John Pleasant Bryan was born May 2, 1841 in Franklin County, Georgia to Robert R Bryan and Susan Scull Bryan. At the outbreak of the Civil War John was living in Cobb County, Georgia. Like many young men of the south, 20 year old John rushed to the defense of his new country, joining Company I (The Cobb Mountaineers) of the 7th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment on May 31, 1861 at Atlanta. His records indicate that he almost immediately encountered physical and/or health problems. A muster roll dated August 31, 1861 states that he was hospitalized at Charlottesville, Va while another roll dated in October shows him hospitalized at Culpepper, Va. The major action that occurred in Virginia during 1861 was the Battle of First Manassas, July 21, 1861. The 7th Georgia (as part of Francis Bartow's Georgia brigade) was heavily involved in a holding action against the Federals on Matthews Hill while a second defensive line was being formed further south on Henry Hill. A 7th Georgia casualty list published in the July 31st, 1861 edition of the Georgia Journal & Messenger showed John as slightly wounded in the battle at Manassas. We assume that it is this wound that put him in the hospital at Charlottesville. Whether from the effects of this wound or another unrelated physical ailment, we know that he received a disability discharge from the army on December 13th, 1861 at Culpepper, Virginia." His discharge yielded some interesting information. It stated that John was "around 22 years of age" (actually 21), 5 foot 6 inches tall, and had a florid complexion with blue eyes and dark hair. His civilian occupation was listed as "farmer". The examining physician noted that he had been hospitalized for the previous 60 days with synovitis of both knees and would be unfit for duty for many months.
John returned home to Cobb County, and had recovered sufficiently to reenlist in one of three new companies (L, M & O) being added to the Phillips Legion Infantry Battalion during the spring of 1862. He enlisted in Company M (formed of men from Cobb County) on April 28, 1862. After spending a short time in a training camp at Barnesville, Ga the three new companies were sent to Camp Pritchard, Beaufort County, South Carolina to join the six veteran companies (A-F) of the Legion's Infantry Battalion. On June 8, 1862, the three new companies and veteran companies B and C were sent to Camp Elzey near Hardeeville, Jasper County, S.C. It appears that the new companies continued to drill and train during this period under the guidance of the two veteran companies while the other companies were spread out along the railroad guarding it from raids from Federal units on the coastal islands. Disease was a constant companion, and Company M lost four men during this period of training at Camp Elzey. Lt. Jasper Blackwood succumbed to typhoid on June 12, while David Hembree, Solomon Kemp and John Price all died during an outbreak of measles in June.
In mid July, the Legion's Infantry Battalion was ordered to Richmond as part of a new brigade under the command of Brigadier General Thomas F Drayton. This brigade was comprised of the Legion Infantry, the 3rd S.C. Battalion, the 15th S.C. regiment, and 50th & 51st Georgia regiments. Arriving in Richmond around July 22nd, the new brigade was too late to take part in the Seven Days battles that pushed George B McClellan's Army of the Potomac back down the peninsula and away from Richmond. With this immediate threat out of the way, General Robert E Lee had a new problem to deal with in the form of General John Pope's Army of Virginia which had advanced from Washington and was pushing south towards the Rappahannock River. Leaving a small guard contingent at Richmond, Lee moved his army northwest in an attempt to defeat Pope's army before McClellan's army could reinforce it. Drayton's brigade headed north as part of Gen David R Jones' division of Gen James Longstreet's wing of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Legion Infantry Battalion numbered around 400 men.
By mid August, Lee had his forces in front of Pope and decided on a daring plan. Lee would send Stonewall Jackson's wing of the army west and north around the right flank of Pope's army in an attempt to get behind him and cut his rail line. Longstreet's wing would remain along the Rappahannock to hold Pope in place. Jackson, moving fast, got behind Pope at Manassas Junction, destroyed huge amounts of Federal supplies and cut the railroad into Washington. Pope quickly backtracked towards Washington in an attempt to pounce on Jackson's much smaller force and destroy it before the rest of Lee's army (Longstreet's wing) could arrive to reinforce Jackson. As Longstreet's men began their move up the Rappahannock to reinforce Jackson, some units of Drayton's brigade were involved in skirmishes at Beverly Ford and Waterloo Bridge. We know that the Legion was in action at the August 23rd Beverly Ford fight as it had two men from Company E killed there by artillery fire. Moving rapidly in the August heat and dust, Longstreet's men slipped behind the screen of the Blue Ridge Mountains, forcing their way back through to the east of the mountains in a tough little fight at Thorofare Gap. Longstreet advanced his men into position on Jackson's right flank on August 29th, but did not go into action until the 30th. Following a failed Federal attack on Jackson's position, Longstreet launched his men into an attack on the exposed Federal left flank. Late in the afternoon, D R Jones division was put into action on Chinn Ridge, breaking the Federal position there. Drayton's brigade had been held in reserve and was finally called into action very late in the day. Due to some miscommunication, Drayton did not get his men into position on the far right flank of the army until dark and this caused the Legion to become involved in a confusing night action where no one quite knew where anyone else was. The Legion Infantry lost 23 men at Second Manassas, but Company M escaped without harm. The Federal Army had been thoroughly defeated though and retreated back into the defenses of Washington.
