Donelson's Brigade: The only TRUE Tennessee Brigade.

May 18, 2005
Spring Hill, Tennessee
Apparently, Donelson's Brigade was the only true Tennessee brigade for any Confederate army.

Although General W. W. Loring (Division Commander at Cheat Mountain, Virginia) may have originally organized this brigade with the 8th Tennessee, 16th Tennessee, 1st Georgia, 14th Georgia and Greenbrier Virginia Cavalry, this organization apparently only lasted about ten days. The Georgia regiments and the Virginia Cavalry were encamped at Huntersville, Virginia with the Tennessee regiments for less than two weeks, and when the brigade left Valley Mountain for Cheat Mountain on the morning of September 10, 1861, only the 8th and 16th regiments went on the campaign.

Other than this potential stretch of ten or so days (possibly) brigaded with two Georgia infantry regiments, the remainder of the time served by the 8th and 16th Tennessee regiments was only with Tennessee regiments. This included a Tennessee (Carnes') artillery battery that was added to the brigade by the end of June, 1862.

Their first brigade assignment was one that would last - for both of these regiments - for the entirety of the war. Other regiments that served in their brigade included the 15th Tennessee, 28th Tennessee, 38th Tennessee, 51st Tennessee, 52nd Tennessee, 84th Tennessee, Murray's 22nd Tennessee Infantry battalion. The 15th Tennessee was the only regiment that would transfer out of the brigade in December, 1862. The 51st and 52nd Tennessee regiments were consolidated and originally called the 51st Consolidated, but it was later deemed an illegal consolidation. They then simply retained the field consolidation, but they went by the name 51st & 52nd Tennessee Infantry regiment. The 84th Tennessee consolidated with the 28th Tennessee in March, 1863 and the designation 84th was completely dropped. The unit was referred to as the 28th Tennessee till war's end. The 22nd battalion was consolidated with the 38th Tennessee, and although it was not meant to be permanent - it became so. Later, they were brigaded with the 1st/27th Tennessee, 4th Confederate/6th/9th/50th Tennessee.

The brigade received a battery of artillery permanently attached to the brigade from mid 1862 until after the battle of Chickamauga. Captain W. W. Carnes' Tennessee battery of four 12 pound napoleons was a very effective and deadly battery of Tennesseans. His guns were briefly captured by Federal forces at Chickamauga. Following that battle, artillery was reorganized into battalions and no longer individually attached to brigades.

The interesting thing regarding this brigade is that it was commanded by all Tennesseans (or adopted Tennesseans) for the entirety of the war. The commanders included Brigadier General Daniel S. Donelson - its first commander who was also a West Point graduate.
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Donelson was generally considered a patriotic man, but some of the men felt he lacked "military tact and generalship." Donelson's brigade proved its worth in the extremely rugged mountains of Virginia from Huntersville, to Cheat Mountain, to Lewisburg, Sewell Mountain to Dublin Depot. The brigade was specifically ordered by General R. E. Lee to follow him to South Carolina when he took over command of the defenses south of Charleston.

The brigade participated in coastal duties primarily building and reinforcing forts, conducting patrols and picket duty opposite Beaufort and Parris Island. The brigade lived well while stationed there and the boys got fat on oysters and fish. Clothing supplies that had run short handed on the Virginia campaign were replaced with nice garb from the eastern depots and morale ran high until the news that Fort Donelson had fallen. Captain Dillard of the 16th Tennessee broke the news to the general.

I well remember his appearance when in South Carolina I broke to him the news of the fall of Fort Donelson. I had just got a paper from Charleston as he was riding by our camp, and read him the dispatch while he leaned forward on his horse gazing at me as a man hearing a death-knell. Easing himself back in his seat, with his eyes fixed without object through the long moss drapery of the woods, he said in his subdued tones, “Well, well, well! that is the saddest piece of news that ever fell upon my ears during life.” He then rode toward his quarters through the dark forest of live-oaks. His parental heart was touched. His home is doomed; his dear wife and defenseless daughters at the mercy of the enemy; his fine estate sacked; and Tennessee subjected to all the ravages of war. He saw all this at a glance, and it weighed down his soul. I was sorry I read him the news.[1]

[1] (Dillard, Military Annals of Tennessee, p. 342)​

The Tennessee brigade - still consisting of only the 8th and Sixteenth Tennessee in the spring of 1862 - was transferred to the Army of the Mississippi in April, 1862 immediately following the Battle of Shiloh. They left Grahamsville, South Carolina on April 11, 1862 and arrived at Corinth on April 22.

