Capturing the Gun at Knob Gap with the 15th Wisconsin

 On December 26, 1862, the Army of the Cumberland marched from its camps outside of Nashville determined to drive the Army of Tennessee out of Middle Tennessee. General Rosecrans expected that his army would commence fighting as soon as they passed the outposts, and that’s about how it developed. A dozen miles south of Nashville, the three divisions constituting the Right Wing under General Alexander McCook, marching along the Nolensville Pike, ran into determined resistance near Knob Gap. General Jefferson Davis’ division had the advance, and General William P. Carlin’s brigade deployed to drive off the dismounted cavalry and the guns of a Georgia battery that had taken position atop the Gap.

National colors of the 15th Wisconsin presented by the Norwegian Society Nora Lodge of Chicago to the regiment on March 1, 1862. The motto in Norwegian translates to "For God and Our Country." The flag was returned to the lodge after the war and currently resides at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. 

          Among the regiments of Carlin’s brigade was one of the most colorful regiments of the Army of the Cumberland, the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. The regiment, raised from Scandinavian volunteers throughout the Midwest, included companies with names such as Odin’s Rifles, the Norway Bear Hunters, and the Wergeland Guards. Under the command of Colonel Hans Christian Heg, eight companies of the regiment (Cos. G and I remained as a permanent garrison at Island No. 10), the 17 officers and 290 men of the 15th Wisconsin slogged their way along the muddy Nolensville Pike when they heard the rising sound of battle.  The four regiments of the brigade formed, the 15th Wisconsin in the center, the 21st Illinois on the right, and the 101st Ohio on the left. The soldiers of the brigade explain what happened next:

Brigadier General William P. Carlin
Brigadier General William P. Carlin:

"About a mile south of Nolensville, the pike crosses a ridge through a depression on either side of which is a round hill or knob. North of this gap was a cultivated field, along the east side of which was the pike. The ridge bears off to the right and left from the knobs in a southwesterly and southeasterly direction. The ridge itself with the knobs forms as fine a military position to hold against an attack as I ever saw in an open country. The gap is known as Knob Gap. It was then held by Wharton's cavalry and several pieces of artillery. Davis' division at to attack it. It was my part to move directly over the open field described above in face of a direct fire of artillery and of Wharton's cavalry dismounted and concealed behind trees. Hotchkiss' battery [2nd Minnesota] was brought into action in the road and threw a fell shells into the gap. My brigade was formed into line parallel to the enemy's position and the command 'Forward!' was given. The field had been plowed late in the fall and the rains had converted the soil into sticky mud. Each man seemed to lift on his shoe a square foot of mud three inches deep at every step."

Colonel Hans C. Heg
15th Wisconsin

Colonel Hans C. Heg, 15th Wisconsin:

“The 15th immortalized itself yesterday. After marching about ten miles, I was directed to form my command in line of battle and to advance toward the enemy who was then engaging our skirmishers. After an advance of nearly two miles, one of the enemy’s batteries was discovered in position in a mountain gap on the Nolensville turnpike. General Carlin’s order to take the battery at all hazards stimulated the several regiments of the command to do their utmost. Keeping my regiment closely under the bluffs to the right and sheltered from view by the heavy timber, I succeeded in advancing to within 200 yards of one of the enemy’s pieces before we were discovered by them. Without firing, I ordered a charge. I charged with my regiment up to a battery and captured one brass cannon, seven horses, three prisoners, and one caisson, and what is best of all, not one man wounded. We fought yesterday for four hours after having marched during a heavy rain through mud knee deep in places. We have driven them so far and we are bound to do it all the time. Several of my men were knocked down by shots and pieces of shell, but strange to say not one is scratched. The cannon captured by the 15th is the only one taken that I know of and belonged to the 14th Georgia Battery. The prisoners say it was captured from us at Shiloh.”

"A gang of cattle got between the lines during the fight and ran wildly from line to line. One of them had its leg broken by a Rebel shell and was devoured by the heroes of the day." ~ Private William E. Patterson, 38th Illinois

Major Ole C. Johnson, 15th Wisconsin:

“Lieutenant Colonel David McKee was in command of the skirmish line, and the skirmishers consisted of details from each regiment in the brigade. The skirmishers of the 15th Wisconsin were the first to reach the guns. Among those who were ahead of me were Lieutenant Colonel McKee and Colonel Heg. I don’t contend that the 15th Wisconsin took the guns because they were braver than their comrades of the other regiments, but simply because the guns were immediately in our front, and we could reach them quicker than any of the others. The mud was very deep, and those who had the least distance to travel had a great advantage. All the regiments of the brigade were good fighters, and as true soldiers as ever shouldered a musket.”

