Wartrace, Tenn., July 5, 1863
At length I have a little time to devote to you, but the mail leaves for Murfreesboro so soon that I will not have time to scarcely commence telling you all I want to, and this letter, be it ever so short, must get off in this mail, for you have been waiting and watching too long now. I feel good all over this morning, happy as a lark, and I can't tell why, unless it is because we have seen so much hard service, within the past 12 days, have worked so well and fought so well as to win the applause of our fellow soldiers, and that I am through it all safe. Our brigade has rendered notable service in this great army, so much so, that General Rosecrans, two days since, sent a letter of congratulation to our brigade commander saying that we would be mentioned in "orders" as soon as possible, and requesting that 300 men from the several regiments of the brigade, should be sent to his headquarters to serve as his "body guard." You may think this a trifle, but soldiers are in some respects like children, and are pleased with trifles.
On the morning of June 24th, at 3 o'clock, we left camp 5 miles north of Murfreesboro, and started to the "front," in advance of everything. As we passed through the camps in Murfreesboro, the rattle of drums, sounding of bugles, and clatter of wagons, told us plainly that the whole army was to follow in our wake, and we knew full well, from the direction we were taking, that a few hours march would bring the brigade to some of the strongholds of the enemy, so there was silence in the column as we moved along through the mud, and every ear was strained to catch the sound of the first gun of our advance guard that would tell us of the presence of the enemy.
Soon after daylight a heavy rain commenced falling which continued without interruption all day and night, and has continued ever since, with only a few hours cessation at a time. About noon the first gun was fired, and then we pushed ahead rapidly, for we were nearing the formidable "Hoover's Gap," which it was supposed would cost a great many lives to pass through, and our brigade commander determined to surprise the enemy if possible, by a rapid march, and make a bold dash to pass through the "Gap" and hold it with our brigade alone until the rest of the army could get up. We soon came into the camp of a regiment of cavalry which was so much surprised by our sudden appearance that they scattered through the woods and over the hills in every direction, every fellow for himself, and all making the best time they could bareback, on foot and every other way, leaving all their tents, wagons, baggage, commissary stores and indeed everything in our hands, but we didn't stop for anything, on we pushed, our boys, with their Spencer rifles, keeping up a continual popping in front. Soon we reached the celebrated "Gap" on the run.
This "Gap" is formed by a range of hills that run westwardly from the Cumberland mountains, and the pike runs for about two miles through between these hills; the valley is barely wide enough to admit the passage of two wagons side by side, and the hills upon either side command the valley completely; as we swept through the valley with our 1,500 horsemen on a gallop we noticed the lines of entrenchments crowning the hills, but they were deserted; the enemy was surprised and flying before us, so we pushed onward until we passed entirely through the "Gap," when a puff of white smoke from a hill about half a mile in front of us, then a dull heavy roar, then the shrieking of a shell told us we could advance no further as we had reached their infantry and artillery force. But we had done enough, had advanced 6 miles further than ordered or expected possible, and had taken a point which it was expected would require a large part of the army to take; but the serious question with us now was: "Could we alone hold it in the presence of superior force?" We were at least 12 miles in advance of our army, and from prisoners we learned that we were confronted with 4 brigades of infantry and 4 batteries. The mail is ready. Will continue story in another letter.
Wartrace, Tenn., July 5, 1863.
Having hurried off the piece of a letter which I so abruptly closed a few moments ago, so as to get into the mail, I now resume my talk with you. As soon as the enemy opened on us with their artillery we dismounted and formed line of battle on a hill just at the south entrance to the "Gap," and our battery of light artillery was opened on them, a courier was dispatched to the rear to hurry up reinforcements, our horses were sent back some distance out of the way of bursting shells, our regiment was assigned to support the battery, the other three regiments were properly disposed, and not a moment too soon, for these preparations were scarcely completed when the enemy opened On us a terrific fire of shot and shell from five different points, and their masses of infantry, with flags flying, moved out of the woods on our right in splendid style; there were three or four times our number already in sight and still others came
pouring out of the woods beyond. Our regiment lay on the hill side in mud and water, the rain pouring down in torrents, while each shell screamed so close to us as to make it seem that the next would tear us to pieces.
