Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A death on Missionary Ridge: 'We deeply mourn his loss'

38th Ohio Lt. Colonel Edward Herrick Phelps, mortally wounded at Missionary Ridge 
on Nov. 25, 1863. (Heritage Auctions)
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Atop Missionary Ridge, overlooking Chattanooga, Tenn., the 21st century elbows out the 19th, causing heartache for history lovers. Expensive homes claim hallowed ground where soldiers fought and died in late fall 1863. Red and blue cast-iron historical markers compete for attention in the posh surroundings while a house blocks a cannon's line of sight.

Nearby, an upright artillery barrel stands on a pedestal of concrete across from a well-landscaped front yard of a modern house. Perched behind a post-and-steel wire guard rail on North Crest Road, the seldom-visited memorial marks the approximate mortal wounding site of 38th Ohio Colonel Edward Herrick Phelps.

On Missionary Ridge, the 19th century clashes with the 21st.
Late in the afternoon of Nov. 25, 1863, the 34-year-old Phelps led a brigade of soldiers from Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky up the steep slope of Missionary Ridge. Their objective: Push the enemy from defenses bristling with artillery. The night before the battle, Phelps was so ill that he sought the consultation of two surgeons.

"Those in front would be the safest, so we all ran our best, as it was almost certain death to be slow and behind," Lawrence Gates, a lieutenant in the 74th Indiana, wrote days after the battle. "The voice of the five cannons, which fired upon us, the bursting of shells in our ranks and over our heads, and the loud hurrah and yell of our brave boys with the occasional war cry: 'Chickamauga' nearly deafened my ears. We had not time to look around, but forward and forward only was our aim."

Weakened by illness and unable to ride his horse, Phelps, according to a post-war account, was carried to the top of the ridge by four soldiers. "We were completely tired out when near its top," Gates recalled, "but the gallant 'Phelps' was with us, and when he commanded: 'Fix Bayonets! Forward Boys! Charge!' it was done with a will."

In the assault, Gates' regiment suffered unexpectedly low casualties: 18 soldiers killed and wounded. But Phelps, the Third Brigade's beloved commander, a lawyer as a civilian, was mortally wounded near the top of the ridge, shot by a sharpshooter through the chest.

The commander's remains were returned to his native Toledo, Ohio, where he received a military funeral and his wife Harriet mourned. The couple was childless. In December 1863, 38th Ohio soldiers raised $800 to pay for a monument at his grave in Forest Cemetery.

Below is Gates' vivid account of the assault on Missionary Ridge, published in the Steuben Republican of Angola, Ind.

                      GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Missionary Ridge neighborhood where 
                                             Edward Phelps mortuary cannon stands.

Near Chattanooga, Nov. 30th 1863

Dear Republican: 

It is just a week ago this very day when the army around and near Chattanooga made an advance upon the rebels in our front, to drive them from Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge at the same time. And well has this great feat been accomplished, for the Stars and Stripes wave over both named places.

It was on Monday afternoon about 2 o'clock when the advance reached the outer lines on the left, and skirmishing commenced. Our Brigade was still quietly laying in camp, while other troops moved out on the whole line of works. But at 4 o'clock the order came for us to fall in, and we followed our gallant and brave Brigade Commander Col. E. H. Phelps.

Mortuary cannon near the crest of Missionary Ridge
marks approximate mortal wounding site 
of  38th Ohio Colonel Edward Phelps
That night we marched a while and slept a few hours, went forward again and rested, and at 3 o'clock took another position close to our new made picket line. There we threw up some breastworks out of logs and rails, and worked at them all the forenoon on Tuesday. In the afternoon the fight on Lookout Mountain took place and as we had a good view of the contested field we looked on, and cheered our brave boys from time to time as we saw them gain one point after another. Nothing particular took place with our Regiment that day, only I remember, that we had a very disagreeable night on account of the cold wind and rain that visited us. But we lived through it, as the saying is, till Wednesday morning, when about 10 o'clock we were ordered to forward to the left near the river.

We marched with our whole Division in plain view of the enemy's guns on Missionary Ridge around close to the river and after arriving in a piece of woods we turned about, taking another route yet closer to the mountains toward the city again, Our Brigade soon turned into the woods again to the left and formed into line of battle facing toward Missionary Ridge. Skirmishers were thrown out in front to feel the way and after letting them get ahead quite a way, we followed in columns two lines deep. The 38th Ohio were on the left, the 74th Ind. in the center and the 4th Ky. on the right of the first line, while the 14th Ohio, 10th Ind and 10th Ky. were in the second line respectively.

Soon we came out in open view into a large meadow; we soon tore down the fences along our line and at the command: ''Third Brigade, forward on double quick, March!" we started with a will. Soon we came to a little rise on the hill, when all at once the enemy's cannons opened on us with shot and shells. We went up far enough to allow the second line to reach the foot, when we all laid down on the ground to rest, and keep from being swept away by the enemy's missiles.

