Frank Scribner at Chickamauga

 Colonel Benjamin Franklin Scribner, commanding the First Brigade of the First Division of the 14th Army Corps, presented a rightly haggard appearance on the morning of September 21, 1863 when he wrote his friend and business partner Ned Maginness back in New Albany, Indiana. After being awake for four straight nights and fighting both days of the Battle of Chickamauga, the veteran officer’s eyes had nearly swollen shut from hay fever and the bright September sunshine forced him to wear dark spectacles to see. His horse had lost a leg in the fighting and the colonel’s uniform was nicked and pierced from Rebel bullets.

“I have again passed through the fiery ordeal with but little damage except the wear and tear. I have been struck four times- a musket ball tore my shoulder a little, I received a slight scrape on the cheek, and was grazed twice on my legs. My little gray horse had one of his legs shot off by a cannon ball and carried me along for some distance before I discovered it,” Scribner wrote. “Do not think I am unable to discharge what duties are necessary to be done. I have lost more than half my brigade in killed, wounded, and missing, but hope it will not show so bad when the smoke fairly clears off. The Army of the Cumberland fought grandly, nobly, and victoriously.” 

Dubbed by his divisional commander Lovell Rousseau as the “gallant little Serib” for his courageous actions at Perryville and Stones River, Colonel Scribner in 1887 wrote a classic tome about serving in the Army of the Cumberland entitled How Soldiers Were Made, or the War as I Saw It under Buell, Rosecrans, Thomas, Grant in Sherman. Scribner’s account of the destruction of his brigade on the first day of Chickamauga is reproduced below from this work.

Brevet Brigadier General Benjamin Franklin Scribner (1825-1900) served as a sergeant in the 2nd Indiana Infantry during the Mexican War. He and Ned Maginnis operated a drug store in New Albany, Indiana before Scribner donned the blue with the 38th Indiana during the Civil War. Interestingly enough, the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga was Scribner's birthday. 


 

Our division marched all night of September 18-19, 1863. The route was defined by rail fires, built also to deceive the enemy. At daylight, we halted to make some coffee and while resting here, General Dan McCook of Granger’s Reserve Corps rode up to me and inquired for General Thomas. He explained that a brigade of the enemy had crossed the bridge over the Chickamauga and that he had destroyed the bridge so that the brigade could not get back. McCook though that this brigade of the enemy could be captured by prompt action and it was to obtain the order that he sought Thomas. He rode away and soon returned, remarking as he passed that it was all right and that Brannan was coming to do the job. 

Accordingly, General Brannan with two brigades came along and passed to our left and one of the brigades advanced into the woods and soon engaged the enemy. The noise of battle increasing, the other brigade of Brannan’s went in and now the uproar of musketry and artillery made it significant that Bragg had massed a large force on our left to cut us off from roads leading to Chattanooga, and that the Rebel brigade that McCook referred to was but a small portion of this force.

Our division was now ordered to enter the fray on Brannan’s right, my brigade being on the right of the division. Where the roads forked, I left my battery with a regiment to guard it and moved forward in two lines. We soon met the enemy and pushed upon him and drove him handsomely. I was cautioned about firing to the right lest I should fire into our own men. The enemy still yielded to our steady advance. Another staff officer rode up and informed me that we connected with General Palmer’s division on the right. I was advancing with our right refused, but we now straightened the line and as the ground became more suitable for artillery, my battery was ordered up and also the regiment left with it.

Colonel Anson George McCook of the 2nd Ohio Infantry

We still continued to press the enemy back, stepping over their dead and wounded and taking prisoners as we progressed. At length we came to a rail fence in front of an open field which sloped towards us from the woods beyond. Across this field, the enemy fled, and I saw a Rebel battery emerge from the woods, coming towards us to wheel into position. I called out to Colonel Anson G. McCook of the 2nd Ohio, “Anson, do you see that?” The colonel, radiant with delight, replied “I see it!” and made a dash for the battery. But the battery sped back the way they had come to the shelter of the wood. [The 2nd Ohio had captured a Confederate battery during the Battle of Stones River, see here.]