Upon arriving there, they were immediately designated the First brigade of Frank Cheatham's division. Three more regiments of Tennesseans were added to the brigade. The 15th, 38th and 51st Consolidated joined the 8th and 16th Tennessee regiments. This was the organization at the Battle of Perryville. There, Donelson's brigade was the first brigade to slam into the left flank of the Federal army killing Federal General James Jackson in the first five to ten minutes of the battle. The brigade had been split in the hours preceding the fight. Only the 15th, 38th and 16th regiments participating in the opening attack. The 8th and 51st regiments were in support of Carnes' battery on the extreme Federal left. The three regiments that made the initial attack attacked the right flank of Starkweather's brigade and routed the 123 Illinois of Terrill's brigade atop Open Knob. Soon, with the assistance of Maney's brigade, Parsons' eight gun battery was captured atop Open Knob. The brigade was reformed and aided in more attacks in support of Stewart's brigade until darkness, and they assisted in the capture of Harris' Federal battery near dusk. The brigade sustained 347 casualties in the fighting there - the 16th Tennessee accounted for more than 200 of the casualties.

Two and a half months later - the army had been re-designated the Army of Tennessee. The brigade lost the 15th Tennessee to outpost duty, but gained the 84th Tennessee and Murray's 22nd Battalion. These two units did not participate in the battle of Murfreesboro, but supported Carnes' battery several hundred yards behind the main line. The remaining regiments - the 8th, 16th, 38th and 51st consolidated Tennessee regiments - were responsible for the axle portion of the attack on the Federal forces on the morning of December 31, 1862. The brigade was responsible for the capture of several pieces of artillery, many prisoners and lost nearly 700 men.

In February, orders came down that promoted Donelson to departmental command. He would be leaving the brigade and assigned duty in east Tennessee. This left an opening for appointment to brigadier general and command of the brigade. Nearly everyone in the brigade thought the command would go to Colonel John H. Savage of the 16th Tennessee. This would not happen however. The next installment will cover the period of command by Brigadier General Marcus J. Wright.
May 18, 2005
Spring Hill, Tennessee
When Donelson was sent east to take command of the Department of East Tennessee, the brigade believed that senior Colonel John H. Savage would be promoted and command the hard hitting Tennessee brigade. This was not to be. Lt. Colonel Marcus J. Wright - of Cheatham's staff - had been detached following the Kentucky campaign and placed in command of the Conscription Bureau in Tennessee. Unknown to Cheatham - or anyone else - he was promoted to Brigadier General - completely skipping the rank of colonel. Cheatham had in fact written a letter of recommendation for Wright, but was under the impression that he would remain in command of Conscription. He later wrote Savage confirming this idea, and stated that he had expected Savage to fill the vacancy in Donelson's brigade. Governor Isham Harris - Savage's nemesis - had led the letter writing campaign to has his close friend promoted. Wright also wrote the War Department lobbying for himself. (M.J. Wright, Fold3, p. 32-3.)

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Smarting from Wright's appointment to command the brigade, Savage tendered his resignation.

Following the Battle of Murfreesboro, the corps of Frank Cheatham's division was comprised of four Tennessee brigades. The 28th Tennessee and Murray's 22nd Battalion was added to Wright's (Donelson's) Tennessee brigade.

The Tullahoma campaign saw Polk's corps flanked out of their position after Celburne's division - of Hardee's corps - gave up Liberty Gap and one regiment of cavalry ran from Hoover's Gap which opened up the army's right flank. The army had to retreat south rapidly to prevent encirclement.

