CLASH IN THE RIFLE PITS: 2nd Michigan & 3rd Battalion Georgia Sharpshooters - November 24, 1863 Knoxville

lelliott19

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About 8 o’clock AM, November 24th, General Ferrero, acting under orders, sent forward the Second Michigan to charge the enemy’s rifle pits and drive them out. The regiment was sustained by our batteries as long as it was safe to fire over the heads of our men. They went down the long slope, over the fallen trees, and through the debris in front, upon the double quick, attacking....

As McLaws' division arrived in front of Knoxville on November 17, 1863, Brig General William T. Wofford was absent at home in Georgia. Colonel Solon Z Ruff (18 GA) was commanding the brigade in his absence. Captain James Lile Lemon (A/18GA) paints the picture for us:

Ordered to dig and move into siege lines which faced the works of the enemy surrounding the city. Here we lay for several days. The weather had turned quite cold and with frequent rains, turned the ground all to mud. At this time, due to hard and continuous campaigning, many of the uniforms of our men were playing out, especially their shoes and not a few of our boys were completely barefoot. [Lemon, p. 43.]

For Wofford's Georgians, the days dragged on in the rifle pits until November 24, 1863. Lt Col Nathan Hutchins of the 3rd Battn Georgia Sharpshooters reports the events of that day, 156 years ago.

Having advanced the picket line to the railroad, 600 to 800 yards from Fort Loudon, a rifle pit was dug, by direction and under the superintendence of Colonel Ruff, 100 yards in front of the picket posts on the left, this leaving its left partially exposed and unprotected, it was, therefore, only used for vedettes and sharpshooters. A sortie was made against this work on the morning of the 24th by a regiment of the enemy (the Second Michigan.) Crossing the railroad far to the left it moved down, its right flank perpendicular to our picket line, thereby getting completely on the flank and rear of the rifle pit. A portion of the Third Georgia Battalion Sharpshooters being on duty at this position, the remaining portion was moved up to its support and soon succeeded in driving the enemy from the works with a loss, as nearly as could be ascertained, of 50 or 60 killed, wounded, and prisoners, while the Battalion’s loss was 5 men wounded, 2 of them mortally [Report of Lt Col Nathan L Hutchins (3d Battn GA SS) dated January 1, 1864, OR, Series I, Vol XXI, Part 1, pp. 518-520.]

The Michiganders recalled it this way:

On our left, for some hours, the fire of the sharp-shooters was quite hot from a house above the rebel trenches. The Second Michigan charged there, also, in the most gallant manner, and drove the rebels back. A fierce and bloody engagement ensued, with great loss on both sides, our boys remaining in possession of the works, which they obliterated, and fell back. [Michigan Volunteers, p. 29.]
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Evansville Daily Journal., December 02, 1863, MORNING EDITION, page 3. NOTE: "Lieut. Halpen" killed - should be Lieut. Charles R. Galpin.

Sources:
OR: Report of Lt Col Nathan L Hutchins (3d Battn GA SS) dated January 1, 1864, OR, Series I, Vol XXI, Part 1, pp. 518-520.
LOC: Map of Fort Sanders, Knoxville, Tennessee, showing the Confederate assault of Nov. 29, 1863, John G Orth, created 1863. Interpretation by the author for Civil War Talk.
Feed them the Steel! Being the Wartime Recollections of Capt James Lile Lemon, Co A, 18th Georgia Infantry, Edited by Mark Lemon, privately published, page 43.
Record of Service Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861-1865, Volume 2, Second Michigan Infantry, Kalamazoo, Mich., Ihling bros. & Everard, printers, 190-, p. 29.
 
