Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Civil War Digression

Posts  about 19th century base ball will resume the week of December 1st, but this is a special post in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Chattanooga which began on November 23, 1863 and lasted until the 25th.  I especially want to honor the service of the 33rd New Jersey, a regiment that "saw the elephant" (experienced combat for the first time) in that battle.  The 33rd New Jersey was formed in Newark during the summer of 1863 and got off to an inauspicious start when about 25% of the men deserted before the regiment left Newark.  Initially the regiment was sent to Virginia where they were attached to the XI Corps which earlier that year had disgraced itself by running away at Chancellorsville and hadn't done much better at Gettysburg.

These young men from New Jersey probably thought that like most of the state's soldiers, they would serve in the East, but it didn't work out that way.  After the Union defeat at Chickamauga at the end of September of 1863 and the equally disastrous retreat back to Chattanooga, it was decided to send reinforcements to an army now commanded by U. S. Grant.  Probably thinking they could solve two problems at the same time, the government chose to sent the XI Corps as well as the XII Corps (another under performing unit) to Chattanooga under the overall command of Joseph Hooker, who had also failed at Chancellorsville.

Captain Samuel Waldron - Killed in Action at Chattanooga on November 23, 1863

The 33rd arrived in early October and spent most of the next seven weeks guarding a portion of the supply line into Chattanooga.  Eventually however, the regiment was ordered to Lookout Valley near Chattanooga where as Captain Samuel Waldron of the 33rd put it, "Certain it is one hundred and twenty thousand men are not massed here for nothing."  Waldron may not have had the correct total of the Union forces, but he was right that the Union forces were gathering in Chattanooga and nearby Lookout Valley for an assault on the Confederate positions on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain.

Colonel George Washington Mindil - 19 year old commanding officer of the 33rd New Jersey

The decisive struggle for Chattanooga began on the beautiful afternoon of November 23rd under "crystal blue autumn skies," when Grant ordered a reconnaissance in force towards Orchard Knob, a "steep, craggy knoll" between the Union lines and Missionary Ridge.  For some unaccountable reason, the Confederates thought the Union troops were forming up for some kind of drill or parade.  The ensuing attack quickly disabused them of that notion and the Union troops took Orchard Knob which today is home to battlefield monuments including that of New Jersey.

Captain William Boggs - mortally wounded at Chattanooga on November 23, 1863

The 33rd was to the left of the main attack and were ordered to advance in support at about 3:30.  They went no more than ten yards before coming under Confederate fire for the first time.  Almost immediately Captain William Boggs was shot through the left arm.  The 33rd's regimental commander, 19 year old Colonel George Washington Mindil ordered Lieutenant John Toffey to take Boggs' place.  Advancing through bullets that "flew like hailstones," Toffey arrived and had barely begun giving orders when he too was wounded in his thigh.  Also hit by Confederate fire was the aforementioned Captain Waldron who died instantly from a bullet through the heart.  Ultimately the 33rd's advance reached Citico Creek and the regiment held the near side of Citico Creek until relieved about 8:00 that night.

Contemporary view of Lookout Mountain

The struggle for Chattanooga would go on for two more days, with the 33rd only marginally engaged on the third day.  The second day was highlighted by the Federal assault on Lookout Mountain (the battle above the clouds), by that point the 33rd was on the far left of the Union line about as far away from the fighting as possible.  It's likely however that the Jerseymen joined the cheers that went up and down the Union lines the next morning when the fog cleared and the Stars and Stripes were seen atop Lookout Mountain.

Lieutenant John Toffey - wounded and permanently disabled on November 23, 1863

 The third day was, of course, the Union attack on Missionary Ridge, the Thirty-third was still on the far left and suffered some casualties from Confederate artillery.  The end of the battle brought no respite for the 33rd as on the following day they were part of a force sent off towards Knoxville to relieve the siege of that city.  The regiment were without their knapsacks so they spent the entire almost three week march with no tents and blankets, marching and sleeping in rain and mud, an experience that would be repeated frequently in their two years of service.

New Jersey monument on Orchard Knob at Chattanooga - photo by Wayne Hsieh

While the 33rd did not see heavy fighting at Chattanooga, their baptism of fire was not without cost, human cost.  In addition to Captain Waldron and Thomas Marsh who were killed on the battlefield, four other members of the regiment lost their lives at Chattanooga.  Captain Boggs died of his wounds as did William Post, Samuel Seering and Lewis Mangold.  John Toffey would survive his wound, but was disabled for the rest of his life.  In 1897 he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry that day in Chattanooga. In spite of his disability, Toffey served in the Veterans Reserve Corps in Washington D.C. where he was an eyewitness to Abraham Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater.

Thirty-third New Jersey's Battle Flag

After Chattanooga, the 33rd took part in all of William Tecumseh Sherman's great campaigns in the west, beginning with the Atlanta Campaign, followed by the March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign.  Effectively they walked from Chattanooga to Atlanta to Savannah to Washington D.C. before taking the train back to Newark in July of 1865.  The 150th anniversary of all those events will take place in 2014 and 2015 so there may very well be further Civil War digressions like this one.

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