Almost without pausing, Robert E Lee turned his army north into Maryland, crossing the Potomac River at White's Ferry on September 4th. Some of the southern soldiers were not happy about this. They felt that they had enlisted to defend the south, not invade the north and had to be coerced to cross the river. Some drifted away and did not rejoin their units until late in the month when the army recrossed into Virginia. At this point, the southern army had been moving fast and fighting hard for two weeks and the supply system was beginning to have difficulties. In addition, many soldiers had worn out their shoes and uniforms and they presented a very ragged appearance. With irregular supply, the soldiers began to live off the land and their primary diet during this period was green apples and corn from the fields of local farmers. The water supply was also of questionable quality. Thus, it is not surprising that the army began to suffer severely from stomach ailments and diarreah, losing men all along their line of march. They began moving into Frederick, Maryland on September 6th and Lee decided to rest his men there for a few days while he decided what to do next. We can only surmise how John's bad knees and stomach were faring, but it is certain that he was glad for the break.
As Lee moved north, he had bypassed a 12000 man Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry on the assumption that these troops would retreat towards Washington once he was to their north. The Federals were not cooperative, however, and remained at Harpers Ferry astride Lee's lines of communication and supply back to Virginia. In a daring plan to eliminate this threat, Lee divided his forces sending Stonewall Jackson's wing of the army plus McLaws' and Anderson's Divisions from Longstreet's wing to capture Harpers Ferry while the rest of Longstreet's men remained at Boonsboro, near South Mountain to keep an eye on McClellan. The attrition of men to illness continued. When the army headed west out of Frederick, John Bryan's Company M had to leave Sgt W.S. Bell and Private Joseph Stancell behind to be captured by the advancing Federals. Then, one of those twists of fate occurred, that can change the course of history. A careless Confederate officer or courier dropped a copy of Lee's Special Orders 191 at a campsite near Frederick when the southern army headed west from that city on September 10th. These orders detailing Lee's plans to divide his army and capture Harpers Ferry fell into the hands of the Federals when they arrived in Frederick. McClellan, normally a very cautious General, realized the opportunity he had to attack Lee's army while it was widely scattered and suddenly began to move forward aggressively. Early on the morning of September 14th he had the IX Corps' Kanawha Division moving into position to seize a key pass over South Mountain at Fox's Gap. The rest of Jesse Reno's IX Corps and Joe Hooker's I Corps were not far behind. In the meantime, Lee had been apprised that Federal forces were moving south from Pennsylvania to intercept him and had ordered the majority of Longstreet's men (including the Legion Infantry) to shift 10 miles north from Boonsboro to Hagerstown, Maryland, leaving only D H Hill's Division at Boonsboro to guard the two critical South Mountain passes there. Hill had posted Colquitt's Georgia brigade at Turner's Gap on the evening of September 13th and left his other four brigades in the valley to the west expecting no significant Federal movements for several days. Colquitt advised Hill of increased Federal activity that evening and Hill ordered Samuel Garland's North Carolina brigade to arrive at the top of the mountain on the morning of the 14th.
When Hill and Garland arrived at Turner's Gap, the sunrise presented them with an astonishing sight. The valley floor to their east had become a moving carpet of blue clad soldiers. Hill quickly ordered Garland to take his 1000 man brigade a mile to the south to guard the pass at Fox's Gap while Colquitt's Georgians continued to cover Turners Gap. He also sent orders back to get his remaining brigades moving up to the passes and sent word to Longstreet and Lee that he was in deep trouble and required reinforcements. Longstreet promptly got most of his troops up and moving south from Hagerstown towards Boonsboro. The Legion's chaplain, Reverend George Gilman Smith says of this morning, "On the Sunday morning on which the battle of South Mountain began, we were in camp at Hagerstown. We were expecting quite a time of repose when the order came to return towards Boonsboro. I had not the remotest dream of any hot work, nor do I think any of us had, for we had no idea that the army of the Potomac could be reorganized and mobilized so soon. We thought the assault on our lines a mere feint of cavalry. This was evidently General Lee's opinion, or else he would not have allowed Jackson to have crossed the Potomac; but it was soon evident from the rapid motion of the artillery and infantry that hot work was before us. My regiment had gone and I ambled off as rapidly as I could toward the front." Drayton and G T Anderson's brigades marched rapidly down through Boonsboro and on up the winding mountain road to Turners Gap. They were met there with great relief by D H Hill who personally guided them south to Fox's Gap where a disaster had occurred that morning. Attacked by two Federal brigades with 4000 men, Garland's 1000 North Carolinians were overwhelmed and pushed west out of the gap and off the mountain. Garland was killed in the fight. Only a gutsy holding action by two of G B Anderson's regiments and a few survivors from Garland's brigade kept the Federals from moving north from Fox's Gap to capture Turners Gap. The Federals paused to regroup for another attack, two of D H Hill's brigades (George B Anderson's and Roswell Ripley's) arrived late in the morning and the situation stabilized for the moment.
