The Fatal Gap: A view from Wood's Division at Chickamauga

The following two letters written one week apart tell the story of the 64th Ohio Infantry at the Battle of Chickamauga from the perspective of Corporal John A. Gillis of Co. K. The 64th Ohio belonged to Colonel Charles G. Harker's brigade (Third) of Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood's First Division of the 21st Army Corps. 

As is well known, it was Rosecrans' order to General Wood to move his division north from its position along the Lafayette Road on the afternoon of September 20, 1863 that opened the fatal gap into which General Longstreet's attack soon surged through. It was the turning point of the battle and Corporal Gillis witnessed the aftermath. "We were relieved by Davis’ Division and started on the double quick to reinforce our left who had, after a terrible struggle, succeeded in forcing the enemy back and at that moment everything was progressing favorably on our side. But the enemy drove Davis from his position and cut our army into two parts. The first thing we knew, the enemy was advancing on our right flank and they commenced pouring a terrible crossfire upon us," he wrote. 

Both accounts were published in subsequent issues of the Bucyrus Journal on October 2nd and 9th, 1863. Corporal Gillis remained with the regiment throughout the war and mustered out as a lieutenant in 1866. 

Sergeant George Howenstein, Co. K, 64th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Camp near Lee and Gordon’s Mills, northern Georgia
September 17, 1863

          The position here has not materially changed since I last wrote you on the 13th, but there was quite a fight in front the day on which I wrote last between some of Van Cleve’s men and some Rebels in which several were killed and wounded. There have been a number of casualties in the skirmishes which have occurred daily since we established ourselves here, but only one of our regiment has been hit and he was only slightly wounded.

          We are expecting a great battle here soon and the utmost vigilance is exercised to guard against surprise. The health of the troops is good. Rations are plenty and we are all in good spirits ready and willing to meet the enemy at any moment, and let them know that the Army of the Cumberland exists. Deserters are coming freely from the Rebels lines; they are tired of service and determined to the follow the fortunes or misfortunes of the Confederacy no longer. They say that there is a large Rebel force in our front, but many Rebel regiments are becoming demoralized and many regiments are only 100-200 strong. One regiment is said to have deserted en masse the night we occupied Chattanooga.

          Last night it was supposed there would be an attack this morning and 20 additional rounds of ammunition were served out to us. The weather here is very hot and dry and the dust on the roads is very deep and the constant passing of teams and troops on foot or mounted keeps the air full of dust. I never saw dust so deep and every bush has turned gray from the dust which has settled on them.
Colonel Alexander McIlvaine, 64th Ohio Volunteer Infantry led the regiment through Stones River, Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge before being killed in action at Rocky Face Ridge in May 1864.
          The country is about as God-forsaken as any region of the South I have seen. All the men liable to conscription have been pressed into the Rebel service except such as were able to elude the vigilance of the Rebel conscription officers, whose brutality and insolence in enforcing their conscription law has known no bounds, especially in East Tennessee. The people in this country are as different from the people at home as day is from night. Dirty, slovenly, ignorant, poverty-stricken, disheartened, despoiled of most of their property by the Rebels and the prospect of their country becoming a battlefield between the two armies makes them the most miserable looking and craven examples of humanity I ever saw, and unless I was banished to this country I would never make it my home.

In line of battle before Chattanooga, Tennessee
September 24, 1863

          A terrible and bloody battle has been fought and I am grieved to say that victory has not been with us, but at the same time considering the numbers we were battling with I think the Army of the Cumberland has achieved all that could have been expected of it. The battle commenced in earnest on the evening of the 18th when the enemy commenced the contest by attacking our left but they were repulsed. We were prepared for an attack by lying in line of battle behind temporary breastworks erected along the banks of the Chickamauga creek, but we were not to be attacked in that position as it was too strong to be successfully stormed.

