed with the idea that “he certainly would be killed if he remained in the service.” Steffens began acting erratically and was finally sent home.8

Captain Otto would later reflect that “Steffans was…a born soldier.” Otto characterized Steffans’ actions as “unexplainable, if not to say mad.” By the beginning of November, 1863, many of Captain Steffans’ comrades in the Army of the Cumberland were edging closer to the brink that he had crossed over.9

Sources:

  1. Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The War Memoirs of John Henry Otto edited by David Gould and James B. Kennedy published by Kent State University Press (2004).
  2. 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); E.B. Quiner’s Military History of Wisconsin (1866) pp. 686-696.
  3. Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The War Memoirs of John Henry Otto edited by David Gould and James B. Kennedy published by Kent State University Press (2004);  E.B. Quiner’s Military History of Wisconsin (1866) pp. 686-696.
  4. Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The War Memoirs of John Henry Otto edited by David Gould and James B. Kennedy published by Kent State University Press (2004) pp. 1-3.
  5. Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The War Memoirs of John Henry Otto edited by David Gould and James B. Kennedy published by Kent State University Press (2004) pp. 4-5; The Shipwreck of their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1994); The Battle Above the Clouds: Lifting the Siege of Chattanooga and the Battle of Lookout Mountain by David Powell published by Savas Beattie (1994).
  6. Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The War Memoirs of John Henry Otto edited by David Gould and James B. Kennedy published by Kent State University Press (2004) p. 194. Otto’s men found some relief when they pillaged an abandoned home and found hams and other foods in it.
  7. Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The War Memoirs of John Henry Otto edited by David Gould and James B. Kennedy published by Kent State University Press (2004) p. 196.
  8. Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The War Memoirs of John Henry Otto edited by David Gould and James B. Kennedy published by Kent State University Press (2004) p. 196.
  9. Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The War Memoirs of John Henry Otto edited by David Gould and James B. Kennedy published by Kent State University Press (2004) p. 203-205.
  10. Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The War Memoirs of John Henry Otto edited by David Gould and James B. Kennedy published by Kent State University Press (2004) p. 205.

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