The 8th Kentucky Infantry Raises its Colors at The Battle of Lookout Mountain
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
A few weeks ago I began planning out the rest of the year for the blog, and the one that fell on today's date actually had its 155th anniversary last week. I had not realized the connection until I had already finished my other posts, but a week after the fact will be okay.
Today, I am not going to write about an entire battle, but stick with the personal experiences of a few select men, and the small part of the larger story they helped complete. On November 25th, 1863, the colors of the 8th Kentucky Infantry were unfurled atop Lookout Mountain. It was a sure sign to the men below that the mountain had been taken, just before they began their own assault up Missionary Ridge. But who were the six men that made the treacherous climb?
Captain John Wilson, Sergeant Harris David, Sergeant Joseph Wagers, Sergeant James Wood, Private Joel Bradley, and Private William Witt have been immortalized forever by an iconic photograph akin to the image of the Marines on Iwo Jima in 1945.
Before the colors were planted atop Lookout Mountain, the 8th Kentucky Infantry had a somewhat unique past. In 1861, their commander, Colonel Sidney M. Barnes, began raising the regiment in Estill County, Kentucky. It was here they were presented Federal colors made by the ladies of Estill County. By November he had a full regiment ready for service. For the rest of 1861 and most of 1862, the men of the 8th merely marched around Tennessee and Kentucky, missing the Battle of Shiloh and being present, but not participating, in the Battle of Perryville in October. After Bragg's retreat from Kentucky, many men of the 8th simply took French Leave. Most of the desertions were not due to cowardice, but to the fact that the men's families were fairly close. Some of the deserters were Privates Joel Bradley and William Witt, future climbers of Lookout Mountain.
By the time of the Battle of Stones River, barely 300 men were present for duty due to a combination of the high level of desertions and rampant sickness. In the regiment's first major engagement they suffered over 70 casualties, and the regiment's colors had been shredded to pieces from the high volume of fire from the Confederate line. The pieces, or remainders, of the flag were presented to the Kentucky legislature in March 1863. Later, a new set of colors was issued.
During a skirmish at a place called Snow Hill in 1863, the 8th engaged some Confederates troops who occupied the place. General Stanley asked the men what regiment they were.
"8th Kentucky," was the response.
"Well, Kentuckians are not afraid. Charge them and shoot their heads off!"
With casualties of only three men wounded, the regiment continued to show its mettle.
Several months later at the Battle of Chickamauga, the regiment again performed admirably. Before serious fighting commenced, Captain Wilson led a combined picket detail of the 8th and 21st Kentucky. Wilson was able to creep close enough to two Confederate pickets debating whether Bragg and Longstreet's combined forces could annihilate Rosecrans' army. When the battle turned hot for the 8th Kentucky on September 19th, the 8th did not bring shame upon their state, driving off their enemy on multiple occasions. When the Confederates exploited the massive gap in the Union line, the 8th was nearly cut off. "Through this wide breach poured a long line of rebels, taking two batteries and instantly turning them on our right flank and the rear...sending a perfect storm of grape and canister shot into our lines. At the same time we were in a brisk skirmish with the enemy in our front. This state of affairs made it impossible for us to hold our position many minutes without certain captured. Private S. Lynch...was literally torn to fragments by a shell. Our retreat was necessarily a running the gauntlet between two fires, while the enemy was trying to close on us and cut us off. About 20 of the Eighth were captured." The 8th escaped destruction to march back to Chattanooga where it would besieged with the rest of the army.
After nearly two months of siege, the Union army began preparations for a breakout. The first historian of the regiment wrote, "Early on the morning of the 24th, our brigade...moved up Lookout Valley into a dense forest, south of the Wauhatchie, where the enemy lost sight of us for a few hours. In this forest we piled our knapsacks, blankets and part of our rations, and left them under a guard. We faced north, the Eighth Kentucky forming the extreme right wing of the line, therefore we were nearest the cliff. A heavy skirmish line was put forward. We moved forward...The enemy made a determined stand. Being near the wall or palisade, the enemy above us not only shot at us whenever the cloud would lift, so as to enable them to see, but resorted to a novel method of warfare, rolling down loose stones at us."