          On the 19th the battle commenced in terrible earnest on our left where the enemy had massed all his available force, hoping by a terrible and desperate onslaught upon our left to break past our army and retake Chattanooga and all the stores in contained and cut our line of communications and then pounce upon our army and annihilate it, but the enemy was not so successful as he had hoped. Troops were massed on the left to meet the infuriated Rebels and terribly did the contest rage all day Saturday the 19th. We could hear the terrible thunder of the deep-mouthed cannon and the fierce and infernal roar of musketry, the cheers of the contending thousands as each side alternately drove their contestants, and could see the smoke and dust rising heavenward in clouds almost obscuring from sight the sun, but in our front the enemy made no demonstrations towards attacking us.
National Colors of the 64th Ohio
(Ohio History Connection)
          About 2 o’clock, orders came to fall in and we were double-quicked to the scene of mortal strife. Long before we reached the scene of conflict, we met with plenty of the evidences of our presence in the vicinity of the field of battle. Broken down wagons, burning buildings and fences showed where shells had exploded, and knapsacks, haversacks, blankets, hats, tin cups, plates, and all the property the men usually possess marked where soldiers had lightened their loads previous to entering battle. As we came nearer other evidences of the sanguinary contest were to be seen in the shape of dead and wounded men. We relived a line of men who had been fighting and soon found ourselves in the presence of the enemy in woods so thick you could only see a short distance. With a shout and a cheer we rushed into the woods and poured a volley into the Rebels ranks scattering them before us. We kept pressing on after the foe, and became detached from the brigade and came near being taken in a body, but by pouring a few volleys to the front, rear, and flank, we succeeded in getting out of our predicament and joined our brigade again.

We moved about invariably driving the enemy and took many prisoners until night put an end to the conflict. We were withdrawn from the field and allowed to rest for the night, other troops taking the front who had not been engaged in the fight. We lost but a few men in our regiment that day and none in my company, but we found the field strewn with the killed and wounded of both armies. Some implored us to take them to a place of safety where they could receive surgical treatment, and some implored for water in the most beseeching tones. It was enough to fill the stoutest heart with sorrow.

We passed the night without fires and consequently could not have our coffee. Toward day we marched to the rear some distance, built fires, made coffee, and drew rations. Soon after sunrise, the order to advance on the enemy came, and we were soon in motion. Company H and K were deployed as skirmishers and advanced in front of the advancing line of battle to feel for the enemy. We soon came upon the enemy’s skirmishers and a sharp fight ensured, but we drove the Rebels before us, pouring showers of Minie balls among them and were doing finely when boom, boom, went a battery which we had not hitherto seen. An order to retreat was given and as soon as we had turned our back, the enemy poured volley after volley among us and a battery rained a shower of canister among our retreating ranks. In this retreat, Lieutenant Howe was Co. H was wounded and Corporal John Hazlett of our company, and Adam Light were wounded, and three of our company have been missing ever since. Their names are Francis Livingston, John McCarthy, and Henry Shuster. We supposed they were taken prisoners. [McCarthy would die in the Rebel prison at Danville, Va. in February 1864, the rest all survived the war.] 

We rejoined the regiment and waited for the enemy to attack us. The battle was raging fiercely on our left where the balance of our corps was stubbornly contending with desperate odds. We were relieved by Davis’ Division and started on the double quick to reinforce our left who had, after a terrible struggle, succeeded in forcing the enemy back and at that moment everything was progressing favorably on our side. But the enemy drove Davis from his position and cut our army into two parts. The first thing we knew, the enemy was advancing on our right flank and they commenced pouring a terrible crossfire upon us.
Map showing the situation in the early afternoon of September 20, 1863. General Rosecrans ordered Wood to pull his division out of line to reinforce Thomas' position to the north to plug a gap that wasn't there, and in the process creating a real gap that Longstreet's assault soon blasted through and split the Army of the Cumberland. It was the fatal error of the battle, and essentially the error that ended Rosecrans' career as army commander. (Map by Hal Jespersen)

Our line of battle was immediately changed and we drove the enemy before us in confusion and would have flanked them completely but an officer came riding along our lines imploring us in God’s name to cease firing, saying we were firing on our own men. The firing ceased and there we could see a heavy column of men dressed in our uniform moving along, but as soon as we could see the colors, we saw the Rebel flag floating over the troops. But we were now unable to stand the fire they poured into us. We fell back and formed a new line in a strip of woods where for a short time the contest raged terribly but we were obliged to fall back again. We formed a new line on the crest of a hill and made a stand and after quite a lengthy contest checked the Rebel advance and drove the enemy back out of musket range. Here on the crest of this hill most of our men fell.

