Mighty Tempest of War: The First Day of Chickamauga with the 86th Indiana

    In 1887, Captain James Richards Carnahan, the former commanding officer of Co. I of the 86th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, penned a lengthy article entitled "Personal Recollections of Chickamauga" that he presented to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. That article resides in the MOLLUS Papers but was also published in the December 24, 1887 issue of the Ohio Soldier. I've chosen to feature an excerpt of Carnahan's article that covers the first day of the Battle of Chicakamauga, September 19, 1863.

    The 86th Indiana Volunteer Infantry was part of Colonel George F. Dick's brigade, composed of the 44th and 86th Indiana regiments, along with the 13th and 59th Ohio regiments. This brigade (the Second Brigade of Horatio P. Van Cleve's Third Division of Crittenden's 21st Army Corps) spent the morning of the battle at Lee & Gordon's Mills, and made a rapid march north on the Lafayette Road and went into action at Brotherton Field in the afternoon. Carnahan's account describes the tense waiting as the regiment went into action, and gives some insights into the intense combat that occurred at Brotherton Field that afternoon as Clayton's and Bate's assaults struck the Federal line. The 86th Indiana fell back along with the rest of Dick's brigade when Fulton's Tennesseans drove back Sam Beatty's brigade which had been on their right. 

    Captain Carnahan later served as a staff officer with General Thomas L. Wood and earned much praise for his services at the Battle of Nashville in December 1864. He survived the war and served as Commander of the Indiana Department of the Grand Army of the Republic from 1882-1883. He passed away August 3, 1905 at the age of 63 and is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Captain James R. Carnhan, Co. I, 86th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. Of particular note is Carnahan's Grand Army of the Republic medal and his Society of the Army of the Cumberland medal. 


          Saturday, September 19, 1863:

In the early morning of the 19th, we were relieved from duty and were sent back towards Lee & Gordon’s Mills into an open field there to prepare our breakfasts and get such sleep and rest as we could until such time as our services would be demanded. The sun had scarcely appeared when a shot was heard over on the right of our line; in a short time another, as if one army of the other was feeling its way. Soon another shot brought an answering shot and then came the opening artillery duel that seemed to shake the very earth. From this, shots came from all along our lines showing that the enemy had got well into position along our entire front during the night. Now the firing increased on our right and between the artillery shots we catch the sound of musketry; stronger and stronger the contest grows and nearer, too, for now comes one continuous roar of artillery from the right and volley after volley of musketry tells that the two armies have come together in the first charges of the battle.


The contest gathers in strength, starting down from the right, on it comes to the lines in our front and past us toward the left until at length it becomes one commingled roar of artillery and rattle of musketry from right to left. We see none of the lines engaged, but it must be that the Union army is holding its position against the furious charges that are being made upon it. A lull for a few moments comes in the contest and you only scattering shots along the line, but looking off to our front, through an opening in the trees, the marching columns of the enemy as they moved toward our left preparatory to the terrible work of that Saturday afternoon.


Again the sound of the contest begins to gather and grow in strength. It comes on like the blasts of the tornado, sounding louder and louder, growing stronger and stronger until it comes in a great rush and roar of sound, before which those who hear and are not of it stand in awe and look each other in the face but dare not speak. Over on the right, it again breaks forth and with renewed strength rolls down the lines, growing fiercer and fiercer, and louder and louder, as additional forces are brought into the contest until it reaches the extreme left when backward it would sweep to the right, only again to go rolling and jarring and crashing in its fury as backward and forward it swept. It was as when the ocean is lashed to a fury by the tempest when the great rolling waves comes chasing one another in their mighty rage until they strike with a roar the might cliffs of stone, only to be broken and driven back upon other incoming waves as strong or stronger than they had been, so came to our ears the sounds of that mighty tempest of war.



Through that forenoon, we waited outside the contest and heard that mighty, terrible tornado of war as it raged in our front and all about us and saw the constantly moving columns of the enemy’s infantry with flying flags and saw battery after battery as they moved before us like a great panorama unfolding in the opening to which I have referred. We had been sent back to rest after a night on duty but rest there was none. The guns were stacked in line and the battery attached to our brigade stood just in the rear of us with horses hitched to the guns and caissons ready to move any instant. Now and then a stray shot or shell would fly over and strike in the ground our burst in the air to our rear.


Our men grew restless, that restlessness that comes to men in that most trying of times in the life of a soldier, when he hears the battle raging with all the might of the furies about him which he can now and then catch the sound of the distant shouts that tell that the charge is being made, and can hear above the shouts the rattling, tearing, shrieking sound of the volleys of musketry. He hears the shot and shell and canister of the artillery that tells all too well that the charge is met, and that great gaps are being made in the lines, that men and comrades and being maimed, wounded, and killed. In such moments as these, when you see and hear but are not part of a battle, men grow pale and lose their firmness and their nerve, then it is they realize that war is terrible. They are hungry but cannot eat; they are tired but cannot sit down; they lay prone upon the ground but that is worse than standing, and they rise again. You speak to them and they answer you as one who is half asleep; they laugh but it is a laugh with no joy in it.


