Wednesday, February 15, 2012

103rd Illinois at Missionary Ridge

We last visited the 103rd Illinois Volunteers while they were having difficulty with the water in the Yazoo River country. Several things of importance have occurred since then.

The regiment had been marching all over Mississippi, with not much to show for the effort but sore feet. They were able to “capture a nice heard of hogs” along the way, 156 in number, and shortly thereafter were put on one-quarter rations, the foragers would see to the rest. [1] Evidently the bacon went to the Federal Commissary to be divided among everyone. Ah, the life of an infantryman! We must remember however that a regiment is only a part of a whole, and that whole now was Frank Blair's 15th Army Corps (Ewings 4th division), Shermans Army of the Tennessee. The regiment was attached to this command July 21, 1863. Other changes had occurred as well. The roster had been devastated by disease, one company mustering for duty only eleven men and another able to muster but twelve on August 17. The surgeon sent twenty per cent of the soldiers home, and a like number of officers if transportation could be found. It was hoped that the men could recuperate elsewhere better while allowing the healthy soldiers to remain so. Their camp, “Camp Sherman” as they called it, was now near the Big Black River. It was described as “well arranged and in a nice shady place and a great improvement over what we had before this time.”at Haines' Bluff, but bad water was found here too. The men left in camp had light fatigue duty, just enough to keep in shape, but no killing detail.[2] The remainder of the 103rd and the brigade would leave Camp Sherman September 28, and the men were “cheered by the prospect of getting into a more healthful climate with better water.” [3]
During this march Brigadier General John M. Corse attempted to mount the entire brigade but was able to procure enough horses for only two companies of the 103rd , C and G under the command of Captain Charles W. Wills of G company, and the 15th Michigan. They were detached for mounted service in North Alabama in early November.[4] Not only was the face of the 103rd changing, the brigade was changing.

Finally after weeks of rides on transport steamers and cross country marching during October and early November the footsore soldiers arrived at Trenton, Georgia on November 18. Lookout Mountain could be seen in the distance, and from the number of lights visible on it, it appeared to be “well garrisoned”. A new chapter was about to unfold for the boys from Illinois.[5] They were not destined for the encounter with the Confederates at Lookout Mountain however. There lot was more marching and their destination was the northern spur of Missionary Ridge, a place known as Tunnel Hill. On 24 November they helped clear a hill northwest of there of Rebel pickets. The brigade fortified that hill and the men of the 103rd hauled a battery of artillery (1st Missouri) to its top. The Missourians succeeded in driving the enemy under cover across the valley, then they rested knowing that there would be fighting on the morrow.
Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863
Alfred Waud

Major General Ulysses Grant had ordered Sherman to attack the enemy at Tunnel Hill at first light the morning of November 25 and the men were up well before daylight. They breakfasted on hardtack and coffee and shortly after 6 AM the brigade moved out and across the valley to begin the assault on the heavily timbered and fortified objective. Near the foot of the hill the brigade met the enemy skirmish line in partially finished defensive works and drove them back after an hours hard fighting into the works of the main Confederate line on the crest about 400 yards away. Here they waited and prepared for the next assault. It started about 11:00, the 40th Illinois in front as skirmishers, followed by three companies of the 103rd about thirty paces behind. The rest of the brigade was formed with the remaining companies of the 103rd on the right, 6th Iowa to their left then the 46th Ohio. The charge was sounded and the brigade moved forward with a shout, the companies of the 103rd in the skirmish line moved through the men of the 40th in their eagerness. In his official report, Colonel Charles Walcutt of the 46th Ohio (now in command of the brigade) writes of this charge:

The advance was sounded, and the several lines rushed over the brow of the hill under a most terrific fire. Being in easy canister and musket range, it seemed almost impossible for any troops to withstand it, but so eager were the men to take the new position that they charged through it, all with a fearlessness and determination that was astonishing.
The fight would continue for the next three or four hours and only after numerous unsuccessful attempts to dislodge the Rebels the men were recalled, leaving many dead and wounded on the field. Small groups that could not retire but found cover on the slope tried to make the enemy respect their presence by keeping up a constant fire inflicting some damage on them. Some of the men of the brigade were able to gain the works but most were killed.[6] Not all of them were however as the near capture at these works of one Joe Walters of Company F illustrates. As Walters drew near the defenses, a Rebel sergeant sprang across the wall and demanded “Gimme that gun and come in here you damn Yankee coward!” Walters thrust the rifle at his antagonist and said “Here, take the gun. It ain’t worth a cuss anyway.” It had been hit by a bullet and rendered inoperative. Directly a small Rebel corporal jumped the wall and giving the same command the big sergeant had given, grabbed Walters by the other arm. They had captured themselves a live Yankee! Or so it seemed, for coming up fast were two more men of the 103rd, Isaac Harn and another soldier who rescued their friend. Harn shot the big sergeant, and Walters dealt the little corporal a blow that knocked him senseless to the ground. Walters turned and dashed down the hill to safety with only the loss of a finger for his trouble despite the storm of led that followed him. Harn would later be killed. [7] The worst was over but fighting and shooting would continue until nightfall, when the men would collect their wounded and bury their dead, all the while skirmishing with the Confederates. This would trail off at around 3:00 AM when the Rebel return fire died away to nothing. They had withdrawn and were in retreat toward Dalton, Georgia. The morning of the 26th the men of the 103rd would retrieve their dead and wounded that fell near the enemy works which could not be reached during the previous night. They would then fall in with the rest of the army in pursuit of Braxton Bragg.
This little vignette of battle may be similar to many others except for one detail. From the time the 103rd Illinois was mustered into Federal Service in October 1862 until they were engaged at Missionary Ridge, this was to be their first battle. They had seen death from disease for over a year and considering all of these dead, the number of sick and unfit, and including the detachment of two companies for mounted service, the regiment would muster 236 muskets. They would leave behind them 92 more dead and wounded. At long last they had proven their mettle to the other regiments of the brigade and would no longer be accused of joining the army to “evade the draft and eat the rations.” They had seen the Elephant, and the price was terrible, there on Tunnel Hill.

Numbers 1-5 and 7 from Reminiscences of the Civil War from Diaries of Members of the 103rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, 1904.
Number 6 from War of the Rebellion, Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (OR)
1- Page 22
2- Page 18,19
3- Page 19, 20
4- Page 22
5- Page 23
6- OR, Series 1, Volume 31, part 2, Page 636.
7- Page 28
Missionary Ridge drawing by Alfred R. Waud from Library of Congress,


  1. You need a like button! I've seen some old photos of the terrain of Missionary Ridge, came across one the other day I hadn't seen before- gave me goose bumps to think of fighting in a place like that.

  2. A "like" Button? Your comment is good enough! Thank you! And yes, it is hard to imagine a worse patch of ground to be introduced to the Civil War.