In a previous entry, I wrote about Price’s Raid, the misbegotten 1864 campaign intended to bring Missouri into the Confederacy and led by the Confederate general and former Missouri congressman and governor, Sterling Price. As a part of that essay, I briefly discussed the first engagement of the raid at Fort Davidson, near Pilot Knob, Missouri. Recently, I took the opportunity to visit the Fort Davidson Historic Site, which is maintained by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and toured both their excellent museum and the remnants of Fort Davidson itself. The museum’s exhibits offered fresh information about this small battle fought on the margins of the war and seeing the terrain around the fort provided a feel for the battle, the place, and the people who fought here. Armed with these insights, I did some additional research and discovered that, not only was the defense of the fort a small gem in terms of tactics, but also the battle’s aftermath included the kind of cruel tragedy and barbarism that marked the Civil War in Missouri.
On September 3, 1864, Major General William Rosecrans, Federal commander of the Department of Missouri, received word from General Washburn in Little Rock that Confederate forces at Batesville, Arkansas, under General Jo Shelby, were about to be joined by additional units and placed under the overall command of Sterling Price. Rosecrans and Washburn correctly surmised that Price’s presence meant an invasion of Missouri was in the offing, but the former was unsure what avenue of attack price might take. Even when he received intelligence that Price had crossed the Arkansas River, Rosecrans remained uncertain what direction price would go.
On the 23d we received certain information that Price had crossed the Arkansas with two divisions of mounted men, three batteries of artillery, a large wagon train carrying several thousand stand of small-arms, and was at or near Batesville on White River. From this point midway between the Mississippi and the western boundary of the State there are three practicable routes of invasion. One by Pocahontas into southeast Missouri, another by West Plains and Rolla or vicinity north toward Jefferson City, a third by Cassville north either through Springfield and Sedalia or by the Kansas border to the Missouri River.
His own military judgment told him that Price would aim for the central region of the state, but that the Confederates might also send a detachment into southeast Missouri. Little did he know that Price would indeed enter the southeast part of Missouri, but would do so with his entire army of 16,000 men with the goal of moving north to seize St. Louis before turning west to take Jefferson City. The next day, September 24, Rosecrans learned that Shelby and 5,000 men, supported by artillery, were reported just south of Pilot Knob, 86 miles south of St. Louis. While this could be the detachment Rosecrans predicted, he also was a smart enough soldier to know that Shelby could be the lead element of Price’s entire army, in which case St. Louis might be their objective.
Therefore, he ordered General Thomas Ewing, Union commander of the region surrounding Pilot Knob, to gather what troops he could at Fort Davidson and ascertain whether the reports of Confederate activity in the area indicated merely that stray detachment Rosecrans predicted or if Price’s army was actually moving towards St. Louis. If it was a detachment, Ewing was to defend and hold Fort Davidson with the forces at his disposal. However, if it turned out to be Price’s army, he was to evacuate the fort and fall back to the north.
From a purely military point of view, Fort Davidson was certainly not worth any expenditure of Confederate manpower or material and it was too small to pose any threat to Price’s rear should he bypass it on his way to capture St. Louis, as he should have done. But, Sterling Price was no soldier. He was a politician in uniform and he saw the campaign as being more political in its goals than military. While the “liberation” and occupation of St. Louis was his heartfelt goal, Fort Davidson was too tempting a target. It was tempting because it would provide an initial and overwhelming victory for his campaign, which was certain to rally Southern sympathizers to join his army, and it was even more tempting because Thomas Ewing now commanded Fort Davidson.
From Price’s point of view and those of Southern sympathizers across Missouri, Ewing symbolized Northern brutality and Union “occupation” of the state. He was a 35-year old former lawyer, two-term Congressman from Ohio, and Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, as well as an ardent “free-soiler” who had fought to make Kansas a free state. In 1862, he resigned from the Kansas Supreme Court to recruit and lead a volunteer Kansas regiment in the Union Army. He demonstrated a natural aptitude for leadership and, after his distinguished conduct at the Battle of Prairie Grove in 1863, he was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of the District of the Border, which comprised Kansas and western Missouri.
In that capacity, Ewing became infamous for issuing General Order No. 11 in retaliation for Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas, which led to the murder of 150 men and boys. Under this order, anyone living in four Missouri counties that bordered Kansas who was considered to be a Southern sympathizer would be forcibly expelled. Rumor and innuendo were sufficient to cause expulsion and anyone who did not leave voluntarily, was forced out by Federal forces. Thousands of Missouri families were thus driven out of the state into Arkansas and their homes and farms either confiscated or destroyed. The bitterness this cruel policy created made Ewing a marked man in Southern eyes and made Fort Davidson a prize worth having, particularly if Ewing could be captured along with the fort.
As for the fort, itself, it wasn’t much of a prize. Even the term “fort” is something of a misnomer as the entire facility was not more than 30 yards from side to side. Ewing described the fort and its surroundings as follows:
The village of Pilot Knob, which is the terminus of the railroad and the depot for supply of the lower outposts, is eighty-six miles south of Saint Louis. It lies in a plain of about 1,000 acres, encircled by Cedar and Rock Mountains on the north, Pilot Knob on the east, and Shepherd’s Mountain, stretching around the valley, on the south and west. Each hill is from 500 to 600 feet in height, and rises abruptly from the valley, with the sides toward it covered with rocks, gnarled oaks, and undergrowth. The southern and western slopes of Shepherd’s Mountain are accessible, and several roads lead over them to “the coalings” on its summit. Stout’s Creek flows along the base of Shepherd’s Mountain and through a gap between it and Pilot Knob into a larger valley of several thousands of acres, encircled by a chain of hills, in the northern end of which and about a mile from the town of Pilot Knob is the flourishing village of Ironton. Through this gap runs the road from Pilot Knob to Fredericktown, passing out of the larger valley by the “Shut-in,” a gap four miles southeast of Pilot Knob. The two valleys are called Arcadia .
Fort Davidson is a hexagonal work, mounting four 32-pounder siege guns and three 24-pounder howitzers en barbette. It lies about 300 yards from the base of the knob and 1,000 from the gap. From the fort to the remotest summit of these hills visible from it is not over 1,200 yards, while all parts of the hill-sides toward the fort, except the west end of Shepherd’s Mountain, are in musket-range. The fort was always conceded to be indefensible against any large army having serviceable artillery. Early last summer I sent competent engineers to select another site, but such are the difficulties of the position no practicable place could be found any more defensible. I therefore had the roads leading up the hills obstructed, cleared the nearest hill-sides of timber, and put the fort in a thorough state of defense by deepening the ditches, strengthening the parapet, and adding two rifle-pits leading north and south, commanding the best approaches.
