Severest Ordeal of My Life: A Buckeye Colonel Remembers Chickamauga

By late September 1863, 46-year-old Colonel Oscar F. Moore of the 33rd Ohio could be described as “war-weary.” The Portsmouth attorney and former Congressman had been badly wounded in the leg and captured at Perryville the previous October, then spent months recuperating from his wound before returning to the regiment with a bad limp. That injured leg nearly proved his downfall on the first day of Chickamauga, which he described as the “severest ordeal of my life.”

Colonel Moore had dismounted his horse Morgan at the urgings of his adjutant due to the severity of the Rebel fire and the likelihood that Moore would be struck down sitting atop his horse. But the timing couldn’t have been worse, as shortly after Moore sent his horse to the rear, Liddell’s assault crushed into his brigade flank. The regiment fell back through the woods and though Moore valiantly tried to keep up on foot, but he was “entirely unable to catch up. My wounded leg hobbled me, and I was soon struck with two spent balls, both of which bruised me considerably and one of which stunned me so badly and lamed me so that I could scarcely get along at all.” But like at Perryville where Moore was dragged off the field to safety by a member of his regiment, the colonel was again saved from the Confederates by one of his men. “Twice I was so much exhausted that I was upon the verge of laying down and accepting my fate,” he confessed to his wife Martha. “However, one of my boys came back and dragged me along for a short distance and I revived a little.”

          The 33rd Ohio was part of the First Brigade (Scribner) of the First Division (Baird) of the 14th Army Corps at Chickamauga, a unit that was nearly overrun in the opening hours of September19, 1863 during Liddell’s assault. Colonel Moore would continue to serve with the regiment until resigning his commission July 20, 1864. Moore’s private letter to his wife giving a full account of his regiment’s experience at the Battle of Chickamauga was published in the October 10, 1863 issue of the Portsmouth Times.

A closeup of the deadly three-ring .58 caliber Minie bullet. Formed from soft lead, the bullet's effectiveness was increased by its propensity to flatten and spread upon impact, as Colonel Moore learned on several occasions during the Civil War. 

Chattanooga, Tennessee

September 25, 1863

Dear Martha,

          It is now more than a week since I wrote you and within that period I have passed through the severest ordeal of my life. It is impossible now that I should give you anything like a history of our doings since I last wrote you. It would require volumes. Although nearly every moment of my time both night and day has been engaged, still I would have written you a line if I could have sent it. Our mails are stopped by orders from headquarters so that nothing either comes or goes through that channel. Tom Howell, however, had an opportunity of sending a letter by private conveyance and from that you may be able to learn our fate up to that time.

          We occupy this place and have fortified it strongly enough to enable us to hold it even against the very formidable army in our front and around us. Nothing but the destruction of our lines of communication and the stoppage of our supplies can compel us to evacuate. It is possible that they may attempt to carry the place by storm, but we are not in the slightest degree alarmed at the result. Every man is at work and it is really astonishing to see the amount of labor performed since we came here. The Rebels could scarcely recognize the place so great a change having been wrought by the forts, rifle pits, and breastworks constructed since we came here. Our army is in fine spirits and very confident.

          The fighting was commenced on Saturday morning last in real earnest, although we had been skirmishing for several days along the line. The ball opened on the extreme left or a point nearest to Chattanooga. The enemy tried to get between us and that place and were nearly successful. Last Friday night our division [Baird’s] and Brannan’s division marched the whole night so as to prevent the enemy from getting around our left flank. The enemy moved a heavy column at the same time on a line parallel with us and only about two and half miles from our line.

On the morning of Saturday September 19, 1863, Scribner's and King's brigades of Baird's division marched to the support of Brannan's two brigade and helped push back Ector's and Wilson's brigades before being taken in flank by Govan and Walthall's brigades. (Map by Hal Jespersen)


          At daylight, the fight began in earnest. The enemy knowing all about the country had greatly the advantage of us and compelled us to fight them upon the ground of their own selection. We had heard of Bragg’s reinforcements but did not deem the reports reliable and at first pitched in just as if we had nobody to fight but Bragg’s old army. At first, we drove the enemy before us in every direction, killing, wounding, and capturing an immense number of them. We thought our task an easy one and that we would completely use up the whole of Bragg’s army. We soon learned, however, that the stories about the Rebel reinforcements were too true, and apparently, they had all the troops they desired to use.

