With Cheatham's Division at Chickamauga

    William Watts Carnes was attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland when the Civil War began. Leaving the academy and returning home to Memphis, Tennessee, he helped raise a battery of artillery and went off to war. Carnes enjoyed an active service with the Army of Tennessee (see here) and was in command of the battery at the Battle of Chickamauga. His battery was on the left of Cheatham's division on the afternoon of September 19, 1863 when it was well-nigh obliterated by a Union attack; Carnes' battery lost 38 of its 78 men and most of the horses were shot down, but Carnes' heroism in fighting his battery met with the approval of another experienced artilleryman, army commander Braxton Bragg. 

    Leaving the shattered remnant of his battery in command of a lieutenant, Carnes went to work for General Preston Smith on his staff and Carnes experienced the second day of Chickamauga from the vantage point of a staff officer, giving him a birds' eye view to some of the clashes of personality amongst the high command that gripped the Army of Tennessee on September 20, 1863. In particular he remembered an exchange between Leonidas Polk and Daniel Harvey Hill. "Generals Polk and D.H. Hill held a consultation. This consultation lasted some time, and of the fact that it was not harmonious the writer happened to be a witness, in this way: Having been sent to General Cleburne for certain information desired by General Polk, I found the two Lieutenant-Generals still in consultation on my return, and, riding up to within a respectful distance, I dismounted and awaited General Polk's pleasure as to receiving my report. The General saw me waiting and very soon he rose from the log on which they sat, and, as he turned towards me, I heard him say to General Hill, with considerable warmth of manner, "Well, sir, I am sorry that you do not agree with me, but my decision is made, and that is the way it shall be done," or words to that effect. I never heard what was the point at issue between them, but soon Polk's staff-officers were all busy with orders for carrying out the plan he had in mind," he noted.

    Carnes' lengthy account of the two day battle appeared in the Southern Historical Society Papers in 1886, appearing in response to an earlier article on that battle that Carnes had issues with. After the war, Carnes moved to Georgia then Florida in his later years and lived to be 90 years old, passing away May 26, 1932.


A dapper-looking Captain William W. Carnes in an image dating from 1862. 

I was an actor throughout this bloody battle, being, then, a captain of artillery in Cheatham's division; and while I do not claim to possess any accurate knowledge of what occurred beyond my immediate view, it happened  that I was so situated as to see about as much of the operations on the field as any one man. Where I write of matters beyond my own knowledge, I shall be guided by the official reports. Your correspondent is mistaken in saying that most of Bragg's army had crossed the Chickamauga during the night of September 18th, and was moving into position shortly after daylight on the 19th. As far as the writer can learn, only the cavalry and two divisions of infantry had crossed. Other portions of the army crossed at different points after sunrise on the 19th, and still other considerable bodies of our troops were not brought over till late in the day, and did not appear on the field of battle at all.

Cheatham's division crossed at Hunt's ford long after sunrise on the 19th, and was not moved to the front till several hours later. My recollection is that a demonstration was made near Lee and Gordon's mill while troops were being crossed further to the right. The first fighting on our side in the battle of the 19th was by Forrest's cavalry, which was reinforced by Walker's division, and these two commands did all the fighting on our right until after midday. As Cheatham's division was moving rapidly to the right to support Walker, we passed by a large body of troops so much better dressed than any in our army, that there was a general inquiry as to what command they belonged to. We learned with surprise that this was a portion of Hood's division-Benning's brigade-and this was the first intimation we had of the arrival of reinforcements from Virginia.

When we arrived on the battle ground Walker had been driven back. Our division was thrown forward rather on Walker's left and attacked that portion of Thomas's corps which had overlapped Walker's left flank. Cheatham's men drove the enemy rapidly till it was found they held their ground behind a line of temporary breastworks of logs and rails. From this line our men would recoil, followed by fresh Federal troops, and so the tide of battle ebbed and flowed for quite a while. From time to time during the fight we could tell when fresh troops were thrown against us by the way they opened fire, but our men met and repulsed each successive assault.

