Fearfully Grand: The 29th Indiana Survives Chickamauga

 At the Battle of Stones River, the soldiers of the 29th Indiana were among the first Federal units struck by the dawn attack by the Army of Tennessee and were driven from the field. At Chickamauga, the Confederate nighttime attack of the evening of September 19, 1863 proved nearly as disastrous. “Our brigade is nearly annihilated,” commented Captain James H.M. Jenkins of the 29th Indiana. Most of the 77th Pennsylvania and 79th Illinois had been captured in the fighting. “We number less than 350 men in the four regiments of the brigade.” Jenkins’ company suffered staggering losses. Jenkins’ northern Indianans marched onto the field of Chickamauga with 28 enlisted men; by the end of the battle, 23 of the 28 were listed as casualties. The regiment started with 305 and could only gather 125 around the regimental campfires on the night of September 20th.

          Two weeks after the battle, the situation at Chattanooga had settled down enough to Captain Jenkins found time to record his experiences of what he called the “hardest fighting of the war.” His hometown newspaper in Angola, Indiana published his missive on the front page of their Halloween edition.

 

National colors of the 29th Indiana Volunteer Infantry

In camp, Chattanooga, Tennessee

October 6, 1863

          I beg your indulgence for my long silence owing to various reasons unavoidable in a military life, the most potent being lack of interest. I wish to state to you and add my evidence to the courage, bravery, fidelity, and zeal of the brave and noble youths, the representatives of gallant Steuben, that I have had the honor to command. Of the 112 men first to last that have been in company, alas how few remain! Exposure, hardships, and disease have carried a number to an early and untimely grave. The bullets of the foe have claimed a full share of the noble boys. They have fought bravely, manfully, and successfully for their glorious country and their country’s cause. At Shiloh, Triune, LaVergne, Stones River, and Chickamauga, at all of which places the 29th Indiana and Co. A in particular bore the brunt of the fearful onslaughts of the foe. Always willing, always foremost to deal blow after blow and to oppose bayonet to bayonet.

          Of the former battles you are cognizant but of the last I wish to state the unvarnished facts as they fell under my own observation especially of the 29th Indiana. We broke camp at Bellefonte, Alabama on August 30th and marched 13 miles before bivouacking on the north side of the Tennessee River for the night. We crossed the river on a pontoon bridge on August 31st and bivouacked on the south bank. At this point my valise was stolen and rifled of all my extra clothing and valuable papers. Here we prepared for the tedious ascent of the Tennessee and Georgia mountains by sending all superfluities and extra baggage back to Stevenson to be stored. Farewell to the baggage, we never shall see it mote. Each regiment was allowed three teams, one for the hospital, one for headquarters and quartermaster stores, and the third for company purposes.




William Travis' depiction of the Army of the Cumberland crossing the Tennessee River on a pontoon bridge on August 31, 1863. 

          On September 1st we took up the line of march and commenced the ascent of the mountain by doubling teams with ten men to each wagon to assist the mules. We got up in safety and from that time until the 18th of September we marched up and marched over and on top of the mountains day after day, warily watched by triple our numbers waiting to trap our separated and isolated corps. On the evening of the 18th, we reached the foot of Lookout Mountain where we had the satisfaction of forming a junction with the main body of Rosecrans army. That night we went on picket. Early the next morning we resumed the line of march for ten miles to our position. Here let me remark that we separated from Sheridan’s, Davis’, and Johnson’s divisions of McCook’s 20th Army Corps, passed them, and took our position on the left of Thomas and right of Crittenden, thereby filling the gaps between those two corps. We arrived at this point at about 11 a.m., unslung knapsacks, left a guard over them, and formed our brigade in line in rear of Hazen’s brigade.

A depiction of the Army of the Cumberland marching over the mountains and towards their fateful clash at Chickamauga. 

Heavy firing from both sides now commenced. The 29th was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel David Dunn, Major Collins, and me. Longstreet’s corps lay immediately to our front concealed behind trees and a slashing of about 40 acres of heavy timber. We received the order “forward, double quick-charge!” Every man started with alacrity upon a run, passing over a regiment of Hazen’s men lying down. They fired as they advanced and received the well-directed fire of the enemy; our men fell by squads killed and wounded. Still they pressed forward closing up their thinned ranks. Officers crying “forward men” shouting the awful battle cry of defiance. Onward, onward, to within ten yards of the first line of the enemy who were still delivering their fire in our very faces. Our men came to the charge bayonet, the cold steel glistened, each face wore a stern determined look. Longstreet’s veterans could stand it no longer, they rose and fled through the woods and fallen timber in confusion. Then came our turn and well our noble boys improved it, deliberately loading and firing, shooting the enemy in the back.

Still onward we pursued them for three-fourths of a mile with when seeing our right flank was exposed for three-fourths of a mile with no reserve in sight in our rear and from sheer exhaustion we made a halt in this charge. We lost 75 in killed and wounded but no stragglers. At this point and immediately to our front lay a deep swamp, thickly covered with underbrush. On a rise of ground 300 yards to our front the enemy had a battery of six pieces which opened on us with shot and shell, this protecting the retreat of the disorganized Rebels. Their firing was terrific, but we held our ground for one hour when we received orders to fall back and join on the right of the first brigade, Johnson’s Division, here forming line. Our right flank was still exposed and no reserve.



