Letter No. VII.
In Line of Battle near Chattanooga,
October 13th, 1863.
To Major Charles S. West, Judge Advocate General of Trans-Mississippi Department.
Three weeks have passed since the battle of Chickamauga, and I have not until now had an opportunity of writing to you as I had intended, immediately after the fight.
Our brigade left Port Royal, Va., on the 8th of September and came by rail to a burnt bridge, near Ringgold, in northeast Georgia. I had permission to stop in Columbia, S. C., where I spent two days very agreeablely, using the opportunity to have my clothing washed, and to get rid of vermin, which skirmish at will over the soldier’s body. The old brigade fell in love with South Carolina’s hospitality.
At every depot and station throughout the state the ladies, old and young, flocked in loaded with baskets of provisions, fruits and delicacies of every character which these scant times afford, which were offered amid smiles and tears and expressions of congratulations and encouragement to every soldier. Rags and dirt seemed to be a recommendation where gilt and brass failed to excite attention. It is useless to enter into incidents; suffice it to say that the reception all through the state was all that the speed and confusion would allow. I overtook the brigade on the morning of September 18th, at the burnt bridge just at the dawn of day and found all astir and making ready to move. I had no time to rest, but marched off immediately, passing Ringgold between eight and nine o’clock in the morning. Here we first heard of Yanks ahead, and putting out flankers moved on cautiously and slowly. At about twelve o’clock, while passing through quite a narrow defile, we heard considerable firing in front. We were ordered to load and await orders. While here I saw citizens, men, women and children making the best of their time in getting to the rear. One poor woman was overloaded with coverlets, tin pans and other utensils, with a child on each side and two or three bawling behind. She fell down two or three times, but scrambled on for life while muskets sputtered in the surrounding hills. I could not help thinking of “woe unto those who are with child and who give suck in those days.” We soon moved off the road by the left flank and were drawn up and advanced in line of battle for about half mile and halted. We remained here awaiting developments, while cavalry were dashing hither and thither, feeling the pulse of the enemy and discovering his positions. We now crossed the Chickamauga at Lee’s mill and moved on about two miles and were again formed in line of battle and advanced about half a mile across some very pretty little fields, with hills on the opposite side, suggesting the idea of sharp-shooters, &c.; indeed, we all expected a volley every moment and went through all the fears and motions incident to entering a charge. We were much relieved at finding only some cavalry who discharged a few shots too high to hit anybody and disappeared without a shot from our side. Here we remained in line of battle until nearly dark, when we moved on and camped about eight o’clock. Judging by the moving of troops and the rumbling of artillery during the night, I felt pretty sure that “the wool-tearing” would come off in the morning. We remained at our camp (occasional firing being heard on our right) where our line of battle was being formed, until about ten o’clock, when we proceeded about a mile and a half, being about ten miles from Chattanooga, and took our place in the line near the center. About half past ten or eleven o’clock a most tremendous fire of musketry was opened on our right, which continued for two hours without two minutes intermission. The country from this point to Chattanooga is an undulating pine and oak region, as you find in upper portions of South Carolina and Georgia—such as we roamed over about Camden in our boyhood days. So there was no trouble for anybody to get into the fight who was willing and anxious, no excuse for skulking or straggling. It was simply to move forward and whip the enemy in pretty open ground or be whipped back again.
There were no breastworks worth the name. The line of battle seemed to be short, not more than three miles long, and both sides had their troops in heavy masses, one behind the other. When relief was wanted it was nearly always in sight; in fact, you could look back and see your support waiting their turn to “go in.” This accounts for the unceasing fire of musketry. The locality was not well adapted generally to the use of artillery, but grape and cannister did some good work in the open fields.
Deducting the intervals necessary for reforming and relieving exhausted troops (and these intervals were very short), there must have been eight hours of unintermitted musketry on each day. It reminded me of rain on a tin roof, where at intervals the storm rages with tremendous fury, then lulls but still continues as sounds grow faint or distinct according to the changes of the varying wind. Our turn came about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We advanced to within one hundred yards of the Yanks, when I could see them plainly lying and squatting in the bushes and scant undergrowth. There was a small field beyond them and a little hill on the other side of it, from which a battery annoyed us a little as we advanced, but had no serious effect on our progress. Just as I saw the Yanks and was about to shoot, a cry passed up the line that these were our own men, but very few seemed to regard it, and a pretty steady fire was opened on them and promptly returned. I had fired five or six shots, not over thirty steps, when the whole line in front of us seemed broken and confused, except two or three companies behind a cabin on my left. I was too much excited to notice any except those fleeing in my front. I rushed on, waving my hat, until I was pretty well mixed up with them and was knocked down, and fell almost upon the body of a severely wounded Yank, who asked me to unbuckle his belt, which I did with great difficulty, for I was very sick and spitting blood myself. He died before he had time to thank me. A ball had struck the handle of my bayonet, driving it against me, knocking it to pieces, and glancing downward, passed through my clothing, coming out about my right hip. I laid here some minutes, with minnies and grape showering about me and knocking the dirt over me. I got to the rear by a miracle. I went to the field hospital and remained until morning and then returned to the company about daylight, bruised and pretty sore, but able to shoot. We fought over the same kind of ground the next day, driving the Yanks back all the time. Our brigade pushed them about a half a mile about 1 o’clock p. m., and I believe would have captured a great many but for a flank fire by mistake from our own men. I was hit on my right wrist, making a bruise which hurt me for several days.
On Monday morning the Yanks were gone. I could hear artillery, which I presume was hurrying up their retreat. It is said among the men here that General Bragg has put Generals Polk, Hindman and Forrest under arrest, for what cause I do not know, but my impression is, that with either Hood or Longstreet or Lee in command, half of Rosecran’s army would have been captured. I have seen Bragg, Buckner, Longstreet, Breckenridge, Lee, Hood and President Davis. The three last look like great men, and would have been great in any age. I do not admire Bragg. Buckner has a fine, benevolent face. Longstreet is a bulldog soldier and cares nothing about flank movements. He makes a dead set at the center, and can whip any army on earth if he has men enough to fight until he is tired of it. Breckenridge is a game-looking, handsome man, six feet high.
We are now lying two and a half or three miles from Chattanooga, with our left resting on Lookout Mountain and our right on the river, six or seven miles from here, the line crossing Missionary Ridge, which, as Lookout Mountain, also commands a complete view of the Yankee camp. I do not understand what Rosecrans is to do. If he advances he will be whipped. He has a terrible road for sixty miles to retreat over, and has to haul his provisions over the same road if he remains in Chattanooga, with the chances of having his trains destroyed by cavalry—”Mr. Forest’s critter company,”as the old woman called it. She said: “They formed a line of fight right across my garden and calf lot, tore down every scrap of fence and run right over my ash-hopper, and the Lord have mussy! goodness gracious! what a dust they did kick up!”
Our picket lines are within one hundred yards of each other, and keep up a pretty constant chat and exchange of papers, though contrary to strict orders. I see no difference between this army and the Yanks we met in Virginia. President Davis paid us a visit on the 10th of this month and rode down our entire line. He was dressed in a dark suit mixed with steel gray.
Love to your wife and all the rest.
John C. West.