Under Most Trying Circumstances: With the 35th Ohio at Chickamauga

     On the second day of the battle of Chickamauga, Samuel Perry Zehring of the 35th Ohio  took part in the rare event of two bodies of troops charging each other at the same time. It was on the morning of September 20th when his regiment and the 9th Ohio of Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer's brigade were called upon to stave off a Confederate attack that threatened to flank the left of the Union line. "General Breckinridge, with his division of Confederates, had already pressed the left and gained the rear of almost Baird’s entire line and coming upon a run struck our brigade upon the left flank as we were marching in close column to the front. Colonel Van Derveer, as only he could do, wheeled the brigade to the left, facing the enemy; this under the most trying circumstances. The enemy unexpectedly came on a full charge and within less than 100 yards of us, the dust so thick we could scarcely see the third man. Added to this were the straggling troops in full retreat, parts of batteries rushing by from the field, with every indication of a rout. The reader may imagine the circumstances under which this change of line took place," he later wrote.

    Zehring's account of the Battle of Chickamauga appeared in the October 13, 1887 edition of the National Tribune


Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer of the 35th Ohio served as Butler County sheriff before going off to war with the 35th Ohio. A Mexican War veteran, Van Derveer served as brigade commander in the Army of the Cumberland for most of his service. After the war, he became a judge and lived in Hamilton, Ohio. 

    The plan of General Bragg seemed to be to envelop our left and place his army between our forces and Chattanooga. General Rosecrans, anticipating this movement, ordered General Thomas to move the 14th Corps to the left and connect with the right of Crittenden, being at Lee and Gordon’s Mill. This movement began the evening of September 18th at about 5 o’clock and being somewhat retarded by the 21st Corps’ movements gave us an all night march. It was not until daylight September 19th that we reached our destination. At this time, it was supposed the Rebel army was on the eastern and opposite bank of the Chickamauga River. Colonel Dan McCook, who commanded a brigade in the Reserve Corps, had made a reconnaissance the day before from the vicinity of Ringgold, and reached and destroyed a bridge across the river. He reported to General Thomas that an isolated brigade was on the west side of the river and that the bridge being destroyed, a prompt movement would capture the brigade. General Thomas ordered General Brannan (the movements of whose division I shall follow more closely in the remainder of this sketch) to move forward, reconnoiter the enemy, and if possible, capture this brigade.

    Waiting a few moments to prepare a little coffee for breakfast, we moved forward. Many comrades will remember with what alacrity and cheerfulness the troops advanced, expecting to bring back as a trophy an entire Rebel brigade as prisoners. While we failed to capture this brigade, perhaps we did as well by developing the enemy, and for the first time finding a large portion of the Confederate army on this side of the river. Although both armies had been maneuvering in close proximity to each other for several days, each commander was ignorant of the special dispositions of the other and thus a merely tentative advance became the initiative of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. General Bragg had hoped to conceal his effort to throw his army between Rosecrans and Chattanooga. He was not aware that General Thomas had made this move to the left he night previous.

General John M. Brannan

    General Brannan posted the Second Brigade (Colonel John Croxton) on our right to connect with General Baird’s division, and with the First and Third brigades (commanded by Colonels Connell and Van Derveer) moved forward, making quite a detour to the left. Croxton, moving directly with the division of Baird, first encountered the enemy, capturing some prisoners. The enemy, being heavily reinforced, drove Baird’s Regular Brigade back in disorder and doubled it up on Van Derveer’s brigade, and it was only prevented from breaking through our ranks by the boys of the 35th Ohio putting the bayonets on their guns and compelling them to pass around our left. These men coming back pell-mell, yelling lustily that “the whole Rebel army is before us; we will all be killed,” and other such exaggerated expressions, was very trying to the courage of the regiment, but nobly did it stand to its post and face the enemy. For the first time we met the “isolated brigade” McCook had left this side of the river and which we had come to capture. The Rebels, flushed with apparent success, came on with a rush, but met with a stubborn obstacle in the shape of Van Derveer’s brigade and were gallantly repulsed, though not until after an hour or more had been spent in the exchanges of compliments at close range.

    About this time, the 9th Ohio (the German regiment of our brigade) undertook the recapture of a battery of artillery which had been taken from King’s Regular Brigade by the Rebels just before. The charge of this regiment was exceedingly gallant, brilliant, and successful. The capture of these guns was mainly due to the fact that the conflict occurred upon ground thickly covered with trees and undergrowth, and consequently unfavorable for the rapid movement of artillery, as also for its effective use. Except for a few fields here and there, the whole battlefield was thickly wooded, and divisions and brigades of each army were often hotly engaged while in complete isolation.

A collection of 35th O.V.I. reunion ribbons included an acorn badge denoting the 14th Army Corps. 

    A lull in the engagement enabled is to recruit our ammunition and reform our lines, facing yet more to the left to prevent further flank movements. Scarcely had our lines been reformed when the Rebels made another charge on our left, more obstinate than the first, determined to crush it if possible, and place themselves on the road between us and Chattanooga. Our brigade, under the leadership of a cool and skillful officer, firmly resisted the onslaught, yielding not an inch of ground, and the enemy was again forced to retire, but not before great gaps were made in their ranks by the shot and shells from our musketry and artillery. In this attempt to turn our left the lines at times were not more than 50 feet apart. Other divisions coming up they were placed on our right and came into action, the battle ranging from left to right at intervals during the day. This opening passage on the left was the type of fighting along the whole line.