What thought passed through each one's mind, I cannot describe.  I remember only my own, and even now the whole seems to me like a dream. There we laid close to each other, while the shells came close and thick, each one exploding not more than a hundred feet at the farthest from us, and the clay and stones were flying around in all directions. Soon I saw Col. Phelps come around giving his orders in person to each Regimental Commander, to start at a full run when the Bugle sounded.

View from near the crest of Missionary Ridge, looking toward Chattanooga.

 "Oh! this will be hard one on us" passed from lip to lip "and we shalt lose one third of our number" said another. At last the Bugle sounded. We all rose at an instant and with a leap I jumped, like a hundred others. Those in front would be the safest, so we all ran our best, as it was almost certain death to be slow and behind. The voice of the five cannons, which fired upon us, the bursting of shells in our ranks and over our heads, and the loud hurrah and yell of our brave boys with the occasional war cry: "Chickamauga," nearly deafened my ears. We had not time to look around, but forward and forward only was our aim.

We had passed the second open field and once more got to the hill which now was before us. We rested but a moment, and only long enough to form somewhat into regular lines. But again forward we went and upward we climbed, as the ridge was very steep at this place. You can get something of an idea what kind of a place we were to charge up upon, when I say that Missionary Ridge is nearly twice as high as Hogback hill and full as steep as Bald Eagle Hill west of Angola. We were completely tired out when near its top, but the gallant "Phelps" was with us, and when he commanded: "Fix Bayonets! Forward Boys! Charge!" it was done with a will.

That we obeyed his orders and that the 3rd Brigade done its duty, the history of Missionary Ridge can tell. The men reserved their fire until within a few steps of the rebel breastworks, and then volley after volley was poured in upon them. They could not stand our leaden messengers, nor look those glistening and advancing bayonets in the face. They turned, and their works were ours. In less than two seconds, four flags were stationed there and they remained. A fresh brigade of rebels charged, but only in vain, and we drove them down the hill on the opposite side. Our loss was small from what we expected, our regiment only losing 18 men in killed and wounded. But it was enough to lose such precious and true and brave boys.

Robert R. Warn was the only one wounded in my company, he was struck in his right arm near the shoulder. Yet our victory was dearly bought; we lost our "Phelps," our Brigade Commander. He fell as the rebels charged on and at our colors. We deeply mourn his loss.

A plaque on the mortuary cannon on Missionary Ridge notes Colonel Edward Phelps 
was "mortally wounded near this spot  about 5:30 p.m. November 25, 1863."
That night only Union forces occupied Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain and only Union fires were kindled upon them and threw their lights into the valley and city below. Our aim and our work was accomplished, yet on the following day, on Thursday, we followed the retreating enemy, over the bloody battle field of Chickamauga, drove him across the creek of the same name, and almost caught up again on Friday at Pigeon Mountain near Ringold, Georgia. There General [Joseph] Hooker had quite an engagement with them, and our Division was just drawn up in line ready to take part, when old Cheatham thought best to put out in a hurry and away they went.

On Saturday morning, our Brigade alone followed through the gap and advanced about two or three miles, where we tore up the railroad track, burned three bridges and all the ties, and beat the rails so that they can never be used again. When our work was done we came back to Ringold and stayed all night. Sunday (yesterday) morning at 11 o'clock, our division was ordered to return forthwith to Chattanooga. We bade our eastern friends under General Hooker good-bye, told them to be watchful, and by 5 o'clock in the evening we had traveled sixteen miles in the mud, in some places ankle deep, and with a loud hurrah we entered our camp again.

(Hal Jespersen)
And here we are, not knowing where our services will be needed next. Tomorrow there will be a Grand Inspection by Maj. Generals [Ulysses] Grant, [David] Hunter and [George] Thomas of our division and the boys have been cleaning up their guns this evening, to be ready. There are but two Divisions left here near the city, so I understand. And we shall probably remain through the winter, unless something should turn up.

Oh yes, I must mention, that our flag was torn by bullets and our staff struck twice and nearly cut in two. We are to have a new set of colors from Gov. Morton this coming month, with the names of "Chickamauga" and "Missionary Ridge" inscribed upon them.

Col. Charles W. Chapman of our Regiment has resigned, and the command is in the hands of Lieut. Col. Myron Baker, formerly from Goshen. He is a brave and well tried officer. One more word and I am done for this time. The President has ordered that all Indiana Regiments should send home recruiting officers to fill up their companies and regiments. Co. H has sent our Orderly Sergeant Middleton Perfect, and we hope he may be successful in raising the required amount or number.

Were it in my power to make a speech or write a suitable call for volunteers, I should do so, but all I have to say is this: That if any citizen of Steuben County wishes to join a good and brave company, one that has been tried before the enemy's fire and has stood the test, let them come on, enroll their names on our lists and show their patriotism for their country. We are ready and willing to receive them with a hearty welcome.

No more this time; I have perhaps already wearied your patience, and filled your columns more than agreeable to you. but I could not help saying less than I did.

Until I write again I subscribe myself:

Commander of Co. H, 74th Ind.

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  • History of Defiance County, Ohio, Chicago: Warner, Beers, 1883.

1 comment:

  1. It seems we can get used to most anything. But walking out the front door and seeing that cannon pointed at your belly would raise the hair on the back of my neck.