With the arrival of George T Anderson's and Drayton's 1900 men, Hill felt he had enough troops at Fox's Gap to mount a counterattack to sweep the Federals back out of the gap to the east. As Hill and the various generals discussed the attack plan, John Bryan and his fellow Legion soldiers filed into position behind a stone wall facing east. This wall was just north of the Old Sharpsburg Road and some 100 yards below the crest of the mountain to their rear. The 50th and 51st Georgia were in line with them and the South Carolina units of their brigade were formed in the Old Sharpsburg Road facing south looking out over a 4 acre field adjoining the road. No Federals were visible, but everyone knew that they were there, just out of sight beyond the trees at the southern and eastern sides of this field. Hill's plan called for Drayton's brigade, located at the gap, to serve as the pivot point for a left sweeping assault of four brigades which would start from the Old Sharpsburg Road on the west side of the mountain. As the other three brigades (G B Anderson's, Ripley's and G T Anderson's) filed off down the Old Sharpsburg Road to the west Drayton shifted the Phillips Legion into the Old Sharpsburg Road to join the 3rd SC Battalion and part of the 15th SC in an attack southward across the 4 acre field. The Legion completed their redeployment and charged out with the two South Carolina units. The Legion, on the left of the attack force, entered the woods east of the field while the South Carolinians were still in the open field and quickly ran into trouble, encountering large numbers of Federal troops. The Federals, it turns out, were about to launch their own assault just as the Legion entered the woods. Masses of Federals quickly pushed the Legion men northwest out of the woods and into the field. Other Federals south of the field now opened up and drove the South Carolinians back. To compound matters, G T Anderson's brigade had shifted too far down the road to the west opening a 300 yard gap between Drayton's right and Anderson's left. Into this opening poured more Federals virtually surrounding the Legion soldiers and South Carolinians on three sides.
Chaplain Smith describes what happened. "Soon an order came to change front. We were looking eastward and were to go into the turnpike (the Old Sharpsburg Road) and look southward. We entered the pike, crossed it and entered a wood. As we did, I found the enemy were in our front. As I reached the regiment I heard Cook, my Lieut. Colonel cry out "For God's sake, don't fire, we are friends." I saw a body of our own men about to fire on us thinking we were Federals. I ran back to check them and was pointing out the position of the troops when I looked up the road we had abandoned, and saw a body of Federals moving behind us. I saw their line of battle was moving upon the stone fence we had left, but it struck me from the way they moved that they did not know it was abandoned. I ran to the General (Drayton) and told him about it. He ran up to the fence and said something about charging, but there was nobody to charge. A Colonel Gist (Major Wm. M Gist, 15th SC) was in command of the rear guard. I thought it was the 15th SC. I told him the status. He told me he had only a rear guard. I suggested we make a feint until our troops could be withdrawn. I do not know what he did.I soon saw the Federals were on our right, so we had them in front, on the left, on the right and there was a little gap left" At this juncture, Reverend Smith, seeing Federals circling around them from the east and the west, decided he had better run back to his unit in the field to the south and let them know they were being surrounded. He continues, "The firing was now fierce, but I felt that my regiment must be brought out of that pocket at all hazards and I started to warn it, when I found it retreating. Poor Ellis (Pvt Ellis E. Williams, Co D, KIA at Fox's Gap), a Welchman, had run the gauntlet and given them warning and the regiment was now retreating in a broken and confused manner. One of the boys, Gus Tomlinson, in tears, said, "Parson, we've been whipped. The regiment is retreating." "And none too soon, either," said I, "for we are surrounded on all sides but one." Immediately afterwards, Reverend Smith was hit in the neck by a minie ball which ranged downward coming out near his spine, paralyzing his arm for life. Where was John Bryan during this chaos? He must have been in the forefront of the action since he was not one of those who made it out of the closing jaws of the Federal attack. He and five other Company M soldiers were captured. Cpl William Bannister and Pvt Hiram Folds of Co M were not so fortunate, being left dead on the field.
