Sunday, August 06, 2006

Chattanooga Choo Choo

My mother's great grandfather had a brother who died at Andersonville Prison during the Civil War. I know because my grandmother told me so nearly forty years ago, around the time that my grandfather died. I didn't know any of the details so it really didn't mean much to me at the time. Today on the internet so much more information is readily accessible than at any time in the past and what I've found so far is fairly fascinating, at least to me.

The census of 1850 shows Abraham Steele living on a good-sized farm in the Mill Creek township of Coshocton county in Ohio with his parents, Elias and Elizabeth Steele, his older brother Jeremiah, four younger brothers, including my great great grandfather, Michael Steele, and a younger sister. Abraham was fifteen years old in 1850. The family had moved to Ohio from western Pennslyvania a few years before he was born. According to my grandmother, Abraham had planned to become a doctor. He enlisted in 1861 at the age of 26 as a private in Company H of the 80th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

Abraham Steele died at Andersonville in Georgia in April, 1864, and is buried there. Diarrhea was listed as his cause of death. He was taken prisoner at Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863. A soldier in the Union army for more than two years, he spent most of that time as a prisoner of war. He was first captured in 1862 at the Battle of Corinth in northern Mississippi, shortly after the Union victory in nearby Shiloh. When Vicksburg fell in 1863 prisoners were exchanged and he was released and returned to his unit following a full year in captivity.

The 80th Ohio was transferred from Mississippi to Tennessee in the autumn of 1863 and became part of Sherman's "veteranized" Army of the Tennessee a month or two before Missionary Ridge, the dramatic climax of the Battle of Chattanooga. Many Civil War buffs consider Missionary Ridge to have been a major strategic turning point in the entire war. Union forces led by Grant and Sherman won the Battle of Chattanooga and took more than six thousand rebel prisoners. The Confederate forces under Braxton Bragg successfully retreated into Georgia from their key position in control of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, the prize for their victory at Chickamauga, but they took less than 500 Union prisoners with them when they withdrew, one of them Abraham Steele.

Accounts of the battle from a number of different sources indicate a limited number of Confederate opportunities for taking Union prisoners at Missionary Ridge. The fact that Abraham Steele was captured means that he must have been at Tunnel Hill, a railroad tunnel at the northern end of the ridge where the main thrust of the assault was launched by Sherman's forces. That assault was repelled by the brilliant generalship of Patrick Cleburne, whose account of the battle describes several surprise bayonet counter charges by his Texan defenders at Tunnel Hill that resulted in the capture of nearly five hundred Union soldiers.

Cleburne was winning his end of the battle, but the southern end of the ridge was also under attack from General Hooker's men who had captured Lookout Mountain a day earlier. The assaults at opposite ends of the ridge weakened the defense of the western slope in the middle portion of the ridge, where Grant's forces, led by the men under General Thomas, were able to advance in a frontal assault against withering fire from three tiers of trenchline, eventually securing the top of the ridge. Once the center of the ridge fell, the Confederate forces at either end were caught in a deadly crossfire and could only retreat down the eastern slope of the ridge.

I visited Atlanta about five years ago, a month after the collapse of the World Trade Center. I saw the Stone Mountain monument there and I think that visit piqued my interest in the Civil War. But it doesn't become real for you until you've located a few ancestors, relatives and in-laws and tried to make sense of the part they took in that conflict.

Living in Manila in the enormous shadow cast by the figure of Douglas MacArthur, it's easy to forget that much of MacArthur's reputation as a soldier was a product of his efforts to live up to the legendary exploits of his father, Arthur MacArthur Jr, who siezed his unit's regimental flag from a fallen soldier halfway up the ridge and planted the colors of the 24th Wisconsin at the crest of the hill during the frontal assault on Missionary Ridge.

I don't know if any of Abraham Steele's five brothers participated in the Civil War, but I do know that the year he died, 1864, was the same year that the rest of his family moved from Coschocton, Ohio to South Bend, Indiana.

1 comment:

Webmiztris said...

I'm currently reading Gone With The Wind (I'm almost done!) and all of this sounds so familiar. Never thought I'd be interested in a book that talks so much about war, but it's really good.