Back to Chickamauga with John Purvis of the 51st OVI...

    Sergeant (later Lieutenant) John H. Purvis of Co. B, 51st Ohio Volunteer Infantry was the regiment's regular correspondent to the Tuscarawas Advocate. His account of being wounded four times at the Battle of Stones River is (in my humble opinion) one of the most poignant accounts of that battle that I've ever read (click here), but for pure emotional power, Purvis' account of the Battle of Chickamauga where he recounts the death of his brother James is also a powerful testament to the bonds of brotherhood.

Musician John C. Joss Co. H of the 178th Ohio- he was later in the G.A.R. post in New Philadelphia with many veterans of the 51st O.V.I. 

    The 51st Ohio was part of Col. Sidney M. Barnes' Third Brigade, Third Division (Van Cleve) of Crittenden's 21st Army Corps, and arrived on southern edge of the Chickamauga battlefield along Lafayette Road around 1 P.M. on September 19, 1863 and quickly went into action at Viniard Field against the Confederate brigades of Col. Robert Trigg of Buckner's Corps and a portion of Robertson's famous Texas Brigade of Hood's Division, Longstreet's Corps. The 51st took heavy casualties in their unsuccessful attack in this sector, and here is where his brother James was killed.  The next day, the 51st arrived in the rear of the Kelly Field salient on the Union left and helped drive off Stovall's assault before being driven from the field by Longstreet's assault at midday.


Camp of 51st O.V.I. near Chattanooga, Tennessee
September 22, 1863


Dear Father:


    I have sad intelligence to communicate and it is with a sorrowful heart I write. For two years brother James and I endured the dangers and hardships of a soldier’s life, but at last we are separated to meet no more on earth. My dear brother is no more. He fell with his face to the enemy, while fighting gallantly in the battle of Chickamauga on Saturday the 19th instant. He was shot in the mouth, the ball passing through his neck. I did not see him myself after he was shot-we were compelled to retreat, because flanked on right and left, the Rebels would have taken every man of us prisoners in fifteen minutes; but some of his company informed me afterwards how he fell. It is a great grief to me that his body remained in the Rebels’ hands, but we could not help it, the enemy holding that portion of the battlefield on which our brigade fought., though elsewhere we were generally victorious on Saturday’s fight. It is hard, in the present lacerated state of my feelings, for me to write, but I shall try and give you a history of what the Third Brigade did in this terrible battle just fought.


    For three days previous to the battle, we had been pushed far to the front along the Chickamauga River; we on the north bank, the Rebels on the south; skirmishing was continually kept up so that we got very little rest and on Friday P.M. the Rebels got a battery in position and shelled our camp. We beat them off till night when a brigade from Palmer’s division relieved us. That night we marched down the river to the vicinity of Lee’s Mills, near where heavy cannonading had been going on all day. At the dawn of day Saturday, the battle began, waxing louder and louder till the musketry was the most incessant and terrific that any of us had ever heard. It was one prolonged roar, intermingled at intervals with the heavier sound of the cannon; our troops on the left were slowly driving the enemy as we knew by the receding sound of the battle; but our right were having all they could do. The First and Second brigades of our division (Van Cleve’s) were already drawn into the engagement and at length about 2 o’clock P.M., the Third brigade was sent for.

The 51st OVI was in Barnes' Brigade.
Map by Hal Jespersen (www.cwmaps.com)

    The battle was raging in a dense forest, thick, and almost impenetrable, and to make it worse, the artillery fire had ignited the dry leaves so that the whole country was one sheet of fire. It was almost impossible to get through it, the heat being intense. Onward we went, however, the battle was waxing nearer and nearer. At a place where the chaparral was the thickest were stationed Wilder’s men as skirmishers, and as our line passed through theirs forward into the dark woods, they remarked, ‘You’re going into hell now, boys. The Rebels are swarming like ants a little way ahead!’ We paid little heed to their words of warning, but pressed right on faster a great deal than was prudent, coming to a cornfield we rushed across it to the woods beyond. Here the Rebels were, and no sooner had we entered this woods than they opened a galling fire, killing and wounding a number of us, among whom was my brother. The fire was returned from our entire line with what effect it is not known. The enemy was getting around on our flanks right and left, and coming on in front in numerous numbers. In a little while our small brigade would have been overwhelmed; there was no other alternative but to retreat or be taken prisoners. Not being anxious for a berth in Libby, we got out of the way quickly as possible, checking the Rebels as best we could by turning and firing upon them; we were compelled, however, to leave our dead and wounded in the enemy’s hands and when our loss was counted, 81 men of the 51st Ohio alone were missing.
51st OVI Monument at Chickamauga National Battlefield