For a time there was a lull in the battle. Ammunition was brought up and cartridge boxes filled, and what was still better, Granger’s Corps came up and formed in line on our right and on the right and left, the battle now broke forth with terrible fury. After a while, the firing ceased again, our men having driven back the Rebels on the right and held their own on the left, but this lull was soon broken by the breaking in, with redoubled fury, of the fierce tones of the death-dealing implements of war. The Rebels now made a united and furious onslaught along the whole line and never did such a confusion of booming artillery and rattling musketry echo on any battlefield as now rent the air.

The enemy charged up the hill to drive us from our position but were met with volley after volley of musketry and after a prolonged and desperate attempt to drive us, they fell back leaving heaps of slain men. Still the battle raged to the right terribly and fearfully. The right held the Rebels in check until their ammunition was gone and they held the hill with their bayonets, but the left was less successful and after doing all men could do, they were obliged to yield before the enemy.
Snodgrass House at Chickamauga. Harker's Brigade helped hold the line at this point during the battle of Chickamauga.
The aspect of affairs now looked gloomy. Our ammunition was gone, the left driven back, and no hope of any reinforcements. But night now came upon us and under the screens of the shadows of night, we left the field, retreating successfully and forming a new line five miles from Chattanooga on a steep range of hills where we threw up breastworks and held the enemy in check for the day. We retreated and formed a new line when darkness came again. I was one of the rear guard who held the line while the mass of the men were retiring. It was a perilous position, but we were not molested, the enemy being completely deceived with regards to our movements. We have been entrenching since we formed our new line and are able to hold our own against the whole Rebel army. The enemy as close in front and there is cannonading every day, and a battery is now playing on the enemy from our right.

We have been fighting Bragg’s army reinforced by large numbers of troops from Johnson and Lee. Longstreet was here with his whole command from Lee’s army. It is estimated that we were fighting against twice our number. Our men as a general thing fought well, did all that men could do to repel the fore fighting desperately and determinedly to win victory. They lost only by being outnumbered by the enemy. Our spirits are good and we are ready to repel any attack of the enemy and feel confident on being able to hurl back the Rebel columns if they attack us. There was some straggling, considerable of which was caused by our center being driven in, but most of the men have returned to their commands. Our regiment escaped much better than at Stones River. We lost about 70 men killed and wounded, our company losing only two wounded and three missing. Some companies lost 10-12 men. I have heard no estimate of our entire loss, but is heavy. The enemy I suppose took many prisoners. We took about 5,000 of the enemy. The wounds of the wounded are generally not as bad as at Stones River. We had one officer killed and two wounded in the 64th Ohio.

Our confidence in Rosecrans is not diminished. We were not whipped, we won’t acknowledge that; we were overpowered by superior numbers who were handled with consummate skill. I have written what I saw of the battle and what I heard of it. If my eyes or ears deceived me, I can’t help it.  I was obliged to throw away my blanket and as the nights are cool, I don’t rest quite as well as before. Our commissary has kept us well supplied all along with grub and the quartermaster has been issuing clothing.
"Our confidence in General Rosecrans is not diminished," wrote Corporal Gillis, but the same could not be said for the rest of the Union high command. Ably aided by Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, referred to as a "loathsome pimp" by one officer, and abetted by his own chief of staff General James A. Garfield, the mechanism for Rosecrans removal was set into motion soon after Chickamauga. When the Army of the Cumberland settled into being besieged at Chattanooga, the War Department sent two corps from the Army of the Potomac as reinforcements, two corps from the Army of the Tennessee, but more importantly gave General U.S. Grant command of the western theater. Rosecrans' days were numbered. (Photo courtesy of Cowan's Auctions)


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