The Crescent on the Move: The 154th New York and Its Introduction to the Western Theater

    In the wake of the Federal defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga, the War Department decided to send two army corps from the Army of the Potomac west to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland. Veterans of Rosecrans' army would later ask why this step wasn't taken a month earlier and its interesting to speculate how different Chickamauga might have turned out with the 11th and 12th Army Corps on the field. But as it was, the two corps set out from Virginia in the waning days of September and arrived in theater during the first weeks of October.

    Major Lewis Warner of the 154th New York was among those troops who traveled west. Two letters are featured below courtesy of the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center. His first letter provides a detailed description of the rail journey from Virginia to Bridgeport, Alabama while the second details the march of his regiment into Lookout Valley with a brief description of its first engagement in the west during the Battle of Wauhatchie. 


The journey of the 11th and 12th Army Corps in the fall of 1863 marked one of the most significant logistical achievements of the war by the Union army. In the span of two weeks, 15,000 men, 5,000 horses, and over 700 wagons were moved from Virginia to Tennessee and Alabama. This ability to rapidly shift reinforcements from one theater to another would turn the tide of war in Tennessee. 

Headquarters, 154th N.Y. Regiment

Bridgeport, Alabama, October 25, 1863

Editor Times,

Six days thumping, jolting, pounding upon the cars, rough boards, planed boards, cushioned seats, and no seats at all. Sleeping with body and limbs in every conceivable position and at every degree of elevation between the horizon and the zenith. Bless me ain't it pleasant this riding on a rail. On ordinary occasions I think it is, but a jaunt of twelve hundred miles, with such accommodations as are provided for the transportation of troops, is quite another thing. Well, all things have an end, and so has our journey for the present, and we now find ourselves at Bridgeport, on the Tennessee River, about thirty miles below Chattanooga, in northern Alabama.

As was shadowed forth in my last, we embarked on Saturday, September 26th, on the railroad and started for this region, by way of the Washington and Baltimore road to the junction of the B. & O. road, thence to Wheeling, where we crossed the Ohio, thence to Zanesville, Columbus, Xenia and Dayton, Ohio, Richmond, Indianapolis and Jeffersonville, Indiana, at which last place we recrossed the Ohio to Louisville, thence by L. & N. railroad to Nashville, Tennessee, thence by Nashville & Chattanooga road to this place, which is at present the terminus of railroad travel in this direction, as the bridge over the river here has been nearly destroyed, and it will take some time to rebuild it.

No accident happened to the 154th during this long ride, and every man with which we left Alexandria is here with us. I think that few regiments who have come through here can boast of the same thing. All regiments of which I know anything, left more or less men on the road to be picked up and sent along with following troops. I do not know as our boys were any less ready than others to jump off whenever the cars stopped, but they always managed to be on board again when we started. The Government had taken possession of the roads on our line of travel, and arrangements were made at proper distances for supplying the boys with bread and coffee as they came along. At several places butter, cheese and meat were added to this bill of fare. At Centerville, Indiana, the ladies met us with a repast of coffee, cakes, pies, cold meats, bread, biscuits, butter, cheese, fruits, and everything that could tempt a hungry man, and to which our buys did full justice, not forgetting to thank the fair donors of so acceptable a gift. As the cars moved off, three cheers for the ladies of Centerville were given with a will. [Centerville was the hometown of then Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton] 

In our transit at Louisville we had about three miles marching through heat and dust, which very forcibly reminded us of some of our last summer's experience. During our short daylight ride through Kentucky we were repeatedly cheered as we passed along, but after we left Nashville, I saw no demonstration of welcome or good feeling along the road. From what I have seen I am inclined to the belief that the picture of strong Union sentiment in this region has been considerably overdrawn. At Murfreesboro I understand there were three Union votes cast at the last election. The country bears the same marks of the desolating effects of the war which are so painfully visible in every part of eastern Virginia. Dearly have these states paid for their foolish policy of joining themselves and casting their lots with their country's enemies. It will take years of patient toil and self-denying economy to restore these States to the position they occupied little more than two short years since. 

We are now in camp near the banks of the Tennessee river, at Bridgeport, where we shall probably remain until we can get organized and ready for the  field. The Eleventh Corps is here and the Twelfth Corps is now arriving as fast as the road can bring them in. Then must come the transportation, baggage, and all that goes to fit and furnish an army for active service. I do not think this can all be procured and got in running order in less than ten or twelve days. When all is in readiness I presume there will be work done, as we are not sent here for nothing. I understand (though I cannot vouch for the truth of the statement,) that these two Corps are under or to be under the command of General Hooker. If so, we shall undoubtedly fight, unless one or the other side runs. The country around here is very rough and mountainous and well adapted to guerrilla warfare, which the Rebels are reported to be pretty extensively engaged in hereabouts.

