By “first Thanksgiving Day”, no, I do not mean the harvest thanksgiving meal which the Separatist colonists of New Plymouth shared uncomfortably with their Wampanoag neighbors. Nor do I mean any of the thanksgivings proclaimed on a one-time basis by a U.S. President after that. In this case, the “First Thanksgiving Day” means the inaugural event of those that have taken place every third or fourth Thursday of November since.
At the height of the Civil War, in the aftermath of losses of Chancellorsville and Chickamauga as well as the horrific Union casualties at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday of November would be a day of national thanksgiving every year. Essentially, it was a public relations move to distract a war-weary population.
The Confederacy held a similar observance on 21 August of that year for similar reasons. In that case, the observance in Chattanooga was interrupted by the guns of John T. Wilder’s brigade on Stringer’s Ridge.
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I first got interested in the battles the day after the big battles on 25 November when Becky Eaves, historian to East Brainerd and to Concord Baptist Church, told me about how her brothers used to gather up minie balls by the bucket-load to sell as fishing weights. They gathered them from all over the farm which their parents had inherited from the Blackwell ancestors. I became even more so after moving to Grays Drive and realizing the Army of Tennessee had probably retreated right through my front yard.
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Little did Lincoln know when he made that proclamation on 3 October 1863 that on the day so designated, 26 November that year, the Confederate Army of Tennessee would be fleeing in desparation and somewhat disarray after its disastrous defeat on Missionary Ridge at the hands of the Union Army of the Cumberland. According to reports in the Official Record of the War Between the States and letters from participating soldiers, there were several engagements fought during the retreat that day.
The day before, Hardee’s Corps of the Army of Tennessee had just been settling down to celebrate Patrick Cleburne’s victory at the “Battle of Tunnel Hill, Tn.” over William T. Sherman at at the northern end of the ridge, when the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge broke in the face of the charge by the Army of the Cumberland against its front and the sudden belated appearance Hooker’s corps from the Army of the Potomac at Ross’ Gap.
Having saved the day, or so it thought, Cleburne’s Division now found itself assigned rearguard for the withdrawal to Chickmauga Station after having fought in heavy battle from 9 am to 4:00 pm against a vastly superior force. In fact, Hardee’s entire corps had remained intact and held its positions, withdrawing in good order starting at 7:45 pm beginning with Cheatham’s Division, then Walker’s Division, then Stevenson’s Division, and finally Cleburne’s Division. Smith’s Brigade of Cleburne’s Division, which had born he brunt of the worst of the fighting, did not leave Tunnel Hill until 9:00 pm.
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The first post-Missionary Ridge engagement occurred that evening, between forward elements of Philip Sheridan’s 2nd Division of the 4th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland and unknown elements of the Army of Tennessee, including artillery.
After leaving the ridge, Sheridan’s division followed the trail over the ridge well past nightfall. In that time, Bird’s Mill Road followed Talley Road until it veered north, then ran down what is now Old Mission Road (referring to the former Brainerd Mission). At the point where the road ran over Talley Hill, Confederates from the rearguard had set up a number of cannon and a line of infantry, which slowed Sheridan’s pursuit enough that he and his division had to stop for the night at Bird’s Mill and the old mission.
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Chickamauga Station, the depot of which stood across the road from the airport terminal, was the designated rendezvous point for the retreating forces after Gen. Braxton Bragg’s catastrophic loss at Missionary Ridge. From there the next day, the Army of Tennessee began withdrawing in two columns ideally following two separate routes. Maj. Gen. John Breckenridge commanded one column, with Walker’s Division (under Brig. Gen. States Rights Gist) as its rear guard, while Lt. Gen. William Hardee commanded the other, with Cleburne’s Division as its rear guard. (Col. John W.) Grigsby’s Brigade of Kelly’s Division of (Maj. Gen. Joseph) Wheeler’s Cavalry Corps divided to protect the two rearguards.
(Brig. Gen. Lucius) Polk’s Brigade of Cleburne’s Division and (Brig. Gen. George) Maney’s Brigade of Stevenson’s Division, temporarily detached to Cleburne’s Division, were detailed to destroy the vast commissary stores at the depot, but there was too much. (Brig. Gen. Joseph) Lewis’ Orphan Brigade out of Kentucky, part of Breckenridge’s Division but also seconded to Cleburne, formed the rear of the rear guard, covering for the other two brigades.
