A Young Man’s Complicated Youth in Tennessee Memorial Hall at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. Mitchell Anderson’s father served as the University’s president during the Civil War. Wikimedia Commons.
Mitchell A. Anderson was 24 years old in 1863, meaning he was born around 1839 in Lebanon, Tennessee. He was born into a family of great influence, largely due to the status of his father, Reverend Thomas Constantine Anderson. More often known as T.C. Anderson, Thomas served as a circuit minister in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church at the time of Mitchell’s birth. He began working at Cumberland University in Lebanon in 1843 and, though he declined a position as Professor of Ancient Languages due to ill health, the following year he accepted an offer to become the university’s president. Thus, throughout Mitchell Anderson’s childhood, his father held great power and was well-respected by the people of Lebanon. This sense of gravitas likely extended to the reverend’s children, and the young Mitchell would have felt an integral member of the community. He also must have felt some degree of pressure to live up to his father’s legacy, and to create a life of his own that would be worthy of familial pride. Mitchell grew up in relative luxury, as in 1860 T.C. Anderson’s real estate was valued at $13,020, while his personal estate was worth $21,875. The great influence and wealth of his family made Mitchell Anderson a strong candidate for a community leader with a bright personal and professional future.
Despite these advantages, the young Anderson faced numerous challenges during his youth. His mother, Rachel, died in 1849, when he was ten years old. This left T.C. Anderson to manage the welfare of his family, which included five children, on his own. The eldest Anderson child, Samuel, had been born in 1826, followed by Amanda (b. 1835), Mitchell (b. 1839), Mebane (b. 1845), and William James, known as “Jimmie” (b. 1848). To make matters worse, Amanda and one of the other children were invalids, forcing Mitchell and the remaining able-bodied offspring to assist their father in the raising of the family. Mebane passed away at the age of nine in 1854, casting another pall over the Anderson family. These dark days of Mitchell’s youth meant that he had already experienced serious personal and family losses by the time of the Civil War; perhaps memories of these deaths flooded back to him when his close friends and comrades were killed on the battlefield. Such familial loss created significant disruptions to his outwardly idyllic youth that likely strengthened his sense of devotion and duty to his remaining family. Although these losses may have prepared him to cope with the large-scale death and suffering brought on by the Civil War, alternately, they may have jaded his outlook on life or tainted his personality in ways that affected his ability to consistently perform well as a soldier. For better or for worse, Anderson’s loss of multiple family members at a young age surely influenced his personal development as a young man and a hopeful future community leader.
Mitchell Anderson grew up in a community that was home to people of varying circumstances. Located about thirty miles east of Nashville, Lebanon was the seat of Wilson County, which had a population of 26,072 people as of the 1860 census. The area offered reasonable access to Tennessee’s largest city while still functioning as an agricultural community. Some, though not all, of the families who lived near the Andersons held slaves. Preston Yeatman Hill, who served in the 7th Tennessee, recalled that his family owned twelve or thirteen slaves who labored on his family’s farm. Another of Anderson’s comrades wrote that his family owned two slaves growing up, one of whom was a woman tasked with cooking, while two more soldiers claimed that their families had none. Federal records from the 1860 census do not list T.C. Anderson himself as a slaveholder. The split between slaveholders and non-slaveholders likely contributed to economic inequality in Lebanon, as those with the means to own slaves generally could accrue more wealth and political power than the poor yeoman farmers. However, those farmers could acquire temporary enslaved assistance through the “hiring out” system, by which slaveholders would essentially rent out their slaves for a payment or a percentage of the crop yield. The Andersons may have made use of this arrangement, especially for assistance in domestic labor after the death of Rachel Anderson. Additionally, the shared ambition of and pride in being “master of one’s own household” bonded white families together across class lines. Mitchell Anderson thus grew up in a white southern community that would have seen itself as a relatively cohesive unit, linked together by the social, economic, and political ties that the institution of slavery created within communities, despite the very real socio-economic gaps that existed there.
As the son of a well-known minister and college president, Mitchell Anderson would not have needed to perform the more physically demanding work of an “everyman,” and unlike many of his neighbors, he did not become a farmer. Instead, the young man studied to become a teacher at a local academy, a position which he held at the time of the 1860 census. He likely received intensive schooling in the Bible and the Christian faith from his father as a young boy, though it is uncertain what additional training he completed. No standardized requirements for teacher certification existed at this time, and the qualifications which Anderson needed to obtain for his professional career would likely have been determined by the academy at which he taught. Mitchell Anderson was well on his way to becoming a respected leader of his small community on the eve of the Civil War.
The Rise, Fall, and Return of an Officer Sudley Church at the Bull Run battlefield, where Anderson served as a nurse during the Second Battle of Manassas. Wikimedia Commons.
