Compelled to Submit with What Grace We Could: an Ohio artilleryman captured at Chickamauga

Private Henry M. Davidson of Battery A, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery furnished this account of the Battle of Chickamauga for the 1890 book Prisoners of War and Military Prisons of which he and two other veterans were co-authors. The entire book can be viewed here

To put a bit more context around his account, this battery was part of Richard Johnson's Second Division of Alexander McCook's 20th Corps. Davidson was captured when the Snodgrass House hospital was overrun by the Confederates on the evening of September 20, 1863. 

Before sunrise on Saturday September 19, orders were received to be ready to move in 15 minutes. The division was immediately in motion, and swinging around to the left, found itself on a good road en route for Chattanooga. Crawfish Springs was soon reached, and it was while halting here for rest and water that the distant roar of cannon announced the determination of the enemy to resist our further advance, and convinced the soldier that he had not been summoned there for naught.  Inspired by confidence in its commander and with such reliance upon itself, the booming of the distant guns now approaching nearer and nearer, brought no terror to our ranks, and as the day advanced, and the roar of the artillery and the sharp rattle of small arms told us the tide of blood was rolling rapidly toward us, not a cheek blanched, not a nerve quivered, but all with one accord seemed to gird themselves for the contest. We were determined to win the day or perish. From a gentle knoll upon which we stood, the smoke and dust of the conflict was distinctly seen, rising in billowy volumes, as if to shut out the spectacle from the eye of heaven.

General Rosecrans and his staff hurried past us to the scene of action where his presence at that juncture was greatly needed. It was just at this time near 10 o’clock in the morning that the column filed to the right of the road and hastened to the rescue. The screaming shells passed over our heads, madly slashing through the tree tops, severing the largest limbs from their trunks or, taking a lower flight, dashed through the columns of men, mowing down whole files in the deadly career. In every direction were men with crushed and shattered limbs- dead, but with their bodies still warm and quivering. The scene was too horrible for description.

Major General Alexander McDowell McCook and staff pictured in front of the 20th Corps Headquarters flag in 1863. 

Our position was soon taken. Goodspeed’s battery (Battery A, 1st Ohio Light Artillery) of which I was a member held the center of the artillery of the division, we having been transferred from the extreme right to the extreme left of the whole line of battle. The afternoon was spent in firing leisurely at the enemy massed in our front, but concealed by heavy timber, behind which they appeared to be maneuvering around us in three parts of a circle; and though they seemed maddened by desperation and resolved to crush our line by rolling in great waves upon one point at a time, yet with equal valor and determination our forces met them and with the point of the bayonet, pushed them slowly back over the ground during the whole of the afternoon. Among the trophies of our brigade were five pieces of artillery and four caissons, which the battery had the satisfaction to draw off the field under a terrific shower of bullets. At about 8 o’clock in the evening, the enemy charged our line in front, advancing with a tremendous battle cry and delivering such a terrible and deadly fire that for a moment our whole line trembled and reeled, and seemed about to turn in complete rout, when Goodspeed’s and Simpson’s batteries swept the field with well-aimed shell and canister, compelling the foe to fall back hastily and in confusion and disorder. [Battery A fought in the vicinity of Brock Field.] 

Early in the evening the division was relieved and passed back to the rear of the reserve line where, with fence rails for pillows and the ground for a bed, we passed the remainder of the night as best we could. As we lay in our position awaiting the dawn, there was not a man in the command that did not realize the responsibilities of the coming day. The reflection that if the enemy was victorious upon the morrow we should be driven back, broken, and demoralized to wander over 300 miles of hostile country and subjected to all the tortures of starvation, cold, and thirst, or be captured, nerved us quite as much for the coming crash of arms as did the commands of our officers or the glory of anticipated victory.

