‘A thousand mighty thunders’￼
These letters of Robert Bell Stewart of Co. D, 15th Ohio are extraordinary not only because they describe the battles of Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge which took place near Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November 1863, but they are written with such rich color and imagery as to make the reader feel that they are toting their musket by the side of the author. That Stewart was a gifted storyteller is evident from the postwar record of the regiment. Two of his accounts of the Battle of Nashville, and of the Battle of Stones River were published in 1894 and 1895, respectively, in the "Blue and Gray."
In May 1864, Stewart was promoted to Corporal, and he mustered out of the service with his company in November 1865.
Robert Bell Stewart (Bob Van Dorn Collection)
These letters are some of thousands of letters transcribed by William Griffing as part of his online repository of Civil War letters, Shared & Spared. For more of the compelling letters he makes available to read, visit the Spared & Shared Facebook page. These letters are from the private collection of Mike Huston and published with his permission.
Addressed to Maggie J. Stewart, Washington Female Seminary, Pa.
Strawberry Plains, Tennessee
Tuesday, December 22, 1863
I have not a very good opportunity to write letters but as I can find nothing else to do, I will commence one to you and get it finished just when I can. I have just finished one to Craig. Yesterday we got a mail for the first time in three weeks. The latest papers I have seen was the Chronicles of the 26th November and 10th December so that we have had no chance to hear or read the news.
We are now encamped near Strawberry Plains 18 miles east of Knoxville. A week tomorrow we came here. It has been very cold all the time. All that we could do was to sit around big fires and try to keep warm and cook our flour and meal as best we could. We got a little clothing the other day but not 1/4 enough. We got a few crackers though and some coffee and sugar. But I have good health and so have all the boys.
Co. E left Chattanooga with 26 men for duty and we have that yet. We have been almost entirely cut off from the outside world for a month now. Have lived entirely off the country. Lived on flour, corn meal, pork, mutton, beef, potatoes, chickens, turkeys, molasses, honey and all such stuff as we could get. We have not starved — no thanks to Uncle Sam.
As for news, we have had none at all — only that John Moyer had got away and that Hooker had whipped Bragg near Ringgold. We have had no papers at all. I hope we will get some soon. We go on picket this evening at four o’clock. We had inspection this morning. Today is very clear and warmer than it has been for some days. I am sitting in my dog tent writing, but in a very awkward position. I will give you a short history of our doings in the last month as I know it will interest you and give you a little recreation in the midst of your studies.
On Friday [November] the 20th late in the evening, we got orders to leave camp early the next morning with three days rations and 200 rounds of cartridges. During the day we had been at work in Fort Wood and all day things began to look suspicious of some kind of movements. A great number of the Starry Hosts of the Western Army were at the fort spying the rebel camps and surveying the surrounding country, pointing here and pointing there, and doing a great many more suspicious things. There was General Grant — a puking sort of a very little man. General Thomas, a bulldog of a man. General Hooker — a sharp quick nervous sort of a pleasant fellow, General Granger, General Sheridan, Gen. Johnston, Gen. Wood, Gen. Willich, and others. Rumors of something to be done began to float around and in the evening the orders settled the business. The evening was wet and gloomy. We knew that we were going into a fight tomorrow for the advance [ ] was to fight. But we all rather liked the idea and proceeded to prepare ourselves for morning. We were all ready and about going when the order was countermanded. We were not to go.
On Saturday we had nothing to do and on Sabbath morning we went on picket. It was a fine day and early we could see some kind of a movement among the rebels. The guns of Fort Wood talked to them all day and annoyed them considerably. In the evening we got the same orders to move out in the morning. The rations and cartridges were issued to us on picket. I went back to camp and got some things and fixed up to go out in the morning. We were all again ready to and thinking of our chances on the morrow when the order was again countermanded.
On Monday morning we went to camp. During the evening, Howard’s Corps of Hooker’s Army had come up and settled down just by us. We were running around among each other — the Eastern and the Western boys. I found Jimmie Smith of the 61st Ohio. He was well. I was very glad to see him. After dinner I was down among Howard’s men and running around one place and another when I began to think there was something up. I left just as though there was going to be a big thing of some kind soon. I went back to camp and found the regiment just going out. We were ordered out with 60 rounds of cartridges. I soon got ready and was in a few minutes out in my place in ranks. We did not understand this sudden movement at all but we knew something was to be done, but did not expect very much.
