Liberty Gap as seen by the 77th Pennsylvania

    A few posts ago, I discussed the charge of the 49th Ohio at Missionary Ridge and how in some measure, the victory there avenged the defeat at Chickamauga. Surgeon Franklin Irish of the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry likely felt the same way after his regiment played an important role in driving the Confederates out of Liberty Gap in one of the opening engagements of the Tullahoma campaign in June 1863. 

    At the Battle of Stones River, the 77th Pennsylvania, as part of General Edward N. Kirk's brigade, was one of the first regiments struck on the morning of December 31, 1862. In the confused fighting that followed, the 77th charged alone unsuccessfully on a Rebel battery before being driven back with heavy casualties, including that of Lieutenant Colonel Peter B. Housum who died after being wounded in the hip. After the battle, the regiment felt the sting of some of the criticism that was directed at the troops of the Right Wing by other portions of the army, and Liberty Gap gave the regiment a chance to salvage its damaged reputation.

    Surgeon Irish's account of Liberty Gap saw publication in the July 22, 1863 edition of the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette

Tullahoma, Tennessee

July 7, 1863

Editors Gazette,

          The Army of the Cumberland moved from Murfreesboro, Tennessee on the morning of Wednesday June 24, 1863 in three corps by three different routes. Ours, the 20th Army Corps led by Major General Alexander McD. McCook, took the route to Manchester and Liberty Gap on to Tullahoma. Our division (the Second) had the advance, and after a very fatiguing march of about 12 miles through a drenching rain, we came upon the Rebels at Liberty Gap strongly posted along a high wooded bluff densely covered with undergrowth, forming excellent cover for them. Sharp skirmishing took place in front between some mounted infantry of General Willich’s brigade [the 39th Indiana].

Brigadier General John Franklin Miller ably led a brigade in the 14th Army Corps at Stones River and after the battle he was transferred to the Second Brigade, Second Division of the 20th Army Corps, taking the place of General Edward N. Kirk who was severely wounded during Stones River and later died of his wound. Miller likewise was wounded while leading the Second Brigade at Liberty Gap and while he didn't die from the wound, his spent months recuperating and later commanded the post of Nashville, leading a brigade during the engagement in December 1864. Brevetted a major general in March 1865, Miller later moved to California where he became a successful businessman. The last years of his life were spent as a senator in Washington, D.C. were he "became known as a leading exponent of anti-Chinese legislation." The Indiana native died March 8, 1886 at 54 years of age and is now interred at Arlington National Cemetery. 

The column was halted and rapid preparation made for action. The Rebels succeeding the killing and wounding quite a number of the mounted men who found it impossible to dislodge them from their inaccessible position. Our brigade (the Second under Colonel John F. Miller) was ordered to the front to take their position and clean them out. The boys moved up on the double quick and the 77th Pennsylvania and 29th Indiana were ordered to charge the bluff. Between the Rebel position and our boys was about a quarter mile of low ground covered in corn and wheat in which the men sank in over shoe mouth at every step.

Away they went as rapidly as the nature of the ground would admit. Colonel Thomas Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania was at their head who, though suffering severely from an injury to his foot from his horse falling on him, and who had been hobbling around on crutches for some days previous without a shoe on his stocking feet, charged straight up the slope. The Rebels kept up a rapid, but by no means destructive fire, over-shooting our boys who pressed on vigorously and soon gained the face of the bluff, up which they scrambled like so many cats, and in a few moments they were lost to our sight in the dense cover and were having a sharp hand-to-hand encounter with the enemy. They didn’t wait long to examine the points of our bayonets, but took it for granted that they were “all right.” A loud cheer from our boys announced that the Rebs were flying precipitately and the position was won.

Colonel Thomas Ellwood Rose, 77th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
"Though suffering severely from an injury to his foot and hobbling around on crutches, he charged straight up the slope."

It was now nearly dark and our men moved forward about half a mile and laid down to bivouac in the rain and mud as best they might- tired, hungry, and wet through the skin for it had rained for the preceding 24 hours. We saw nothing more of the chivalry that night, but all expected a sharp encounter with them in the morning in which they were not disappointed. The rain poured down all night and all next morning which, with the deep mud, rendered military movements almost impossible. Towards noon on the 25th, the rain ceased and the sun basked forth in all its splendor. It was intensely hot and stifling. About 2 p.m. sharp firing in front between General Willich’s brigade and the Rebels indicated that something was up. The firing increased rapidly and soon assumed the characteristics of a regular battle. The enemy’s batteries took position in full view and opened on our men fast and furiously.

The position of our regiment enabled us to see the First Brigade as they advanced in line towards the hill on which the Rebs were posted  and we stood in groups watching them with almost breathless interest as they toiled slowly forward under the heavy fire towards the Rebel position. Presently an aide, literally covered with mud, dashed up with the order for the 77th Pennsylvania and 79th Illinois to advance as rapidly as possible to the support of our now severely pressed line in front and at the word “Fall in boys,” they rushed for their stacked arms, like boys scrambling for partners at a cotillion. In less time that I  have been writing this paragraph, we were moving rapidly down the slope through a wheat field, deep in mud, towards the enemy.

Detail from the work of William Travis depicting the Tullahoma campaign.

About one fourth of a mile of most intolerable muddy road intervened, over which we pressed rapidly and in a few minutes the 77th and 79th were ready under a very vigorous fire of bullets, shot and shells. They now advanced at the double quick to a partial protection offered by a line of fence and taking their first position opened rapidly on the enemy. About this time Colonel Miller, commanding the brigade, was severely wounded in the forehead and it was feared at the time, mortally wounded. He was carried to the rear and the command devolved on Colonel Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania who was then fighting with his regiment and who was not apprised of Colonel Miller’s being wounded until sometimes afterwards.

