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

General Willich’s Sword at Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center

The anonymous author of the pamphlet Willich at Chickamauga continues with the resumption of the battle on September 20, 1863:

What a glorious morning ushers in this Sunday, Sept. 20th, 1863, and shines as fair a sun as ever gladdened this hemisphere. It is the Almighty’s decree that on this day of the week we shall rest from labor, but the free-will of an accursed portion of this people has it by their acts this day shall be known in passing history as the second day of the massacre of Chickamauga? For action, engagement or battle, this clash of fierce deadly passion is not.

To one who has followed, as I have done, the varying fortunes of this noble brigade, the skeleton ranks that answer to the bugle call of “attention,” this morning, seem like an assembly of mourners and chanters, whose duty henceforth should be to bury and epitaph the dead. Surely the past day has been ill-spent, or the battle ill-planned, if Willich’s shorn battalions have to fill the smallest breach.

But they have. The rebel cannon have early opened the strife, and that column of road-dust moving towards the left of centre indicates that Johnson will be attacked within half an hour. In aide de camp parlance, Willich is in reserve; practically speaking, he commands a body of light troops to be thrown at will into the first gap. Thus, no sooner does the blow fall upon Johnson’s front than Hall and Eidlemeyer are ordered up on a double-quick charge to save the line from caving in. Tat is done with a trifling loss, but the weight of the attacking column, being staved off by Johnson, falls obliquely against the troops on his left, and some weak-kneed brigade giving way, in pours the grey-back steam of howlers. Quick as thought, Gray is ordered to half-wheel to the left, and askew half-wheel to the right, and advance, while half the guns of Goodspeed’s battery wheel into the new line and give the bold, steady advancing enemy rapid volleys of double-shotted grape and canister. The 15th and 49th close on the flanks, and Beatty’s boys made a hard push against the front, till finally Longstreet’s baffled brigades fall back to the woods again, under a parting salute from the ready Goodspeed.

How the battle went on other parts of the field, “specials” and talkative aides will inform you. It was far in the afternoon before we were again disturbed, when the lines were full of rumors, that Burnside had come up, and that Granger had turned the enemy’s flank and driven him ? any length the narrators chose to name. Such lies certainly seemed plausible, as from the elevation we then occupied brigades could be seen wending their way towards the receding fire. But if affairs have gone so well, why is it that a portion of Thomas’, all of our brigade, and Goodspeed’s battery, have taken a position which our knowledge of the forenoon’s line would make out to be planned for the destruction of our own men? Queerer still, Willich, by his uneasy movements and quick glances along the new front, expects fight soon, and has his regiments and battery ready for immediate action. While you are observing, with uneasy wonder, these singular changes, Reynolds’s division is filing out of the woods on our left, leaving a large gap between Willich and Dodge; and the retiring division has barely been lost to view in the forest on our right, when Goodspeed receives a whizzing salute of rebel shell and round shot, but old Battery A sends back the compliment, in several rapid volleys, and silences the rebel guns.

At this moment, while intently surveying the range of the enemy’s shells, Lieut. Col. Duncan J. Hall, of the 89th, fell, pierced through the shoulder by the bullet of a sharpshooter. His was the fall of a brave and polished officer, a loving brother, a dutiful son and a true friend. The regret and gloom his sad fate calls forth here, will spring into bitter tears of affliction in his happy northern home.

Just as the dying Colonel has been tenderly laid in the shade of the rude hospital’s walls, the enemy’s battery, having found a new position, furiously opens upon us. Goodspeed replies bravely, but an enfilading fire from a second rebel battery forces the veteran off the hill, which, with pride observe, is coolly done on the walk.

