Battle of Liberty Gap

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Battle for Liberty Gap

At the outset of the Tullahoma Campaign MG Rosecrans assigned the capture of Liberty Gap and the important crossroads at Christiana to The XX Corps. The all Illinois Brigade (22nd, 27th, 42nd, and 51st) was led forward by five companies of the 39th Indiana Mounted infantry, under LTC Jones. The mounted men began skirmishing with the enemy cavalry picket just three miles south of Murfreesboro at “The Knob.” The Confederate pickets were pushed back beyond the crossroads and the infantry moved up to a position in a wood line east of the Pike. Confederate artillery took them under fire there. A Union battery was brought up for counter-battery but was ordered to hold their fire by General Sheridan. The brigade held the crossroads until relieved at 1400 by the follow on units of the division. The entire operation cost Bradley’s brigade one wounded man.

Around 0800 another column of XX corps troops departed their camps. They were led by BG August Willich’s First brigade troops of BG Richard Johnson’s division. In the vanguard of the advance were the other five companies of the attached 39th Indiana Mounted Infantry, under Colonel T. J. Harrison. The Spencer wielding mounted Hoosiers dashed to the northern entrance to the gap and overwhelmed the Confederate videttes from the 1st/3rd Kentucky Cavalry (CSA). So rapid was the advance that three Confederate troopers were taken prisoner as they cut wheat. From these prisoners McCook learned that only two regiments were stationed in the gap and he decided to make a determined push against them. He sent orders to Harrison to maintain his position while the infantry was moved up to challenge the Confederate fortifications there. Willich was ordered to move his infantry column up as soon as possible to take advantage of the opportunity.

On his arrival Willich deployed the 15th Ohio on the right side of the road and the 49th Ohio on the left. After feeling out the defense he discovered that the hills on which the defense was set were steep, rocky, open for most of the distance but topped with trees. He determined that “the enemy had a very strong, and in front, easily defended position” and that a frontal assault “was out of the question.” He extended his lines in an effort to gain the flanks of the position by placing the 32nd Indiana on the left and Harrison’s men on the right. Battery A of the 1st Ohio Artillery (Goodspeed) was brought up for fire support.

Waiting for the Union advance was the 5th Arkansas Regiment, 13th/15th Arkansas (Consolidated), a section of artillery, and a small detail of cavalry under the command of Colonel L. Featherston. These men belonged to the brigade of BG St. John Lidell from MG Patrick Cleburne’s hard fighting division of Hardee’s Corps. They had no intention of giving up their responsibility without a fight. The two sides began a series of flanking efforts against each other. On the Federal left Harrison’s mounted men galloped up just in time “to drive back about 200 infantry, who were advancing toward our flank.” Willich continued to extend his flanks and upon assuming command of the 29th Indiana and 77th Pennsylvania from the newly arrived Second brigade gained a clear advantage. A push by the 49th Ohio and two companies of the 32nd Indiana in the center forced the Confederates back. The jubilant Federals then had to fight off a counterattack before they could claim their prize. Left behind was the camp of the 13th/15th Arkansas where the victors found a table set for dinner.

After “skirmishing hotly” the outnumbered Confederates of Colonel J. E. Josey (Consolidated 13th/15th Arkansas) were compelled to fall back. The retreat of Josey left the Confederate artillery (which had not yet fired a round because of terrain masking the enemy) exposed to Federal sharpshooters and it too was moved back. Colonel Featherston was soon forced to fall back as well. The defenders took up a secondary position on the next set of hills where the artillery could be used more effectively.

The 29th Indiana and the 77th Pennsylvania were ordered to “find the weak point” of the new position and to take possession of the hills. Swinging around the left of the enemy the 77th Pennsylvania charged, or more accurately struggled, up the hill toward the Confederate line. Colonel Thomas E. Rose, commanding the 77th, reported that the men could only advance up the slippery steep incline by “laying hold of the bushes and saplings” and pulling themselves forward. Fortunately the expected resistance did not materialize. BG Lidell had seen the untenable position for what it was and ordered withdraw to the main camp near Bellbuckle at Liberty Church to consolidate the brigade and await orders. The Gap had been taken and as night came on the opposing artillery continued to trade shots but each side issued orders for their troops to hold their position.

