It was on Friday, April 12, 1861 at 4 am, that the first shell from Columbiad no. 1 in Charleston Harbor was fired and arguably inaugurated the most momentous event in American history. When the lanyard was pulled, the "Great Experiment" of American democracy was put to its sternest test. Still in its infancy in 1860, American democracy was threatened with dissolution by the exact inalienable right it was founded on to promote its existence. That right was self-determination; the ability to choose one's own station in life and to elect one's own governing bodies. But by the watershed year of 1861, American democracy had yet to face its sternest test. As the London Times noted, "so short lived has been the American Union that men who saw its rise may live to see its fall." In the words of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War would be waged to preserve "the last great nation on earth".
At the onset of the war, Lincoln's first need was to raise a sizeable army to prosecute it. The American regular army numbered between 16,000 to 25,000 at the time of Fort Sumter, hardly the numbers needed to fight this conflict. To fill the ranks, Lincoln made an initial call for volunteers on April 14, 1861 for 75,000 men under a ninety day term of service. His next call on May 3 was for 45,000 three year enlistments. The expectation shared in the North and the South was that this would be a ninety days war with one climactic battle to determine the outcome. The Union objective was to defeat the Confederate army and take the Rebel capital in this one decisive battle. The objective for the South was to beat back the Union army and win its independence. Therefore, the conflict would be limited geographically within Washington and Richmond corridor.
Lincoln wanted the war prosecuted quickly and the Union field commander, Irvin McDowell was ordered to move his army and take the Confederate capital by the end of July 1861 and capture the major rail center at Manassas, Virginia. Thus the Battle of First Bull Run or Manassas began on July 21, 1861. Federal troops enjoyed initial gains in the beginning of the battle but success soon turned into disaster. A strong line of Rebel defenders and a determined counterattack soon drove the Union forces from their front. What started as a trickle of refugees soon turned into a mass retreat to the rear in what is known in history as the "Great Skeddadle." The Union Army returned to Washington, beaten and demoralized. Lincoln and the rest of the nation now knew this was to be no ninety days war.
The defeat at Bull Run presented the North with some hard lessons of this war. They had grossly underestimated then South's ability and determination to wage a war for their independence. Therefore the objective of capturing Richmond meant very little even if Bull Run had been successful. The Civil War would extend far beyond the Richmond - Washington corridor. It would be fought along a thousand mile front from California to Florida and from Vermont to Texas. Armies would march hundreds of miles across the entire length of the nation and back again. At least two thirds of the nations geography would be involved in this conflict, one way or another. It was fought with the largest armies organized in the Western Hemisphere down to the smallest units, messmates and the individual soldier. It has been recorded and retold in countless documents, narratives and histories. The vast majority of what has been written on the subject focuses on particular armies and battles, the majority of which focuses on the campaigns in the East. Places such as Bull Run, Gettysburg and Appomattox Courthouse are familiar to even the casual observer. But the war was also waged in the West in places such as Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chattanooga and Chickamauga. History often pays lesser tribute to the Western soldier and unfortunately there are many units in these armies that also served with distinction but received nary a mention in the texts. Further, not all of those units were from the infantry or cavalry. Some very specialized units served in this war and aided in deciding the outcome. Philip Shiman noted this fact on writing about Civil War engineers when he stated that "more than one campaign failed for logistical reasons, especially in the western theater." These failures are important to note as they provide sufficient fodder for speculation on the prospects of a shorter conflict had appropriate attention been given to those "logistic" units. This story is one attempt to address that speculation and to rectify an omission. It is the history of one such engineering unit that served in the West. That unit was the Pioneer Brigade.
The history of the Pioneer Brigade can be traced to events prior to its formation and at the time of the initial Union attempts to penetrate into the Southern Heartland. With the Union defeat at Bull Run, combatants on both sides prepared for an extension of the conflict in terms of time and territory. In addition to their operations in the East, the Union objectives would include the creation of armies in the West for the purpose of splitting the South and securing the Mississippi River. These Western armies had made significant strides to that end by the spring of 1862. The fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, Island No. 10, Corinth and the Battle of Shiloh had established a West to South perimeter along the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers and extending through West Tennessee to the Mississippi River. By the summer of that year the Union objective was to secure the interior of that state by extending their occupation of Kentucky and stretching their gains to East Tennessee. That task was assigned primarily to General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio. After Shiloh, Buell was operating between the cities of Bowling Green and Nashville to secure that sector from Rebel influence. During that time, a small force under General Ormsby Mitchel was outside the city of Chattanooga, calling for reinforcements and waiting for a propitious moment to strike at "the gateway to East Tennessee and the heart of the Confederacy." Hearing of Mitchel's plans, Washington wired its support to his superior, Buell. The moment to strike appeared to arrive in May as Buell detached a brigade under General James Negley to meet Mitchel and then reconnoiter the defenses of the city in force. By June 7, Negley's brigade was over the Cumberland Mountains at the head of Mitchel's line and on the Tennessee River facing Chattanooga. On June 8, Negley filed this report of his expedition.
I do not consider the capture of Chattanooga as very difficult or hazardous, if we were prepared to do it and then hold the place; but taking into consideration the exposed condition of both front and rear of our lines to Pittsburg Landing; a long line of communication over a hardly passable road; the liability of a rise of the streams we have to ford, some of them being now 3 feet deep, with rough bottoms; our limited supplies, and the fact that our expedition has accomplished all we expected to do, has determined me to retire the forces, taking different routes, so as to drive (the Rebels) to Knoxville. I shall make another demonstration against Chattanooga this morning, during which time the trains will be descending the mountain.
Negley's duties shifted to that of making a demonstration in the front of Chattanooga, gathering information on its defenses, clearing Rebel influence in the area and preparing the way for Buell's advance. It was about this time; however, that the Union foray into East Tennessee began to unravel. Confederate General Smith's infantry was moving on Chattanooga to challenge the Union advance. Mitchel could not maintain his position in the face of this threat, which in turn made Negley's position all the more untenable. By June 10, the Union vanguard made a retrograde movement back to Altamont in Middle Tennessee. Further, the offensive by Buell was not forthcoming; his advance had stalled at Stevenson, Alabama where he too began a retrograde movement. By September the entire Army of the Ohio found itself back in Nashville on the 7th and then in Louisville on the 26th , "a more dirty and ragged crowd of tourists the city had never seen." The operation was a logistic and military failure. The causes were many, but none was more important than that of Buell's engineers. Phil Shiman noted:
Buell's troops were scattered across Middle Tennessee, engaging in either repairing the railroad or defending it against the raids of Confederate cavalry, partisans and guerrillas. Buell struggled to cover the railroads and its garrison with wooden stockade fortifications to allow him to consolidate his scattered forces into a mobile army again, but he failed. Well-timed raids cut Buell's communications and paralyzed his army and in a few days all the Federal gains of the summer were lost. much of Buell's failure had been attributable to the army's inadequate engineering organization and preparations.
The shortcomings in Buell's engineering Corps were directly attributable to the lack of men and officers who were skilled in the tasks that were required of them. Therefore he could not adequately consolidate his gains and had to spend an inordinate amount of time and manpower enforcing his occupation. Confederate cavalry made a living and a name for the likes of Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan in their quest to reverse the Union fortunes in this sector. The paucity of numbers in Buell's engineering units was fairly demonstrated with the amount of damage the Rebel cavalry could inflict and the large range that they could cover while practically being unopposed. Subsequently, all Buell had to do was move far enough away from his base at Nashville for the Rebels to wreak their havoc. What followed was a string of reverses culminating in his eventual return to Louisville for an eventual showdown with Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee at Perryville. That battle, a near Union disaster turned into a victory, ultimately proved to Washington that Don Carlos Buell was not up to the task at hand. Being stung hard several times during the Chattanooga campaign, he was not so eager to follow up on the Union victory in October, 1862. The result of which was his being relieved of duty. The new Union commander was to be selected on the basis of two criteria, his past success in the field and his skill as an engineer. That commander was General William Starke Rosecrans.
After their defeat at Perryville, the Confederate Army of the Tennessee retreated into Middle Tennessee to defend the agriculturally rich Elk, Duck and Stones River valleys. The key to this position was Murfreesboro, Tennessee where the Chattanooga-Nashville Pike and Railroad would provide the main route of a Federal invasion. It was also the key to Buell's discomfiture the past summer. It was there that Nathan Bedford Forrest's raids effectively and completely disrupted the Union plans in East Tennessee. Ultimately it was General Buell's performance at Perryville and his failure to pursue Bragg that brought about his replacement with General Rosecrans on October 24, 1862. Rosecrans arrived in Bowling Green on the 30th and moved the army to Nashville and Edgefield on November 10. There he divided it into three wings: Right Wing under Alexander McCook, Center under George (Pap) Thomas and Left under Thomas Crittenden and redesignated the Army of the Ohio as the Fourteenth Corps. To achieve his objectives, General Rosecrans would have to overcome the same obstacles that prevented his successor form achieving the Union goals in the West. To this end, he set about to improve and augment the engineering unit that he had on hand, namely the First Michigan. Much to his chagrin, Washington denied his request to employ additional engineering units as it "would take an act of Congress to raise them." Left to his own devices, the industrious engineer general turned to the resources that he had on hand. Field engineers or pioneers did not require such political machinations to form up. Men were simply chosen from the available infantry regiments and put into pioneer details as needed. However, the pioneers that Rosecrans had in mind would be quite different than any other organization in the entire Union army. Instead of random selection of laborers, Rosecrans made sure that select craftsmen were detailed for the job. By his order three thousand hand picked men would spend the next eighteen months of their enlistment in the newly formed Pioneer Brigade.
General William S. Rosecrans knew immediately what was expected of him when he assumed command of the Army of the Ohio, succeed where General Don Carlos Buell failed and take Chattanooga. The one lesson he garnered from Buell's dismissal was that Washington would not tolerate any perceived lack of progress on his part. The Union Commander, Henry Halleck stated as such.
The great objects to be kept in view in your operations in the field are: First, to drive the enemy from Kentucky and Middle Tennessee; second, to take and hold East Tennessee, cutting the line of railroad at Chattanooga so as to destroy the connection of the valley of Virginia with Georgia and the other Southern States. It is hoped that by prompt and rapid movements a considerable part of this may be accomplished before the roads become impassable from the winter rains.
Although there were many reasons for Buell's failure to achieve his objectives, one stands out arguably as being the most significant, his inability to get the most out of his engineers. Military history demonstrates that the maintenance and defense of communication and supply lines of an advancing army is a critical element in the ultimate success of any campaign. It also shows that establishing effective lines of communication and supply depends almost solely on the skill and expertise of highly specialized units, the military engineers. Even a casual reading of the Army of the Ohio records in the Chattanooga campaign proves that assertion. General Buell's every advance was slowed, checked and then withdrawn due to the havoc raised by Confederate cavalry and partisan raids on his ill-defended lines of communication and supply. It was a lesson well learned and a mistake not repeated by Buell's successor. What benefited General Rosecrans most was that he not only enjoyed some small successes as a commander in the Army of the Potomac but that he was a graduate of the Military Academy and a former officer in the elite Army Corps of Engineers. In December 1862, the concern of Washington in this sector was not the ability to fight but the ability to move. As will be demonstrated, speed of movement was dependent on the success of its engineers. If any other officer was considered for the task at hand in the West, none had credentials that surpassed the candidate of choice.
Consequent of the past failures of Rosecrans' predecessor the new commander almost immediately handed down the two most important military orders upon taking command; the division of the army into three wings and the development of one branch of his engineering units, the pioneers. Prior to Rosecrans' ascension to command, pioneer duty was performed by work details randomly selected from each regiment. This method proved inadequate to an army that needed to move swiftly in the field and not spend inordinate resources defending its rear. The army was so large in size and the distance and terrain traveled were so difficult that the construction of roads, bridges, railways, forts and supply depots became matters of vital importance. Another fault of the old pioneer system was that the men chosen to perform those duties were not often up to the task when skilled labor was required of them. The lack of those skills was most obvious in the erection of complex field works and fortifications needed to protect supply bases and lines of communication. The most notable example of this was the relative ease in which Confederate cavalry sidetracked General Buell's advance by threatening the minimally defended base at Murfreesboro. If General Rosecrans was to improve his chances for success, he had to improve on the old system of handling the engineering details in the upcoming campaign.