As Price approached, Ewing proceeded to Fort Davidson to join the small force already there under the command of Major James Wilson. Wilson’s force included six companies of the 47th Missouri Infantry, and one company from the 50th Missouri Infantry, for a total of 489 officers and men, all of which were, in Ewing’s words, “raw troops.” In addition, Wilson also had 562 veterans from 6 companies of the 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry; one company from the 2nd Missouri State Militia Cavalry; another from the 1st Missouri State Militia Infantry, a battery of the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery, and a detachment of the 14th Iowa Infantry that Ewing brought with him. Still unsure as to whether he was dealing with a small Confederate detachment or Price’s army of 16,000, Ewing made preparations to, first, determine the enemy’s strength and, second, to fight a delaying defense-in-depth no matter what that strength might be.
To those ends, shortly after arriving at Fort Davidson at noon on September 26, Ewing sent two companies to scout toward Fredericktown, and a smaller scouting party to reconnoiter the roads south of Fredericktown and “learn of the loyal people on them as much as possible as to the force of the enemy.” In short order, both groups ran into Confederate forces in strength near Shut-in Gap, and fell back into the town of Ironton, one mile south of Fort Davidson and just beyond the gap between Pilot Knob and Shepherd Mountain. There, the Union troops joined with a company from the 47th Missouri and turned to make a stand. When Ewing heard that the enemy had been found, he dispatched Major Wilson with men from the 14th Iowa, a section from Captain Montgomery’s 2nd Missouri Light Artillery, and all his available cavalry to support the units already engaged and ordered them to drive the enemy back through Shut-in Gap. Wilson’s men succeeded in driving the Confederates back through the gap, but soon encountered the leading edge of what was Price’s army. He wisely fell back as night arrived and a heavy rain storm ensued.
When Wilson’s reports arrived at Fort Davidson, Ewing sensed that he was not facing a small detachment, but, rather, that Sterling Price was on the other side of the gap. However, rather than immediately evacuate the fort as ordered, he decided to fight a delaying action. Given the circumstances, in which he was outnumbered by better than 10 to 1, it was a somewhat remarkable decision. In his official report, Ewing makes no mention of whether he believed St. Louis was Price’s objective or whether he knew critical reinforcements were on their way to the city. But, if he did, that may explain his decision to stand and fight, which he described as follows:
By midnight it was evident that the enemy were in strong force, as their column could be heard coming into the valley in steady procession, and their encampment grew extensive. We still did not know positively that Price’s main army was there, though all our information was decidedly to that effect. But the advantages of delaying the enemy two or three days in his march northward and of making a stubborn fight before retreating were so great, even though the defense should be unsuccessful and much of the garrison be lost, that I resolved to stand fast and take the chances.
That night, Ewing gathered all unneeded supplies and commissary stores, rolling stock, and wagons, and sent them north. He also had details quickly construct six platforms along the forts earthen walls for his field guns, and immediately placed four pieces on them. Throughout the night, Ewing kept Major General Smith in De Soto informed of his plans and movements via by telegraph until the Confederates cut the lines at 11:00 a.m. on September 27.
At first light on the 27th, Price’s men attacked, forcing Wilson back through Arcadia Valley to the gap between Shepherd Mountain and Pilot Knob. Ewing ordered the 14th Iowa to take position on the east end of Shepherd Mountain, and told Wilson to take his cavalry and fall back to the side of Pilot Knob, allowing them to command the gap from both sides and “opening a clear range from the fort.” Wilson and the Iowans were able to stubbornly hold the gap for several hours, but, by early afternoon, the weight of the Confederate forces forced them back towards Fort Davidson. Price’s men now crested Shepherd’s Mountain and swept down the hillside towards the fort, but Ewing’s artillery quickly drove them back.
Soon, however, two Confederate guns appeared atop the mountain and opened fire on the fort. This was what Ewing feared most because, if more enemy guns could be placed on the hills above the fort, they would quickly destroy it. Luckily for the Union defenders, Price could only get these two pieces in place and return fire from seven of Fort Davidson’s guns quickly drove the Confederate artillery back to the other side of the hill.
At this point, the wisest course of action on Sterling Price’s part would have been to wait until more artillery could be brought forward to the mountain tops, then pound Fort Davidson into submission. But that might take until the next morning and Price was impatient for his victory. His officers argued that a mere show of force might induce a Federal surrender, but Price would not listen. Instead, he ordered a frontal assault to begin immediately. Worse, rather than coordinating a simultaneous attack from several fronts, he sent his men in piecemeal, allowing Ewing to use all his artillery and rifles on each attacking group.
The first attack came from the direction of Shepherd Mountain and was made by General Marmaduke’s command. Marmaduke’s men struggled down the hillside, combating both the terrain and the intense fire from Union artillery. Unable to maintain good order, they took cover in a deep creek bed once they reached the plain in front of the fort. From that position, they maintained an “incessant fire” on the fort’s garrison, but were unable to get any closer. Meanwhile, General Fagan’s Confederates had moved around and over Pilot Knob to approach Fort Davidson from the east. This group assaulted the fort at the double-quick, but had to cross a broad open expanse that offered an excellent field of fire for Ewing’s men. As the Union general later described,
We opened on them when at 600 yards from the fort with musketry from the ramparts and from the long line of the north rifle-pits, and with canister from seven pieces of artillery. They rushed on most gallantly, but were broken, confused, and swept down by our rapid and well-directed fire until the advance reached the ditch…”
The fighting became frantic at this point. Captain Montgomery described the attack and his artillerymen’s struggle:
…the four guns inside doing excellent firing with shell until the rebels charged within 150 yards. We then used canister, double charge. The enemy’s lines came within thirty paces of the fort. Lieutenant Simonton held his position, doing excellent service, until the enemy were within sixty yards of the fort. He was then ordered inside. Just as the lead team of the right piece reached the gate the two lead horses were shot down, wounding the driver, blocked up the gap so they were unable to get the section inside. The lieutenant ordered all the men to take care of themselves. The men all came in except one, who was captured. The horses then were beginning to stampede, when I ordered them to shoot the horses with their revolvers.
The attacking Southern soldiers tried desperately to climb out of the ditch and up the fort’s walls, but they were too steep. As they struggled, the Federal defenders retrieved crude hand grenades from the fort’s magazine and hurled them down on the attackers. This made the ditch untenable and Fagan’s men fell back with heavy losses. Price suspended any further assaults, deciding to bring up artillery during the night and construct ladders for scaling the fort’s walls. He would attack again at dawn.
Meanwhile, Ewing’s interrogation of Confederate prisoners convinced him that, indeed, Sterling Price was here with his entire army. But, Ewing had managed to delay him by two days and decided now was the time to extract his command. At midnight, he began preparations to evacuate and attempt to slip through Confederate lines to the north via the Potosi road. He ordered that the magazine be filled with all spare ammunition and a delayed fuse be prepared that would destroy the magazine two hours after the Federal garrison had left.
We took possession of the town and valley and drove from them all straggling rebels. The garrison was then aroused, knapsacks packed, haversacks, and cartridge-boxes well supplied and everything destructible, which we could not take away and the enemy might use, placed near or on the magazine. At 3 o’clock Colonel Fletcher silently led the infantry out of the sally port around the ditch, and through the north rifle.pit, forming them under cover of a deep shadow at the end of the pit. The drawbridge was then covered with tents to muffle the sound, and the cavalry and battery marching out formed column with the infantry and took a by-way to the Potosi road.