Your correspondent mentions that up to this point the divisions of Brannan, Baird, Johnson, Palmer, Van Cleve and Reynolds, were all sent forward, and "each in turn, although fighting stubbornly, was driven back by the force of the attack from masses of fresh troops," whereas, as a matter of fact, up to that time the only Confederate forces opposed to them had been Forrest's cavalry, and Walker's and Cheatham's divisions of veteran troops. Holding the field against such odds, our losses were necessarily very heavy, and as a specimen of the mortality, I will state that the loss in my own battery, of four guns, was forty-nine horses killed, and forty-one men killed and wounded.

The superior number of Thomas's troops enabled them to overlap our front and attack us in flank, through a considerable interval between our left and Hood's right, and Cheatham's division was finally forced to fall back, leaving on the field the guns of my own battery, which had been advanced well up to the front with Cheatham's left brigade (Wright's), and could not be retired after the horses were killed.

Just at this time Stewart's division came to our aid. His right brigade covered the ground which had been occupied by Cheatham's left, and recapturing the lost battery, drove back the enemy vigorously. The fighting then extended along Stewart's whole front (after 2 p.m.) to Hood's troops on his left, and for a while the hottest of the fight was here. Thomas continued to press our right, under Cheatham and Walker, but our men held their ground on a slight eminence, repulsing the advance with artillery and musketry and finally upon the arrival of Cleburne's division, after sunset, a general advance was ordered. The whole Federal force was swept from the ground over which we had fought during the day, and driven in confusion till dark.

After Cheatham's troops were forced back, the writer, leaving the remnant of his company with the first lieutenant, rode towards the right of the division in search of General Cheatham, to report the loss of his guns. Meeting first General Preston Smith, that officer on learning my mission, said I was just the man he wanted. That the captain of his battery, Scott, was sick at Lafayette, and the first lieutenant having been seriously wounded, he had only one junior-lieutenant with the battery. "So," said he, in his usual bluff way, "if you want work to do, young man, stop right here, and I'll give you plenty of it."

Accepting the offer, I took command of Scott's battery, under General Smith, until that gallant general was shot after dark. Our command had halted in line in the forest after the last advance, and General Smith, with his staff, riding a short distance in front, discovered a small body of detached troops, whose answer to a challenge showed them to belong to the enemy. When called on to surrender they fired a straggling volley, which killed General Smith and an officer on his staff. Having safely passed through the dangers of the thickest fight he met his death, when least expected, after the battle had ceased.

Now, as to the numbers engaged in this fighting on the 19th of September, the Confederate had in action, all told, not quite 32,000 thousand men, of which the 5,000 of Cleburne's division came on the field near dark. The reports of the Federal generals show that they had in action nearly 46,000 men, of which number 30,000 were opposed to Walker, Cheatham and Forrest, and nearly 16,000 in front of Stewart and Hood. The Confederate loss in the day's engagement was estimated at 6,000-a very heavy loss, taking into consideration the fact that the battle was a series of engagements by divisions coming up in succession, and that none of the troops were under fire all day. But at the close of the day our troops were in good spirits, and confident of success on the morrow.

Early on the morning of the 20th, Cheatham's division was in line ready for orders to advance and waiting for the battle to begin on the right. Everyone was asking what caused the delay and all were impatient to move forward, well knowing from the sounds that had reached our ears during the night, that the Federal troops were felling trees and fortifying, and thus every minute's delay was enabling them to strengthen their position. I was still in command of Scott's battery attached to Smith's brigade (now under Vaughan) and I well remember that for nearly two hours I sat on my horse in front of the battery with drivers mounted ready to move forward at a moment's notice. It was a bright, sunshiny morning, calculated to suggest to one's mind far pleasanter things than war and bloodshed. While waiting, the writer remembers that with the scenes of the terrible conflict of the previous day still fresh in mind he had far more time than he wished to contemplate the probability of a repetition of the same that day, and the possibility of a less fortunate termination for himself.

