The Iron Brigade of the Cumberland at Chickamauga (Part One of Two)

August Willich

Few moments in the life of a historian compare with uncovering fresh primary sources. Fortunately, I have experienced this thrill on numerous occasions. Small rewards for thousands of hours spent squinting at period handwriting in archives and attics across the US and in Europe. Lady Luck has a way of smiling on diligent researchers who put in the work.

Buried in the middle of a bound collection of Civil War era pamphlets at the Newberry Library in Chicago is an anonymous first-hand account of the fighting at Chickamauga. The author chronicled the exploits of the famed Iron Brigade of the Army of the Cumberland. Written just days after the battle, it recounts the trials and triumphs of August Willich’s First Brigade of Richard Johnson’s Second Division in McCook’s XX Corps. Chickamauga witnessed some of Willich’s finest performances as a military commander. Here is the text of the pamphlet:


I am painting a pen picture this mild, sunshiny Sabbath evening, in a quiet, shaded angle in the trenches of Chattanooga.

In imagination let me transport you, my dear friend, as the shades of evening close in, from your easy chair and well lighted room in your peaceful northern home, to this hill which looks down upon the “Gateway of the Mountains,” and I will astonish you when once your eyes take in the bolder outlines of this hazy, slumbering landscape, by whispering that within the circle of these glinting watchfires on your left sleep tens of thousands of Rosecrans’ veterans  ?  the unconquered remnant of our glorious Army of the Cumberland. Scattered fires on yonder dark range of hill to the east, and on your right the fitful lights on the midway slope of Lookout, mark the bivouacs of the enemy. Nay, do not feel uneasy, my friend, we are safe, seated on this green sward, with apparently naught to protect us but the Solingen blade I carry, for fringing yonder plain is a zone of steel and sleepless sentinels, with an inner rim doubly strong, through which no ten thousand of the bravest troops Lee or Bragg ever led can break.

Ah, I see your civilian bravery is restored, by the way your tongue gives out questions about the battle. Well, my eater of soft wheaten bread and sleeper on yielding feathers, give me your quiet attention for an hour, under this glorious September moon, and I will repaint you nearly all the scenes my two good eyes took in at Chickamauga. No men but newspaper writers are Argus-eyed in battle; he is a clear-sighted and rapid-riding General who can keep the movements of a brigade in view.

You say you have heard of Willich’s Brigade. Come with me to Rosecrans’ headquarters on the forenoon of Saturday, an hour before the battle, and I will show you that famous brigade in its fullness and glory. They have stacked arms in the General’s favorite “double column en masse” formation  ?  the 49th Ohio, Major S.F. Gray commanding, on right of first line; 15th Ohio, Lieut. Col. Frank Askew, left of same; 89th Illinois (Railroad,) Lieut. Col. Duncan J. Hall, right of second line; 32nd Indiana, Lieut. Col. Frank Eidlemeyer, left of the same. What a rollicking, talkative, careless, dusty-looking set of boys they seem, as you look at them, loitering, scuffling, whistling and singing under these fine old trees. Their looks may well make you doubt the judgment of “old Rosey,” when he styled them one of the best drilled and disciplined brigades in his army.

But hark! There’s a signal shell from the enemy. McCook’s quick eye takes distance by the white puff of smoke. A word is passed to Willich; the bugle sounds “the assembly;” lines of stalwart men arise in line as if by magic; the stacks of glistening rifles melt away; talk and laughter is hushed; the four battalions move as one man to the right face, and the veteran Willich heads the deploying column. The sun will not reach its zenith until we are in battle.

From this knoll we are now crossing, your ears can locate that sharp rattle of musketry. It must be Thomas’ left that is struck, for that heavy volley firing that follows means attack, not reconnaissance. McCook has but a few minutes at his disposal to head that developing fire of the enemy, for the left of the grand line once turned, and Bragg will dine to-morrow in Chattanooga.

See how simply Willich forms line of battle, without a halt or a wheel. The regiments of the first line keep the route of march, while the second line regiments slightly oblique and take the quick step. In a minute the parallels are formed. “Battalions, by the right flank ? halt,” ? “Strip” ? and we are now in the order of battle.

We have come just in the nick of time. These streams of wounded and stragglers trailing out of the woods, show that the “crumbling process” has commenced in our grand line, and the spattering of bullets, now falling in our ranks, betoken the coming storm. See how steady, even and undaunted our noble First Brigade answers the bugle’s “forward,” and breasts the shower of rebel lead. That crashing volley is from the rifles of our first line ? the 32nd and 49th ? and it has thinned the rebel front, for its exultant cheering has suddenly ceased. Now the two sides grapple at close range, with this disadvantage to ours ? we are in point blank range of a rebel battery, now opening heavily with grape and canister. Willich’s eye instantly takes in the track of danger and death, but at any cost he must drive the enemy and silence the guns, He gives a few rapid words of encouragement, and forward our two lines dash with a cheer. Listen; that prisoner tells us it is Cheatham’s division we are fighting. Ah, the odds are heavy, but the strait is desperate. Still forward push Willich’s veterans ? facing, unblanched, grape canister and Minnie ? till the first line staggers for a minute, and the second rushes through it with a shout and a yell. A wild hurrah succeeds the cheering ? four of the enemy’s guns are in our hands! The remaining two are vomiting grape against the sturdy 89th, but another dash, and the Railroaders have cut down cannoneers and horses, and the ugly secesh ten-pounder parrott becomes the prize of Rouell.

