Lightning Brigade (US Army of the Cumberland 1863)
Monument to Wilder and his Lightning Brigade at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park
|Active||February 1863 – November 1863|
|Size||Five regiments and one battery:|
92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry: Col Smith D. Atkins
98th Illinois Mounted Infantry: Col John J. Funkhouser (w), LTCOL Edward Kitchell
123rd Illinois Mounted Infantry: Col James Monroe
17th Indiana Mounted Infantry: MAJ William T. Jones
72nd Indiana Mounted Infantry: Col Abram O. Miller
18th Independent Battery Indiana Light Artillery
|Equipment||Spencer repeating rifle|
|Engagements||American Civil War|
|COL John T. Wilder|
The Lightning Brigade, also known as Wilder's Brigade or the Hatchet Brigade was a novel, for the US Army formation in the American Civil War, mounted infantry brigade in the Union Army of the Cumberland from March 8, 1863, through the November of 1863. Its regiments were nominally the 1st Brigade of MGEN Joseph J. Reynolds' 4th Division of Thomas' XIV Corps. Operationally, they were detached from the division and served as a mobile mounted infantry to support any of the army's corps. COL John T. Wilder was its commander. As initially organized, the brigade had the following regiments:
- 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry: COL Smith D. Atkins (after 10 July 1863)
- 98th Illinois Mounted Infantry: COL John J. Funkhouser (w), LTCOL Edward Kitchell
- 123rd Illinois Mounted Infantry: COL James Monroe
- 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry: MAJ William T. Jones
- 72nd Indiana Mounted Infantry: COL Abram O. Miller
- 18th Independent Battery Indiana Light Artillery: CAPT Eli Lilly
In response to John Hunt Morgan's October 1862 raid, the brigade was sent by Major General William S. Rosecrans in pursuit. In an effort move faster, the brigade mounted in mule wagons. The brigade nearly caught Morgan, but when they entered the last rebel bivouac, Morgan had escaped. In this effort, John T. Wilder served as the commander of the 17th Indiana, one of the component regiments in the brigade.
On 22 December, 1862 in Gallatin, Tennessee, John T. Wilder took over command of the brigade which at that time consisted of the 92nd and 98th Illinois Infantry Regiments, the 17th, 72nd, and 75th Indiana Infantry Regiments, and the 18th Indiana Battery of Light Artillery. His initial combat mission was to pursue another of Morgan's raids into Kentucky intended to sever the Army of the Cumberland's primary supply line. Lacking sufficient cavalry to screen his army as he moved south toward what would be the Battle of Stones River as part of the Stones River Campaign, Rosecrans again had to use infantry to chase off Morgan. Trying to speed their movement, these infantry units deployed partially by rail. Wilder also unsuccessfully tried to replicate the use of mule-drawn wagons with the addition of men mounting the mules pulling the wagons. Unfortunately, they still traveled the majority of the pursuit on foot over unimproved, that is unpaved, roads. Despite the use of rail and wagons to speed up the pursuit, the mission was a failure with Morgan's command escaping at the Rolling Fork River. The difference in speed between cavalry and infantry was too much from the start.
As a result of the failure, Rosecrans and his subordinates revisited the experiment with wagons from the October events and realized the solution to their problems was the early role of dragoons as mounted infantrymen. Several times, Rosecrans wrote to the Union General-in-Chief Major General Henry Wager Halleck stating his intention to convert/establish units of mounted infantry. He also felt that he needed to outfit all of his cavalry with repeating weapons. When he felt he was not being heard, he went over Halleck directly to War Secretary Edward M Stanton. In a dispatch from 2 February, he explained his reasons to Secretary Stanton:
I telegraphed the General-in-Chief that 2,000 carbines or revolving rifles were required to arm our cavalry.
He replied as though he thought it a complaint. One rebel cavalryman takes on an average three of our infantry to watch our communications, while our progress is made slow and cautious, and we command the forage of the country only be sending large train guards.
It is of prime necessity, in every point of view, to master their cavalry. I propose to do this, first, by so arming our cavalry as to give it its maximum strength. Second, by having animals and saddles temporarily to mount infantry brigades for marches and enterprises.