Private Knut Larson Gjermo, Co. H, 15th Wisconsin Infantry. Gjermo (listed as Knut Larson in many regimental records) emigrated to the U.S. in 1845 and enlisted at Leeds Center, Wisconsin. He was severely wounded in the left hip during the fighting on December 31, 1862, ended up in the Harding House Hospital on the field and was captured. He died of his wounds January 18, 1863 at Hospital No. 14 in Nashville and is buried at Nashville National Cemetery.
(Photo from Wisconsin Historical Society)

Private William E. Patterson, Co. K, 38th Illinois:

"We marched on towards Triune and found the Rebels in force at Knob Gap two miles from Nolensville. Their force consisted of a brigade of dismounted cavalry and a battery of 5-8 pieces. Their battery opened up on us at a distance of 1-1/2 miles. Hotchkiss' battery unlimbered and returned the compliment. Carlin's brigade was ordered to charge the Rebel battery, which we did, crossing an open and very muddy field. We were exposed for a distance of a mile to their fire which was concentrated on the left of the 38th Illinois, Companies H, I, and K suffering the most severely. The Rebel battery played on us full blast and out own battery in our rear (in an ineffectual attempt to cover our advance) exposed us to still more danger by their own shells bursting prematurely over our heads. The air resounded with the hideous noise of the shells whizzing and bursting before us, behind us, above us, and among us. When we got to within 150 yards of the guns, we gave them a volley. They soon after retreated leaving one piece of artillery in our possession. We captured seven prisoners including one that had been captured in the skirmish with the cavalry at Nolensville. A gang of cattle got between the lines during the fight and ran wildly from line to line. One of them had its leg broken by a Rebel shell and was devoured by the heroes of the day."

Unidentified member of Co. C, 15th Wisconsin
"Norway Bear Hunters"
Library of Congress

Second Lieutenant Ole P. Olson, Co. B, 15th Wisconsin:

Lieutenant Olson wrote the following recommendation in 1925 asking that Private Syvert A. Anderson of his company be considered for a Medal of Honor for his actions at Knob Gap. “The enemy had a battery on top of the Knob that was shelling us pretty lively. We advanced through the muddy field, mud ankle deep. We got to the foot of the Knob, it being very steep and hard to get up in the mud to the top where the battery was. Syvert Anderson, then being a spry, strong, and brave soldier, started up in advabnce of the main line as he saw it was at this moment to dare, do or die, to prevent the enemy from getting away with the cannon. He gained the top in the face of the enemy, demanded a surrender, and accomplished it. A cannon, caisson, seven prisoners, and five horses were captured by him. If Anderson had not acted so bravely and advanced ahead of the main line of skirmishers, the enemy would have had time to get away with the cannon before the main line came up. My company was the skirmish line and I was in the line and a little to the left of Anderson. I was just getting over a fence when a shell struck under the fence and exploded. I was covered all over with mud so it took me a few seconds to dig the mud out of my face so I could see and therefore I was not able to get to the cannon as soon as Anderson. We were then ordered to rush on after the enemy and no more was thought of the happening or the cannon.”

Knob Gap along the Nolensville Pike south of Nolensville; note the two round shaped hills on both sides of the road. The 15th Wisconsin with Carlin's Brigade formed up in a recently plowed field on the left side of this image and charged towards the Confederate guns atop the eastern knob. The Confederates pulled back, leaving one gun in the hands of the 15th Wisconsin although I've seen conflicting claims from both the 21st Illinois and 101st Ohio that they also took either this gun or a second gun. Regardless of claims, it took the combined efforts of the entire brigade to carry the position and General Carlin was proud of the men. 

Private Ole Streensland, Co. E, 15th Wisconsin:

“I can tell how we came to capture that gun. When we charged on the Rebels, they struck out as fast as they could and in their hurry to retreat, they drove in between some trees and got stuck, and so we got on to them before they could get out of there. We did not have much fighting, but how we ran after the Rebels! Some of the boys were pretty near killed by running.”

