TRIUMPH AT CHICKAMAUGASeptember 20, 1863
While a guest at the White House in Washington, Ben Hardin Helm was offered a commission in the United States Army. Standing before Abraham Lincoln he spoke to the President thoughtfully, “You have been kind and generous to me beyond anything I have known. I wish I could see my way --I will try to do what is right. You shall have my answer in a few days.” Taking Lincoln’s hand he turned and walked slowly out the door. Helm sought advice from his old friend Robert E. Lee about what his course of action should be. Lee advised him to, “Do what your conscience and honor bid.” It was not long before word was received that Ben Hardin Helm would wear the gray of the Confederacy.
September 18th found Helm’s Brigade, along with the rest of Breckenridge’s division, near Glass’ Mill on the extreme left of the Confederate Army along Chickamauga Creek. There was some light skirmishing by the infantry on the 19th, which developed into a severe artillery duel. Casualties were slight, 22 were killed or wounded. In the late afternoon, orders were received to move to the right, and toward Lee and Gordon’s Mill. After a short pause near the Mill, Breckenridge moved the division still further to the right. Early on the Morning of the 20th, Breckenridge placed his men to the right of General Patrick R. Cleburne’s division and consequently became the extreme right flank of the Confederate line of battle.
At 9:30 a.m. with the Kentucky Brigade forming the left, the division moved forward in search of the enemy. “At the distance of 700 yards we came upon him in force, and the battle was opened by Helm’s brigade with great fury. The Second and Ninth Kentucky, with three companies of the 41st Alabama, encountered the left of a line of breastworks,” Reported Breckenridge. This was a strong position fortified with three lines of entrenchments composed of fallen timber and rocks concealed in thick undergrowth. Lt. Colonel James W. Moss wrote, “We charged their works, but receiving a very heavy enfilading fire from both artillery and musketry on the left and severe fire from the front. Colonel James W. Hewitt and a great many officers and men ordered them to fall back.” The 9th Kentucky’s Colonel also went down. The command devolved on Lieutenant Colonel J.C. Wickliffe. “Perceiving my men were suffering beyond endurance, and still unable to carry out the order to force the enemy’s works, I ordered the regiment to fall back beyond the range of terrible cross-fire from which they had been suffering so severely.”
But the Federal works extended only half the length of the Brigade. The regiments on the right, the 6th and 4th Kentucky and several companies from the 41st Alabama were successful and passed to the right and clear of the works. Steadily they drove the enemy back to within 100 yards of the Chattanooga road. The left-hand regiments reformed and made a second charge that drove the first line of the enemy from their entrenchments. The advanced position could not be maintained, however, due to heavy fire from their left, and they were forced back. For the third time the Confederates advanced to the charge, under heavy fire. Word was received that General Helm was mortally wounded, and that Lt. Colonel Lewis of the Second Kentucky would take over the Brigade.
Late in the evening, reinforced by several additional brigades, the shattered remnant of the 1st Kentucky Brigade charged once more. This time they drove the enemy from their fortifications towards the Chattanooga road taking a considerable number of prisoners. As darkness fell, a welcome halt was called to this bloody day of fighting.
After General Helm had been wounded, he was taken to a house near Reed’s Bridge. The yard and hallways were filled with injured soldiers and Helm was placed in a room with several other seriously wounded. He asked the doctor if there was any hope and was told there was none. As the sound of battle faded he roused himself to consciousness and asked what the outcome was. On being told that the army had triumphed he uttered, in a painful whisper, “Victory”. Near midnight General Ben Hardin Helm died. His sad passing was felt not only throughout Kentucky and the South but also sadness settled over the White House in Washington. Using the word “Confederate,” which he so rarely wrote or spoke, President Lincoln wrote a pass. “To whom it may concern: It is my wish that Mrs. Emilie T. Helm (widow of the late General B. H. Helm, who fell in the Confederate service), now returning to Kentucky, may have protection of person and property, except as to slaves, of which I say nothing.” It was signed simply, “A. Lincoln.”
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