Saving General Thomas’ Rations

General George Henry Thomas

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author Andrew Miller

A general needs his rations like any soldier in the army. Even more important is maintaining a well fed staff as they perform innumerable duties to guarantee that the general’s orders are obeyed. Major General George Henry Thomas and his staff would need their vittles as the Union Army of the Cumberland maneuvered against Braxton Bragg and his Confederate Army of Tennessee for control of northern Georgia. The first two weeks of September 1863 found these two armies feeling their way for an opportunity to strike one another. With a major battle imminent, General Thomas needed a reliable group of soldiers to safeguard the headquarters rations consistently supplied his overtaxed staff. His solution was an easy one: his personal headquarters guard, the Ninth Michigan Infantry.

The Ninth Michigan was commanded by Colonel John Gibson Parkhurst, a Coldwater, Michigan lawyer and former recording secretary at the 1860 Democratic National Convention. As a reward for their vindicated performance at the surrender of Murfreesboro, Tennessee in July 1862, the Ninth Michigan had been serving as General Thomas’ personal headquarters and provost guard since December. Now as the Army of the Cumberland moved to intercept the Confederate forces, supply trains needed to be protected from marauding rebel cavalry. Considered a simple and routine task, this trip would prove anything but easy.

Map of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, 1863

By 14 September 1863, the headquarters of George Thomas’ 14th Army Corps was located at Stevens Gap, a major passage through Lookout Mountain on the Cumberland Plateau. The headquarters ration train arrived this day from Stevenson, Alabama to supply General Thomas, his staff, and guards with their foodstuffs. The supplies were unloaded and the men had a bountiful dinner that night. “We had Green Corn, Irish Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes and Beans for dinner,” penned a content Corporal John C. Love of the Ninth Michigan Infantry. “The suply [sic] train has been onloaded [sic] and are to go back to Bridgeport [Alabama] in the morning for provisions.”[1]

Colonel John Gibson Parkhurst (Used with permission: John G. Parkhurst Papers, Collection 00025, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan)

For the return trip to Alabama, Colonel Parkhurst detailed Captain Stephen S. Barrows and his Company F of Ninth Michigan as guards to ensure the convoys safety. Second Lieutenant Charles Wilkes Bennett, an officer in Company F, remembered: “we had many experiences and adventures on this trip…” Bennett, like his colonel, was a resident of Coldwater, and became the principle author of the regimental history five decades after the war. But the young lieutenant was not thinking of anything but his immediate responsibilities on 14 September. Each day the regimental adjutant selects from a list of eligible officers an officer of the day. On 14 September, Bennett’s name was next and so he performed camp and garrison duties, guaranteeing all guards and posts were manned, all fatigue parties working, and all police matters handled. During the day, Confederate prisoners were brought to Bennett to be transported with the ration train the following day. “Unfortunately for the writer [Bennett], I…stayed up with them [the rebel prisoners] all night, and then started the next day on a hard march without any rest or sleep.”[2]

15 September was warm and dry. The nine wagons of the provision train carrying twenty-five rebel prisoners heading for Stevenson, Alabama. Captain Barrows, Lieutenant Bennett, and Company F enjoyed themselves as they made their way west. As the train rolled over the summit of Lookout Mountain, a rebel prisoner, not interested in finding himself confined in a Yankee prison, committed a drastic act. “One prisoner, an old man named Powell, who lived on Lookout Mountain, cut his throat with a dull jackknife just before we reached his home, and not believing he would live, we left him there, but sent a message to have our doctor come and treat him…” Other than the suicide attempt, nothing of consequence transpired for the Michiganders on the first trip; however that imminent battle the soldiers knew would happen erupted while the rations train was attempting their return trip. The Battle of Chickamauga would stand second only to Gettysburg in casualties on both sides, raging from 19-20 September 1863.[3]

On 20 September, as the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga thundered away, and while the rest of the Ninth Michigan Infantry was stemming the tide of routed Union soldiers, Company F was returning with their wagons loaded full. The cannonading was clearly audible throughout the hills. “We should have gone the other way, northward to Chattanooga,” wrote Lieutenant Bennett, “but our orders were to return to the place where we started.” That evening the wagons rolled into Johnson’s Crook, unaware of the outcome of the battle.[4]

The next morning, Company F performed herculean feats of back breaking work getting the convoy up the mountain range. “Teams had to be doubled and one wagon taken at a time, and men also pushing behind,” was noted in the regimental history. Once the train reached the summit, the trek was four miles in length before the road descended to Cooper’s Gap.