General Rosecrans remedied the logistical problems of moving and defending his army by creating an independent unit of men who were experienced in a trade and could apply it according to military necessity. George W. Morris of the 81st Indiana succinctly detailed the creation of that unit and its objectives:
There is another branch of the army that our regiment took a prominent part in that should not be forgotten and we feel that in justice to them that they should be mentioned. In the latter part of 1862 while the army lay at Edgefield, Tennessee, there was an order issued by General Rosecrans to form what was called the Pioneer Corps... Their work was to build bridges, railroads, cut roads through the cedars for the ambulances, and everything else that the army had to do. A number of times they were fighting like the balance of the army.
To this end, General William Rosecrans issued General Order No. 3 on November 3, 1862, which stated:
There will be detailed immediately, from each company of every regiment of infantry in this army, two men, who shall be organized as a pioneer or engineer corps attached to its regiment. The twenty men will be selected with great care, half laborers and half mechanics. The most intelligent and energetic lieutenant in the regiment, with the best knowledge of civil engineering, will be detailed to command, assisted by two non-commissioned officers. This officer shall be responsible for all equipage, and shall receipt accordingly.
Under certain circumstances it may be necessary to mass this force: when orders are given for such a movement, they must be promptly obeyed.
The wagons attached to the corps will carry all the tools, and the men's camp equipage. The men shall carry their arms, ammunition, and clothing.
Division quartermasters will immediately make requisitions on chief quartermasters for the equipment, and shall issue to regimental quartermasters on proper requisition.
Equipment For Twenty Men - Estimate For RegimentSix Felling Axes | Six Hammers Six Hatchets | Two Half-Inch Augurs Two Cross-Cut Saws | Two Inch Augurs Two Cross Cut Files | Two Two-Inch Augurs Two Hand-Saws | Twenty lbs. Nails, Assorted Two Hand-Saw Files | Forty lbs. Spikes, Assorted Six Spades | One Coil Rope Two Shovels | One Wagon, with four horses, or Three Picks | mules
It is hoped that regimental commanders will see the obvious utility of this order, and do all in their power to render it as efficient as possible.
The troops detailed in accordance with that order was to number just under three thousand men but their actual numbers varied as widely as the need for their service. The first duties assigned to the Pioneers were generally those of sappers and miners. However as their expertise grew so did the diversity of their tasks. The key difference between these men and the regular army engineers was that the Pioneers would often move in advance of the army. All the work at the front of the army would fall on their shoulders. Conversely, the army engineers were employed chiefly on the lines of communication to the rear. Both would be active in reinforcing their gains. Therefore, the Pioneer's duties would consist of the two that were the most critical to an army advancing onto enemy soil; the same two General Buell sorely overlooked, reinforcing captured enemy ground to protect the rear and preparing transportation infrastructure to hasten the advance. The result was that the Union army in the West now had the means to do what it failed to achieve the past summer.
Although pioneer duty was expected of and accepted by the volunteer army, it was considered to be hard and thankless toiling on tasks unfit for the regular engineers. This resulted in a preexisting distaste for pioneer duty that permeated the ranks. Therefore the men selected for the new organization were a bit tardy in embracing their new assignment. An adjustment period was required of these men that was fortunately short in duration. This was evident in private letters sent home as noted by the one by Private Isaac Raub of Third Battalion sent home to his wife Mary Jane.
May 7, 1863. …you will find by reading this letter that I am not with the regiment any more. I was detached to the Pioneer Corps on the fourth of this month. …we are in camp about two miles from where the regiment is in camp and to tell you the truth about it I never done anything that I hated to do as bad as to leave the regiment. …it may be that we will be handy to the regiment and then again it may be that before two weeks we may be twenty or thirty miles miles apart. …so far as I can say for the Pioneer Corps so far as I like it very well we do not have near so much duty to do as we had when we was with the regiment. …we don’t have any picket duty to do nor any scouting to do as far as that is concerned. …I am one of the mechanics and wont have to do much chopping or any of the hard labor all mechanicks gets from 40 to 75 cents extry per day for every day that they work.
May 10, 1863. The time seems kind of lonesome in one respect and for some other reasons I like it better where (I) am now than I did with the regiment. Pioneering is healthy work and then we got better grub in the Pioneer Brigade than we did in the regiment and we don’t have any drilling to do like when I was with the regiment. …our grub consists of soft bread fresh beef shoulder meat potatoes rice sugar and coffee and we have plenty of it in fact more than we can eat.
May 12, 1863. I like Pioneering a great deal better than I did with the regiment. When we work common labor we get 25 cts extry and when we work with mechanical tools we get 40 cts extry.
August 21, 1863. I would far rather be a pioneer than to be with a regiment of infantry and have to Drill all the time for Drilling is a great Deal harder for me than work and then it is not near so healthy in a regiment as it is to be pioneering… I would not wish myself back to the regiment for I have got just as good friends as I had when I was in the regiment.
Raub noted some of the perqs enjoyed by the Pioneers such as better food, “healthy” work, no picket duty, no drilling under manual of arms and additional pay. Most likely it was these “extrys” that helped shape a more positive outlook for pioneering under General Rosecrans than what these men were used to under any other commander. However these plum positions did not come without a caveat. That was the animosity it caused among the rank and file of Rosecrans’ army.
Not unlike most newly formed units in the Civil war, the Pioneer Brigade got off to a rough start before it's first march. General Rosecrans' original order of formation inferred that the men selected for pioneer duty would stay with their mother regiments during a march and that he would detach them when they were required for pioneer duties. At least that is what the General originally communicated to the regimental Colonels. However, this expressed intent may have been a ruse "intended to ensure that the regiments detailed their best men and not their dregs" for this detail. The Colonels did indeed detail their most talented men to the Pioneers. However, it was discovered soon thereafter that the original core of Pioneers would become a separate unit permanently detached from their former comrades. The result was the development of a lasting bitterness among the regimental brass for Rosecrans' brain-child. The bitterness within the brass began as soon as this news was announced and lasted for the duration of the unit's existence. It also spread into the ranks as these Pioneers received a perq that no other volunteer infantryman had heard of before in the West. The Pioneers were to be excused from daily drill under the manual of arms. However, the Pioneers were hardly idlers. They did in fact drill but with pontoon and spade instead of muskets. Also, when the bulk of the army rested, the Pioneers were hard at work. Therefore the enmity against the Pioneers was misplaced and had its origin with the brass who felt that their commanding General overextended his authority.
Through the creation of the Pioneer Brigade, General Rosecrans was able to solve his engineering shortage without having to wait for the approval of Washington. However, he was never able to secure formal recognition for the Brigade from his superiors. To Washington, these men were still just pioneers, hence still a part of their mother regiments. Brigade officers and men who were promised promotions and extra pay for their services rarely saw any advancement or extra wages. One Pennsylvania private attested to this fact in his pension papers saying " was detailed to the Pioneer Corp and was promised 40> per day extra but never got that." Further, as the men of the Pioneers were still considered to be a part of their original regiment, payday often came and went with no wage at all. Although these men remained to be listed on their regimental muster roll, they were also listed as being officially "detached" and thus not due any pay through those channels. These organizational flaws created dissension in the ranks that developed into a breakdown of internal discipline and a rash of external sniping which became most evident during the Tullahoma campaign, the Pioneers "unfinest" hour. In the end however, Rosecrans' deception, his subordinate's acrimony, the Pioneer's occasional unruliness did not detract from their overall achievement. When called on to do its most critical work, the Pioneer Brigade did it masterfully.
The first inkling of the Pioneer's future fame and foul came on the day that the men were detached from their regiments and boarded on the trains for Nashville in early November. There the Pioneers were assembled in a camp of instruction and organized in a brigade of three battalions. General Rosecrans based this organization on the traditional standard for fighting units. Thus its creation was based on his belief that,
The workmanship required by the exigencies of a large army (was) to be executed with more harmony and system, with less inconvenience and greater dispatch ...than if it were necessary to call upon each regiment of the army ...for its detail of suitable mechanics.
General Rosecrans felt that concentrating the pioneer work details was more efficient for "drawing rations, posting guards and doing their military duty" if these men were permanent messmates. Therefore, the organization of the Pioneers was created as such, First Battalion from the Center or Fourteenth Corps, Second Battalion from the Right or Twentieth Corps and Third Battalion from the Left or Twenty-first Corp. Each battalion was subdivided into ten to twelve companies of eighty to one hundred men aggregated into four or five regiments. These battalions were organized to work independently of each other further economizing their efforts. Because the size of the brigade sometimes exceeded five thousand men, it was often referred to as the Pioneer Corps. Even official reports vary in their identification of the Pioneers. However, unofficial unit records most often identify it as "Brigade" and so too will this record. Regarding their organization, Rosecrans noted that a "system of order and celerity has been adopted by which each brigade can plan and superintend work in two hours time from the commencement." An astounding feat of efficiency considering similar jobs took up to a full day under the old method of detailing pioneers in the Union army.
By creating the Pioneer Brigade, Rosecrans now had an elite, cohesive unit of tradesmen who could quickly erect field fortifications, corduroy roads, build and repair bridges and move and fortify his army with skill and alacrity. What Buell had once attempted to do with the 800 men of the First Michigan Engineers, Rosecrans would improve on by adding the three thousand men in the Pioneers. Further, Rosecrans could augment those numbers by employing the traditional method of temporarily detaching men from their regiments when they were needed. The result was that, at its height at Murfreesboro, the Pioneer Brigade numbered up to 5000 men. However, unlike the regular engineers, the Pioneers were still soldiers, and as soldiers they were also to shoulder their muskets when called on. Also unlike traditional pioneer duty, these men would remain in the organization during a fight and shoulder their muskets as the Pioneer Brigade. Thomas Van Horne, a biographer of the Army of the Cumberland noted :
A great difficulty would have been met with in endeavoring to concentrate the labor of the Pioneers, had they not been consolidated, in the details from each regiment not being able to rendezvous with their tents or cooking utensils, seeing that each two men would belong to a separate mess in their regiment; nor could they have been organized, so as to draw their rations, to post guards, and to do military duty as it should be done, -viz. systematically and under the direction of their own officers. The labors performed by this brigade are immense. The results of their labor show that the men and their organization are well adapted to the requirements of the service.
The Pioneer Brigade was a unique unit in that it was the only one specifically organized as permanent pioneers. At no other time in the history of this conflict was ever organized such a unit, North or South, to serve the cause with both axe and musket.
The Brigade was officially designated on December 7, 1862 and commanded by Captain James St.Clair Morton, a tall, blonde haired officer who; it was said, struck a similar resemblance to and the quirky personality of General George Armstrong Custer. Morton graduated West Point second in a class of forty-two in 1851. His first military assignment was in Charleston, South Carolina as assistant engineer in the completion of Fort Sumter. His war experience began in May 1862 when he was assigned to General Buell as chief engineer to the Army of the Ohio where he supervised the First Michigan Engineers. His appointment to head the Pioneers was quite understandable when one considers his personality. In fact, it was written that his "iconoclasm, outspoken individualism and willingness to challenge engineer dogma endeared him to Rosecrans who shared the same traits." He would use those traits to lead the Pioneers. Under Morton's direction, the most skilled infantrymen were selected from each regiment and organized into the threebattalions according to Rosecrans orders. This task completed, Rosecrans turned his attention to his next objective, the pursuit and defeat of General Braxton Bragg and his Confederate Army of Tennessee.