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The vanguard of the Union pursuit was Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis’ 2nd Division of the 12th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. Behind him came the 11th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland under Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard (for whom Howard High School and Howard Elementary are named). When he learned from scouts the troops of the Confederate reaguard were the Kentuckians of Lewis’ Brigade, Davis made his 1st Brigade under James D. Morgan, also Kentuckians, the forward element of his division.
The first encounter between the two opposing units of Kentuckians took place at a hill north of Chickamauga Station, the same which Polk’s Brigade of Cleburne’s Division had held the day before. After a brief skirmish, the Confederate Kentuckians withdrew to Chickamauga Station, where soldiers of Maney’s and Gist’s Brigade were vainly attempt to burn everything while stuffing as much food as they could wherever they could.
When Morgan’s Brigade reached the outskirts of Chickamauga around high noon, the Orphan Brigade covered the withdrawal of their in the second encounter of the day. Once Maney’s and Gist’s Brigades were gone, the Orphans withdrew to Milliken Ridge.
On two knobs on Milliken Ridge, Dupree Hill to the north and Stein Hill on the south, soldiers of Cleburne’s Division had that summer built two redoubts overlooking the station. Here, the Orphans made their third stand against their fellow Kentuckians, then withdrew.
The fourth and final stand of the Orphan Brigade that day took place in Hickory Valley, which at that point ran between Milliken Ridge on the west and Concord Ridge to the east. In this, the Orphans held postions on the ridgeside while Morgan’s troops dug in along Hickory Creek, which the Union commanders dubbed Shepherd’s Run, after Margaret Shepherd, who came out from Altamede (the Shepherd mansion patterned after James Vann’s Diamond Hill) to scold the Union soldiers for ruining her flowerbeds. When the Orphans withdrew again, probably along Igou Road, Davis gave the soldiers of Morgan’s Brigade a break.
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While this was going on, Howard moved his corps to the left of Davis’ division to sweep wide and prevent straggling Confederates from escaping. To cover his own left flank, Howard used the 55th Ohio Volunteers (2nd Brigade, 2nd Division) under Capt. Charles B. Gambee. Gambee and his troops encountered the Orphan Brigade’s 4th Kentucky Infantry under Col. Thomas Thompson at Tyner’s Station. After a brief encounter from which their opponents swiftly withdrew, the 55th Ohio captured a 1st lieutenant, four privates, and two teamsters. Howard then moved the corps south down the valley roughly along what’s now known as Silverdale and Gunbarrel Roads.
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The largest engagement of the day, and one which could definitely be called a proper battle, due to the number of soldiers involved, took place in Concord, or East Brainerd proper. From the descriptions in various letters and reports of the commanders, this battle can only have taken place east of Concord Ridge, near Mackey Branch. Sam Watkins of “Co. Aytch” in Maney’s Brigade refers to the stream as Cat Creek while the Union officers called it Shepherd’s Run under the mistaken impression or memory it was the same as Hickory Creek.
Several references to the encounter’s proximity to Graysville, Georgia (“about a mile”) leave no other option. The Union Army Cyclopedia of Battles, in fact, gives its location as Graysville, but it was clearly a bit north of there.
Facing their opponents across the creek and fields from a stretch of woods in hastily built ifle pits and breastworks, Maney’s Brigade lined up in what they thought was going to be a suicidal last stand facing Davis’ division. At the last moment before the battle, units of Grigsby’s Brigade (its three Kentucky regiments) appeared, and settled down to fight alongside Maney’s troops dismounted. They were supported by one of the Mississippi field artillery units, most likely (by process of elimination) Stanford’s Mississippi Battery.
Seeing the opposition, Davis sent forward his 2nd and 3rd Brigades under Brig. Gen. John Beatty and Col. Daniel McCook respectively. Supporting them from Concord Ridge were guns from Battery I of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery. Davis kept Morgan’s Kentuckians in reserve. After the engagement had begun, Howard’s 11th Corps arrived from the north. Howard sent his 2nd Division under Brig. Gen. Adolph Steinwehr to Davis’ right and put his 3rd Division under Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz in reserve.
The fight lasted but an hour as darkness was falling, and at dusk the Confederates gratefully withdrew. Brig. Gen. Maney was severely wounded in this encounter and remained out of action until returning to command a division under Hardee during the Atlanta Campaign.
