Jim Stinchcomb in the Business at Chickamauga

    By the time of Chickamauga, Captain James W. Stinchcomb of the 17th Ohio Volunteer Infantry was something of a minor celebrity. The 41-year-old Lancaster, Ohio attorney and War Democrat possessed both staunch courage and a fine pen, and during the previous winter, Stinchcomb had sent a letter home denouncing the Copperheads that resonated with the homefolk (and Republican newspaper editors) such that his letter was reprinted in newspapers throughout the state and triggered a flood of resolutions and letters from the army supporting Stinchcomb's stance on continuing the war. 

    But Jim Stinchcomb was no mere camp fire poet; his indomitable courage was on full display during the Battle of Chickamauga. As related in this letter to his wife Lou, the 17th Ohio went into action early on the morning of September 19, 1863 where it took part in the famous bayonet charge of the 9th Ohio that recaptured the guns of Battery H, 5th U.S. Light Artillery (see previous post regarding the loss of these guns here). The following day, Captain Stinchcomb received much favorable notice for his work in building up breastworks on Snodgrass Hill. 

    As remembered by the regimental historian of the 31st Ohio, "Captain J.W. Stinchcomb was very active and conspicuous in the formation of this famous second line of battle, so much so, in fact, that he is mentioned by General [George H.] Thomas in the official report of the battle. His loud, hoarse voice was heard above the din, rallying the scattered soldiers, and his stalwart form almost tottered beneath an incredible load of rails. A private of the 31st Ohio facetiously remarked that he "never had the most distant idea of how many rails were a load for a man until he saw Jim Stinchcomb in the business at Chickamauga."

The area of the field Capt. Stinchcomb describes is best indicated in the below map from Hal Jespersen's incredible website. The 17th Ohio was part of Colonel John Connell's Brigade. 

The 17th Ohio went into action on the morning of September 19, 1863 near Jay's Mill in the northeastern part of the field. (Hal Jespersen @ www.cwmaps.com)

Headquarters, 17th O.V.I, Chattanooga, Tennessee
September 24, 1863
    Having a little time this morning to write, I will give you a brief account of the fight of Saturday and Sunday last.

    Saturday about 8 or 9 o’clock, some Rebel prisoners reported a Rebel brigade lost in a large woods near our division and done it with such apparent honesty that all believed it and at it we went to gobble them up. We found the lost brigade, but there was Longstreet’s whole corps with it. The fighting commenced about 9 o’clock A.M. and closed about 8 o’clock at night. I can’t speak of the whole army on that day, but of our division and the brigade of regulars I can. Our brigade with the 9th Ohio was in the reserve. About the commencement of the fight, the 31st Ohio was ordered to double quick about a mile and support Col. Croxton’s brigade then heavily pressed. They had a tumble fight of about two hours’ duration. The Rebels took their battery when the 31st Ohio charged, drove the Rebels about a mile, and retook the battery and a squad of men under charge of Capt. William Free walked the cannon off by hand, the horses being killed. It was in this fight that Capt. Free was badly wounded. 

Unidentified western Federal (Library of Congress)

    About 10 o’clock, the 17th and 9th Ohio were ordered to support the Third Brigade, Col. Ferdinand Van Derveer commanding. We double quicked about a mile and found as follows: the 9th Ohio on the right of the 2nd Minnesota, the 17th on the right of the 9th Ohio. Just as we were forming, the brigade of regulars came running in wild confusion over the hill closely pressed by the Rebels and a lot of cavalry and run through or rather over the 2nd Minnesota. By this time, the fire was heavy on the 2nd Minnesota, 9th Ohio, and 17th Ohio. We all lay down and in about five minutes the order was given to the 9th and 17th to charge. Bayonets were fixed and away we went with a yell. The Rebels turned and broke in confusion and disorder. We retook the battery of the Regular Brigade (Battery H, 5th U.S. Light Artillery) and some 40 or 50 prisoners. The 9th Ohio’s loss was about 40 killed and wounded; and strange as it may seem, not a single man of the 17th was scratched. We run them yelling like Indians for three quarters of a mile. The prisoners proved to be Longstreet’s men. They say it is the first time they were compelled to run- that we stood closer than the Potomac army.