          Our driving the enemy back was only to entice us within their lines so that they might fall upon us and devour us, and they came very near accomplishing their purpose. After we had driven them about a mile and a half, the enemy disappeared from our front and there was a lull.

 
“A dead calm prevailed unbroken even by whispering. Something told me this was only a prelude to some awful finale. I could not imagine what and most of the men seemed impressed with an unknown and undefinable dread.” 
~ Sergeant Samuel B. Price, Co. A, 2nd Ohio Infantry, Scribner’s Brigade


We halted our brigade and reformed our lines which was scarcely done till the enemy attacked us most ferociously in front and on the flank. We were willing to fight them in front, but a murderous fire upon our flank was too much. The 38th Indiana and 10th Wisconsin were driven back, thus leaving our right flank extremely exposed, and seeing that the regiment was about to be cut off entirely, I ordered it to fall back. The fire being so heavy both in front and on the flank when the boys got started, instead of going off in good order, they got into confusion as was very natural and it was not until they got back to the state road that they rallied.

"Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable." This motto was one in which both Republicans and War Democrats like Colonel Moore could adhere.

Until just before our regiment was ordered to fall back, I had been riding Morgan and he had behaved so well and I got along so much better mounted that I intended to stay on him, but Major Ellis and Adjutant Waddle begged me so hard to get off him and not expose myself that I finally got off and sent my horse to the rear. Perhaps it was all right and for the best, but it certainly came very near causing me a trip into Dixie. In falling back, the regiment soon passed me so that I got in the rear and was entirely unable to catch up. My wounded leg hobbled me, and I was struck with two spent balls, both of which bruised me considerably and one of which stunned me so badly and lamed me so that I could scarcely get along at all. Twice I was so much exhausted that I was upon the verge of lying down and submitting to my fate. Once, however, one of my men came back and dragged me along for a short distance until I revived a little, and another time I deliberately stopped and rested.

 

“As I was falling back in company with Captain Hinson, I heard something strike and his countenance immediately showed he was wounded. Assisting him as best I could until we reached am ambulance, he was taken to the rear and this is how it came that when at the conclusion of the war, Hinson rode at the head of the regiment as its colonel, it was with an armless coat sleeve.” ~ Adjutant Angus L. Waddle, 33rd Ohio


Our loss in the fight was very severe, embracing in killed, wounded, and missing at least 90 of our officers and men. Lieutenant Cole was killed and Captain Joseph Hinson [Co. D] was wounded, and among the men killed was the good and brave boywho stood by me at Perryville, Private John Bayles [Co. E]. I deplore the loss of no one more than I do his. He was shot through the heart and instantly killed I suppose. I did not get to see his body, although I traveled all over the battlefield to find it while Johnson’s division was skirmishing and fighting with the enemy. Poor fellow! His body was left upon the field to be buried by the foe as were all our other killed. Even many of our wounded were left on the field to die from hunger and exposure. It was impossible to avoid this for the reason that our first battlefield continued to be contested ground until our army fell back on Sunday night. Before that the dead and wounded of the enemy were on the field intermingled with our own. I saw many of them helpless, suffering and dying for want of attention just as our own men were. But such is war. I thought the Perryville fight was terrific and bloody, but there is no comparison between that fight and this. Our loss is immense, but the loss of the enemy must be much greater.


I cannot describe now what I saw of the two days’ fight nor is it necessary I suppose for others were there to perform that duty and it will be done. After the morning fight on Saturday, our regiment was not again actively engaged on that day. We were on the field, however, supporting Johnson’s division and were under fire nearly all the time and had some of our men wounded. We were bivouacked near the battlefield that night and early next morning were in line of battle and ready to renew the fight. Again, the battle was commenced in our division and for a while the fighting was very severe. We had taken a good position and thrown up temporary works behind which we fought during the entire day and from which the enemy never was able to dislodge us. Several times they tired it, but we drove them back with great slaughter.

