Taking the Southern Course: The 74th Indiana and Tullahoma

Perhaps the most important piece of field kit carried by the Army of the Cumberland during the Tullahoma campaign in late June 1863 was the rubber gum blanket. Doubling as a rain poncho, most Federal soldiers wore the gum blanket every day as they marched through seemingly endless rains that characterized that campaign.

Lieutenant Lawrence Gates of the 74th Indiana wrote of another use that the men of his regiment found for the ubiquitous gum blanket. “On Thursday June 25th, we encamped in a large wheatfield of a hot-headed secessionist and as he openly expressed his feelings and wished that all Yankees were in some hot place, we used his fences for firewood and his wheat as bedding because the ground was too wet to sleep on otherwise,” Gates reported. “He had two beehives around his house and to keep the boys away from his premises, he upset them all to get the bees excited. However, the old 74th was not to be thwarted by an army of secesh bees, but muffled their heads in their oilcloths, made a successful charge, and returned laden with their saccharine spoils.”

          Lieutenant Gates’ lengthy and detailed account of the regiment’s experiences during the Tullahoma campaign first saw publication in the July 25, 1863, edition of the Steuben Republican published in Angola, Indiana.

 

The rubber gum blanket was standard issue to Federal troops and proved to be one of the most useful pieces of field kit issued during the Civil War. Intended primarily for use as a ground cover, the soldier would lay the blanket rubber or dark side down first to keep the damps of ground off of him while he slept. The blanket could also used as a rain poncho, part of a tent, or as a dry spot to divide rations, play cards and games, or write letters. Lieutenant Gates mentions in his account one soldier being struck in the breast by a Rebel bullet, but his rolled up rubber blanket stopped the bullet and prevented any serious injury. So one could argue that the gum blanket also served as armor in some cases. 

Estill Springs, Tennessee

July 3, 1863

          It is getting quite late in the evening as tattoo and taps have been sounded for all soldiers to retire for the night, but I have made up my mind to write you a letter anyway so that our anxious friends at home might hear from us. Our chaplain Elder Sowle has been here and told me that the mail would start for Murfreesboro in the morning, so all the boys called on me en masse to write to the Republican as that would answer for one and all. It is impossible to write letters, as paper and writing materials are scarce with us on the march, but I have found a little of that article and so here it goes to the best of my recollection and the notes in my diary.

          We left Triune, Tennessee on Tuesday the 23rd of June, taking the road towards Murfreesboro. We were glad to go forward knowing it was a general move towards the enemy, yet we were sad and felt down-hearted to some extent to leave our much-beloved captain behind us; he was not able to take charge of his boys and company.

          We had left him behind at Lavergne as we came to Triune, but he came to us again a couple of weeks afterwards only to be with us a few days. I said we started on the Murfreesboro road and arrived that day without meeting any Rebels at a town called Salem. On the next morning, we were up at 3 o’clock and in fact, that is the time we had to arise every day since. We then took a southern course leaving Murfreesboro on our left. Up to that time, only two divisions (Brannan and Granger) were together, but at 2 p.m. we struck Shepherdsville Pike eight miles south of Murfreesboro where we met a couple of divisions of McCook’s corps.

          Heavy skirmishing took place right before us in sight and our brigade was drawn up in line of battle. Rain was pouring down upon us but that did not stop the firing. Other troops soon took our place and we went to the east towards General Thomas’s corps to which we belong. We crossed the railroad track at Christiana Station and kept on a little farther when we encamped for the night. We could rest but little as it rained most of the time and I might as well state right here, while I think of it, that we have had very wet weather since our first start. It rained every single day with the exception of two days, and from that you can judge what kind of roads we had to track over.

          On Thursday June 25th, nothing much transpired, only we kept on traveling as fast as circumstances would permit. In the evening, we encamped in a large wheatfield of a hot-headed secessionist and as he openly expressed his feelings and wished that all Yankees were in some hot place, we used his fences for firewood and his wheat as bedding because the ground was too wet to sleep on otherwise. He had two beehives around his house and to keep the boys away from his premises, he upset them all to get the bees excited. However, the old 74th was not to be thwarted by an army of secesh bees, but muffled their heads in their oilcloths, made a successful charge, and returned laden with their saccharine spoils.

          On Friday the 26th we advanced again but had not gone more than two miles when heavy skirmishing again took place in our immediate front. We moved quickly forward and by the right flank went around a large hill where we understood the enemy was in force to some extent. This was within sight of Beech Grove, otherwise called Hoover’s Gap. We had just formed in line of battle when whiz, whiz, came a few bullets at our regiment from the Rebel sharpshooters. They were well aimed but missed their mark which I believe must have been the color bearer standing beside me on the right. Anyway, the leaden missiles came rather close and one of them struck William Moore of my company on his breast. But he stood in such a position and had his oilcloth rolled up around him such that it did not hurt him any.

