The Army of Tennessee lost four brigade commanders in the Battle of Chickamauga: Brigadier Generals Preston Smith, Hardin Helm and James Deshler along with Colonel Peyton Colquitt.
Today, four stacks of cannon balls mark the locations of where they fell. Of the four, Helm, Deshler and Colquitt were all young men, Helm being the eldest at 32, Deshler being 30, and Colquitt 31. All three fell in the botched attacks ordered by Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk on the morning of Sept. 20, 1863. Little attention has been given to these three as a group. Helm always stands out for being President Lincoln’s brother-in-law, but little has been told of Deshler and Colquitt. Of interest is that all three attended West Point at the same time with Deshler and Colquitt being friends and displaying similar traits.
Deshler and Colquitt also had something else in common: their father’s radical pro-secession personalities were passed along to them. Much like Shakespeare wrote, “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.”
David Deshler was born in Pennsylvania in 1798 and moved to Alabama in 1825. He became quite wealthy from his involvement in the establishment and later ownership of the Tuscumbia, Courtland, and Decatur Railroad, the first railroad west of the Appalachians.
By the 1850s Deshler had become quite radical in his political leanings. In February of 1861 he wrote to a friend in Philadelphia, “You don’t seem to see that the Black Republican programme would be degradation, socially and politically to our section, destruction of $4,000,000,000 — four thousand millions of dollars — of property to us, besides putting us down upon a platform of perfect equality with our own chattels. How can we stand the proposition? Could you agree to it, supposing that we changed places? Not at all — You would die first. Well, so will we…”
David Deshler passed these views on to his son, and though a West Point graduate serving in the United States Army when the Secession Crisis began, he resigned, offering his services to the Confederacy making his father proud. Deshler impressed all those around him, even gaining the eye of Robert E. Lee. By the spring of 1863 he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, noted for his rash bravery and stubbornness on the battlefield. At Chickamauga this bravery cost him his life, being struck by an artillery shell in the chest while checking his men’s supply of ammunition. David Deshler would mourn his son for the rest of his life, having already lost his wife, daughter and another son prior to the war. Upon his death in 1871, Deshler willed all of his land and money for the establishment of the Deshler Female Institute in Tuscumbia, being named for James.
Walter T. Colquitt was a legal powerhouse in the state of Georgia, being a prominent judge and then serving as both U.S. Congressman and Senator. Judge Colquitt was a strong states’ rights advocate and urged immediate secession in 1850, at the Nashville Convention of that year, which met to consider what the southern states should do if Congress banned slavery in the new western territories then being added to the country. During the discussion, Colquitt losing all patience for the ongoing debate, abruptly stood, and roared that the time for talking was over, that action was needed, and that instead of words that they should be casting bullets and preparing their sons for war.
Colquitt passed his beliefs onto his two sons, particularly Peyton, his youngest, who dropped out of West Point. Despite this he moved to follow in his father’s footsteps, speaking out in favor of secession using his position as editor of the influential Columbus Sentinel to promote his ideas, and being elected as a state senator, serving from 1857-58.
After John Brown’s Raid, Colquitt offered the services of his militia company to the state of Virginia. All of this would have made his father proud, but Walter Colquitt died in 1855. When the clouds of war gathered in 1861, Colquitt was ready, leading some of the first troops from Georgia into action in Virginia. By 1863 he rose to the rank of colonel commanding his own Georgia regiment. At Chickamauga, he took command of a brigade, and while leading it through a storm of lead and iron he was struck, mortally wounded. Ironically he fell only a short distance from where his friend, Deshler fell. Indeed the sins of the fathers were visited upon the sons.
Lee White is a guide at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.
Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...