Colonel James Connolly commanded the 123rd Illinois Mounted Infantry Regiment, part of the Union Army of the Cumberland's famed "Lightning Brigade." The Lightning Brigade, which moved on horses and fought on foot with newly-invented Spencer repeating rifles, played a pivotal role in the Civil War in the West. Here, Colonel Connolly describes the Battle of Hoover's Gap, Tennessee. This was the decisive engagement of the Tullahoma Campaign, which precipitated the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and was one of the very first combat tests for the Spencer repeaters.
On the morning of June 24th , at 3 o'clock, we left camp 5 miles north of Murfreesboro, and started to the "front," in advance of everything. As we passed through the camps in Murfreesboro, the rattle of drums, sounding of bugles, and clatter of wagons, told us plainly that the whole army was to follow in our wake, and we knew full well, from the direction we were taking, that a few hours march would bring the brigade to some of the strongholds of the enemy, so there was silence in the column as we moved along through the mud, and every ear was strained to catch the sound of the first gun of our advance guard that would tell us of the presence of the enemy.
Soon after daylight a heavy rain commenced falling which continued without interruption all day and night, and has continued ever since, with only a few hours cessation at a time. About noon the first gun was fired, and then we pushed ahead rapidly, for we were nearing the formidable "Hoover's Gap," which it was supposed would cost a great many lives to pass through, and our brigade commander determined to surprise the enemy if possible, by a rapid march, and make a bold dash to pass through the "Gap" and hold it with our brigade alone until the rest of the army could get up. We soon came into the camp of a regiment of cavalry which was so much surprised by our sudden appearance that they scattered through the woods and over the hills in every direction, every fellow for himself, and all making the best time they could bareback, on foot and every other way, leaving all their tents, wagons, baggage, commissary stores and indeed everything in our hands, but we didn't stop for anything, on we pushed, our boys, with their Spencer rifles, keeping up a continual popping in front. Soon we reached the celebrated "Gap" on the run.
This "Gap" is formed by a range of hills that run westward from the Cumberland mountains, and the pike runs for about two miles through between these hills; the valley is barely wide enough to admit the passage of two wagons side by side, and the hills upon either side command the valley completely; as we swept through the valley with our 1,500 horsemen on a gallop we noticed the lines of entrenchments crowning the hills, but they were deserted; the enemy was surprised and flying before us, so we pushed onward until we passed entirely through the "Gap," when a puff of white smoke from a hill about half a mile in front of us, then a dull heavy roar, then the shrieking of a shell told us we could advance no further as we had reached their infantry and artillery force. But we had done enough, had advanced 6 miles further than ordered or expected possible, and had taken a point which it was expected would require a large part of the army to take; but the serious question with us now was: "Could we alone hold it in the presence of superior force?" We were at least 12 miles in advance of our army, and from prisoners we learned that we were confronted with 4 brigades of infantry and 4 batteries.
As soon as the enemy opened on us with their artillery we dismounted and formed line of battle on a hill just at the south entrance to the "Gap," and our battery of light artillery was opened on them, a courier was dispatched to the rear to hurry up reinforcements, our horses were sent back some distance out of the way of bursting shells, our regiment was assigned to support the battery, the other three regiments were properly disposed, and not a moment too soon, for these preparations were scarcely completed when the enemy opened on us a terrific fire of shot and shell from five different points, and their masses of infantry, with flags flying, moved out of the woods on our right in splendid style; there were three or four times our number already in sight and still others came pouring out of the woods beyond. Our regiment lay on the hill side in mud and water, the rain pouring down in torrents, while each shell screamed so close to us as to make it seem that the next would tear us to pieces.
Presently the enemy got near enough to us to make a charge on our battery, and on they came; our men are on their feet in an instant and a terrible fire from the "Spencers" causes the advancing regiment to reel and its colors fall to the ground, but in an instant their colors are up again and on they come, thinking to reach the battery before our guns can be reloaded, but they "reckoned without their host," they didn't know we had the "Spencers," and their charging yell was answered by another terrible volley, and another and another without cessation, until the poor regiment was literally cut to pieces, and but few men of that 20th Tennessee that attempted the charge will ever charge again. During all the rest of the fight at "Hoover's Gap" they never again attempted to take that battery. After the charge they moved four regiments around to our right and attempted to get in our rear, but they were met by two of our regiments posted in the woods, and in five minutes were driven back in the greatest disorder, with a loss of 250 killed and wounded.
On that part of the field an incident occurred worthy of mention; for it shows the spirit of the men of this brigade. A corporal of the [17th] Ind. was shot through the breast at the first fire; he had always said, as indeed all our men do, that the enemy should never get hold of his "Spencer" to use it; he hadn't strength to break it so he took out his knife, unscrewed a part of the lock plate and threw it away, rendering the gun entirely useless, he then fell back amid the storm of bullets, lay down and died.
We held our ground with continual fighting until 7 o'clock in the evening, when we discovered a battery coming up to our support as fast as the horses could run, and such a cheer as was sent up does one good to hear. In a few minutes our new battery was opened and we all felt better. We were nearly exhausted with the rapid march since before daylight in the morning, the continual rain, the half day's fighting, and nothing to eat since about two o'clock in the morning, yet the prospect of assistance nerved the men to maintain the unequal conflict a little longer.
About half past seven in the evening along came a weary, jaded regiment of infantry, trying to double quick, but it was all they could do to march at all; we greeted them with such lusty cheers as seemed to inspire them with new vigor, and they were soon in position; then came two more regiments of infantry, weary and footsore, but hurrying the best they could to the dance of death; then just at dark came our Division Commander, with his staff, and riding along our lines gave words of cheer to his brigade that had fought so long and well. In a few minutes up came General Thomas, our corps commander, his grave face beaming with delight as he grasped our brigade commander by the hand and said: "You have saved the lives of a thousand men by your gallant conduct today. I didn't expect to get this Gap for three days."
The Battle of Hoover's Gap secured the Union wedge between the Confederate forces and the city of Chattanooga, compelling the Southerners to fall back to and eventually abandon the city. The Lightning Brigade continued to turn in impressive combat performances, the next coming at the Battle of Chickamauga in September, 1863.