Saturday, April 3, 2010

Kentucky at Chickamauga

By Joey Oller
   On January 31, 1863 President Davis ordered Ben Hardin Helm to replace General Roger W. Hanson, a Kentuckian who had been killed at the battle of Murfreesboro. Now Helm commanded 2nd, 4th, 6th and 9th Infantry Regiments, the 41st Alabama and Cobb's Kentucky battery. Upon taking command Helm selected a staff of 7 Kentuckians.
    For several months the First Kentucky Brigade was camped in Middle Tennessee drilling under their new commander. The men developed a great affection for this 32-year-old Bluegrass general. He had a sense of humor and out-going personality matched by few leaders during this time of war. During Breckinridge's absences, Helm was given command of the entire division, nurturing his leadership qualities and strengthening the bond between him and his men.
    Moving on to Jackson, Mississippi in June of 1863, the Kentuckians spent long hours in camp and built fortifications to guard a position that would never be attacked. Finally on August 25th Breckinridge's division was ordered towards Chattanooga to reinforce General Bragg. Arriving the first week of September, Helm's Brigade went into camp and waited for a battle to materialize, but within two weeks found itself on the march again, this time 
towards a creek called the Chickamauga (in Indian language it means the "River of Death" ).

    On the morning of the 19th, The Kentucky Brigade forded the Chickamauga. They were advancing when the Federals began firing into their lines. Luckily there were few casualties among the Kentuckians as a result of this encounter.
    That evening Breckinridge's division was placed on the extreme right of the Confederate battle line, Helm's Brigade holding the extreme left of the division. The next morning at 9:30 the Confederates advanced within 700 yards of the Federal battle line. The Sixth Kentucky Regiment on the extreme right of the brigade fired the first shots of the battle as the Kentuckians charged furiously. The 4th and 6th Regiments swept everything in front of them, capturing a battery on Lafayette Road. Several men of the Fourth Kentucky dragged the cannons away with their hands. The 2nd and 9th Kentucky Regiments, along with three companies of the 41st Alabama also charged, but were forced to halt by several lines of Federal infantry at an angle of the breast works .
    Fallen Kentuckians covered the dusty road which separated the opposing armies. General Helm rode his horse up and down the line amid the shot and shell, urging his men forward. Taking his hat from his head he stuck it on his sword and pointed the way to the front "This is the road to Kentucky" he cried out.
      At that moment a bullet from the ranks of the 15th Kentucky U.S. Infantry pierced his side and he fell to the ground. Immediately he was rushed to a nearby farm in the rear of the lines where the brigade had established a hospital. For those witnessing the scene it was heart-rending-- their beloved young commander cut down in the prime of his life. His clothing was quickly removed and the wound probed by the surgeon. "Is there hope?" the wounded general asked. The surgeon was forced to answer sadly, "My dear general, there is no hope."  According to his physician, Dr. John A. Hickman, the general was told that the bullet had passed through his liver. He asked the time and quietly calculated the probable length of time he could live with such a wound.
      Then, with the dignity of a southern gentleman, Ben Hardin Helm closed his eyes to await his death. He lay silent and suffering while the battle raged on. Through-out the day messengers traveled back and forth to carry word of the general's condition back to the battlefield. Around midnight the hospital received word that the Federals had been driven from the field. The news of the triumph was whispered in the dying Helm's ear. He smiled, murmured his last word "Victory!" and soon after, left his Kentucky Brigade orphaned once again.
      Helm’s death was commented upon by his brother-in-law, Abraham Lincoln, "I feel as David of old when he was told of the death of Absalom", which sounds nice until one realizes that Absalom was a rebellious son who had committed murder and overthrown the government, not someone bravely giving their life resisting an invading tyrant.
   The 5th Kentucky Infantry from Eastern Kentucky was also at Chickamauga, but had not yet been brigaded with the rest of the Orphans. The 5th Kentucky "Sangdiggers" were with Kentuckian Generals Preston and Buckner. Although the highlighted view of the Kentuckian’s role at the battle of Chickamauga often centers around Breckinridge and Helm - mostly because of the great loss of life taking place at the breastworks -  "victory" of the battle was actually achieved as the sun set on Snodgrass Hill and the 5th Kentucky Sangdiggers were in that charge, massing through the famous breakthrough, where the Union made a drastic mistake by leaving a huge gap in their lines. The Confederates charged through not stopping until they ran the Yankees over Snodgrass Hill towards Chattanooga.
    After the battle of Chickamauga, the 5th Kentucky was placed with the Orphan brigade. The 41st Alabama was sent elsewhere, but they considered themselves as Orphans!
     Many sons of Kentucky gave their lives at Chickamauga, Capt. Peter Daniels of Breckinridge County, Capt. James Hewitt of Jefferson County and Capt. Gus Dedman of Anderson all were killed while leading their regiments in the assaults of the enemy breast works. Major Rice E. Graves of Daviess County was also mortally wounded while directing the Washington Artillery. He would die a few days later and was buried in an unmarked grave in Ringgold, Ga.

originally published in the Winter 2004 The Lost Cause

1 comment:


Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.