    In a few moments, a division attacked Col. Van Derveer’s brigade on the left again. We had to double quick about a half mile again and got to their support about the close of the fight. They got within 50 yards of our battery (Battery D, 1st Michigan Light Artillery under Capt. Josiah Church), but the boys stood gallantly to their guns and put in double charges of grape and canister. The 35th Ohio and 87th Indiana with their battery soon made it too hot and just as the Rebels called out ‘the battery is ours,’ such a fire was delivered that hundreds of them fell and back they flew helter skelter, leaving their dead and wounded on the field and quite a number of prisoners in our possession. This finished the fight for us on Saturday, but on our right a terrible fight began in about half an hour which proved to be Palmer’s and Reynolds’ divisions. It lasted I should judge over an hour. Our arms were again successful. We then went into camp moving just to the center (we were on the left on Saturday), and just before dark the Rebels attacked our men in heavy columns to get possession of some hills. The fight was terrific and last over an hour, but the Rebels were finally repulsed with heavy loss. This wound up the fighting for Saturday.
Colonel John Connell, 17th O.V.I.

    Sunday morning we moved into position before daylight and about sun up commenced throwing up breastworks of rails, logs, chunks, and stones. About 7 o’clock the fight opened on our left at a distance of say one mile. Our lines gave way and soon the firing was in our rear. Van Cleve’s Division was taken away from our right first and next Col. Van Derveer’s brigade to the support of our men to the left, but before they had reached the place our men had rallied, charged the Rebels, and drove them back again. 

    But as Van Cleve and Van Derveer had to go about a mile and return, it left a space of a mile on our immediate right flank of the 17th O.V.I. exposed to a flank movements and as the Rebels were in view of our lines, they immediately took advantage of our exposed condition and in five minutes time our brigade was engaged with their columns in front and a brigade on our right flank. The brave Capt. Arney undertook to file his regiment by the right flank so as to front the enemy, but what soldiers have ever stood under such a fire! Company A, and no braver boys can be found, broke; Capt. Arney fell badly wounded, Lt. Blair fell wounded. The gallant Ricketts saw the critical condition we were in and undertook the same movement. His company could not stand under such a murderous fire, yet they fought against such odds longer than troops could be expected to. The noble Ricketts falls dead and yet the number in front and right find they have stubborn men to drive as the wounded of Co. F testify, yet they are compelled to leave. Company after company break; I cast my eye down the line and find my company the only one left; the battery is limbering; the Rebels in front are near enough to use the bayonet Company B leaves; there is no credit due Company B for staying longer than the others, for to that moment I did not know we were flanked.

    The regiment is running for cover; the 82nd Indiana made a gallant dash and momentarily check the Rebels; the 31st Ohio, some 150 yards to our left, are still fighting gallantly under heavy fire; a portion of the 17th regiment rallies but the fire is still too destructive and they break again; after running about 250 yards at the command halt, Co. B was formed, gave three cheers for the 17th Ohio to rally; about 250 were soon formed in good order and on the double quick went into the same strip of woods we were driven from and then we fought for 15 minutes and got to within 50-75 yards of the breastworks, but it got too hot and we had to retreat again.

    We got to the top of the hill, closely pursued by the Rebels. Van Cleve’s division, ordered to our support, run without making any fight at all. Then a scene of confusion occurred. McCook only stood on our right about 15 minutes, when he commenced to retreat, Gen. Negley following close, leaving nothing but the remnant of a few of the regiments with 4000-500 stragglers to fight on a ridge of hills we were retreating over. All seemed to indicate that our brave army would be cut to pieces. Col. Hunter and the balance of the officers succeeded in rallying, I should judge, about 500-600 men. Captains Clarke and Noles, Lt. Stewart, Capt. Showers, Lt. Simpson, and a few other officers just then came up and in about five minute’s time we organized the stragglers into companies. Brig. Gen. Brannan supposed we were regiments, and sent an order for us to double quick to the top of the hill and we had hardly got to the top before we were attacked by a division of Longstreet’s men and notwithstanding we did not know where the balance of the army was, we determined to hold that hill and with those stragglers, after a heavy fight of one half to three quarters of an hour, we repulsed them with heavy loss on their side, and but small on ours.

     In about 15 minutes they renewed the attack and forced their way to within 30 yards of those gallant boys, when our line broke and gave way, but by extraordinary efforts of the officers, they rallied and drove the Rebels back at the point of the bayonet. Away went the Rebels in wild confusion down the hill again, our boys raining bullets into them with fearful effect.

    Just at this time, Col. Van Derveer’s brigade reinforced us. We had scarcely got breath before the attacked was renewed with determination and resolution to carry the point, when to our right, Gen. Steedman, having come up, became engaged in a most terrific fight. The 9th Ohio charged in a run over and down the hill some 30 yards and laid down. At this moment, the musketry firing was the heaviest; all agree this the heaviest they have heard during the war. Steedman whipped two sets of fresh troops when the third engaged him and his ammunition giving out, he fell back in good order after fighting an hour. The Rebels were too badly hurt to follow him, but at our hill, the 9th Ohio had to fall back and our stragglers again broke, but were rallied again at a distance of 200 yards. It was here that Isaiah Skinner of my company was killed, and Solomon Smetters, Solomon Miller, and Thomas Claughey wounded. The boys were rallied and went back with a shout. 