The Pioneers completed their training under Captain Morton in two weeks time and returned to Edgefield by mid December. General Rosecrans' army was fully equipped by that time and assembled in their camps for the pursuit of the Army of Tennessee. All was in readiness by December 19. Rosecrans had the orderly Sergeants in the Union camp move from tent to tent that night with the instructions, "Reveille at 4am, march at daylight with three days rations." This meant one thing to the veteran soldier; a hard march was at hand with an even harder fight on the other end. The march was delayed however and the Pioneers remained in camp. Orders were reissued on Christmas Eve to march the next day but were countermanded again. This turn of events afforded the Pioneers the luxury of spending Christmas day in camp. After the festivities that evening Sergeant Henry V. Freeman of the Third Battalion, Pioneer Brigade noted, "10 P.M. - Marching orders for 6 o'clock. There was no mistake about it this time. ...reveille sounded at 4 o'clock." Rosecrans' army was finally under way. Of the 2600 men in the Pioneers, 1600 went on the march to Murfreesboro. Detachments from each of the three battalions were set to move out from Nashville on the 26th and march southward in a drenching rain by 6 a.m. "Not a Presbyterian rain either", quipped one Pennsylvania private, "but a real Baptist downpour."
Documentation of this movement by Pioneer Sergeant Henry V. Freeman noted that they "eventually bivouacked on a muddy hillside at 9 p.m. that night" some ten miles out of Murfreesboro. Rain continued to drench the men up until the 27th as they moved steadily toward the town. By this time intermittent cannon fire and a spattering of musketry was heard in the front indicating that the Confederates were close at hand. The Pioneers were moved to the rear of the advancing army as the forward Union lines made contact with Confederate skirmishers. The weather cleared on Sunday the 28th, but the Pioneers could only advance four miles due to the men and materiale that had to be moved and the poor condition of the pike. They finally reached their objective by December 29, the outskirts of Murfreesboro. The Confederate lines were now in full view, the battle close at hand. The Pioneers encamped on the left and to the rear of Rosecrans' main line between Stones River, the Nashville Pike and Railroad on the night of the 30th. They spent that morning cutting roads through the timbers for ammunition trains to the front and ambulances to the rear. The Pioneer Brigade remained in bivouac on Stones River that night later replacing a bridge destroyed by the Rebels. Captain Lyman Bridges, First Battalion, Pioneer Corps reported,
I have the honor to report that on the morning of Dec. 30, 1862 having completed the bridge at Stewart's Creek at 4 a.m., I received orders to hold my command in readiness to march at a moments notice. At 8 a.m., by your (Morton's) order I moved seven companies, 600 strong, forward upon the (Nashville) Pike, throwing out an advance guard and flankers upon either side, three companies being upon special duty. At 10 a.m., in accordance to orders from you, I moved to the front and halted, awaiting your order. At 2 p.m. I moved my company to the river, taking position upon the left of Captain Stokes' Chicago Board of Trade Battery, and built an abatis from the river to Gen. Rosecrans Headquarters, as directed by you.
There they bivouacked 500 yards downstream on Stones River behind Crittenden's Corp. On the 30th, they prepared three fords for crossing and provided cover from Confederate snipers for the one furthest downstream. The pioneer work of the brigade was nearing completion. Eventually they would trade their picks, axes, and saws for muskets and bayonets, but for the moment they were mere spectators. Sergeant Freeman described the scene.
In the afternoon of December 30th, the brigade approached it's position upon the ground which, on the morrow, would become the battlefield of Stone's River. At nine o'clock in the morning we had broken camp and in the rain and mud, to the deep, continuous music of the cannon, had moved to the front along Murfreesboro Pike. Passing through a strip ...we came somewhat suddenly into a more open space, where, like a wall a short distance in front, stood a blue line of battle. Beyond this the road stretched away to the south, where the cupola of the Murfreesboro Court House held itself aloft, and where nearer by another line of battle in grey stood, preparing to dispute further progress with an unmistakable "Thus far, but no farther." ...the sullen boom of cannon told what was going on. ...and the distant battle lines confronted each other for the most part in grim silence. Now and then a battery would open up vigorously, but it was at long range and the firing was of short duration. The storm of battle was still gathering, and its hour had not yet struck. ...And so night closed down on the troops, some sleeping upon their arms, and others moving into position in preparation for the mighty conflict of the morrow.
The Battle of Murfreesboro, or Stones River opened the next morning at 6 a.m., December 31, 1862. At the commencement of hostilities, the Pioneer Brigade and three other brigades remained in the Union rear, opposite the pike and near McFadden's Ford. Captain Bridges reports the last work detail of the First Battalion on that morning. "At 4 a.m. December 31, I improved a ford at Stones River (at the Round Forest)." General Alexander McCook, who had dismissed any activity in his sector earlier that morning, was at his headquarters getting a shave. His wing was to offer only "stiff resistance" on the right while the principle attacking force was to cross Stones River by the left flank. McCook was to "contest every inch of ground" if attacked while the main body of the army was to swing into Murfreesboro and cut off the Rebels. However Bragg had planned his own massed assault on McCook's line, a repeat of Perryville. At 6:22 a.m. the Butternuts struck the Union right with complete surprise and the nerve shattering Rebel yell. The Federals reeled with some regiments still having arms stacked. Within five minutes the first Union brigade; General Edward Kirk's, was overrun. However, their avenue of retreat, or in this case skedaddle, was through the lines of General August Willich. Willich's brigade was also forced from the field. Regiments, brigades and divisions soon broke and made for the rear. McCook's wing was disintegrating quickly. Brigadier General Philip Sheridan's division finally stood their ground and stemmed the rout. But they soon ran out of ammunition and had to fall back. Five Union brigades were now in full retreat.
By noon an eight mile double line of blue had been depleted into three brigades which stood and faced eleven Butternut brigades. Fortunately, Sheridan's defense gave Rosecrans the time he needed to establish a new line of defense. The Nashville Pike, the main Union supply line and the Rebel objective, had to be defended. Rosecrans was forced to move from an offensive to a defensive strategy. His three remaining brigades were formed into a crotchet to anchor the Union left at Stones River. The Pioneer Brigade was placed in reserve along the Asbury Road. The new Union line of defense was extended along the Nashville Pike. Captain James Stokes' Chicago Board of Trade Battery was placed atop a small knoll west of the Pike 400 to 500 yards behind and in the center of the Union lines and astride the pike. The Pioneers were moved forward in support of the battery, the First Battalion to the left, Third Battalion to the right. There they met hundreds of broken, fleeing Yankees with the Rebels reforming for pursuit of the faltering Union columns and howling the Rebel yell. The Pioneers were now just behind the front lines.
Of all the command decisions that Rosecrans had to make during the battle, none was more important than his placement of the Pioneer Brigade and the Chicago Battery. From their positions along the Nashville Pike they could sweep the entire field with a raking fire of canister to slow the Confederate advance. Captain Morton described the events.
On the morning of the 31st, the brigade was engaged in improving the fords of Stone's River, in which the right (First) battalion sustained the fire of some rebel cavalry, when I was ordered to take position in the line of battle, and formed my brigade, by the orders of the commanding general in person, fronting toward the right, where the enemy appeared on a rise of ground in front of us, from which they had driven one of our batteries. I immediately opened fire with canister from Stokes' battery and drove them back. I then, by order of the commanding general in person, advanced to (a) rise, and held it under the fire of three rebel batteries. I supported the battery by the First Battalion of Pioneers on the left, posted in a thicket, and by the Third Battalion on the right.
The efforts of the Pioneer Brigade and the Chicago Board of Trade Battery gave Rosecrans the time he needed to establish a stragglers line and to place fresh units along the pike.
While Rosecrans scraped together stragglers to reform his lines, the Confederates were also regrouping to renew their assault. Three furious Rebel charges ensued, the third finally breaking open a gap in what was left of the Union line to the front of Morton. The remnants of these units were forced to retire back to the pike. The Rebel lines surged forward as the Union line bent back on itself such as the closing of a jackknife. As fragments of the two remaining divisions fell back, a solid line of Confederates pursued. Their goal, the Nashville Pike and Railroad, was now in sight. The Pioneers again formed on the Chicago Board of Trade Battery, First Battalion to the left, Third Battalion to the right. Sergeant Freeman continues:
The sounds of battle were unmistakably coming nearer and nearer with omens of disaster. Rumors of trouble began to run through the lines. A few minutes later the woods were suddenly filled with stragglers, riderless horses, and ambulances driven with frantic speed. Our time for action had come.
Rosecrans made final readjustments to his line by moving two divisions across and perpendicular to the pike. He sent another to their right and the Pioneer Brigade and the Chicago Board of Trade Battery to a position forward to the pike and to the right of this new line. Battery and brigade were now formed in line parallel to the pike and between the Rebels and their goal. The retreating units that could be regrouped now formed on the Pioneers right. Sergeant Freeman continues.
All this while the troops composing the reserves ...had been chiefly spectators and listeners. Now the quick drums rolled, and the hitherto inactive masses on the left became instinct with life and motion. The advance must be stopped or the army was lost. An aide dashed up to Morton, the brigade commander. A moment afterwards the (First) battalion was moving out of the cedar thicket into the open ground through which ran the railroad and the Nashville Pike, and was passing towards the center to the right. Moving at the double-quick, as the brigade emerged from the cedars ... the rear of the centre and a part of the right ...became more plainly visible. It was indeed time. ...The Confederate advance was within 80 rods of us.
From the woods to the right issued a stream of stragglers. The debris was drifting back rapidly. Cannon and caissons, and remnants of batteries. There were men retiring with guns, men without their guns, men limping, others holding up blood stained hands and arms; men carrying off wounded comrades; and faces blackened with powder and sometimes stained with blood. Over all arose, near at hand, the rebel yell of the victors, answered occasionally by a cheer of defiance of the brave fellows who stubbornly contested every inch of ground. All the while the steady crackling of musketry, approaching nearer and nearer, sounded as if some mighty power was breaking and crashing to the ground every tree in the forest. Among the disorganized men falling back, there were some crying and some cursing. A man ...came up and said that a large part of (his) regiment had been killed or captured. He seemed to have some doubts whether anybody but himself had escaped.
The Confederate tide continued to roll in. The forward Federal line had all but disintegrated. Sergeant Freeman described what followed.
Shells were bursting over and missiles of all kind hailed all around. Crossing the railroad to the area between it and the Nashville Pike we filed to the right and formed a line of battle. "Battalion, lie down!" was ordered and the line lay prostrate, each man keenly peering into the thicket in front... A hail of bullets was passing over the Federals and many missiles were smacking into the ground throwing dirt into the faces of the crouching men. Then the line of struggling bluecoats slowly falling back came into view through the trees. They were loading and firing as they retired. But their ammunition was almost exhausted and they passed over our prostrate line and laid down behind it. The battery, now aimed low, returned a murderous fire of canister into the lead Confederate elements. Captain Morton rode to the front of the ranks and called out, "Men, you haven't much ammunition, but give them what you have and then wade in on `em with the bayonets!" Then the order "Battalion, rise up!" came like an electric shock. The Confederates were near at hand. Suddenly their line seemed to burst through the thicket just in front. "Commence firing!" and our volleys were fired into them. Men were dropping here and there, and others filled the vacant places. The rebel flag, seen dimly through the smoke and trees, wavered, started forward again and then surged back. Yes, there was no mistake. It was going back.
"Pour in the shot boys!, Give `em hell" were some of the exultant exclamations. The immediate danger was over. The Confederates gave way rapidly, and the line pressed forward after them. The advance was stopped. When the enemy finally gave way ...our troops advanced to the field beyond the cedars. We moved forward in line with the brigade and took position about midway of the woods, and about 100 rods from the field. Captain Bridges of the first Battalion says ...that General Rosecrans in person gave him the command to charge, when the brigade advanced across the field.
Captain Bridges added:
The battery, having been ordered into position on the ridge between the pike and the railroad, I forwarded my command in line of battle upon the left of Stokes' battery, the enemy having possession of the parallel ridge upon the opposite side of the pike, about 20 rods distant.
At that crisis General Rosecrans rode along our line, and ordered me to charge and take the knob upon the opposite side of the pike, he sending the same order to Captain Stokes' battery. I moved one wing upon either side of the battery to the hill in good order. Soon after reaching the hill, General Rosecrans ordered me to occupy the skirt of woods upon my left. I moved my entire command upon the left of the battery, the Third Battalion of this brigade relieving my right wing, which changed positions to the left. The enemy continued a heavy fire of grape, canister and musketry upon us as we advanced and they fell back.
