The 2nd Minnesota Infantry at the Battle of Chickamauga
The 2nd Minnesota Infantry was organized and entered Federal service in the summer of 1861. By September 1863, the men of the regiment were seasoned veterans, having fought under the command of General George Thomas at the Battles of Mill Springs and Perryville in Kentucky, and at Corinth, Mississippi. On September 19th, 1863, the regiment was on the Union left flank as the Battle of Chickamauga began. The 2nd Minnesota was part of the 3rd Brigade (along with the 9th and 35th Ohio, and 87th Indiana Infantries) of Brigadier General John Brannon’s 3rd Division of Thomas’ 14th Corps. The 3rd Brigade was under the command of Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer.
The regiment was in the middle of breakfast when orders were issued to march down the Reed’s Bridge Road and cover a ford on Chickamauga Creek. The brigade, along with Battery I of the 4th U.S. Artillery, marched immediately, to the dismay of those unable to finish breakfast. As his brigade marched down the Reed’s Bridge Road, Van Derveer deployed the 35th Ohio on the left and the 2nd Minnesota on the right of a two regiment line with Battery I in between and the 87th Indiana immediately behind. The brigade encountered harassing fire from the 1st Georgia Cavalry, which gave way to the brigade of Brigadier General Matthew Ector, advancing in line of battle.
With help from Battery I, the smaller Union force repulsed the larger Confederate brigade. Brannon sent reinforcements, and extended Van Derveer’s line, with the 2nd Minnesota covering the left flank. Rebel attackers tried to move around the to the left and rear, but the Union line successfully changed front and again the attack was repulsed. This ended the Confederate attacks, and Van Derveer’s command was ordered to report to Major General Joseph Reynolds, commanding the 4th Division of the 14th Corps, where it was placed in reserve behind roughly the center of the Union line.
As fighting resumed on September 20th, Van Derveer “received an order to move quickly over to the left and support General Baird, who, it was said, was being hard pressed by the enemy.”
Brigadier General Absalum Baird commanded the 14th Corps 1st Division on Union’s left flank, and the Confederates of Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Division were attempting to trun that flank. Van Derveer later wrote that “my attention was called to a large force of the enemy moving southward in four lines, just then emerging from the woods at a run, evidently intending to attack Reynolds and Baird who were both hotly engaged, in the rear, and apparently unseen by these officers. I immediately wheeled my lines to the left, facing the approaching force, and ordered them to lie down.”
Two of Breckinridge’s brigades were pressing forward into the rear of Thomas’s line. Van Derveer had observed the approach of Brigadier General Marcellus Stovall’s brigade of Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia troops. The 2nd Minnesota was on the right of the 87th Indiana, with the 9th and 35th Ohio behind them. Van Derveer recalled that “my command continued to lie down until the enemy approached within 75 yards, when the whole arose to their feet, and the front line, composed of the Second Minnesota and Eighty-seventh Indiana , delivered a murderous fire almost in their faces, and the Thirty-fifth and Ninth Ohio, passing lines quickly to the front, the whole brigade charged and drove the enemy at full run over the open ground for over a quarter of a mile, and several hundred yards into the woods”.
While the attempt to turn the Union left flank had been thwarted, confusing orders in the Union command opened a gap in the Federal center, which was successfully exploited for a breakthrough by Confederate forces. Union force on the right and in the center were driven from the field, including Major General William Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland. Thomas’s four divisions remained, and consolidated on some high ground called Snodgrass Hill, also referred to as Horseshoe Ridge, near the George Snodgrass cabin. At about 2:30 p.m., Van Derveer reported to General Brannon with his brigade and were deployed into a defensive position. Lieutenant Colonel Judson W. Bishop of the 2nd Minnesota remembered that Thomas greeted him and said he “was glad to see us in such good order”. Thomas had a strong defensive position on this high ground, and the 2nd Minnesota and the rest of the brigade went into position at roughly the center right of the union line.
The regiment didn’t have to wait long to go into action. Lt. Col. Bishop recalled that the 2nd Minnesota
immediately had a view of the assaulting columns of the enemy, just commencing the ascent of the southern slope in our front. Ranks followed ranks in close order, moving briskly and bravely towards us…Again the order was passed to aim carefully and make every shot count, and the deadly work began. The front ranks melted away under the rapid fire of our men, but those following bowed their heads to the storm of bullets and pressed on, some of them falling at every step, until, the supporting touch of elbows being lost, the survivors hesitate, halt, then turning, start back with a rush that carries them to the rear…This was all repeated again and again, until the slope was so covered with dead and wounded men that looking from our position we could hardly see the ground. Never was any position more gallantly assaulted or more desperately defended.
As the assaults continued, ammunition became an issue for the Union defenders. Bishop recalled that a pair of brigades arrived as reinforcements with “a spare wagon load of cartridges–more
precious than diamonds–as many of our men had placed the last one in the gun”. Even that supply was exhausted as the assaults continued, and Bishop recalled that “the boxes of our own and the enemy’s dead and wounded were searched and emptied, and bayonets were fixed when it was found that we had less than two rounds to the man”.