Under the cover of darkness, Ewing’s entire command silently marched past Confederate camps and up the road to safety. At 5:00 a.m., the Arcadia Valley shook violently as Fort Davidson’s magazine exploded with a roar. This was clearly a sign that something was amiss, but Price did not have anyone investigate until daylight. Soon after Price learned that Ewing had escaped, he also received intelligence that strong reinforcements had arrived in St. Louis, making any attack on the city impossible—his insistence on taking Fort Davidson and Ewing’s successful delaying tactics has cost him dearly. Worst of all, 1,051 Union troops had inflicted more than 1,000 casualties on his army of 16,000.
Price would move on and his raid would eventually end with more disasters. But, there is another smaller and more chilling postscript to the story of Fort Davidson. During the fighting on September 27, Major James Wilson was wounded and captured along with five of his men. After the successful evacuation of the fort, he and his comrades remained Confederate prisoners. However, around October 1, Price’s men turned Wilson and the other prisoners over to Tim Reeves, commander of a notorious Confederate guerilla unit, near Union, Missouri. Reeves, a former rural Baptist minister, had been targeted by Major Wilson and his unit and there was a considerable amount of bad blood between them. Reeves promptly had all six men executed and dumped their bodies along St. John’s Creek.
On October 23, a young man named Michael Zwicky from Washington, Missouri and four of his friends found three bodies lying on the ground next to the creek, partially covered by leaves. Two were in Federal uniform, one “distinguished as an artillerist,” and one was in civilian clothing. Horrified, the young men soon discovered three more bodies, one with major’s straps on his coat. The other two bodies had been “torn to pieces” by buzzards and wild hogs. The men quickly covered the bodies and notified the local Justice of the Peace and Coroner, a Mr. Kleinbeck. Kleinbeck investigated the suspicious deaths, remembering hearing “fourteen or fifteen shots [being fired] in rapid succession” three weeks earlier. He gathered papers from the bodies and sent them on to St. Louis, where it was determined that the dead were Major Wilson and his men.
The Federal reaction to the murder of Wilson and his men was severe. In July 1863, in response to Confederate threats to execute Union prisoners and African-American soldiers in particular, President Lincoln issued a proclamation that “that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed.” General Rosecrans now acted on the president’s policy by ordering the public execution of six Confederate prisoners of war. Five were to be enlisted men held at St. Louis’ Gratiot Street Prison, while the sixth would be an officer held in Independence.
The five enlisted soldiers were selected at random and none had anything to do with either Reeve’s guerilla unit or Wilson’s murder. They were not told of their fate until the date slated for their execution, October 29. A Catholic priest, Father Ward, and an Episcopalian minister, Reverend Phillip McKim, attended the men after their death warrants were read to them. Five were baptized and the other, young Asa Ladd, wrote a final letter to his wife and children. They then were taken by wagon to Fort Number 4, near what is now Lafayette Park in St. Louis, where a detachment of Union soldiers from the 10th Kansas and 41st Missouri Infantry would carry out the execution. The St. Louis Democrat reported the scene as follows:
On the west side of the fort six posts had been set in the ground, each with a seat attached, and each tied with a strip of white cotton cloth, afterward used in bandaging the eyes of the prisoners. Fifty-four men were selected as the executioners. Forty-four belonged to the 10th Kansas and ten to the 41st Missouri. Thirty-six of these comprised the front firing party, eighteen being reserved in case they should not do this work effectually.
About three o’clock the prisoners arrived on the ground, and sat down, attached to the posts. They all appeared to be more or less affected, but, considering the circumstances, remained remarkably firm. Father Ward and Rev. Mr. McKim spoke to the men in their last moments, exhorting them to put their trust in God. The row of posts ranged north and south, and at the first on the north was Asa V. Ladd, on his left was George Nichols; next Harvey H. Blackburn, George T. Bunch, Charles W. Minnekin, and James W. Gates. Ladd and Blackburn sat with perfect calmness, with their eyes fixed on the ground, and did not speak. Nichols shed tears, which he wiped away with a red pocket-handkerchief, and continued to weep until his eyes were bandaged. Nichols gave no sign of emotion at first, but sat with seeming indifference, scraping the ground with his heel. He asked one of the surgeons if there was any hope of a postponement, and being assured that there was none, he looked more serious, and frequently ejaculated, “Lord, have mercy on my poor soul!” Again he said: “O, to think of the news that will go to father and mother!”
After the reading of the sentence by Col. Heinrichs, Minnekin expressed a desire to say a few words. He said:
“Soldiers, and all of you who hear me, take warning from me. I have been a Confederate soldier four years, and have served my country faithfully. I am now to be shot for what other men have done, that I had no hand in, and know nothing about. I never was a guerrilla, and I am sorry to be shot for what I had nothing to do with, and what I am not guilty of. When I took a prisoner, I always treated him kindly and never harmed a man after he surrendered. I hope God will take me to his bosom when I am dead. O, Lord, be with me!”
While the sergeant was bandaging his eyes, Minnekin, said: “Sergeant, I don’t blame you. I hope we will all meet in heaven. Boys, farewell to you all; the Lord have mercy on our poor souls!”
The firing party was about ten paces off. Some of the Kansas men appeared to be reluctant to fire upon the prisoners, but Captain Jones told them it was their duty; that they should have no hesitation, as these men had taken the life of many a Union man who was as innocent as themselves.
At the word, the thirty-six soldiers fired simultaneously, the discharge sounding like a single explosion. The aim of every man was true. One or two of the victims groaned, and Blackburn cried out: “Oh, kill me quick!” In five minutes they were all dead, their heads falling to one side, and their bodies swinging around to the sides of the posts, and being kept from falling by the pinions on their arms. Five of them were shot through the heart, and the sixth received three balls in his breast, dying almost instantly.
As was so often the case on the margins of this war, brutality and inhumanity had been answered in kind. No form of justice was served and both sides were guilty of nothing less than mindless, vengeful, cold blooded murder.
I thought I might take this opportunity to explore another subject related to the fighting on the margins of the Civil War. This time, I want to examine the last battle to be fought for the control of Missouri, a vital, so-called, “border state.” Missouri was considered a part of the Trans-Mississippi Theater, a vast area of over 600,000 square miles. In total, there never were more than 50,000 men under arms across the entire region at any one time, and the leadership of both sides considered it a sideshow in the larger war. Essentially, it was, in terms of military importance, an empty wasteland.
As for Missouri, its status in the Civil War was much like that of West Virginia. Both regions were of great strategic value, with West Virginia’s related to the North’s need to keep the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad open, allowing the flow of supplies and men to and from the West, while Missouri’s was based on the need to maintain possession of St. Louis, which was vital to control of the Mississippi River. However, as in the case of West Virginia, Missouri’s status was decided relatively early in the war. From the outset, Union forces controlled both St. Louis and the state capital, Jefferson City, and the only significant Confederate threat to the state was turned back at Pea Ridge, Arkansas in March 1862. And, while St. Louis would initially serve as the Union command headquarters for the Western Theater, that command would migrate south as Federal forces penetrated deeper into Mississippi.