The Pioneers position was important not only as support for Stokes' battery. It also became the center of the stragglers line that once again formed around them. When fully formed, the last Union defensive alignment was in the following order, Negley's and Rousseau's divisions on the left, the Pioneers and Stokes in the center and then Harker's brigade and the divisions of Johnson and Davis to the right. The Confederate advance was finally checked but the battle was far from over. Sergeant Freeman continues his description:
A brief lull followed. It is a trying period, awaiting a charge which you feel sure is coming. There was nothing to do but lie still and wait. A good many bullets were flying over, and the prone position was the safest. Very soon the Board of Trade Battery again opened with renewed vigor. Its shot and shell went crashing into the woods in front. Then through the cedars came dense Confederate columns, flushed with previous success, and rolling forward to anticipated victory. "Battalion, rise up!" and again came the shock of battle. But the fire of the battery demoralized them and they did not stand long. "Forward!" came the command; and our line steadily advanced, but only for a short distance... to maintain it's part of the new line of battle. The rebels rallied three times and fought through the woods.
Captain Bridges added:
At 12pm the enemy, General McCown's division, came down, upon the double quick, with their standards flying, in splendid order. They were allowed to come within 300 yards, when the musketry of the entire brigade and the battery opened with grape and canister a most deadly fire, which he returned as earnestly. The column reeled and fell back in disorder, their colors struck down and barely rescued.
Again, Sergeant Freeman:
Presently, through an open space to the right of our battalion there came back a brigade or more of our own troops, and following them a large body of Confederates in massed battle lines in close pursuit. Our battalion executed a half-wheel to the right, and stood eagerly watching the Confederate advance until the retreating troops were out of our range. "Steady men! Don't fire! Aim low! Steady" was passed along the line until at length the victorious Confederates were quite near. "Now men, steady, aim low and fire!" rang out the command. The rebel advance was stopped as if by an earthquake. Officers could be seen trying to rally and urge them forward. But it was of no use, and as the retreating Union men rallied, the rebels broke. The troops whom we thus aided were, it is supposed, Colonel Beatty's brigade of Van Cleve's division.
Captain Bridges continued:
The enemy again rallied his forces at 5 p.m. advancing a brigade upon my left flank through a skirt of wood, attempting a surprise. My pickets being fired upon by the enemy, who took advantage of a train of ambulances in the vicinity, firing upon ambulances and pickets indiscriminately, I ordered this battalion to change front and to commence firing. ...Stokes' battery opened fire simultaneously with grape and canister. Each volley by us thinned his ranks. He advanced, perhaps 40 paces, discharging repeated volleys of musketry, but his repulse was complete, and they fell back to the woods 1,000 yards in the rear, cursing their fate.
Captain Morton also reported:
Toward sundown, the enemy appeared on my left, I brought two sections of Stokes' battery to the left of my First Battalion, and repulsed a brigade of the enemy which attacked that battalion in the thicket. They left their dead within 50 paces of my line. In this affair both the battalion and the battery behaved very creditably.
Captain Bridges closed out the action for the First Battalion, Pioneers.
Dozens of wounded (Rebels) ...corroborated each other in stating that a brigade was repulsed in attempting to take our position. ...(We) captured 1 major, 1 captain and 30 men. My command laid upon their arms during the night, holding the ground gained early in the morning.
Sergeant Freeman also closed with:
(The defense of Van Cleve's brigade) was the last fighting of the day in our vicinity. With the darkness, silence settled over the fields and forests. The quiet moon looked down from a clear sky upon the dying and the dead. It was a very chilly night and grew colder toward morning.
The days fighting had ended with the Union still holding the field.
January 1, the New Year dawned relatively quiet, although Bragg demonstrated strongly against the Union right and center with artillery and a show of infantry. During the day, repeated attempts to force the center of the Union line were kept back with the help of Stokes' battery and the Pioneers. Pickets exchanged fire and the line soon grew into a skirmish. Squads from the First and Third Battalions were ordered out on this line and given the uncomfortable task of ferreting out and chasing away Confederate snipers. Sergeant Freeman reported:
As the day broke on the first morning of the new year a few shots began to be exchanged between the confederate pickets and ourselves. The picket line became a skirmish line until, probably, about eight o'clock in the morning, when there came an order to draw the line in. Almost immediately, however, we were ordered out as skirmishers again, while the battalion changed its position and took its place on the brow of a low elevation, the same which, the day before, was occupied by the Chicago Board of Trade Battery. That morning on the skirmish line, it occurred to the writer that he preferred to fight in line of battle. It is not a distinctly pleasant sensation to feel that the bullets which come in your direction are intended specifically for your own benefit.
Captain Bridges also reported this skirmish.
... at daybreak a large force of the enemy (was) assembling to the left... I rode to the front and the left flank of my line of battle. The fog being very dense, the enemy could not be seen, but I could distinctly hear his commands, and being satisfied that he was advancing to my left, there being no support to my left and the Murfreesboro Pike... I immediately changed front, my left resting on the pike. Captain Stokes moved his battery promptly upon my right. The sun had just risen, but the fog had not yet cleared. We took our position without accident. The enemy advanced within 500 yards and opened fire, as he supposed upon our flank. A few moments of return fire convinced him that we were not unaware of his movements. In half an hour he fell back upon his entrenchments, remaining there during the day. No demonstration made upon our front during the rest of the day. At 10 p.m., Colonel (George P.) Buell relieved my command and I moved to the left and the rear, having held the one position upon the front thirty-six hours without relief.
Sergeant Freeman made one note of some color to finish out the days action on the 1st.
There was no firing at the time (noon) in (our) part of the field, and we watched the shells as they rose gracefully in the air, most of them falling short of our line of battle. We could see them in their flight toward us, and so long as it could be seen that they were not in too close range, we rather enjoyed watching them. Then one of our guns opened, and the rebel guns soon ceased firing.
The Pioneer Brigade would finally get a much needed rest in the rear. The next days battle would prove decisive in this fight.
January 2, 1863 dawned grey, cloudy and cold. Although on full alert no consequential action occurred that morning with the exception of the Rebel battery fire until noon. Braxton Bragg decided that the Confederates last advantage in this fight was to take McFadden's Ford and the high ground east of Stones River. Bragg felt that the possession of the ground north of the ford and west of the river would give his men the advantage to enfold the Union lines. The Confederate commander's decision switched the fighting from the Union right to its left. Confederate General John Breckenridge was to lead the assault that was made "against my judgment." His skirmishers opened up on the Union lines west of the river at sunrise. The rest of the morning was spent in minor probing but no Union countermeasures were offered.
At 1 p.m. Confederate artillery joined the fray. Rosecrans now realized that the "skirmishing to the front" was more than that and moved with determination. He sent General Negley's division to a rise just opposite of the intended assault to shore up his line west of the river. The Pioneers were moved from their position in the rear to form in line on Negley's left. By 3 p.m. four Union brigades were in support of their front. Rosecrans had the advantage of holding the interior lines as Breckenridge's main line of assault was not quite formed by the time the Union men were in place. All the while, these movements were uncomfitted by an "annoying drizzle that began at noon that turned into a numbing, driving sleet." The Confederate assault went forward at precisely 4 p.m. Bragg soon gained the high ground that he coveted and pushed the Federals to his front. However the topography would stymie his assault. As the river and the terrain flowed north, so did Breckenridge's left flank. Regiments collided and units became completely entangled as "the eagerness of the troops caused the lines of (two brigades) to lap on the crest of the hill." One Kentucky private was more succinct. "In the madness of pursuit, all order and discipline were forgotten." Captain Morton described the action along his front.
On the morning of the 2d, part of the Pioneers were engaged in making road crossings over the railroad, when the enemy opened a cannonade, which reached our camp. I brought out Stokes' battery and returned the fire. The battalions advanced, supporting it under a fire of solid shot and shell. The cannonade having ceased, I received orders to fall back to my assigned position in reserve, and remained till late in the afternoon, when the commanding general in person ordered me to the left as re-enforcement. I then marched my command at a double-quick and arrived on the line, occupying a gap in it under the fire of a rebel battery, which was, however, soon silenced by Stokes' battery, which was worked with exceeding vigor and skill.
General Negley now approached me and requested me to re-enforce his troops, who, after a violent contest, had gained ground on the opposite side of the river. I accordingly moved my command there at a double-quick, and formed the Third Battalion in second line behind General Davis' command, the First Battalion extending beyond it and throwing out its own advance, occupying the space between it and the river. The battery was posted on a knoll between the First and Third Battalions, the Second Battalion being in second line on the extreme right.
Sergeant Freeman also described the First Battalion scene.
On the morning of January 2 the Confederate batteries opened up early. Solid shot and shell passing over the front line fell among the men of the battalion, killing three almost before we were aware what the trouble was. The line was immediately moved forward to the brow of a low elevation. The men lay upon the ground with the shells coming in fast and furiously. Several men were killed and wounded while the line lay in this position, which was uncomfortable while the firing lasted. When the cannonading at length ceased, the brigade retired somewhat from the immediate front to a less exposed position, and there remained resting in the mud as best the men could.
Captain Bridges of First Battalion also noted:
At sunrise January 2, the enemy (Breckenridge) charged upon our left center, capturing a section of a battery one half-mile in our immediate front, and were forcing our position. I moved my command, as ordered by you (Morton), to the left and front, my right resting on the Third Battalion of this brigade, and my left upon an open field near the river; remained in an hour in line of battle.
(The brigade) was then ordered to take a position at the bend of the river, 40 rods farther down; remained in position until 3 p.m., when, by your orders, I moved forward in good order to the support of Stokes' battery in the charge upon the hill, above the bend of the river, recently held by our left wing.
It was now 4:45 p.m. Union Captain John Mendenhall's battery of 45 cannon, including the Chicago Board of Trade, had assembled on a rise opposite the line of assault. As the Confederates crested the hill they so coveted, Mendenhall's enormous battery line opened simultaneously. One Rebel Kentucky private noted that, "the very earth trembled, and a mass of iron hail was hurled upon (us)." The assault was not merely checked but nearly blown clear off the hill. "A rapid advance at once broke into a rapid retreat." Negley's men and the Pioneers splashed across the river in pursuit. Captain Bridges, Sergeant Freeman and General Morton reported on the Pioneers action in this fight.
About 4 p.m. ...(the) sounds of battle again broke out fiercely over upon the left. It was the attack of Breckenridge from across the river. For the time it was successful in driving our men back to the river bank.
By your order, I moved forward in double-quick, forded the river, and charged up the hill; formed line of battle over the crest of the hill, my left wing occupying an oak ridge, as indicated by you. I remained in position an hour.
The brigade was promptly ordered forward, and moved at double-quick over the brow of the rising ground down to, and then across, the river. Ahead of us the fighting was sharp. But before we reached the actual front the Confederates were being driven back. Many dead and wounded, both Union men and Confederates, covered the ground over which we advanced. The rebels were retreating, and nothing but the darkness of the night prevented the Union troops from following them into Murfreesboro itself.
We remained (in position on the knoll) till after nightfall, when I received orders to recross the river and again assume a position in reserve, and to furnish the Second Battalion to construct rifle-pits in the front and near the pike, and also on the extreme right. Said battalion worked all night in the rain.
The Confederates were pummeled into a full retreat with Union forces including the Pioneer Brigade in close pursuit. By nightfall all Federal troops had recrossed the river with the exception of the Pioneers who remained in bivouac and skirmish line on the Confederate side until recalled later that evening.
The next day was spent more or less fighting cold, rain, inadequate rations and exhaustion. Sergeant Freeman notes, "Today rain, rain, rain. I am almost exhausted. No shelter and rain all the time. Not much fighting." Captain Bridges also notes:
January 3, by your (Morton's) order, this battalion commenced building a military bridge at the lower bend of Stones River, which, I have the honor to inform you, is now completed and in use.