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lelliott19

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Anticipating the return of some of the 2nd Michigan wounded to Detroit, Colonel Orlando Poe, Burnside's Chief Engineer at Knoxville, wrote to a friend in that city:

On the 24th of November, 1863, the Second Michigan with 150 men, charged the enemy’s rifle pits. The Major [Cornelius Byington] lost his leg and was mortally wounded through the hips; Adjutant [William] Noble and Lieut. [Charles R.] Galpin were killed; six Sergeants lost a leg each; the Color-bearer was mortally wounded and has since died; in all eighty four were killed and wounded out of the small party – about sixty percent. Yet the remnant of the brave old regiment was in the bastion which the enemy tried to carry by assault on the morning of the 29th, and their courage and cheer were as great yesterday as when I took command of them two years ago a thousand strong. [Michigan Volunteers, Vol 2, page 31.]

According to The New York Tribune:
About 8 o’clock AM, November 24th, General Ferrero, acting under orders, sent forward the Second Michigan to charge the enemy’s rifle pits and drive them out. The regiment was sustained by our batteries as long as it was safe to fire over the heads of our men. They went down the long slope, over the fallen trees, and through the debris in front, upon the double quick, attacking, driving out the rebels from their pits and occupying them for about half an hour, fighting hand to hand with the rebels over the impalement. They met, however, a whole brigade, and being overpowered sent back for reinforcements. Meanwhile Adjutant Noble and Lieutenant Galpin were killed and Major Byington was badly wounded. Lieutenant Zoeliner [Frank Zoellner; A/2MI] mortally, besides a large number of men. The Major, seeing that the effort to hold the place was fruitless, ordered his men to retire. He was immediately made a prisoner. [Michigan Volunteers, Vol 2, p. 29.]
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The Daily Green Mountain Freeman. (Montpelier, VT), December 08, 1863, page 2.

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Chicago Daily Tribune., December 12, 1863, page 3.

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The Nashville Daily Union., December 15, 1863, page 2.
 
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major bill

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Did the 2nd Michigan do this without shoes or proper clothing? It appears that of the 186 soldiers inspected 63 or 1/3 of the 2nd Michigan were shoe less. Well at least they were better cloth and had better shoes than the 17th Michigan and the 20th Michigan. I do hope the 60 soldiers in the 2nd Michigan without pantaloons were also not part of the 70 soldiers without underclothing. I am not sure pulling picket duty in December without pants or underwear in would be all that much fun.
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I week ago I was in Detroit and wasting time at a used book store, they had a reprinted copy of the Record Second Michigan Infantry Civil War 1861-1865 (The State of Michigan did a Record of Service book for each Michigan regiment, commonly called the Brown books) at a price I could not pass up.

After a short history and a few official documents the Brown books gives the name and summery of service for each member of the regiment.

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major bill

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Helen H. Ellis prepared an index of the Detroit newspapers articles about the Michigan military during the Civil War. The Detroit newspapers printed over 160 articles about the 2nd Michigan Infantry.
 
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lelliott19

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Did the 2nd Michigan do this without shoes or proper clothing?
Yes. They absolutely did! The Federals were cut off and supplies had not been getting into Knoxville. Neither side had shoes to replace ones that had worn out. Longstreet's men were making "moccasins" out of uncured beefhide. Remember our thread on those on a while back? Link I'm sure Burnside's men were doing the same - anything to protect ones feet from the ice and snow would have been welcome.

The info below is unrelated to your question, but is provided to clarify for those who may have seen other maps and/or read other modern interpretations of this "rifle pit" fight.

....Hutchins' report, quoted in the OP and dated January 1, 1864, is consistent with Capt Ruehle (2nd MI) and Confederate Maj Gen Lafayette McLaws' reports. All three agree it happened something like this:

On November 24, 1863, the 2nd Michigan crossed the railroad to the left of Hutchins' 3rd GA Battn SS; approached perpendicular to the picket line; getting in the (left) flank and rear of the rifle pits occupied by the 3d SS.

I drew the approximate positions on the map in the OP based on their interpretations.