As a result, Missouri, like West Virginia, saw no great battles, no monumental campaigns. Rather, with a populace whose sentiments were deeply divided, it experienced a relentless guerilla war fought mostly by various bushwackers and even criminal elements, who used the war as an opportunity to steal, settle old scores, and commit cold blooded murder. Some of these elements would receive official sanction, such as the Confederate Partisan Rangers and Union Kansas Brigade, no matter the atrocities they would commit in the name of the cause. Men like James Lane, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, and William Quantrill would become legendary for their brutality and the fear they generated among the state’s inhabitants. However, in the fall of 1864, as the war entered its final phase, there was one last Confederate campaign undertaken to wrest the state from Federal control and, in doing so, hopefully influence the outcome of the 1864 U.S. presidential election in the South’s favor.
The campaign’s goal was the seizure of, first, St. Louis, and then Jefferson City. Once the latter was successfully completed, the state’s pro-Southern government-in-exile would be installed and the state would be under the effective control of the Confederacy. Hopefully for the Confederacy, this would, in turn, spark a secessionist uprising across the state, whose success would help destroy Lincoln’s reelection bid, and allow a negotiated peace, with Missouri as a part of the new Confederate nation.
The architect of the campaign plan and the man who would lead it was Confederate General Sterling Price, a former U.S. Congressman from Missouri and governor of the state. Price was terribly vain and not a particularly competent general. In fact, one of the most noteworthy aspects of this campaign was that many of its leading participants, on both sides, were incompetent “has beens” or untalented “never were’s.” These were men who either had proven unable to perform in the greater theaters of the war and had been exiled to the military backwater that was Missouri, or who simply had never demonstrated sufficient talent to garner a more substantial command and, as a result, were permanently stuck fighting the war in the vast Trans-Mississippi Theater. This combined lack of military ability would greatly influence both the conduct and outcome of what became known as Price’s Raid.
In addition to being a politician, General Price was also a former planter, lawyer, and slaveholder. Described as “quixotic” by one historian, the 55-year old Price had served as a Brigadier General of Volunteers in the Mexican War, and did perform competently at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales. However, up to this point in the Civil War, his record was spotty, at best. He had been victorious when fighting either irregular or poorly trained Union units inside the state, but his record against more organized and better led opponents was one of total failure, with major losses at Pea Ridge, Iuka, and Corinth. Further, in the upcoming campaign to seize control of his native state, he would be somewhat blinded by his belief that his mere presence in Missouri would result in an influx of what he personally estimated at more than 30,000 new volunteers to the Southern cause.
In mounting this invasion of Missouri, Price was given three division commanders of varying quality. The first of them, General Joseph Shelby was, without doubt, the best of the lot and, was, in fact, one of the better Southern commanders operating in the Trans-Mississippi. His cavalry of Missouri volunteers had performed well at Wilson’s Creek and he had led several highly successful raids into Missouri. However, the other two division commanders, General John Marmaduke and General James Fagan, were another matter. Neither was particularly competent and they were classic examples of officers who would never have risen to their current levels of command in any other theater of the war. Marmaduke was a West Point graduate, but that had not translated into military success. His most noteworthy achievements to date had been getting shot at Shiloh and then killing his former commander, General Lucius Walker, in a duel precipitated by Marmaduke’s charges of cowardice against Walker. Fagan, meanwhile, was a minor politician and farmer from Arkansas who had seen undistinguished service at Shiloh and Corinth. After the latter, he apparently crossed the ill-tempered Braxton Bragg and was exiled across the Mississippi, back to Arkansas.
Worst of all, however, was the fact that, like seemingly all Confederate military organizations west of the Appalachians, Price’s new army would be beset by petty jealousies and bickering. Shelby despised Marmaduke and the two officers quarreled constantly. At the same time, both Fagan and Marmaduke distrusted Price and Price considered Marmaduke utterly incompetent. As a result, there was no command cohesion whatsoever, and a cloud of disharmony and ill will constantly hung over the command organization. Needless to say, this lingering atmosphere of jealousy, hatred, and distrust, combined with a distinct shortage of military aptitude, did not bode well for any chances of success.
However, the opposing command organization was not much better off. The Department of Missouri in St. Louis was led by General William Rosecrans, former commander of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans, much beloved by the soldiers of that army, was a man forced to come painfully to grip with his own limitations. While he did lead his army to victory on January 2, 1863 at Stone’s River, “Old Rosy” was slow, unaggressive, and plodding by nature, preferring to seek bloodless “victories” through maneuver rather than via direct confrontation. This approach seemed to work, as he used it to chase Bragg’s army from Tennessee into northern Georgia, capturing the key city of Chattanooga in the process. But when Rosecrans met Bragg in battle at Chickamauga in September 1863, he discovered that he had exceeded his abilities. Bragg smashed his army, driving it back into Chattanooga, and trapping it. Rosecrans became utterly paralyzed and could see no way to break the siege. His incapacity led to Lincoln’s famous appraisal that Rosecrans was acting “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” He was relieved of command in November 1863 and sent into exile in Missouri.
Rosecrans was supported in Missouri by General Alfred Pleasonton, the former cavalry chief of the Army of the Potomac. Pleasanton was a professional soldier and a classic example of the “careerist” who excels at political maneuvering. His only true skills involved his ability to take credit for his subordinates’ successes and ensure they received any blame for his failures. Historian Eric Wittenberg, an acknowledged expert on Civil War cavalry operations and leaders, describes Pleasonton as “a lead from the rear kind of a guy who was a masterful schemer and political intriguer…the sort of guy who would start a fight on the playground and then step back and watch the chaos that he had started.” Like Rosecrans, he was also overly cautious and his greatest military achievement was assigning General John Buford to command the cavalry screen on the Army of the Potomac’s left as it approached Gettysburg. Buford’s decision to fight on the ground around that Pennsylvania town was a key factor in the Union victory and one for which Pleasonton tried take full credit. While George Meade could not see through Pleasonton, Ulysses Grant could and he sent the cavalryman packing to join Rosecrans in Missouri, where the two of them could do as little harm as possible.
The orders to undertake Price’s Raid came from General Kirby Smith, commander of all Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi, on August 4, 1864, and they reflect Price’s convincing arguments to Smith that a host of new recruits awaited them in Missouri.
