The Battle of Chickamauga: The 21st Ohio at Snodgrass Hill

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2021-2022, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable just returned from our excellent fall field trip planned by President Mark Porter to Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Therefore, I thought that it would be appropriate to focus on some aspect of the field trip for this history brief. During our battlefield visits it became obvious to me that the stand of the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Snodgrass Hill would be ideal. Our guide, Robert Carter, termed it every bit as heroic and consequential as the stand of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Indeed, the length of the line defended by the 21st Ohio was far greater than that of the 20th Maine at the end of its line. Also, the stand of the 21st Ohio was longer in duration, as it began in the early afternoon and ended with the fall of darkness.

James Negley

The 21st was part of Colonel Sirwell’s brigade of General Negley’s division. Negley was ordered to prepare his division as a reserve, and Sirwell’s brigade was accordingly in position at the Snodgrass Cabin on Snodgrass Hill. After Confederate General Longstreet’s penetration of the infamous gap left in the Union lines, Union General Brannan’s division, which was falling back to defend Snodgrass Hill, asked for help from Negley, who agreed to send the 21st Ohio. Brannan put them into the right flank of the line on Snodgrass Hill. After the transfer, in the early afternoon Negley ordered his division along with about six batteries of artillery off the field of battle for reasons still unknown. As a consequence, for leading away troops that could have stoutly aided the defense of Snodgrass Hill, he never commanded troops again.

Until the field trip, I thought of Snodgrass Hill as a mere “hill.” By its very nature, a hill is good for tactical defense, so General Thomas made a sensible decision to choose Snodgrass Hill as a bulwark to rally the Union troops. However, Snodgrass Hill was more than a simple “hill.” In 1863, Snodgrass Hill referred to the area around Snodgrass House, itself. Snodgrass Hill was also known as the Horseshoe Ridge, and soldiers who fought in the battle referred to it both ways. The Horseshoe Ridge moniker became popular after the battle as a way to refer to the series of peaks and ravines southwest of Snodgrass House, even though it did not resemble a Horseshoe. The crest of the hill curves confusingly. For purposes of helping to define the battle, it has been further delineated as Hill 1, which rose to 300 feet, Hill 2 even higher at 400 feet, and Hill 3 at about 300 feet running east to west. The many curves were interrupted by hollows and ravines which rose at a steep incline and truly made it more than a hill, but more like a bastion.

The top of Snodgrass Hill

Much bewilderment hindered the soldiers who fought there. The sharp incline through fully wooded ravines and hollows restricted vision and created directional confusion. Conversely, it was a well-chosen, easily defensible position for the Union troops. Add to that, many of the Confederate troops had been through much fighting throughout the past day and a half and were already exhausted. This nicely chosen position in large part is what earned General Thomas his nickname “the Rock of Chickamauga.”

Our guide Robert Carter stated that the 21st Ohio was the “right regiment in the right place at the right time.” Commanded by Lt. Colonel Dwella Stoughton, it had about 550 superbly trained Ohioans. Even more importantly, 70% of them had a unique rifle rarely carried by Civil War soldiers: the Colt 1855 five-shot revolving rifle. Accordingly, they could fire five rounds in relatively rapid succession, which gave them a huge advantage over the average muzzle-loading soldier, who was hard-pressed to fire one round a minute under battle conditions. As serendipity would have it, they also carried roughly 95 rounds per man or about twice what the typical soldier would carry into battle. Tactically speaking, this meant that the 21st Ohio could spread its formation one man deep over a much broader front than the typical regiment. Upon arriving at their position, the men began to construct a hasty breastwork of logs, fence rails, and rocks behind which they fired from a kneeling or prone position – leaving a smaller target for rebel troops.

Joseph Kershaw

In the meantime, on the move toward Snodgrass Hill was Brigadier General Kershaw’s brigade of South Carolinians, part of McLaw’s division that famously arrived by railroad from the Army of Northern Virginia with Longstreet’s corps. However, Kershaw was separated from his horse during the travels and had to direct his brigade on foot. For a variety of reasons, Kershaw’s brigade had earned a reputation in Lee’s army as an elite unit.

