White: Trains to Georgia changed direction of Civil War

White: Trains to Georgia changed direction of Civil War

September 1st, 2013 Lee White in Opinion Columns

"Never before were so many troops moved over such worn-out railways, none first-class from the beginning. Never before were such crazy cars - passenger, baggage, mail, coal, box, platform, all and every sort wobbling on the jumping strap-iron - used for hauling good soldiers. But we got there nevertheless."

So Moxley Sorrel of General James Longstreet's staff recalled one of the most incredible feats by the Confederacy during the war: the movement of the battle scarred veterans of Longstreet's Corps from General Robert E. Lee's vaunted Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce General Braxton Bragg's hard-pressed Army of Tennessee. It proved a massive undertaking that extremely taxed the Confederacy's rail resources and ultimately involved 16 different rail lines over several routes.

By 1863, James Longstreet had already campaigned several times to transfer to what he viewed as the greener pastures of the Western Theater. He dreamed of escaping Lee's shadow, even perhaps commanding his own army. He looked to the misfortunes of the Confederacy in the Western Theater and saw himself as a savior. In September 1863, he finally got his chance to prove it.

Debacles plagued the Confederacy in the summer of 1863: the loss of Middle Tennessee in the June Tullahoma Campaign, the fall of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and Lee's defeat at Gettysburg, Penn., in July. The Confederacy could ill afford to lose Chattanooga and suffer another disaster. President Jefferson Davis had already sent thousands of reinforcements to Bragg's army, but in early September with Rosecrans moving on Chattanooga and Knoxville threatened by General Ambrose Burnside, Davis knew he could not risk failure and gave Longstreet his opportunity. He ordered Longstreet to bring the divisions of the Major Generals LaFayette McLaws and John Bell Hood, the brigade of Brigadier General Micah Jenkins, and Col. Edward Porter Alexander's Artillery Battalion to Chattanooga.

Longstreet's men moved to Richmond to board trains. The men took advantage of the brief time in Richmond to hit the bars and enjoy the city's sites. While there, the men of Hood's division reunited with their commander, who was recovering from an arm wound received at Gettysburg. Many asked Hood to accompany them west and their commander agreed, though he hadn't fully recovered.

Even as Longstreet's men continued to arrive in Richmond, troops began to board trains. Troops continued to arrive and depart through Sept. 16th.

The men climbed into and onto the tops of boxcars - men packed so tightly into rail cars that soldiers punched holes in the sides until only the frame and roof remained.

Others boarded flat cars and any other type of car that could carry troops.

Over the next several days, the troops made their way south through the Carolinas. The scene greeting them was reminiscent of early days of the war. Augustus Dickert, of the 3rd South Carolina Regiment in Kershaw's Brigade, remembered cheering crowds greeting them at every station "waving handkerchiefs and flags." The soldiers cheered in return and a festive atmosphere grew.

However, the trip wasn't without incident. As General Henry Benning's Georgia Brigade stopped in Raleigh, N.C., some of the Georgians decided they had a score to settle with newspaper owner William Woods Holden, who used the North Carolina Standard as a platform to criticize Jefferson Davis and North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance. The Georgians ransacked the newspaper's office and completely destroyed the printing press. A riot almost ensued before the Georgians returned to their waiting train and departed. For the rest of the traveling troops, things were much quieter, with many troops enjoying short stops at town feasts along the way.

After a trip of nearly 900 miles and utilizing sixteen different rail lines, the first of Longstreet's Corps arrived near Ringgold on September 17th. The rest of the Corps would continue to arrive in bits and pieces over the next several days. Hood's Division joined the fight at Chickamauga on Sept. 19th and 20th, though Longstreet did not arrive until well into the night on September 19th. Part of McLaws' Division, Kershaw's South Carolina and Humphrey's Mississippi Brigades arrived in time to charge with Longstreet into a gap in the Union line on Sept. 20th, aiding the final Confederate victory at Chickamauga, but costing the wounded Hood a leg.

All told, Longstreet's Corps contributed over 6,700 men to the battle, roughly half what originally boarded the trains in Richmond. The rest arrived in the following days, joining the Confederate army laying siege to Chattanooga.

Lee White is a park guide at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. For more, visit chattanoogahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.