On this retreat, Wright apparently issued orders to ensure nothing fell into enemy hands. Colonel Donnell of the 16th Tennessee was scolded for following this order by Cleburne himself. The security of the army was greater than a broken down wagon.

At Chickamauga on September 19, 1863, Wright's deployment of his brigade - and lack of experience - caused his command to temporarily lose its brigade artillery under Captain W. W. Carnes. The brigade was shot up and hit in front and flank by Federal troops in the vicinity and south of Brock Field. The brigade lost about 475 men that afternoon. Wright was no where to be found during the fight. He was not seen by one single regimental commander till the fighting ended.

The next day, the brigade participated in the grand charge that overwhelmed the Federal troops alongside Breckenridge.

The brigade was temporarily detached to Charleston during the siege of Chattanooga, and with actions commencing in front of Chattanooga on November 24, the brigade was returned to the extreme right of the Rebel lines along Chickamauga Creek. Although Wright had been warned of the proximity of Federal troops, he marched his men toward the mouth of the creek with unloaded weapons when they were suddenly ambushed from across the creek. He quickly withdrew the brigade to a pair of hills east of the creek and went to bring forward the 51st Tennessee which had been left at the station. The members of the brigade rarely saw Wright ever again. He had a "fever" and Colonel Anderson of the 8th Tennessee assumed command of the brigade.

Colonel Anderson retained command of the brigade and held Shallow Ford till the last of the Rebel forces crossed over and burned the bridge as they retired. The Tennessee Brigade was truly the rear guard of the army that night.

Colonel Carter's 38th Tennessee had been tasked with holding the bridge at Holston River when the rest of the brigade went to Chattanooga. He was ordered to go to Longstreet's command following the disaster at Chattanooga, but feeling it endangered his command, he moved back to north Georgia and rejoined the brigade at Dalton. In Wright's absence, which was often, Colonel John C. Carter commanded the brigade regularly. In February 1864, Wright was transferred to Post duty at Atlanta. Some of the boys were excited, as if finally gave them "a real brigade commander."

Wright would end his career in administrative capacities and is most well known as compiling the Confederate documents for the Official Records of the Union and Confederate armies.

John C. Carter's term as the Tennessee Brigade commander follows.
May 18, 2005
Spring Hill, Tennessee
As early as November of 1862, D. S. Donelson had been pushing for the promotion of J. C. Carter to brigadier general. Finally, in January of 1864, it was reported that M. J. Wright would be resigning his position for health reasons. R. L. Caruthers, A. P. Stewart and others wrote the President and the Secretary of War in hopes to get the promotion and brigade command for Carter.


Brigadier General John Carpenter Carter

Feb. 5 1864 letter from A. P. Stewart to James A. Seddon: “He possesses a high order of talent, is well educated and intelligent, and is a Christian gentleman. He had devoted himself with order and success to the study of military science, and, it is believed, would distinguish himself as a brigade commander.”

From a newspaper in 1864:
“It would be doing the gallant Col. Jno. C. Carter injustice not to mention his services. He commands Brig. Gen. Marcus J. Wright’s Brigade of Tennesseans, which was formerly commanded by the lamented Donelson. Col. Carter is a very young man, probably about twenty-seven. He was born in Burke county, Georgia, graduated with honor at the University of Virginia, before he had reached his twentieth year. He then entered the law Department of Cumberland University, at Lebanon, Tennessee, graduated in that department with distinguished honors, being selected by his _______________ -tained in the University as a professor of law, and teacher of the junior class. He performed the important duties of that position for more than a year. In the meantime he married a daughter of Judge Abe Caruthers, of Tennessee, and after giving up the professorship in the law department, he located in Memphis, Tennessee, and commenced the practice of the law. His brilliant beginning in that profession was cut short by the thunder of artillery at Fort Sumter. He shouldered his musket and joined a company in Memphis, of which he was soon elected Captain. His company was attached to the 38th Tennessee Regiment, Col. Looney was selected as its commander. At the reorganization of the Tennessee Army, Col. Carter was elected Colonel. His gallantry on the ever memorable fields of Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro and Chicamauga, is well known to Tennesseans, and more recently, during the retreat from Dalton, his efficiency and gallantry has been noticed and highly commended by Gen.s Cheatham and Hardee."

