The major Civil War focus 150 years ago this week was on the fate of the Union Army of the Cumberland, which was hunkered down in Chattanooga, Tenn., following its humiliating defeat at the monumental Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 19-20, 1863.
Chickamauga was second only to Gettysburg with respect to the combined number of casualties on both sides. It was Ohio's bloodiest engagement of the entire war. Trumbull County had 1,058 men involved in the fight and suffered 74 casualties, including 15 killed. Ohio suffered 4,910 casualties among its 18,835 soldiers engaged in the struggle.
The 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, liberally populated with Trumbull County boys, won great acclaim in the battle and earned the nickname "Tigers" for its valor. Its primary historian, Ralsa C. Rice, reported in his book, "Yankee Tigers," that the 125th went into the battle "with 317 men, rank and file, and lost in killed, wounded and missing 105." Only one of those 105 was captured, he being Patrick Welch, 42, from Farmington. He managed to escape and find his way back to Chattanooga several days later. Using the trumped up excuse that he was a paroled POW, he prevailed upon his colonel, Emerson Opdyke, to grant him leave to go home, in spite of the fact that there were no furloughs allowed. As Rice says: "The Colonel saw the point and bade Pat godspeed. Pat's 'genius' carried him home all right and after a time he returned to us better than new."
After the retreat to Chattanooga the remnant of Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland began digging in with intensity. Rice reported: "...we were hardly encamped at Chattanooga before fortifying became a mania. On and on the work progressed until all were engaged with pick and spade."
The Confederate forces, under Gen. Braxton Bragg, drove to within sight of the town and occupied the strategic heights on Lookout Mountain to the south and Missionary Ridge on the east. Bragg realized the city was too heavily fortified to be taken by direct assault. Therefore, he decided to lay siege and starve the Union forces out of their entrenched positions. The Confederates rapidly controlled the Tennessee River approaches to the city, all roads on the south side and the important road to Bridgeport, Ala., north of the river. The only open road was a mountainous, tortuous, 60-mile trail from Bridgeport over Walden's Ridge and through Sequautchie Valley.
So, 150 years ago this week, the Army of the Cumberland was beleaguered by dwindling supplies, foul weather and occasional bombardment by Confederate artillery. Confederate Gen. "Fighting Joe" Wheeler, head of Bragg's cavalry, was busy all week raiding in south-central Tennessee to further destroy Rosecrans' supporting railroads, supply and communications lines. On Oct. 2, 1863, Wheeler's troopers executed raids in the Sequautchie Valley and at a place called Anderson's Cross Roads, they destroyed more than 700 Union supply wagons. In total, their raid destroyed 800-1000 Union wagons and yielded 1,600 prisoners.
Rice reported that: "To our sorrow we soon found that they (Confederates) had control of the water and railroad routes for a distance at least in our rear. We felt this most emphatically in our food supply. Possibly, they would eventually starve us out. Half rations became the order, closely followed by 'quarter rations,' and at times no rations at all. Whenever the cavalry of the enemy chose to make a raid in our rear, then for a time our cracker line was in jeopardy and no rations came through. An extended account of the privations and miseries endured by both men and animals during this siege I would gladly forget and banish from my mind."
But, help was on the way. Another "Fighting Joe," Gen. Joseph Hooker, was assigned to lead the detached XI and XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac to reinforce Rosecrans and help lift the siege of Chattanooga. Hooker's forces left Virginian by rail on September 25 and began to arrive in Bridgeport, AL, on October 2, 1863, having traveled 1159 miles in seven to nine days. However, Bragg's army kept the two Union forces from uniting for the time being. Also, Lincoln appointed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who had used the tactic of siege himself to force the surrender of the Confederate fortress of Vicksburg, Miss., on July 4, to head up the newly formed Military Division of the Mississippi, which gave him practically complete control of the Union operations in the Western Theater. He was soon on his way to Chattanooga to personally orchestrate the opening of a supply line to relieve the besieged Army of the Cumberland in the city.
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman would later follow from Vicksburg with four corps to further strengthen the fighting forces that would augment the Army of the Cumberland. In the waning weeks of 1863 the Confederate victory at Chickamauga would be canceled out with significant Union triumphs at the Battles of Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge. The Army of the Cumberland would be redeemed under the brilliant leadership of the Rock of Chickamauga, Gen. George H. Thomas.
Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren's Sutliff Museum.