Captain Morton also reported:
On the 3d, the Third Battalion relieved the First, on duty in the trenches, and on the 4th the Second and Third Battalions began two lunettes on the north bank of the river, and the First Battalion began a trestle bridge across it. On the 5th, the said work was continued, and the Third Battalion, with the advance of the army, in pursuit of the enemy.
On January 4 the Confederate Army finally evacuated Murfreesboro. The battle of Stones River was over. The Union army suffered nearly 34% casualties, 13,000 dead and wounded to a total force of 44,000 making Stones River the deadliest battle in the war in proportion to the numbers engaged. Captain Morton reported:
The loss of the brigade is as follows: First Battalion: Killed, 4; wounded, 3 commissioned officers and 5 enlisted men. Second Battalion: Killed, 4; wounded, 5 enlisted men. Third Battalion: Killed, 4; wounded, 10 enlisted men. Stokes' battery: Killed, 3; wounded, 1 commissioned officer and 9 enlisted men. Total, killed and wounded, 48.
For his part, Captain James St. Clair Morton was promoted to Brigadier General for "distinguished service in the fortification of Nashville... and behaving like a hero during the whole battle of Stones River." Among General Rosecrans other commendations to the War Department he noted,
Among the commands which deserve special mention for distinguished services in the battle is the Pioneer Corps, a body of 1700 men composed of details from the companies of each infantry regiment... (They) marched as an infantry brigade with the left wing, making bridges at Stewart's Creek; prepared and guarded the ford at Stones River on the night of the 29th and 30th; supported Stokes' battery, and fought with valor and determination on the 31st, holding it's position `til relieved on the morning of the 2d; advancing with the greatest promptitude and gallantry to support Van Cleve's division against the attack on our left on the evening of the same day, constructing a bridge and batteries between that time and Saturday evening. The efficiency and esprit du corps suddenly developed in this command, it's gallant behavior in action, and the eminent services it is continually rendered the army, entitle both officers and men to special public notice and thanks.
The newly promoted General Morton also cited their achievements:
During the engagement, the Pioneers behaved as well as could be wished, and, when required, worked zealously by night and day although insufficiently provided with rations, in spite of inclement weather, and under fire. The artillerymen displayed the highest discipline, and worked their guns with extreme rapidity and accuracy. As the commanding general was everywhere present on the field with his staff, he cannot but have remarked the good service done by Captain Stokes, who manifested the greatest zeal, and managed his battery with the utmost precision and success.
The Pioneers contribution to this battle is well documented. With the Chicago Board of Trade Battery, they repulsed five assaults, advanced to and held three different positions, arguably defended the most crucial positions of the battle and finally were the last troopers recalled from pursuit of the retreating Confederates. Of all the Union units at Murfreesboro, none played a more vital role than that of the Pioneers.
Although they proved their mettle on the battlefield, the primary duty of the Pioneer Brigade was to insure the expedient movement of men and arms. They were to continue in this function after Stones River and provide the muscle to move Rosecrans' army toward Bragg's Confederates at Chattanooga, the main rail and river hub to the Deep South. Its capture would provide the Union with a jumping off point for an assault on the Confederate Heartland. It would also accomplish one of President Lincoln's pet projects, liberating the Pro-Union East Tennessee. To accomplish that end Rosecrans would have to change his tactics to maneuver over the rugged terrain between his army and his objective. That required another reorganization of his army to provide greater independence of movement from the central command. General Rosecrans accomplished this change on January 9 with the creation of three new corps from the two existing wings and the center of the Fourteenth Corps. The two new units were designated as the Twenty-first and the Twenty-third Corps. With this action, the designation of Rosecrans' troops officially became the Army of the Cumberland. This brought to a close the first phase in Rosecrans' campaign into the South. With most of Middle Tennessee in Union hands, the general was content to put his men into winter quarters and prepare for future movements. The quarters for the Union army in Tennessee that winter were to be unlike any other throughout the entire stretch of the war. The provider of these accommodations would be the First Michigan Engineers and the Pioneer Brigade.
While the bulk of the Army of the Cumberland settled in for winter the Pioneer Brigade went to work. They were detailed for the improvement of communication and supply lines from Murfreesboro to Nashville and also for the construction of fortifications surrounding the city that protected it from Confederate raiders. These fortifications, the rifle pits, redoubts, stockades, curtain walls and towers, were constructed with the raw materials at hand. This required felling trees, shaping logs, fastening joists, mounding earth and hauling timbers. The Pioneers were also responsible for the construction of the platforms for commissary stores that would house the enormous amount of supplies Rosecrans was to procure for his march to Chattanooga. The end result was the largest earthen fort west of the Mississippi, Fortress Rosecrans. Two days after the capture of Murfreesboro, on January 7, 1863, General Rosecrans set about the planning of his immense fort.
Rosecrans' first order of business was to appoint Brigadier-General James St. Clair Morton to head the construction. Morton's first duty was to map out the fort using the rail bridge spanning Stones River as the hub. The river divided the fort into two unequal halves. A rail spur was laid out inside the fort. Inside, Morton's engineers constructed ample warehouses and platforms that would act as a vast supply depot to all Union armies headed South. Defenses for the fort were laid out in this manner. Two lunettes, Negley and Stanley and battery Cruft were located north of Stones River. Redoubt Schofield was located behind and in support of these three strong points. Lunettes Palmer, Thomas, McCook, Crittenden, Granger, Rousseau and Reynolds and battery Mitchell were located in a wide arc along the south bank of the river. Within this perimeter were the three other redoubts Brannan, Wood and Johnson. Demi- lunettes Davis and Garfield were located on the high ground. The magazine, ordnance, quartermaster and engineer's depots were south of the river and the commissary depots were on the north side. In all, the fortress spanned 200 acres and 14,000 feet of earthworks. It was estimated that the fort could withstand a seige of an enemy force as large as 60,000 men. General Rosecrans had constructed the fort for just that purpose, to deter the Rebels from derailing his plans as Bedford Forrest had done to General Buell the previous year. Further, the Union commander required a well supplied and well defended depot to his rear if his push south was to become a protracted one. He also needed a stout defensive position to fall back on should his advance be successfully turned away. By the end of winter in 1863, the Pioneer Brigade along with the First Michigan Engineers completed the fort. The commanding general now had the means to do what Don Carlos Buell could not, push all Rebel influence out of Tennessee.
The Army of the Cumberland was well protected and housed during the winter of 1863. It was also the best fed during any other time spent in this war. However this "soiree" was not to last forever. Washington was growing impatient with their perception of Rosecrans' lack of zeal and began pressing him to move forward. By June, 1863 the general garrisoned the fort and made preparations to advance on to his new objective. By the 23rd his plans were under way. Goaded on by General Halleck in Washington, Rosecrans submitted plans for approval of his march on to Chattanooga. Thus began the Middle Tennessee campaign.
Tullahoma, Chickamauga and Chattanooga
On June 24, 1863, General Rosecrans wired Washington with his intentions for further movement. "The Army begins to move at 3 o'clock this morning." By this time Bragg's Confederates were entrenched south of Murfreesboro at Shelbyville and Wartrace on the Duck River. Between the two armies was a line of ridges in the Cumberland Mountains leading to the Duck River Valley. Chattanooga lay beyond the valley. Rosecrans' plan was to divide his army into three wings, flank Bragg out of his positions by feinting on his right and then smash into his center and left. The Fourteenth Corps under General Thomas was at the center of Rosecrans' army and spearheaded the Union advance. These divisions were to advance to Shelbyville through a pass in the Cumberland Mountains known as Hoover's Gap. Prior to the march, General Morton received his orders to "put your command in readiness for marching with twelve (12) days rations." Four companies with an aggregate of 200 men from First Battalion were to march at the head of General Thomas' Corps. The remainder of the brigade remained in Murfreesboro. General Morton recorded the duties for the men who marched.
On the evening of the 23rd of June, parts of three battalions, consisting of four companies each, were detached to report to each of the following Corps: Fourteenth Army Corps under Major- General Thomas; Twentieth Army Corps under Major-General McCook; and Twenty-first Army Corps under Major-General Crittenden.
The balance of the brigade of pioneers, with Bridges battery of Illinois volunteers, left camp at Murfreesboro at 6 a.m. June 25, marching (in heavy rain) on the Manchester Pike to Big Spring Creek, where we camped about 6 p.m. the same day.
On the 26th, broke camp at 2 p.m. and marched to the entrance of Hoover's Gap, where we encamped at 6:30.
The plan was a success. The advancing Federals under General Thomas turned Bragg's right flank at Hoover's Gap and threatened his rear. Bragg withdrew from his position and fell back to Tullahoma. The Federals disengaged and camped at Manchester on the 26th. However, the plan almost went awry due to delays in getting the army to move forward. This misfortune was due in no small part to the break down in organization and discipline in the Pioneer Brigade.
The Tullahoma Campaign turned out to be a significant blot on the Pioneer's record as they performed and behaved rather badly. Historian Philip Shiman noted:
While the Pioneers performed well enough when concentrated for engineer work under Morton's watchful eye, they did particularly badly when scattered on pioneer duty with the army. During the march to Tullahoma during the summer of 1863 their behavior was a minor scandal. They did little drilling and at times there was much drunkenness. One Union general noted that "...They were straggling along, no one having particular charge of them, their tools never being unpacked, and when there was work to be done, a detail was always made from the regiment to do it."
A reading of General Morton's report of Pioneer activity during the campaign appears to indicate that he was unaware of the Pioneers behavior to his front as he was with the remaining Pioneer companies in the rear of the army. In it, he reports:
Left camp on the morning of the 27th, at 5 o'clock. The roads being heavy and blocked up in various places with the transportation of the different Corps, we made but slow progress with our pontoon train. Arriving at Garrison's Ford at Duck River, and leaving one company to repair the bridges, we proceeded as far as Noah's Fork, near the junction of the Fairfield and Manchester Roads, where we encamped at 6 p.m. the same day.
Leaving camp at 3 o'clock on the morning of the 28th, detailing three companies, one in advance of each battalion, to repair the road through Matt's Hollow, Devil's Gap, and the Barrens, we arrived and encamped at Manchester on the same day at 3 p.m. This days march was very severe on the pioneers, owing to the difficulty of getting the pontoon trains through (the rain soaked roads).
Regardless of Morton's interpretations of the events, the final straw for Rosecrans' lieutenants came on June 28. That morning, General Alexander McCook's wing had the misfortune of falling behind the Pioneers and was "severely delayed in (their) march." McCook took the matter directly to Rosecrans who in turn sent for Morton and "abused him in a rough and violent tirade." What effect this verbal thrashing of General Morton had on the morale and effort of the Pioneers in this campaign is unknown and may have mattered little anyway. By the 29th, Rosecrans had his army concentrated for its advance on Tullahoma. The Pioneer's work in the Tullahoma campaign was complete and their service was no longer required on this particular march. General Morton's next two log entries also appear to indicate that the Pioneers were shelved for the final two days of this campaign. "On the 29th one company was dispatched to repair the road back as far as Noah's Fork. Remained encamped at Manchester June 29 and 30, with all baggage packed, and awaiting orders."
Although the Pioneers fell out of favor during the Tullahoma campaign, their actions did not impede Union progress toward the final objective in this campaign nor did it remove them permanently from their commander's trust. On the 30th, Rosecrans' reunited his wings and once again readied to move on the Confederates. General Bragg learned of the Federal concentration and fell back south of the Elk River near Dechard and Winchester. He then withdrew to Cowan and finally completely pulled up stakes and headed for Chattanooga. General Thomas' Corps was at the head of the Union army when he learned of this movement by July 1. They soon began pursuit and the Pioneer Brigade went back to work. General Morton did not want a repeat of the Tullahoma debacle and took steps to do so with the issuance of General Order No. 42, which read:
The following orders for the government of the working parties of this brigade constructing the different bridges will be strictly observed.
I. The 2nd Battalion will be charged with the work on the bridge at the Winchester Pike ...until further orders.
II. The 3rd Battalion will be charged partly with the work on the Railroad Bridge working from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. each day.