The onset of war disrupted the life of Mitchell Anderson, bringing major changes to his state and his community. When Confederate forces fired upon the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Tennessee had not yet seceded from the Union. In fact, voters in the state had rejected a referendum calling for the creation of a secession convention on February 9, 1861, the day after the Confederate States of America officially came into being in Montgomery, Alabama. Tennessee relied less heavily on large-scale plantation agriculture than the states of the Deep South, and residents of the state’s mountainous eastern third were particularly pro-Union in their sentiments. However, President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion in the wake of Fort Sumter’s surrender began the process that pushed the Volunteer State over the tipping point and into the Confederacy. Governor Isham Harris felt that Lincoln’s request for troops was a grave abuse of power, and he refused to furnish soldiers to put down the rebellion. Instead, the state held another referendum on secession, which was approved by a two-to-one margin. Tennessee became the last state to secede from the Union, doing so on June 8, 1861.
Even before his state had formally left the United States, Mitchell Anderson had decided how he would react to the rapidly changing world around him. Anderson enlisted to fight for the Confederate States of America on May 20, 1861, joining the 7th Tennessee Infantry at Nashville. Governor Harris’s ardent interest in secessionism resulted in the organization of a provisional army for the state prior to it leaving the Union, and like-minded civilians such as Anderson enlisted for service. The teacher had evidently earned the confidence and respect of the men who joined this new regiment with him, as he received the rank of 1st Corporal. His Company K, primarily composed of men from Lebanon and its surroundings, assumed the nickname “The Blues,” perhaps referring to the color of their original uniforms. A spirit of adventure and a desire to “get at the Yankees” animated many of the new soldiers as they drilled at Camp Trousdale, and the 7th Tennessee was formally mustered into Confederate service in July 1861, under the command of Colonel Robert Hatton. That month, the regiment set off by train for Virginia, carrying scores of young men further away from home than they had ever been before. Anderson and his comrades had begun their journey into the heart of the Civil War.
For the first year of their existence, the 7th Tennessee Infantry saw no major combat. The regiment did not enter its first significant battle until May of 1862. Yet, during this time, something went very wrong for Mitchell Anderson. On April 30, 1862, he lost his standing as a corporal and was demoted to private. What could have occasioned this embarrassing demotion? Perhaps Anderson, based on the powers granted to him as a schoolteacher at home, behaved as too much of a disciplinarian or a high-handed aristocrat, angering the rank and file under his command to the point where they wished to rid themselves of him. Alternatively, perhaps the non-military-trained Anderson did not exercise enough control over his men and provoked the ire of his superior officers. Though corporal was the second-lowest rank in Civil War armies, it still required a keen mixture of diplomacy, sternness, and tact from those who held it, and Anderson may have failed in this regard. His demotion may also have been due toa character flaw stemming from the emotional challenges of his youth, or due to personal vices, such as excessive drinking of alcohol. Indulging in alcohol proved a major temptation to many soldiers as they wiled away their time in camp; Anderson and his comrades may well have turned to such vices to relieve themselves from the boredom and frustration that characterized their first year of service without seeing battle. Unfortunately, no record exists to explain the reasoning for Anderson’s loss of rank, leaving informed speculation as the only alternative. Whatever the case, Mitchell Anderson now had to overcome a new set of challenges, including those of a common private and of a disgraced former leader.
Before the 7th Tennessee went into combat, the men had to face a different kind of battle that carried great personal significance for Mitchell Anderson. Their native state had become a significant battleground in the war’s western theater, and the harsh realities of war struck Anderson’s hometown. On March 22, 1862, the 23rd Kentucky Infantry (Federal) marched into Lebanon, seizing it for the Union. The Yankee soldiers occupied the campus of Cumberland University, lodging themselves in the school’s barracks before ransacking the homes of the absent Confederate troops. Reports also surfaced of Union troops courting the women of the town, which the southern soldiers saw as a horrifying affront to their own sense of masculine honor. The men who had signed up to fight for their homes and families could do absolutely nothing as those homes, and their women, fell victim to the Federal army. Seeking to reassert the Tennesseans’ authority over the home front, Colonel Hatton desperately sought to have his regiment transferred back to the Volunteer State, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, more bad news reached Anderson and his comrades while they sat outside Richmond, facing down another Union invasion force. A bloody battle had taken place in Lebanon, as Union troops sought to defeat the famed Confederate cavalryman and raider John Hunt Morgan, who used the town as a base for his expeditions after the original occupying Federals had moved on. On May 5, 1862, Federal forces surprised Morgan and his men. Fighting swept through the town and across the campus over which Anderson’s father presided. The Union ultimately carried the day, taking over 200 Confederate prisoners and killing or wounding up to 60 more southerners. Morgan and a small contingent of his troopers escaped. Their surrender of the town to the Yankees galled the men of the 7th Tennessee deeply, and Anderson surely feared for the safety of his family at home. As he went into his first major battle, the young man’s mind may have understandably been elsewhere. The news from home surely split the Tennesseans’ senses of loyalty and duty between their loved ones, their state, and their nascent nation, and many must have wondered what they were truly fighting for so far away from their now blood-soaked native soil.