Wilder, an innovative and creative man, was an eager advocate to Rosecrans for mounted infantry as a solution. On 12 February 1863, Rosecrans ordered Wilder to find mounts for his brigade. The regiments also voted on whether to convert to mounted infantry. All but the 75th Indiana voted to change to mounted infantry. The 123rd Illinois who had wanted to become mounted infantry transferred from the 1st Brigade of the 5th Division of XIV Corps to replace them. Through February 1863, Wilder he obtained around a thousand mules to mount his command. Due to the obstinacy of the mules, horses were frequently seized from local stocks in Tennessee as contraband and replaced the mules.
In theory and in practice, the brigade would use their mounts to travel rapidly to contact, but upon engagement, the soldiers would fight dismounted. Due to this speed of deployment, the unit earned the nickname, "The Lightning Brigade", and it would prove the validity of its conversion in the campaign in the Western theater. They were also sometimes known as the "Hatchet Brigade" because they received long-handled hatchets to carry instead of cavalry sabers.
As well as mounting the command for faster deployment, Wilder felt that muzzle-loaded rifles were too difficult to use traveling on horseback. Like Rosecrans, he also believed that the superiority of repeating rifles were worth their price in return for the great increase in firepower. The repeating rifles also had the standoff range similar to the standard infantry Lorenzes, Springfields, and Enfields in use by the Army of the Cumberland. He felt the repeating and breech loading carbines in use by the Federal cavalry that lacked the accuracy at long range that his brigade would need.
While Rosecrans looked at the regiment's five-shot Colt revolving rifle that would equip other units in the Army of the Cumberland (particularly seeing action with the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Union forces at Snodgrass Hill during the Battle of Chickamauga), Wilder was initially opting for the Henry repeating rifle as the proper weapon to arm his brigade. In early March, Wilder arranged a proposal for New Haven Arms Company (which later became famous as Winchester Repeating Arms) to supply his brigade with the sixteen-shot Henry if the soldiers paid for the weapons out of pocket. He had received backing from banks in Indiana on loans to be signed by each soldier and cosigned by Wilder. New Haven could come agreement with Wilder despite the financing.
After attending a promotional demonstration by Christopher Spencer for the Army of the Cumberland of his Spencer repeating rifle, Wilder proposed the Henry arrangement to Spencer. Spencer agreed and got the Ordnance Department to send a shipment to the Army of the Cumberland. The majority of the shipment armed all men of the brigade.
The brigade's new weapon used a seven rimfire-cartridge tubular magazine that came through the butt. This rifle's increase in firepower would quickly make it most effective, deadly weapons in the Civil War. With new mounts and new weapons, the brigade worked out new tactics. Alongside the Army of the Cumberland's other mounted infantry units, Wilder developed new training and tactics through May and June 1863.
On June 23, 1863, Rosecrans deployed forces to feign an attack on Shelbyville while massing forces against Bragg's right. His troops moved out toward Liberty, Bellbuckle, and Hoover's Gaps through the Highland Rim (near Beechgrove, Tennessee). On June 24 in pouring rain that would persist for 17 days (Union soldiers spread the humorous rumor during the campaign that the name Tullahoma was a combination of the Greek words "tulla", meaning "mud", and "homa", meaning "more mud".) MGEN George H. Thomas's men, spearheaded by Colonel John T. Wilder's "Lightning Brigade", made for Hoover's Gap. The brigade showed the advantage of their speed despite the weather by reaching the gap nearly 9 miles ahead of Thomas's main body. Despite orders from the divisional commander, General Joseph J. Reynolds to fall back to his infantry, which was still six miles away, Wilder decided to take and hold the position.
The command surprised Confederate Colonel J. Russell Butler's 1st (3rd) Kentucky Cavalry Regiment at the entrance of the gap. After skirmishing briefly and withdrawing under pressure, the rebels were unable to reach the gap before the better-fed horses of the Lightning Brigade. The Kentuckians fell apart as a unit and, unluckily for the Confederates, failed in their cavalry mission to provide intelligence of the Union movement to their higher headquarters. Although Wilder's main infantry support was well behind his mounted brigade and his division commander Major General Joseph J. Reynolds had directed him to fall back to the main force after contact, he determined to continue pushing through to seize and hold the Gap before the Confederate reinforcements could prevent him. The brigade drove the 1st Kentucky through the entire seven mile length of Hoover's Gap. At the other end, they were met with artillery fire and found out that the brigade and its one battery were outnumbered four-to-one. The brigade had met BGEN William B. Bate's brigade of MGEN Alexander P. Stewart's division.
