There Goes My Brigade to Hell: the 42nd Ohio at Chickasaw Bayou

Even a century later, one can feel the emotion of William H.H. Monroe’s words as he described what he witnessed at Chickasaw Bayou in December 1862. “When we were about half way through the timber, the head of the column rose above the bank across the bayou and as they rushed forward, the roar of artillery was drowned by cheers that made the woods ring. That encouraged us to press forward with renewed vigor. Now came the hour of fearful trial and slaughter. Our men were in the field and under the converging fire of artillery and musketry. It seemed as though every man would fall before it, and that human courage must fail under those trying circumstances,” he wrote in 1899.  

Monroe, a veteran of Co. A of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, crafted a three-part series about the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou entitled “Battle in the Bayous” that was published in three subsequent October issues of the National Tribune. Monroe’s account specifically examined the assault made by his regiment and the other soldiers of Colonel John DeCourcey’s brigade on December 29, 1862 and gave his personal experiences of that bloody day.  An account from Private John Thomson of the 16th Ohio of DeCourcey’s brigade describing this charge as experienced by his regiment has been previously featured on the blog. 

Corporal John W. Anderson, Co. I, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry
American Civil War Research Database

Before giving an account of the charge, I will describe the lay of the land and the obstructions to be overcome, which, of course, we did not know until we passed over the ground. The first obstruction was a bayou to be crossed on a pontoon bridge. Beyond that was 60-80 rods of heavy timber trees, cut down and lying in every direction. Beyond this timber was a deep, wide bayou partly filled with water. The only way of crossing it by our brigade was by a corduroy bridge. This was in easy case shot range of the enemy’s cannon on the right. On the bank of the bayou was the enemy’s first rifle pit. From there was a cleared field sloping up to the enemy’s lower batteries and main line of rifle pits at the foot of the hills. This field was shaped like a triangle, with one side against the hills just to the left of our front or perhaps more like a crescent, with the arc against the hills and the widest place across the field to our left. Through the center of the field was a depression which served as a rifle pit, and at different places along the hillsides were batteries planted, not only to rake the field, but their main line of works, if our troops captured them Thus the enemy, with rifle pit above rifle pit and battery above battery, had complete control of their front to our line, a distance of perhaps a mile. So that our advancing column was exposed to a raking fire from the start and by the time we reached the main bayou or old river bed, we were entering a converging fire that became more and more concentrated, enfilading us as we approached the enemy’s main works.

Towards noon the firing almost ceased, except an occasional volley to the right and left. It was evident a charge was to be made or some other desperate deed to be done for General Morgan was making a speech to the boys of the 16th Ohio. Soon afterwards we were called into line and took our place in regular brigade order. The order of regiments was 16th Ohio to the right, the 22nd Kentucky, 54th Indiana, and to their left the 42nd Ohio. We were ordered to unsling knapsacks. We were certain a charge was to be made. I trembled as I thought of our storming those works and the consequence. It was the general impression that the works were too strongly defended for us to take them. It was a desperate undertaking.

Colonel John F. DeCourcey

It took quite a while for the four regiments to get across the bayou into the fallen timber. Then came a struggle to accomplish that which we had heretofore thought impossible under a destructive fire from an enemy’s guns. We were clambering over trees, crawling under trees, forcing our way through tree tops for half an hour just under the shrieking shells from our artillery firing over us at the enemy’s batteries, and facing the fire of the enemy’s artillery and musketry, amidst the crash and roar of 60-80 cannon, besides musketry, which was almost deafening. The boys cheered loudly as we started. Decourcey was ahead, walking on the logs, waving his sword, and urging his men forward. His presence cheered us forward. Our men were getting mixed up and scattered. It was almost impossible for the officers to keep them together and entirely to keep any alignment. Three times we blocked up against those in front and had to lie down while they were getting out of our way. This was caused by the head of the column not being able to cross the second bayou except by marching by the left flank eight or ten rods, then crossing a bridge, then moving up the bank, forming division again in the field. Each division, as it came to the bayou, had to cross in this manner until 15 divisions had passed before the head of the 42nd got to the bayou. This caused a great delay.