    The Second Brigade during this first day maintained a severe conflict without intermission for six hours. The First and Thirds brigades cannot have had less severe work, owing to the number of points from which we were attacked by the vastly superior numbers opposed to us.  It was only by the most unflinching courage and determination that these points could be held before the overwhelming masses of troops hurled against us by the Rebels, whose every effort appeared to be directed toward breaking this line and gaining the road to Chattanooga which lay just to our rear. The repulse of the Rebels here had been so successful and to them so disastrous that no further effort was made on this part of the line that day.

Lt. Col. Henry V.N. Boynton, 35th O.V.I.

    The division of General Brannan was retired late in the afternoon and moved to the extreme right of the corps and rested for the night. With darkness the fighting ceased and our troops, worn out with the marching of the whole night previous and the heavy fighting during the day, slept on their arms, awaiting the heavier conflict of the morrow. Though weary, the boys were in good spirits and confident of victory. During the night, lines were reformed and morning found each division occupying relatively about the same position in the general line, except Brannan’s which was in reserve. During the night our troops threw up temporary breastworks of logs and rails and calmly awaiting the attack which all felt was sure to come. A fog hung over the field in the morning which prevented early action. It was about 9 o’clock Sunday morning September 20, 1863, before the ball opened in earnest. General Brannan placed two brigades in line on the right of the 14th Corps with Van Derveer’s in reserve.

    Bragg again commenced a concentration on his right, intending to follow up his tactics of the day before to overwhelm our left and place his forces between us and Chattanooga. General Bragg hotly pressed the troops of General Baird, so as to cover the movement of General Breckinridge, who was then securing a lodgment. In the rear of the left of our line of battle. Colonel Van Derveer’s brigade, then being in the reserve, was ordered to the left to support Baird. General Breckinridge, with his division of Confederates, had already pressed the left and gained the rear of almost Baird’s entire line and coming upon a run struck our brigade upon the left flank as we were marching in close column to the front. Colonel Van Derveer, as only he could do, wheeled the brigade to the left, facing the enemy; this under the most trying circumstances. The enemy unexpectedly came on a full charge and within less than 100 yards of us, the dust so thick we could scarcely see the third man. Added to this were the straggling troops in full retreat, parts of batteries rushing by from the field, with every indication of a rout. The reader may imagine the circumstances under which this change of line took place.

35th O.V.I. marker at Chickamauga noting their position on the morning of September 20, 1863


    The 2nd Minnesota and 87th Indiana in the front line fired one volley when the 9th Ohio and 35th Ohio were ordered to pass lines to the front and charge. Here occurred the unusual spectacle that rarely happens of two armies charging each other at the same instant. The order was given when the two bodies were about 50 yards apart and was promptly executed. The Rebels were hurled backed on the double quick about a half mile to their reserves. So effectual was this repulse that no further attempt was made to gain our rear in this direction. Having received orders to rejoin General Brannan,  Colonel Van Derveer extricated our brigade by passing lines to the rear, one regiment rising, giving a volley, and then falling back of the others. The Rebels were too severely punished to follow us far. The troops on the right of General Brannan having been hurled from the field and finding the Confederates gaining a position in his rear with no protection to his right flank, he withdrew his right about a half mile to a commanding hill which proved the key to our position. Here it was that Gordon’s and Steedman’s reserves proved of such valuable assistance to General Thomas.

The brigade had been moving through the woods in two lines when suddenly emerging into an open field, they found themselves exposed to a murderous fire from artillery and musketry under which they changed front and laid flat upon the ground. The enemy was then at 110 yards distance and charging on a run. When the distance decreased to 75 yards, the first line rose and gave their fire. Immediately the order was given, "35th and 9th Ohio, pass lines to the front! Brigade, charge!" ~ Whitelaw Reid

    Our brigade soon reported to General Brannan at a time when our services were most needed and we were placed on the front line and every preparation made to defend it. Nothing can exceed the desperate determination with which the Rebels endeavored to carry this point, repeatedly hurling entire divisions on the small force defending it, in their fierce eagerness to gain a position which would undoubtedly given them a complete victory. Every charge was repulsed in most gallant style, and when night closed found this hill still in our possession. With night closed the battle of Chickamauga. About dusk a Confederate general, just preceding his troops, appeared in front of the 35th Ohio. Upon asking whose troops those were, and discovering his mistake, he attempted to wheel and return but a volley from some of the 35th Ohio, who yet had ammunition in their guns, killed this unfortunate though brave officer and drove his forces back. This was the last firing done on the field of Chickamauga.

    Shortly after this, we received orders to retire on Rossville. Thus, Van Derveer’s brigade was not only about the first to open the battle, but the very last to fire a shot, and the last to leave the field when the battle closed. So successfully were we withdrawn that the Confederates were not aware of it until after sunrise the next day. Then, so fearfully were they punished, they followed us very carefully and reluctantly. The loss to the 35th Ohio during these two days was nearly one half its number. The loss to the Army of the Cumberland was upwards of 16,000 or about one third of its strength. This great loss attests, if nothing else, the fierceness of the contest.

35th Ohio regimental colors with the battle honors denoting Chickamauga and Mission Ridge featured.

 Source:

“Chickamauga: The Conspicuous Gallantry of Van Derveer’s Brigade,” by Private Samuel P. Zehring, Co. H, 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, National Tribune, October 13, 1887, pgs. 1-2

Comments

  1. My second great grand uncle, who served in the 35th, was wounded on September 20th. I believe, based on the fact that the wound was in his left leg, that it occurred in Kelly Field. Van Derveer's Brigade performed extremely well at Chickamauga. Another great post, Dan!

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