Presently the enemy got near enough to us to make a charge on our battery, and on they came; our men are on their feet in an instant and a terrible fire from the "Spencers" causes the advancing regiment to reel and its colors fall to the ground, but in an instant their colors are up again and on they come, thinking to reach the battery before our guns can be reloaded, but they "reckoned without their host," they didn't know we had the "Spencers," and their charging yell was answered by another terrible volley, and another and another without cessation, until the poor regiment was literally cut to pieces, and but few men of that 20th Tennessee that attempted the charge will ever charge again. During all the rest of the fight at "Hoover's Gap" they never again attempted to take that battery. After the charge they moved four regiments around to our right and attempted to get in our rear, but they were met by two of our regiments posted in the woods, and in five minutes were driven back in the greatest disorder, with a loss of 250 killed and wounded.
On that part of the field an incident occurred worthy of mention; for it shows the spirit of the men of this brigade. A corporal of the [17th] Ind. was shot through the breast at the first fire; he had always said, as indeed all our men do, that the enemy should never get hold of his "Spencer" to use it; he hadn't strength to break it so he took out his knife, unscrewed a part of the lock plate and threw it away, rendering the gun entirely useless, he then fell back amid the storm of bullets, lay down and died.
We held our ground with continual fighting until 7 o'clock in the evening, when we discovered a battery coming up to our support as fast as the horses could run, and such a cheer as was sent up does one good to hear. In a few minutes our new battery was opened and we all felt better. We were nearly exhausted with the rapid march since before daylight in the morning, the continual rain, the half day's fighting, and nothing to eat since about two o'clock in the morning, yet the prospect of assistance nerved the men to maintain the unequal conflict a little longer. About half past seven in the evening along came a weary, jaded regiment of infantry, trying to double quick, but it was all they could do to march at all; we greeted them with such lusty cheers as seemed to inspire them with new vigor, and they were soon in position; then came two more regiments of infantry, weary and footsore, but hurrying the best they could to the dance of death; then just at dark came our Division Commander, with his staff, and riding along our lines gave words of cheer to his brigade that had fought so long and well. In a few minutes up came General Thomas, our corps commander, his grave face beaming with delight as he grasped our brigade commander by the hand and said: "You have saved the lives of a thousand men by your gallant conduct today. I didn't expect to get this Gap for three days."
By this time darkness had put an end to the fighting, but there we lay on that hill side in line of battle all night, and I think I slept as well there, without blankets and soaking wet, as I ever did at home. At 3 o'clock in the morning two other brigades came up and took our places in line, so as to be in readiness to renew the fight in the morning, and we fell back to eat and rest. On the morning of the 25th, at daylight, the fight was renewed by the enemy; a heavy skirmish fire was kept up all day, and heavy cannonading, we having 6 batteries in play at once and the enemy an equal number. On the morning of the 25th, too, the sound of McCook's fighting on the Shelbyville road, some 9 miles to our right, reached us, and it was kept up steadily all day.
On the morning of the 26th, Gen. Rosecrans, who had come out to the "Gap," ordered Thomas' corps to advance and our Division was placed in the advance of the corps, our brigade in the advance of the Division and our regiment in the advance of the brigade. We started about ten o'clock.
The enemy fell back before us without firing a shot and beat a rapid retreat for Tullahoma. We moved on all day and encamped within 4 miles of Manchester on the night of the 26th; on the morning of the 27th our regiment started in the advance and went to Manchester on a gallop, we swept by the deserted fortifications of the town on a full run, and while the citizens were at their breakfast tables we dashed into the public square, scattered out in small parties, and in five minutes every street and alley was occupied by Yankees, the town was surrounded, and a rebel major and about 50 soldiers, left as a rear guard, were captured and marched to the court house. I was immediately ordered to take 100 men and pursue some rebels who were said to be escaping by the McMinnville road; in a few minutes I was off without a guide and pursued the rebels about 4 miles but my horses were worn out and theirs fresh, so I had to give up the chase and return.
