One cold day in late December 1862 John McCline, a 10-year-old slave at Clover Bottom plantation near Nashville, was sitting on the back of a work horse named Nell watching a regiment of Union infantry march along Lebanon Pike. A tall soldier stepped out of the ranks and said "Come on, Johnny, and go with us up North, and we will set you free." Without a word he slid from Nell's back, climbed over the fence, and went off with the 13th Michigan Volunteers.
McCline was given a uniform, taught to drill with a musket, and assigned to Capt. Dick Yerkes in command of Company C. The boy cared for and learned to drive a team of six mules. A few days later the regiment fought in the Battle of Stone's River at Murfreesboro. In July of 1863 they crossed the Cumberland Plateau and went across the Tennessee River on a pontoon bridge before heading across Lookout Mountain to Chattanooga.
Viewed from four miles away, the buildings of the little city in the valley looked small and crowded together. "The long straight macadamized streets running through the city, and occasional church spires, could be plainly seen," McCline recalled. "A long strip of country lying between the city and the mountains, was dotted here and there with long rows of tents, and soldiers moved about."
Chattanooga's streets were so crowded with women, children and old men that cavalry had to force them back to let the incoming troops and supply train pass. The 10 wagons of the regiment set up a corral in a large vacant lot just back of a big four-story frame hotel. The regimental blacksmith set up shop nearby.
During the day McCline walked about to see the city and its buildings. Down at the river, the first steamboats he had ever seen were tied up and loaded with cotton and freight. Peddlers were selling fruit and other items along the bank.
South of town Confederate Gens. Braxton Bragg and James Longstreet were fortified in the woods along Chickamauga Creek. On the morning of Sept. 16 McCline's regiment went into camp just north of the woods where battle would soon begin. That afternoon troops passing by included a cavalry unit with a brass band whose members played their instruments on horseback. McCline got his first view of Gen. William Rosecrans, the Union commanding general.
That night the quartermaster instructed McCline to take a wagonload of provisions out to the front. After unloading the wagon, McCline was climbing into the saddle of the left wheel mule when Union soldiers in the trenches opened fire, frightening his mules, but he returned safely.
The battle of Chickamauga began the next morning on Sept. 19, 1863. Wounded soldiers and ambulances poured into Chattanooga. Late in the evening the Union troops were driven from the field and were "practically shut up in the town," McCline reported. Frank Murray, the soldier who had invited McCline to join the regiment, died of his wounds on Sept. 21.
Not long after Gen. Ulysses Grant arrived, the Confederates retreated to the West. McCline's regiment moved to Missionary Ridge to establish winter quarters. The men brought in logs to winterize their tents and build a chapel. They also hauled logs to fortify the city of Chattanooga.
One day in January McCline was mounted on his mule to go foraging with his unit when his brother, Jeff, rode up on a big bay horse with some other soldiers. Jeff had run away to look for his brother and joined the Sixth Ohio Battery. When McCline returned from the foraging expedition, Jeff and his entire battalion had departed. He next saw his brother 15 years later in Indianapolis.
In May McCline's regiment moved near the point on Lookout Mountain where hospital buildings were being erected. They enjoyed the splendid view, eating huckleberries and swimming in cold mountain springs.
One day he suddenly came upon the first encampment of African-American troops he had ever seen. In one tent he noticed several soldiers reading and writing. Later he found an old blue back speller among some deserted huts. After the mess cook taught him the alphabet, soon he was spelling words of one syllable.
McCline's regiment left Chattanooga to intercept Confederates heading for Franklin, Tennessee. He went on Gen. W.T. Sherman's March to the Sea and marched in the grand review at President Andrew Johnson's inauguration. John McCline died in 1948 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the age of 95.
Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.