GENERAL: You will make immediate arrangements for a movement into Missouri, with the entire cavalry force of your district. General Shelby should be instructed to have his command in Northeast Arkansas ready to move by the 20th instant. You can instruct him to await your arrival with the column immediately under your command. A brigade of Louisiana troops, under Colonel Harrison, has been ordered to report to you. They should be added to General Marmaduke’s command, and with his old brigade constitute his division. General Clark should be transferred to the command of Marmaduke’s old brigade…General Shelby’s old brigade, increased by the one raised in East Arkansas can be organized into a division under his immediate command. General Fagan will command the division composed of Cabell’s and Crawford’s brigades. These skeleton organizations are best adapted for an expedition in which a large addition to your force is expected. These weak brigades should be filled by the regiments raised in Missouri…You will scrupulously avoid all wanton acts of destruction and devastation, restrain your men, and impress upon them that their aim should be to secure success in a just and holy cause and not to gratify personal feeling and revenge. Rally the loyal men of Missouri, and remember that our great want is men, and that your object should be, if you cannot maintain yourself in that country, to bring as large an accession as possible to our force…Make Saint Louis the objective point of your movement, which, if rapidly made, will put you in possession of that place, its supplies, and military stores, and which will do more toward rallying Missouri to your standard than the possession of any other point. Should you be compelled to withdraw from the State, make your retreat through Kansas and the Indian Territory, sweeping that country of its mules, horses, cattle, and military supplies of all kinds.
The other thing that is clear from General Smith’s orders is that the entire concept of seizing Jefferson City and reinstating Governor Thomas Reynolds and his government, which had been operating in exile from Texas, was entirely Price’s, as was the idea of fomenting a general insurrection in the state designed to hasten Lincoln’s downfall in the election. Price, ever the dreamer, saw his raid as being far more than merely a military operation intended to secure supplies and recruits. He sought to right the wrong done to him and other Confederate sympathizers by Federal authorities at the war’s outset and forever place Missouri in an independent and victorious Confederacy. As a result, he even summoned Governor Reynolds and his staff from Texas and had them accompany the army into Missouri.
Price collected 4,000 cavalry near Princeton, Arkansas, and took them to Pocahontas, just south of the Missouri border, where he rendezvoused with Shelby, Fagan, and Marmaduke’s divisions. In total, his newly anointed “Army of Missouri” numbered just over 16,000 men, with 12 artillery pieces and a huge, ponderous wagon train intended to carry the tons of supplies Price would supposedly seize during the raid. However, this new army was very much a hollow organization. Many of the so-called regiments contained nothing but a few officers and support staff, all of whom were to command the flood of new recruits to be garnered as the army moved north. Worst of all, however, only about two-thirds of Price’s men were armed. Apparently, the Federal arsenal in St. Louis would provide them with weapons once it was taken. Until then, almost 5,000 Confederate soldiers would venture into Missouri capable of only hurling rocks at the enemy. On September 19, Price and his army entered Missouri and he reported his men were “in fine health and spirits. We found the roads very rough and bad, but have not suffered much from that cause.”
In St. Louis, General Rosecrans had been aware of Price’s activities, but believed General Steele and his Union army in Little Rock would do something to prevent Price from moving north. As a result, when he learned Price had entered the state, he was surprised and began to hastily consolidate his scattered force of some 11,000 men, calling for reinforcements. General Sherman responded to Rosecrans’ urgent plea for help by immediately sending 4,500 veteran infantrymen from General Andrew Smith’s XVI Corps of the Army of the Tennessee to St. Louis. However, before those reinforcements began to arrive, Rosecrans received the unpleasant news that Price’s army was approaching Pilot Knob and a hexagonal Federal earthwork known as Fort Davidson, only 75 miles south of St. Louis.
Rosecrans had long believed that Price’s objective would be western Missouri, where Confederate sympathies were strongest, and, therefore, he thought this reported “army” approaching St. Louis was just a small force conducting a feint. Still, he needed to know for sure, so he dispatched General Thomas Ewing, Jr. to Fort Davidson to assess the situation. Upon arriving there, Ewing quickly realized that the force approaching Pilot Knob was no feint. He mistakenly estimated its strength as 19,000 men, badly outnumbering Fort Davidson’s garrison of 1,100 men supported by 13 cannon and three mortars. Ewing exchanged messages with Rosecrans, but the latter provided no clear guidance. Therefore, to his credit, Ewing decided to hold the fort and fight it out.
At the same time, the Confederate camp was experiencing disagreement over what to do about Fort Davidson. General Shelby argued that Price should simply go around the fort and move quickly to seize St. Louis. However, Price saw a great opportunity for a quick and resounding victory here. He knew that his army was far superior in numbers to the Union garrison and then there was the matter of General Ewing being in command. Ewing was hated by the state’s pro-Southern community as the man who had issued the infamous Order No. 11, which initiated the forcible deportation of thousands of “disloyal” Missouri families from four counties and included the confiscation or destruction of their farms and homes. In Price’s mind, a victory over Ewing and the capture of Fort Davidson would cause thousands to rally to him. Therefore, he overrode Shelby and ordered an assault on the fort for the morning of September 27.
Unfortunately, what should have been an easy victory turned into a mismanaged debacle. Price’s spies told him that there were unarmed civilians inside the fort, and that portions of the Union garrison were secretly Southern sympathizers who would not fire on Price’s men. On hearing this Fagan and Marmaduke argued that a mere show of force would bring surrender. So, Price cancelled his planned pre-assault artillery bombardment in order to spare civilian lives and ordered a massive frontal assault across hundreds of yards of open ground, hoping the sight of such an impressive force would, indeed, bring the desired capitulation of the fort. Instead, it brought the opposite. The attacking columns were poorly coordinated and Ewing’s men did not flee. Rather, they used their artillery with great effectiveness, slaughtering Price’s men as they crossed the flat, open fields surrounding the fort. As night fell, Price called off the attack, having suffered more than 1,000 casualties to Ewing’s 75. He had truly managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
That night, Price and his divided commanders debated what to do next. As they argued, the stillness of the night was broken by a series of massive explosions. When the morning dawned, Price discovered that Ewing had not only successfully gotten the entire garrison safely away, but had destroyed the fort and all its supplies by blowing up the magazine with a slow burning fuse. Then, his morning got even worse when spies arrived from St. Louis and informed him that Smith’s infantry had arrived in the city. With Union force defending St, Louis now outnumbering his, Price elected to abandon his original plans. Rather than attempt to take St. Louis, he would veer to the northwest, capture Jefferson City, and put Governor Reynolds back in the statehouse.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that Federal reinforcements had saved St. Louis from attack, the Union response to Price’s invasion was still disorganized and fragmented. Until the Confederate’s appeared in front of Fort Davidson, no one knew where Price was going and many felt that central Missouri or even southern Kansas might be his real target. The latter threat was taken very seriously by the Union commander of the Department of Kansas, General Samuel Curtis. However, Kansas, just like Missouri, had been stripped for the most part of any regular troops. Therefore, Curtis appealed to Governor Carney to call out the state militia and move it to the Missouri border under Curtis’ command. Unfortunately, Carney was locked in a tight reelection fight and was hesitant to call out the militia because it might cause hundreds of his supporters to be away from the polls on election day. He was about to agree to the mobilization of a few units when word reached him that Price was at Pilot Knob on the far eastern edge of Missouri. Carney told Curtis that Price posed no immediate threat and halted the mobilization.
