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Remembering the Spencer Repeating Rifle and the Campaign of Chickamauga

By: Friedrich Seiltgen

For three days in late September 1863, the Battle of Chickamauga raged on in Tennessee and Georgia.

After the smoke cleared, the Confederate forces emerged victorious. With fresh losses by the Confederates at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the victory at Chickamauga was a much-needed turn-around for the South. It was the largest Confederate victory in the west, and the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War, costing the Union 16,170 men and the Confederacy 18,454 soldiers.

While Chickamauga was a victory, Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s hesitation to continue the attack allowed the Union forces to retreat to Chattanooga and regroup. There they were reinforced by General Ulysses S. Grant and would score a victory in November, turning Chickamauga into a hollow victory.

Battle Summary
The Battle of Chickamauga kicked off in earnest on September 19 when General George Thomas was advised of an isolated Confederate brigade and sent General John Brannan to attack. Upon his arrival, he discovered a division commanded by General “States Rights” Gist. That wasn’t his nickname – he was named “States Rights” at birth by his father, Nathaniel Gist, who was a disciple of “nullification politics.” Gist and his men engaged in brutal close quarters fighting and repelled Brannan back to Chattanooga.

Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee defeated the Union contingent led by General William Rosecrans. Rosecrans had pushed the rebels out of Chattanooga, but in early September, Bragg got reinforcements from the Mississippi and northern Virginia divisions under Generals Bushrod Johnson and James Longstreet. With these added divisions, the Confederate forces outnumbered Union forces at Chickamauga by more than 5,000!

The Spencer Repeating Rifle
Firearms played a decisive role in the Battle of Chickamauga. The Union Army’s “Lightning Brigade,” under the command of Colonel John T. Wilder, was the first mounted infantry to be armed with Spencer Repeating Rifles.

The Spencer could get off 14 rounds a minute, as opposed to the 2-3 rounds per minute of the standard Civil War rifle. The superiority of the Spencer allowed the Lightning Brigade to hold off two charges of Confederates at Alexander’s Bridge. The Spencer Rifle was so devastating that Wilder wrote, “It seemed a pity to kill men so. They fell in heaps and I had it in my heart to order the firing to cease, to end the awful sight.”

Rough Terrain
The battle was hampered by bad terrain and bad intelligence. The “River of Death” (a rough translation of a creek at Chickamauga) was deep and lined with trees, thickets, and rocky banks. The topography kept commanders from drawing battle lines, since there was no clear view of the battlefield. The landscape also hampered accurate reporting of enemy unit locations and strength.

Devastating Loss of Life
After the Confederate victory on September 20, General Nathan Bedford Forrest and others wanted to push onward to finish off Rosecrans’ Army before it had a chance to reorganize. General Bragg planned to engage the Army of the Cumberland and recapture Chattanooga, but he hesitated due to the large number of casualties his units suffered at Chickamauga. Bragg lost almost 20,000 men – more than 20 percent of his force, and ten fellow Confederate generals had been killed or wounded.

Thus, Bragg refused to pursue the fleeing Union army. Two months later, the Union army would secure control of the Chattanooga, and the losses at Chickamauga could almost be said to have been in vain.

When General Rosecrans retreated back to Chattanooga, General George Thomas took control of the remaining forces and rallied retreating men from other units to take control of Snodgrass Hill and hold their ground. Thomas would hold his position until ordered to retreat by Rosecrans later in the evening. For his bravery and determination to hold the Union position, Thomas earned the name “Rock of Chickamauga” and Ulysses S. Grant labeled him one of the finest generals in the Union army.

Chickamauga & Chattanooga Military Park
If you’re a gun enthusiast, a trip to the Chickamauga & Chattanooga Military Park is a must! The country’s first military park was founded in 1895 and spans more than 9,000 acres. The park houses a real treat in the Claude Fuller gun collection. This collection is one of the few displayed study firearms collections in the country, and it takes the visitor through the evolution of all firearms, not just Civil War weapons. Make a trip to the park; it is well worth the time.

Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He currently conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms, and Law Enforcement Vehicle Operations in Florida. Contact him at polizei22@msn.com.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: By Scientific American - http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=scia;cc=scia;rgn=full text;idno=scia1006-4;didno=scia1006-4;view=image;seq=00053;node=scia1006-4%3A1, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14706114

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.