The Final Minutes on Horseshoe Ridge

     Throughout the afternoon of September 20, 1863, the 517 men of the 21st Ohio held off repeated assaults against their position atop Horseshoe Ridge. As night fell, General George H. Thomas ordered the Federals to retreat off the ridge and march towards Rossville. Those orders never reached three regiments: the 89th Ohio, 22nd Michigan, and the 21st Ohio. Thus the final minutes of the Federal stand on Horseshoe Ridge were ones of confusion and disappointment as the remaining Federals found themselves surrounded. We will look at this event from the viewpoint of two participants, one wearing the blue and the other the gray: Sergeant John H. Bolton of Co. F of the 21st Ohio and James Miller Weiser of Co. F of the 54th Virginia.

Sergeant John H. Bolton of Co. F of the 21st Ohio had served as ordnance sergeant for the regiment, riding his horse back and forth from Snodgrass Hill to the ammunition wagons behind the line in a desperate attempt to keep the boys supplied with bullets for their Colt Revolving Rifles. On his last trip, he could only find .58 caliber ammunition and the men soon learned that such bullets would burst the barrels of their .56 caliber Colts.

 

First Lieutenant Robert Sample Dilworth,Co. I, 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Lieutenant Dilworth was one of only five officers to escape capture at Horseshoe Ridge on September 20, 1863. He would be killed by a cannon ball June 27, 1864 at Kennesaw Mountain.  

The day now being well-advanced and the survivors of the regiment tired, hungry, thirsty, and weary after repulsing charge after charge of a vastly superior force, anxiously we awaited the final result. General James Steedman had withdrawn his command from the gap in our right. Other troops had been withdrawn but we were still on top of Horseshoe Ridge and the enemy closed in our front.

Here we received an order to charge them and drive them back without any ammunition and nothing but the cold bayonet to drive them back. The mere handful of men left in line promptly obeyed orders and charged the enemy down then back a short distance then retired. We were to be supported in this movement, but no support was given us, and it was nothing more or less than the cold iron of the tired soldiers and their determined bravery that enabled us to do what we did and not lose every man in the regiment.

The sun was now setting and the smoke of battle settling down like a dense cloud, we could see but indistinctly only a short distance and the troops were moving in the valley in our rear. It was a matter of uncertainty for us what troops they were when a sergeant from Co. D went down to see and failed to return. Next Captain Henry H. Alban went down, and he also failed to return and report. When the column marched up towards us and ordered us to surrender and now we were apprised for the first time of the fact that it was the enemy who had come through the gap vacated by General Steedman. They were in our rear and had taken the sergeant and Captain Alban prisoner and now demanded our surrender.

Major Arnold McMahan then in command of the regiment promptly refused to surrender and ordered the men to charge the enemy in our rear and such as got out alive without being either wounded or taken prisoner charged through the Rebel lines. Major McMahan was jerked from his horse and taken prisoner as well as a large number of our officers and men. I was on horseback and when charging through the Rebel lines, I threw myself flat on my horse and with spurs into the flanks of the old war horse Jim, rushed through this line of battle without getting hurt. My horse got slightly wounded in the neck and I had one hole shot through the top of my hat while another ball passed through my coat. This was the last of the fighting on Sunday evening September 20, 1863.

See also "Captured at Chickamauga with the 21st Ohio" giving an account from Private Jacob "Doc" Jones of Co. I. 

 

This Colt's Revolving Rifle owned by the Civil War Museum of Ohio in Tiffin once belonged to a soldier in Co. H of the 21st Ohio and was used at Chickamauga. The cylinder is missing; as the regiment was being captured, many of the men removed the cylinders from the guns and tossed them into the woods, rendering the guns useless. It was the final act of defiance in what had proven to be the regiment's hardest day of the war. 

 

James Miller Weiser from Co. F of the 54th Virginia provided this memoir to the December 1926 issue of Confederate Veteran. As the 21st Ohio surrendered, the regiment’s state colors were captured by Private Francis Carter from Co. K of the 54th Virginia while the national colors were captured by Sergeant L.E. Timmons from Co. I of the 7th Florida, both regiments of Colonel Robert C. Trigg’s Third Brigade, General William Peston’s division of Buckner’s Corps. The Ohioans that Weiser recalls capturing could have been Buckeyes from either the 21st Ohio or 89th Ohio, both of whom were captured in large numbers along Horseshoe Ridge.

 

A Virginia state seal uniform button dating from the Civil War. The 54th Virginia had entered service in September 1861 under Colonel Robert C. Trigg and initially served in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia, seeing action at Princeton in May 1862. The regiment lost 47 men at Chickamauga and later lost a third of its men at Resaca.

          We of Colonel Robert C. Trigg’s brigade [1st Florida Cavalry, 6th and 7th Florida Infantry, 54th Virginia] belonged to Bragg’s third battle line, his reserve. We were called upon late in the afternoon of the 20th to attack the Federal line which had stood firmly up to that time against the assaults of Longstreet. As we passed over his line, one of his men remarked, “Boys, you’re going to catch hell now.” He spoke truly, as the loss in our own regiment of over 100 men proved. But we gave more than we caught and swept on in a magnificent charge carrying everything before us till we were halted suddenly just as we were about to take possession of a battery which had no defenders left, all either shot down or put to flight. Without orders, we began fixing bayonets.

Colonel Trigg came riding along the front. “Let us go get that battery,” we were shouting. It was already ours, but we wished to demonstrate our ownership by laying our paws on it. But we were astonished by the order “about face!” Then we saw in our rear a line of blue closing up the gap in the Federal line which we had made in our impetuous charge. Colonel Trigg, bravest of the brave, rode a hundred yards in front of his advancing line where he could easily have been riddled with bullets and in a stentorian voice but clear as a silver bell which made itself heard above the then subsiding din of battle shouted, “Stack your guns and lie down or I’ll cut you to pieces!”

The boys in blue who had not yet closed the line behind us lay down but did not stack their loaded and bayonetted rifles, but awaited our advance with orders, as they afterwards told us, to wait for the command to fire and then use the bayonet. But Colonel Trigg wheeled his left wing so as to enfilade the end of the incomplete Federal line and we steadily advanced, guns loaded, bayonets fixed, fingers on the trigger and thumb ready to cock the guns in a fraction of a second. When perhaps 15 or 20 feet from the enemy, a nervous Confederate inconsiderately or accidentally discharged his musket. Instantly came the deadliest most menacing sound I have ever heard, the click of cocking locks on both lines while the boys in blue jumped up and with guns at shoulder and fingers pressing triggers awaited the command to fire. This was not given, their officers realizing the futility of the slaughter which would have followed. Slowly advancing and repeating “Surrender boys, we’ve got you,” our opponents finally began lowering their guns which we took and threw behind us. Then at once we became friends and began a frenzied trading of tobacco for coffee and forming friendships which lasted for long years after the war and resulted in a number of visits between former foes in Ohio and Virginia.

         

Colonel Robert Craig Trigg (1830-1872) of Christianburg, Virginia ably led his brigade at Chickamauga and reported that four battle flags were captured, two of which belonged to the 21st Ohio.


Sources:

Diary of Sergeant John H. Bolton, Co. F, 21st Ohio Infantry, Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University

“Trigg’s Brigade at Chickamauga,” by James Miller Weiser (Wysor), Co. F, 54th Virginia Infantry, Confederate Veteran, December 1926, pgs. 452-453

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