Thomas Finnell was a 35 year-old Private in Battery I of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery at the Battle of Chickamauga. During the heat of the fighting on 20th September, his battery was worked especially hard. The stress and confusion of the occasion led to a humourous incident that would be remembered by ‘Buffalo Tom’s’ comrades for many years to come. 

A squad of men from Battery A, 1st Illinois Light Artillery and their gun (Library of Congress)

A squad of men from Battery A, 1st Illinois Light Artillery and their gun (Library of Congress)

Tom had been 33 when he enlisted in the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery on 25th November 1861. A 5 feet 6 inch tall farmer with gray eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion, he had made his home in Clintonia, deWitt County, Illinois, where he lived with his wife Alice (34 in 1861) and three daughters Margaret (11), Bridget (3), Catherine (1). Tom and Alice had probably been living in the west since soon after their arrival in America- their eldest daughter, Margaret, had been born in Missouri while the youngest children had both been born in Illinois. (1)

Tom would serve for the duration of the war in the 2nd, re-enlisting as a veteran volunteer in Chattanooga on 1st January 1864 before mustering out with the regiment in Springfield, Illinois on 14th June 1865. During his time in the army he was all over the South, fighting at engagements such as Island No.10, Corinth, Perryville and Chickamauga, as well as through the Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea and the Carolinas, ending at Bentonville. Throughout the Irishman developed a talent for his ability to seek out whiskey, and also for his use of his ‘favorite expression’ when in action. His comrade W.G. Putney, a former bugler in Battery I, remembered Tom’s participation in the Chickamauga fighting fondly over 20 years later:

Buffalo Tom, an Irishman, whose sense of smell for old rye [whiskey], and whose instinct for finding it under most adverse circumstances was never known to fail, was No. 5 on the gun, it being his duty to carry ammunition from No. 6 at the limber to No. 2, who put it in the muzzle of the gun. In the confusion and excitement of battle he did not notice the gun had been fired twice while he ran for more cartridges. So when he came with the third he did not want to let No. 2 have the charge, because he feared No. 2 had put in two loads that were in the gun yet. After some discussion, Tom gave the last charge to him, but immediately ran off to one side, and, hugging the ground as close as he could, turns to No. 4 and hallowed, using his favorite expression under excitement, “Kristgud! boy! Touch her off azy, or she”ll boorst.” (2)

The long remembered incident (and Tom’s frequent use of the word ‘Kristgud’ in action) clearly stayed with the men of Battery L as a memory of their service long after the war. It also offers us a rare opportunity to glimpse an event in the service of an ordinary Irishman during the conflict, of which there were thousands at Chickamauga. Peter Cozzens, who first identified and sourced this story, suspects that the event may have taken place a few hundred yards from the McDonald House on the battlefield, as the 2nd Illinois Light were engaged late on the 20th September in stemming the Confederate tide. Unfortunately, we are left with no indication as to how Tom, clearly a colourful character, acquired the nickname ‘Buffalo.’ (3)

(1) Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls, 1860 US Federal Census; (2) Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls, National Tribune 24th September 1885; (3) Cozzens 1996: 490;

References & Further Reading

The National Tribune 24th September 1885. Chickamauga. The Bugler of the 2d. Ill. Light Artillery Has His Say.

1860 US Federal Census

Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls Database

Cozzens, Peter 1196. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga

Civil War Trust Battle of Chickamauga Page

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park