While Governor Carney worried about his reelection in Kansas, General Price was conducting his raid as though it was also a political campaign. On September 30, after a brief feint towards St. Louis, he headed for Jefferson City, moving the army at a leisurely pace of only 10 miles a day. This allowed the men to liberally forage for food and supplies, which quickly turned into wholesale pillaging that filled the wagons with booty and, in the words of Shelby’s distraught adjutant, Major John Edwards, also added a “rabble of deadheads, stragglers, and stolen negroes” to the column. In addition, Price took every opportunity to stop and make eloquent speeches in each village and town along the way. If one had not known better, it would have appeared more like Price was seeking election than conducting a military operation. So, as he “campaigned” his way towards Jefferson City, Rosecrans was able to respond to the new threat, organizing state militia units and regular troops to defend the capital city and placing them under the command of General Pleasonton.
In addition, General Pleasonton’s cavalry were now ranging close to Price’s column and were beginning to impact his foraging activities, as demonstrated by one report from the 17th Illinois Cavalry:
HEADQUARTERS SEVENTEENTH CAVALRY, Rolla, Mo., October 3, 1864.
SIR: I have the honor to report that on the 30th ultimo, under orders from headquarters District of Rolla., I marched with two battalions, 15 officers and 450 men, to Saint James. The enemy had not appeared at that point, but was reported at Knob View, six miles beyond. Marching rapidly forward, I found the enemy, reported 150 strong, had burned a few cars, plundered a store, and fled southeast before our approach. This side of Knob View I overtook a drove of beef-cattle, numbering from 75 to 100, moving toward the rebel lines. Taking them to be supplies for the rebel army, I arrested the parties in charge, and sent them and the cattle back to Captain Ferguson, in command at Saint James, with instructions to send all to Rolla. The command marched along the railroad toward Cuba, and just at dark the rear of a column was discovered crossing the track to the left. Thick woods and darkness prevented a vigorous pursuit. They went down Brush Creek to the north, and were probably the same party that committed the depredations at Knob View. The command encamped at Cuba. The enemy, from 200 to 400 in number, had visited Cuba the previous night, burning the station-house and warehouse, tearing up the railroad track, and leaving about midnight. I sent Sergeant Stafford, Company L, and three men to Steelville, who returned at 5 a.m., and reported that no enemy in force had appeared at that point. I could obtain no reliable information of the enemy.
I have the honor to remain, your obedient servant,
JOHN L. BEVERIDGE, Colonel Seventeenth Illinois Cavalry
As Price made his lethargic approach to Jefferson City, and as indicated in Colonel Beveridge’s report, he also made every effort to destroy property and railroad facilities. General Fagan’s men destroyed the depot in De Soto, while another group cut the rail line near Franklin and burned the depot in that town. Troops from Marmaduke’s division were responsible for the destruction of the Cuba depot, tore up several miles of Pacific Southwest track, and destroyed the rail bridge over the Moselle River. Another of Marmaduke’s brigades took possession of the town of Washington without opposition, and destroyed all the rail lines within two miles.
On October 7, Price finally arrived at the outskirts of Jefferson City. He launched a few probing attacks on the city and soon discovered he had again been beaten to the punch by Rosecrans. In his view, the city could not be taken and he would abandon that objective as well. This caused him to clash violently with Governor Reynolds, who could see the prospect of Confederate control of Missouri rapidly slipping away. Price elected to move west “in the direction of Kansas, as instructed in my original orders, hoping to be able to capture a sufficient number of arms to arm my unarmed men at Boonville, Sedalia, Lexington, and Independence, places which I intended to occupy with my troops en route.”
Two days later, with Price comfortably camped at Boonville, the Federal strategy for dealing with the raid shifted dramatically from one of a passive, static defense to an active defense. Rosecrans realized that Price’s move west provided an opportunity for pursuit and even destruction of the Confederate army. He sent his newly arrived infantry marching west across the state and ordered Pleasonton to use his cavalry to chase and harass Price’s column. As Smith’s 4,000 foot soldiers quickly moved out, Pleasonton organized a force of 4,100 cavalry under General John Sanborn and ordered them to find Price, follow him, and attack the rear of his army at every opportunity. Sanborn and his troopers rode hard to the west following Price’s trail and, by the time Price left Boonville on October 13, they were already snapping at his heels.
Price’s turn westward also served to wake up Governor Carney in Kansas. Carney could no longer wish the Confederate threat away and, on October 9, he called out 4,000 regular state troops and some 10,000 militiamen, sending them to the Missouri border under the command of General James Blunt. Their call-up occurred so quickly, there was no opportunity to provide uniforms to the militia. Instead, they were all issued red badges to wear and many added to this by stuffing fallen leaves in their hatbands, causing them to anoint themselves as the “Sumach Militia.” One of them later recalled, “We were about as inefficient a force as could have been mobilized anywhere on earth to check the advance of a seasoned army.”
Blunt, along with General Curtis, moved the mixed force of regulars and militia across the Missouri border to the line of the Big Blue River. This crossing of a state line caused many of the militiamen to complain that such a move was illegal, and that they should not be required to fight on Missouri soil. A few near mutinies broke out, but eventually Curtis convinced the Kansas men that they would go no further east than the Big Blue and soon had them digging fortifications along the west bank of the river.
While the Kansas militia prepared for Price’s appearance, he continued to move west at a comfortable pace of only 11 miles a day. Pleasonton’s constant attacks caused him to realize he was being pursued, but he still did not hasten the pace of his cavalry, which was being outraced even by Smith’s Union infantry and was also now closing in on his rear. Then, on October 19, Price ran into a detachment of Blunt’s men in Lexington. The Federals were badly outnumbered and quickly retreated back across the Little Blue River. But the brief firefight made Price realize that he was now facing a threat in both his front and rear. However, despite this, he ordered the army to continue west towards Independence, Westport, and Kansas City, as his original orders from Kirby Smith specified. Worst of all, he elected to keep the wagon train of captured supplies and loot with him. The train had now reached almost 600 wagons and they were greatly responsible for slowing his men down. But General Smith had ordered he take the wagons to gather supplies and Price seemed determined to at least achieve some of the raid’s objectives, no matter the potential cost.
As far as the objective of garnering 30,000 new recruits, Price had failed there as well. While his men rested in Boonville, he had managed to bring in about 1,500 recruits and most of them were unarmed. Some of the Southern sanctioned guerilla groups also rode in and attached themselves to his army. Quantrill’s raiders, who were now operating under the leadership of George Todd, arrived and were assigned to serve as scouts for Shelby’s division. However, the most interesting addition was “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s command. Anderson showed up asking to see General Price fresh from a raid on Centralia, where he had captured then murdered 150 Federal soldiers. Worse yet, Anderson and his men rode into camp with a collection of human scalps laid across their saddle, trophies of their recent victory. Price steadfastly refused to meet with Anderson until the scalps were destroyed. Once they were discarded, Price welcomed Anderson into his army.