To counteract these desperadoes requires continual watchfulness and activity. Our distance from the base of operations is so great that it would cause great inconvenience to have the single track destroyed between here and Nashville, which is distant from here 126 miles by rail. The river is decidedly too low to be depended on as a source of supplies. Our Chancellorsville prisoners arrived here this morning, they having been exchanged just before we left Alexandria. The Gettysburg men are also exchanged and will probably be here in a few days. If Colonel Jones and the other officers come with them, I shall feel that we are all right. The direction to be placed upon letters or packages is the same as before, except that Army of the Cumberland instead of army of the Potomac, and Nashville is to be substituted for Washington.

Respectfully yours,

L. D. WARNER.

 

This map from the O.R. depicts the Federal positions during the Battle of Wauhatchie. The 154th New York was aroused from a sound slumber when Longstreet's veterans pitched into General John Geary's camps around Wauhatchie late on the night of the 28th. In a rare night battle, Geary was able to hold his position and fend off the Rebel assault but the battle came at a high personal cost to the Pennsylvanian as his son was killed in the fighting. The 154th New York marched out of camp and ran into a nest of Confederates between the 11th Corps camps and Geary's position. These Confederates were later dislodged by Colonel Orland Smith's and General Hector Tyndale's brigades of the 11th Corps. 

LOOKOUT VALLEY, NOV. 5th, 1863.

FRIEND FAY:—

As you have doubtless, ere this, heard the Crescent has been once more upon the move, and now rests beneath the shadow of Lookout Mountain, whose hoary head, bristling with Rebel cannon, seems to look down in astonishment upon us puny creatures who have thus impudently dared to take up our abode under his very feet. But to my journal. 

Oct. 27th.—We broke camp at Bridgeport, and crossing the river, advanced along the railroad in this direction, the First Brigade taking the lead. The day was fine, and the roads not having been used during the late rains, were in good condition. Our first halt was at Shell Mound Station, about eight miles from Bridgeport. Near here is the entrance to one of the largest of the saltpeter caves to be found in the country, it having been explored some nine or ten miles from its mouth. A stream of pure water, sufficient to furnish the motive powers to quite an extensive grist mill, and which is said to be navigable for light skiffs some four miles, issues from the mouth of the cave. The earth in the bottom of the cave is strongly impregnated with saltpetre, which is obtained by leaching the earth and boiling the ley. The numerous leaches and remains of arches for boiling, show that the manufacture of this important ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder, has been extensively carried on of late. For the present, however, the manufacture is seriously interrupted.

After giving the boys a chance to take a peep into a real live cave and pick up a few shells to send home as relics, we continued our course. The country, which from Bridgeport here was com­paratively level and productive, now became more rough and sterile, and the roads much worse. About two miles from Shell Mound, the road enters a narrow pass between the river and mountain, where, for more than two  miles the cliffs towered to a height that  caused a dizziness on looking up, and in  many places overhung the road. At a height of about 50 feet above the road,  the railroad winds along the side of the hill, the space for the track being most of the way obtained by blasting and throwing out the solid rock. The scenery was impressive, and the most boisterous were awed into silence. Think's I, what a spot this to cut off and destroy a train of wagons. Let them once get into this defile, then close up the two ends, and there is no escape for man or beast, unless by swimming the river, a feat which nothing less than the fear of a Rebel bullet would cause me to attempt.

At the termination of this defile, the road leaves the river, and ascending the valley of what is called Falling Water creek to its head, passes through a gap in the mountain and descends the Lookout Creek valley, which opens upon the river about three miles below Chattanooga. I think no railroad was ever engineered through a rougher region than this. The road winds around the sides of the mountains in many places, hundreds of feet above the narrow valley, or rather gorge, into which the train would plunge were it thrown from the track. About 14 miles from Chattanooga the railroad crosses the creek, the bridge over which has been burned by the Rebels, who, not satisfied with reducing to ashes all that was consumable, attempted to blow up the fine stone piers on which the bridge rested, some of which cannot be less than 150 feet in height. I think Uncle Sam will hardly incur the expense of rebuilding this costly structure, at least not while supplies can be taken up by the river.

About two miles from this bridge and 12 from Chattanooga, we came to a small valley, wide enough for an encampment, and here we halted for the night, having marched about 20 miles. After eating our supper, posting picket for the night, &c., we lay down to rest, and the last thing I remember was the squealing of an unfortunate litter of eight weeks pigs, who chanced to stray too near our camp for their own safety. The next morning, the 28th, we were aroused at 4 o'clock, and at 6 were once more on the move, our brigade leading as yesterday. We now began to see the evidence of recent Rebel occupation, and consequently moved with caution. No resistance, however, was met with until about five miles from the month of Lookout Creek, when our advance begun to encounter the advance pickets of the Rebels. They, however, fled after firing a few shots, and we continued to advance along the valley, with Lookout Mountain on our right, from the summit of which, on the extreme point next the river, rebel cannon were sending shells in the direction of the river, and Rebel flags were signaling our approach.