    Five Rebels were killed inside of our rude breastwork of rails and 151 just as they crossed to fly; but they rallied and stood at a distance of 30 yards and for one hour longer thus close they fought. It was a terrible struggle for the mastery, when just after sundown, our arms proved too much and the Rebels retreated in the wildest disorder, our boys mowing them down. Who on that hill did not feel thankful at that moment? The day was ours- had been saved by Gen. Steedman and the stragglers.

    Conspicuous all the two days’ fighting was Gen. Brannan. Now in the hottest of the fight where his presence is needed to inspire the troops with fresh courage and if possible more energy; then he flies to another portion where he sees them waver. You could hear his fine commanding voice, ‘stand to them boys, we can whip them.’ How he escaped being killed is a mystery to all. Brannan has no enemy in his division today. Had the Rebels got the hill we were on, Palmer and Reynolds would surely be cut off and have been sacrificed and probably Crittenden, which Brannan knew. No general on that bloody field came off with more honor than Brannan. Gen. Thomas was all over, unmoved- the same Thomas, cool and calm. Just after dark we started to fall back not knowing whether the others were prisoners or not.

    We came to Rossville, slept a little without blankets, and commenced to organize that morning. I found myself the ranking officer of the 17th Ohio. I had the colors with 50 men and five commissioned officers. We had no idea whether the others were killed, wounded, prisoners, or had made their escape. It still looked rather gloomy. We soon learned, however, that Gen. Negley had ordered Col. Connell with his brigade to the rear. I forgot to say in its proper place that Col. Ward fell trying to rally the men the last time they broke on our hill. No one showed more bravery than he. Col. Connell was cool and always at his place and receives the enconiums of his superior officers. But I must close as I have written too much already. We are now ready for them again. I am well."

    Capt. James W. Stinchcomb later recounted a story about visiting the Chickamauga battlefield in December 1863 in an attempt to identify the dead of his regiment. For most of the regiments that fought there, it was the most ferocious and confusing fight of their Civil War service- men who had fought at Shiloh or Stones River remarked that those battles couldn't compare with Chickamauga. And unlike Shiloh or Stones River, the Union army did not hold the field afterwards so naturally there was a great deal of anxiety after the battle in ensuring that their dead comrades had been buried properly. 

    As Capt. Stinchcomb relates, the Confederates did not do a thorough job in some cases...

    "Yesterday I visited the battlefield of Chickamauga along with a detail from some four regiments of our brigade. I thought I had seen evidence of hard fighting at Mill Springs, Shiloh, and Stones River, but the field of Chickamauga has so many more marks and evidence that it surprised all who saw it. In front of Baird’s, Reynolds’, and Johnson’s divisions, were I to tell you the truth, you would say I surely did not see correctly.

    When we got to where our division fought on Saturday and found every tree and bush in front of our lines marked with bullets, many of them with 50 bullets in one tree, we all thought it hard fighting, but when we were moved to our left on Sunday and saw as many as 100 in at least half the trees and one-third shot off with cannon balls, all were astonished. But shall I describe the appearance of the field in front of the line for a mile where Baird, Johnson, and Renolds’ division fought? The Rebels charged the breastworks a number of times during the day and every place where the Rebel columns were hurled against our men were such traces of desperate fighting as the has never seen and probably will never again. Shall I say 500-1,000 bullets in almost every tree of any size in a space from the ground to a little higher than a man’s head? I don’t give you any conception of the true condition. Trees two feet over are absolutely shot to fine splinters- that in the side facing our breastworks were actually hot so often that their whole sides are in slivers and splinters. It must have been a continual stream of lead. There are five or six such places and each one as wide as from the courthouse from the Courthouse to Hon. Thomas Ewing’s, and as the Rebels came up in columns their loss must have been fearful. Again on the hill where the promiscuous mass was fighting in the afternoon of Sunday of which I wrote you about some time since are the same evidences.

    The Rebel graves show from five to one of ours. To be sure, our men were not all buried, though I have no doubt the Rebel generals intended that they should be, but a portion of their details were evidently worse than heathens. I saw nine of our gallants boys’ remains bleaching in the sun, untouched, except where some ragged villain had taken off their shoes, shirt, or their pants. It may be said that these men were overlooked- not so, for Rebels were buried within three feet of them. We found the bones of two of our men that they had placed rails on them and burned them. Some places they buried them from 18 inches to two feet deep, but as a general thing their heads and feet were left uncovered."


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