At about 1:00 p.m. skirmishers from Kershaw’s brigade began advancing uphill expecting little or no resistance. However, they were met with a withering fire from the 21st Ohio established behind their defensive breastworks. Kershaw’s men hastily fell back, whereupon the 21st was ordered by Stoughton to counter charge down the hill. Kershaw lured them to advance to within about 50 feet of a backstop line of South Carolinians who opened fire, which caused the 21st to reel back and quickly withdraw up the hill to their initial position. Kershaw then ordered another charge, with the rebels nearly reaching the crest of the hill. They met murderous fire from the Colt repeating rifles and shortly headed back downhill. Many accounts of the battle by Confederate troops reveal that they thought themselves up against perhaps a division due to the rapid fire of the Colt 1855s. At this last repulse, Kershaw decided to pause and reorganize for a more effective push.

However, at about 2:00 p.m. the 21st faced a new nemesis. The Ohioans were assaulted by Anderson’s Mississippi brigade coming onto its extreme right flank on Hill 3. Nearly immediately, Stoughton went down with a shattered arm from a sharpshooter bullet, which became a mortal wound two months later. Command of the 21st went to Major Arnold McMahan. He pulled a couple companies off the main line to meet Anderson’s threat, but even with the repeating rifles, they were hard-pressed to hold their ground. Luckily, at about 2:00 p.m. help arrived on this flank from General Steedman’s division to the right of the 21st stymieing Anderson’s advance.

At about 2:45 p.m. Kershaw was sufficiently regrouped for a third assault against the 21st. The 21st had been under continuous attack now for nearly three hours. Casualties were beginning to thin the ranks, and ammunition was starting to run low. Soldiers began to grab ammunition from dead and wounded comrades, and a detail was sent to a nearby field hospital to do the same. In the meantime, due to drought conditions in the region, fires on the slopes below started to ignite, which caused further confusion and peril for attackers and defenders alike. The 21st barely held on.

The 21st Ohio Monument at Chickamauga

At about 4:45 p.m. Confederate General William Preston’s division entered the attack with Colonel John Kelly’s brigade. The disciplined Ohioans held their fire until the butternuts were 100 feet away, but this was their last volley. Out of ammunition, they fell back onto the hill’s reverse slope, and Kelly’s brigade occupied their position.

At this point, Preston’s brigade under Triggs arrived, and a conference among Southern commanders ensued. With nightfall approaching, it was decided to regroup and move further to the left, thereby completely outflanking the Union right. The rebels accomplished this by about 7:00 p.m. when darkness fell. Repositioning themselves in the darkness, the Union formations, including the 21st, began to fall back off Snodgrass Hill, which brought the battle to an end.

It was a Confederate victory, but the valiant work by the 21st Ohio contributed mightily to the stand by Thomas’s Union army on Snodgrass Hill and prevented the Confederates from turning the Union defeat into a Union disaster. It gave precious time for the rest of the army to retreat mostly unhindered and allowed the army to hold together and fight in the months ahead at Chattanooga. The constant fighting over the afternoon and into the evening was courageous and steadfast. If the 21st Ohio had yielded, would the Southern tide have flowed directly toward Chattanooga, setting back by months Grant’s victory in that vicinity – and hence setting back Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, which is widely acknowledged as one of the key reasons for the reelection of Abraham Lincoln in the fall of 1864? We all know what would have happened if Lincoln had not been reelected. Which was more crucial, the 20th Maine at Little Round Top — or the 21st Ohio at Snodgrass Hill? As an Ohioan, I’ll go with the 21st Ohio!

You can explore this topic more thoroughly and become engrossed in detailed maps in our guide Robert L. Carter’s book titled The Fight for Snodgrass Hill and the Rock of Chickamauga – A History and Walking Tour.

Click on the book link above to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.

Related links:
Chickamauga and Chattanooga Field Trip – September 2021
The Rock of Chickamauga