The 29th and 30th were placed out as pickets, Co. C in front as skirmishers. This was the first lull and first rest from the time we first entered the field, the fighting having shifted to the left of the line and in front of Crittenden. Then came a lull of about an hour’s duration. At 4 p.m. we were relieved from picket by the 79th Illinois and 77th Pennsylvania, we took their line about 30 yards to the rear, the men lying upon the ground with their arms in their hands. How soon our rest was to be disturbed by a night attack. During the lull the enemy had massed his batteries on our front and right flank with their legions disposed likewise.

Night had set in and the enemy approached. Our pickets opened upon their advance and the thunder of 20 pieces of cannon opened upon us lighting the heavens with a sheet of flame, their hordes rushing down upon us while a perfect shower of bullets rained over, around, and through us. Still we had to remain passive until the 79th Illinois and 77th Pennsylvania would uncover us. The Rebels took two-thirds of them prisoners. Now was our turn; they rushed upon us and we received them with a well-directed volley, our only guide being the flash of their guns. Here we closed with them, their men and ours mixed throughout, not knowing one from the other, their cannons still thundering on friend and foe. It was a contest of life of death.

Second Lt. Irenus McGowan
Acting adjutant, 29th Indiana
Captured Sept 19, 1863
Survived Macon and Columbia

Captain Gorschkaph of the 20th Ohio Battery came to our relief, it having been engaged elsewhere. The Rebels again retreated taking quite a number of prisoners with them including a number from our brigade. We lost about 45 missing, their fate unknown. Here we lost our adjutant and the brave and noble Lieutenant McGowan, supposed to be wounded and a prisoner. He was brave, energetic, and gentlemanly to a fault. He was on the staff of Colonel Dodge commanding our brigade. He was carrying the brigade flag on horseback at the time of his capture and the flag was lost with him. Here also a number of Steuben’s heroes spilled their blood for the Constitution of their country. Here we lost the brave and genial little Frederick Clock, killed outright. Poor boy, he had no suffering as death claimed him quickly for his own. Here also the soldier and hero Nathaniel Hanna received his fatal wound; a braver soldier never shouldered a musket. We lost Valentine Summerlott, too; brave and generous to a fault, they were both recovered and have since died from the effects of their wounds. I cannot now speak in detail as time and space will not admit. Suffice it to say that they all did nobly, bravely and manfully- let a generous nation give them their thanks, let history emblazon their names and bravery in letters of gold. They are enshrined in the hearts of their comrades- may they be in the hearts of the nation. This fighting closed at 8 o’clock.

The next day we remained in the same position where we had thrown up a slight breastwork with an occasional sally when we poured destructive volleys into the flank of the enemy whilst they were charging upon our left wing. Twice we had to fall back to our slight protection to repel the assaults of the enemy upon our front which we did successfully. The cannonading from both sides consisting of hundreds of guns and the constant roar of musketry was fearfully grand, deafening and terrific. Many a poor fellow looked upon the sun with hopes and fears for the last time. Perchance his last thoughts were with loved ones at home. At 3 p.m., John Boyer was wounded in the head by the enemy sharpshooters concealed behind the trees; they annoyed us very much. Twice we sent out a line of skirmishers and drove them from their cover.

Up to this time our army had repelled every attack the enemy had made and while congratulating ourselves upon our good fortune, an orderly rode up with orders to fall back. This we paid no attention to. In about 20 minutes an aide-de-camp came down and repeated the order. Our right wing was already falling back in disorder and we were left alone; the enemy’s shot, shell, and bullets raining over and around us. At this time, Colonel Dodge gave the order to retreat; the enemy was close upon us which brought us to a scene of the use of our nether limbs which we applied vigorously for about 200 yards. Our regiment, or rather a handful of men, here became scattered and several were wounded while retreating and a number were captured.



We fell back about three-fourths of a mile to a high ridge where we found one half of our army, the balance having gone farther. Here we planted our riddled colors and rallied about 150 men of different brigades, representatives from all divisions. A consultation of officers was held when it was decided to fall back to Rossville four miles and reorganize.

I took the remnant of the 29th Indiana into bivouac that night and drew rations for 75 men, more than half the number of our brigade that was together. The following morning, we moved to a new position on the Cleveland road where we threw up breastworks and prepared to resist any farther advance of the foe. They came within sight of our pickets but no further. Our skirmishers had a slight brush with theirs with small loss. At midnight that night we were ordered to retire. We took up our line of march with the rear guard and without molestation arrived on Missionary Ridge overlooking Chattanooga at about 4 a.m. on September 22nd. We then moved down the plain, took our position in line of battle on the front line and commenced entrenching. We here have to stand picket four days at a stretch out of 12 and work on the fortifications the balance of the time living on half rations of hard bread, pork, sugar, and coffee. Early in the morning of the second day Colonel Dunn went to the hospital at our rear and here he was cut off by the enemy and we did not see him until the next morning.

The enemy is close to us. For instance, imagine the half of a basin with the Tennessee River to our rear, a large flat valley surrounded by a chain of high hills designates the basin’s rim. Here are the Rebs, the flat is where the Federals are. This is our relative position. We can hold our point and certainly will do so. I send my heart-felt sympathies to the parents and friends of those noble boys that have left their peaceful homes imbued with a love of country, to endure for years the privations of a soldier’s life and many of them an untimely death. Will the people of Steuben give them a niche in their memory?

 

Sources:

Letter from Captain James H.M. Jenkins, Co. A, 29th Indiana Infantry, Steuben Republican (Indiana), October 10, 1863, pg. 5; also October 31, 1863, pg. 1

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