Captain Wilson's ascent up Lookout Mountain was actually not the first Federal attempt at reaching the top. Another party had tried earlier, but failed. Colonel Barnes reported, "We were ordered to halt and hold the ridge or spur at all hazards, which we did. Here we remained from about 12:30 o'clock in the day until next morning, the 25th November, about sunrise, in line of battle, all the time without water, overcoats, or blankets, suffering considerably. An attempt was made at the request of Brigadier General Whitaker, by Lieutenant Jones, of Company F. Eighth Kentucky, to reach the summit, but it failed due to the superior forces of the enemy on the summit and the use of hand grenades by the enemy." Jones' group was engaged in a quick, sharp fight, killing one Confederate without losing a man. However, it appeared that making it to the summit would have to wait, at least for the night.
On the 25th, General Whitaker approached Colonel Barnes, asking for volunteers to scale Lookout Mountain to see if the Confederates were still there, and plant the flag of the Eighth Kentucky to honor the Second Brigade. Colonel Barnes replied, "The whole regiment, General, if you wish it." The men of the 8th all expected to be ordered forward, but only a few men were to be sent up to the top. Captain Wilson, who commanded the color company, and his five men were to go. "Captain Wilson and six picked men were permitted at that time to immolate themselves on this high altar as a sacrifice to our country's cause. These apparently devoted men, carrying the 8th's flag, proceeded to ascend this hundred feet or more of almost perpendicular wall."
Captain Wilson later recalled that General Whitaker asked Barnes if he had an officer that would carry the flag to the top of the mountain. "General, I will go." Turning to the regiment, he said, ‘How many of you will go with Captain Wilson. I could order you up there, but will not, for it is a hazardous undertaking; but for the flag that gets there first it will be an honor.’ Five men went with me. I called to my Color Sergeant and asked him if he did not want to go and carry it; he shook his head and said no. I unbuckled my belt and gave him my sword, and told him to bring it up with him, and I took the flag and started.” He also later recalled, "I was not only ready and willing to go where ordered, but was ready to volunteer and go where my superior officers would not order me. Colonel Barnes called the event that was about to happen an "experiment," so it is probable that planting the colors on the summit was not really expected, but hoped for. Barnes also promised Wilson that the regiment would support him if needed.
Wilson's men began the careful climb up the mountain, never knowing if Confederate rifleman had them in their sights. The rest of the regiment watched as long as they could see them. The 8th's historian remembered, "At the base stood the 8th, and with bated breath we watched this brave little squad, with their guns slung over their backs, climbing to where, in all probability, sudden death awaited them. At last they disappear over the top. Hearing no noise above us, indicating the presence of the enemy, we instantly commenced the toilsome ascent of Lookout in the same manner the squad had just done."
Captain Wilson later recalled, “Those who have seen the awe-inspiring precipice at the top of the great mountain can realize what a serious undertaking was before us, not to mention our lack of knowledge concerning the Confederates, who the day before had held Hooker at bay. Dim daylight was dawning. We crept cautiously upward, clutching at rocks and bushes, supporting each other, using sticks and poles and other such aids as we can gather. At every step we expected to be greeted with deadly missiles of some sort from the enemy." When Wilson and his five men made it to the top, they found the mountain top abandoned, to their great elation. Wilson and the men made their way to the outcropping, to a place where the entire valley would be able to see their movements. Wilson stepped out to the "projecting brow" and began to unfurl the flag in the morning light. Soon the breeze waved "that dear old emblem of light and liberty."
Wilson remembered, "But fortune favored us, and before sunup, I, in front, reached the summit and planted the flag on top of Lookout Mountain. It was the highest flag planted during the war. We were the lions of the day in the Union army...And to us six belongs the honor of planting the first National Flag on the top or peak of Lookout Mountain, on the morning of November 25th, 1863, it being the highest flag planted during the war, being 2,400 feet above the level of the valley."
The men in the valley below erupted into cheers before they began their assault on Missionary Ridge. The flag waving in the breeze from atop the mountain could be seen for miles, and gave a clear signal to the Union army that Lookout Mountain had been taken and secured. "As the sight of the flag met the upturned gaze of our vast army below, cheer after cheer echoed and re-echoed from camp to camp, from mountain to mountain, until the bosom of the placid, broad Tennessee River and the beautiful valleys appeared to shout for very joy." General Cruft wrote, "As the morning sun rose it discovered the national banner floating out in the mountain air from Lookout Point, and the soldiery below caught up a shout from the regiment on the summit which rang though the crags and valleys and was borne to their comrades below, who were standing to arms behind the defenses of Chattanooga."
