Wednesday, November 27, 2013

“Fear & Dread” at Taylor’s Ridge

At 8 A.M., November 27, 1863, Brigadier General John W. Geary’s 2nd Division, 12th Corps, deployed for battle. That morning, Geary’s “White Star” division formed just east of the town of Ringgold, Georgia. A half-mile away, 4,200 Confederate infantry under Patrick Cleburne blocked the Union advance. Cleburne’s men held a lofty acclivity called Taylor’s Ridge. From it, they controlled the gap through which the Western and Atlantic Railroad passed.

(This image shows the battlefield of Taylor's Ridge--or Ringgold Gap, as it is sometimes known. The photograph is looking east toward the ridge. The town sits at middle distance. The gap is at the right and the position held by Cleburne's division is at the left, on the horizon.)

(This sketch depicts the November 27, 1863, battle, taken from the same perspective as the previous photograph. At middle distance, you can see the Ringgold train station. Just above it, Col. Creighton's brigade made its attack.)

(This map--courtesy of Military Graphics, 2005--depicts the battle. Note the position of Creighton's brigade at the north end of the line.)

(This photograph--courtesy of the author--depicts the modern-day battlefield. Creighton's brigade formed for battle in the left foreground.)
Fresh from his successful assault against Lookout Mountain only three days earlier, Geary anticipated an easy victory. He ordered his 1st Brigade under Colonel William Creighton to storm the Confederate-held heights. Giddy with delight, Creighton eagerly carried out his superior's instructions. He formed his brigade behind a railroad embankment just east of the town, giving his men a rousing pep talk as he did so. He barked, “We are ordered to take those heights, and I expect to see you . . . walk right over them!” With that, Creighton’s regiments surged over the embankment, advanced to the foot of the ridge, scaled a rail fence, passed over a brigade of Iowans lying prone at the foot of the ridge, and began ascending the steep mountain.

(Colonel William R. Creighton from Cleveland, Ohio, commanded Geary's 1st Brigade. He was mortally wounded during the battle.)

In the ranks of the 28th Pennsylvania, Sergeant Henry Hayward, a young needle-maker from Philadelphia, remembered hearing the order to attack. He wrote:

the first Brigade were orderd to the left to form line of Battle and to Charge the Ridge. [It was a] terrible order but we must obey. Brave Creighton of the 7th [Ohio] (Commanding [the] Brigade) came along the line (which was now under fire) and said boys, remember, you are the 1st Brigade, go right up that hill, never stop. we Advance! coming to a rail fence, each man pushes against it and we are over it. a number of men have already been wounded. we reach the base of the Mt and with Rifel in one hand (and the other to assist in Climbing) we rush with a Yell up the mountain passing through the broken line of one of Osterhauses Brigade that had been repulsed.  on we went fearless of Death.

(Sergeant A. Henry Hayward, Co. D, 28th Pennsylvania, left behind a vivid account of the Battle of Taylor's Ridge. Image courtesy of MOLLUS-USAMHI.)

Creighton’s regiments stalled short of the crest. Gamely, they tried to return fire, but they could inflict only minimal damage on Cleburne’s well-entrenched defenders. Hayward continued is narrative, describing the outcome of the dreadful engagement:

we fought the Rebels in this position for 2 hours. how unequal the Conflict. we could scarcely see the enemy who were concealed behind Breast Works while we stood exposed to their murderous fire. the 7th Ohio next on our left began to fall back. I knew we must go soon for we could keep up but a feeble fire against the enemy. I remember the feeling of dread when we were orderd to fall back slowly for I knew they would rise up out of their works and pour the bullets into us. down we went, half Slideing, catching the trees and holding on to the bushes, frequently passing men wounded or dead that had lodged against a rock or tree. we reformed again near the spot where we first advanced to the Charge. the Rolls were called and many who were present in the morning never would answer again.

(This Harper's Weekly sketch depicted Creighton's Brigade making its ill-considered assault. You can barely make out the Confederates, firing from the crest.)
(I took this photograph from the modern-day position of Cleburne's defenders. It is taken looking northwest. 150 years ago, at middle distance, you would have seen Creighton's brigade ascending from left to right.)

Colonel J. A. Williamson, who commanded the Iowa brigade at the foot of the ridge, remembered well the moment when Creighton’s Pennsylvanians and Ohioans came stampeding down the slope. He wrote, “when they gave way . . . [they] came down like an avalanche, carrying everything before them, and to some extent propagating the panic among my regiments.” In the end, the two-hour slugfest cost Geary’s men 432 casualties, nearly all from Creighton’s brigade. Creighton, too, died, shot in the chest at the end of the engagement.

Sergeant Hayward survived the assault, but the battle left him scarred on the inside. On December 2, Hayward wrote his father, describing how he felt about surviving the grisly encounter. He wrote, “I saw more of my Comrades shot down at Taylors ridge than in any other battle of the War. when I am rested and feel [like] myself again I will try to give you some Idea of my experience[.]” Somewhat bitter, he closed,

go to Taylors ridge and you will not wonder that the White Starr Division were repulsed trying to gain the summit. but you will call them brave men for leaving their dead so near the top. I am told that it was a mistake in ordering us to storm the ridge, but it is to[o] late. now the bravest men in our Brigade are gone. Col Creighton & Crane of the 7th Ohio were sacrificed.  they were Idolized by their men and familliar with all in the Brigade. . . . I am not unmindfull of the particular care with which I am allowed to live through such dreadfull sceans as those of last week.

The worst emotions came later. Twenty-two days after the battle, Hayward tried to narrate the story of Taylor’s Ridge a second time and he experienced trouble coming to grips with the loss of one of his friends, Corporal Henry C. Fithian. Hayward wrote:

many a good fellow in the first Brigade had fallen not to lay where they fell, but wounded and dead rolled togeather down the steep rocky soil of the mountain. I saw poor Fithian when he was struck. he had just spoke to me about his gun. it would not go off. the ball struck him in his side. he droped his Rifle. I saw that I could not reach him. I turned away dreading to see him roll down the mountain. I could tell you more of such tales but it is as unpleasent for me to bring them back to my memories as it is for you to read them.

Finally, Hayward wrote a line that always makes me do a double-take whenever I read it. He informed his father, “I experienced more fear & dread at Taylors Ridge than at either Chancellorsville, Antietam, or Gettysburgh.”

Hayward's letters reminds us that a battle need not leave piles of dead in order to be truly frightening. The Battle of Taylor’s Ridge may have cost the bluecoats only 432 physical casualties, but the terrifying conditions of combat left behind hundreds of psychologically wounded men. Hayward was one of them.

(Corporal Henry C. Fithian, Co. D, 28th Pennsylvania, was killed at Taylor's Ridge. Image courtesy of MOLLUS-USAMHI.)

(Here is Fithian's final resting place, Chattanooga National Cemetery. All of the Taylor's Ridge casualties are lumped together in a section at the center of the cemetery near the present-day flag-staff.)


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