III. The 1st Battalion will be charged partly with the work on the Railroad Bridge working from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
IV. The entire effective force of the Battalions both officers and men excepting those on guard or necessarily excused must be turned out each day. Each squad must be under the immediate direction of a comd. officer (if practicable) or noncomd. officer who will be held by the "Battalion Commander" responsible for the actions and work of the men in their charge.
Upon completion of their work on the Winchester Pike, the Pioneers were assembled at Camp Manchester outside the town of the same name (see above map). General Morton was not leaving anything to chance. He spelled out specifically who was responsible for "the actions and discipline of the men." With that duty out of the way, the Pioneers got down to the business of moving the army. General Morton noted their activities.
Left camp on the morning of July 1 at 4 o'clock on the Winchester Road, leaving the pontoons behind, by the order of the commanding general, the roads being found in very bad condition, the whole force of pioneers repairing them, each battalion assigned an equal part. Arriving at the Seminary road, five miles from Manchester, which we took to the left, passing Oak Hill Seminary, we encamped at Hill's Chapel at the junction of the Pelham and Hillsborough Roads at 6 p.m of the same day.
Left camp at 6 a.m. on July 2; marched on the Pelham and Tullahoma (road) to Bobo's Cross- roads, taking the road to the left at that point, which was found in very bad condition, being badly cut up in places. I had companies detailed to repair it as we went along. We marched three miles on the said road, and halted at a wood road, 6 miles distant from Tullahoma. Orders were received at this point to proceed to Elk River direct, pushing through as rapidly as possible. A wood road to the right was taken, at the house of Washington Koran, distant three miles from Elk River. We encamped same night on the said road, near Allisona railroad depot, about two miles from Elk River.
Removed camp next morning, the 3rd, to near the railroad bridge at Elk River, where my command is now encamped, constructing the railroad bridge over the Elk River, the Winchester Pike bridge, and preparing to repair two other intermediate bridges. No casualties occurred on the march hither.
July 3, began to build bridge of (Nashville and Chattanooga) railroad over Elk River and to rebuild two road bridges at Allisona (Winchester and Manchester road).
July 4, 1st Battalion remained at work on the Winchester and Manchester road bridge. Gave three cheers and thirty-six salutes from our batteries in behalf of Lee's army being whipped by General Meade's Army of the Potomac (at Gettysburg).
July 5, continued removing obstructions from underneath the railroad bridge; continued to cut and hew timber for the railroad bridge, and made a foot bridge across the Elk River below the railroad bridge.
July 6, heavy rains fell and carried away the foot bridge, First Battalion at work on the sluice bridge, finishing it on July 8.
July 8, Heavy salutes given by our batteries for the fall of Vicksburg.
July 9, First Battalion at work unloading (railroad) cars.
July 10, First Battalion employed in constructing commissary platforms at Allisona Depot and guarding the commissary stores.
With the closer scrutiny by General Morton after their poor showing in the Tullahoma campaign, the Pioneer Brigade again became the most active unit in Rosecrans' army. It was now the commanding general's turn for a falling out, specifically with his superiors in Washington. The Army of the Cumberland had not engaged the enemy since the past winter and the Administration soon showed its dissatisfaction with Rosecrans' lack of progress. Territory was no longer their objective, Bragg's army was. A telegram from Secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton dated July 7 stated as much.
Lee's army overthrown (the battle of Gettysburg concluded three days ago), Grant victorious in Vicksburg (also on July 4), you and your army now have the chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion. Will you neglect the chance?
General Rosecrans replied that he had already driven the Rebels from Middle Tennessee and that he was in the process of replacing a railroad bridge across the Duck River, as well as a long trestle bridge south of there. He also had to repair seven miles of track both on the main line to Tullahoma and on the branch line out to McMinneville and Manchester. Washington remained unimpressed. However, the Army of the Cumberland remained in camp. Regardless of the army's inactivity the Pioneer Brigade remained busy. All of the tasks that Rosecrans thought to be vital to the success of his coming campaign fell directly on the Pioneers. On July 13, First Battalion was completing the work on the two bridges, one fifty feet in length across the Mill Race and the other, a triple bridge 156 feet long spanning the main channel of the Elk River. They also improved the road between the bridges. By July 14 the army had passed through Decker Station and was encamped in Cowan Station the same point reached by General Ormsby Mitchel's much smaller force thirteen months ago. However, Rosecrans' advance was not nearly as swift as Washington desired and the authorities there made no bones about reminding him of that fact almost daily. The commander maintained that his advance was hampered by the weather as he had to construct new corduroy roads to get his wagons through the mud. The work of the First Battalion is documented as such.
July 25.- Relieved Second Battalion for repair work on the railroad. The two battalions worked in two 5 hour shifts, First Battalion worked the afternoon shift from noon to 5 p.m. Continued this work through to the 27th.
July 28.- Felled trees for improvements in the railroad working 7 a.m. until noon when relieved by the Third Brigade. Continued this work until the 31st.
July 31.- Received orders to erect a blockhouse on the Elk River.
Regardless of these activities, Washing kept up the pressure so that Rosecrans might press on. The Pioneers remained at work on the construction of the blockhouse on the Elk River until August 15. Once this task was completed the unit received orders to move on the 16th for Stevenson. That day they moved through Winchester, Larkin's Fork and Brown's Cove.
By August 16, the Army of the Cumberland resumed its advance on their new objective, Chattanooga. At this time the Pioneers had a temporary change in command as General Morton was on leave due to disability. Command of the brigade was handed down to Captain Patrick O'Connell. First Battalion was put under Capt. Charles J. Stewart. Captain O'Connell reported First Battalion activities during this time.
The Pioneer Corps had remained at Elk River railroad bridge during the month of August until the 16th, and during that time were engaged in building block-house, cutting cord wood for railroad, and unloading car, &c. Two of the four companies reported to Major-General McCook, Twentieth Army Corps, (and) remained with said corps for pioneer duty.
August 15.-Four companies of the First Battalion reported to Major-General Thomas, Fourteenth Army Corps for pioneer duty. One company from the First Battalion and one company from the Third Battalion were sent to Murfreesboro to complete fortifications. The remainder of the brigade left Elk River at 7 a.m. going via Winchester. Went into camp at 5 p.m. 2 miles from Salem.
Aug. 17.- At 6 a.m. broke camp, taking the Bellafonte Road. Traveled Larkin's Fork of Paint Rock River. Camped 7 miles from Hinche's Crossing at 6 p.m.
Aug. 19.- Spent entire day getting pontoon train up.
Aug. 20.- Camped at Bellafonte.
Aug. 21.- Camped at Stevenson, Alabama, spent most of day in pontoon drill.
Aug. 29.- Forwarded pontoons to the (Tennessee) river and laid the bridge.
Aug. 31.- Left camp at 9 a.m., Arrived Bridgeport (Alabama) at 7 a.m. (Sept. 1).
The Pioneers completed the construction of the bridge to cross the river on September 3. Rosecrans had his entire army across the Tennessee River the next day. The Army of the Cumberland moved swiftly south of Chattanooga to outflank the Confederates and cut off their retreat. The movement was a success. General Bragg abandoned the city on the 8th and moved his army further south that day.
The Union's summer campaign in the West culminated in the same objective set out by General Don Carlos Buell the previous summer, the fall of the city of Chattanooga. Of the present campaign, historian Philip Shiman noted, "the fate of the army ...was in the hands of the engineers." That assertion is supported by General Rosecrans' official reports. There he noted that his army was able to invest the city, not by assault, but by maneuver. He accomplished this by first establishing a base of supply at Stevenson. He then crossed the Tennessee River below the town. Bragg had expected and defended for an upriver crossing. Once across, the Union army moved stealthily into the Confederate rear and forced them to retreat before they could even fully appreciate what just happened to them. The Union movement on Chattanooga was an unqualified success and a significant part of that success was due to the work of the Pioneer Brigade.
From all reports, the Pioneer Brigade acquitted itself remarkably well after coming off the forgettable events of the Tullahoma campaign. With regard to the Chattanooga campaign, the Pioneer units were those that rebuilt the rail bridges into Stevenson, constructed the Union supply depot there, laid the pontoon bridges, constructed the ferries for the Tennessee River crossing and piloted those ferries during the actual crossing. The reports of General Morton tend to support those events as well. The Confederates were rousted out of Chattanooga on September 8 by the spade and not by the musket. It can be said that the it was the engineers including the Pioneer Brigade that manned those spades and delivered one of the most important Union victories in the West without ever loading a musket or fixing a bayonet.
Although victorious, the Army of the Cumberland was not granted any time for rest and relaxation. The Union campaign in East Tennessee was reaching a climax. The war, in its entirety, had turned steadily in favor of the North. Victories at Gettysburg in the East and Vicksburg on the Mississippi had turned the tide of war leaving this one significant campaign open to contest. The outcome of that contest was soon to be determined. After investing Chattanooga General Rosecrans again divided his army into three wings and continued his pursuit of Bragg's Confederates. The Pioneer Brigade remained in Bridgeport to complete construction of a bridge across Island Creek, a span of 350 feet. The bridge was completed on the 13th and the Pioneers were put in readiness to move the following day.
Just as it was at the beginning of the previous campaign, the alacrity of movement was essential if General Rosecrans was to catch the Confederates and bring them to ruin. Once Chattanooga was secured, he next had to cross three formidable land masses which rose up perpendicular to his line of march, namely Raccoon Mountain, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Once again Rosecrans divided his army into three wings as the smaller units could make the trek with greater speed and efficiency. However, as Rosecrans' separated army began their advance, Bragg turned his army around for one more chance to have at the divided Federals. Rosecrans, under the impression that Bragg was in full retreat into Georgia, sent Thomas' corps through Missionary Ridge into a valley between the ridge and Pigeon Mountain known as McLemore's Cove. Bragg waited there hoping to catch Thomas in the cove and trap him there. The Confederate trap was poorly executed and Thomas sprung it before any damage could be done. With yet another reversal of fortune, Bragg pulled back to LaFayette, Georgia, concentrated near there and prepared for another attempt at the Federals. Unknown to the Union commander, Bragg had no intention of retreating any further. The Army of the Cumberland advanced with the Pioneer Brigade in the lead. General Morton noted their activities during this period.
The brigade remained in camp at Bridgeport, Ala., up to the 14th of the month (September) engaged in constructing one pontoon and two pontoon and trestle bridges, and working on fortifications for the defense of the bridges, building platforms for commissary and quartermaster's stores, &c.
On the 14th, the brigade broke camp at 4:30 a.m. and, crossing the river, marching over rough, mountainous roads, camped near Running Water railroad bridge, 16 miles from Chattanooga, at 6 p.m.
Left camp on the 15th at 5 a.m., and crossing Lookout Mountain, reached Chattanooga (and) encamped at 5 p.m. Throughout the entire length of the route the roads were rough and dusty. The brigade has been very busy during the remaining time constructing two trestle bridges across the Tennessee River, repairing and running steamboats and sawmills, repairing roads and working on fortifications, &c.
The Army of the Cumberland departed Chattanooga with the intent of routing General Bragg's Army of Tennessee. However as Bragg formed his forces near Lafayette, he let information "slip" into Union lines that he was continuing his retreat south through Georgia. Not only was this untrue, General Rosecrans was also unaware that Bragg was being reinforced for a concentrated effort to push the Federals back into Tennessee. The most notable of those reinforcements was General James Longstreet sent by General Robert E. Lee in Virginia. With the double sting of losses at both Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Confederates were desperate for a victory. General Rosecrans finally got wind of these developments with the botched attempt of a Confederate ambush of Thomas at McLemore's Cove. General Rosecrans ordered Generals Thomas and McCook to move north along Chickamauga Creek and to combine with General Crittenden's Corp at Lee and Gordon's Mill. During this maneuver, General Bragg's lead elements crossed Chickamauga Creek in an effort to cut off the Federal rear. Almost as if by accident, units from each army crossed paths near Jay's Mill, each thinking their opponent to be smaller in strength. This encounter was initially a standoff, but reinforcements were brought forward from both armies and the Battle of Chickamauga began on September 19, 1863.
