Night Fight at Wauhatchie Part 3

by Dan O'Connell on May 22, 2012 · 0 comments

Battle Joined

Bratton’s efforts to get into position continued for two hours after the appointed attack time. The nearly full moon was obscured by clouds and the darkness made it impossible, according to Geary, “to see a body of men only 100 yards distant.” Bratton’s skirmishers finally made contact with the Federal pickets about 0030 and the resulting fire drove them back into the main camp. The retreating pickets of companies C and G of the 29th Pennsylvania reformed at the battery in the rear of the Union line. The sudden eruption of fire and retreating men caused confusion in the Federal camp. Bratton reported that there was
“…considerable commotion in their camp. Whether it was of preparation to receive or leave us I could not tell, but the hurrying hither and tither could be seen by the light of their camp fires, which they were then extinguishing.”

One thing was certain, despite all Geary had done to avoid surprise he was caught completely off guard. Writing many years later CPT George Collins of the 149th New York recorded that “the men were thoroughly surprised and unprepared for an enemy whose presence they could not divine.” Bratton sensed the time was right to initiate the main attack. He sent three regiments (1st SC, 2nd SC and 5th SC) into the heart of the Union position. The Palmetto Sharpshooters were dispatched to the rail line to seek out the right flank of the enemy. Hampton’s Legion formed a reserve and the 6th SC guarded the Brown’s Ferry road to prevent the main body from being taken in the rear by any Union forces moving down from that direction.

The Federal commanders overcame the early confusion and assembled a line that included the 137th NY on the far left, the 111th PA and 109th PA formed the center, the 78th NY and 149th NY turned a 90 degree corner at the railroad embankment to form the right. The four guns of Knap’s battery lay badly exposed about 50 yards behind the main line. The infantry met the Confederate assault with volleys fired from a prone position. Knap’s pieces joined in, firing at maximum depression over the “prostrate forms and within a few feet of our infantry line.” With the engagement this close, limited visibility, and short fuses the inevitable happened. LT Pettit of Company B the 111th PA was decapitated by a round fired from the artillery. A fellow officer, LT Black of Company K, had both his legs destroyed by a short round. Nevertheless, the combined weight of fire from the four pieces and the infantry line stopped Bratton’s attack on the center.

The Fight Continues

The inability to force the center of the Federal line caused Bratton to adopt new tactics. He recalled the 6th SC from duty on the Brown’s Ferry Road to serve as a reserve and threw the Hampton Legion out to test the Union left. Combat in the center remained static as the Hampton Legion trudged off into the swampy area to the west. The devastating effect of the fire from the four artillery pieces singled them out for special attention. The word was passed down the Confederate line to target the gunners. Fire from the railroad embankment was particularly effective. With the flash of the rounds illuminating the scene for the Confederate marksmen the gunners were reduced at a terrifying rate. Eventually one gun had to be retired for want of crew to man it. It soon became apparent that action would have to be taken against this portion of the line to reduce the “very severe fire on us.” A recommendation was made to move a gun across the rail line to enfilade the Confederate position. At first the chief of artillery MAJ John Reynolds was reluctant to make the effort fearing the gun would be captured by the Palmetto Sharpshooters but Colonel Rickards offered up the returned men from the 29th PA’s picket force (C and G) that had been assembled there at the beginning of the engagement for the task. A gun was manhandled into position by the Pennsylvanians . The newly repositioned gunners exacted their revenge.

“After two or three rounds we got the range and swept the enemy from the bank.”

To retard any further Confederate efforts to get into their rear Companies A and F of the 29th were deployed into the woods and the situation on the Federal right stabilized.

Meanwhile on the Union left the men of the Hampton Legion emerged from the swamp and found themselves in the Federal rear and amongst the wagon train. A few shots scattered the teamsters and guards and set some of the teams screaming off in every direction in a terrified attempt to get out of the way of the carnage. This “Charge of the Mule Brigade” has been widely overplayed and caused as much disruption to the Union attempts to counter the Confederate move as it did to the attackers. The most that can be said is that the momentary confusion created by these animals and the Confederate soldiers pausing to loot some of the wagons allowed just enough time for the Union troops to meet the attack from an unexpected direction. A sharp eyed adjutant, LT Mix, correctly evaluated the situation and refused two companies of the 137th NY (B and G) to meet the challenge. As the Confederates maneuvered for position they were raked across their flank by the fire of these two companies. The movement evaporated under the barrage. The Union left was saved and the field slowly quieted as the Confederates regrouped and considered their options.

The fierce two and a half hour struggle in the October darkness had exhausted the men on both sides and their ammunition supplies as well. The flanking attempts although defeated had used up nearly all the Federal ammunition. Colonel Ireland, leading the XII Corps contingent of Geary’s column, reported that by “sending to the hospital and cutting the cartridge boxes from the dead and wounded they has a supply until the close of the action.” At the conclusion of the action “there were not 200 cartridges in the regiment.” BG Geary was aware of the growing ammunition crisis but wrote in his report that there was no thought of retreat. He was going to hold his ground, determined to “depend on the bayonet should our ammunition fail.”

Across the field the Confederate commander, COL Bratton remained confident. Despite being rebuffed on his first two efforts he believed that “the position of things were entirely favorable to a grand charge.” The 6th SC was still available and he brought them forward to reinforce his new effort on the Union right. His troops were arranged in a “wide spread V”. The Palmetto Sharpshooters were reorganized on the left and with the 2nd SC and newly arrived 6th SC formed the left arm of the V. The 1st SC formed the base and the 5th SC and Hampton’s Legion extended southwest to form the right. The combatants set their teeth for what was sure to be a desperate struggle to the end.

Wauhatchie (Campaign Series)

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