Mitchell Anderson’s first taste of major combat came during the Battle of Seven Pines, outside Richmond, on May 31, 1862. After enduring months of the tedium of camp life and seemingly endless bad news from home, and from the now Federal-occupied Virginia peninsula, Anderson and his comrades surely felt a rush of emotions as they prepared to face the hated Yankees on the field of battle. The desire to exact a measure of revenge for the assaults on their homeland gave these men an extra degree of motivation as they advanced to stop the Union push towards the Confederate capital. The Tennessee brigade, now under the command of the 7th Tennessee’s own Robert Hatton, pushed forward against George McClellan’s divided Federal army on the Virginia peninsula. Union musket fire and artillery shells raked the lines of the Volunteer Staters, and both sides took heavy casualties. The 7th Tennessee lost 144 men in about 90 minutes of action, and General Hatton received a mortal wound. The Confederate army commander, Joseph E. Johnston, was also grievously wounded by an artillery shell, removing him from his position and bringing in the relatively unknown Robert E. Lee. These devastating losses proved a sobering awakening to the grim realities of warfare, and sparked speculation as to the Confederate army’s prospects under its new commander. On an emotional level, Anderson likely questioned how he would continue amidst such horrifying death and the destruction wrought by the deadliest battle of the war to that point as he gazed upon the dead and wounded bodies lining the Chickahominy River.
Despite the heavy casualties, the Tennessee men succeeded in halting the Union advance towards the Confederate capital, allowing for the Rebel forces to make a renewed defensive stand. This shift in the Confederacy’s fortunes certainly lifted the spirits of the Tennessee men in spite of the casualties they had suffered, and they likely desired to strike at the Yankees again. However, after Seven Pines, the 7th Tennessee spent most of the month of June on picket duty outside Richmond, during which time they developed an unhappy relationship with their new brigade commander. General James J. Archer was a harsh disciplinarian from Maryland who regularly sparred with his regimental commanders, earning him the enmity of Mitchell Anderson and his fellow Tennesseans. As such, the mood of the regiment was uneven as the Seven Days battles loomed at the end of the month.
Mitchell Anderson and the 7th Tennessee next went into action against their Union foe on June 26, 1862 at the Battle of Mechanicsville, less than ten miles outside Richmond. The unit moved forward towards Beaver Dam Creek to support a Confederate assault primarily taking place to their south. Artillery shells lobbed towards their position wounded several soldiers, but the Tennesseans did not otherwise participate in the fighting. However, the next day would prove disastrous for Anderson’s regiment. At Gaines’ Mill on June 27, the Volunteer Staters attacked across an open field, then over swampy low-ground and up a steep slope, against dug-in soldiers from New York, with horrifying results. 72 men fell as casualties over the course of fifteen minutes as the three Tennessee regiments crumbled under a hail of Union bullets. While subsequent Confederate assaults ultimately dislodged the Federals from their position, the 7th Tennessee’s own catastrophic attack left Mitchell Anderson and his comrades rattled, while also prompting questions as to the leadership capabilities of General Archer. The Confederate army ultimately succeeded in pushing the Union troops back from the outskirts of Richmond, however, offering some desperately-needed good news to the beleaguered Tennesseans and their Confederate comrades. The now-celebrated General Lee began his own campaign into northern Virginia. At the Battle of Cedar Mountain, in early August, Anderson and his comrades pushed forward as part of a counterattack against Union General Nathaniel P. Banks’s division that threatened to overwhelm the Confederate left. Their counterattack proved successful, as the 7th Tennessee pushed back their Federal foes, but the unit took more heavy losses, amounting to 46 men overall. The Tennesseans’ efforts helped open the way for Lee and Jackson’s foray back towards the old Manassas battlefield, but at a high cost.
As the Second Battle of Manassas loomed at the end of the month, Anderson was absent from the regiment’s ranks. He fell ill around August 27, at which time he was admitted to the Confederate hospital at Aldie. Anderson was able to perform some service to his comrades during this time, however, as he was assigned to nursing duties at the Sudley Church field hospital beginning on August 31, the final day of the battle. According to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, such tasks were commonly given to soldiers who were unfit for combat, in order to ensure that every man contributed to the army’s efforts in some way. Seeing the blood-soaked surfaces of the hospital and hearing the mournful screams of the wounded and dying must have been a sobering experience for the young soldier, and his duties were certainly far different from those he expected to have when he enlisted as a corporal. Though Anderson was likely grateful to have been spared such a wound himself in the recent battle, he likely felt pangs of guilt at having not been able to support his comrades on the field in this most recent engagement, and of having been denied another opportunity to re-prove his leadership skills to the men over whom he had recently lost command. Mitchell Anderson’s wartime story had taken another turn, with more surprising developments still to come.