Willich, Wood, and Granger were dashing around, regiments being put in position. The doctors and nurses were on hand with their instruments and stretchers. Our brigade formed in order in front of Fort Wood. Other brigades [formed] on our right and left, stretching as far as we could see. The rebel pickets were in full view looking on. What did they think of the grand display? for it was a grand sight. At length, all is ready — every regiment is in its place — its lines dressed up as if for review — colors flying and bugles sounding. The pickets were arranged in front of us as skirmishers and forward was sounded. Immediately the skirmish line stepped forward on hitherto forbidden ground. The glittering line of battle moves forward with its supporting regiments steadily as if for a Grand Review. A minute passes when on the left, pop goes a gun. It has commenced. Pop, pop — pop, pop, pop , right in front of us. Whizzz goes a bullet right over our heads and into the ranks of the 32nd, killing one of them. Now it has commenced in earnest. The pops are so fast they cannot be counted.
We press on a straight, steady line and are well up to the rebel picket line. Their pickets have fired and are falling back. Through the woods we can see them running like frightened deer. Right in front of the 15th [OVI] is a knob called Bald Knob where are the first line of rebel works. We have now crossed their line of pickets and press on. The rifles crack furiously on either side of us and in front of us. Fort Wood thunders behind us and the shells shriek and howl over our heads. An open space is reached and a halt ordered but only for a moment. “Col. Askew, move forward and take the knob,” shouts our aide and forward it is. But you ought to have seen the rabbits, how scared they were. The run in front of us so thick we could kick them over. Poor things. They had been driven from both sides into the ground between and now we got them all stirred up. But the rebels make but a feeble stand on the knob. As we charge up to it, they run or lay still and give themselves up and many did.
We are soon over the rifle pits and on the top of the knob and with a great deal of shouting and blowing of bugles, we are at last stopped. The works on our right and left are soon carried with a great many prisoners. We have the knob and the long low ridge on the right and the rifle pits on the left. Only a valley is now between us and Missionary Ridge. Our skirmishers are a good ways in advance of us holding back the rebel skirmishers who have been checked in their retreat. We are now within the reach of the rebel cannon which open on us but we lay low and no harm is done. We get orders to build breastworks of stone immediately and to work we go carrying stone and piling them up in front which the rebels seeing, they open several more guns on us, throwing shell quite lively over and amongst us. But we work away.
The colonel has stationed himself by a tree and as soon as he sees the smoke of a gun, “Down!” he hollers and we are all in a twinkling flat on the ground. The shell comes, bursts, or goes on over and we are up again, every man and hard at it. Thus it is, down and up, and at it till dark, when the rebels conclude to save their ammunition and cease their harmless fire. After dark a load of tools comes up to us and we set to work to build stronger works. We work all night and morning finds us very strongly entrenched, with a battery of 6 guns on the knob.
The morning is cold and damp, but passes off comparatively quiet. About noon cannonading commences heavily on the right and on Lookout [Mountain], Hooker is engaged. We can just hear the musketry. It comes closer and closer. Now we can see the dark lines of men coming around the point. Hooker is driving them. It is four miles off but we can hear it quite plainly and can just see the dark lines moving on. The rebels are driven back into their entrenchments on the side of the mountain and we can distinguish our lines as they move up quickly and steadily. But just now a heavy cloud of fog and mist shuts the mountain from our view. Only the roar of conflict can he heard. In a short time word comes Hooker has taken Lookout [Mountain and] our flag waves from its summit.
Night, wet and dismal, comes on but the battle rages still on the right and till long in the night. It cleared off and we could see the flashing of the guns far in the dark shades of the mountain. It ceased at length and all was again quiet and the moon — as if ashamed to look on such scenes of blood — hid her face from the earth in the deep shades of an eclipse.
December 27th 1863
Since writing those other two sheets, Christmas has passed. I hope you had a happy one. You would like to know how I spent it. Well, there was nothing done on that day to distinguish it from any other day but I had some very pleasant thoughts and recollections of the many past Christmasses and was happy in the hopes of spending the coming ones in peace and with friends and loved ones.