Unknown officer of the 38th Illinois:

"On the morning after Christmas before the bad white whiskey had fairly got out of one's eyes and head, we were ordered to charge across an open corn field 800 yards in the face of eight cannon playing piping hot tunes, the mud about half a leg deep. We did the job, capturing two pieces but at considerable cost. I was twice knocked down; once by the concussion of a shell and once by a dead soldier. He was dead when he hit me for a cannon ball had passed through his right breast. How the devil it missed me I don't know and didn't attempt to stop it to inquire."

Map drawn by Captain Nathaniel Michler in the aftermath of Stones River shows the houses, barns, and churches located along the Nolensville Pike in the vicinity of Knob Gap. 

Private Charles B. Dennis, Co. B, 101st Ohio Volunteer Infantry:

“About 11 o’clock we got in touch with heavier forces of the enemy and after sharp skirmishing forced him back to near the village of Nolensville, where he took position on a ridge which ran directly across the pike. On this ridge he planted a battery of four guns with a strong support of infantry. Our line drew up on a parallel ridge about one-half to three-quarters of a mile distant. One of our batteries had been ordered to get into position and open on the Rebels. [5th Wisconsin Battery under Captain Oscar F. Pinney] While it was trying to dislodge them, our brigade formed in line of battle for a charge. We were held in line a long time (a habit the officers seemed to have cultivated), holding men formed line so close together that a bullet could not pass through without hitting a man. The men became uneasy as the bullets of the enemy were singing high and low and the shells of the Rebel battery were bursting overhead and plowing into the mud in front of the line. It was fortunate, even if uncomfortable, that the mud was everywhere two to six inches deep. This fact saved us the damage that ricocheting shots would have done had the ground been dry.

The hill at Knob Gap where the Confederate gun was captured. It is an open question what became of the gun after it was captured; no mention is made of it being assigned to the 2nd Minnesota Battery which was attached to Carlin's brigade. 

However, we finally had the order to go forward and going forward in a straight line would bring our company directly up to the firing Rebel battery. It soon became evident that the forward movement was a charge, more properly speaking, and that the purpose was to capture the battery and the ridge on which it was posted. The forward movement became speedier and finally developed into a regular charge at the double quick.  Down off the ridge which we occupied, into a little valley, across that then up the ridge and just take possession of the Rebel guns and the men working them- it looked easy. It was a short distance to go. In the little valley mentioned, there ran a small ravine and just on our side of this ravine ran an old-fashioned rail fence. Everything was wet and it was raining still. [George S. Meyers of Co. F recalled that this charge turned into a ‘tedious walk. The fields had been in corn and the heavy rains had so softened the ground that great loads of sticky clay clung to our feet. Shells came thick enough but away overhead they went; a few struck in front, splashing the line with mud but not exploding.’]

The fence had not been thrown down on our regimental front as it had been further along, so at some points men climbed it and at others they threw it down. In front of our company it remained standing, so we had to climb it. I had gotten up onto it, put my foot on a rail that ran lengthwise of the zig-zags of the fence, put my right foot on it and sprang forward. The rail slipped and so did I. The slipping of the rail killed the force of my jump and threw me down face first into the water of the ravine which I had intended to jump over. As I found myself slipping, I had sense enough to throw my gun as far as possible and fortunately it fell on high ground at the edge of the ravine. Some officer thinking I had been wounded came to my assistance, but I was up in no time and went forward, reaching the guns about as soon as the rest of the company. I did not, however, feel comfortable as those who had managed to keep out of the water.”

Civil war era envelope posted in Louisville, Kentucky with the Wisconsin state seal and motto "Forward!" (Library of Congress)

Brigadier General William P. Carlin:

"Not an officer or man failed to do his duty that day. They realized all my expectations and I doubt if a more gallant and successful charge was made during the war than at Knob Gap on that wet December day in 1862. Colonel [William] Woodruff's brigade was to my right and [Colonel P. Sidney] Post's to my left. But no attempt was made to preserve connection with either of those brigades. General Davis in his official report wrote in a very complimentary manner of the conduct of my brigade on this occasion."


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