At early dawn on Sunday September 20, the whole line was astir. Great trees were carried by the men with which to construct a temporary line of breastworks in anticipation of an attack upon our position. Our anticipations were soon realized for before the works were complete a force of the enemy (outnumbering our own by two to one) massed in our front, prepared to carry the position at the point of the bayonet. Successive charges made by them were repulsed with great slaughter. Our artillery, which had been placed about 600 yards in the rear of the infantry lines, had not yet opened fire.  At last, after due preparation, the Rebels advanced in a final charge. The signal was given and the thunder of cannon rolled along the whole line from one end to the other in one terrible billow of sound. Hardly had one column of smoke lifted from the scene before another closed over our lines. The charge was repelled on our front, but the enemy was suddenly descried massed on our left and advancing with deadly resolve to crush our flank and turn our position.

At the same time, it was rumored that the hospitals in our rear were captured, that our center had been pierced, and the means of communication between the two wings of the army interrupted. Nothing daunted by this disheartening intelligence, we trained our guns to bear upon the source of the most immediate peril and sent forth a volley of canister to meet the advancing foe. On and on they pushed, heedless of their falling comrades, whom our gallant gunners at every shot were sweeping down by hundreds. Braver men never fought in any cause, but despite their own courage, the carnage was too fearful for endurance. They waver, they halt, they turn; a volley of grape and a shout of victory follow the retiring foe. The field is ours, but at a fearful sacrifice. Sixteen of our company fell- two killed and 14 wounded. But the victory was won, and satisfied of the futility of any further storming of our stronghold, the enemy sullenly retired.

Snodgrass House at Chickamauga

Our fallen comrades were now to be removed from the field. My services, among others, were offered for this duty and accepted. We carried our patients a mile or so to the rear before we could find the hospital, owing to our entire ignorance of the direction in which it lay. We finally succeeded in reaching a log hut called Snodgrass hospital where the wounded were deposited. Meantime, the line of battle had changed so entirely that the rebel skirmishers were stretching through the woods across the track we had just crossed over and the battery was apparently cut off. Under the circumstances, it was thought by the major in command of the hospital too hazardous to attempt to reach our comrades upon the field at that time, and he ordered us to remain at the hospital until matters should assume a more favorable appearance. Acting under this order, we remained, assisting the wounded and relieving their necessities to the utmost of our ability.

From this point, it was impossible to judge which of the contending parties would hold the line of hills that seemed to be the stake now fought for. The firing continued with unabated severity during the whole afternoon. General Granger’s corps came up late in the day and their presence inspired the weary combatants with new courage and vigor. As they moved into position, solid shot and shell went crashing over their heads through the timber from the Rebel guns. In a short time, this corps was scattered in every direction. The firing was terrific. For the last few hours, it had been apparent that the enemy was straining every nerve to get between us and Chattanooga. But at sunset, they had fallen back and soon after our forces took possession of the ground they had abandoned. It was now dark, and under the orders of the major above referred to, we bivouacked at the hospital for the night in the expectation of returning to our comrades on the morrow.

During the early part of the evening, several ambulances arrived at the hospital and were immediately filled with the wounded and driven off for Chattanooga, expecting soon to return to remove the 300 men remaining, many of whom were mortally and nearly all severely wounded. But they never returned; for during the stillness of the night (broken only by the moans of the wounded), the enemy suddenly and stealthily advanced, took possession of the hospital, and informed us we were prisoners of war. Our army had fallen back under the cover of darkness and by an oversight, in the hurry and confusion of retreat, had failed to notify the inmates of the hospital. A Rebel guard was immediately stationed and a picket line thrown out in front. To escape and return to our command was not entirely out of the question, for to the uncertainty of our ability to run the enemy’s picket was to be added the total ignorance of the position of our own army. If we should succeed in escaping the vigilance of the former, we were by no means certain of reaching the latter. We were, therefore, compelled to submit with what grace we could. But had we foreseen what was in store for us, or realized the terrible sufferings we were to undergo, there was not a man of us but would have periled life itself in an effort to escape from that hospital.

National Colors of Battery A, 1st Ohio Light Artillery


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