Every bugle sounds “halt,” and the “four rank” formation is ordered for “the finish.” How proudly Willich’s noble form looms up in front of his thinned but victorious lines. His words are spoken with a mixed tone of pride and assumed anger, as he chides the right wing of the 89th for its impetuosity, but the glistening eyes and softening features of the boys show that the compliment to their bravery has touched their hearts, shaped even in a chide.

Now comes the test of drill and discipline. The hazardous “four rank” charge will rout Cheatham or destroy Willich, as only veterans can successfully maneuver in it, and naught but solid columns can withstand it.

Just see the magic change that bugle call has wrought. It seems as if two thousand stand where a second ago stood scarcely nine hundred. That volley is the first rank’s ? now the fourth dashes forward and delivers its fire ? then the third, the second ? and see, the first bound like greyhounds to the front, followed by the fourth, until your unpracticed eye and ear sees nothing but bounding figures through the smoke and hears the deafening roar of musketry.

Again Cheatham’s half-rallied ranks give way; in their panic, they imagine a corps is belching fire against them. We have gained another half mile of ground ere the order to halt reaches us, and slowly we retire to a more advantageous position, a few yards in the rear, while the offices of mercy begin by carrying off our dead and wounded comrades. Ah, now we reckon the sad cost of two successful charges, and rough guessers have it, when they say that one hundred out of each regiment will not meet the bill of casualties. Four hundred fallen in one short hour! But they fell under the beaming, blessing eyes of their idolized general, with shouts of Federal victory ringing in their ears.

Hour after hour quietly passes away, still no relieving brigade comes to hold the advanced line we have so dearly won. Towards dark, Dodge’s (second,) Brigade moves up near our right, and Baldwin’s (third,) quietly rests at the hill on our left; but it is madness to suppose Willich, unsupported, can hold the advanced centre against such an attack as rebel desperation and revenge will make at dark.

Slowly the curtain of night closes around Willich and his brave boys ? tree after tree fades in the night fog, giving closer range to the enemy’s prowling sharpshooters. Farquhar of the 89th, is ordered to reconnoiter the uncertain front with some good shots, but they have advanced only a short distance before the enemy’s fire is drawn. Luckily the first volleys are wild and high, thus giving Willich time to take all his regiments closer in hand to meet the emergency, which being effected within a minute, the return fire lights up to your vision a semi-circle of determined fighters, who, looking death square in the face, with shouts of defiance and occasional wild oaths, defy the hordes pressing the front and both flanks. Dodge throws his supports into his first line to check a flanking fire, but the enemy is too heavy and securely posted, and step by step the Second’s line gives ground. Gradually, too, our left flank is pressed inwardly, but Goodspeed has unleashed his “brazen bull-dogs” there, and gray’s and Askew’s boys are pouring in continuous volleys of lead.

You have read the tales of the Inquisition ? one, of that iron-bound abode which, imperceptibly to the eye, but sensibly to reasoning powers, contracted the bounds of life and hope. Minute by minute the terrible horrors of a similar fate are crowding around us. Skillful officers are calculating the nearing doom by the increasing cross-fire. At last flitting figures carry from the line to the field commanders messages in the words that can make the bravest men shake in battle ? “We are surrounded!” Vainly the enemy are trying to shout the word of our fate above the roar of the musketry. At length it reaches our ranks, during a lull of the fire; no new doom in new phraseology ? the same that was hurled at the remnant of the Imperial Guard at Waterloo ? “Surrender!” ? and every throat sends back the same answer, “Never!” What other reply could come from men fighting with mad revenge over the wounded and dead bodies of their comrades strewn thickly in their ranks? What other reply from men trained, led and inspired by the iron-willed Willich ? he who stands in the centre of this terrific fire, like an immovable, impressionless figure in bronze, viewing death as undauntedly as he did at Nennweiler, Rastadt and Shiloh?

In a civic tournament, a flag of truce would enter the scene now, and a smile and compliment would assure life and hope in a mimic display. But see how differently reality meets inexorable fact. A word to Hall, Gray Eidlemeyer and Askew, and forward the banners of the unconquered First move proudly to grapple with death and destiny. Every nerve and every vein cords up and swells for the last struggle. The cartridge boxes of the dead and wounded are rifled to outweigh the demand of “surrender”; the pathway to safety and rest is corduroyed with dead and wounded; but those tearing volleys and cheers silence Cheatham’s fire, and in an instant (for such silences are unaccountable freaks in battle my reasoning never mastered,) the two sullen, blood-seeking lines of enemies become as silent as their dead. Here, amid the groans of wounded and dying, we sleep to-night ? but where tom-morrow?


1 Response to The Iron Brigade of the Cumberland at Chickamauga (Part One of Two)

  1. I can explain the “… front rank fires… rear rank dashes forward.., fires… “ question. After his capture at Stones River Willich made good use of his idle time. He came up with a drill that owed much to his 20 years as a Prussian officer. He created a continuous fire drill. Each file of four men worked in concert with each other. Front rank would fire & begin to reload. The man on the rear rank would step forward & fire; etc. By this drill Willich was able to keep up a continuous fire when holding, advancing or retreating. CSA infantry who faced it for the first time during the Tullahoma Campaign were appalled. A line of men constantly firing as they advanced was against nature.

    Another innovation was to have the column of fours simply do a column left or right to create the four rank formation. Willich was a communist who was considered too radical by his good friends Karl Marx & Frederick Engles.

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