Our loss was light until late in the evening when we were ordered to fall back. Major [Ephraim J.] Ellis was killed by a stray ball which came from our left flank. Captain John P. Singer [Co. A] was wounded by a sharpshooter; his wound is not dangerous, but we left him with a surgeon and as we fell back shortly afterward, he is now within Rebel lines. The order to fall back never reached me and I held the regiment in line until all around us had left. Finding that unless we fell back, the enemy would surround us and cut us off, I again took the responsibility of ordering a retreat. A portion of the men came back in good order with me, but others did not hear my order and remained until they were completely surrounded by the enemy and either slaughtered or captured. Their fate is unknown. We lost three officers (Captain Junius Gates [Co. K], Lieutenant Edgar J. Higby [Co. C], and Lieutenant Martin Morrison [Co. H]) and 75 men in falling back at that time.

We have about 200 men still left and intend to stay where we are and fight until we are wiped out. I do not think the enemy will attack us here, and if they do, we are quite sure that we can hold the place. Every hour makes us stronger and more secure. Last night, the Rebels attacked our whole line, but they did not even drive in one picket. We suppose they were merely feeling us. We came to take Chattanooga and we have done it and will hold it unless we are starved out. True, we had to fight for it and got the worst of it, too, but we are still here. When we came here, we did not suppose that we should have to fight the whole Confederate army, and yet we came very near having to do it. Johnston’s army in front of Grant and a large portion of Lee’s army in front of Meade have been withdrawn and thrown upon us and we have had to fight them all. The results are before the world.

We brought Major Ellis’ body to within two miles of Rossville, but the Rebel cavalry compelled the men to abandon it and fly. They covered the body with rails, and I sent Lieutenant Charles R. Pomeroy back after it the next morning, but the enemy captured him, ambulance, and all.

Colonel Benjamin F. Scribner, brigade commander for the 33rd Ohio at Stones River and Chickamauga. His memoirs of the Civil War, How Soldiers Were Made, is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the Army of the Cumberland's services in the war. 

As remembered by Adjutant Angus Waddle, Major Ellis had a presentiment of his demise on the night of September 19th. “My companion for the night was Major Ellis; a more enthusiastic man in battle nor a braver one I have never met, but on this occasion he seemed despondent and expressed his opinion that we would be beaten and spoke of his never having had such feelings in a fight. For some time, we lay awake talking over the situation but finally yielded to fatigue and slept until 3 a.m.,” Waddle wrote. The next afternoon, the regiment was in line and under fire but holding its position. “Major Ellis, seeing an aide dashing by, hailed him for news of the battle. Being assured it was progressing favorably, he stepped to the rear of the regiment and shouted in his impulsive voice, “Boys, we are whipping the life out of them, whipping the life…” But the sentence was never concluded. A stray ball or one from a sharpshooter struck the gallant officer and the pallor of death was on his countenance as he fell. As tenderly as the circumstances would permit, he was placed in a blanket and borne to the rear in the charge of Lieutenant Pomeroy who afterwards reported that for a moment he revived, but only to smile as if still elated at the prospect of victory and then amid the din of the battlefield, gave up his life for the country he loved so well.”

Lieutenant Pomeroy’s story also has a twisting if ultimately sad ending. The Buckeye lieutenant was determined to recover Major Ellis’ body and sought permission from Colonel Moore. “The colonel, knowing the almost certainty of his being captured, was not disposed to give the permission but the lieutenant was so persuasive and so confident that he finally yielded and provided him with an ambulance. A soldier volunteered as drive and thus equipped Pomeroy passed through our lines, Waddle noted. “They had not proceeded far before they were picked up and taken before a Confederate general officer to whom the lieutenant represented himself as a surgeon and stated his errand. His appearance was well-calculated to sustain the character assumed, Pomeroy being of a rather tall, slender build and wearing glasses which added somewhat to his naturally intellectual countenance. His story seemed a plausible one, so much so that after making a prisoner of the driver and confiscating the ambulance and mules, he was placed in a hospital to assist in caring for the wounded. He managed to sustain his assumed character in his trying place and in a few weeks was forwarded to Richmond where, as surgeons were not held as prisoners of war, he was released and returned to his command, soon, alas, to meet the fate of the friend for whom he had been willing to sacrifice his liberty.” Lieutenant Pomeroy was killed in action August 13, 1864 during the siege of Atlanta.

 

Sources:

Letter from Colonel Oscar F. Moore, 33rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Portsmouth Times (Ohio), October 10, 1863, pg. 2

Waddle, Angus L., Three Years with the Armies of Ohio and the Cumberland.  Chillicothe: Scioto Gazette Book and Job Office, 1889, pgs. 52-55

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