General Whitaker was very pleased and proud of the men under his command, as he related in his report. "It was a bold undertaking. Scaling the cliff, they took our country's flag where so lately treason had defiantly flaunted her symbol of ruin. This flag was the gift of the loyal ladies of Estill County, Ky. It has been most honorably borne."
General Joseph Hooker made his way to the men who just recently planted the colors on the mountain, where General Whitaker asked him if the 8th Kentucky might be allowed to stay and guard the stores and new position. The historian of the 8th Kentucky wrote that Hooker replied with, "Sir, these western soldiers will fight anything on earth like rebels, and even climb above the clouds to complete victory and capture the enemy."
The heroes of the day did not have much time to revel in their achievements. The regiment quickly moved south toward Summertown, a small tourist community from the time that is no longer in existence. When they arrived, some Confederate pickets surrendered and with them they captured some poor Confederate commissary items. Maybe their favorite spoil was the large quartermaster tents left behind by the retreating Southerners, as they sheltered the regiment for the next week.
When the attack on Missionary Ridge began, easily seen from Lookout Mountain, the men of the 8th Kentucky were able to watch the victory from the perfect location. As the massive assault was underway, one member of the 8th viewed the action through an opera glass. "The line pushed up, leaving the hill side strewn with dead and wounded. We could see some dragging their mangled bodies back down the slope, while their more fortunate comrades were mounting over the rebel works...our hearts appeared ready to leap out of our throats I am confident my hair more than once came near pushing my cap from my head," remembered one Kentuckian.
Shortly after the fighting ended, a photographer, Robert Linn, set up a photography studio on Lookout Mountain, knowing the place would turn into a tourist boom. Linn is the man who took most of the photographs of Union soldiers all over Lookout Mountain, including General U.S. Grant. Linn asked Captain Wilson and his volunteers to recreate the morning they planted the colors above the clouds. The men again took the 8th's colors and climbed again to the high point, this time without the fear of being shot. They Kentuckians walked to the point and held a pose. Captain Wilson held the flag with his hat in hand while his soldiers aimed at imaginary enemies. The image was captured, and the photo would go down in history.
For Wilson and his squad, they were granted a furlough of 30 days for their actions. I assume they went home to Estill County, but unless there is some undiscovered letter out there somewhere, I cannot be for sure. The 8th Kentucky was fortunate to not have to spend the next spring and summer with Thomas' army as it moved south toward Atlanta, and avoided the bloody battles of 1864. Instead, they would split time between Chattanooga and Bridgeport, Alabama on garrison duty until 1865, when they finally mustered out in February. By then, the war was over for the 8th Kentucky. Wilson mustered out in October 1864.
Captain Wilson become active in the G.A.R. in his latter years, and became a prosperous farmer. He died in May 1896 at the age of 74. Since his death, markers have been placed in Estill County commemorating his life and achievements.
As for the flag that flew over Lookout Mountain, it seems to be a mystery as to what happened to it. There is a flag in the care of the Kentucky Historical Society, but I am unsure if that is the flag that was presented to the Kentucky legislature in March 1863. According to an auction site that was selling some of Wilson's personal belongings, the Lookout Mountain flag was in the possession of multiple family members, and as of the 1970's it was only known to be "out west" with a distant family member. Hopefully the flag that flew at such a memorable moment will be presented to the state for posterity.
Wright, Captain T.J., History of the Eighth Regiment Kentucky Volunteer Infantry During its Three Years Campaigns Embracing Organization, Marches, Skirmishes, and Battles of the Command with Much of the History of the Old Reliable Third Brigade, commanded by Hon. Stanley Matthews, and Containing Many Interesting and Amusing Incidents of Army Life, (St. Joseph, MO: St. Joseph Printing Company) 1880.
Sanders, Stuart W., Kentucky Ancestors, "Most Honorably Borne: Absences in the Eighth Kentucky Union Infantry in 1862."
Hodges, Dr. Anthony, The Linns of Lookout: The enterprising brothers behind a legendary photograph gallery
Reports of various Federal officers during the Chattanooga campaign, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, vol. 31, part 2.