Thursday, September 19, 2013

150 Years Ago Today - A Notre Dame Hero at Chickamauga

“I am still alive, and that’s saying enough to be thankful for.” - 1863 Letter from Orville T. Chamberlain, 74th Indiana, to his parents, following the Battle of Chickamauga

The Battle of Chickamauga was fought 150 years ago this week, September 19-20, 1863

Notre Dame student-soldiers and chaplain Fr. Peter Cooney were there.

Among the student-soldiers was recent graduate Orville T. Chamberlain, who earned the Medal of Honor for courage under fire in the battle.

His story is below in an excerpt from my book, Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010).

A Perilous Journey

In mid-August 1863, the 74th Indiana Infantry regiment—then occupying middle Tennessee— moved south as Major General William Rosecrans consolidated his scattered forces and successfully forced the Rebel army out of Chattanooga. Confederate general Braxton Bragg was determined to reoccupy the city and launched an attack on the Union army in mid-September. Late on September 18, 1863, the 74th Indiana struck out on an all-night march on the Chattanooga Road and arrived at Chickamauga early the next morning. The official report declared that the regiment halted and took a hasty cup of coffee—“‘hasty’ indeed it was, for the few who got any,” Orville T. Chamberlain recalled. (1)

On September 19, the regiment was placed in line of battle. During the fighting in the morning and the afternoon, the men of the 74th Indiana had discarded their knapsacks and blankets. “We never saw them again,” Chamberlain remembered, and when they bivouacked that night they had no food or water, little to make themselves comfortable and were also under orders not to start fires. “Some succeeded in getting some straw. More had to sleep on the bare ground,” Chamberlain wrote, adding that “[i]t was very cold…All were worn out by the terrible experiences of the day. It was a terrible, cheerless, cold, desolate, miserable night.” (2)

The next day, Chamberlain recalled, “We were lying behind our hastily built breastworks, lying as flat upon the earth as we could flatten ourselves, to avoid the fire from the enemy’s musketry which was turned upon us…Every movement, or exposure invited and received a storm of bullets from the vastly superior force of the enemy in front,” Chamberlain recalled. At this point, the regiment was sorely in need of more ammunition, and Chamberlain informed Lieutenant Colonel Baker that the 9th Indiana Infantry had a large supply of ammunition. “He knew I was well acquainted with Company C of that regiment and asked me if I would undertake personally to go that Regiment and beg what ammunition I could and bring it back, if possible, to our Regiment. I told him I would make the effort, which I did successfully.” (3)

Successful, indeed: Orville T. Chamberlain earned the Medal of Honor for the feat (though it took more than thirty years to secure the award). His own words and even the official citation -

“While exposed to a galling fire, went in search of another regiment, found its location, procured ammunition from the men thereof, and returned with the ammunition to his own company”

belie the danger involved. A more fitting description of the episode appeared in a family history many years later:

On the field of Chickamauga, the Seventy-fourth and Tenth Indiana had been lying in the outer trenches under constant fire. Five lines of Confederate Infantry were lined up against one in the trenches and the Unionists were not only outnumbered but out of ammunition. Every time one of their number raised his head, a sharpshooter sent a bullet after it. Ammunition was wanted and knowing that the Ninth Indiana, a mile and a quarter away on the firing line, had plenty, Lieutenant Chamberlain gathered all the haversacks he could secure and started on his perilous journey. The moment he rose to his feet and started, there was a fusillade of bullets fired at him as he passed down the line; but he still kept on, running low on the ground, dodging from stump to stump and boulder to boulder, crawling over open spaces like a snake and bounding like a rabbit, he finally reached the trenches of the Ninth; loaded his pockets and haversacks; arranged for a wagon-load of ammunition to follow as quickly as possible, and was off again through the rain of leaden bullets, which followed his course back to his regiment where he delivered the ammunition to his commanding officer. While he received several slight wounds, his hat was shot away and his clothing riddled, he escaped serious injury. (4)

Nearly a month after the battle, Orville finally had a chance to pen a short letter home. Despite the brutal autumn fighting in Georgia and Tennessee, he assured his family by writing: “I am still alive, and that’s saying enough to be thankful for.” (5)

The same sentiment could be said for all of the Notre Dame men and women serving in the war at the end of that pivotal year.


(1) Letter, Orville Chamberlain to General E.A. Carman, undated (postwar), Files, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia (hereafter CCNMP).
(2) 113. Ibid
(3) Letter, Orville Chamberlain to General E.A. Carman; Letter, Orville Chamberlain to General H.V. Boynton, November 26, 1895, Files, CCNMP.
(4) Civil War Medal of Honor Citations,; Eunice M. Barber, The Wright-Chamberlin Genealogy: From Emigrant Ancestors to Present Generations (Binghamton, NY: Vail-Ballou Company, 1914), 62. 
(5) Letter, Orville Chamberlain to Father, October 16, 1863, Chamberlain Papers, Box 1, Folder 11, Indiana Historical Society.

You can read more about Orville T. Chamberlain in previous posts here and here and here.