On the morning of the 25th the Confederate commander was preparing to renew the fight that would stall the Union troops in the Liberty Gap. To accomplish his role in the plan as he understood it Cleburne reinforced Liddell with three regiments and an additional battery from the brigade of BG S. A. M. Wood. Although the additional strength was desperately needed the restrictive terrain would not allow them to move up in direct support of Liddell’s Razorbacks. Instead Liddell placed the 8th Arkansas in the Railroad Gap, the 2nd Arkansas just south of Wartrace Creek, and two regiments (5th and 13/15th) nearby, directly in front of the gap on a small hill. The supporting artillery battery (Warren Light Artillery under CPT Charles Swett) was established about 1 mile back on a hill that offered a “commanding view of the gap”. The 6/7th Arkansas was held there as well to form a reserve.

Across a wide open field ranging in width between 500 and 2000 yards was BG Willich’s Brigade of Union troops. Willich had placed the 32nd Indiana on the left of the road supported by the 15th Ohio and the 89th Illinois on the right backed up by the 49th Ohio. Other Federal troops were close by to reinforce any offensive or defensive operations.

The field remained quiet until about 1000 when about 75 skirmishers from the 5th Arkansas began an effort to push the Union skirmishers from the field. The back and forth action here lasted nearly five hours with the field exchanging hands several times. Colonel Hotchkiss of the 89th Illinois reported three separate “strong attacks” but the Confederate leader thought that the action here represented little more than “spirited and heavy skirmishing". The net result was little change in the situation until 1500.

Liddell was determined to test the resolve of the Union forces to remain in the gap. A more robust effort was made to move the Union line with the 5th Arkansas leading the way. The 2nd Arkansas joined the fray when it appeared that the Union line would collapse. The brief confusion in the Federal line, however, was caused not by the Confederate pressure but by the replacement of units along the line with fresh troops. The fire of the rejuvenated Federal defense drove the Confederate line back into the protective cover of a gully about half way across the field. The 49th Ohio advanced from its reserve position in four ranks and used “advanced firing”* to move the Confederates from their protected position. The 49th was joined by the 77th Pennsylvania and 79th Illinois to drive the Confederates back to their original line.

At 1600 Cleburne received a report that the Federal troops were moving back. He misinterpreted this to understand that the Union troops were abandoning the gap and decided to give them a push to help them on their way. Actually the reported movements were just idle troops being shifted to Hoover’s Gap. Colonel Featherston (5th Arkansas) and Colonel Josey (13/15th Arkansas) charged across the muddy field again only to find the Union line as strong as before. They were forced to fall back again. An immediate counter attack was raised by four Union regiments (77th Pennsylvania, 79th Illinois, 34th Illinois, and 38th Illinois). Using the natural strength of their excellent position the 2nd Arkansas repulsed three attacks . This stand, however, made Govan’s men critically short of ammunition and he was forced to fall back under the fourth attack, led by the 38th Illinois of BG Carlin’s brigade of BG Jefferson Davis’ division. As they retreated up the hill the 2nd Arkansas color bearer was shot down and the battle flag captured much to the “great mortification to the regiment as well as the brigade.” The retreat of Govan’s men allowed the full weight of the attack to be shifted onto the 6/7th Arkansas who were also compelled to retreat after a brief stand of their own. Darkness brought an end to the days fighting. Elements of S. A. M. Wood’s brigade moved up to the forward positions, but there was little further action at Liberty Gap. The 45th Mississippi reported that they “were in a line of battle the 25th and 26th and on picket the night of the 26th” with nothing more than a smattering of skirmish fire and an occasional artillery shell to bother them. The Union forces made no further attempt to advance beyond the previous day’s position.

  • Advanced firing is a technique that allows a regiment to move forward while at the same time provide maximum sustained firepower. The regiment is formed and four ranks and the front rank fires and then is passed by the other three. The process is repeated until the first rank again moves to the front after reloading.