Wilder entrenched on the hills south of the gap and determined to hold this extremely advanced position. The Bate's brigade, supported by BGEN Bushrod Johnson's brigade and some artillery, assaulted Wilder's position, but was driven back by the concentrated fire of the Spencers, losing 146 killed and wounded (almost a quarter of his force) to Wilder's 61. Colonel James Connolly, commander of the 123rd Illinois, wrote:
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.
After a long day of combat at 1900, the brigade's morale was uplifted by the arrival of a fresh battery at the gallop which meant the XIV Corps were close behind. A half hour later, the Corps' main infantry units arrived to secure the position against any further assaults. The corps commander, General Thomas, shook Wilder's hand and told him, "You have saved the lives of a thousand men by your gallant conduct today. I didn't expect to get to this gap for three days." Rosecrans also arrived on the scene. Rather than reprimand Wilder for disobeying orders, he congratulated him for doing so, telling him it would have cost thousands of lives to take the position if he had abandoned it.
On June 25, Bate and Johnson renewed their attempts to drive the Union men out of Hoover's Gap but failed against the Lightning Brigade now with its parent division and corps. Rosecrans brought the forward movement of the Army of the Cumberland to a halt as the roads had become quagmires. Bragg took no effective action to counter Rosecrans because his cavalry commanders were not relaying intelligence to him reliably—Forrest was not informing of the weak nature of the Union right flank attack and Wheeler failed to report the movement of Crittenden's corps through Bradyville and toward Bragg's rear.
As the Lighting Brigade and the 5th Division held at Hoover's Gap, Bragg soon came to realize the threat of Thomas. Meanwhile, Rosecrans shifted his forces to reinforce Thomas at the gap. Unfortunately for Bragg, infrequent direct communication with William J. Hardee, his corps commander who commanded Stewart left an ignorance of Bragg's campaign strategy. That ignorance coupled with a low opinion of his commander's intellect, led Hardee to do what "he deemed best for saving an army whose commander was an idiot." That course was to order his battered troops under Stewart at Hoover's Gap to retreat towards Wartrace. His retreat served to only make Thomas's breakout more effective, leaving Bragg with his right flank gone. To keep his army together, he had to order Polk and Hardee to withdraw to Tullahoma on June 27.
The Lightning Brigade reached Manchester at 0800 on June 27, and the remainder of the division occupied the town by noon. On June 28, the brigade left on a raid to damage the railroad infrastructure in Bragg's rear, heading south toward Decherd, a small town on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. The rain-swollen Elk River proved a significant obstacle, but they disassembled a nearby mill and constructed a raft to float their howitzers across. They defeated a small garrison of Confederates in Decherd, tore up 300 yards of track and a burned the railroad depot filled with Confederate rations. The next morning they rode into the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, reaching the town of Sewanee where they destroyed a branch rail line. Although pursued by a larger Confederate force, the Lightning Brigade was back in Manchester by noon, June 30. They had not lost a single man on their raid.
The effectiveness of the brigade led to an operational detachment from the division command while maintaining an administrative link to Reynold's division. Operationally, the brigade would act independently as a mobile reserve for the army.
With his corps commanders unnerved by the Lightning Brigade's raid, at 3 p.m. on June 30, Bragg issued orders for a nighttime withdrawal from fortifications in Tullahoma across the Elk River. By leaving before the Union assault, Bragg gave up an opportunity to inflict potentially serious damage on the Army of the Cumberland. Initially positioned below the Elk River, Hardee and Polk felt they should retreat farther south, to the town of Cowan. In turn, their loss of nerve passed to Bragg who deemed Cowan indefensible on July 2. Without consulting his corps commanders, on July 3 Bragg ordered a retreat to Chattanooga. The army crossed the Tennessee River on July 4; a cavalry pursuit under Phil Sheridan was not successful in trapping the rear guard of Bragg's army before they crossed the river. All the Confederate units had encamped near Lookout Mountain by July 7.
Second Battle of Chattanooga
(August 21 – September 8, 1863)
Having driven Confederate forces from middle Tennessee, the Army of the Cumberland paused to refit and replenish their units. Rosecrans did not immediately pursue Bragg and "give the finishing blow to the rebellion" as Stanton urged. He paused to regroup and study the difficult choices of pursuit into mountainous regions.