“Col. C. is a man of indomitable energy and perseverance, and as brave as Caesar. He is also a hard student. I will venture to say he remembers the name of every official who took a prominent part in Napoleon’s campaigns; the names of the rivers he crossed, the kind of bridges used, and the plans of his campaigns. He is a fine engineer, and in fact he is everything that is required to constitute the thorough soldier and elegant gentleman. He deserves promotion, and such merit will not be long in reaching the appointing powers at Richmond. The good of the country demands that he occupy a higher position. His men love him for his coolness, bravery, and sound judgment in an action. I regret very much that I have not yet learned the names of all those gallant officers who took an active part in the repulse of the vandals to-day.”

John C. Carter took command of the brigade following Wright's reassignment to post duty at Macon and Atlanta, Georgia. The men in the brigade knew they had a real commander now. Carter was officially promoted to brigadier general on July 7, 1864. The brigade fought in the heavy skirmishing throughout the early part of the Atlanta Campaign and was heavily engaged at Peachtree Creek, Atlanta and Jonesboro.

When the Army was reorganized at Palmetto Station in September of 1864, Carter commanded his brigade that was consolidated with Maney's old brigade. Some regiments from both Maney and Carter were separated from their original organization and distributed to other brigades. This brigade-officially named "Maney's" brigade-would be commanded by Carter until his death at Franklin. It consisted of the 8th, 16th and 28th consolidated, the 1st and 27th consolidated, and the 4th Confederate/6th/9th/50th Tennessee consolidated. The command lost every bit of 50 percent at the battle of Franklin where Carter was killed as darkness fell. He had been struck in the abdomen by a bullet. He lingered until December 10 at the Harrison House south of Franklin where he died.

The brigade was commanded by Colonel John Anderson of the 8th Tennessee following the battle, and while in front of Nashville, Anderson was placed in command of Gist's brigade (who had also been killed at Franklin). Colonel Hume R. Field, of the 1st Tennessee, was then placed in command of the Tennessee brigade.

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Colonel Hume R. Field

Colonel Field was well known in the army and had a reputation as a tough and distinguished fighter. He commanded the brigade through the battle of Nashville.

The following is from volume 3 of the 16th Tennessee history.

The boys of the consolidated 8th/16th/28th knew Colonel Hume R. Field well—at least by name, appearance and reputation. Cheatham’s chief of staff had said of him, “Thou bearest the highest name for valiant acts.” If Colonel Field with Carter’s brigade couldn’t take the hill—nobody could. Just after 3 P.M., the brigade began to move. As the six-hundred and fifty men of Carter’s brigade picked up their meager possessions and gathered in rear of the line, Strahl’s old brigade and Tyler’s Tennesseans and Georgians stretched further down the slope of the hill to fill the void. Likewise, Anderson extended Gist’s brigade further to the right to cover the gap created as Field withdrew Carter’s brigade. In only minutes, Colonel Field had the brigade double-quick to the left in column up the steep slopes of the hill and dispersed into skirmish order. “It was a critical period, the enemy’s shots were taking us in reverse, and before many minutes a lodgment would be made in our rear; but Field’s advance was equal to the emergency, and in a few minutes the ground was recovered and the enemy forced to retire.” As they gained the summit, the dismounted Yanks quickly beat it to the rear leaving the hilltop in the brigade’s hands. Reaching that point, some of the Rebels spied a group of Yankee officers in the distance pointing toward their position. It wasn’t long before a distant enemy battery opened on their position with spherical shell. The shots flew through the air and exploded in the treetops raining iron fragments in their midst but doing little harm. Soon, the artillerists began to pinpoint their fire. This caused some of the boys to “dodge as they began to get closer to us.” Lieutenant Colonel Harris—formerly of the 6th Tennessee—would “storm out at us for dodging.”[1]