We went into camp at Manchester in the afternoon, and during the whole day Thomas' corps and most of Crittenden's came up and went into camp. We were now within 11 miles of Tullahoma, that has so long been the boasted stronghold and hope of the rebs. On the night of the 27th an order came to march at 6 o'clock on the morning of the 28th, with none but serviceable horses, capable of enduring a very long and fatiguing march, and the men to take along nothing to eat but five days' rations of salt. As soon as that order came we knew it meant hard work for our brigade, so the Col. and myself sat down under a tree and wrote very brief letters to our respective wives, not knowing when they would ever hear from us again, and I guess it is doubtful whether those letters got through.
At five o'clock on the morning of the 28th I was in the saddle and wasn't out of it again until one o'clock on the morning of the 29th. The brigades left Manchester at 6 o'clock in the morning, and soon leaving the road, we struck off into the woods until we struck an unfrequented road winding around the base of the Cumberland mountains. Here our regiment was detached from the brigade, and the object of the expedition made known, for the first time, to the field officers, viz: to cut the railroad between Tullahoma and Chattanooga at as many points as possible. Our regiment was to strike the railroad at Allisonia, the first station south of Tullahoma, destroy a bridge there, then follow the railroad and meet the rest of the brigade at Cowan, just in the corner of Alabama, where we were all to engage in filling up a tunnel so as to prevent reinforcements coming from Chattanooga to Tullahoma. This we were to do provided we could without being captured.
Our regiment branched off from the brigade, following bridle paths through the woods, and swimming the swollen streams that came tumbling in angry torrents from their mountain sources near by. After traveling about 30 miles we suddenly came in sight of the road leading south from Tullahoma, and to our surprise the road was filled with rebel wagon trains, infantry and batteries of artillery moving southward rapidly. Bragg's army was slipping away and we didn't have the strength to stop it. How little did they think, as they were moving along, 12 miles in the rear of Tullahoma, that a regiment of Illinois Yankees was in the woods, within easy musket range of them, quietly watching their movements and noting their numbers. But oh! how the men chafed, as they saw flag after flag pass us and we did not dare attack them. To attack would have been madness, for there was a whole Division (Withers) with infantry, artillery and cavalry, so we lay quiet for more than an hour while they were passing, then noiselessly countermarched, intending to return to where we left the brigade and follow its trail until we overtook it, but when we reached the point at which we left it it was one o'clock in the morning, and we found that Gen. John Beatty's brigade had come there during the day and was encamped.
We concluded to halt there until four o'clock in the morning, so as to rest our horses a little, and send a despatch to Rosecrans informing him how the enemy were evacuating Tullahoma. Col. [Monroe], of my regiment, wrote out the despatch, and I, being acquainted with Gen. Beatty, sent it to him together with a note requesting him to send a courier from his command with it to Gen. Rosecrans. Beatty did so, and after our three hours' rest, we started on the trail of the brigade, at 4 A. M. on the morning of the 29th, and soon started up the Cumberland mountains in a terrible thunder storm. When we reached the summit of the mountains the elemental war was raging in its greatest fury; the reverberations of the thunder rolled through the valleys below us, and the lightning appeared to be flashing below our feet, all this, combined with the dangerous character of our expedition, was enough to try the nerves, but no one dared to fall out, for that would be certain capture at least. About noon of the 29th we struck the railroad again, after descending the mountain side, and found the track torn up, rails bent and scattered all around; we knew this meant that the rest of the brigade had been more fortunate than we and had accomplished their task before the enemy's column reached there, so we pushed on hopefully, and about 2 P. M. when within about five miles of the Alabama line, we overtook the brigade resting in a deep wooded valley.