On August 16, 1863, Rosecrans launched his campaign to take Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Lighting Brigade (now with an added regiment the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry as of 10 July) played a crucial role in this campaign. Rosecrans ordered the brigade to shell Chattanooga from the western side of the Tennessee River and skirmish with the main Confederate force in the city to divert attention away from the flanking column sent southwest of the city. The Lightning Brigade marched to a location northeast of Chattanooga where the Confederates could see them, reinforcing Gen. Braxton Bragg's expectations of a Union attack on the town from that direction. By August 21, the brigade had deployed along the Tennessee River to the east opposite Chattanooga. Wilder ordered the 18th Indiana Light Artillery (Capt. Eli Lilly's battery) to begin shelling the town. The shells caught many soldiers and civilians in town in church observing a day of prayer and fasting. The bombardment sank two steamers docked at the landing and created a great deal of consternation amongst the Confederates.
Continuing periodically over the next two weeks, the shelling helped keep Bragg's attention to the northeast while the bulk of Rosecrans's army crossed the Tennessee River well west and south of Chattanooga. The diversion was successful, with Bragg concentrating his army east of Chattanooga. When Bragg learned on September 8 that the Union army was in force southwest of the city, he abandoned Chattanooga and marched his Army of Tennessee into Georgia. Bragg's army marched down the LaFayette Road and camped in the city of LaFayette.
Skirmish at Ringgold
(September 11–12, 1863) As Rosecrans moved his forces south and west, the heavily wooded and hilly terrain soon had 60 miles of separation between his three making mutual support nearly impossible. It gradually dawned on him that Bragg's Army was neither demoralized nor in disarray. It was not defeated. Bragg attacked General James S. Negley's isolated division of the Union XIV Corps, commanded by George H. Thomas, before Rosecrans could concentrate the rest of his army across Chickamauga Creek near Davis' Cross Roads. Negley retreated and met up with the rest of the XIV Corps. Thomas confirmed to Rosecrans that the rebels were not falling back as they had previously believed but instead seemed to be massing for an imminent attack. Concerned about mutual support, Thomas and McCook made plans to shift their corps closer together to the north.
Meanwhile on 11 September, the Lightning Brigade, attached to Crittenden's XXI Corps advanced from Lee and Gordon's Mill to Ringgold, GA. There it skirmished with and defeated COL John S. Scott's brigade of John Pegram's Division of Forrest's Cavalry Corps and then drove off Confederate reinforcements. It returned to the mill by nightfall. The following morning, it was again ordered to advance to Ringgold. Four miles short of the town, it again ran into elements of Pegram's Division. After dispersing these units, Wilder found that Strahl's Brigade of Cheatham's Division of Polk's Corps had cut the brigade's route back to the mill. Although the Lightning Brigade was surrounded, the rebels unsure of its identity, size, and strength, did not press home an attack.
At nightfall, the Wilder deceived the Confederates by spreading campfires over a large area to make the Confederates believe his force was much larger. He formed four of his regiments and the battery into a defensive perimeter and had the fifth, the 72nd Indiana look for an escape route. After successfully locating an exit, the brigade withdrew back to XXI Corps without the loss of a man. As they rode away at dawn, they heard the rebels attacking their former encampment.
(September 19–20, 1863)
Realizing that part of his force had narrowly escaped a Confederate trap, Rosecrans abandoned his plans for a pursuit and began to concentrate his scattered forces near Stevens Gap. For the next four days, both armies attempted to improve their dispositions. Rosecrans continued to concentrate his forces, intending to withdraw as a single body to Chattanooga. By September 17, the three Union corps were now much less vulnerable to individual defeat. Reinforced with two divisions arriving from Virginia under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, and a division from Mississippi under BGEN Bushrod R. Johnson, Bragg decided to move his army northward on the morning of 18th and advance toward Chattanooga, forcing Rosecrans's army to fight or to withdraw. If Rosecrans fought, he risked being driven back into McLemore's Cove.
The Lightning Brigade was sent to defend Alexander's Bridge over the Chickamauga on 17 September. The 92nd Illinois detached to protect the army's line if communication back to Chattanooga. The next day, 18 September, the Lightning Brigade blocked the crossing against the approach of W.H.T. Walker's Corps. Armed with Spencer repeating rifles and Capt. Lilly's four guns of the 18th Indiana Battery, the brigade held off a brigade of BGEN St. John Liddell's division, which suffered 105 casualties against Wilder's superior firepower. Walker moved his men downstream a mile to Lambert's Ford, an unguarded crossing, and was able to cross around 1630, considerably behind schedule. Wilder, concerned about his left flank after Minty's loss of Reed's Bridge, withdrew the brigade to a new blocking position near the Viniard farm. By dark, Bushrod Johnson's division had halted in front of Wilder's position. Walker had crossed the creek, but his troops were well scattered along the road behind Johnson.
