Our Gallant Boys Bleaching in the Sun: A Buckeye Returns to Chickamauga

Three months after the Battle of Chickamauga, Captain James Stinchcomb of the 17th Ohio was still haunted by the experience and mourned the heavy losses his regiment suffered during the fight.

“No one can appreciate the feeling of a soldier when a comrade dies, except that it is one who has had the trial,” he explained to his wife. “I have no doubt many at home often wonder why it is we cannot give more definite information of their friends. A battlefield such as Chickamauga, seven miles long and five or six wide, and we compelled to leave in the night without means to convey the wounded, surely will explain to anyone the reason. If they had seen as many tears shed as I did by stout-hearted soldiers when they looked back on that bloody field as they remembered their wounded comrades, I know such a thought would never occupy their minds for one moment.”

Once the Confederate army had been driven away from Chattanooga, Stinchcomb took the first chance he could revisit the Chickamauga battlefield as part of a contingent of Federal troops who returned to the Chickamauga battlefield determined to find the graves of their comrades. It proved a harrowing and melancholy experience as he explained to his wife.

“I saw nine of our gallant boys’ remains bleaching in the sun, untouched, except where some ragged villain had taken off their shoes, shirt, or their pants,” he wrote. “It may be said that these men were overlooked- not so, for Rebels were buried within three feet of them. We found the bones of two of our men that they had placed rails on them and burned them. Some places they buried them from 18 inches to two feet deep, but as a general thing their heads and feet were left uncovered.”

Captain Stinchcomb was a regular correspondent with his hometown newspaper the Lancaster Gazette and his account of visiting Chickamauga originally appeared in the December 17, 1863 and January 7, 1864 editions of that newspaper. 

 

Nearly 4,000 men from both armies were killed during the Battle of Chickamauga and their remains littered the battlefield even after Confederate authorities directed the internment of bodies immediately after the battle. "To be sure, our men were not all buried though I have no doubt the Rebel generals intended that they should be," Captain Stinchcomb observed. "But a portion of their details were evidently worse than heathens. I saw nine of our gallant boys remains bleaching in the sun, untouched, except where some ragged villain had taken off their shoes, shirt, or their pants." 


Chattanooga, Tennessee

December 1, 1863

I have made a diligent search since my return for both Solomon Smethers and Solomon Miller of my company; both were wounded in the Chickamauga fight and from the best information I now get, they both have died of their wounds; better and braver soldiers could not be found. They were both wounded on the afternoon of Sunday in the front rank on the hill where the terrible fighting was done under Thomas.

Smethers was a member of the M.E. Church and never forgot his duty and obligations as a Christian. No kinder-hearted man lived than Miller. Thomas Cluagy (or Kleinick) of my company has also died of wounds received at the same place. He, too, was a brave soldier and was wounded near the spot where the other two were. They all three died as soldiers.

No one can appreciate the feeling of a soldier when a comrade dies, except that it is one who has had the trial; it is just like one of the family away, yet I have no doubt many at home often wonder why it is we cannot give more definite information of their friends. A battlefield such as Chickamauga, seven miles long and five or six wide, and we compelled to leave in the night without means to convey the wounded, surely will explain to anyone the reason. If they had seen as many tears shed as I did by stout-hearted soldiers when they looked back on that bloody field as they remembered their wounded comrades, I know such a thought would never occupy their minds for one moment.

 

This photo shows one of the final reunions of the survivors of the 17th Ohio in front of the Sherman House in Lancaster, Ohio on September 26, 1928. The loss of comrades hung like a cloud over many reunions of Civil War regiments, the survivors feeling a deep responsibility to ensure that their comrades' sacrifices were not forgotten. 

Headquarters, 17th O.V.I., Mission Ridge, Tennessee

December 17, 1863

          Yesterday I visited the battlefield of Chickamauga along with a detail from some four regiments of our brigade. I thought I had seen evidence of hard fighting at Mill Springs, Shiloh, and Stones River, but the field of Chickamauga has so many more marks and evidence that it surprised all who saw it. In front of Baird’s, Reynolds,’ and Johnson’s divisions, were I to tell you the truth, you would say I surely did not see correctly.

          When we got to where our division fought on Saturday and found every tree and bush in front of our lines marked with bullets, many of them with 50 bullets in one tree, we all thought it hard fighting, but when we were moved to our left on Sunday and saw as many as 100 in at least half the trees and one-third shot off with cannon balls, all were astonished.

But shall I describe the appearance of the field in front of the line for a mile where Baird, Johnson, and Reynolds’ division fought? The Rebels charged the breastworks a number of times during the day and every place where the Rebel columns were hurled against our men were such traces of desperate fighting as there has never seen and probably will never again. Shall I say 500-1,000 bullets in almost every tree of any size in a space from the ground to a little higher than a man’s head?



I don’t give you any conception of the true condition. Trees two feet over are absolutely shot to fine splinters- that in the side facing our breastworks were actually hot so often that their whole sides are in slivers and splinters. It must have been a continual stream of lead. There are five or six such places and each one as wide as from the courthouse from the Courthouse to Hon. Thomas Ewing’s, and as the Rebels came up in columns their loss must have been fearful. Again, on the hill where the promiscuous mass was fighting in the afternoon of Sunday of which I wrote you about some time before is the same evidence.

          The Rebel graves show from five to one of ours. To be sure, our men were not all buried, though I have no doubt the Rebel generals intended that they should be, but a portion of their details were evidently worse than heathens. I saw nine of our gallant boys’ remains bleaching in the sun, untouched, except where some ragged villain had taken off their shoes, shirt, or their pants. It may be said that these men were overlooked- not so, for Rebels were buried within three feet of them. We found the bones of two of our men that they had placed rails on them and burned them. Some places they buried them from 18 inches to two feet deep, but as a general thing their heads and feet were left uncovered.

 

Sources:

Letters from Captain James Stinchcomb, Co. B, 17th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Lancaster Gazette (Ohio), December 17, 1863, pg. 2; also, January 7, 1864, pg. 1

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