Colonel Rose had been ordered to charge the enemy’s position on the hill. He pressed forward with his two regiments across an open corn field about 400 yards wide covered with ponds of standing water, nearly knee deep in soft, sticky mud towards the opposite side which was bounded by a line of low fences nearly at the foot of the slope upon which the Rebels were posted in three lines. It was a brave and gallant movement and might well have appalled the stoutest hearts, exposed as we were in full view of the enemy who in overwhelming numbers covered with their fire every inch of the field. Our brave fellows struggled and floundered through the deep mud directly towards the enemy. It seemed an age those few minutes when shot and shell fell around them like hail, knocking the muddy water into spray on all sides of them. Will they never get to that fence? At last, thank God, they have reached it, but not before every fifth man in that gallant command had fallen either killed or wounded. It was a most gallant charge made by gallant men; no wavering, no faltering, but straight onward they bared their breasts to that leaden storm like veterans.

Colonel Rose with waving sword above his head, limping painfully at every step but determined to do or die, led and cheered them on. Captain William A. Robinson of the 77th stormed at the head of his company as though he bore a charmed life. Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Pyfer, Major Alexander Phillips, Captain Joseph J. Lawson, and indeed every officer in the command bore themselves like heroes worthy of the gallant fellows they led. Lieutenant [William H.] Thomas [Co. G] fell pierced through the heart by a Minie ball and died without a word. Captain Franklin Kreps is down shot through the thigh severely. Captain Hezekiah D. Martin [Co. K] of the 79th Illinois was also terribly wounded in the hip, and sank exhausted into the mud. [Martin would die on July 3, 1863] Captain John Patton [Co. C][ of the 79th Illinois received a bullet through his neck and exclaiming “I am killed” falls dead in his tracks. They had now reached the fence  and were within terribly short range, opening a very rapid and galling fire on the Rebels who returned it most vigorously, making the splinters fly from the rails like a fury while occasionally a round shot or shell would hit a rail and knock it (as the boys say “kiting” in the air.

"I must not forget to mention Surgeon Franklin Irish whose services in his indefatigable attention to our wounded were invaluable." ~ Official report of Colonel Thomas Ellwood Rose, 77th Pennsylvania 

One instance of reckless heroism I must here record to the memory of a brave and gallant soldier, Private George W. Haumer of Co. E 77th Pennsylvania, who, carried away by the excitement of the scene around him and disdaining the shelter of the fence, stood erect, isolated and exposed, a target for Rebel bullets, with his hat off, his eyes glaring upon the foe, his hair on end like a fury while he continued to load and fire with astonishing rapidity. Captain Robinson who was near him ordered him to “get down under cover or you will be killed,” but apparently deaf to both entreaty and command, he stayed aloft and erect, continuing to hurl his leaden messengers at the foe until, at last, a fatal shot pierced his brain and he fell like a hero with his face to the foe.

Captain William A. Robinson, 77th Pennsylvania
"Stormed at the head of his company as though
he bore a charmed life."

The Rebels, who saw out men as they crossed the cornfield and could have counted every man of them, of course knew precisely our strength and finding they could not dislodge us from our line at the fence, resolved to advance and overpower us by superior numbers. Our men distinctly heard the Rebel command “forward” and the line of graybacks commenced moving down the slope towards our boys. It was a moment of intense excitement. That moving cloud of gray coats and butternut breeches, two brigades closing in on our two regiments of braves. Retreat back across that sink of a cornfield was simply impossible- it would have involved certain annihilation- but no one thought of retreating. They were fighting for their lives and waiting until they could plainly distinguish the features and see the very eyes of the Rebels, they delivered volley after volley right into their very faces. The Rebels falter and waver; their officers rally and cheer them on bravely, but the line of the old fence is alive with flame, a perfect sheet of fire and the Rebels are falling like autumn leaves “taking their measure of their unmade graves.” It is too much even for the chivalry of Arkansas and Texas; flesh and blood could not stand it long and as the smoke lifted by a puff of air uncovered the ground, the Rebs were seen running back up the slope pell-mell like frightened sheep.

Our men had now nearly exhausted their ammunition and Colonel Rose had sent for both reinforcements and ammunition but, as yet, neither had arrived, and things began to look critical for our boys. Eyes were turned anxiously towards where the expected relief should appear. Their delay seemed interminable, but the brave fellows of the 34th Illinois and the 38th Illinois from General Davis’ division were fast rushing to the scene and in a few minutes more, the gleam of their arms flashing in the sunlight as they moved up told us they were on hand and we were all right still.

You never heard such a cheering from the same number of throats in your life, I venture to say, that our boys now opened with. It rose high above the noise of battle and woke the very echoes of old Liberty Gap. The battle was ended, and when our boys reached the top of the hill, the Rebels were rapidly disappearing down the opposite slope. We gave them a few volleys to help them in their winding way. The firing grew fainter and fainter. The Rebels were in full retreat. Our men occupied the position and encamped on the field. Comparative silence reigned where a few minutes before the rattle of musketry and the deep booming of cannon was terribly deafening, and the Battle of Liberty Gap was fought and won. Our brigade lost 225 in killed and wounded and my regiment, the old 77th Pennsylvania, lost 41 men killed and wounded out of about 218 that went into the fight.  

77th Pennsylvania Monument at Chickamauga National Battlefield



Letter from Surgeon Franklin Irish, 77th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Daily Pittsburgh Gazette (Pennsylvania), July 22, 1863, pg. 3


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