Well, we cooked some chickens, corn bread, and had a very good dinner. At one o’clock we were ordered to march for this place, four miles away, so most of the afternoon was spent in coming here and getting up comfortable quarters, such a wilderness as it was — nothing but rocks, trees, and bushes. But it is quite a nice looking place now since it has been cleared off. We are on the banks of the Holstein where the railroad crosses. Here has been a very large bridge which Gen. Carter burned last fall. We are building it. Our brigade has the job. 20 is now out at work. I will have to go this afternoon. It is a bog job, but if they just let us stay here till we build it, I do not care. We will go back to Chattanooga as soon as we can. I wish we were there now.
Strawberry Plains is a small village — not a vast plain as you would suppose, and strawberries are I expect the most unknown thing here. It is a pretty fine country around though. We got a mail day before yesterday. Will get one today I hope. Yesterday was wet. Today is wet but not so very cold. We have had no snow yet at all. I have just had my breakfast though it is after 8 o’clock. I had fried mush and fresh meat. We live altogether now on corn and fresh meat and we were never more healthy as a regiment. But I must go back to my story again.
Wednesday morning [25 November 1863], came bright and cool. Again we received 100 rounds of cartridges. Now if you consider that each one weighs from 2 to 3 ounces you may have an idea of the load it makes [even] without our rations &c. Towards noon we could hear Sherman’s guns far on our left. Then we could see the smoke of his and the rebel batteries. Then presently the signal flag on the upper end of Mission Ridge told us that part of it was ours. Everything was progressing finely. From our position we could see most of the battlefield and anxiously did we watch each movement. Now we can see the dark lines steadily advancing up the hill on which is posted a Rebel battery.
On they go — one line after another till they enter the thick woods when the muskets commence a furious rattle, the cannons roar, and a shout louder than the roar of battle is borne to our ears. It was the shout of brave men charging through an iron storm which was hurled against them from the crest of the hill. Soon another shout is heard — a furious yell which curdles the blood in ones veins. Then emerging in confusion and disorder from those dark woods which they has so lately entered we see our men, rushing headlong down the hill — horses and men—a broken, disordered mass. Now every eye was anxiously turned to that running mass but at the foot of the hill a line is soon again formed and the rush is stopped. Our men were badly repulsed and something must be done to help them.
It is our time now. Gen. Grant — who with Thomas and Granger have been here all day — order us to take the rifle pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge in order to make a diversion in favor of our beaten left. The signal was given and forward, the whole line sprang as if moved by one impulse. Across the broad valley it moves in resistless strength, driving furiously before it the startled rebels. Scores of cannon on the top of the ridge open their brazen throats and vomit their iron hail against it but it moves steadily on. The rifle pits are reached and all is done that was requested of us. But our work was not done. The top of the ridge was what each man started for and to do it, we must go. So not stopping at the pits or waiting for orders, each one rushes ahead anxious to be the first to the top. 1 Now was heard such a roar as would almost awake the slumbers of the dead. Three score cannon in front of us, the guns of Fort Wood, Willich, Negley, and others behind us. The furious rattle of thousands of muskets, the screaming and bursting of shells over our heads made such a sound that it seemed as though a thousand mighty thunders had broken their chains and were tearing from their everlasting foundations the hills around us. It awfully grand. Yet onward we pressed and upward.
While cannon on the right of us, cannon on the left of us, cannon all around us, thundered and bellowed, still upward we pressed — each rock, stump, tree, and log blazed with the fire of our rifles. Not a shelter of any kind on the side of that ridge but hid a cool, determined Yankee marksman. The whole hillside and valley below seemed covered with them. Yet on goes the flag and with it each man for himself till with such a shout as has not been heard since creation’s morn when the sons of God shouted for joy, we dashed over the works and among the rebels, scattering them like chaff and driving them headlong down the hill. Such a grand stampede I nor anyone ever saw. The whole side of the ridge was covered with flying rebels, throwing away guns, knapsacks, and everything that would hinder their flight. The artillery with furious horses and frightened drivers dashed down the steep, crooked roads, but not to get away for we all being determined on fun and mischief took after the artillery and shot down the horses while the unhurt drivers got off as best they could. Thus we got 60 pieces of cannon, some of which had been taken from us at Stone River. It was the nicest scene and most excited in sport I ever witnessed or engaged in. It fully repaid for all our toil and hardships.
Night coming on and the rebels being completely routed and out of reach, the scattered regiments were called together and order once more reigned. But one man was missing in our company. He was slightly wounded. That night we stood picket on the opposite side of the ridge to what we had been accustomed to.