There was a river in front, so swollen by the continuous rain as to be impassable, and we were compelled to give up the design of destroying the tunnel, and just as an order was issued for us to prepare to bivouac for the night without fires, our pickets on our south front came rushing in saying that the enemy was advancing on us in force.
A rapid retreat was immediately ordered, and back we all started, striking directly into the mountains, without looking for roads. We traveled in the mountains until midnight, then descended from the mountains, single file, by a narrow bridle path, and bivouacked in the valley until morning, without having any very clear idea of where we were. At daylight on the morning of the 30th we started again on our backward march, reaching Manchester again on the evening of the 30th, but when we reached there most of the army had gone forward to Tullahoma. Rosecrans, immediately on receiving our despatch, ordered the army forward and the next night it occupied Tullahoma. Not more than two hours before our advance reached Manchester on our return there, General Stanley, who commands all the cavalry of this army, in an interview with Rosecrans, said that our brigade would never get back, that it would certainly be surrounded and captured, and indeed they were still discussing the probability of our capture when our brigade commander, covered with mud and soaked with the steady rain of 7 days, dismounted from his jaded horse before the door of Rosecrans tent and walked in upon the astonished Generals to make report. Rosecrans reply was: "All right [Wilder], I know you now. Take your brigade any place you can find forage and rest yourselves until you are again needed. I want you to furnish me a body guard of 300 of your men."
We bivouacked the night of the 30th at Manchester and on the morning of July 1st moved out into a beautiful valley where food and water were abundant, and turning our horses loose let them eat all day while we slept. July 1st we had no rain, but
with the exception of that day, it has rained every day since we left Murfreesboro, and from the morning of June 24th to the morning of July 1st we lived in the rain, slept in the mud and rain and were as wet as fish in the river all that time, but it has not caused me a moment's sickness, and I feel first rate after it all. Some officers of the brigade have gone to the hospital, some have tendered their resignations and we used up 500 horses. From the time we left Manchester until our return there our horses had nothing to eat except what leaves and grass they could nip as we went along, and they got so that they would eat blankets, saddle skirts and anything else they could get into their mouths. I have frequently read of such privations but never believed it to be true, but I know such things to be true now; yet with all its risk and privations I love this kind of service and would like to be engaged in it all the time. That trip will never be fully reported, there was too much rough work in it, consequently we had no reporters with us, but we are satisfied; every soldier in this army knows our brigade now, and that is a distinction more highly prized than a dozen newspaper puffs.
On the 3rd of July we came to this place for rest, and spent the 4th, yesterday, in sleeping and trying to clean up a little.
If it had not rained yesterday I should have gone over to Shelbyville, 8 miles from here, to see Colonel Reid of the 121st Ohio, who, I understand is in command of that place. Shelbyville is a Union place, and the loyal citizens there had an old fashioned 4th of July celebration yesterday. The Tennessee troops are deserting Bragg in numbers and coming into our lines, and unless Bragg is reinforced greatly within the next four weeks Rosecrans will destroy him, as it looks to us here now. Everything looks favorable now; all our armies are moving at the same time for the first time since the war began, and if Dix and Meade will do anything in the east the rebellion will fade with the autumn leaves. We may, however, be too sanguine
in this army; we don't look for a defeat, we don't count on a retreat; with Rosecrans to lead we think we can go anywhere in the confederacy.
Many wealthy, influential people in this section of Tennessee are intensely loyal, and I expect Shelby county, Tennessee, is as loyal today as many a county in Ohio. I do wonder if men will be permitted to openly advocate the election of Vallandingham as Governor, in Ohio?
We shoot such men on sight down here and it would be quite as just to deal with them the same way up there. Never mind, many of us will live to get home again, and a day of retribution will come upon those cowards who have been operating with our enemies. Please let father and mother know I am well and all in one piece yet.