published Friday, September 13th, 2013

Echoes of Chickamauga: A soldier's diary sheds light on the changing course of the Civil War

Thomas C. Davis’ Civil War diary tells of his time as a Union soldier.
Thomas C. Davis’ Civil War diary tells of his time as a Union soldier.

ABOUT THOMAS C. DAVIS

Born: April 28, 1833, Tioga, Pa.

Military: Davis achieved the rank of second lieutenant, though he was brevetted to the rank of captain but, having been taken prisoner at Chickamauga, never received his commission.

Post-military life: Davis was mustered out of the military upon his release from prison around the end of 1864. He married Mary E. Wilber, of Addison, N.Y., on March 19, 1865. The couple had seven children. In civilian life, Davis served as the postmaster of the Emmetsburg, Iowa, post office for 12 years. Later, he moved to the Mid-Atlantic region where he lived with family members in Rehobeth, Del., and Ridgely, Md.

Davis was being treated a hospital in York, Pa., when he died July 15, 1915, at the age of 82. He was buried beside his wife in Ridgely.

Sources: Davis family members and U.S. war records

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. — By late summer 1863, Thomas C. Davis, a lieutenant in the Union's 38th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, had already spent months engaging Confederate forces and marching through a soggy Middle Tennessee into Alabama and Georgia.

Davis, a 30-year-old Pennsylvania native, didn't know that his destiny awaited him in a stand of timber south of a home that today is called Brotherton Cabin.

Officially, he was listed as "missing in action."

But a diary kept by Davis and a historical account of the 38th Illinois by Maryland historian David Sergeant reveal what really happened to him. Experts say the diary also reflects the larger experience of Union soldiers captured at the Battle of Chickamauga, the changing course of the war and worsening relations between the two sides as the advantage shifted to the Union.

The diary now lies in the hands of Davis' great-great grandchildren in Maryland.

The small, leather-bound book is half-filled with observations and memories from 150 years ago.

Maryland resident Gary Pendleton, one of Davis' great-great grandchildren, says the 35-page diary is fragile but still contains the soldier's pencil-written script that includes his experiences and even some drawings of homes and a recipe for making rum from molasses.

"It makes me identify with my own history as an American," Pendleton said. "These are my ancestors. It's tangible. You can hold his actual writing in your hands."

Davis was born April 28, 1833, in Tioga, Pa., and was mustered into "Capt. True's" company of the 38th Illinois Volunteers on Aug. 21, 1861, according to war records provided by the family.

"He was at Perryville and he was in a number of others [engagements]. But he doesn't write about that in his diary," Pendleton said, noting the observational nature of many of the notes.

Davis put down his thoughts about the weather as the 38th marched hundreds of miles from Illinois to the South. He noted the crossing of the Elk River and camping and foraging for food, Pendleton said.

In this, the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga, the family wants to give other people a glimpse of the man.

But it's Davis' account that begins Sept. 20, 1863, that draws the most attention, and that's what Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park historian Jim Ogden focused on this week in his first look at the diary.

Davis doesn't say what happened in the Battle of Chickamauga, just the result.

Capture.

•••

Davis had enlisted in 1861 as a private in the 38th, which saw action at Perryville, Ky., and then joined the pursuit of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg into Middle Tennessee as his three-year enlistment drew him into 1863. That's where Davis was serving as an officer when the diary he was keeping begins.

His penciled script peels back time to reveal his everyday experiences as a soldier on the march.

In the first half of 1863, Davis trudged through a rainy Middle Tennessee with the 38th Illinois, fighting Confederates at Stones River and Tullahoma before moving on through Winchester en route to Alabama and the upcoming fight in Chickamauga.

In late August, Davis and the rest of the 38th Illinois Infantry crossed the Cumberland Mountains into Stevenson, Ala., crossed the Tennessee River, then spent the first weeks of September hopscotching across Lookout Mountain from Alabama to Georgia and back again. Finally, with a march north on the top of the mountain to Steven's Gap and descent through Pond Springs, the unit made its way to Chickamauga on Sept. 19.

The 38th Illinois Infantry had been roughly engaged that day in the vineyard on the southern end of the line, and was called to form up in support of the 21st Illinois Infantry on the right of the Union line on the second day of fighting at Chickamauga, according to Ogden.

A southward walk from the Brotherton Cabin situated along LaFayette Road leads past the Union positions directed by Brig. Gen. William Rosecrans. Rosecrans, who had brilliantly led his forces that summer against the Confederates in Middle Tennessee and harried Bragg southward, would make a mistake this day that would cost the Union men, position and victory.

Early on the second day of the battle, Bragg attempted to wedge himself between the enemy and Chattanooga but couldn't push through.

Suddenly, Rosecrans ordered troops to fill a gap in the Union line to the north that didn't exist. In moving his forces, Rosecrans actually created a gap in the line and Confederates under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet flooded through the break.

The 38th was directly in front of the attacking Confederates and isolated along with a few other units south of the gap. Confederate forces moved to flank the cut-off units from both sides and drove them back, according to Ogden. The flood of soldiers drove Union forces from the field.