"That glorious beautiful banner" as carried by the 42nd Ohio. This particular flag known as the Garfield flag features 33 stars in the center with an additional star in each corner for the field.
(Ohio History Connection)


When we were about half way through the timber, the head of the column rose above the bank across the bayou and as they rushed forward, bearing proudly and high that glorious beautiful banner, the roar of artillery was drowned by cheers that made the woods ring. That encouraged us to press forward with renewed vigor. Now came the hour of fearful trial and slaughter. Our men were in the field and under the converging fire of artillery and musketry. It seemed as though every man would fall before it, and that human courage must fail under those trying circumstances.

But our brave comrades went steadily forward, though their ranks were rapidly thinning. They had gained the first line of earthworks but were some distance from the batteries. The 16th Ohio, 22nd Kentucky, and 54th Indiana finally got beyond the bayou into the open field and the 42nd Ohio crossed and by order of Decourcey halted and formed line of battle under cover of the bank, the right (Co. A) resting at the bridge. The water near us boiled and bubbled occasionally as by a hailstorm, from exploding shells and case shot. Those in the field were falling by the dozens and though nearly to the first batteries, were almost exhausted and if they reached the third line of works would fall an easy prey into the hands of the enemy. Decourcey, who had taken a position near the bayou on the bank where he could overlook the field, saw it was rushing men on to destruction, and that the 42nd would suffer the same fate as those in the field. He ordered us to halt and form line to protect the men who fell back from pursuit by the enemy.

Shortly the tide returned. The wounded who were able to walk and the advance who were obliged to fall back or be taken prisoners came off the field, passing to our rear. After we had been fully half an hour in the bayou, and all who could, got off the field, Decourcey gave the command to the 42nd Ohio: ‘Right face-by files right- double quick-march!’ It seems as though I can almost see and hear him now. He always made two syllables of the word “march” placing the accent strongly and in a higher tone on the last syllable- probably the English way. We recrossed the bridge, returning by the road into the woods in as good order as possible under the circumstances.

Oh, it was awful! The sight of that beautiful flag being borne to the rear was humiliating. Yet we loved it more dearly for what it had passed through. As returned from the field we passed a group of soldiers wearing hats. When near them, we discovered by the number and letters that they were a remnant of the 58th Ohio, a German regiment. I counted them- just 28 men- gathered around their tattered flag, a patriotic but sad sight, which can be better described, their officers, comrades, and brothers killed, and their regiment almost annihilated. I learned afterwards that, all told, but 80 men out of a regiment of several hundred escaped from the field. The 58th was at the head of Blair’s charging column.

Chickasaw Bayou

When we got back to our artillery, we beheld with sorrow our boys who had been too near the enemy’s works to escape marching before Rebel bayonets up over the hill. That we had met a terrible repulse was a discouraging fact. No wonder Decourcey wept like a child when he looked upon the remnant of the regiment he had organized, drilled, disciplined, and led and with whom he had shared privations and hardships, hunger and thirst. The 22nd Kentucky had but a remnant and the 54th Indiana was cut to pieces. Our regiment did not suffer so badly, being the fourth in the charging column.

The question arises, who is responsible for our defeat? General Sherman ordered the charge; General Morgan and Colonel Decourcey opposed it. When Decourcey was informed that a charge was to be made, he laughed at the absurdity of it, and said the enemy’s works were stronger than those at Sebastopol. Decourcey had been raised from a boy in the English service; had been in the Crimean War where he lost an eye and had been one of the famous 600 that charged at Balaklava. With his military experience, capable of taking in the situation, properly judging as to the strength of the enemy’s works from the resistance we met the day before, and what he could see with his field glasses that morning, he could draw proper conclusions as to the results of a charge on those works. He next received a written order to charge. This he was obliged to obey, although he was sure it would be rushing men on to certain death without victory. So certain was Decourcey of our destruction that he said when we started ‘There goes my brigade to hell.’

Veteran soldiers felt unnecessarily humiliated by the defeat and were very bitter against Sherman. But when we came to understand the object of Sherman’s movements and that he was under orders from Grant to cooperate with him by making a demonstration to prevent any troops from Vicksburg and the vicinity reinforcing Pemberton in his front, the soldiers began to be reconciled and to think more of him, and as the war progressed acknowledge his superior military ability and gave him praise due for his great achievements. Nevertheless, we cannot but look upon our defeat at Chickasaw as due to his tardiness in moving after landing on the bank of the Yazoo.

 

Sources:

“A Battle in the Bayous Part II,” William H.H. Monroe, National Tribune, October 12, 1899, pg. 3

“Battle in the Bayous Part III,” William H.H. Monroe, National Tribune, October 19, 1899, pg. 3

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