The Wilder Brigade Monument at Chickamauga Battlefield Honors Colonel John T. Wilder and His Lightning Brigade
John T. Wilder was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the 17th Indiana Infantry in June of 1861, and was promoted to Colonel of the regiment in March of 1862. In the spring of 1863, Wilder was placed in command of a brigade consisting of his 17th Indiana, plus the 72nd Indiana, 98th Illinois, and 123rd Illinois Infantry regiments, along with the 18th Independent Battery of Light Artillery. The artillery battery was under the command of Captain Eli Lilly, who would go on to create the pharmaceutical company that still bears his name.
At that time, Major General William Rosecrans, commander of the Union Army of the Cumberland, wanted to increase his cavalry, but was told by Washington that insufficient horses were available to fill his requests. Wilder then went to the general and asked permission to confiscate horses from the Tennessee countryside and make his brigade into mounted infantry. Rosecrans approved, and Wilder found enough suitable horses for his brigade. Wilder also arranged to arm his brigade with the new seven shot Spencer repeating rifles that were being introduced; when that was complete, Wilder had a very mobile, and highly lethal fighting unit, and became known as Wilder’s Lightning Brigade.
On September 18th, 1863, General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee was on the move in extreme northern Georgia, attempting to get
between Rosecrans’ army and Chattanooga. Wilder’s Lightning Brigade was covering Alexander’s Bridge, a crossing of West Chickamauga Creek. Five Mississippi regiments under Brigadier General Edward C. Walthall battled Wilder for control of the crossing. Though outnumbered, Wilder held off the Confederate attacks until late in the afternoon, when Rebel troops crossed the creek at other locations.
On September 19th, Wilder’s brigade was deployed in a defensive position at the Viniard Field, a scene of heavy fighting on the Union right flank. Brigadier General Henry L.Benning’s Georgia regiments attacked Wilder, but the Spencer rifle firing northerners forced the Georgians to take cover in a dry creek bed. Wilder moved two cannon and four infantry companies to the northern side of Benning’s line in the creek bed; the resulting enfilade fire compelled Benning to withdraw.
The next day, as Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Corps was breaking through the Union lines in the action that would lead to the Rebel victory at Chickamauga, Wilder, stillon the Federal right, attacked three Alabama regiments under Brigadier General Arthur M. Manigault. Wilder drove the Rebels back in one of the few successful Union counterattacks on September 20th.
With the Union lines disintegrating in the center, Wilder decided on a plan to drive north, cutting across and shattering the Confederate flank, to reach General George Thomas, who was holding his ground on the Federal left. But as Wilder was preparing this daring attack, Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana unexpectedly appeared on the scene.
Dana had been assigned to Rosecran’s headquarters during the campaign by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Rosecrans and his staff had abruptly abandoned the field and headed north towards Chattanooga as Longstreet surged forward, and Dana became separated from the others. When he encountered Wilder, Dana identified himself, insisted that the army had been routed, and demanded that Wilder withdraw and escort him to Chattanooga so he could get word out to Washington. Wilder did not know the extent of Dana’s authority over him, and reluctantly called off his attack. Wilder provided an escort for Dana to get him to Chattanooga safely, while he and the rest of his command withdrew west and then north, gathering stragglers, supply wagons, ambulances, and other war material together and moving them out of harm’s way as the defeated Union army moved north to Chattanooga.
The Wilder Monument
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park was authorized by Congress and President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, and officially dedicated five years later. Work was already underway on a monument to honor Wilder’s Brigade; it was completed in 1904. Located on the site of the home of 23 year old widow Eliza Glenn (the site of Rosecran’s headquarters for part of the battle), it is west of the Viniard Field site and at the location of Wilder’s final actions, in the southwest corner of the preserved battlefield site. The Wilder Monument is an 85 foot tall tower with a spiral staircase leading to a viewing platform at the top, affording some great views of the battlefield. The stairway is open seasonally.
Here’s an excerpt from Wilder’s Chickamauga Campaign after action report describing his brigade’s action September 18th-20th, 1863:
On the 18th, at 10 a.m., we were attacked by a brigade of rebel infantry, but our position being a strong one we repulsed them easily. Colonel Minty, being at Reed’s Bridge, 2 miles below, with a brigade of cavalry, sent a pressing request for help. I sent Colonel Miller with the Seventy-second Indiana and seven companies of the One hundred and twenty-third Illinois and a section of the Eighteenth Indiana Battery to his assistance. Soon after three brigades of rebel infantry again attempted to carry my position. We repulsed them, however, with severe loss to them. At 5 p.m. a picket stationed in my rear reported a strong force of rebel infantry in my rear. Having driven the cavalry away from a ford below me, I immediately commenced withdrawing my forces in the direction of Gordon’s Mills, and intercepted the force that was trying to surround me, when, being re-enforced by two regiments of infantry from General Wood’s division and Colonel Miller returning to my assistance, we held the rebels from farther advance until morning, although they made a desperate attempt to drive us at 9 o’clock at night.
On the morning of the 19th I received orders from department headquarters to take up a position “on the right fighting flank of our army, and keep the department commander advised of events in that vicinity” I immediately occupied the woods at the edge of a field on the west side of the road from Gordon’s Mills to Rossville, at a point where the road from Alexander’s Bridge and the fords in the vicinity of Napier’s Gap intersect that road, being satisfied that the rebels would attempt an advance in that direction. At about 1 p.m. heavy fighting was heard in my front, and by General Crittenden’s order I advanced my line across the road, when, seeing a rebel column in the act of flanking a battery of General Davis’ command, I sent two regiments to the right to repel them. This was done in handsome style by Colonels Monroe and Miller, with their regiments, when my skirmishers reported a heavy rebel column flanking my left under cover of the woods. I now brought my entire command double-quick back to their original position, changing direction to my left with two regiments, and opened a deadly fire on a dense mass of rebels, enfilading their left flank as they were making way (across the road to Gordon’s Mills) in the open ground in front of Mrs. Glenn’s house, first staggering them and soon routing them in confusion, driving them back into the woods east.