The infantrymen stay close to their muskets, the artillerymen, drivers, and gunners stand close to their posts of duty in the terrible, fearful state of nervous unrest. Those men who you see on that fearful September afternoon are not lacking in true soldierly qualities; their bravery has been tested on other fields- at Donelson, at Shiloh, Perryville, and at Stones River. They had met the enemy with all the bravery and firmness of the Romans and now when the time shall come for them to be ordered to the aid of their comrades, they will not be found wanting. Thus, hour after hour has passed for us in this fearful state of anxiety and suspense. No tidings from the front; we only know that the battle is fearful and terrible.


Noonday has passed when suddenly from out of the woods to our front and left onto the open field dashes an officer, his horse urged to its greatest speed towards our command. The men see him coming, and in an instant, they are aroused to the greatest interest. “There comes orders,” are the words that pass from lip to lip along the line.

Captain James R. Carnahan, Co. I, 86th Indiana


Without commands, the lines are formed behind the gun stacks; the cannoneers stand by their guns, the drivers stand with hand on rein and foot in stirrup, ready to mount. How quick, how great the change at the prospect of freedom from the suspense of the day. The eyes light up, the arm again grows strong, and the nerves again grow steady; every head is bent forward to catch, if possible, the first news from the front and to hear the orders that are to be given. All now are roused- there is no more suspense- it is to be action from now on until the battle shall close. Nearer and nearer comes the rider, now you catch his features and can see the fearful earnestness that is written in every line of his face. He bends forward as he rides in such haste as he is. The horse he rides seems to have caught the spirit of the rider and horse and rider tell to the experience soldier that there is to be work for us, that the urgency is great, and that the peril is imminent.


He reached our line and is met by our brigade commander Colonel George F. Dick, as anxious to receive the orders as he is to give them. The comes in quick sharp words: “The General presents his compliments and directs that you move your brigade at one to the support of General Baird. Take the road, moving by the flank in double quick to the left and go into line on the left of General [Samuel] Beatty’s brigade. I am to direct you. Our men are hard pressed.” The last sentence was all that was said in words as to the condition of our troops, but it told us that we had read him right before he had spoken.


Scarce had the order been delivered when the command to “take arms” is heard along the line and to drivers and cannoneers to mount. It scarcely took the time required to tell it for our brigade to get into motion moving off the field, the artillery taking the wagon road and the infantry alongside. It was a grand scene as we moved quickly into place closing up the column and waiting but a moment for the command. The guns are at a right shoulder and all have grown eager for the order “Forward!” The bugle sounds the first note of the command. Now look along that column; the men are leaning forward for the start, you see the drivers on the artillery teams tighten the rein in the left hand and with the whip in the uplifted right arm, rises up in their stirrups and as the last note of the bugle is sounded, the crack of the whips of 36 drivers over the backs of as many horses and the stroke of the spurs sends that battery of six guns and its caissons rattling and bounding over that road while the infantry alongside are straining every nerve as they hasten to the relief of their comrades so hard pressed.


86th Indiana Volunteer Infantry monument in Brotherton Field at Chickamauga

The spirits of the men grow higher and higher with each moment of the advance. The rattling of the artillery and the hoof beats of the horses add to the excitement of the onward rush. Infantry and artillery thus side by side vying with each other to best do his part. Now, as we come nearer, the storm of the battle seems to grow greater and greater. On and yet on we press until reaching the designated point, the artillery is turned off to the left on to a ridge and goes into position along its crest while the lines of the infantry are being formed on the right of the road over which we have just been hurrying. Our lines are scarcely formed and the command to move forward given when the lines which are in the advance of us are broken by a terrible charge of the enemy and driven back in confusion onto our line. Friend and foe so intermingled that we cannot fire a shot without inflicting as much injury on our men as upon the enemy.


Our artillery on the crest of the ridge back of us have unlimbered and gone into action, their shells now flying over our heads into the woods where the enemy’s lines had been. Confusion seems to have taken possession of our lines and to add to it, the lines to our right have been broken and the enemy are sweeping past our flank. The order is given to fall back on line with the artillery. Out of the woods and under the fire of our cannon, the men hasten. Now on the crest of the ridge without works of any kind to shelter them, our troops are again hastily formed and none too soon. Down the gentler slope of that ridge and away to our right and left and front stretches an open field without a tree or shrub to break the force of the Minie balls. In our front and at the edge of the field 200 yards away runs the road parallel with our lines; beyond the road the heavy timber where the Confederate lines are formed and well-protected in their preparations for a charge.


Scarce had our lines formed when the sharp crack of rifles along our front and the whistling of the balls over our heads gives us warning that the advance of the enemy had begun and in an instant the shots of the skirmishers are drowned by the shout that goes up from the charging column as it starts down in the woods. Our men are ready. The 7th Indiana Battery (six guns) is on the right of my regiment while Battery M of the 4th U.S. Artillery is on our left. The gunners and every man of those two batteries are at their posts of duty, the tightly drawn lines in their faces showing their purpose there to stand for duty or die. Officers pass the familiar command of caution along the line- “steady, men, steady.” The shout of the charging foe comes rapidly on; now they burst out of the woods and onto the road. As if touched by an electric cord, so quick and so in unison was it, the rifles leap to the shoulder along the ridge where waves the stars and stripes.


Now the enemy are in plain view along the road covering our entire front; you can see them as with cap visors drawn well down over their eyes and their guns at a charge, with short shrill shouts they come, and we see the Rebel colors. Our men recognize the gallantry of their foe and their pride is touched as well. All this is but the work of an instant and just as that long line of gray has crossed the road, quick and sharp rings out along our line the command “Ready! Fire!” It seems to come to infantry and artillery at the same instant and out from the rifles of our men and the mouths of those cannon leap the death-dealing bullet and canister again and again with lightning rapidity. The men pour in their deadly, merciless fire until along that entire ridge is has become almost one continuous volley. Now that corps that had known little of defeat begins to waver; their men had fallen thick and fast about them. Again, and yet again the volleys are poured into them and the artillery on our right and left have not ceased their deadly work. No troops can long withstand such fire; their lines waver, another volley and they are broken and now fall back in confusion. The charge was not long in point of time but was terrible in its results to the foe.


86th Indiana monument

We are now on the defensive and all can judge that the lull in our front is only the stillness that forebodes the more terrible storm that it is to come. A few logs and rails are hastily gathered together to form a slight breastwork. Soon the scattering shots that began to fall about us gave us warning that our fore was again moving on us. Again, we are ready, now laying behind our hastily prepared breastwork. Again, we hear the shout as on they come with more determination than before, but with even greater courage do our men determine to hold their lines. The artillery is double-shotted with canister. Again, the command “Fire!” and hotter and fiercer than before the battle rages along our front. Shout is answered by shout, shot by shots tenfold, until again our assailants break before our fire and are again forced back.


Again and again were those charges repeated along our line only to be hurled back broken and shattered. It did seem as though our men were more than human. The artilleryman worked as never before. The guns had scarce delivered their charges and before the gun could completed its recoil, it was caught by strong arms and was again in position loaded with canister and again fired into the face of the foe. With arms bared, the veins standing out in great strong lines, the hat or cap gone from the head, the eye starting almost from the socket, the teeth set, the face bearded with perspiration, balls falling all about them, those men of the 7th Indiana Battery and Battery M seemed to be supernaturally endowed with strength. Their comrades in the infantry vied with them in acts of heroism and daring and endurance. They shouted defiance at the foe with every shot with face and hands begrimed in the smoke and dust and heat of the battle, with comrades falling about them the survivors though only of vengeance.


All of horses on two of the guns of the 7th Indiana Battery are shot down and another charge is beginning; those two guns might be lost and they must be gotten back. Quick as a thought, a company of infantry spring to the guns, one hand holding the rifle while the other grasped the cannon, and with the shots rattling thick and fast in and about them, they ragged the guns over the brow of the ridge and down into the woods just in the rear of our lines and hasten back again to take their place in line, ready to meet the oncoming charge. As an artilleryman is shot down a man from the infantry takes his place and obeys orders as best he can. When the charge begins our men are lying down. Now, in the midst of it, so great has become the excitement, so intense the anxiety, all fear and prudence vanishes and the men leap to their feet and fire and load and fire and load in the wildest frenzy of desperation. They have lost all ideas of danger or the strength of their assailants. It was the absolute desperation of our men that held our lines.


A soldier or officer is wounded and unless the wound was mortal or caused the fracture of a limb, they had the wound tied or bandaged as best they could, some tearing up their blouses for bandages, and again took their places in the lines beside their more fortunate comrades. Each man feels the terrible weight of responsibility that rests on him personally for the results that shall be achieved that day. It is this thought, this decision, this purpose, and grand courage that comes to the citizen soldier who voluntarily and with unselfish patriotism stands in the defense of principle and country that makes such soldier as who fought in our ranks that day.


On through the afternoon until nightfall did that furious storm beat and rage about us. Near night, General Joseph J. Reynolds who commanded that portion of the line immediately to our left, informed us that the lines to our right and left had been broken and directed that we should fall back to the range of hills in our rear, and so, reluctantly, our men fell back after an afternoon in which they helped to hold at bay the flower of the Army of Northern Virginia and though suffering terribly in the loss of men, our portion of the line had not lost a flag nor a gun. [This fact may have touched a bit of pride for Carnahan as the 86th Indiana had lost its colors on the first day of the Battle of Stones River.] 


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