Colonel Wilder Discusses Chickamauga

    Mere days after the Battle of Chickamauga, Colonel John T. Wilder, commander of the famed Lightning Brigade, a unit of Spencer repeating rifle-armed mounted infantry which played an important role in the Chickamauga campaign, returned home to Indiana to "recruit his health and strength from a prostrating illness which would have sent him to the rear long ago if the prospect of a battle had not been stronger than the disease and kept him up."  Passing through the city of Indianapolis on his way home to Greensburg, the 33 year old New York native sat down with a reporter from the Indianapolis Journal and gave his perspective of the recently completed campaign. Interestingly, he seemed more irked at the inaccurate reporting of the New York Herald than any other aspect of the battle. 

Colonel John Thomas Wilder (1830-1917) of the 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry commanded the famed Wilder's Lightning Brigade during the Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns. The Hoosier moved to Chattanooga after the war and served as mayor and later postmaster; he died at Jacksonville, Florida 1917 and is buried at Chattanooga. 

    He says that the report of the New York Herald's correspondent, telegraphed from Cincinnati, is incorrect and exaggerated; first because the correspondent did not know what disposition had been made of portions of the two corps which he reports defeated, and second, because he left the field on Sunday evening and could not possibly have learned the full result of the fight.  Colonel Wilder's position was such as to enable him to know not only the movements of the troops preceding the battle of Sunday, but to bring from the field the very latest news that could be gathered there. 

    In Saturday's fight, Wilder was on the left center. That night, the greater portions of McCook's and Crittenden's corps moved past him on to strengthen Thomas on the extreme left leaving him on the extreme right. Between his brigade and Thomas in center instead of two corps as represented by the Herald writer, there were but two divisions (Sheridan's and Jeff C. Davis') of McCook's corps. Here the line was necessarily very weak and the Rebels failing in the desperate attack upon Thomas and in a fierce but not persistent dash upon the right, took the opportunity of some movement in the center to strike there. They massed a column six or eight deep against our thin line and broke through it, scattering the divisions more by main strength and pressure than by their fire into the hills and hollows and woods of Mission Ridge behind them, where the nature of the ground made it difficult to keep them together or to rally them.

Battle of Chickamauga, September 19, 1863 as depicted by William Travis

    This was the only real reverse of the day. It embraced but two divisions as already stated and of these Sheridan and Davis who Wilder says did all that human daring and coolness could; they rallied a considerable number returned to the fight. Not many were killed or captured as the Rebels were prevented from using their advantage by a deadly flanking fire thrown into them by Wilder's seven-shooting rifles and artillery as they passed him in pursuit. He says they did not go half a mile beyond his line and soon fell back. After this, he held his ground five hours without molestation. How Thomas held the left or rather the main body of the army is known to everyone. On both flanks, the Rebels were stopped and beaten back. In the center they broke up two divisions but with a less fatal result than might have been expected. This is the sum of the matter.

    On Sunday night, Wilder distributed his brigade so as to protect the roads from the right to Chattanooga and on Monday joined the main body in good order and good spirits, entirely unconscious of any defeat. Thomas came in on Monday at his own pleasure with more than two-thirds of the whole army and anything but a defeat to report as the most dispiriting accounts show. Our line was held except at the right of the center till we chose to leave it, as Rosecrans would have done before the fight if the Rebels had left him. They fought to break him up before he could back to the impregnable position at Chattanooga and only succeeded in breaking up two divisions. As Wilder came in, he gathered up and brought with him a very large amount of stores and material supposed by those in Chattanooga and of course by the Herald writer to have been lost. Among these were two guns, one hundred ambulances, sixty beef cattle, and a large number of ammunition wagons and caissons. Similar recoveries were doubtless made by other portions of the army but the correspondent had hurried off to publish his description of the fight and knew nothing of this rather important variation of the state of facts behind him. 

    Our loss in prisoners in both days the Colonel says will not exceed 2,500 including the wounded. In artillery it will be less than Colonel [James] Barnett supposed as guns were recovered and brought in of which he could know nothing when he gave his estimate to the correspondent. We captured about 2,000 prisoners of whom Wilder brought in 530 with him to Stevenson, Alabama. The distance of the battlefield from Chattanooga has not been fully understood and the supposition that Rosecrans was driven back 20 or 30 miles had added to the gloomy shade even to the most cheering aspect of the fight; but the distance was small as our extreme right which was farthest away on Sunday was less than 12 miles off and the left, after falling back to Mission Ridge, was hardly more than half of that.

On Monday and immediately after the return from the field, Wilder was sent off up the Tennessee River to guard fords and passed for Burnside's benefit and took with him dispatches from Rosecrans with full news of the situation. These dispatches were safely delivered as the courier taking them got back just as Wilder started home. This assures the country that Burnside will not be caught unprepared. When the courier reached him he was moving toward Chattanooga at what point or with what strength it would probably be  improper to state, but we may state that by this time he is past all danger of being intercepted by the Rebels and has force enough to make good all Rosecrans has lost and something over. 

    At Stevenson, Wilder heard a rumor that Grierson's cavalry from Mississippi were within ten miles and that Sherman's whole corps was within two days' march coming up from Decatur, Alabama, but the rumors were undoubtedly false as Grierson was in Springfield, Illinois on Friday and Sherman could not have got to the point stated from the Big Black River in the time that has elapsed since the battle, and we know that he had not started before. 

    Among the incidents of the battle of Saturday, Colonel Wilder described the frightful slaughter of Longstreet's men at the time they were driven back by our left wing. This celebrated corps, as desperate soldiers as ever lived, attacked two divisions (Van Cleve's and Davis') to the right and a little in front of Wilder and separated them and pushed on through the open space yelping- the Rebel shout is a yelp, instead of a civilized hurrah. A portion of the Rebels had to cross a small field behind which in the bordering woods, Wilder's men lay and through which ran a ditch five or six feet deep to carry off the water of an adjacent stream or swamp. As the Rebels entered this field in heavy masses fully exposed the mounted infantry, with their seven-shooting rifles, kept up a continuous blast of fire upon them while Lilly with his Indiana battery hurled through them double-shotted canister from his 10-pdr rifles at less than 300 yards. The effect was awful. Every shot seemed to tell. The head of the column, as it was pushed on by those behind, appeared to melt away or sink into the earth for though continually moving it got no nearer. It broke at last and fell back in great disorder. It was rallied and came on again and with desperate resolution pushed through the solid fire to the ditch. Here all who could get in took shelter. Instantly Lilly whirled two of his guns and poured down the whole length of the ditch his horrible double canister. Hardly a man got out alive out it alive. "At this point," said Wilder "it actually seemed a pity to kill men so. They fell in heaps and I had it in my heart to order the firing to cease to end the awful sight." But the merciless seven-shooters and canister would not stop and again the boasted flower of Lee's army was crushed into a disorderly mob and driven off. When the firing ceased one could have walked for 200 yards down that ditch on dead Rebels without touching the ground. Of course Colonel Wilder doesn't claim that his brigade defeated Longstreet. His statement only refers to that portion of the corps which entered the field in his front. He thinks that not less than 2,000 Rebels were killed and wounded in this field. It was probably the most disastrous fire of the two day's fight on either side.

Spencer Seven-Shot Repeating Rifle; Wilder's men used these arms to deadly effect during the 1863 campaigns and particularly on September 20, 1863 at Chickamauga. 

"Something More About the Battle of Chickamauga," Hancock Democrat (Indiana), October 8, 1863, pg. 1


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