The First Day
Although Bragg had achieved some degree of surprise, he failed to exploit it strongly. Rosecrans, observing the dust raised by the marching Confederates in the morning, anticipated Bragg's plan. He ordered Thomas and McCook to Crittenden's support, and while the Confederates were crossing the creek, Thomas began to arrive in Crittenden's rear area.
Through the morning to midday of 19 September, the Lightning Brigade held its position as a reserve near Viniard farm as the battle began. As the battle progressed, the front developed in a north south direction just west of Chickamauga Creek. Viniard farm was just right of the Union Center held by MGEN Alexander McDowell McCook's XX Corps.
At around 2 p.m, the Johnson's division (Hood's corps) forced Union BGEN Jefferson C. Davis's two brigade division of the XX corps back across the LaFayette Road. Johnson to continue the advance with two brigades in line and one in reserve. On the right, COL John Fulton's brigade routed King's brigade and linked up with Bate at Brotherton field. On the left, the Lighting Brigade in its reserve position repulsed BGEN John Gregg's brigade with heavy losses. Gregg was seriously wounded and his brigade advance halted. The brigade also repulsed BGEN Evander McNair's brigade, called up from the rear, when they attacked.
As the battle continued, the Union line was pushed back north to the Viniard house with elements of the XXI Corps attacked by Hood's corps on the brigade's left. These units were pushed behind the brigade's line. Hood's Corps advanced so close to Rosecrans's new headquarters at the Glenn Cabin leading to a significant risk of a Federal rout in this part of the line. At this point the Lighting Brigade's superior firepower from their Spencers eventually held back the Confederate advance, fighting from behind a drainage ditch. 
The Second Day
Starting about 0930 on 20 September, the battle resumed primarily to the left (north) of the brigade. Bragg soon ordered his entire line to advance. By 1100, Longstreet had assembled a column of 10,000 men to attack the Union center. The attack succeeded aided by a gap left by a rearranged Union line.
As the attack rapidly turned into a Union rout in the center around 1300, the Lightning brigade was ordered to counterattack against BGEN Arthur Manigault's brigade of Hood's Division from its reserve position. It launched a strong advance with its superior firepower, driving the enemy around and through what became known as "Bloody Pond". Having blunted the Confederate advance, Wilder planned to capitalize on this success by attacking the flank of Hood's column. His plan was to attack through Hood on Longstreet's left flank and on to Thomas.
Unfortunately, the opportunity was lost when Wilder had to see to Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana who proclaimed that the battle was lost and demanded to be escorted to Chattanooga. Some controversy exists on whether Dana ordered Wilder to not make the attack, but retreat.In the time that Wilder took to arrange a small detachment to escort him back to safety, the opportunity for a successful attack was lost and he ordered his men to withdraw to the west. 
The brigade remained cut off on the other side of Dyer Road south of Thomas's final position on Horseshoe Ridge. At 1630, Wilder received the order to retreat to Chattanooga. After darkness, the brigade mounted and retreated north. As they withdrew, the collected the details from the 92nd Illinois and kept the road open and the rebels at a distance during Thomas' retreat from Snodgrass Hill.
Through the battle, the brigade had performed exceedingly well making good use of their Spencers. They were one of the few units south of Horseshoe Ridge that did not panic and retreat but successfully attacked. They departed the field intact and in good order.
On September 21, Rosecrans's army withdrew to the city of Chattanooga and took advantage of previous Confederate works to erect strong defensive positions. However, the supply lines into Chattanooga were at risk, and the Confederates soon occupied the surrounding heights and laid siege upon the Union forces.
The Union forces were quickly reorganized. MGEN Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, bringing all of the territory from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River (and much of the state of Arkansas) under a single commander for the first time. On 19 October, Grant relieved the demoralized Rosecrans. He selected Thomas to command the Army of the Cumberland.
In October, the Army of the Cumberland reorganized. In this shuffle, the Lightning Brigade was gradually shifted into the cavalry of the army. The 98th Illinois and the 17th Indiana were assigned to the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Division of the Cavalry Corps. The 123rd Illinois and the 75th Indiana were transferred to the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Division of the Cavalry Corps. The 92nd Illinois was used as an army asset with its companies serving as supply line security and command escorts.
- 92nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment
- 98th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment
- 123rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment
- 17th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment
- 72nd Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment
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