Anderson and the 7th Tennessee remained in the thick of some of the most desperate combat of the Civil War in late 1862. On September 17th, during the Battle of Antietam, Archer’s brigade was among those that embarked upon a 17-mile forced march from Harpers Ferry to save Lee’s army late in the day by slamming into the left flank of the Union attackers pushing up across the hills and fields south of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The 7th Tennessee, 292 men strong at the beginning of the march, had only 75 men available on the battlefield due to straggling caused by the grueling pace, 21 of whom became casualties. Though Anderson’s exact whereabouts during the battle are uncertain, he may have been one of those who remained in the ranks and participated in the key repulse of the final Union attack south of Sharpsburg, giving him a redemptive achievement to hang his hat on in the future. The Tennessee men had played a key part in preventing Antietam from becoming a disaster for the Confederates, but Lee’s army still retreated across the Potomac River back into Virginia, ending the Maryland Campaign without achieving any of its major goals. Adding to the Tennesseans’ demoralization, Anderson and his regiment were called back into action to cover the army’s retreat at Shepherdstown on September 20, losing more soldiers killed and seriously wounded in the process. Additionally, as Union forces tightened their grip on Tennessee, letters and other communication from home became increasingly scarce, leaving many of the men in the ranks feeling isolated and renewing their questioning of what they were really fighting for. Thus, while Antietam represented, in many ways, a tactical triumph in battle for Mitchell Anderson and his comrades, the net strategic effects of the campaign left them with more questions than answers as the war turned back into Virginia.
The 7th Tennessee faced a much more challenging combat experience at Fredericksburg in December. Anderson and his comrades easily repulsed the initial Union attack against their position southeast of town, but another brigade of Federals swept around their brigade’s left flank and began rolling up the line. The left companies of the 7th Tennessee soon found their own flank enveloped by enemy soldiers, and the regiment began to collapse. However, Anderson’s Company K, along with the unit’s other right companies, wheeled and poured a devastating fire into the attackers, and a counterattack by the 5th Alabama Battalion, recently added to the brigade, stabilized the situation. The Confederates notched another huge victory at this engagement, as they dealt the Union Army of the Potomac a significant defeat to close out 1862.
As the 7th Tennessee settled into its winter quarters, the success of Fredericksburg surely provided a welcome boost in morale for Mitchell Anderson and his comrades after the bloody battles they had endured in that trying year. More news would have reached the regiment during this time that may have changed some soldiers’ perception of what lay ahead of them. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, liberating all slaves in areas considered to still be in rebellion. For these Tennesseans, their communities had already been subjugated by the Federals, and as such, to their relief, the Proclamation largely did not apply to them. However, those in the regiment who owned slaves or who came from slaveholding families probably had their enslaved Africans seized as contraband of war, bringing freedom to those human beings held in bondage in the Volunteer State, but an end to the way of life that supported entire communities within the state. The Proclamation likely provoked plenty of discussion in the ranks, as the men came to recognize that this war would determine the fate of slavery in America. For Mitchell Anderson, though his family did not own slaves, the Proclamation threatened to upset the racial boundaries and socio-economic order that defined his society in Lebanon, possibly inspiring a fear of a different sort. The awareness of the changing nature of the war permeated the ranks of the 7th Tennessee as the campaign season of 1863 began, deepening the confidence and resolve of some Volunteer Staters who were convinced that the political fallout of the Proclamation would surely have to lead to Confederate victory, while unsettling others who feared just the opposite impact.
At Chancellorsville in May of 1863, the battle-tested Tennesseeans were called on yet again to make a key assault. They earned further glory for themselves by capturing Union cannon and men at the key high ground of Hazel Grove. However, their subsequent assault on Federal positions to the east proved disastrous and cost even more Volunteer Staters their lives. On a personal level, by the spring of 1863, these collective engagements over the previous year had transformed Mitchell Anderson from an economically privileged country teacher from rural Tennessee into a battle-hardened veteran and a trained killing machine. His reliable combat performance throughout this period would soon be rewarded.
On May 6, 1863, as the Union army withdrew from Chancellorsville, the men of Company K elected Mitchell Anderson to serve as Junior Second Lieutenant. The previous holder of the position, David L. Philips, had received a promotion to full Second Lieutenant, creating this vacancy. The promotion represented a high honor for Anderson, especially considering that it came from the same men whose confidence he had apparently lost early in the war. Why would Anderson have been selected for this important leadership role? Perhaps he had distinguished himself in battle with a great act of heroism, or maybe he had exhibited steadiness and coolness in combat throughout the trying campaigns of 1862 and 1863. He likely had established deep personal connections among the common soldiers during his time as a private, and he may have leveraged these relationships into a return to a position of power. The men may have rebuilt their trust in him to lead them with a firm but fair hand befitting of his new rank. Whatever the specifics may have been, any stain on Mitchell Anderson’s reputation or honor had evidently been forgotten in the months since his demotion, and his future appeared bright. The newly-promoted lieutenant likely demonstrated an ebullient spirit while the 7th Tennessee marched north into Pennsylvania as the summer of 1863 unfolded. Anderson and his comrades now had the opportunity to strike a blow to the Union heartland, much as their community of Lebanon had fallen victim to the Federals earlier in the war.