The Legion had endured their first major combat action and suffered terribly. Thirty men lay dead on the field, another 37 were wounded (some, like Reverend Smith, Wm Bannister Sr (Co M, lost arm) and W.H. Sauls (Co M, lost arm) so badly that they were out of the war for good), and 45 more, John Bryan included, marched east off the mountain to a Federal prison. Drayton's entire brigade was decimated, losing 626 men. One of Drayton's other Georgia regiments, the 50th, was caught in the process of redeploying into the Old Sharpsburg Road and was simply shot to pieces losing 181 of it's 225 men. The Legion's remnant marched on to Sharpsburg and, just three days later, lost an additional 35 men in another last ditch holding action against the same IX Corps Federals they had faced at Fox's Gap. When they recrossed the Potomac into Virginia on the 19th of September less than one in four of the Legion soldiers who had started north from Richmond in August was still in the ranks!
As John Bryan trudged away under guard towards Frederick, he could not have realized that the time Drayton's men had bought with their sacrifice would be just enough to allow Stonewall Jackson to capture the Harpers Ferry garrison. This happy circumstance was most fortunate for John and his fellow captives as it made many thousands of Federal soldiers Confederate prisoners. Under the conventions of that day, these northern prisoners had to be exchanged for a like number of southern prisoners, so John Bryan and almost all the other Confederate prisoners from the various South Mountain battles of September 14th were released within three weeks. After a brief incarceration at Fort Delaware, John was released to Confederate authorities at Aikens Landing, Va on October 2nd, 1862 and was declared legally exchanged as of November 10th, 1862.
John returned to his unit and was very soon in the thick of the vicious fighting at Fredericksburg, Va. on December 13th, 1862. Drayton's brigade had been disbanded in November, and the Legion Infantry had been assigned to the Georgia brigade of General Thomas R.R. Cobb. Cobb's brigade was assigned to the critical Confederate position at the foot of Marye's Heights an emminence overlooking open fields to the south of Fredericksburg. There dug in behind a stone wall, the Legion and it's brother units virtually destroyed the waves of blue coated divisions sent against them. This was, as always, not without cost. The Legion's commander, Lt Colonel Robert T Cook, was killed early in the fight and General Cobb was mortally wounded. Alex S Erwin, an officer in the Legion's Company C observed in a letter written December 28th, that they "suffered terribly the other day at the battle of Fredericksburg, our brigade being more heavily engaged than any other." Thirteen Legion soldiers were killed outright and seven of the numerous wounded later died from their wounds. One of these, Private Samuel Drake of John's company, died December 24th in a Richmond hospital.
It appears that by now John Bryan had become a hardened Confederate veteran. He had passed through several hard fought actions and been captured and incarcerated, albeit briefly, in a Federal prison. His records do not show any hospitalization during late 1862 and early 1863, further indication that he had moved beyond the physical ailments that troubled him during his first enlistment in 1861.
As the armies came out of winter quarters in 1863, the new Federal commander "Fighting Joe" Hooker shifted his large army westward around Lee's left flank in an attempt to cause Lee to fall back out of his defensive positions at Fredericksburg. Lee, moving promptly and aggressively, got Richard H Anderson's division in front of Hooker's lead elements before they cleared the scrub forest region known as the Wilderness and Hooker's army ground to a halt at an estate in a large clearing that was called Chancellorsville. On May 1st, Lafayette McLaws' division was in motion on the Orange Turnpike, heading west to join Anderson in confronting the Federals. Tramping along in this march were John Bryan and his Legion compatriots, still part of the same brigade, now under command of General William T Wofford. They were headed into another hard fight. Five days later, the Federals had been defeated and retreated back across the Rappahannock. Many thousands on both sides were casualties including, as usual, a number of men from the hard fighting Phillips Legion.