From atop the hill, they could see for nearly a mile to their right including the saddle they had recently vacated and the top of Compton Hill about six-hundred yards away. In their front, they could only see a short distance due to “timber and brush.” Time and again, the enemy skirmish line advanced against them only to be forced back down the wooded slope. After taking the hill and deploying into a thin skirmish line, Colonel Field sent a messenger to report to General Cheatham that “if the assault was repeated he could not maintain himself against a line of battle, and asked for reinforcements.” Cheatham responded with the declaration, “The colonel must not expect reinforcements; there are no reserves. I sent him to the left because I can trust him to hold any position.” After nearly a half hour of constant skirmishing, the dismounted Yankees continued to feel their way east and finally located Field’s left flank. As there was no heavy force pressing the saddle between the two hills at the time, Cheatham finally relented and ordered Colonel Anderson—commanding Gist’s brigade—to Colonel Field’ support. On command, nearly eight-hundred South Carolinians and Georgians withdrew from the saddle while Colonel Anderson led them to Field’s assistance. Bob Carden clearly remembered the constant annoyance of the Yankees enveloping their flank. “Now and then some Yankee cavalry would run in behind us and some of our command would get after them and run them back, but they would keep getting in our rear. That position was the only one I was ever in that a fellow could not get behind a tree.” Although the boys were successful in halting this progress on several occasions, something catastrophic finally happened.[2]

About six-hundred yards north of their position, Bate’s division—fifteen-hundred strong—had suffered through a tremendous cannonade for several hours. Portions of his defensive works had been completely flattened by solid shot and percussion shell. One stretch of the line—nearly fifty to sixty yards long—was completely untenable and couldn’t even be occupied. At approximately 4 P.M.—only thirty minutes before sunset, A. J. Smith’s 1st Division of the Federal 16th Army Corps stepped off in a general advance on Bate’s position. Moving into a defilade position, the Federal troops were able to advance—with artillery firing over their heads—up the steep north face of Compton Hill. As they appeared in the very faces of Brigadier General T. B. Smith’s brigade, a volley was fired that only partially took effect on the right wing of the attackers. The left wing—the 10th Minnesota—was stunned by the point blank fire from Jackson’s and Finley’s brigades but rapidly closed with the Rebels, hopped the works and planted their flag. From the time the first rifle was fired until the capitulation of the forces at the apex of the hill was only a matter of minutes. A brief hand-to-hand struggle ensued, during which, Colonel William Shy—of the 20th Tennessee—was bayoneted and shot in the head. The line was broken.[3]

Following the battle and rout of the Confederate army, Field was placed in command of one of the four consolidated infantry brigades that would comprise the rear guard of the army under over-all command of N.B. Forrest. Field was given command of the consolidate brigades of his own Tennessee brigade and Strahl's brigade. The effective total came to only 298 men!

They fought bravely in several actions including Richland Creek, Anthony's Hill and Sugar Creek - effectively slowing and eventually ending the pursuit of Federal forces. The brigade was eventually halted at Tupelo, Mississippi, where it was rested briefly before continuing on to South Carolina. At the Battle of Bentonville, Lt. Colonel Christopher McKinney of the 8th Tennessee commanded the Tennessee brigade.

The final organization of the brigade at the surrender in April of 1865 found the Tennessee brigade commanded by Brigadier General Joseph B. Palmer of Murfressboro, Tennessee.

This truly was the only brigade comprised of only Tennesseans from beginning of the war till war's end. It was unmatched in it's achievements on the battlefield and has been long overlooked.

[1] James D. Porter, Confederate Military History, Vol. 10, p. 165-6: W. H. Kearney, CV, Vol. 13, p. 68.

[2] Porter, Confederate Military History, Vol. 10, p. 166: Carden, Carden Articles, June 14.

[3] OR, Ser. I, Pt. I, Vol. 45, p. 442, 749-50. Compton’s Hill was from that point forward recognized as “Shy’s Hill.”
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