An account filed by Brig. Gen. William P. Carlin, who commanded the Second Brigade, including the 38th Illinois, describes the scene from his point of view on the second day of Chickamauga.

"I immediately rode up to Lieutenant-Colonel Gilmer, Thirty-eighth Illinois, and ordered him to move his regiment to the right of the Twenty-first Illinois," Carlin writes in his report.

"From some cause not now ascertainable he hesitated, but finally succeeded in giving an order to his men to rise; it was now too late," Carlin writes.

What might have happened was that Gilmer had been killed before he could issue the order. A marker noting Gilmer's death on Sept. 20, 1863, stands today at the spot held by the 38th at the moment of the break through the Union line.

Carlin writes that the enemy struck his right flank with heavy fire, allowing the advancing Confederates to cross the breastworks before a retreat could even be ordered. The scrambling Union soldiers attempted to re-form on a ridge to the rear, but Davis, for whatever reason, never made it to the fallback position.

•••

Davis' account in the diary picks up where the fighting left off, and his writing takes on the flavor of a new chapter in his life.

"Journal of trip into Dixie Sept. 20 Was taken prisoner by the 25th Alabama Regiment. Was [transported] through to the town of Ringgold a distance of 15 miles. Was then ordered still 2 miles further to take the cars and draw rations but did not take any cars or draw any rations but was ordered to take rails which we did of course.

"Sept. 21st fell in and marched down the railroad 4 miles to Tunnel Hill. Then there we drew rations (beans and corn meal) to bake before taking passage on the cars. While we were in waiting for rations a long train of cars [unreadable] came to Ringgold Station heavily loaded with troops, shipments for Bragg army. Took passage on the cars at 20 minutes past 3 o'clock P.M."

Ogden said many of the Union prisoners taken at Chickamauga were massed at an enclosure at the Catoosa County Courthouse in Ringgold before they were shipped. Davis' accounts appear to be accurate and coincide with historical accounts of the action, he said.

Ogden, reading aloud from copied pages of Davis' diary, tries to place the soldier's remarks in context for this period of the Civil War and relations between the two sides.

"There is not room enough for one-fourth of the prisoners. As we were marched in we were stripped of every article except the clothes we had on, even to our pocket knives."

Davis noted "Rebel" prisoners he thought were deserters and noted that a "lady" prisoner charged as a spy was among those on the train.

Davis describes shows of strength among the prisoners in the face of desperate conditions, Ogden noted.

"Nothing to eat but two small crackers today for each man but some of the prisoners makes the barracks ring with Union songs for all that the word now is that rations are coming."

The entry made Ogden smile with appreciation for their spirit.

"So, despite being prisoners, despite having little to eat, despite being crammed in, their morale is not entirely broken," Ogden said. "They're singing Union songs, probably, to annoy the southerners within hearing."

•••

Davis tracks his movements -- mostly by train -- from Ringgold through Dalton, to Atlanta and Augusta in Georgia, back through Columbia, S.C., northward through Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., and on to Richmond where he was imprisoned. He calculated his travels at 912 miles.

Historians say the diary provides a ground-level glimpse of a soldier's experience.

"We know a lot about the war because of those diaries," said Dr. Daryl Black, executive director of the Chattanooga History Center, who also got a quick look at the diary this week.

"Although this is not a particularly rare piece, this one gives us a view of an experience of a prisoner of war that most don't," Black said, noting he was impressed by the speed with which prisoners were being transported.

"One of the things that these kinds of documents do is to keep that memory alive of the Civil War," he said. "This is a family document that is becoming public. That's always nice to happen."

Ogden said it is a reflection of the times.

"The diary reflects that aftermath of the Battle of Chickamauga ... it reflects some of the aftermaths -- plural -- of the battle because from this you can interpret a number of different things; not only Davis' own personal experience but this helps illustrate the larger experience of Union soldiers who were captured here at Chickamauga," Ogden said. "It also reflects the changing course of the war."

At the time Davis was captured, the warring sides had a parole and exchange agreement that had collapsed over the Confederate treatment of black Union soldiers and their white officers, Ogden said. Chickamauga was one of the first major battles to occur after Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued a proclamation that blacks captured as soldiers would be returned to slavery and their officers would be tried and executed for insurrection, he said.

The disagreement led to growing prison populations on both sides and worsening conditions, especially in the Confederacy, which led to the creation in February 1864 of the infamous prison at Andersonville, Ga., Ogden said.

War records retrieved by Davis' family show he was transported to Libby Prison in Richmond, Va., by Sept. 9, 1863, and later transferred to the prison at Danville, Va., and Andersonville before becoming ill and being transferred to a prison in Columbia, S.C., around the time he was paroled and released in November and December 1864.

Davis' diary "adds another chilling aspect" to the conditions of prisoners held during the war and lends credibility to other accounts, Ogden said.

Ogden and Black said they intend to study the document further in the days to come.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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