Who was to blame for this delay is a question that has never been definitely settled. General Bragg laid the blame on General Polk, and General Polk, I believe, claimed that the fault was partly General Bragg's in failing to give proper orders, and partly due to the tardiness of General D. H. Hill, who, after making a late start from bivouac, waited to ration his men. Whoever was at fault, it was a grievous error, and one that cost many a man's life, but I know that the officers of Polk's corps were never willing to accept that view of the matter which laid the blame entirely upon General Polk. He was a grand old man. There were doubtless better generals than he, but none more conscientious or less liable to the charge of permitting his own ease or convenience to interfere with duty. My recollection is that it was near 10 o'clock before an advance was ordered, and it was then discovered that Stewart's division had been extended too far to the right and was in front of Cheatham's line. This necessitated further delay here, Cheatham being halted where he stood, was held in reserve.

While waiting here, Captain Scott, who had left his sick bed at Lafayette, came up with an order from General Polk directing me to turn over the command of his battery to Captain Scott and to report to General Polk for staff duty. From this time until the arrival of our army at Missionary Ridge I served on General Leonidas Polk's staff. I found staff duty by no means the sinecure so many of us had been disposed to consider it, and being kept actively moving here and there with orders, I was an eye-witness to much of the movement and fighting on the right wing of our army. Our right beyond Cheatham was formed in a single line throughout, I think. At least I can remember no point on a large extent of this wing, along which I repeatedly rode with orders, where a second line in reserve was seen. The distance covered by the right wing, from Longstreet's right to the point where Polk was to overlap and flank Thomas's left was probably too great to admit of doubling the lines, but I remember that it seemed to me, young soldier as I was, that in such formation we would hardly be able to drive an equal or superior force from a chosen position behind breastworks.

The Federal left wing had built strong field works of trees cut down during the night, and from their extreme left this line of works extended back at almost a right angle from the front, so as to protect their flank. Our troops advanced with spirit and did not make the attack in detachments. The works were first struck by the left of Breckenridge's division, and immediately afterward by the right of Cleburne's division. Breckenridge's right brigades swung around the angle of the works, where, with the efficient support of Forrest's cavalry on their right, they made a bold dash at the enemy's flank and rear, but large numbers of troops were thrown against them, checking their advance and finally driving them back. Behind their works the Federals seemed to have men enough to keep the front line of pieces always loaded, as a continuous stream of fire met our men at every charge. As our brigades were driven back they were rallied to the charge again, and thus the  fight soon assumed that shape not inaptly described by Captain Howell; illustrative of the falling of a balky team.

The strongest part of the field works were afterwards found to be at and near the angle on the Federal left, and here the fire of small arms and artillery was so constant and deadly that it seemed a hopeless task to carry it by assault with a single line. The gallant Kentuckians under Helm, and Lucius E. Polk's brigade on their left, made desperate assaults upon this strong position, and stubbornly held their ground for some time in the face of a fire of artillery and musketry, before which it seemed impossible for a man to live. But they were forced back with heavy loss, General Helm being among the killed.

After being repulsed from every attack, our troops were withdrawn beyond the fire of the enemy, and for a considerable period after noon there was almost a cessation of fighting on our right. During this time our troops were being rearranged and put in shape for another general assault, and, while staff officers were sent hither and thither with orders, Generals Polk and D.H. Hill held a consultation. This consultation lasted some time, and of the fact that it was not harmonious the writer happened to be a witness, in this way: Having been sent to General Cleburne for certain information desired by General Polk, I found the two Lieutenant-Generals still in consultation on my return, and, riding up to within a respectful distance, I dismounted and awaited General Polk's pleasure as to receiving my report. The General saw me waiting and very soon he rose from the log on which they sat, and, as he turned towards me, I heard him say to General Hill, with considerable warmth of manner, "Well, sir, I am sorry that you do not agree with me, but my decision is made, and that is the way it shall be done," or words to that effect. I never heard what was the point at issue between them, but soon Polk's staff-officers were all busy with orders for carrying out the plan he had in mind.

Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk

 I remember that, when forming to renew the assault, a delay was made while Cleburne's division was moved so as to fill up a considerable gap in our line, nearly opposite the angle of the works, which gap had been left open as our reformed commands had closed in to the right. The order to General Cleburne was sent by me, and, as was often General Cleburne's habit, he chose to ride first over the ground to be occupied, unaccompanied by any of his staff, only directing me to go with him to point out the left of the line on which it was desired to form. On our return, as he was riding along in his usual slow, imperturbable fashion across the angle between our lines, I noticed that he was getting uncomfortably near the enemy's position, and as I, feeling constrained to follow, rode in his rear, ventured to suggest that he was within shot-range of their guns. He neither noticed my remark nor changed his course, till suddenly he was startled by the "zip!" "zip!" of the Minie balls and the sharp rattle of infantry fire opened on us, when he turned to the left and dashed quickly out of range in the timber, but all too slowly for my impatient desire to lengthen the distance between the enemy and the party whom official courtesy forced to be the rear man in this retreat. Major Richmond, of Polk's staff, was missing early that afternoon, and we afterwards found that he had been shot while making a short cut across this very angle. While we had this cessation of fire on our right, we could hear the sound of brisk fighting on the left of Bragg's line, and these showed us that our troops under Longstreet were driving back Rosecrans's right. The troops of Thomas had ample opportunity to hear it, too, and doubtless understood it as we did.

The weakening of their right to reinforce their left, which had been so desperately assaulted, placed the Federal right wing in a condition to be more easily handled by General Longstreet's command, and right gallantly did the veterans from the Virginia army, assisted by their western brethren, drive back their right and break their center. This was doubtless the turning point in the battle. Besides routing their right, Longstreet's success no doubt had a demoralizing effect on Thomas's men, who, while they did not know the extent of the disaster on their right, could not fail to understand from the sounds which reached their ears during the period of waiting at their end of the line, that the Confederates had the best of the fight.

But your correspondent's account would appear to give all the credit to General Longstreet, and leave upon the mind of his readers the impression that having broken up the right of Rosecrans’s army, Longstreet changed front to the right and drove Thomas from his strong position on the left. This is not distinctly claimed for General Longstreet, but the inference is clearly conveyed to the mind of the reader, not only by what your correspondent states in his account of the battle, but from the language which he quotes as from the mouth of  General Longstreet himself.

General Lucius E. Polk

As an eye-witness to the disposition of the troops, and of the final charge which drove Thomas from his defenses, I wish to correct that impression and state what did occur on our right. In the new arrangement of the lines on this wing, a portion of Cleburne's command was to the right of the angle in the Federal works-Lucius E. Polk's brigade being placed, if I remember correctly, somewhat to the right of where Helm had made his assault. Preparatory to the assault a heavy artillery fire had been concentrated on the strongest point of Thomas's defenses. In replying to our artillery and in repelling minor attacks of our infantry the writer noticed that the Federal artillery used solid shot from their smooth bore guns, and recognizing the significance of this, as an artillery man, he called General Polk's attention to the fact that they had probably exhausted their most effective ammunition. As they also showed a disposition to spare their infantry fire except when forced, we concluded that their supply of ammunition of all kinds was getting short. The ordnance wagons being driven close up in rear of our lines our own cartridge-boxes were fully replenished, and everything being in readiness orders were given to press the enemy so as to engage his attention along the whole line, but to make no general assault till we could hear the result of an effort to be made to break through the defenses in front of Lucius Polk's brigade.

As I had been several times over the ground, I was sent with the orders directing the assault by Brigadier-General Polk, and was instructed to return with information as soon as assured of its success. Riding by the side of General Lucius Polk, I witnessed the splendid charge of the veterans of his brigade up the ridge held by Thomas. I never witnessed a more enthusiastic and intrepid charge, and it carried everything before it. What seemed to be a heavy skirmish line behind logs was quickly destroyed and forced back on a front line of log breastworks, and such was the impetuosity of the attack that our men rushed up to and over these works driving the troops there, in utter confusion, back on the main line. Here General L. E. Polk said to me: "Go back and tell the old general that we have passed two lines of breastworks, that we have got them on the jump, and I am sure of carrying the main line". At the top of my horse's speed I rode to where General Leonidas Polk waited in a small glade, near Breckenridge's left. As I was seen approaching, Breckenridge, Cheatham and other commanders present drew up on horseback around General Polk, who immediately on receiving my report said to those officers: "Push your commands forward, gentlemen, and assault them vigorously along the whole line."

