A Mississippian Under "Shot Pouch" Walker at Chickamauga

About a week after the battle of Chickamauga, Captain William H. Cunningham of the 24th Mississippi wrote a letter to his father back home to describe what he experienced in northern Georgia. “We have gained the most decided victory of the war though it was the most obstinate battlefield ever gained,” he wrote. The Mississippian had mistakenly believed that being assigned to General William H.T. “Shot Pouch” Walker’s Reserve Corps would prove a soft snap; quite the opposite proved to be true as the 24th Mississippi saw action on multiple occasions from September 18th at Alexander’s Bridge to the closing engagements along the Lafayette Road at the McDonald Farm on the afternoon of September 20th.

“You see we were under fire six times during the engagement, all of which were very heavy,” he wrote. “You will see that we fought by reliefs, but ours being the reserve, we had to open the fight, fight when our time came to relieve, assist the weak points, and close the fight. I sincerely hope I never belong to another reserve. It is now broken up and we are again in Hindman’s division.”

During the Chickamauga Campaign, the 24th Mississippi served in General Edward Walthall’s all-Mississippi brigade of General St. John R. Liddell’s division of Major General William H.T. Walker’s Reserve Corps. Captain Cunningham’s vivid letter describing the battle originally was published in the October 21, 1863, edition of the Macon Beacon published in Macon, Noxubee Co., Mississippi.

 

The 24th Mississippi had a proud history in the Army of Tennessee, seeing action from Shiloh to Perryville, Murfreesboro to Chickamauga, and beyond. Raised in eastern Mississippi, it originally had 11 companies with names such as the Dowd Rebels, Helen Johnstone Guards, and the Buena Vista Hornets. Captain Cunningham's Co. I, raised in Kemper County, called themselves the Kemper Rebels. The 24th Mississippi fought hard on every field and suffered heavily as a result: 116 casualties at Murfreesboro, another 132 casualties during the Chickamauga campaign, and 189 during the Chattanooga campaign. The regiment was later consolidated with the 27th Mississippi, a longtime brigade mate. 

 Wagon yard on Chickamauga River, near Chickamauga Station, Georgia

September 26, 1863

 Dear Pa,

          I have just reached the wagons after much hard marching with a desperate fight to close the campaign. I wrote you last from near this point; I have since undergone many hardships as I will give you in a brief sketch of our military maneuvering.

We left Chickamauga Station on the 7th and continued our march southward until we reached Lafayette, Georgia. There we halted for several days and were soon ordered out into line of battle to meet a column of Yankees evidently attempting to gain our rear, but they showed no disposition to fight notwithstanding the many offers Bragg made them. Finding they were not disposed to engage our troops, Bragg, after resting the army and preparing rations, took up a line of march in the direction of Chattanooga with positive orders to attack the enemy wherever and whenever he might be found.

With these instructions, we pushed forward until within eight miles of Chattanooga. There they were massed in a formidable position on the opposite side of the Chickamauga river. After the necessary disposition of our troops was made on Friday the 18th, our brigade (though it was styled as belonging to the reserve) was ordered forward to bring on the engagement. After some heavy skirmishing, the enemy’s advance fell back across the river under the fire of the artillery and the river not being fordable at any point nearer than three miles, all firing was suspended for the evening. [This engagement of Friday September 18th pitted General Edward Walthall’s Mississippi brigade against a portion of Colonel John Wilder’s Lightning Brigade at Alexander’s Bridge.]

That night, we crossed above, formed a line of battle, and waited till morning. The remainder of our division having crossed, in fact our whole corps consisting of two divisions each of which contained two brigades, all constituting the reserve of the Army of Tennessee and commanded by Major General William H.T. [‘Shotpouch”] Walker recently from Mississippi.

A cantankerous old Regular with a penchant for argument and dispute that exasperated even the likes of Braxton Bragg, Major General William Henry Talbot Walker was a 46-year-old Georgia native and veteran of the Seminole and Mexican Wars. Walker, noted for his bravery, had been wounded repeatedly which gave rise to his nickname of "Shot Pouch," which has to be one of the coolest nicknames I've seen for any Civil War general. He served in Virginia during the early days of the war before resigning and returning home to Georgia. He re-joined the army in February 1863 and was assigned to General Joseph E. Johnston's Mississippi army where he served as a divisional commander. In late August, Shot Pouch and his division were transferred from Louisiana to northern Georgia where they were designated the Reserve Corps of the Army of Tennessee. Walker would be killed in action the following summer during the opening moments of the Battle of Atlanta. 


After the exact position of the enemy was ascertained by Forrest’s cavalry on Saturday morning the 19th about 9 o’clock, our corps moved forward and made a simultaneous attack. The struggle for a while was desperate, but soon the tide of battle turned in our favor. We drove them about half a mile though with great obstinacy. Our brigade was highly elated and kept pushing forward when, to our disappointment and dismay, we were ordered to retire. The signal proved the brigades on our right and left had failed to drive them at all and in a minute more they would have flanked our brigade and captured the whole command. [Walthall’s brigade slammed into the left flank of Colonel Benjamin Scribner’s command near Winfrey Field and drove them from the field until counterattacked by portions of Connell’s and Croxton’s Federal brigades.]

We are greatly indebted to the coolness and discretion of our brigadier, General Walthall. I must say here, though not boasting, that our regiment was far in the advance of the brigade, in fact, so much so, that it was some time before we received the command to fall back. Walthall brought the command himself. I was near him when he addressed the colonel in the following language: “McKelvaine, halt your regiment, sir. You always march too damned fast and, damn you, you fight the same way!” Colonel Robert P. McKelvaine acted very gallantly on this field, as he has on every field. He seized the colors and planted them beyond the battery that we captured. He was wounded in the mouth, though I hope not seriously. I had only nine men in my company killed and wounded and one missing- the son of Burl Homes was captured.

General Edward Cary Walthall

That evening we were exposed two more times; what I mean is that we were not engaged either time more than half an hour. The next day (Sunday) we were called into action twice, but only fought long enough to carry some part of the line that was faltering. Thus, you see we were under fire six times during the engagement, all of which were very heavy. You will see that we fought by reliefs, but ours being the reserve, we had to open the fight, fight when our time came to relieve, assist the weak points, and close the fight. I sincerely hope I never belong to another reserve. It is now broken up and we are again in Hindman’s division.

The enemy is now in and around Chattanooga and we are in line of battle on this side. I do not think there will be any more fighting this side of the river. Rosecrans will do well if he gets out of here with his whole army as Bragg has him almost surrounded and he had but one way of supplying his army, and that is over the mountains. Forrest and Wheeler have destroyed the railroad and we now command it and the river both above and below by strong masses of infantry.

Upon the whole, we have gained the most decided victory of the war though it was the most obstinate battlefield ever gained. Their prisoners confess a sound whipping. Bragg had never revealed to anyone his plans. I do not believe there is a general or staff officer in this army who knows a minute ahead. The secrecy of it has inspired confidence and they only ask to be lead. Notwithstanding the intense exposure, the army is not satisfied to stop until the enemy is driven across the river.

 As ever, your affectionate son,

W.H.C.

 

Source:

Letter from Captain William H. Cunningham, Co. I, 24th Mississippi Infantry, Macon Beacon (Mississippi), October 21, 1863, pg. 1

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