Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion: An Iowan on Lookout Mountain

     At the conclusion of the Chickamauga campaign, it was decided to dispatch the 15th Army Corps under General William T. Sherman across country to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland then besieged at Chattanooga. The march took more than a month to complete, and the First Division under General Peter Osterhaus arrived last at the tail end of the column in mid November 1863.

          The 31st Iowa celebrated their first year in the service while making this march and Captain Robert B. Speer kept his hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa fully apprised as to the progress. Speer’s frequent letters to the Cedar Falls Gazette came about a bit accidentally; when Co. B left the state in the fall of 1862, George Perkins, the current editor of the newspaper, laid aside his pen and went into the ranks as a private and took on the task of correspondent. But within a few months, Perkins became very ill and eventually would be discharged and Captain Speer rather reluctantly took on the job. He proved to be a remarkable correspondent, and his letters covering the Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, and Vicksburg campaigns make great reading and some of these will be featured in future posts.

Lookout Mountain towered over the Federal army at Chattanooga and when the Battle of Lookout Mountain took place, it happened on the grandest stage in full view of the rest of the army. 

          Osterhaus’ division arrived at Chattanooga just as General U.S. Grant’s multi-pronged offensive to drive away Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee was about to commence. Osterhaus was temporarily assigned to General Joseph Hooker’s command and took part in the operations the following day that became known as the ”Battle Above the Clouds,” or the Battle of Lookout Mountain.

The 31st Iowa, assigned to the all-Iowa Second Brigade under Colonel James A. Williams, served alongside the 4th, 9th, 25th, 26th, and 30th regiments, the 31st being the junior regiment of the brigade. “They call us yearlings, but we just beat the old 4th out of sight,” bragged Sergeant Thomas Salisbury. “Co. B is General Osterhaus’ pet; if he wants anything done, he calls on [Lieutenant Colonel Jeremiah] Jenkins for Company B. Bully for us!” Captain Speer was there, too, and provided this account of the fighting atop Lookout Mountain to the December 11, 1863, edition of the Cedar Falls Gazette.

 

Captain Robert P. Speer, Co. B, 31st Iowa Volunteer Infantry

Ringgold, Georgia

November 28, 1863

          On the evening of the 23rd, our division arrived at a point near the base of Lookout Mountain and within two miles of Chattanooga. We received orders at 3 o’clock a.m. to prepare for battle and be ready to march at 6 a.m. By marching from Iuka to Tuscumbia, the Second, Third, and Fourth Divisions of the 15th Army Corps were enabled to cross the Tennessee River before us, and when we arrived near Chattanooga, they had been assigned a position on the left of General Thomas’ army and the First Division was reported to report to General Hooker on the right.

          About 10 o’clock a.m. General Hooker attacked the enemy at the base of Lookout Mountain with one division of the 12th Corps and drove them slowly but steadily. Our division followed them in line of battle. About 2 p.m., about 1,000 of the enemy were so closely pressed that they surrendered. At 4:30 p.m., the 4th and 31st Iowa regiments were ordered forward to relieve two regiments at the front. They were now driven to the only road by which they could retreat from the mountain, and they made a desperate stand. Our position was about 1,400 feet above the base of the mountain which was very steep and completely covered with rocks and trees. The enemy here admitted that they were of the opinion that the mountain could not be taken and it was necessary that it should be taken before General Grant could move with a fair prospect of success against Bragg’s main army. We all knew that Iowa would look upon the work we were about to perform with pride or shame and thank God that the 4th and 31st regiments have not disgraced her.

General Peter Osterhaus

          It was one continuous roar of musketry from 4 p.m. when we arrived at the front until midnight when the fight ceased. Our regiment fired 80 rounds of ammunition to the man during the fight. At 11 p.m. we ascertained that the enemy was massing his forces to flank us and wipe us out by assault. But General [William P.] Carlin learned how matters stood and ordered forward the 2nd Ohio and 42nd Indiana regiments who had scarcely gained a position when the Rebels made an assault upon them; but like a wall of iron they stood and repulsed them. But still they hoped to drive us and charged upon our lines a second and third time but were forced back over the rocks with considerable loss. During the fight, our regiment lost one killed and ten wounded but Co. B sustained no loss. That rainy night, high on a wild, rugged mountain with a constant roar of musketry and the whistling of thousands of bullets to keep us awake will not be forgotten soon.

          Next morning, we soon learned that the Rebels had gone into the valley and the stars and stripes were immediately planted upon the highest peak of the mountain and we were greeted by the loud cheers of many thousands. About 10 a.m., General Grant’s entire army was in line of battle and extended from the base of Lookout Mountain across Mission Ridge for many miles. The fight soon became terrific, but the Rebels lost battery after battery and position after position and when evening came, they had been driven from the entire ridge, were still retreating, and we had taken thousands of prisoners.

          Our division had but little to do early in the day, but towards evening it was ordered forward, and the Iowa brigade was pronounced by General Hooker as “too brave.” He said, “it was reckless.” During the fight, George J. Rath, one of the brave, was killed instantly. He was a good citizen, a good soldier, and highly respected by every man in his company. D.M. Orcutt was wounded in the shoulder and Spence Fellows in the hip. The wounds are both painful but not dangerous. Sergeant Thomas G. Salisbury was slightly wounded in the shoulder.

          On the day following, we pursued the Rebels and took many prisoners, but our division was not engaged. On the 27th, our division whipped the enemy at Ringgold and although our company sustained no loss, our division lost heavily. Today we are resting but the Rebels are being closely pursued. Our loss is heavy, but theirs is much heavier. We have taken thousands of prisoners and at least 50 pieces of artillery. I think we can now truly say “the backbone of the rebellion is broken.”


Sources:

Letter from Captain Robert P. Speer, Co. B, 31st Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Cedar Falls Gazette (Iowa), December 11, 1863, pg. 2

Letter from Sergeant Thomas Salisbury, Co. B, 31st Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Cedar Falls Gazette (Iowa), December 25, 1863, pg. 3

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