We were all now very happy. Colonel Oscar F. Moore of the 33rd Ohio- [see here to read Moore's Chickamauga letter], elated with satisfaction, said to me, “They can’t fight us. The ‘Bloody First’ is too much for them!” In this congratulatory state of mind, my brigade surgeon approached me with dismay in his face. I addressed him brusquely, “What is the matter, Dr. Miller?” He replied, “I have been in the hands of the enemy.” I rejoined “What do you mean?” He answered, “I mean to say that the enemy is in your rear and on your right. They have taken my field hospital with all the wounded! They have captured Captain [Edgar] DeBruin, the provost guard, and all the prisoners and are coming down upon you like a pack of wolves.”

The shock of these words and their dreadful import can be better imagined than described. Bracing myself up to meet the impending crisis, every staff officer was dispatched in a different direction; one to Palmer, one to Baird, one to Thomas, one to Reynolds, and another to Johnson and to anyone who ought to have the information. I asked for help and directed my staff to say that I would hold my position until reinforcements came, for the division ammunition train was parked near the place I had left the battery and was in peril. Lieutenant Devol proceed to the right to caution Palmer and came suddenly upon the Rebel lines. With much self-possession, he concealed his knowledge of their presence and sidling off, got away and reported to General Thomas the situation who ordered him to direct any troops he met to my support.

A cannon ball embedded into a tree trunk from the Chickamauga battlefield. This particular example is on display at the Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford. 

I gave the command “First order of battle, face to the right!” and the enemy on the right opened their fire. The fire from the woods beyond the open field was also renewed and one of my regiments on that front was held to reply to it. The 94th Ohio was not deployed but held in reserve, they being on the left of the second line. The brigade proceeded to execute the command as if on drill, and as the battery came swinging to its position in the new front, I called out to Van Pelt that if he could not place the whole battery to place a section. He was confident he could bring the whole battery to bear.

And now the conflict began! Van Pelt fired 64 rounds of double-shotted canister right into their faces without seemingly disturbing the enemy, and they continued to press me on both fronts, but my men held with a persistence born of their past experiences and successes. It seemed as though a terrible cyclone was sweeping over the earth and driving everything before it! All things appeared to be rushing by me in horizontal lines, all parallel to each other. The missiles of the enemy whistled and whirred by, seeming to draw the elements into the same lines of motion, sound, light, and air uniting in the rush! The uniformity of these lines was every and anon disturbed by the roar and shrieks of cannon balls and shells, to subside again to the new direction now assumed by nature. Intuitions of passing time were lost and lives were lived and yielded during these brief moments.

At length the enemy closed in upon us if like a flame or a rushing tide they would lap us up; they were on our right, front, and rear, and we had to cut our way out as best we could. My losses were dreadful to contemplate. I lost 750 men and nearly every horse in the batter. The gallant Van Pelt with 25 men was cut down at the guns; the enemy got off with one of them, but the others were saved in a disabled condition. Reinforcements came too late for my brave boys. They, too, were struck as by a whirlwind and hurled into disorder. Then Johnson and Reynolds with their divisions appeared and were able to hold the field. General Thomas had come up and directed me to reform some broken lines of troops, which I did, and then passed some rods to the rear where I found my shattered brigade in column of regiments, calmly awaiting orders as if nothing unusual happened.


We afterwards learned that my lines had struck the ford of the Chickamauga, near the railroad station, where Bragg’s reinforcements from Lee’s army were arriving. We, therefore, unconsciously, threatened an important point that Bragg could not afford to yield without a desperate effort to defend it and fortunately for him, he had the forces at hand to do so. The unfortunate report that I connected with Palmer was brought about by a brigade which General Palmer had sent on a reconnaissance to find the right of Thomas. They having found it, returned with the required information, but the left the gap open after creating the impression that they had closed it.