    The battle of Sunday began at an early hour, our army having every hope of success. We knew that the Rebels had been reinforced, but did not know what immense numbers their ranks had been swelled. The position of the opposing armies had been considerably changed. Ours was on a range of hills lying parallel with the Chickamauga River, the Rebels directly eastward in a low, wooded country. Between us the land was mostly cornfields. Across them we advanced in line of battle, Cos. B and G being deployed as skirmishers in front of the 51st Ohio. It was not long till we came upon the enemy’s skirmishers which they let us know by sending their bullets whistling among us. We drove them finely for a time, till a battery on our right compelled the skirmishers of Col. Harper’s brigade (Wood’s Division) to fall back, when we saw the Rebels steadily getting around our right flank. Still we did not retreat, but advanced from tree to tree. It was while going forward thus that I was shot in the right arm.

The 51st O.V.I. attacked northward in support of Stanley's and Van Derveer''s
brigades on the morning of September 20, 1863.
Map by Hal Jespersen (www.cwmaps.com)

    All this time the battle was raging furiously to our left, and it soon appeared that our men were getting worsted. Soon an order came for our brigade to march to the left and reinforce some other division, but our help was of little avail. We fought desperately, did all men could do; we were driven back step by step. So far did the Rebels outnumber us that they flanked us every time, pouring in a destructive fire along our ranks. On a hill in our rear our artillery was planted; to this we retreated and on the hilltop made a stand. Five times up this hill the Rebels charged; as many times were they repulsed, and at last the 51st Ohio and 8th Kentucky in turn charged them, driving them with great slaughter back to the woods. This was said to be the most gallant charge of the day by our men and Gen. Crittenden praised us highly for it. But along and unaided we could not hold the enemy back. They soon had a cross fire upon us from right to left, and again we were compelled to retreat . How we got away I know not; but few of us were captured, however, though we got scattered everywhere, few of the regiment getting together till we rendezvoused at Chattanooga.

    All along our whole line we were beaten. There was no haste, no panic, but steadily we gave way, overwhelmed by superior numbers. We did not feel whipped, but said we could not fight the whole Southern Confederacy. It does seem that troops from every part of Secessia were sent to crush Rosecrans. Prisoners from both Lee’s and Johnston’s armies have been taken. Altogether we took about 5,000 prisoners, perhaps more, certainly not less. What our loss is time alone will show; as yet we know little about it.

    The 51st Ohio went into battle with 288 enlisted men, now there at 199 left and Col. Richard W. McClain, Lt. William Le Retilley (Co. F), 2nd Lt. Sampson McNeal (Co. I), 2nd Lt. James Weatherbee (Co. E) are missing. 2nd Lt. Andrew G. Wood (Co. K) was wounded in the right breast and had his right arm broken. He is in Rebel hands, like a great many of our wounded and all of our dead. Our greatest loss is of artillery, a great many pieces being taken. We still, however, have a goodly number, enough with the help of our muskets to keep the Rebels out of Chattanooga.

51st O.V.I. Monument Plaque at Chickamauga National Battlefield

    There's a sad coda to this story. In the fall of 1864, as the 51st Ohio passed over the Chickamauga battlefield during the prelude to the final campaign against Hood's Army of the Tennessee, Lieutenant Purvis sought out his brother's grave as he related in this letter home to his father...
    
    "I passed over the old Chickamauga battlefield on our way from Atlanta to Chattanooga and visited the scenes of the battle of Saturday the 19th of September 1863 when James fell. I found a grave which I do not doubt is my poor brother’s. I saw an old haversack which I think was his. Poor boy- he occupies a lonely grave, far away in the dark woods of Georgia. He had not been buried until found by our men after the Rebels were driven away from that place. The remains were covered over on the top of the ground with a few inches of earth. It was a sad sight to me. I was alone and my pen cannot give vent to the mournful thoughts of that moment."


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