On October 22, Shelby’s division approached the Big Blue River and found the far bank blocked by Curtis’ Kansas regiments. Rather than attack this main line, Shelby wisely elected to force his way across the river at Byram’s Ford, where the Union line was not nearly as strong. Price personally directed the attack across the river, smashing several Kansas regiments and nearly annihilating another in fighting on the Mockbee farm. Curtis, seeing the danger of being cut off by Price, elected to retreat to Westport, south of Kansas City. At first, Price savored what he believed to be a major victory. However, he was soon informed that, while he was fighting along the Big Blue, Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry had savagely attacked his rear guard and was pressing forward. With Curtis and Blunt aligned in front of Price, Pleasonton coming on strong from the east, and a total of 29,000 men on the field, the stage was set for the largest battle to be fought west of the Mississippi.
Price elected to face Curtis’ troops aligned on the north side of Brush Creek with Shelby and Fagan’s divisions, while Marmaduke was assigned to hold Pleasonton at the Big Blue River. Price planned to attack the Union lines but, shortly after sunrise on October 23, the Federals beat him to the punch. The first Union assaults were turned back, with Shelby’s men continuing to fight well, as they had throughout the campaign. However, early in the afternoon, a local farmer showed Curtis a narrow gulch that would provide a small force sufficient cover to penetrate the Confederate lines undetected. The Union general ordered the 9th Wisconsin Artillery and troopers from the 11th Kansas to follow the gulch and, when in position in Shelby’s rear, to set up their guns and open fire.
As the Union force moved undetected toward Shelby’s rear, things fell apart for Price along the Big Blue. Despite being outnumbered by Marmaduke’s division, Pleasonton’s cavalry smashed his lines with a ferocious attack. They Union cavalry, fighting dismounted, quickly engulfed Marmaduke’s lines and sent the Confederate cavalry reeling back towards Westport. Then, as Marmaduke was retreating, the Wisconsin battery emerged from the gully and began to bombard Shelby’s men from their rear. Almost simultaneous with this surprise, Blunt led the rest of the Kansas regiments across Bush Creek against both Shelby and Fagan’s front. The fighting became increasingly violent and, when he learned of Marmaduke’s disastrous engagement, Price realized he was about to crushed in a vice between Curtis and Pleasonton. He ordered some of Shelby’s men to shift east and slow down Pleasonton, while he sent the rest of the army into a full retreat south down the Fort Scott Road, where their wagon train was already headed.
Luckily, there was no immediate Federal pursuit. Feeling their men were too worn out from the fighting, Curtis and Pleasonton paused. But, the next day, Pleasonton’s cavalry was, once again, in full headlong pursuit of the fleeing Army of Missouri. On October 25, they overtook Price’s column, which continued to be slowed by their 600 wagons. One Confederate trooper described the massive train as moving like “a gorged anaconda dragging its huge body over the prairie.” As the pursuing Union horsemen approached, Shelby’s division and part of the wagon train had made it to the south side of the creek. Then, as Pleasonton’s men appeared, several wagons overturned midstream, clogging the ford. Fagan and Marmaduke set up a defensive line on the north side of the creek, hoping to hold off the Union cavalry until the rest of the wagons could get across.
Without pausing, the 2,600 Union cavalrymen charged, sweeping Fagan and Marmaduke’s men aside and destroying much of the wagon train, which was hopelessly stalled along the creek. In only 30 minutes of fighting, Price lost 300 men killed and wounded, with another 900 captured. Riding back from the head of the column to see what had happened, Price found the remnants of his army “retreating in utter and indescribable confusion.” Price’s raid, once so full of promise, had turned into an unmitigated disaster.
For their part, the Union commanders were satisfied, and decided not to pursue Price any further. The Army of Missouri would slowly wend its way back towards Arkansas. The weather turned cold and the loss of supplies from the wagons began to take a toll on the army. Starving, hungry soldiers trudged south, but more and more began to desert the column, heading for their homes, never to return to service. Finally, on December 2, the army reached Laynesport, Arkansas, with only 3,500 men left from the nearly 16,000 who had set out for Missouri in September. The last campaign of the Trans-Mississippi was over. The only positive thing gained by either side was that the guerilla groups who had joined Price remained with his army and left Missouri for good, finally freeing the people from their reign of terror.
For several of the key participants, men who had been such failures up to this point, the outcome of Price’s Raid did not improve their lot. Disgusted by Rosecrans’ slow response to the raid, Ulysses Grant dismissed the Union general from command of the Department of Missouri, and he left the army shortly after the end of the war. As for Sterling Price, he was attacked in the press for his poor leadership, attacks he referred to as a “tissue of falsehoods.” Price demanded a court of inquiry be convened to exonerate him, and Kirby Smith agreed to his request. The court was convened in Shreveport the following April, but was forced to adjourn when word was received that the war had ended. Price left the country, moving to Mexico, where he offered his services to Emperor Maximilian. Following the downfall of the puppet French government and Maximilian’s execution, Price returned home to settle in St. Louis, where he died in 1867, finally reaching the city whose capture was denied him during his great raid into Missouri.
In an earlier blog entry, I discussed the Battle of Droop Mountain in West Virginia as an example of a Civil War battle that was fought on the margins of the war. It had no great impact on the outcome of the conflict, and most people have never even heard of it. Yet, men fought and died there. As a result, if we examine these events, we find that, while the casualties and the damage are small in scale, they are more individual, more personal, and the pain of loss somehow greater because they are not lost in the enormity of the event itself. Tragically, these events that take place on the margin sometimes involve the innocent, those who were not even active participants in the war. The case of David Creigh is an example of this kind of tragedy.
Ironically, the events I will describe were actually related to the same campaign by General William Averell that resulted in the battle at Droop Mountain and the subsequent capture of Lewisburg in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Greenbrier County was, perhaps, the classic example of a place that was on the margins of the war in that its resident experience first-hand the horror, pain, and very personal suffering of a civil conflict in a small place, a place of no strategic consequence, just a once quiet and serene place that would become torn by violence and death.
Throughout the war, the people of Greenbrier County lived with an underlying and often overwhelming sense of fear. As a county with strong secessionist sentiments that found itself caught up in the process of creating a new Unionist state, Greenbrier residents feared what might become of them under a Union occupation. The county’s residents believed their Yankee enemies to be monsters who would wreak havoc on both persons and property. Therefore, from the outset of the war, they begged for assistance and protection from both the Commonwealth and Confederate governments, but never received what they felt they needed. Admittedly, the people and the leaders of the county suffered from a natural tendency, born of a desire to protect their homes, to see their county as strategically vital to both the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Confederacy. Unfortunately, after an initial period of interest from Richmond, which even saw the assignment of the venerable Robert E. Lee to the county, Greenbrier County, as well as the entire northwest region of Virginia that became West Virginia, became a backwater to the governments of both sides. As a result, the people would see themselves beset by Union raiding and, eventually, the occupation they feared so much.