The 154th New York was assigned to Colonel Adolphus Buschbeck's First Brigade of General Adolph von Steinwehr's Second Division of the 11th Army Corps during the Tennessee operations. The arrival of the corps in Bridgeport was something of a homecoming for von Steinwehr. After he resigned his commission in the Army of Brunswick in 1847, he emigrated to the U.S. and first settled in Alabama where he worked for the U.S. Coast Survey. He married a Mobile belle and later moved to New York, entering the Civil War as colonel of the German 29th New York Volunteers. 


When about three miles from the river, our advance encountered the rebels in some force, and a halt being made, the 73rd Pennsylvania and 154th N. Y. were deployed as skirmishers to clear the road for the main body of troops. This was the first time the 154th had been employed in this way, and the first chance to go in with a rush. And they did go in. The Rebels were in force on the crest of a hill in front, which was covered with a dense growth of oak and hickory, which made it impossible to know their strength, or whether they were entrenched. But our boys did not stop to count noses. With such cheers as would have done credit to the lungs of three times their numbers, they charged boldly into the wood and up the hill, many who, a short time previous, were ready to fall out with fatigue, forgetting everything else in their eagerness to be first at the top.

The enemy, undoubtedly supposing from the noise that a large force was advancing to the charge, fled after firing a few shots, and our boys soon rested on the crest of the hill without any greater casualty than the loss of the little finger of one man, Hiram Strait of Co. C. No further resistance was offered by the Rebel infantry, and we proceeded on our way down the valley. We now were to pass the batteries on the point of Lookout Mountain, which gave us their undivided attention, as we passed within easy shelling range.

Owing, however, to the great height of the mountain or the imperfection of Rebel gunnery and projectiles, or both, no harm was done. They wasted their ammunition, frightened a few timid ones, and hurt nobody. It was, however, a grand review and salute, only for want of blank cartridges they fired loaded shell and solid shot, a great waste of material. After passing the batteries about one mile, we came in sight of the Stars and Stripes waving from the summits of a range of small hills along the river, and such cheers as our boys sent up were anything but lazy. Thus was our journey ended. We had formed a junction with the army of General Grant, and opened communication on this side of the river between Bridgeport and Chattanooga. The sun was just setting behind the western hills when we encamped at the base of one of the hills, well satisfied with ourselves and our day's work. After eating our supper we retired early to rest, expecting to enjoy a good night's sleep. Alas, how uncertain are human calculations, especially in the army. The night was scarcely half passed when we were aroused by the booming of cannon and the rattle of musketry, and were soon in line and ready for a moonlight fight, the cause of which I will explain as well as possible.

As I have before remarked, Lookout Mountain is on our right as we come down the valley. Between the base of the mountain and the road is a range of hills, some 400-500 feet in height. Behind these hills and along the base of the mountain, the enemy, comprising Hood's Division, Longstreet's Corps, were lying in force. The two divisions of the 11th corps had passed down the valley, and Geary's Division of the 12th Corps, was several miles in rear, advancing on the same road. He had encamped for the night some four or five miles from the river. All this was observed by the Rebels from their crow’s nest among the clouds, and they at once conceived the plan of attacking Geary with a strong force, and at the same time occupy the hills spoken of with such a force as should prevent our moving to his rescue.

Accordingly, about midnight they made a fierce attack upon the camp of General Geary, and when our corps was moved to his support, they found the road covered by Rebel infantry, who were strongly entrenched upon the aforesaid chain of hills, along the foot of which our men must pass. There was but one thing to be done, they must be dislodged, and as we had marched in the advance, our facing about brought the Second Brigade in front, and they were ordered to clear the hill, which they did in fine style, driving the Rebels from their rifle pits and down the other side of the hill, but not without considerable loss to themselves. In the meantime General Geary gave them a severe whipping, and about 2 a. m., the firing ceased, the enemy being repulsed at all points with a loss of some 700-800. The First Brigade was not engaged, but remained in position until daylight, when we moved to a position between the hills, and directly in front of and under the guns of Lookout, where we remained two days, when we were relieved and moved into our present camp.

We are now engaged in picket duty, making roads, &c., and the indi­cations are that we shall remain for several days, but we may move any hour. Our achievements of the 28th and 29th of October are highly complimented at headquarters, and I think that whatever odium rested upon the crescent, has been removed, and it now shines with a luster not surpassed by any star in the constellation military. The opening of communication with our base at Bridgeport, is an important event to the army of the Cumberland, as has been fully acknowledged in orders from headquarters. But I have  made this letter too long already.

 Respectfully yours, 

L. D. Warner

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