Both Union and Confederate armies could do little more than throw reinforcements into the fray due to the poor suitability of the battlefield. The battle seesawed back and forth with the Federals on the defensive by the end of the day. Log earthworks were thrown up in the night to prepare for a full assault on the 20th. When that attack finally came, the Federals held firm. That is until General Rosecrans, believing a nonexistent gap was created in his lines, moved an entire division to close it only to create a real one by the departing division. Longstreet's division that had arrived on the scene that night poured through the breech. Union troops on either side of the opening broke and fled for the rear. General Morton, dispatched by Rosecrans to survey the front, became separated from the general and found himself with General McCook's division to the right of the break. He had the unfortunate luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was soon caught up in the rout and stampeded back to Rossville and eventually back to Chattanooga. The army was fortunate enough to have General George H. Thomas on the scene. Thomas rallied the retreating Federals in a commanding defensive position on Snodgrass Hill and held it until the remnants of Rosecrans' army found safety in Rossville. Thomas, as it turned out, was the only commander to stand his ground. Generals McCook, Crittenden, Morton and even Rosecrans had been stampeded from the field, actions that would eventually lead to another change in the command of this army by the fall, 1863.
Although General Thomas' actions averted a Union disaster, the Confederate army had the Federals bottled up in Chattanooga, General Bragg held the heights that overlooked the city. From there he intended to besiege it, cut off Union supply lines and to starve them into submission. The Union supply lines came under constant fire by Rebel snipers and artillery as was evidenced by this report from General Morton on October 10.
I have the honor of reporting that a pioneer ambulance driver has just returned from the camp of the First Battalion, at Little Suck Creek, who states that the rebel sharpshooters fired into the camp yesterday and today from the opposite of the river, and that today that they fired into a (supply) train belonging to General Palmer's division, killing several mules and two drivers, and stopping the passage of the train until he left. The First Battalion turned out and returned the fire of the enemy. The skirmishing had not ceased when he had left. Several pioneers had been wounded. A part of the road fired upon was from Little Suck Creek to a point half a mile above it.
Confusion and disorder crept into the Union lines as evidenced by a breakdown in discipline in parts of the Federal army and among the Pioneers. A report filed by Brigadier-General Gordon Granger on the 10th stated:
(Reconnoitering the river to the army's front) I went down as far as where the Pioneer Corps are stationed (on Little Suck Creek) making the road between the mountain and the river, just above where the enemy fired on our train the day before yesterday.
Strange to say, at half past 10 o'clock at night, 6 of us, mounted on horseback, rode into their midst without being challenged by any sentinel, and we could not find a picket post or guard on this side up the river; they were most grossly and negligently exposed. They were under shelter tents, and had good bright fires visible for a considerable distance.
The defeat at Chickamauga left a good deal of the Army of the Cumberland demoralized and in a state of organizational disarray. Washington was just as interested in lifting the siege as the Confederates were in tightening its grip. Although reinforcements were sent to aid in lifting the siege, General Rosecrans could not muster his own personal resources to do so. Subsequent investigation into the loss at Chickamauga and the commander's inability to marshal his forces for a breakout brought about a string of demotions and transfers among the officers and their staff. The effect of this was felt throughout the majority of the army and the Pioneer Brigade as well. Although General Morton remained in command of the Pioneers, all dispatches and correspondence was being routed through Morton to Captain Patrick O'Connell until Washington completed the investigation of the Chickamauga debacle. Morton himself was referring command decisions through Brigadier-General William F. Smith, newly arrived from the east. On October 10, General Morton was officially relieved of his duties and replaced by General Smith as chief engineer of the Army of the Cumberland. He was eventually busted down to Major and transferred to General George Meade's army in Virginia for his role at Chickamauga. Thus ended his distinguished career as commander of the Pioneer Brigade. James St. Clair Morton was subsequently killed in action at Petersburg on June 17, 1864 while serving his country in this great conflict.
General Rosecrans was not spared discredit either. Lincoln himself noted that Rosecrans, still reeling from his resounding defeat, was acting like "a duck that had been hit on the head." If Lincoln was to save his army and continue this offensive, he had to act. On October 17, he placed General Ulysses S. Grant, flush with the victory at Vicksburg and the Union's complete control of the Mississippi, in charge of the army in Chattanooga. General Grant was to command the newly formed Military Division of the Mississippi and with it, the Army of the Cumberland. The architect of the Army of the Cumberland and of the Pioneer Brigade was replaced unceremoniously by General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga whose staunch defense at Chickamauga saved the army from annihilation. General William Starke Rosecrans spent the rest of the war in the Department of the Missouri in relative obscurity.
Once in charge at Chattanooga, General Grant wasted little time. He found the Federals half starved and disorganized upon his arrival on October 23. His first order of business was to approve a plan by General Smith to open and hold a continuous line of supply for the beleaguered army. The Pioneer's new assignment was to take part in the opening of that supply line back to Nashville, an endeavor that is historically known as the Cracker Line. General Smith moved quickly in establishing a position in Lookout Valley five miles upriver from the Confederate guns on Lookout Mountain. He then consolidated the Pioneer Brigade with the First Michigan Engineers, putting the Pioneers under the command of Colonel George P. Buell, the same officer whose Hoosiers relieved the Pioneers on the second day of Stones River. The Pioneer's first duty under Buell was to establish their part of the Cracker Line by connecting Chattanooga to Stevenson and Bridgeport. General Grant outlined the Pioneer's work on this line in a dispatch to General Thomas on October 26.
The Quartermaster-General suggests that Col. Buell be detailed to take general supervision of all troops between (Chattanooga), Bridgeport and Stevenson, and direct the repair on the roads over which supplies are now brought. Col. Buell is an engineer, and even with a small force on the road, could repair the worst places so as to materially facilitate the transportation of supplies.
The road was cut, macadamized and corduroyed over the nose of Lookout Mountain connecting Chattanooga on the Anderson road back to Kelley's Ford on the Tennessee River. The Pioneers also constructed several bridges along the Haly Trace Road, solidified the creek beds with crushed rock and improved natural washes with cut timber to guaranty stability of the road. On October 30, the first steamboat loaded with 40,000 rations chugged into Kelley's Ford, the western end of the Union supply line. News that the line was open rolled through the Federal camp in Chattanooga. Jubilant soldiers cheered, "The Cracker Line is open. Full rations boys! Three cheers for the Cracker Line!" Once communications were established and supply lines were secured, preparations were begun to drive the Confederates from the Union front. The Pioneers spent this time building fortifications, batteries and pontoon crossings of Chickamauga Creek. This effort was the beginning of what is historically known as the Battle of Chattanooga. However, the battle was actually developed into separate dislodgments of Confederate troops, first from Lookout Mountain, then from Missionary Ridge.
Grant's expectations for his use of the Pioneers began to crystallize as his plans for the breakout became clear. It became fairly clear when General Grant took the reigns that all units in the Army of the Cumberland were expected to be in top combat trim. The first event to support this claim was the issuance of new ordinance of Springfield and Enfield rifled muskets to the brigade. Grant also assigned a cavalry unit to the Pioneers as evidenced by the issuance of new .58 caliber Merrill carbines to these horsemen. The final piece of evidence was Colonel Buell's order to make ready for movement that was issued to the commanders of each Battalion on November 19. The order read:
You will have your Battalion in readiness to move tomorrow evening fully armed and with forty (40) rounds of ammunition in cartridge boxes. The men will have their blankets slung over their shoulders, and three days full rations in haversacks. Each man will be required to carry a pick, shovel or axe. Be sure that you take no man who, in your judgment will not be able to stand the trip.
The reason for this change in policy was that General Grant still subscribed to the notion that Pioneers were infantrymen first and engineers by necessity. However, the brigade would remain intact for the breakout of Chattanooga where they would again prove their worth.
The Cracker Line was open less than a week when Grant planned to move on Missionary Ridge. As part of the plan, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was arriving from Bridgeport, was to assault Missionary Ridge from the north. General Thomas was to assail Missionary Ridge and General Hooker was assigned to scale Lookout Mountain. In his report of the action, General Smith detailed the Pioneers activities to General Grant regarding their preparations for the Sherman's assault.
General: I have the honor to submit the following report of engineering operations done with reference to the battle of Chattanooga, November 23, 24, and 25: Frequent and careful reconnaissance had determined that Missionary Ridge, from the tunnel to the Chickamauga, was not occupied by the enemy, and that a passage of the river could be forced at the mouth of the Chickamauga.
The river at the point selected to throw the bridge was at the time of measurement 1,296 feet in width, and the current gentle, so that no trouble was anticipated in the mechanical part of the operation.
Col. George P. Buell, in command of the Pioneer Brigade ...deployed his men on the right bank and went to work vigorously to clear up the ground on the shore, and level it where necessary for the passage of troops to the boats, and also to prepare a steam-boat landing.
At daylight he sent a party furnished with ropes and ring-bolts to catch and make fast to shore the rafts in the Chickamauga Creek, which we learned from deserters had been made for the destruction of the bridges at Chattanooga. The duty was well performed, as all duty is by Colonel Buell, and five rafts were anchored to the shore. The rebels had intended to prepare the rafts each with a small pilot raft, having a torpedo attached, containing about 50 pounds of powder, to blow up by percussion as they went under the bridges.
The Pioneer responsibilities were to open the way for General Sherman's crossing of the Tennessee River north of Chattanooga. The original intent was to construct a pontoon bridge to effect this crossing. However, the report of Lieutenant Henry C. Wharton indicated that the brigade was detailed instead to build a trestle bridge across the West Chickamauga on November 23 in advance of Sherman's troops. The pontoon train had failed to come up and the Pioneer's had to improvise the trestle bridge with the raw materials at hand. Wharton's report indicated:
I have the honor to submit the following brief report of the building of the trestle bridge across the West Chickamauga, in the advance of your troops upon Ringgold.
The bridge was built by the First, Second, and Third Battalions, Pioneer Corps, under the command of Col. Buell, assisted by a small detail of men from the Fifteenth Missouri Infantry. Col. Buell arrived with his command between 8 and 9 p.m., and his wagons, with chess-plank and balks, about one hour afterward. The timber for the remaining portions of the bridge was cut down, and had to be carried to where the bridge was to be constructed. Orders were given to commence work at about 9 p.m. and the bridge was completely finished by half past 6 the next morning. Owing to the cold, the pioneers were divided into three reliefs, each taking one-third of the night. Taking this fact into consideration, and also considering the depth of the stream (often over five feet), the building of this bridge reflects credit on the Pioneer Corps, officers and men. I would state that it was originally intended to throw a pontoon bridge over the Chickamauga, but (for the lack of pontoons) this object was defeated.
No better compliment could have been paid to the Pioneer Brigade for this work than that of General Sherman.
A pontoon (trestle) bridge was also built over Chickamauga Creek, near it's mouth. I will here bear willing testimony to the completeness of this whole business. All the officers charged with the work were present and manifested the skill which I cannot praise too highly. I have never beheld any work done so quietly, so well, and I doubt if the history of war can show a bridge of that extent (viz., 1,350 feet) laid down so noiselessly and well in so short a time.
General Smith also noted:
The arrangements were not completed when they were interfered with by General Sherman's passage of the river. At daylight 8,000 troops were across the river and in line of battle. At 12.20 p.m. the bridge across the river was completed, the one across the creek having been finished a little before, and by 3 p.m. the brigade of cavalry under Colonel Long had crossed and was on its march. The bridge across the river was thrown with less trouble than was anticipated, because it was found that most of the drift hugged the right bank, and to avoid the catching of the drift on the cables anchors were dispensed with for several boats near the shore and the structure kept in place by guy lines to the trees on shore. On the 26th, Lieutenant Wharton and the Pioneer Brigade, under Col. George P. Buell, were ordered to accompany the pursuing column toward Ringgold, and Colonel Buell reports the completion of a bridge across the West Chickamauga Creek by daylight of Friday morning.