In a few moments this or another column of rebels came out of the woods near Vineyard’s house moving obliquely at and to my right, driving General Davis’ command before them. General Crittenden at this point came near being captured in trying to rally these troops. I immediately again changed front and enfiladed their right flank with an oblique fire, which soon drove them back with terrible slaughter. General Davis now rallied his men, who gallantly advanced on my right under a galling fire, but were soon driven by overwhelming numbers back again to my right, being followed to the center of the field to a ditch in which the rebel advance took cover. I at once ordered Captain Lilly to send a section of his battery forward on my left to a clump of bushes and rake the ditch with canister. This was promptly done, with terrible slaughter, but very few of the rebels escaping alive.
In these various repulses we had thrown into the rebel columns, which attacked us closely massed, over 200 rounds of double-shotted 10-pounder canister, at a range varying from 70 to 350 yards, and at the same time kept up a constant fire with our repeating rifles, causing a most fearful destruction in the rebel ranks. After this we were not again that day attacked.
On the morning of the 20th I was directed by General Rosecrans in person to take up a position on the right of General McCook’s line, and ordered to report to General McCook. I immediately did so, and he (General McCook) placed me in a very strong position on his right, on the crest of the east slope of Mission Ridge, about one-quarter of a mile to the south of Widow Glenn’s house. We lay here until about half past 11 a.m., when I received orders from General McCook to “close up on his right, and keep the line connected, and occupy the ground left vacant by him, as he was going to move to the left.” At this moment desperate fighting was heard down the line a mile or more to the left. As the troops on my left moved from their position still farther to the left, a column of rebels, five lines deep, assaulted them, breaking and dispersing the troops at my left, and driving them by weight of numbers in great confusion into the woods in their rear. My command was at this time advancing by regiments in line of battle. The Ninety-eighth Illinois immediately changed front to the left, and charged double-quick at the rebels (who had taken a battery stationed at Mrs. Glenn’s house) and retook the battery, their gallant colonel, Funkhouser, falling severely wounded while gloriously fighting in the front rank, still cheering his men forward after he fell.
The other regiments coming up in succession formed in their proper places into line, rapidly and without confusion, when the whole line was ordered to charge obliquely into the left flank of the rebels, and completely driving back their left down to the Gordon’s Mills road, and taking two guns from them still loaded with canister, which was emptied into their fleeing ranks.
At this time a force of the enemy that had been menacing my right fell back with but little fighting, apparently under the impression that their right had been driven back, and that they were being flanked. Captain Lilly was in the meantime pouring a heavy fire to the left down the rebel line, when word was brought me that a rebel line was advancing around my left. I immediately transferred three regiments from my right to the top of the hill west of Mrs. Glenn’s house, and with them and four pieces of artillery of Captain Lilly’s battery, soon drove them northeast across the road north of Mrs. Glenn’s. I now organized my line on the top of Mission Ridge, so as to command the road to the rear of Rossville, and deploying skirmishers north and east of my position, I sent messengers to find General McCook.
Lieutenant-Colonel Thruston, chief of General McCook’s staff, soon appeared and notified me that the line to my left was driven back and dispersed, and advised that I had better fall back to Lookout Mountain. I determined, however, to attempt to cut my way to join General Thomas at Rossville, and was arranging my line for that purpose when General Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, came up and said that “our troops had fled in utter panic; that it was a worse rout than Bull Run; that General Rosecrans was probably killed or captured;” and strongly advised me to fall back and occupy the passes over Lookout Mountain to prevent the rebel occupancy of it. One of my staff officers now came up and reported that he had found General Sheridan a mile and a half to the rear and left, who sent advice to me that he “was trying to collect his men and join General Thomas at Rossville, and that I had better fall back to the Chattanooga Valley.” I now, at 4 p.m., did so with great reluctance, bringing off with me a number of wagons loaded with ammunition, a great many ambulances, a number of caissons, a great many stragglers, and quite a number of straying beef-cattle.
After reaching Chattanooga Valley at dark, my pickets were properly posted to guard all approaches to Chattanooga from that direction, when I sent a courier to you at Chattanooga informing you of my position and dispositions.
The list of casualties in my command has been forwarded heretofore.
In conclusion, I am happy to state that through the entire campaign my commands were obeyed with cheerful promptness, men and officers seeming to fully appreciate our dangers and difficulties, and willingly submitting to the great privations incident thereto.
My subordinate commanders are entitled to the warmest praise for their gallantry and judgment in the numerous engagements, in all of which each did his whole duty.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. T. WILDER,
Colonel Seventeenth Indiana, Comdg. Mounted Brigade.
Maj. Gen. W. S. ROSECRANS,
U.S. Army, Commanding, &c.
Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West by Glenn Tucker
The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, Including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22 – September 23, 1863 by David A. Powell and David A. Friedrichs
Official Records of the Union and Pacific Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXX, Part 1
The Seventeenth Indiana Regiment. A History From Its Organization to the End of the War. No Author.
This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga (Civil War Trilogy) by Peter Cozzens
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