Now comes Willich’s second and greater trial. The brigade holding the horse-shoe-shaped abattis to the left of his rear have given way under a tremendous attack, and are rushing pell-mell through and around his lines. Amidst the shower of screaming shell and plunging shot the 89th, under the command of the brave and skillful Williams, rapidly changes front on centre, and forms a solid wall to stay the rush of panic-stricken fugitives. Askew, Gray and Eidelmeyer soon also come close in hand, their men well aligned and cool under the hurricane of exploding missiles. Slowly the old General retires his lines to the edge of the timber, and there awaits, in plain view, the yelling rebel ranks emerging form the opposite wood. Ah, that solid front the old First has put on disappoints the screeching butternuts; they are loath to forsake the shade of the oaks, and cross that open field. May their doubtings grow into fear and the “forlorn hope” is safe.

For the first time during these two terrible days, a smile plays across the old veteran’s face. He is cunningly maneuvering a show of strength four times larger than he brought to Chickamauga. All the battalions are put into motion ? advancing, retiring, and marching by either flank ? till he is secure in the assurance that caution and doubt have so cooled rebel fury that they are content to hold our deserted abattis, and cheer over their barren victory.

Need I further recount to you, my friend, how General Thomas, when heard that Willich’s “Iron Brigade” was covering the retreat of the Cumberland Army, and by compact lines menacing any attempt at pursuit, selected it as the rear-guard ? the post of honor and danger? Or how, in misty darkness, we marched through ravines and woods, and from hill-top to hill-top, taking bewildered stragglers into our protecting ranks, and scaring back to their lairs the prowling scouts of the enemy, until the winking signals o the mountain path announced the passing of the rear of the grand column, and we turned our faces from the bloody battle field and began our weary, midnight march to possess the prize brave Federal blood had sealed to us ? Chattanooga.

Now let me close the picture, but ere you depart for the North, on whose valleys, prairies and hill sides nestle our peaceful homes, charge your memory with the mournful message that the idolized leader of the famous “Iron Brigade” laments the loss of more than five hundred out of the fourteen hundred men he took into battle! The trusty Ritter killed, and Cappel, Seifert, Beyreis and Loether, wounded, Eidelmeyer’s brave Germans have cause to mourn. Pool, Ray and Ramsey no longer fill the officers’ assembly of the gallant 49th; Byrd, Updegrove and Fowler’s places are vacant in the ranks of the sturdy 15th; and, oh, how heavily the dark mantle falls around the dashing 89th. Hall, Rice, Spink, Whiting and Adams, fill rude-fashioned graves on that bloody field, while Dorcey, Warren, Bishop and Ellis are taking painful rest in some distant hospital. Good old Battery A misses the kind, skillful Belding, and the faithful Butler, too, no longer rides at the General’s side.

Adieu, my dear friend. You might ask me a thousand questions the public’s appetite for blood and its morbid cravings for details of horror desire ? questions of this plan and of that, of the dead and the maimed. To all, take this answer of a soldier of the Republic: “The Eternal God hath so willed it.”

Dear ones at home, mourn your brave kinsmen fallen, and give generous praise to the noble remnant saved ? remnant of the brave, unconquered veterans who fought under the patriot chief, August Willich, on the bloody field of Chickamauga.

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Who was the author of this piece? A few clues may help solve the mystery.

The writer repeatedly misspells the name of Lt. Col. Frank Erdelmeyer of the Thirty-Second Indiana, an ethnic German regiment, suggesting that the author himself was not part of that command. He was probably not German American, as he also misspells important locations from Willich’s career as a European revolutionary.

Despite his talent for fine prose, the author claims that he is not a newspaper reporter; rather his Solingen blade suggests that he was more likely an army officer. He mentions that he has followed Willich’s fortunes for some time, and is proud of the entire brigade, showing little favoritism for a particular regiment. My best guess is that the author was a general staff officer.

What do you think? Please share your theories on the identity of this writer in the comments section.

David T. Dixon is the author of  Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (University of Tennessee Press, 2020).

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2 Responses to The Iron Brigade of the Cumberland at Chickamauga (Part Two of Two)

  1. John Pryor says:

    Willich is a fascinating individual, with an interesting back story. The mind numbing purple prose of the anonymous author is just too much to endure. Thank God Lincoln didn’t write like this!?

  2. Pingback: Week In Review: September 19-26, 2021 | Emerging Civil War

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