Finally, with both sides exhausted, Thomas ordered a withdrawal to Rossville Gap, just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. For his stand at Snodgrass Hill, Thomas earned the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga”.
Colonel James George, commander of the 2nd Minnesota, filed this after action report on his regiment’s action at the Battle of Chickamauga:
HDQRS. SECOND REGIMENT MINNESOTA VOLUNTEERS,
Chattanooga, Tenn., September 25, 1863.
GENERAL: I have the honor to transmit the following report of the part taken by the Second Regiment Minnesota Volunteers in the battle of the 19th and 20th instant, near Crawfish Spring, Ga.:
The regiment was placed in position at 10 a.m. on the 19th, on the extreme left of the brigade and next to Battery I, Fourth U.S. Artillery, facing the south.
A few minutes later the enemy approached in line in front to within about 300 yards and opened a heavy fire of musketry, which was returned with such effect as to repulse the attack in about ten minutes. Another similar attack was soon after made and met with a like repulse, the enemy falling back in disorder entirely out of sight. About half past 10 o’clock sharp firing of musketry was suddenly opened at some distance in our left and front, which soon began to approach us. The cartridge-boxes had been replenished, and the regiment was laid down in line to await its time, the men having been admonished to withhold their fire until the enemy should be within close range. There soon appeared, approaching in disorder from the left front, a line of our troops in full retreat and closely pursued by the enemy, who was cheering and firing furiously in their rear. It proved to be the regular brigade, the men of which passed over our line and were afterward partially rallied in our rear and on our left.
As soon as these troops had passed us the farther advance of the enemy was checked by a volley from our line. A sharp contest with musketry followed, which resulted in a few minutes in the complete repulse of the late exultant enemy, who fled from our front in confusion.
About 11 o’clock a large force was discovered advancing on us from the east and simultaneously from the north. Our front was immediately changed to the left to meet this attack, and after a few minutes’ fighting, the enemy seeming to be moving around to the northward, our front was again changed to the left under a hot fire, so that the regiment faced the northeast, and again finally to face the north as the enemy massed his troops for an assault from that direction. The enemy charged desperately, and were finally and completely repulsed and routed after a brief but bloody contest. The fighting ended with us at about 11.30 a.m. Our loss was 8 killed and 41 wounded, including 2 commissioned officers; none missing. The regiment commenced the battle with 384 officers and enlisted men.
On the 20th the regiment took place in the brigade with 295 officers and men, 40 men having been detached for picket duty the previous evening and not relieved when the regiment marched. At 10 a.m. the regiment on the right of the brigade was advanced into an open field to the support of a battery which was in action immediately on our right, the line facing the north. Scarcely had the line been halted in its assigned place when a furious fire of musketry and artillery was opened on it from the edge of woods bordering the field on the west, and 300 to 400 yards distant. The brigade front was instantly changed to the left, the movement being made in good order, though under fire; and our line at once opened on the enemy. After a few minutes’ firing a charge was ordered, and we advanced at the double-quick across the field and into the woods, driving the enemy back upon their supports. Here the engagement was continued for fifteen or twenty minutes, when the enemy moved off by their right flank, clearing our front and getting out of our range, even when firing to the left oblique. The regiment was then withdrawn and the brigade reformed, facing the south. Presently an artillery fire was opened on us from the east, and our front was changed to face it. After remaining here in position for about half an hour we were moved off a distance of a mile or more to a hill on the right of our general line of battle, where, at 2.30 p.m., we again became hotly engaged with musketry. The enemy charged repeatedly and desperately on our position here, but were always repulsed by the cool and deadly fire of our rifles. The firing here continued without any intermission until 4.45 p.m., when the enemy temporarily withdrew from the contest. Two other attacks were afterward made on us here, but both were repulsed, and darkness ended the fight at about 6.30 p.m.
Our loss on this day was 27 killed and 72 wounded, being more than one-third of our entire number: none missing. Some 8 or 10 men of other commands, who joined us temporarily, were killed while bravely fighting in our ranks. I regret that I cannot give their names and regiments. The conduct of the officers and men of my regiment was, on both days, uniformly gallant and soldier-like beyond praise. If any one of them failed in doing his whole duty I do not know it.
Asst. Surg. Otis Ayer and Hospital Steward Frederick A. Buckingham were captured from the field hospital September 20, and are prisoners in the hands of the enemy. A good portion of our wounded were left lying on the field and are now prisoners in hands of the enemy.
I am, general, very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
Commanding Second Minnesota Volunteers.
Brig. Gen. LORENZO THOMAS,
Adjutant-General, U.S. Army, Washington, D.C.
The final count of casualties for the 2nd Minnesota showed 35 killed, 113 wounded, and 14 missing or captured. Van Derveer’s brigade suffered 810 total casualties, including 145 killed. The 2nd Minnesota continued to serve until the end of the war, seeing action at the battles around Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, and the Carolinas Campaign.
A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick H. Dyer
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXX, Part 1
The Story of a Regiment: Service of the Second Regiment, Minnesota Veteran Volunteer Infantry In the Civil War of 1861-1865 by Judson W. Bishop
This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens