Sunrise on Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Since traveling to the beautiful place in this picture, and to cloud-shouldered Missionary Ridge to its east–shown in my Heading photograph above–I have been thinking a lot about the individual soldier’s experience of war, and what kind of person my great grandfather was. Samuel Rohrer was a 20-year-old private in the Union Army when he survived the bloody, vicious Battle of Chickamauga, one of the largest conflicts of the War Between the States, and retreated with his fellows to Chattanooga.
In a letter he wrote to his family in October, 1863, a month after that battle, Sam says only, “We have had some pretty lively times since you heard from me before…” He mentions the “Rebs”, too, saying about the experience of being on picket at the encampment, “We are pretty close to the Rebs on picket. We are about thirty yards apart, but there is a little creek between us. We don’t shoot at one another. We have made a kind of an agreement not to shoot pickets unless one side or the other advances, so we trust to each other’s honor.”
(Please click the link for my post on Aug. 6th to the right if you wish to read Sam’s letter)
Standing on the Chickamauga battlefield myself, I was hard-pressed to imagine the even-tempered, honorable, and practical young man of this letter, shooting at others his own age all day long in constant, ear-splitting noise and noxious smoke. Just at dusk, when Sam’s commander, Colonel Philemon Baldwin, received orders to withdraw, the brigade was attacked anew and fought until an hour after dark, with no light but discharging rifles to identify friend or foe. Colonel Baldwin was killed, as was Sam’s regimental commander, Colonel Hiram Strong, who was from Dayton, Ohio, as Sam was. Then, no doubt, exhausted and heartsick, was he to set grief aside, rise early the next morning, and do it all again with the men who survived? Yes, he was, and he did. They all did.
The brigade fought through the second day, too, until ordered to retreat about 5:30 P.M. Sam mentions picking up a revolver from the battlefield for his father, and adds, “If we had not been forced to leave the field, I should have procured several, for they were plenty enough. But as you have heard, you may judge, it was not very healthy to stay and look for trophies.”
It was a trek of several miles from Chickamauga to Chattanooga, where 80,000 weary Union survivors retreated and set up camp on a bend of the Tennessee River. They were effectively trapped, as there were no bridges, and the Tennessee was a wild river then, its present dams still far in the future.
The Confederate Army pursued the Yankees, but did not engage them. Despite the Chickamauga victory, the Union still outnumbered them. The 35,000 Southern troops, though, gamely climbed with their wheeled Napoleon guns (like small cannons) to the top of Lookout Mountain, southwest of the city, and Missionary Ridge to the east. With their guns trained on the Union encampment below, and the memory of victory fresh in their minds, perhaps things didn’t look so bad to the Confederates from on high. However, the range of their Napoleons was not long enough to reach the Union encampment two miles away. They fired at intervals, anyway, perhaps to remind the Yankees they were ready, anytime they decided to move south into their sights. Then they sat by the guns and waited…and waited…and waited–for two months.
Was that enough respite from the hell of battle to restore spirits on both sides? I suppose no one knows, but Sam did not write his calm and steady narrative of rain, pickets, trust, and honor until October, a month after Chickamauga, when neither army was yet prepared to renew hostilities. No doubt the rest revived his spirit and resolve, as it must have for his comrades. During that time, Union Army engineers were building a pontoon bridge over the river, finishing about the first week of November.
Sam remarks wryly, “From the appearance of things around this place, we will have another time of it worth mentioning.” Then he adds, in the practical manner of a well-rested, seasoned veteran, “When they come, we will do as we have done before, give them the best we have got in the shop.”
Then things happened quickly. General Grant arrived a week later, ousted General Rosecrans, whom he held responsible for the debacle at Chickamauga, and took charge himself, placing his headquarters atop a small hill called Orchard Knob, near what is now downtown Chattanooga.
General William Tecumseh Sherman’s division arrived, and as General Hooker approached the river to the west with his division from Alabama, Sam’s 93rd Ohio regiment was deployed onto pontoon boats and floated down the Tennessee to cover their arrival. What followed on Lookout Mountain is called “The Battle Above the Clouds.” Hooker’s men took advantage of the cloud cover the next morning and surprised the Confederates, who, being short-handed, had no choice but to retreat. Other Union brigades, including Sam’s, fought in the low clouds on the slopes of Missionary Ridge and, after severe losses, forced the Confederate Army south.
A plaque in a front yard a block from Orchard Knob attests to the fact that Sam’s 93rd Ohio Infantry defended General Grant’s headquarters there. Then they joined General Sherman’s division, bringing his total troops to some 110,000 men. Without delay, they dispatched the Confederates at Kennesaw Mountain and during several smaller engagements, until at last Atlanta fell into Union hands, assuring the eventual complete Union victory over the South.
Visiting the National Military Parks in Tennessee and Georgia is an eye-opening and emotional experience for a descendant of a Civil War veteran who fought there. I found myself mighty relieved to learn that, although Sam marched to Atlanta with General Sherman, he did not continue on with him to Savannah and the sea. Sam was mustered out at Nashville after the war, in June of 1865, and returned to Dayton, where he farmed and led a quiet life until his death at age 65, in 1908, not long before my dad, one of his grandsons, was born.
I suppose those of us who’ve never been to war cannot begin to fathom the mark it leaves on the souls of those, both military and civilian, who are caught up in it. Perhaps it has always been so. Yet now, 150 years after our own most devastating conflict, after even General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself cautioned that we could not go on this way, war continues. What the Roman historian Tacitus observed 2000 years ago still seems sadly true: “The passion for glory is the last from which even wise men free themselves.” And the steadfast, honorable, and loyal foot soldier must follow.