General Joseph Wheeler

Confederate Major General Joseph Wheeler, commander of the Army of Tennessee’s Cavalry Corps was looking for an opportunity. Though not present for most of the battle,  Wheeler was looking to gobble up as many prisoners, artillery, supplies, and rations as his men could. As the Army of the Cumberland retreated, large clouds of dust could be seen for miles as those thousands of men, horses, mules, artillery, and wagons made their way back to Chattanooga. “I observed a heavy dust in Chattanooga Valley,” Major General Joseph Wheeler reported, “which appeared to indicate a movement from Chattanooga along the foot of Lookout Mountain toward McLemore’s Cove.” The Michigan boys were about to find themselves in a race to escape the confines of a confederate prison camp.[5]

While General Thomas’ ration train was rolling over the top of the mountain they had worked so hard to ascend, a Union force under the command of Brigadier General Louis D. Watkins consisting of 600 Kentucky cavalrymen, 400 sick convalescents and 53 wagons became the subject of General Wheeler’s eyes. Much of the dust Wheeler saw was created by this Union cavalry column and the rebel general saw a prize to be captured. Wheeler attacked with between 3,000-5,000 rebel cavalrymen and it was simply a numbers game as he overwhelmed and routed the Federal column. In his official record of the sudden attack, General Watkins confessed: “Now commenced a running fight, but the wagons (as they only got as far as the foot of the mountain) blockaded the road and threw all into confusion.”[6]

General Louis D. Watkins

It was 3 o’clock PM and General Thomas’ headquarters wagons were moving through Cooper’s Gap when suddenly Watkins routed cavalry came dashing at the Michiganders. Lieutenant Bennett thought the terrified cavalryman “came rushing up like bees swarming from a hive.” These terrified cavalrymen were from Lieutenant Colonel William T. Hoblitzell’s Fifth Kentucky Cavalry who had been ordered to hold Cooper’s Gap. Instead, as General Watkins force was fighting a desperate withdrawal to save his wagon train, Hoblitzell and his men made a dash through Cooper’s Gap to save themselves and hightailed up the mountain for Chattanooga. With the departure of the 5th Kentucky, General Watkins ordered Major Welling of the 4th Kentucky to take command of the two companies and remain guarding the gap.[7]

Aware of their dangerous situation and probable capture, Barrows, Bennett and the rest of Company F immediately turned their wagon train north to Chattanooga, some twenty-four miles away. “I found on the mountain a small train of wagon, belonging to General Thomas’ corps,” General Watkins’s official report stated, “I told the captain in charge (Barrows) that I would place two regiments in front and one in the rear of his train, and make for Chattanooga.” Bennett remembered differently saying: “The colonel commanding the cavalry ordered us to burn the wagons and save the mules, but we refused, though we expected the rebels would soon overtake us, for there were two other passes where they could come up the mountain.” General Watkins “felt a great uneasiness on the march, as I had every reason to believe that the enemy would attempt to cut off my command by the Nickajack Gap.” Company F had charge of General Thomas’ ration wagons and believed if the wagons were captured, they would be captured defending them.[8]

Wagon Train

Bennett admitted, “I never experienced such a hot and dusty march before nor since, but you can bet we made fast time, expecting an attack by the rebels every minute.” The going was rough. The road, though level, was narrow and nerve-racking as a look on either of the wagon produced an ominous decline and decent into oblivion. “…one could look down into the valley each side, and in other places varying to three miles, well timbered except an occasional cleared patch and log dwelling.”[9]