After a short 'breather' John and his fellow soldiers were once again headed north of the Mason-Dixon line. This time their journey brought them to a small crossroads town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg where on July 2nd, 1863, the Legion went into action as part of Longstreet's late afternoon attack on the Federal left. Wofford's Georgians were in the second line of attack sweeping past the famous Peach Orchard (already cleared of Federals by Barksdale's Mississippians) and on into the maelstrom of "The Wheatfield". General Wofford reports that the Phillips Legion captured two Federal flags in hand to hand combat here and almost captured a third. He states, "Two stands of colors were captured. one of them by Private Alfred Norris of Co. E. The other stand was captured by Private E.I. Smith of Co. E. Private Thomas Jolly was bayoneted and killed with a stand of the enemy colors in his hands. His death was bravely avenged by Private McGovern of Co. F, Private Blanton of Co. B and Private (???) of Co. L., the two former each bayoneting a man, the latter taking from the belt of the enemy's colorbearer his pistol, killing him and two others. In this hand to hand fight, the colors in the hands of the gallant Jolly were lost by the men who strove so bravely to obtain them." Wofford's troops proceeded to clear the last Federal resistance from the bloodied, trampled wheat and pressed on to a stone wall overlooking the small valley in front of Little Round Top to their right and the low, southern end of Cemetery Ridge to their front and left. The sun was low in the sky as they traded shots with the Federals on the rise ahead of them. At this point, General Longstreet, perceiving that nothing further could be done, ordered Wofford's brigade back from it's forward exposed position. Wofford was angry. His brigade had driven all before it and was resting behind the stone wall when Longstreet's orders came for it to fall back. General McLaws' saw Wofford's brigade coming back through Trostle's Woods in line of battle, with Wofford, pistol in hand, following in its rear. McLaws had not known of Longstreet's order and rode quickly to Wofford to learn why his regiments were pulling back. Wofford said he saw no nescessity for the withdrawal and was apprehensive that his coming back might be misconstrued. McLaws posted the brigade "under the woods" with skirmishers to the front; in reflecting later, he thought that Longstreet's order had been judicious. And judicious it was, for soon, had it not pulled back, much of the fresh Federal VI Corps would have been in the brigade's front and the Confederate's on its flanks would be falling back. Undoubtedly, the Legion lost men both in its advance and in it's withdrawal. The numbers of men captured indicate that some of the wounded were left behind when they pulled back from their advanced position.
McLaws' and Hood's battered divisions lay in line throughout the next day while Longstreet's remaining fresh division under George Pickett (supplemented with two divisions from A.P.Hill's II Corps) made the famous charge on the Federal center that has come down to us as "Pickett's Charge". This failure caused Lee to realize that the campaign had to be written off as a failure and, in a day long downpour, the battered Confederates began moving back towards Virginia on July 5th. Fighting off pursuit by Federal cavalry and abetted by abominable wet weather that slowed Federal infantry, Lee managed to get his army back across the Potomac to temporary safety on July 14th. Three men from John's company, Privates Francis M Hardman, Isaac Robertson and John Wylie were not to be so fortunate. They were captured on July 2nd and all three had died in the Federal prison at Point Lookout by the following spring.
By this point in the war, most of the veteran Confederate infantry regiments were down to only 200 to 300 men. Companies that had marched off to war in 1861 and 1862 with 100 men, were now down to twenty or thirty soldiers. As they crossed the river back into Virginia, the Legion infantry had fewer than 200 men in it's depleted ranks.
After a late summer of inconclusive sparring against it's old nemesis, the Army of the Potomac, two divisions (Hoods and McLaws) of Longstreet's Corps were rushed to northwest Georgia in late September in an attempt to help Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee stop the onrushing Federal armies of Federal General William S Rosecrans. In a series of brilliant manuevers during the summer of 1863, Rosecrans had almost bloodlessly outfoxed Bragg forcing him out of central Tennessee and back into north Georgia. Hood's Division and two brigades of McLaws division arrived in extreme northwest Georgia on September 19th and 20th just in time for the bloody Confederate victory at Chickamauga. Wofford's brigade (including the Legion) arrived the day after this battle, clearly saving the lives of many of it's members. The Confederates had, however, driven Rosecrans back north into Chattanooga, Tennessee and now proceeded to place the Federal army under siege.
The Army of Tennessee was not a happy army. Much of it's high command was in almost open rebellion against it's commander, General Braxton Bragg, a dyspeptic martinet who also happened to be a good friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Similiar enmity quickly developed between Bragg and Longstreet and it was not too long until Bragg sought to rid himself of the troublesome Longstreet by sending he and his Corps north to Knoxville in an attempt to destroy a Federal General Ambrose Burnside's Army of the Ohio. Thus it was that John Bryan and the Legion headed north out of the Chattanooga area in early November towards Knoxville. The mountains of East Tennessee are imposing today and were much more so in 1863. Roads were primitive and winter is prone to provide nasty November surprises in these higher altitudes. The railroad between Chattanooga and Knoxville was out of commission beyond the Holston River and the supply situation was precarious at best. Longstreet's men advanced slowly, eventually driving Burnside's men back into their impressive fortifications at Knoxville on November 17th. The Confederates spent the next week looking for some weakness in the Federal defenses that would offer some hope of success to an attack by the 12000 southerners on the 18000 Federals. Then, on the 23rd, Longstreet received word from Bragg that he was sending him 11000 reinforcements in the form of the divisions of Patrick Cleburne and S.B. Buckner(under Bushrod Johnson). Bragg had observed greatly increased Federal activity in his front at Chattanooga and wanted Longstreet to use this added strength to quickly attack and defeat Burnside and return to Chattanooga in time to help fend of the impending Federal attack there. A good thought, but too late! With Bushrod Johnson's division almost to Knoxville and Cleburne's men boarding the train to head north on the 23rd, the Federals began to move. Thomas' Army of the Cumberland moved out of Chattanooga and assumed position astride Orchard Knob in front of the Confederates on Missionary Ridge. This rattled Bragg enough that he called Cleburne's division back from it's planned move to Knoxville. It was fortunate that he did so as the Federals attacked in force the next day.