But seventeen years later, January 1881, Major William M. Robbins of the 4th Alabama Infantry wrote his own extremely detailed account of the same incident which was published in the Philadelphia Times and reprinted in The Newtown Bee. (Newtown, CT), January 12, 1881. It is colorful and quotable and has been used by a number of historians over the years. The problem is, Robbins evidently has his left and right mixed up. If Hutchins', Ruehle's, and McLaws' reports are correct regarding location of the rifle pit incident, then Robbins' can't be. <Thanks to @Andy Cardinal and @alan polk for helping me work through these reports>

Here is an excerpt of Robbin's account:

...Our besieging lines of pickets and rifle-pits were pushed forward closer to the defensive works, from time to time, as was found practicable. It so happened that about the 20th of November, the writer commanding the Fourth Alabama regiment, was in charge of the picket line fronting the western face of Fort Sanders and the adjoining earthworks. During the night, we were ordered to move our line up and dig rifle-pits much in advance of our former position and within about three hundred yards of the fort and its flanking works. By daylight, we had a large number of rude square holes dug waist deep in the ground (the best we could do with the time and tools we had) in a line running parallel in the main to the face of the Federal works, but, nevertheless, curved considerably forward at the left and concealed in that part by shrubbery. These pits were occupied by the men of one battalion of the Fourth Alabama, while the other battalion was placed in reserve in a piece of woods a little distance to the rear. The ground in front of our new pits, especially on the right of the line, was an open, smooth lawn, sloping upward (the the Federal works) at a considerable angle of inclination.​
As soon as daylight revealed to the Federals our new line of rifle-pits, suddenly we beheld springing over their earthworks and dashing impetuously down the slope toward us, a strong body of men, about two hundred strong, which we soon afterward found was the Second Michigan regiment, led by Major Byington, and sent to dislodge us from our new position. I hurried up in a moment the reserve battalion of the Fourth Alabama to reinforce the men in the pits. And then ensued for a few minutes one of the fiercest and deadliest combats of the war. These two veteran regiments, both having come to the field at the first sound of the tocsin, as the names show (Second Michigan and Fourth Alabama), thinned now by hard service and many battles to about two hundred men each, but every man of them utterly fearless, splendidly daring and knowing all about war, grappled with each other as in a death-grip.​
If courage, such as makes an old soldier's hair stand on end to think of, could have won against equal courage and superior position, the gallant Michigan men would have triumphed. But the Alabamians had the advantage of shelter in their pits, which shallow as they were, afforded much protection. It so fell out too, that the curve in this line of pits on the left proved of great service to us, for as our assailants charged in line parallel to us, and square against our right, they were enfiladed with terrible effect by the fire from our pits on the left, which, hidden by bushes, had not been noticed.​
The circumstance quickly decided the contest in our favor....Alas! for the high hearts that were stilled there forever. Major Byington displayed a heroism worthy of the leader of such men or of any men. He came on, sword in hand, in front of his line, exhorting them to follow him to victory, and rushed to the very brink of our rifle pits, where he fell desperately wounded within a few feet of me. I had him carried back to the little piece of woods in our rear and made as comfortable as possible till he could be sent to the hospital. His leg was broken and he was shot also in the side, but bad as these wounds were he seemed to suffer but little pain.....If any surviving relative of Major Byington shall read this sketch I can say for their consolation that every possible kindness was shown that gallant gentleman...[The Newtown Bee.,(Newtown, CT), January 12, 1881, page 4.]
@Podad you might enjoy reading this.
 
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lelliott19

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reprinted copy of the Record Second Michigan Infantry Civil War 1861-1865 (The State of Michigan did a Record of Service book for each Michigan regiment, commonly called the Brown books) at a price I could not pass up.
That's awesome! Dont you love when that happens? Are there any pictures in that book? Images of some members of the 2nd MI are available at the Detroit Historical Society website but they do not allow reuse. Here are links to the a few of the relevant images
Cornelius Byington
Frank Zoellner
Capt John V Ruehle (commanding after Byington was killed)
 
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