A True Test of Leadership Famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady’s view of McPherson’s/Herbst’s Woods, where Anderson led his men in battle for the first time. Wikimedia Commons.
Anderson and the 7th Tennessee were assigned to the new III Corps under A.P. Hill at the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign, placing them in position to take part in the opening actions of the battle. At this point in time, Archer’s brigade consisted of the 1st (Provisional), 7th, and 14th Tennessee Infantry regiments, the 5th Alabama Battalion, and the 13th Alabama Infantry, and was a part of Gen. Henry Heth’s division. For Anderson and his comrades, the bountiful farm fields and well-stocked barns of Pennsylvania surely provided welcome sights and full stomachs. The brigade found itself near Cashtown, Pennsylvania, just west of Gettysburg, on June 30, 1863. Pettigrew’s brigade, also of Heth’s division, encountered elements of John Buford’s Union cavalry near the town that day, and reports filtered back to the men of Archer’s brigade. The next morning, the Tennessee men received orders to make their way to Gettysburg to investigate the situation, but with the explicit instruction to avoid bringing on a general engagement, as the Confederate high command believed the town was only occupied by militia. Anderson led Company K down the Chambersburg Pike towards Gettysburg when, around 7:30 in the morning, a Union cavalryman fired the battle’s first shot. Archer’s brigade came to a halt, and they soon deployed into full battle lines to continue their push. The left flank of the 7th Tennessee rested along the south side of the road, with the 5th Alabama Battalion to its north and the rest of the brigade to the right of Anderson’s regiment. Anderson and his men slowly but steadily forced the Union troops back towards Gettysburg, and it looked as though the day would end in an easy victory for them. However, their battle was just beginning.
At about 9:00 on the morning of July 1, Mitchell Anderson and the 7th Tennessee neared the outskirts of Gettysburg. They prepared to attack McPherson’s Ridge, located just west of the town, in an attempt to drive Buford’s cavalrymen from the area for good. However, it was at this point that Union infantry arrived on the field. As Anderson led his troops across Willoughby Run and into Herbst Woods, the regiment came face to face with the Iron Brigade, one of the finest units in the Army of the Potomac. The combat quickly intensified. Bullets whizzed and cracked through the trees as the two veteran outfits slugged it out, with soldiers from both sides falling dead and wounded. Smoke and screams filled the air, and Anderson would have needed to demonstrate cool-headedness under fire and issue the appropriate commands to keep his men focused and disciplined amidst the chaos. However, the regiments of Archer’s brigade had become separated from one another during their advance through the woods, diminishing their combined firepower compared to that of the Union men. The empowering sense of group coherence and camaraderie that pushed men forward in the face of death began to disintegrate as the Confederates split up into smaller units among the trees The Iron Brigade took full advantage of the separation, curling around the Confederate right flank and rolling up the gray-clad line. The situation quickly turned dire for the 7th Tennessee. They fell back to the safety of Herr Ridge to the west, having experienced yet another catastrophic failed assault. However, despite this setback, their day was not yet over.
When Confederate forces finally began to carry the day west of town that afternoon, the Tennesseans received orders to move forward again to cover the right flank of the attack. Anderson would have brought Company K back across the same fields littered with the dead and wounded from the morning’s fight and wondered what lay ahead this time. The renewed assault would have required him to repress his own anxieties occasioned by the sight of the battlefield’s carnage and to project an image of calmness and confidence to the soldiers under his command. Fortunately for them, the 7th Tennessee’s position in the brigade line meant they did not have to directly participate in the repulse of the Yankee cavalrymen who sought to disrupt the Confederate attack, but the sounds of clattering hooves may well have brought back memories of their morning clash with Buford’s troopers. As July 1 came to an end, Mitchell Anderson had survived his first true test as a leader, but at a tremendous cost. He must have felt excited and hopeful that the Confederates had prevailed that day, but also expressed sorrow at the loss of yet more friends and comrades from the ranks under his own command. The young lieutenant processed these conflicting emotions through the night, preparing himself to lead Company K once again when the battle was renewed.
Anderson and the 7th Tennessee remained near the Hagerstown (also known as Fairfield) Road on the night of July 1 and through July 2, giving them an opportunity to take stock of their situation. Their brigade had suffered 300 casualties on the battle’s first day, including General Archer, who was taken captive by Union forces. This loss may actually have occasioned some measure of rejoicing by the Tennesseans; they felt no small sense of antipathy towards the Maryland native, who had frequently feuded with the regiment’s colonel, John Fite. In Archer’s stead, General Heth selected Colonel Birkett Fry of the 13th Alabama to take over brigade command. Though he was a native of Alabama rather than Tennessee, Fry had a good reputation among the men from the Volunteer State and was known as a tough fighter. Anderson may have felt much more confident operating under Fry’s leadership than that of the hated Archer.