Meanwhile, near Knoxville, Longstreet was planning his attack and waiting for the arrival of the promised reinforcements from Bragg. Fewer than half of the promised 11000 had arrived, but at least they brought him up to a strength nearly equal to that of the Federal defenders. By November 27th, coincident with the issuance of orders for a breakthrough attack on Federal Fort Sanders, a rumor had begun to spread that Bragg had been badly whipped at Chattanooga. Lafayette McLaws commanding most of the assault troops (including the Legion) protested to Longstreet that, if the rumor was true, they should scrap the attack, abandon the siege and return eastward to Virginia at once. Longstreet refused telling his fellow Georgian, "It is a great mistake to suppose that there is any safety for us in going to Virginia if General Bragg has been defeated, for we leave him at the mercy of his victors, and with his army destroyed our own had better be also, for we will not only be destroyed, but disgraced. There is neither safety nor honor in any other course than the one I have chosen and ordered.....The assault will be made at the time appointed, and must be made with a determination which will insure success."
Back at Chattanooga on the 24th the Federal XX Corps had attacked the Confederate position on Lookout Mountain overlooking Chattanooga from the south and driven the southern defenders back to their main lines on Missionary Ridge to the east of town. On the 25th, Federal General Grant had launched his favorite protege, William T Sherman and his army on an attack against the north end of Missionary Ridge. Sherman botched the attack and was stopped cold by Confederates under Irish born General Patrick Cleburne. In an attempt to draw southern attention away from Sherman, Grant sent General George H Thomas' Army of the Cumberland against the rifle pits at the western foot of the ridge. Thomas' men charged and took these pits, but quickly found themselves under a murderous fire from troops atop the ridge. Without orders, the northern troops then charged up the face of the ridge. Aided by a faulty defensive preparation which placed many of the southern defenders behind the military crest, the northerners swarmed up and over the ridge, putting most of the Confederate army into headlong flight back towards north Georgia. The rumors WERE true and the stage was now set for yet another Confederate disaster at Knoxville.
Fort Sanders had been selected as the point of attack for the Confederates at Knoxville for a number of good reasons. The fort, which had originally been designed and built by the Confederates when they held the city earlier in the war, was situated on the northwest corner of the Federal defensive perimeter. Although, perched atop a 198 foot high hill, it had glaring weaknesses as a defensive work. A level plain to the west dropped off abruptly just 150 yards away from the fort, providing an attacker with a large sheltered staging area. Approaching the fort from this point the attackers would be heading for a projecting angle of the fort, where the defenders would have the least firepower. Edward Porter Alexander, Longstreet's chief of artillery stated that, "It would have been impossible, I think, to find on the continent another earth work so advantageously situated for attack." The Confederates, who had built the fort, knew that the walls were six to eight feet high with a 45 degree slope and the ditch in front of the walls was only three to four feet deep. It was therefore assumed that the attackers would simply hop out of the ditch and scramble up the angled walls enmasse and pour into the fort overwhelming it's defenders. Reconnaisance indicated that the Federals had raised the walls somewhat by placing rawhide bound cotton bales on top, but this did not seem to be a serious obstacle. No one seemed to question whether the ditches surrounding the fort had been excavated to a deeper level by the Federals and one observer even noted a Federal walking across the ditch at waist level. This would prove to be a damning observation as no one realized that the Federal was walking across a plank laid over a ditch that had been excavated to a depth of eight to ten feet with almost vertical sides. In addition no one seemed to notice that the Federals had strung almost invisible telegraph wire between tree stumps around a foot above the ground throughout the plain in front of the fort.