Thursday was Thanksgiving Day and very thankful each one of us felt. We spent it in gathering up arms and burying the dead and watching the retreat of the rebels whose course was easily to be followed by the great fires springing up among the hills and mountains where they burned their stores and bridges. Sherman was close behind them and an occasional cannonade let us know that he was on to them. Thus we passed Thursday on the long wished for top of Mission Ridge. That evening we got orders to start for Knoxville with four days rations. Pretty soon came the news that Burnside had whipped Longstreet and the order was countermanded. We started back for our old quarters, gay and happy to the tune of Yankee Doodle where we got a good nights sleep — the first we had for a week.
On Friday we got orders to be ready to march at anytime and on the next day Saturday we started for we supposed Knoxville. They next day, Sunday, was very cold. That night we camped at Harrison. On Monday we reached the Hiawassee, [and] crossed it next day. On Wednesday marched till after dark and on Thursday camped at Sweet Water—a very pretty little town. Make a big march on Friday and on Saturday the Little Tennessee. Here we pass the 98th [OVI]. I saw [brother] Jim and the other boys. They were doing well.
On Sunday we cross the river at Morgantown and on Monday camp near Marysville, 16 miles from Knoxville. Here our brigade pressed in two mills and plenty of corn and wheat. A foraging party was sent out each day to bring in everything they could find so we had plenty of sorghum, molasses, sheep, cattle, pork, flour meal, salt, potatoes, chickens, turkeys etc. We reached Knoxville the next day and go into camp two miles from it in very bad condition as to our clothing. Some were out of shoes entirely. Most had very poor ones. A great many had no shirts, some no blouses, and all very ragged and dirty. We were indeed a hard looking set — dirty and ragged; a good many with rebel clothes on or such as could be picked up. We had plenty to eat though. We found Longstreet gone and most of Burnside’s men gone after him.
But I must get some dinner and get ready to go to work on the railroad, digging and shoveling, grading a track.
Did not work very hard you may be sure. We had to cross and work on the other side. Just got in a short time ago and have had my supper—a corn cake that [ ] baked while I was out. But we got a loaf apiece of soft white bread today. I do not know why they did not give us any butter. Guess they did not get the churning done in time. We got some candles today, three for 25 cents, and I thought I would write some. Thunderation! What a hollering. I just wish you could hear this brigade sometimes, hollering at nothing at all.
Well we thought to get a rest when we reached Knoxville and found Old Longstreet gone. I went over to town one day and looked around. I found a very nice town and quite a large one. A great deal of business done here though there was little to buy to eat. Coming up here we passed through some splendid country. I do not wonder at the Rebels holding on to East Tennessee so long. It was their major dependence for food. Nearly all Union people and nearly all the men in our army. Yet we have to live off them. I hope they will all be more than paid for everything. You can form no idea of what the people have to endure.
Well we lay here about a week expecting all the time to go back to Chattanooga till one day we got orders to march next morning. So on the morning of the 16th [December] we started and came to where I commenced this letter. Things as I told you looked very much like a fight but we have had none though in the front they are skirmishing every day. I hope we will not be sent to the front any more for we have been there all the time since we came out. We look to go back to Chattanooga some time. Gen. Wood is doing all he can to get us back and I don’t care how soon we go though I would as leave be here if the railroad was finished through.
Well, we hope in 8 months more, perhaps before that long, if three quarters of the brigade goes into the veteran service, we can get home right away. I don’t know whether three-quarters will go in or not. I hope so, though I am sure I will not — at least for some time. The draft will come off next week and we will then think about volunteering again. I wish they would let me draft a lot. I would give them a stout lot of men and without any trouble too. Don’t know either would have to go to Canada for some of them.
It will soon be one year since the Battle of Stone River. One year ago tonight we lay at Triune. It was about such a night as this. We have come a good ways since then. I think another year of such work will about finish the job. But I have already written a long letter, I have several letters I must write soon. News are scarce. They say Bragg’s army is at Dalton. We got a little clothing one day. Will get more soon, I think. Campbell Smith is about there some place, I think, in the 86th Ohio. I would like to see him but the regiment is out in front somewhere. Did you see Capt. [Lorenzo] Danford’s letter in the Chronicle? It is pretty good and true. I received your last letter just before we left Chattanooga and want you to write often. Remember me to all my lady friends.
Your brother, — R. B. Stewart