Streetwise Professor

November 25, 2022

The Apotheosis of My Family’s Civil War Service

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 11:27 am

25 November 1863 was the high point of my distaff side’s Civil War service.* Three of my ancestral relatives fought on that day at the Battle of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

My grandmother’s grandfather George Immel fought in the 92nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. This regiment was part of Turchin’s Brigade, Baird’s Division, XIV Army Corps (commanded by John M. Palmer), Army of the Cumberland. It was one of the regiments that made what at the time seemed to be the insane attack up the precipitous ridge, but which resulted in the routing of the Rebels: when seeing the Cumberlanders commencing their scaling of the ridge without orders, Ulysses S. Grant bit down on his omnipresent cigar and muttered that someone would pay if the attack became a bloody shambles, as he expected. But it didn’t end that way. To the amazement of all, the Confederates fled before the charging Unionists.

Immel had enlisted at 18 years of age over the vehement protests of his parents: they could not understand why he would do so because they had emigrated from Hesse precisely to protect their sons from military conscription. He said I am a free American now and enlisted of his own free will. He served through the war, supposedly (according to family lore) serving at one point as General Ivan Basilovich Turchin’s courier, though I have not been able to document that. (Turchin–his name anglicized to John Basil Turchin–is one of the war’s remarkable characters, as was his wife. Since his wife traveled with the general, if George was Turchin’s courier he would have known her.)

The war memories he passed down were of the Battle of Chickamauga, of which he related that his main memory was of the continuous roar of gunfire for two days. Turchin’s brigade distinguished itself in the battle, repelling several Confederate assaults, and at the end of the day mounting a wild charge that opened the way for the rest of the beleaguered XIV Corps to escape.

This is a Don Troiani print of Cleburne’s Confederate division fighting at Chickamauga. In the print, Cleburne is passing out ammunition to shoot at my GGGF, because Cleburne’s division was attacking the 92nd’s position:

The other memory passed down is that of Sherman’s march through the Carolinas, when he picked up lots of booty, including a Confederate sword, but it got too damn heavy to carry so he disposed of it. Meaning that the only thing that he brought back from the war was a case of rheumatism which plagued him the rest of his life.

My grandmother remembered him well. He was a stern Teutonic figure (you can take the boy out of Germany but can’t take the Germany out of the boy, apparently) who whipped his grandchildren every Christmas eve to punish them for their sins of the prior year. He married a woman of English heritage, and according to my grandmother they fought constantly. Her grandmother said: “Well, the Germans and the English always fight.” They did more than fight apparently, because they had 8 children: or maybe that was the result of the fighting, if you know what I mean.

Ironically, the attack that the Army of the Cumberland mounted up Missionary Ridge was initially planned as a limited operation to relieve pressure on Union forces fighting about a mile up the ridge which included my grandfather’s uncles, members of the 46th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The 46th was in Corse’s Brigade, Ewing’s Division, XV Corps, operating under the command of William T. Sherman (who is, by the way, a distant relative via a shared ancestor who settled in Connecticut in 1635–my GGGM’s name was Lois Sherman, and her father was Eli Sherman).

On the 24th, Grant assigned Sherman the limited objective of establishing a position at the north end of Missionary Ridge and digging in. Due to a misunderstanding of the ground (that was not directly visible from where Grant and Sherman stood when concocting the plan), Sherman’s forces dug in on a hill (Billy Goat Hill) that was separated from the north end of Missionary by a wide swale. The next morning, Grant revised Sherman’s orders and commanded an attack up the ridge. Sherman assigned Corse’s brigade for the task.

The ridge was so narrow that the entire brigade could not deploy in line, but assaulted in column of regiments against . . . the same Patrick Cleburne who had attacked George Immel two months prior. Cleburne beat back Corse’s attack, and the attack of other brigades that Sherman sent against him.

Walking over the terrain you can see that it was a futile effort. But everyone thought that the Army of the Cumberland’s charge would be futile too.

My grandfather never knew his uncles. One, Eli Hatfield (named after his maternal grandfather), was apparently something of a sad sack. He was captured at Shiloh, spent a few months in a Rebel prison camp (Cahaba in Alabama) before being paroled. He complained that prison had ruined his health, and his file contains several doctor’s notes claiming he was unfit for service. This worked for about a year, but eventually his appeals were unavailing and he was ordered to rejoin the regiment shortly before the Battle of Chattanooga. After the battle, he was assigned as a teamster (something that company commanders sometimes did to get rid of screwups), and was fined $20 for losing his accoutrements (cartridge box and belt).

Far less comically, on 27 May 1864 Eli was shot at the Battle of Dallas (Georgia). The bullet struck him in the left arm right below the shoulder joint. Minie balls were large, low velocity projectiles that shattered bone, and hence Eli’s arm was pulverized. The wound was too close to the shoulder for amputation, so all of the bone between the shoulder and the elbow was resected. My great grandmother told my grandfather about his “Uncle Eli with the dead arm from the war,” and how when he would sit down at a table he would grab his (useless) left hand with his right, and then put his left forearm on the table. He lived until around the turn of the century.

(The details about his wound are from a report that the surgeon who operated on him filed, and which is retained in his service record at the National Archives. The letter is a full page in length. I’ve often wondered about how tiresome and dreary a task it would have been to write such letters, especially considering the exhaustion that the surgeon surely suffered in the midst of a long and bloody campaign.)

The other uncle, John Hatfield, returned to Athens County, Ohio after serving the remainder of the war. He fought at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign (including the Battle of Resaca, The Battle of Dallas, the assault at Kennesaw Mountain, the Battle of Atlanta, the Battle of Ezra Church, and the Battle of Jonesboro), the March to the Sea (including the Battle of Griswoldsville, the largest of the campaign), and the March Through the Carolinas, never receiving a scratch. Unlike his brother’s, his service record is dull: just appearances on the regular muster rolls, with nary an absence noted. He eventually made it to the exalted rank of corporal.

Farming or coal mining in Ohio (his father was a coal miner, as his younger brothers became) apparently didn’t appeal to him, so not long after the war he set off for Kansas. His sister never saw him again.

To round out the story, after seizing the top of the ridge, along with the rest of Baird’s division the 92nd pivoted left, moved north, and drove Cleburne’s division from the ridge where it had held off the 46th. So as darkness fell on an overcast and gloomy 25 November 1863, unbeknownst to them, my ancestors were looking at one another across the field of one of the Union’s most spectacular triumphs of the Civil War.**

*Well, that means that the acme of my entire family’s Civil War service occurred 159 years ago today, because all of my father’s ancestors arrived after the Civil War, the earliest in 1867.

**The Hatfield and Immel families intersected about 62 years after a few of their members were looking at each other through the smoke and haze on Missionary Ridge: my grandparents married on 2 January 1925.

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8 Comments »

  1. And, you still have to pay reparations because……what a fascinating and uniquely American story. Thanks for sharing. You wonder what those people would think of America today…..not the gee whiz technological innovation, but the other stuff.

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — November 25, 2022 @ 11:37 am

  2. @Jeff Carter–Thanks. Yes, I am sure that they weep from beyond the other side.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 25, 2022 @ 12:04 pm

  3. Wow, my only family ancestor from which I know he fought in a war, was my father’s father, whom i never met because he died at the end of WWII at the Belgium border, shot in the head and belly, on the German side…and that’s why nobody talks about it in the family.

    Hey, you don’t really learn that stuff in history here in Europe, all I’ve heart of is the Chattanooga Choo Choo…

    Comment by Mikey — November 25, 2022 @ 12:50 pm

  4. A few years ago I saw, I think online, a photo that had been used in a newspaper to illustrate an article about the American Civil War. Alas, the soldiers shown were taking part in the post-independence Irish Civil War.

    I’d have said that they were unmistakably not Americans of the 1860s but evidently I’d have been wrong.

    Comment by dearieme — November 25, 2022 @ 5:02 pm

  5. ” John Hatfield … fought at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign (including the Battle of Resaca, The Battle of Dallas, the assault at Kennesaw Mountain, the Battle of Atlanta, the Battle of Ezra Church, and the Battle of Jonesboro), the March to the Sea (including the Battle of Griswoldsville, the largest of the campaign), and the March Through the Carolinas, never receiving a scratch.”

    Good luck! One hopes that it passes down through the genes. Even if not, one hopes it is catching 🙂

    Comment by Simple Simon — November 27, 2022 @ 10:59 am

  6. @Simple Simon. I hope so too!

    Comment by cpirrong — November 28, 2022 @ 11:33 am

  7. My grandfather was injured in a Zeppelin raid. He was in the Royal Naval Air Service and was eating dinner in the base cafeteria one evening in 1916 when a Zeppelin bomb fell on it, killing and wounding many. He was badly injured in the stomach. His mother, my great-grandmother, came to see her injured son. The naval surgeon who had opened and patched him up told her he probably wouldn’t pull through. In doing so, he gave her the impression he was talking down to her. Big mistake.

    “Young man,” she told him icily, “you may be familiar with my son’s insides, but somehow you have failed to notice his guts.”

    He was invalided out and had a lifetime of stomach problems, but died in 1970, aged 72. Zeppelin, schmeppelin.

    Comment by Green as Grass — November 29, 2022 @ 7:00 am

  8. Wow, my ancestry in the US starts with George Immel too! My grandfather was Paul Immel! This is so cool to find, been looking for more family history.

    Comment by Geoff Immel — February 1, 2023 @ 6:35 pm

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