Toward evening, my command joined Johnson’s and Reynolds’ divisions and we had another battle on the same field we had fought over in the morning. The artillery was prominent in this engagement and it was after 10 o’clock that night before all was quiet. Anxious to give my men some rest, General Baird was sought for orders, having notified the officer on the right of my intention, and an orderly was left to mark the spot and to communicate with me should necessity arise. I had not proceeded far until General Baird was met searching for me, so I retraced my steps with him to my command and not finding it where I had expected, the General became apprehensive that we were lost in the woods and might wander into the enemy’s lines. I began myself to feel uneasy and called out “Orderly!” The prompt response of “sir” from the good soldier was from the spot where he had been placed, but now he was alone. He informed me that the brigade had moved back; the officer on the right feared a flank movements of the enemy. The left of our line had been fired upon, “But you told me to stay here and I stayed,” he said. General Baird conducted us to a large open field where my men laid down their weary bodies to rest.

Our movements in the night had so confused me that I did not know even the points of the compass. Lieutenant Devol was the only staff officer with me, the others and the orderlies having lost me in the darkness. I directed Devol to find out our whereabouts; find out whether that house off yonder was Kelly’s where we halted in the morning before the battle began. He was urged to learn all he could about the events of the day and to take two canteens along and fill them with water. I tried to impress him with my locality in order that he might find me when he returned. So, I sat down upon the ground, holding the bridle of my horse in my hand to await news and water. But I waited and waited but did not see him again until morning; he, too, had lost me. My condition was indeed forlorn and miserable! A cup of coffee that morning was my only nourishment since the evening before at Steven’s Gap; my inflamed eyes itched and burned, asthmatic coughing and breathing, and all the discomforts of hay fever added to my sorry plight.

At length pity for my poor horse, who had fared no better, diverted my mind from my own privations to his. A rail fence was found to which he was hitched, but in removing the saddle, my pistols fell from the holsters and with all my groping about I was unable to find them. Observing a light in the woods at some distance off, I called out and found out it was the bivouac of Simonson’s battery. They knew me at Perryville and a party of them hastened to my assistance. They found my pistols, made my fire, and spread my blanket before it and would have shared their supper with me had I permitted them to rob themselves.

Lt. Col. Obadiah C. Maxwell
2nd Ohio


I was soon along again. It would not do to fall asleep, even had I felt like doing so, for I was anxious about the coming of my staff officer. More than 23 years have passed away since that distressing night; other horrors have since filled my mind, but the long painful vigil of that night of gloomy forebodings is yet fresh in my memory. As I crouched, brooding over my lonely fire, the incidents of the day passed in review before me, renewing each sad scene. I was surprised and shocked again and again at the bleeding bodies of much-loved comrades. I mourned again over the prostrate form of Lieutenant Colonel Obadiah Maxwell of the 2nd Ohio whom I assisted into an ambulance after the battle of the morning. He was shot through the lungs, the bullet entering his breast and making its exit at his back. He wore a light buff vest which was soaked with his blood and made him a ghastly spectacle to look upon. His own father could not have embraced and wept over him more fondly that I did. He was not dead, and ignoring the cause of my grief, tried to console me for the reverses of the day and encourage me with hope of ultimate victory, as if my disasters caused my emotion. He was a favorite officer and I was sincerely attached to him.

 

 

         

 

Sources:

Letter from Colonel Benjamin F. Scribner, 38th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Evansville Daily Journal (Indiana), October 5, 1863, pg. 2

“Colonel Scribner,” Evansville Daily Journal (Indiana), October 8, 1863, pg. 2

Franklin, Benjamin Franklin. How Soldiers Were Made or The War as I Saw It under Buell, Rosecrans, Thomas, Grant, and Sherman. New Albany: self-published, 1887, pgs. 143-152

 

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