Away went generals and staff at full speed, and when the order to advance reached our troops, who were expecting it, the stirring Confederate yell arose and swelled to a full chorus along the whole line as our men rushed to the charge. General Thomas had probably drawn a large portion of his force to support his extreme left, in order to prevent our driving him back there and cutting him off from Chattanooga-leaving a weaker force to hold the position behind the works, whose strength he had seen tested earlier in the day. Whether the determination of General Polk to attack the works in front of Cleburne was based upon this supposition I know not, but it proved a fortunate decision for us.

As our troops advanced they encountered the heavy force on Thomas's extreme left, and our right was roughly handled. But by this time Lucius Polk had broken through the line of works, and as the Federal line found itself attacked, right and left, in flank, as our troops passed through this opening, they broke from the line and fled precipitately. A considerable portion of Thomas's force on his left, where Liddell had been repulsed, may have retired in comparative order, but as his troops fell back from what was their original front they were attacked in flank by our men who had charged over the works, and with the victorious shouts of Longstreet's wing sounding in their ears from one side, answered by the prolonged yells of our wing on the other, the greater portion of the Federal army was soon broken into a disorganized and panic-stricken mass of fugitives. Such, at least, was their condition in front of the troops with which I passed over their field works. I have read accounts of this fight from the Federal side, and some from Confederate officers who were with our left wing, in which it was stated that Thomas withdrew his forces about dark. In our front they withdrew before the charge of our troops over the breastworks, and the quantity of small arms and accouterments scattered in all directions, limber-chests, caissons, and pieces of artillery abandoned where they had been jammed in between trees and saplings in rapid flight, bore conclusive testimony to the character of their withdrawal. Darkness and the near approach of the two wings of our army towards each other made it expedient to stop the pursuit of the fugitives.

There is no doubt of the fact that the fruits of our hard-earned victory were thrown away by the failure to follow it up promptly. Our troops were eager to advance, and could not understand the delay on the battle-ground all next day. Finally, when we did move, it was not directly on Chattanooga. Had the victory been followed up, as advised by General Longstreet and General Forrest, there is little doubt but that we would have taken Chattanooga at once, and, probably, have broken up Rosecrans's army. I was sent forward with communications to General Forrest on Missionary Ridge, and heard him express the opinion that he could drive the wreck of Rosecrans's army into or across the Tennessee River with the cavalry force of our army alone. No one chafed at our inactivity more than this hard-fighting cavalry general, and more than once he sent back messages to General Bragg, urging the importance of pushing the defeated enemy.

Becoming interested in the subject, under the influence of the "old soldier" habit of talking over past battles, I have written more than I intended at the start. I regret that I have had to make so frequent use of the pronoun "I," but I trust I have not done so in a way to indicate a want of proper modesty. I regret that a want of experience in the role of newspaper correspondent makes it almost a necessity for me to write in the first person. The details as to my personal services in different commands in this engagement, are given to show that I was so situated as to be able to see very much of the operations of our troops, and those points, of which I have written minutely, are indelibly fixed in my memory as an actor or eye-witness in the scenes.


"Chickamauga," by Major William W. Carnes, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 14 (1886), pgs. 398-407


  1. Carnes' account is very good, but there is another, more detailed account. Carnes dictated his memoirs to his daughters in 1928, which, unfortunately remain in family hands and have never been published. Chapters 19 and 20 cover Chickamauga, and offer up a more frank observation, especially of the conflict between Hill and Polk. The account was made available for Dr. Glenn Robertson's use at Combat Studies Institute, but as far as I know, never been made public for other use.

    1. Oustanding! Any chance that his memoir will see the light of day, perhaps something from Savas-Beatie?


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