After several delays while Longstreet tried to convince himself that he was assaulting Knoxville in the correct location, the final plan of attack was put in place for the morning of Sunday the 29th of November. The attack plan is described in detail by E.P. Alexander. "First our howitzers rigged as mortars were to open and have a reasonable time to practice and get their ranges, before any other shots were fired by anything else. Then the other batteries were to begin, very slowly and carefully, getting the range and enfilading the main lines next to the fort. Than a big cloud of skirmishers was to make a rush and take and occupy the enemy's rifle pits from north of the fort through the west to the south, that the fort should be the centre of a concentrated fire of sharpshooters located around an entire semi circumference. Then all the guns and mortars should unite and fire rapidly, but carefully for about 20 minutes. Then the storming column should advance." IT WAS NOT TO BE. Around 8 o'clock that evening, Longstreet issued new orders. Alexander tells us, "Instead of the attack by main force and artillery as planned for sunrise, and after a good breakfast, an attempt would be made to surprise the fort a little before dawn. As a preliminary step, the enemy's rifle pits were to be attacked, captured and occupied at 11PM. Then the assaulting troops would be formed at once in the rear of these pits and held there all night but without fires. At the appointed hour in the morning a few shots from one of my batteries would be the signal for the infantry to assault the fort."
Even from this distance in time, one can only scratch one's head in wonder! It had been decided to go for a surprise pre-dawn attack BUT a preliminary attack on the rifle pits at 11PM the preceding evening must certainly alert the Federals that something was up. In addition, rather than send in fresh, well rested troops at dawn, it was now the plan to leave the troops outdoors all night in freezing, sleety weather before launching the attack. In addition all the potential benefits of the preliminary artillery barrage were removed in the interest of performing this "surprise" attack. Alexander was frustrated and disturbed by the change in orders and relates sarcastically that " this surprise was carefully arranged not to be a surprise at all. The capture of their rifle pits at 11PM, naturally put the enemy's whole army on guard all night and the presence of our assaulting brigades so close to their works all night could not be concealed."
The first step in the assault took place around 11PM on the 28th without a hitch. The Confederates charged forward and took the outlying Federal picket trenches, scooping up fifty Union soldiers in the process. Confederate sharpshooters of the 3rd Georgia Sharpshooter Battalion and other regiments occupied the captured trenches to provide covering fire for the morning assault. No Union sentries remained farther than twenty yards from the fort BUT the Federals were now fully alert to their danger.
The defenders of Forts Sanders consisted of 105 artillerymen and 335 riflemen under the command of Lt Samuel N Benjamin. During the frigid night of the 28th, these troops ate and slept fully armed, crouched behind the parapets in the almost frozen mud. One man in four was detailed to remain awake and observe for any signs of an attack. Ammunition boxes were opened, extra rifles loaded, and cannons double shotted with cannister with fuses cut short. Knowing that the Confederates would be upon them quickly, Lt. Benjamin took an extra precaution.....he gathered about fifty spherical shells and set them up to be used as impromptu hand grenades. Benjamin knew that the fuses could be lit by a torch and hurled into attacking troops with devastating effect. He carefully cut the fuses to three second intervals and laid the shells out just inside the wall for use if needed.
Outside the walls the 4000 men of McLaw's assault force moved quietly into position in the declivity to the northwest. The night was miserable with freezing temperatures and a falling mist. John Bryan and his Phillips Legion compatriots lay shivering on the partially frozen ground without fires and suffered greatly. Around 3:30 AM, the troops were assembled into assault formation.....Wofford's Georgia brigade on the left, Humphreys' Mississippi brigade on the right and Bryan's Georgia brigade just behind Humphreys' right rear in support. The damp cold penetrated to the core of the thinly clad (and often barefoot) southerners, but they were in good spirits, expecting a rapid charge that would quickly overwhelm the Union defenders whom they outnumbered eight to one.
Around 6 AM, just as the sky began to lighten, Alexander's signal guns fired and the attackers rushed uphill towards the fort. As they neared the fort men began to trip over the telegraph wire stretched between the stumps. As the lead troops tore and kicked at the wire, they were knocked over by the onrushing troops behind them. At this moment of confusion the Federal cannon at the northwest corner of the fort fired two charges of cannister into the attackers. The Confederates quickly closed their ranks and pressed on to the fort arriving in a mass at the ditch in front of the northwest bastion. They then swarmed into the ditch which they had been told was no more than a few feet deep. They had expected to leap out of the ditch and scramble up the 45 degree angle of the wall but as they surged into the ditch they discovered to their horror that in places it was as much as ten feet deep. The sides of the ditch were icy and the top edge of the ditch at the base of the wall had been cut away by the Federals to prevent them from gaining handholds or footholds upon it. Many of the troops, not knowing what to do fired at anything that moved atop the wall. A Federal Sergeant inside the fort, sensing the confusion of the attackers shouted, "Pick off the officers! Pick off the officers!" As he turned to shout again a southern sharpshooter put a bullet in the back of his head and he fell into the fort.