The young teacher also likely took some time during the regiment’s lull on July 2nd to reflect on all that he had seen and done the previous day, and perhaps on his actions since enlisting in the Confederate Army. Anderson had undoubtedly come a long way to reach this point. He had endured two years of the rigors of camp life and warfare and the toll these had on his body. Mentally, he had to cope with the shame of demotion and the demoralization at hearing the shocking news of Federal troops invading his hometown. Yet, Anderson also must have taken pride in his new leadership position and felt great optimism after seeing how the Confederates had pushed back the Federal forces on the first day of July. Despite the first day’s victory, Mitchell Anderson’s future remained highly uncertain, and the 7th Tennessee’s role in the battle was not over, as General Lee’s assaults on July 2nd failed to dislodge the Union Army from its defensive positions. The Tennessee men knew that more fighting would be required in order to achieve the comprehensive victory on northern soil that Lee so desperately sought. Then, late in the night of July 2, the 7th Tennessee received orders to form up into marching columns and make their way to Seminary Ridge. Anderson did not know it yet, but his regiment’s next assignment would push his leadership abilities to their limit on the battlefield.
On July 3, 1863, the battered and bruised 7th Tennessee discovered that they would be taking part in a massive Confederate assault against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. Their brigade would be positioned in the very center of the attack, making their assignment of the utmost importance. Anderson and the other junior officers of Company K received their directives for the day from Captain Archibald Norris, who had just returned from a conference of company commanders with Colonel Fite. The Tennesseans spent the morning in a flurry of activity, as they rushed to get into the perfect position for the big charge. Around 11:00 a.m., they settled down and awaited their entry into the battle. The weather that day was hot and humid, and the air hung thick and still as Mitchell Anderson would have reviewed his orders and checked in with the men under his command to keep them motivated and ready for combat.
Then, at 1:00 p.m., two Confederate cannon opened fire from the Peach Orchard, signaling the beginning of a massive artillery bombardment. Anderson and the 7th Tennessee would have hugged the ground throughout the hour-long cannonade, as shells whizzed through the air and the fields in front of them became cloaked in smoke. A whirlwind of thoughts must have swirled through the minds of Anderson and his comrades during this time. They may have thought of the regiment’s history of costly assaults and wondered how many of the men next to them would not be standing at the end of the day. Perhaps, after the Confederacy’s recent string of successes, they felt optimistic that the end of the war was finally in sight, and that this attack represented the ultimate opportunity to exact revenge for the ravaging of their communities and the terrorizing of their families at home. Looking out over the mile of open ground that separated them from the Union forces, the Tennesseans likely also felt some measure of sheer terror, as these battle-hardened veterans were well aware of the carnage about to break loose and the blood that would be shed. Finally, the order to begin the assault arrived. Mitchell Anderson set off on the final chapter of his life.
The Tennessee men moved at a steady pace across the fields separating Seminary Ridge from Cemetery Ridge, passing through orchards and taking advantage of the natural swales in the landscape that offered momentary protection. In one of these depressions, about halfway between the two lines, the regiment paused to reform its ranks. To their right, George Pickett’s Virginians were beginning to take heavy gunfire, offering a grim picture of what was to come. The 7th Tennessee emerged from the gully and almost immediately were greeted by an explosion of Union artillery fire that ripped through their ranks. Pieces of shrapnel shredded flesh as the air was filled with the sounds of death. Anderson would have worked to keep Company K together as one, organizing men into position and redressing the ranks as soldiers fell dead and wounded, while also shouting over the din to inspire the Tennesseans to push onward. The unit continued forward, closing to within fifty yards of the Emmitsburg Road and the strong fences that lined both sides of it. At this point, disaster struck. Union infantry opened fire at a deadly range of 175 to 200 yards, and more men from the Volunteer State toppled to the ground. It was here, just a few yards west of the fence, that Mitchell Anderson went down with a severe wound. He lay on the ground, helpless, as his blood spilled over the Pennsylvania grass. Shock and panic must have washed over the young lieutenant in this moment, and as the 7th Tennessee pushed forward, Anderson remained behind, unable to assist his comrades and not knowing what fate would befall him.