          We took our place then advanced slowly; the skirmishers thrown out in front firing continually. Soon our artillery opened with shot and shell and it was not long ere the Rebels replied with their cannons. Several shells came to us, but few exploded so not a man in the regiment was wounded. The total loss in the division was 45 in killed and wounded while Rousseau’s division lost about 60 men, mostly all U.S. Regulars.

          These two divisions were the only ones engaged there at that time, yet General Wilder’s mounted infantry had a hot time with them in the morning quite early before the other troops came up. The Rebels, of course, had to give way and soon left and the troops being somewhat exhausted, General Thomas gave the order to stop for the night. Old Rosey came around and showed himself during the afternoon and it was with a loud huzzah that he was received.

General William S. Rosecrans

          On Saturday morning [June 27th] we went forward again, marching through the town of Fairfield, where the always argus eyes of the 74th Indiana espied several barrels of splendid salt left by the Rebel forces. This is one generally needed article by soldiers when fresh meat is running around in the woods. Of course, we filled every empty place in our haversacks and kept right along, marching that night till 12 o’clock at which time we reached the town of Manchester, the county seat of Coffee County.

          Sunday forenoon [June 28th] our regiment was ordered back to Beech Grove to guard a train or wagons and return with supplies. We returned all safe again by Monday night. Nothing particular happened on that tramp, only our unceasing rain was our companion going and coming. When we returned to Manchester, we found our brigade had gone to the front a few miles so we were ordered to follow the next morning, but it being pleasant all day, the order was countermanded, and we did not start until Wednesday forenoon.

           We went towards Tullahoma and took the railroad track to travel on nearly half the distance. We heard artillery firing before us all the time and found out that the Rebels were retreating from their fortifications. And as they were, as we arrived in the city of Tullahoma at 2 o’clock. This was on Wednesday the 1st of July. The fortifications there were numerous, but Rosey had outflanked them and did not come into town when they calculated we should.

          I never saw such a sight in all my life as was the case there. It seemed as though the Rebels had left everything, only taking their guns and accouterments. The ground was completely covered with clothing, tents, cooking utensils, and everything as if they left unexpectedly. In many places I saw cornmeal mixed and ready for baking while part of it was already at the fire, nearly converted into cornbread. They had no time to take it along. Thousands of Rebel newspapers were captured here and from what few I gathered I am forwarding to you to look at and read the tone in which the Rebels speak of us Yankees. Our brigade being in the advance, we found a large quantity of tobacco which was distributed among those who use it. About 950 half-pound plugs were dealt out to the 74th Indiana alone, for which we would have to pay as many dollars if we were to purchase it from dealers.

General James Blair Steedman

          Yesterday we could not move as far as we wished to go as the Rebels burned the bridge across Elk River and we had to hunt up a place to cross it. Our cavalry crossed but the infantry waited until this morning. The water was about five feet deep with a strong current to boot and when a brigade was ordered to cross, they dared not try it first. General James B. Steedman, our brigade commander, told General Brannan that if they did not try it soon, he had some boys that would cross it. He called on the 74th Indiana of his own brigade first and at it we went.

          In a short time, most of us were stripped with our clothing, arms, and accouterments tied in our oilcloths and the river was crossed. Some of the regiment went into the river with their clothing on, only taking care to keep their arms and ammunition dry.  Our whole division has crossed and will move towards Winchester in the morning. The Rebel governor Isham Harris of Tennessee holds his headquarters there, but I expect that he has skedaddled before this time as he has certainly heard of us, so we are waiting for daylight to come and move forward at the command.

          It is my opinion that the main battle will come off at or near Chattanooga where the Rebels are going fast. Hundreds of them desert daily and come to our lines to take the oath and don’t want to be paroled or exchanged. They tell us that most all of the Kentucky and Tennessee regiments in Bragg’s army are getting dissatisfied and will not fight. We will see how it turns out. So far about all of the deserters’ reports have proved true and I hope they will continue so and soon the Rebel army in Tennessee will be among the things that once were.

          I have just looked at my watch and found it is five minutes past midnight and a new day has begun. Wishing you all a farewell until I write again and giving a loud hurrah for this Fourth of July.

 

Source:
Letter from First Lieutenant Lawrence Gates, Co. H, 74th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Steuben Republican (Indiana), July 25, 1863, pg. 2

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