This Hallowed Ground

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Headquarters had been having its problems. Thomas had been calling for help, help had been sent, the calls were still coming in, and nobody quite knew where everybody was. The order to Wood was pure routine: he should edge over to his left (as headquarters saw it) and lend a hand to the nearest division. What headquarters had failed to notice, however, was the fact that another division of troops held the line between Wood and Reynolds. When Wood got his orders, therefore, it seemed to him that headquarters was telling him to pull his men out of the fighting line, march several hundred yards to the rear, pass behind the division which was immediately on his left, and move up to help General Reynolds half a mile farther north. Figuring that headquarters knew what it was about, Wood gave the order; and his division wheeled about and marched off to the rear at the precise moment when Longstreet’s thunderbolt was starting to crash forward through the underbrush and make its strike. As a result, Longstreet’s men charged into a gaping hole in the Union line.

Then everything came unstitched, and all the lower half of the battlefield was a wild swirl of smoke, exploding shells, running men, wild cheers, and desperately galloping generals who were suddenly compelled to realize that the men they were supposed to be commanding had gone completely out of control.

The Army of the Cumberland was cut in half. Everything south of the break-through point—including General Rosecrans himself and two of his three corps commanders, McCook and Crittenden—was driven off, generals and enlisted men and guns and wagons all streaming away from the battle, scrambling for a back road that would get them to the Rossville Gap and safety. Coolly taking everything in, Longstreet let them go, and swung his victorious column sharply to the right to come in behind Thomas and break the Union Army into panicky shreds.

Pap Thomas, to be sure, was imperturbable. When things were going badly the only visible sign he ever gave was to indulge in a quaint habit of running his fingers through his patrician gray Virginia whiskers. These whiskers now got a furious going-over, but there was nothing else to show that he was disturbed. He methodically set to work to patch up a new line that would hold off the swarming Confederates long enough to avert complete disaster.

What a general could do, Thomas did; no more dependable soldier for a moment of crisis existed on the North American continent, or ever did exist. His own line was a wide horseshoe, bulging toward the east, a great shallow semicircle of fire and smoke and rocketing noise. Running west from the southern end of this horseshoe there was a chain of hills, drawing a name from a log farmhouse owned by one Snodgrass, and this Thomas chose as the place for a rally.

All along these rolling hills a new Federal line began to take shape. An Indiana regiment came running up, its German colonel carrying his old slouch hat in his hand, rolled up like a club; he was hitting his men on the shoulders with it, shouting, “Go in, boys, and give ’em hell!” and cursing in undefiled high Dutch. An Ohio colonel had his men form in lee of the hill, marched them twenty yards forward to fire, had them return to shelter to reload, and then moved them forward for a fresh volley. In a little hollow just behind the firing line was Thomas himself. A staff officer noted that even in the heat of this furious battle Thomas sent an orderly into a nearby corn field to collect a few ears of corn for his horse, and stood watching the fight while the beast ate. His whiskers were a tangle, by now, but otherwise he was cool and controlled.

This new Federal line along the hills was not, strictly speaking, a military formation at all. It consisted of fragments of men from any number of commands, a squad here and a platoon there, formal organization completely lost, nobody in particular in general command of anything—except that Thomas was always there, moving back and forth unhurried, holding this mixed-up line in place by sheer force of his own personality. The Confederates charged in, were driven back, realigned themselves, and moved up again; Federal ammunition ran low, and men went about the field collecting cartridges from the bodies of men who had fallen; and somehow, in spite of everything, the chain of hills was held. Late in the afternoon, help came. Rosecrans had kept a few brigades in what he called his “reserve corps” far off to his left and rear, watching a road from which he feared the Southerners might make a stab behind his flank. This outfit, marooned out of sight, came over, finally, without orders; its commander, General Gordon Granger—a profane, bearded, roughhewn regular-army type from the old days—had heard the tremendous crash of the battle action, had figured somebody needed him, and brought his men in just when Thomas needed them the most. They stiffened the patchwork line, and the last Rebel assaults were beaten off.