What must Mitchell Anderson have experienced as he lay dying on the battlefield that day? He would have seen gray-clad troops continue surging ahead towards the now infamous stone wall that sheltered the opposing forces, and perhaps he attempted to yell some last-minute encouragement to his Company K as they advanced. He would have watched his comrades walking into a hail of fire and looked on in horror as more and more Tennesseans dropped to the ground just as he had. If still conscious at this point, Anderson would have seen the demoralized and defeated Confederates fall back from Cemetery Ridge, retreating to the spot from which they had begun their attack. The sights, sounds, and smells of death and carnage were all around him. What might Anderson have thought of as his final hours ticked away? He surely remembered his besieged family and friends back in Lebanon and wondered what would become of them as the war dragged on. Would he live to see them again, and would the harsh yoke of the Yankees be lifted from his home state? The possibility of being captured by the enemy loomed large, and Anderson may have fearfully wondered if his next destination would be a dank and dirty Union prison camp, worsening his already fragile emotional state. He would have thought of his comrades in the ranks, trying to determine who amongst them may have lived or died and how his leadership had set them up for triumph or tragedy. Would the Tennesseans prove successful in striking a tremendous blow to the Union and solidify the legitimacy of his new nation? Or would his and their sacrifices, hundreds of miles from home, turn out to be in vain? He may have reflected one last time on all that he had been through and his tumultuous journey through the last two years, and perhaps he sought to determine if it had all been worth the great cost. Mitchell Anderson surely wondered how his men and the history books would remember the soldier and the man he had become as his life expired on the farm fields of Gettysburg.
The exact moment and location of Mitchell Anderson’s death remains unknown. In his roster of the 7th Tennessee throughout the war, author William T. Venner remarks that Anderson died of wounds received in Pickett’s Charge on July 4, 1863. Anderson’s compiled service record includes a note stating that his name appeared on a list of casualties from Archer’s brigade dated to July 8, 1863, but without further specificity. His own regiment remained uncertain as to his fate for several weeks following their retreat from Gettysburg. Anderson was listed on his unit’s muster roll for July and August not as dead, but as “Prisoner of war since July 3, 1863.” Evidently, none of the 7th Tennessee’s survivors could attest to having seen him die, and as such they held out hope that he had somehow persevered and remained alive. Such was often the disturbing reality of the fog of war. By the autumn, though, the grim reality of Anderson’s passing had set in. On the September and October entry of the company muster roll, a note states that he was “Killed in the battle of Gettysburg, Pa. July 3, 1863.” The men of the 7th Tennessee had finally accepted that Mitchell A. Anderson was no more.
The Legacy and Memory of Mitchell Anderson and the Volunteer State The Tennessee monument on Seminary Ridge honors the sacrifices of men like Mitchell Anderson. Photo by the author.
Anderson’s death certainly had a significant impact on those he left behind in his regiment. The men of the 7th Tennessee’s rank and file who had elected him to serve as junior second lieutenant must have acutely felt the loss of a man they had entrusted with a leadership capacity. Junior officer positions routinely experienced high turnover and casualty rates throughout the war, but the pain of losing well-regarded members of a unit, particularly those men who had risen out of the ranks of privates, remained difficult all the same. The men once under Anderson’s command knew they would have to embark upon the process of selecting new leaders yet again, continuing the bloody and gruesome cycle. Additionally, his close friends in the regiment lost a companion, as the crucible of battle claimed another life. The Tennesseans had built deep and emotional bonds of friendship over their two years together as a regiment, and the death of Mitchell Anderson must have felt like the loss of a surrogate family member to the survivors.
As the war dragged on, Anderson’s memory likely faded into the background as just one of the many casualties of the conflict. Yet the Tennessee teacher must have left a lasting impression in the mind of at least one of his comrades, which resurfaced decades later. Between 1915 and 1922, researchers utilized a series of questionnaires to gather the recollections of surviving Civil War veterans from Tennessee. John M. Powell, a resident of Wilson County at the time of the war and an original member of Company K, 7th Tennessee Infantry, returned the questionnaire. One of its questions asked the veterans to name as many members of their company with whom they had served as they could, and his memory proved fruitful in this regard. Powell named about twenty comrades in his list, including the former teacher, “Mitchel [sic] A. Anderson.” Even more than fifty years after the young lieutenant’s death in battle, his legacy lived on for at least one of those soldiers with whom he had undergone the trials and travails of warfare. This memory, though relatively small, demonstrates that Mitchell Anderson formed meaningful human connections with his fellow soldiers during his time in the 7th Tennessee.
Mitchell Anderson’s death at Gettysburg also undoubtedly left its mark on his family, who were forced to cope with the tragedy of yet another family member’s loss. T.C. Anderson surely had high hopes for his promising third child, and Mitchell’s death in battle must have hit the proud Anderson patriarch extremely hard. Additionally, he must have wondered who would help him manage his household and affairs as he grew older, with Mitchell struck down in the prime of his life. Tragedy hit the university president again before the war’s conclusion, as his youngest son, “Jimmie,” passed away in 1864 at age 15. By the end of the conflict, only his eldest two children, Samuel and the invalid Amanda, remained alive. These heart-wrenching deaths must have seriously challenged the mental resilience of the old minister, who, like many 19th-century Americans, would have looked to God for an explanation for his family’s unrelenting losses. Ultimately, T.C. Anderson resigned as president of Cumberland University in 1866 and devoted his remaining years to the church. He served as Secretary of the Board of Missions of Lebanon’s Cumberland Presbyterian Church until his death in 1882. The war had cost his family and town dearly, and it ensured that his life would never be the same.