Watkins and the cavalry escort stayed with the Michiganders until darkness set in. Once they departed, Company F was left to their thoughts and prayers for safe passage. It was after midnight going into 22 September before they began their descent of Lookout Mountain “…by the most crooked road I ever saw,” Bennett recalled. Wagons bounced, tipped, and flipped over in their haste to get back to friendly lines. At 2AM, three wagons tipped over at once and the column halted for the night in utter exhaustion, despair and frustration.[10]

Charles Wilkes Bennett, 2nd Lieutenant of Company F, 9th Michigan Infantry (shown as Brevet Major)

What was thought to be a halt and respite merely turned into a rest stop. An officer riding up to the wagon train reported that the rebel cavalry will be there before daylight. Understanding this, the men of Company F hitched their mules to the wagons, reloaded everything, and moved on. As daylight broke the eastern horizon, the column found the foot of Lookout Mountain. “Tuesday morning, Sept. 22, 1862 [sic], just as the head of our army was coming in from the battlefield” the headquarters train arrived on the outskirts of Chattanooga.[11]

Crossing Chattanooga creek, the weary men rumbled into Union lines and completed their assignment. Hoping to catch a break, the train halted to cook breakfast. Before they could even finish their meal the army began digging rifle pits and breastworks. Finding themselves in a bad place to be resting, they got back on the wagons and moved into Chattanooga proper. Here they found their regiment and heard the stories of the late battle. “They were delighted to see us for they concluded that we were all captured,” Bennett proudly stated. They also discovered that the rebel prisoner Powell, thought to have killed himself, had miraculously survived his neck wound.[12]

“From Monday morning to Tuesday morning (21-22 September) company F had marched over thirty miles besides getting our train up and down the mountain, had taken no time to rest, eat or sleep, and nearly suffocated from dust and suffered much from thirst.” This task, though minor in the history of the war, shows what these men could accomplish. Honor and duty bound to deliver the rations to headquarters, a command thoroughly exhausted from weeks of marching, hard fighting, and retrograde movement back to Chattanooga, it is no wonder everyone was “delighted” to see them. Bennett concluded proudly in the last sentence of his story: “…we saved the train with Gen. Thomas’ rations!”[13]

A general needs his rations…

Andrew Miller graduated from the State University of New York at Cortland with a B.A. in History, concentrating in Civil War Studies and went on to attain an M.S. in Library and Information Studies, concentrating in Cultural Heritage Preservation. He has been employed by the National Park Service since 2012, having the privilege of working at Stones River National Battlefield, General Grant National Monument, Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, Shiloh National Military Park, and Fort Pulaski National Monument. His current duty station is at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Andrew is married to his amazingly patient wife Emily and lives in New Rochelle, New York.

[1] Love, John C., 1840-1877. Transcript of correspondence and journal, 1863, September 14, 1863. Diary. From Bentley Historical Library Civil War Collections Online, John C. Love papers, 1861-1864. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/b/bhlcivilwar/2011385.0003.001/33?page=root;rgn=works;size=100;view=image;rgn1=citation;q1=love (accessed September 22, 2017).

[2] Bennett, Charles Wilkes. Historical Sketches of the Ninth Michigan Infantry (General Thomas’ Headquarters Guards) With an Account of the Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Sunday, July 13, 1862, Four Years Campaigning in the Army of the Cumberland (Coldwater, MI: Daily Courier Print, 1913), 33.

[3] Bennett, Historical Sketches of the Ninth Michigan Infantry, 33.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Scott, Robert, ed., The War of the Rebellion, A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890), Series I, Volume XXX, Part II – Reports, accessed September 22, 2017, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar;cc=moawar;idno=waro0051;q1=wheeler;view=image;seq=524;size=100;page=root.

[6] Scott, Robert, ed., The War of the Rebellion, A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890), Series I, Volume XXX, Part I – Reports, accessed September 22, 2017, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar;cc=moawar;q1=watkins;rgn=full%20text;idno=waro0050;didno=waro0050;view=image;seq=939;page=root;size=100

[7] Bennett, 34; Scott, The War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXX, Part I – Reports, accessed September 22, 2017, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar;cc=moawar;q1=watkins;rgn=full%20text;idno=waro0050;didno=waro0050;view=image;seq=940;page=root;size=100.

[8] Ibid; Bennett, 34.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.