With the Orphan Brigade at Chickamauga
Twenty years after the Battle of Chickamauga, Captain John H. Weller of the 4th Kentucky Infantry could still see the determination in the eyes of General John Breckinridge as his beloved Orphan Brigade penetrated behind the Federal lines on the morning of Sunday September 20th. The Kentuckians were in a heap of trouble but didn’t know it; they had overrun their support and now Federal reinforcements were bearing down on the single depleted regiment.
“He sat erect on his horse, his whole body seeming to indicate attention to the business on hand,” Captain Weller wrote. “His quick mind soon comprehended the situation and he spoke his words of command in a natural tone of voice. We discovered we were alone in our advanced position with no knowledge of our gallant 2nd and 9th. Before we could charge the rear which we had unconsciously gained, the enemy had received heavy reinforcements and thrown a strong column perpendicularly to his line of battle.”
Writing under the penname of Fred. Joyce, Captain Weller’s detailed account of Chickamauga gets vague just about the time that the Weller was struck down by the explosion of a Federal artillery shell near his head. The wartime injury troubled the Kentuckian for the rest of his life and is thought to have led to his death at the age of 70 in 1912. Weller’s account first saw publication in the September 1884 edition of Southern Bivouac magazine.
About the 16th of September 1863 found us encamped on a ridge in the neighborhood of Lafayette, Georgia. We had passed a very disagreeable summer in Mississippi, living on the slenderest rations, and drinking wretched water. Besides, the hot climate and our bivouac in the sand told fearfully on us. It was a treat for us to rest awhile in the grand mountains of Georgia. Our commissary was not overstocked and we continued to arise from our meals hungry, go on guard hungry, go to bed hungry, and our minds would revert toward breakfast as soon as our eyes opened on the rocks and the pine. I remember how we raised the sorghum patch in the valley below and spent hours chewing the pith of the delicious cane. But the water was good and time fails me to tell of the way we appreciated it. How we congregated around the grand old springs and drank water and talked about Kentucky!
Well by a few movements we were brought on the morning of the 19th of September in the rear of “Hup” Graves’ artillery, or rather Cobb’s Battery of his command, for Major Graves was our division chief of artillery. Our brigade commander very innocently remarked in his report of the affair that “a shot from the battery into a house about 500 yards off where the enemy’s skirmishers were concealed excited an immediate response.” That is literally correct, but the subject will admit of a great adjective. We had to lay down flat and spread out like Cuban adders on the ground and then we were far from safe.
Shells cut the young trees and limbs from the larger one, and they fell promiscuously over and around us. These terrible missiles would also plough the ground and burst in our midst, making sad havoc: 14 of our brigade were killed here before we received orders to recross the river on the Chattanooga road. In the evening we were ordered to the right at the double-quick. We had several miles to go and the march was severe.
Major Charles W. Helm, our brigade acting commissary of subsistence, had determined to go into one fight at least and had selected this one. He was active on the staff of our brigadier general and was extremely active riding up and down the column on the rapid march. He was brim full of wit and humor and relished everything that had a tendency that way. Owing to his cheerful disposition, he was exceedingly popular with the soldiers and his appearance on this occasion served to lighten the burden of the painful journey. He appears to me as the most prominent figure in that rapid march from the left to the right, for I saw him oftener that the other mounted officers. His visited our company often to exchange witticisms with Devil Dick and Wild Bill.
|Major General John Cabell Breckinridge|
After crossing the Chickamauga at Alexander’s Brigade, we proceeded to seek our resting ground, finding it in an old field about 10 o’clock at night where, enveloped in the settling smoke of the first day’s fight, we laid down to doubtful dreams. We were up betimes the morning of the 20th and marched forward to the woods in front to await orders and our breakfast which was in charge of a cooking detail. When broad daylight had arrived, we were moved forward again in the direction of the Chattanooga road and were halted on the spot where the day previous General Cleburne had so valiantly fought the enemy and driven him a short distance. Suffering as we were from hunger and insufficient rest the horrors of the scene provoked all the emotions incident to war.
But we were not allowed to contemplate this scene for any length of time. General Breckinridge once more pushed ahead and formed a junction with Pat Cleburne who was on our left. We passed General Ben Hill and his adjutant eating their rations under an immense tree. He commanded a brigade of Tennesseans and his adjutant was Captain Will F. Miller of Louisville. A great many of us knew both of these officers and on this occasion, we earnestly plied them with questions to which they responded with good cheer.
We were halted near the edge of an opening in the woods and were detained there waiting for our rations for quite a while. The sun was now fairly up and it seemed as if we were to have an exceptionally beautiful day, even for Georgia, which is celebrated for glorious autumn weather. Skirmishers were placed in front, our breakfast arrived, and many of our brave lads took their last meal on earth. General Breckinridge, whose presence was an inspiration, rode frequently along the line. General Benjamin Hardin Helm was moving about quietly and infusing courage into the eager command. It was a picture of “Just before the Battle” that cannot be put on canvas. Helm’s brigade was about to commence the greatest engagement of the war.
|Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin Helm|
Killed in action September 20th 1863
President Lincoln's brother-in-law
About half past 9 o’clock, the 4th Kentucky was deployed in front of the brigade and commanded by the fearless Nuckols, set about feeling for the enemy. It was short work, for he gave the command forward and soon our Enfields rang out lustily through the forest. The 4th lost severely in the charge, but the enemy was developed and found behind breastworks covering part of the brigade front. The command now moved forward and as soon as we felt the fire of the enemy we charged and the second day’s battle began in earnest.
The 2nd and 9th Kentucky regiments and a small portion of the 41st Alabama struck their fortifications and suffered terrible slaughter. General Helm was mortally wounded. Major Rice E. Graves, the great artillery chief, was also mortally wounded, besides very many of our brave officers and men were shot down during repeated attempts to storm the works. The 4th and 6th Kentucky and 41st Alabama missed this dangerous place and struck two lines of infantry. Such was the impetuosity of the charge that these lines were almost literally run over. They were sent to the rear as fast as captured.
A battery continued to hold out in our front but soon the command was given to take it. We found that it was in the Chattanooga road and as soon as captured it was turned on the routed enemy as they fled across an open field. At this juncture, General Breckinridge rejoined us and I never shall forget his stately presence. He sat erect on his horse, his whole body seeming to indicate attention to the business on hand. His quick mind soon comprehended the situation and he spoke his words of command in a natural tone of voice. We discovered we were alone in our advanced position with no knowledge of our gallant 2nd and 9th. Before we could charge the rear which we had unconsciously gained, the enemy had received heavy reinforcements and thrown a strong column perpendicularly to his line of battle. We were immediately ordered to rejoin the two regiments spoken of which was accomplished.
The battle now seemed to hang on this point which was so early developed by the 4th and so stubbornly attacked by the 2nd and the 9th. Late in the afternoon, General D.H. Hill’s corps made a sweeping charge and the Kentuckians once more drove everything across the Chattanooga road and the Federal army was in retreat to Chattanooga.
“Orphan Brigade at Chickamauga,” Southern Bivouac, Captain John H. Weller, Co. D, 4th Kentucky Infantry, C.S.A., September 1884, pgs. 29-32
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