Despite his status as an officer and the son of a prestigious minister and college president, the location of Mitchell Anderson’s remains is unknown. He does not lie in eternal rest with his family at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Lebanon, indicating that his body never made the journey home. The most likely answer is that Anderson was buried by Union soldiers in a mass grave with other Confederates killed in Pickett’s Charge, unceremoniously dumped in a ditch over 600 miles from home. His remains may have been moved to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond in the 1870s as part of the massive project to bring Confederate dead back to the southern states following the Civil War, or he may still lie beneath the fields of Gettysburg today. In any case, the uncertainty of his final resting place ensures that Mitchell Anderson was not granted the “Good Death” that Victorian Era Americans strove for. He died far away from his family members, who were in turn unable to express their grief over his body in accordance with contemporary rituals of mourning. As Federal soldiers occupied Tennessee and the world around them changed in new and unfamiliar ways, the Andersons of Lebanon would have interpreted this pain as yet another disruption to their traditional ways of life. Anderson’s lack of the “Good Death” would have proven especially difficult for his minister father to accept; no one was present to record Mitchell Anderson’s final words or give him comfort as he expired from his wounds, and his body would have been treated as more of a nuisance to be dealt with than as a vessel of grief, as was the case for many of his fellow soldiers from the Volunteer State. Anderson’s life thus ended in a way that would have been considered appalling according to the social conventions of the time and the personal expectations of his family.
Following the Civil War, the popular memory of Pickett’s Charge, and thus of Mitchell Anderson’s final moments, became a subject of intense debate. Many authors ascribed the bulk of the gallantry displayed that day to the Virginians of Pickett’s division, while marginalizing the contributions of soldiers from other states. A war of words had raged for decades between North Carolinians and Virginians before Tennessee entered the fray. In 1882, J.H. Moore, a member of Archer’s Brigade at Gettysburg, published his essay “Longstreet’s Assault” in the popular “Annals of the Civil War” series. Moore argued that the Tennessee soldiers had fought just as valiantly as Pickett’s men, and he used John Bachelder’s well-known maps of the battle to argue that the “Tennessee Brigade was the only one in Heth’s division that carried their standards into the fortifications on the hill.” By doing so, Moore was defending the deaths and honor of men like Mitchell Anderson, claiming that his ultimate sacrifice was every bit as valuable and worthy of adulation as that made by a Virginian.
Other Tennesseans continued the struggle for recognition decades after the war. One man criticized Union artillery captain Andrew Cowan for claiming that “nothing but gray-clad Virginians” advanced on his position, while another author under the name William H. Sparrow argued that the charge “ought more properly be called the ‘Assault of A.P. Hill’s corps.’” North Carolinian author William R. Bond, in his pamphlet Picket or Pettigrew? An Historical Essay, mused “To how many does the name Gettysburg suggest the names of Tennessee, Mississippi, or North Carolina?” Lastly, Fergus S. Harris of the 7th Tennessee recalled, in a piece for the Confederate Veteran magazine, his joy at seeing a tour guide point to the spot where Archer’s men had crossed the stone wall. Harris felt vindicated by this observation, writing that his regiment “had at least received proper recognition.” Though Harris likely was not thinking of Anderson specifically when he made this statement, the story of the young teacher’s death was included in this praise. The Tennesseans’ strong justifications of their actions on July 3, 1863 aimed to preserve the honor of their units, their communities, and their state, all significant objects of pride considered worthy of defense in the cultural landscape of the nineteenth century. Though often viewed as a debate on collective remembrance, this conflict of historical memory had at its core the preservation of the honorable legacies of individual human beings like Mitchell Anderson.
Mitchell Anderson’s life embodied the ups and downs of life in the nineteenth century and the Civil War. He was born into a powerful and, in many ways privileged, family, but experienced devastating loss at a young age. He entered the Confederate Army in a leadership position only to have it taken away from him, forcing him to endure the shame and dishonor that accompanied such a demotion. He served during some of the bloodiest battles of the war and earned back the respect of his comrades that enabled his return to the junior officer corps. He died in perhaps the most climactic assault of the Civil War, with impacts that stretched back to his family in Tennessee and into the annals of history, as well as the contests of memory that surrounded his state’s role in that charge. Overall, Mitchell Anderson deserves to be remembered in all his complexity, through the lenses of his personal life, his state’s actions, and his military career. His peculiar story makes him an interesting figure for study within the broader context of the Civil War era, but through all the complications of his life’s journey, Mitchell Anderson sheds light on powerful and often competing emotions, hopes, disappointments, thoughts, and loyalties that constitute the human experience.
Photograph of Mitchell Anderson courtesy of the Stockton Archives, Cumberland University, Lebanon, Tennessee
Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
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The Cumberland Presbyterian Review, Volume III, October 1882, courtesy of the Stockton Archives, Cumberland University, Lebanon, Tennessee.
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Narrative and map by Ryan Bilger, Gettysburg College