The Confederate officers now tried to get the men in the ditch to climb back out and assault the walls on either side of the fort. They could not be heard in the din, however, and many were picked off by enemy fire as they tried to restore order. In the ditch some officers and men somehow managed to scale the fort's walls by standing on one another's shoulders and using bayonets and swords to hack out footholds in the slippery earth. Several reached the top of the wall only to be quickly killed or captured. Acts of incredible bravery were almost commonplace. One fearless Confederate officer managed to pull himself into a gun embrasure at the muzzle of a twelve pound Napoleon cannon and demanded the fort's surrender. Unfortunately for him, the cannon was loaded and when fired, blew him to bits. Three southern color bearers somehow managed to get themselves and their flags to the top of the parapet only to be shot down or captured.
At this juncture, Lt. Benjamin began tossing the lit, time fused shells over the parapet into the crowded ditch. The explosions took an awful toll on the southerners crammed into the deep ditch and threw many into a mad scramble to get out and retreat. As the day got lighter, Federal infantry in trenches on either side of the fort opened fire on those Confederates who had not gone into the ditch and had moved southward and eastward from the northwest bastion. Federal cannon on either side of the fort also began to enfilade the southerners. With this the Georgians and Mississippians began to retreat back towards their own lines. Over 200 southern soldiers were trapped in the ditch and forced to surrender. Among these men was twenty two year old combat veteran, John Bryan. A postwar account left by Legion soldier W. T. Stidham gives us some idea of why surrender may have been preferable to retreat. Stidham says, "I concluded to get away if I could. I started with my gun in hand, down the hill, stooping over so as to expose as little of my body as possible. Soon after I started the Yanks saw me and began shooting. I could feel the wind of the bullets. I know I could hear the noise of them - it seemed like hundreds of them passed me - zip, zip, zip. But on down the hill I went as fast as I could for about one hundred yards and laid down behind a large red oak stump. Just as I lay down a bullet came zip! and cut my pants leg below my knee. Some of our sharpshooters were intrenched in a rifle pit behind a log and they said to me, You had better get away from there, and I joined them behind the log."
The badly bungled assault had lasted just twenty minutes. The scenes in the ditch in front of the fort would be frozen in many soldier's memories until they died long after the war. One of the fort's defenders Corporal John Watkins of Ohio wrote to a friend in 1863, "There was arrangements made right off to cease hostilities til 7 o'clock in the evening. As soon as the firing stopped I went up and got on the parapet to look at them. And such a sight I never saw nor do I care about ever seeing again. The ditch in places was almost full of them piled one on top of the other.....They were brave men. Most of them Georgians." The ground between the fort and the defilade to the northwest was strewn with the dead and dying. The ditch was filled with men, wounded intermingled with the dead, and blood was literally pooled in the bottom. In one twenty foot section of ditch around the northwest bastion 98 bodies were recovered. As Watson mentions, Federal General Burnside offered a truce for recovery of the dead and wounded which was quickly accepted by General Longstreet. The twenty minute assault had cost the south 129 killed, 458 wounded (many mortally), and 226 captured. Incredibly, the Federals had lost only eight killed and five wounded!
The Phillips Legion suffered twelve men killed outright and another six died of their wounds. Of the many men captured six would perish in Federal prisons. Among these casualties, Andrew Inzer of Company M died from his wounds on December 11th in the Federal hospital at Middlebrook, Tn. Irvin Stallings, another Company M soldier captured with John Bryan, would succumb to small pox at Rock Island prison the following March. This fiasco ended John Bryan's military career. For the second time in this long and brutal war, he was marched off to a Federal prison. Initially shipped to the Federal POW distribution unit at Louisville, Kentucky, he came down with small pox in December. After a long battle with the disease in the Louisville prison hospital, he finally managed to recover enough to be shipped to the Federal prison at Camp Chase, Ohio. In June of 1864, and probably in very poor health, John Bryan agreed to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Federal Government to free himself from prison. We can only guess that he felt he must do this to keep himself alive. He next appears in the records, admitted to Jackson hospital in Richmond, Va on March 16, 1865 suffering from rheumatism and exhaustion before being furloughed on March 30th. We can only imagine what hardships he must have experienced in smuggling himself back into the Confederacy. His service record ends at this point so we can only guess that he made his way home to Georgia on receipt of his furlough.
John would marry Salemma Mitchell in Cobb County, Georgia in 1869. They would have fourteen children, eleven of whom survived past childhood. In 1886 they moved to Cullman County, Alabama. His homestead papers are dated 1896. The original log house they lived in is still standing, along with an addition put on at a later date. John farmed, attended the Methodist church and maintained an active interest in politics.
He passed away just after his 84th birthday on May 17th, 1925 and today rests in Pleasant Grove Cemetery at Hulaco, Alabama.
Thanks to Mrs. Julie Bright for providing this previously unpublished photograph of John Pleasant Bryan."
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