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While the above engagements were taking place, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s command, including the 12th Corps of the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum, the 14th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland under Maj. Gen. John Palmer (minus Davis’ division), and the 1st Division of the 15th Corps of the Army of the Tennessee under Brig. Gen. Peter Osterhaus, proceeded from Ross’ Gap toward Ringgold down the Old Federal Road hoping to cut off Bragg’s Confederates. Destroyed bridges and flooded creeks caused serious delays.
While Hooker was stalled at Red House Ford while a bridge was built over the flooded West Chickamauga Creek, he sent cavalry across which encountered Liddell’s Brigade of Cleburne’s Division, commanded by Col. Daniel Govan, which easily turned them back.
When the road to Graysville divided from that to Ringgold, Palmer took his corps to the former while Hooker maintained his path to the latter.
Palmer’s vanguard was his 1st Division under Brig. Gen. Richard Johnson. Johnson sent his 1st Brigade under Brig. Gen. William Carlin toward Graysville while his 2nd Brigade under Col. William Stoughton went toward Indian Springs, the area around the crossroads of the way to Graysville and the way to Ringgold.
In the dark of early evening, Carlin’s brigade stumbled into Gist’s Brigade, then attempting to cross Chickamauga River at Graysville. Some fighting ensued, but in the dark no one was hit, and the Confederates were able to escape and ford the river upstream.
Meanwhile, Stoughton’s brigade surprised pickets from Stewart’s Division near the crossroads of the Lafayette and Ringgold roads, capturing some along with their guns, and causing the rest to flee in disarray.
As for Hooker’s column, Brig. Gen. John Geary’s 2nd Division of the 12th Corps of the Army of the Potomac encountered Breckenridge’s rearguard (i.e., Walker’s Division), including (Capt. T.B.) Ferguson’s South Carolina Battery, at Peavine Creek, and a skirmish ensued, resulting in some soldiers and artillery captured.
After crossing Peavine Creek and Chickamauga Swamp, Osterhaus’ division encountered what appeared to be a large body of Confederates encamped and entrenched atop what Geary calls the Pigeon Hills. The two generals formed their troops into lines-of-battle and commenced firing as they advanced. By the time they reached the summit, the camp was deserted.
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Related to the actions of these days was the raid of the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Cavalry Division attached to the Army of the Cumberland, then under Col. Eli Long.
On 24 November, Maj. Gen. George Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, dispatched Col. Long and his troops to raid and destroy along the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad.
That day, as reported Lt. Col. Edward Kitchell of the 9th Illinois Mounted Infantry, the unit involved, troops burned two caissons and tore up the rails at several points near Tyner Station (Thomas reported up the chain that they had burned the station and tore up all the tracks). Later in the day, they encountered a wagon train coming out of Ooltewahand destroyed it.
On 25 November, while the Battles of Tunnel Hill, Tn., and of Missionary Ridge were being fought to the west, Long and his brigade captured Cleveland, Tennessee.
On 26 November, Long sent the 3rd Ohio Cavalry under Lt. Col. Charles Seidel to search and destroy along the railroad to the Hiwassee River, Maj. Thomas Patten and the 1st Ohio Cavalry to do the same along the railroad to Dalton, and Maj. George Dobb and the 4th Ohio Cavalry back toward Chattanooga for the same.
At Charleston, Seidel found troops of (Brig. Gen. John H.) Kelly’s Division of Wheeler’s Cavalry Corps, which he drove across the Hiwassee River into Calhoun. There, Kelly’s command, including (Col. William) Wade’s Brigade and all of the division’s artillery, was firmly entrenched. Knowing when to quit, Seidel withdrew to Cleveland.
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The next day, 27 November, Cleburne’s Division held Taylor’s Gap at Ringgold, Georgia, against Hooker’s entire command, though the main units involved on the Union side were the divisions of Osterhaus and Geary. While Cleburne and his troops kept Hooker’s men thus tied up, the rest of the Army of Tennessee retreated from Catoosa Station to Dalton. Cleburne and his men later followed, stopping at Tunnel Hill.
The same morning, Kelly attacked Seidel’s troops at Cleveland, driving out the federals, then withdrew to Dalton the very same day, to join the rest of the Army of Tennessee.