Bullets were Flying Rather Fast: The 78th Pennsylvania and Pickett’s Mill

Pinned down by a torrent of Confederate fire at Pickett’s Mill, the 78th Pennsylvania split into two wings and fought independently, one portion staying on the field after the rest of the brigade retreated. The combat was close, fierce, and deadly.

“We reserved our fire until they came within 15 yards of our line and we again opened a deadly fire on their advancing columns and cut them down like grass,” one soldier recalled. “Some of them had as many as five bullets through them. We repulsed them and drove them back, the left wing of our regiment following them up, leaving the right of our regiment in its old position. We advanced about 30 yards to an old fence but there we had to stop and could advance no further, nor could we fall back so we had to lay under cover of the fence. We were under the fire of 500 muskets and they would have cut us to pieces if we had tried to fall back.”

This account of Pickett’s Mill, penned by a soldier of the 78th Pennsylvania who signed his name simply as M, first saw publication in the July 13, 1864, edition of the American Citizen published in Butler, Pennsylvania. The 78th Pennsylvania was part of Colonel Benjamin Scribner's Third Brigade of General Richard Johnson's First Division of the 14th Army Corps, Army of the Cumberland during this engagement. 

 

Four soldiers from the 78th Pennsylvania pose atop Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga in early 1864. The western Pennsylvanians had served with the Army of the Cumberland and its predecessors from the beginning of their service in 1861, winning a high reputation for their actions at Stones River. The regiment missed serious action at both Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge but took their full measure of combat at Pickett's Mill. 

Chattanooga, Tennessee

July 1, 1864

          On the 27th of May, our division had orders to march with General Howard’s corps (IV) as a support; we took up our line of march early in the morning and kept on marching to the left. We marched all day till 5 p.m. when we got orders to form a line of battle at the double quick. Our division formed on the left of the 4th Corps, our brigade on the left of our division, and our regiment on the left center of our brigade.

We got our line formed in time to receive the advancing columns of the enemy who made their first onslaught on the right wing. They succeeded in driving it and flanking us; some say we were ordered to fall back, but we had our minds made up to hold our position or die in the attempt. On came the advancing columns of the Southern foes driving our skirmishers, they then came for our lines three lines deep.

We reserved our fire until they came within 15 yards of our line and we again opened a deadly fire on their advancing columns and cut them down like grass. Some of them had as many as five bullets through them. We repulsed them and drove them back, the left wing of our regiment following them up, leaving the right of our regiment in its old position.

We advanced about 30 yards to an old fence but there we had to stop and could advance no further, nor could we fall back so we had to lay under cover of the fence. We were under the fire of 500 muskets and they would have cut us to pieces if we had tried to fall back.

Private Dallas Thompson
Co. H, 78th Pennsylvania

In the meantime, the brigade got orders to fall back without giving us any notice of it. I presume they could get no orders to us as the bullets were flying rather fast. The entire line fell back one mile, leaving us on the field without any support. Four companies of our regiment remained on the field: Cos E, B, K, and G. The right of the regiment fell back with the brigade as they were ordered.

We lay on the field of blood and slaughter in a very peculiar position. Some of the boys say we had no officers with us; they might have been there someplace but I could not see them. All of our line officers did well, I will say that for them, but all the orders we received we got direct from our gallant Colonel Billy Sirwell. On the 27th of May he nobly gained a star which I hope to see him wear ere long.

After dark, Colonel Sirwell formed us into order and had us throw up some rails as breastworks and we awaited orders. The colonel told us we lay there without any support and we had to do the best we could. We held the field until 1 o’clock that night then crept slyly away and joined our brigade after daylight. The 78th Pennsylvania covered themselves with glory on that day; they’ve done honor to the state, likewise to their country.

Source:

Letter from M., 78th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, American Citizen (Butler, Pennsylvania), July 13, 1864, pg. 2

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