The bridge carried General Sherman's men to their jump off point for their assault on Missionary Ridge. The Pioneer's work was completed so efficiently, the Confederates never expected his assault. Although the Pioneers managed to bring up the balks and chess planks, the timber for the trestle and bridge undercarriage was supplied by the raw materials of the surrounding forest. The Pioneers improvised their bridge; a span of over four football fields, in nine hours of work in chest high, icy winter waters through a cold November night. An amazing feat by any standard.
After fully investing Chattanooga, General Sherman's assault on Missionary Ridge and General Joseph Hooker's attack on Lookout Mountain on November 24 and 25 played vital roles in lifting the siege of Chattanooga. Ultimately it was General Thomas' "Miracle at Missionary Ridge" that forced the Confederates from their positions. The Union victory forced the Confederates from Tennessee with this defeat as their beaten army retreated back to Dalton, Georgia. There, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston replaced Braxton Bragg as commander of the Army of Tennessee. However, Johnston faired no better as he was gradually forced to retreat further into Georgia. As for the Federals, General Grant was recalled to Washington where he was to turn his attention to the war in the East. General Sherman was put in charge of all armies in the reorganized Military Division of the Mississippi that included General Thomas' Army of the Cumberland.
Sherman's first task was to reorganize and resupply the army for its advance into Georgia. Although Fortress Rosecrans was 100 miles to his rear and Nashville a mere 30 more, Sherman needed to establish new fortifications and depots in Chattanooga. Once again the army went into winter camp in and around that city. The Pioneer Brigade remained under the direction of Colonel George P. Buell in Chattanooga and went to work on the Union depot there. The brigade was subsequently moved to Nashville for the remainder of its existence. The last documented work performed by the Pioneers in the field of operations was that of repairing the road over Lookout Mountain from November 29 to December 13, 1863. The amount of information available on the brigade tapers off after that time. Few things are known but one was certain. Changes in the command structure of the Union army in Georgia significantly affected the organization and utilization of the Pioneer Brigade.
Although little information was documented on its activities from December 1863 to February 1864, one very significant event occurred on February 15. The Pioneers were still not formally recognized with the military machinery in Washington even after fourteen months of existence. The closest the Brigade came to this realization was when the paymaster first recognized it as being a separate unit. That occurred in November of 1863 when the men of the unit first appeared on muster sheets separate from their original regiments. This process of recognition began with General Rosecrans on September 10, 1863 and was pushed forward under the insistence of Colonel Buell.
Their efforts finally paid off by the following February when Washington acknowledged the brigade and their accomplishments. The first communiqu, regarding this acknowledgment was sent to General Rosecrans in Nashville from the Provost Marshal Generals Office in Washington on February 15, 1864. It read:
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your telegram of the 31st inst. to the Chief Engineer, in reference to the organization of your Pioneer Brigade as Veteran Volunteer Engineers.
In reply I have respectfully to inform you that, under the special circumstances of the case so soon as the three years men in the present organization arrive within the limits for re-enlistment i.e. have less than one year of their present time to serve they may be re-enlisted as veterans.
This authorization with reference to the troops in question will not be taken as a precedent so far as other organizations are concerned as the term re-enlist in the acceptation of Sec. 8 General Orders 191... is intended to give the advantage allowed veterans only to men who re-enlist in the organization in which they may have been serving.
The Provost Marshal General's order was communicated to Colonel Buell in a letter from the new commander of the engineers Captain William Merrill dated the same day. It read:
The authority from the Provost Marshal General, ...has been referred, as you requested, to the Commanding General and the following are his orders therein. You may detail recruiting officers and make the proposed arrangements for reenlisting veterans on the 29th of February...
The War Department had finally responded to General Rosecrans' initial requests for formal recognition of this unit that he began as far back as November, 1862. As stated, it would become an offer made only once to any unit during the duration of the war. The Pioneers would be granted all the status and privileges enjoyed by the Veteran Volunteer. However, this recognition would come with three stipulations. First, the offer for those men who would make up the new unit would be limited to the "three year men" of the brigade who had less than one year left in their term of service. Second, it was stipulated that these men would have to reenlist for the duration of the war as Veteran Volunteer Engineers. Reenlistment was accepted only if enough men signed up to make up a full regiment. However, these regiments were no longer to be a part of the Pioneer Brigade. Third, the new unit would be used chiefly in the rear of an advancing army for improving military forts in the Tennessee.
No longer were these men to be used as pioneers. They were military engineers in the strict sense of the term. The process of approving such an unprecedented measure took another two months and an act of Congress. A letter from General George H. Thomas to the Secretary of War Edwin H. Stanton inaugurated the new unit. It read:
Hon. E. M. Stanton:
I have the honor to request that authority may be given me to enlist from the volunteer forces in the Army of the Cumberland that have served or are now serving as pioneers, pontooniers, or engineers, a regiment of Veteran Volunteer Engineers, as provided for by the act of Congress, passed by the House, as amended by the Senate, May 18, 1864. This authority is requested in order that the work may be begun at once, in advance of the approval by the President and the official publication of the act.
This act made it official. The Pioneer Brigade would get its recognition, but it would get it posthumously. The first rolls of reenlistment into the First United States Veteran Volunteer Engineers (USVVE ) began to fill in June 1864. The Pioneers were informed of their ability to reenlist in the First USVVE with them printing of General Order No. 9, which read:
All enlisted men belonging to the Pioneer Brigade who wish to join the Veteran Vol. Engr Regt. and signify their intention of doing so by enrolling their names as such, will be relieved from duty and will report to Capt. Slayton Recruiting Officer for the Vet Vols Engrs.
The remainder of the Pioneer Brigade remained intact even after their numbers were drained with the first reelistments into the First USVVE in June 1864. It was already significantly reduced in numbers in May 1864 and then folded into the existing engineering units in the Military Division of the Mississippi under Captain Merrill. By that time it retained 1000 men for the construction of works in Chattanooga. When the Atlanta campaign began that month and its men filled the ranks of the USVVE, their numbers dropped to 500. The command structure was also reorganized. Colonel Buell requested and received a transfer to General Sherman's pontooniers that May and was replaced by Captain Patrick O'Connell as head of the Pioneers. By the end of the Atlanta campaign, the rolls of the Pioneer Brigade mustered a mere 200 men. Their numbers diminished further at the height of that campaign with Special Order No. 231 on July 8, 1864 and again by General Order No. 132 on September 1, 1864. The Pioneer Brigade was officially disbanded on September 10, 1864 with Special Order No. 129 after the fall of Atlanta.
During the height of its activity the Pioneers numbered up to 5000 men. Their achievements during the Stones River, Tullahoma, Chickamauga and Chattanooga campaigns are well documented. History records in detail, their success as a unit in achieving a Union victory at Mufreesboro and twice at Chattanooga. History tends to shower plaudits on the Chicago Board of Trade Battery for slowing the Rebel assault on the Nashville Pike at the Battle of Murfreesboro. However, when the Rebels reached Rosecrans' final line, it was the Pioneers who defended that line and repelled their aadvance. It was also the Pioneers that held the front across Stones River after Mendenhall's cannonade. Further, they were credited for almost single-handedly forcing the Confederate retreat from Chattanooga. What the Army of the Ohio could not achieve in August, 1862 under General Don Carlos Buell, they were able to achieve as the Army of the Cumberland under General William Stake Rosecrans the following year. That campaign qualifies as one of the most remarkable feats for any unit of military engineers. It is unfortunate, but history tends to shed its brightest lights on the fighting units. It is doubtless that these units merit such attention and deservedly won their place in history. But while praising their deeds, let history also note that which it has failed to record. The success of the Union army in the West was due in part to the ingenuity of William S. Rosecrans and to the resource, skill and sinew of his brain child; the Pioneer Brigade.
By May 1864 neither Thomas nor Sherman were swayed to the idea of having the Pioneers in their future plans. Although enamored with their accomplishments, they both felt that their services were better utilized as an engineer unit and that pioneer duties should be given back to the regimental colonels. Let it be noted though that it was General Thomas who ultimately succeeded in finishing what General Rosecrans began and Colonel Buell progressed, the creation of the United States First Veteran Volunteer Engineers from the cream of the Pioneer Brigade. It should also be noted that many men passed up the opportunity to re-enlist in the USVVE. No doubt it would have been a position of honor with a handsome stipend with a significant furlough and an excellent experience in military craftsmanship. However these men opted to remain with the remnants of the Pioneer Brigade at Chattanooga. The reason for their decision most probably was based on their inability to continue in the fight for reasons of infirmity or family obligations. Regardless of their decisions, the men of the Pioneer Brigade performed their duties with great skill and ingenuity. Philip Shiman supported this assertion when he wrote the following.
Every regiment had its share of shirkers as well as active, intelligent soldiers. Naturally, (regimental) colonels looked for every opportunity to get rid of the no- good soldiers. Had they known that the men assigned as pioneers would be put permanently in a pioneer brigade, they would have chosen their worst soldiers. Realizing this, Rosecrans told the colonels that the pioneers would stay close to the regiments and provide pioneer support to them directly. The colonels therefore selected their best, most talented men, in the expectation that they could use their pioneers as they saw fit. Therefore, (history) should consider it quite a compliment that (an individual) should have been selected for the Pioneer Brigade. It meant his colonel thought highly of him.
Archival records support these statements. It is for the historians and the readers to attach their own particular sentiments to the achievements of the Pioneer Brigade. Then again, one may need only to look at the history to gain an appreciation of the Pioneer's work. As a final note on their service to their country in the Civil War, Thomas Van Horne summed up their accomplishments when he stated:
No such body of skillful, energetic, intelligent men could be found in all rebeldom, - a little army of patriots who fight for their country equally well whether armed with the musket, the broad axe, or the spade.
The final chapter to the history of the Pioneer Brigade is comparable to the last rays of a sunset as it sinks below the horizon. When General Sherman started out for Atlanta in May 1864 the remnants of the Pioneer Brigade were left behind, spread throughout Tennessee and mainly around Chattanooga. A small portion was attached to General McPherson's Army of the Tennessee for the Atlanta campaign. Records are not detailed enough to specify their exact activities or how the brigade was divided in the Department of the Mississippi. References to "the pioneers" are unclear as to whether that unit belonged to the Pioneer Brigade or to those men temporarily detailed for such work by Corps commanders. Back in Chattanooga, a small portion of the brigade was relegated to such duty as detailed in the weekly statement filed on May 13, 1864. It states:
The command has been engaged during the past week grading the streets, building culverts, blasting rock, building levees, constructing water works on Cameron's Hill, and magazines in the different fortifications, doing picket duty, repairing roads between Ringgold and this place, building bridges over the creeks and erecting at Hiawasse River near the RR crossing.
These were small duties for the remnants of the once immense body of men who performed so well over an eighteen-month period. For those men left in the Pioneers, these duties may have been a welcome relief from the rigors of campaigning. However, this relief would not be permanent.
By May 1864, General Sherman began what was arguably the most crucial campaign in this military Department since the inauguration of the war, the advance on Atlanta. On the 2nd, Sherman marched his Military Division of the Mississippi out of Chattanooga, Tennessee reaching Marietta, Georgia by early July. This march produced several battles and numerous casualties. On July 8, 1864, General Sherman reached into his reserves to replenish the loss of manpower in his march to Atlanta by pulling men from Nashville and Chattanooga. As mentioned, the consequence of opting out of reenlistment in the First USVVE meant a return to their old regiments. These men were to spend the last two months of their enlistment in north Georgia as infantryman. Their most significant contribution to the war effort was behind them. It is conceivable that, by this point in time, their most pressing objective for the next three months was to survive the time left in their enlistment and get home safely. That task would not be an easy one. Atlanta and hard fighting lay ahead. However, their honorable service to the cause of the Union will be forever remembered in print, a history of a most notable engineering unit of the Civil War, the Pioneer Brigade.
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Thanks to: The Library of Congress The Milwaukee Public Library The Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks The Mukwonago Community Library The National Archives and Record Administration Stones River National Battlefield United States Department of the Interior
Special thanks to Philip Shiman, Vicki Arnold, Mike Furlan and countless other people who have answered my numerous queries or pointed me in a direction so that I might complete this work.
Thank you for your interest in this work.
Geoffrey L. Blankenmeyer