Unfortunately, to some extent, the fears about Federal occupation were not entirely unjustified. For much of the war, Greenbrier County and large portions of West Virginia were home to guerillas and “bushwhackers.” Some of these men were individuals truly trying to fight for the Confederate cause, but, many, if not most, were nothing but a criminal element who found the margins of the war to their liking. Some of these partisan units were formally recognized by the Confederate military, but even most of those were eventually shut down because of their lawless behavior. Meanwhile, the Federal reaction to these elements was harsh and uncompromising. As Union forces occupied Greenbrier County after the Droop Mountain campaign, the inhabitants found themselves subject to military law and trial by courts martial. The results could be tragic and unjust, as Davis Creigh and his family would discover.
Creigh was a prosperous merchant and farmer who had lived his entire life in the Lewisburg area. At the time of the Droop Mountain campaign in late 1863, he was 54 years old, had been married to his wife, Emily, for 30 years, and had a family of 11 children. Creigh was a slaveholder and, like many Virginians before the war, a political conservative, opposed to secession and war, but supportive once that course was decided upon by the Commonwealth. As a result, his three oldest sons would enlist in the 14th Virginia Cavalry and fight for the Confederacy. In the meantime, as the war raged on, Creigh and his family desired nothing more than to peacefully work their land, and quietly pray for the war’s end and the safe return of their sons. Soon, however, the war would come to them, and enter through their front door.
In early November 1863, as Averell’s troops occupied the Lewisburg area, there was the inevitable foraging and, worse, scavenging. Foraging is distinct from scavenging, in that foraging is an organized, sanctioned activity, while scavenging is typically conducted by individual soldiers who are operating outside military authority, and acting as nothing more than common thieves. The latter is what David Creigh and his family encountered on the night of November 8. On that evening, Creigh was visiting the nearby home of a friend, John Dunn. As the two men chatted, a Union cavalryman entered the house without knocking. He demanded that Dunn tell him where his horses might be. Dunn tried to be evasive, so the soldier set about searching the house. Concerned that this man would visit his home next, Creigh left and hurried home.
Once he arrived at his home, he told Emily that a soldier was searching the Dunn home looking for things to steal and that he would likely be coming to their home shortly. He urged his wife to remain calm, while he went to the nearby home of another friend, a Mr. Arbuckle, whose wife was at Creigh’s home helping tend to his sick daughter, Elizabeth. He told his wife that he wanted to see if he might borrow a pistol from Arbuckle. This is probably where Creigh made a grave error, in that is unlikely that the soldier would have become violent. Still, however, the soldier was armed and he was obviously operating outside military authority. Therefore, Creigh was justifiably concerned and fearful for his family’s safety.
When Creigh returned home, as he entered the front door, he heard raised voices upstairs and quickly realized that, as he feared, the soldier had come to his house. His wife was arguing with the soldier, telling him that she would remove things from a trunk. When Creigh reached the top of the stairs, the soldier, who had been madly emptying trunks in search of booty, entered the hallway and confronted Creigh. He asked Creigh if he had the key to a trunk that could not be opened. Creigh responded that the trunk in question belonged to Miss Lewis, his children’s teacher, and that he did not have a key. At that moment, Creigh’s daughter, Elizabeth, rose from her sickbed, came out of her room, and told the soldier that there were more trunks at the rear of the house.
The soldier turned and walked to where Elizabeth indicated and began rummaging through a set of trunks. As he did so, Creigh quietly cocked the pistol he held beneath his coat and moved towards the soldier. About that time, the soldier found a set of cards in one of the trunks and inquired as to what they were. Elizabeth told him that they were merit cards from school and he shouted at her that they were not. At this moment, as the soldier raised his voice, Creigh became increasingly nervous, removed the pistol from his coat, and told the soldier to leave his house.
As Creigh raised the pistol, the cap exploded and the round slammed harmlessly into the wall. Immediately, the soldier lunged at Creigh and began grappling with him. Creigh used the now unloaded pistol as a club and pounded on the soldier’s head. The soldier went down initially, but rose back up and locked his head under Creigh’s arm. As he did so, the Federal trooper pulled his own revolver, raised it, and aimed it at Creigh’s head. Emily leaped to her husband’s aid, jerking the soldier’s arm down. The revolver lowered until it was aimed at the bodies of both men and, as it did so, a shot was discharged. The soldier now shoved Creigh and his wife toward the head of the stairs, and all three tumbled down into the foyer of the house, and the soldier’s revolver dropped from his hand, skittering across the foyer floor. Creigh continued to wrestle with the soldier and soon discovered that the trooper must have been struck by the revolver shot, as he was bleeding. As the two men continued to struggle, Emily and Mrs. Arbuckle tried to pick up the now loose revolver.
As they grabbed the weapon, it went off again, striking the soldier again. Holding him upright, Creigh carried him to within 10 feet of the portico, then dropped him, believing him to be dead. Suddenly, the soldier’s fingers twitched and, fearing he was still alive, Creigh grabbed a nearby axe and crushed the soldier’s skull. Now, Creigh debated what to do. He knew he would never receive a fair trial for his actions and he feared a Union patrol might happen by at any moment. The only viable option seemed that of hiding the body. With the help of one of his sons and an Irish farmhand, they loaded the soldier’s body into a cart and covered it with hay. They traveled about three-fourths of a mile down the road, where they dumped the body in an abandoned well, then covered it with again with hay. With this grizzly task complete, they hurried back to the Creigh home.
As spring of 1864 arrived, no one had come looking for the dead soldier. Union authorities probably assumed he was just another deserter. Meanwhile, the war continued unabated and there had been changes in the Federal hierarchy for the Department of West Virginia. General David “Black Dave” Hunter was now in command. Hunter was an ill-tempered brute of a man, a poor soldier, and a fanatic abolitionist who hated the South and all those who sympathized with its cause. He was determined to crush any local resistance to Union authority and to provide ready examples what would happen to those who opposed Federal authority. Tragically for David Creigh, he would become one of those examples.
On May 15, a slave entered the camp of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry and told the commander that he had discovered the body of a soldier in a nearby well. Captain Howe, an officer in the regiment, was ordered to accompany the slave back to the well along with a detachment of men and investigate the report. Howe did so and, as he and the slave entered the well, he found a decomposing body dressed in a cavalry uniform. The body was too far gone to be removed, so it was left there, and Howe returned to camp to report on his findings. As the well was on David Creigh’s property, he was immediately arrested and taken to Bungers Mill, four miles from Lewisburg for trial by courts martial.
The court convened on June 2, with five Union officers chosen to pass judgment on David Creigh. The formal charge was murder and the specification stated that Creigh murdered an unknown Union soldier with an “axe or other weapon” at his residence on November 8, 1863. Creigh entered a plea of “not guilty” to the charge and “guilty” to the specification. Two witnesses for the prosecution were called, Captain Ricker, an Assistant Inspector General who had spoken with Creigh about the incident after his arrest, and Captain Howe. One witness was called for the defense, John Dunn, to whom Creigh confided the events of November 8. Finally, Creigh was allowed to present his own story, and he did so with complete honesty, hoping the court would see him as a man protecting his home.
When he was finished, the court did not ask him a single question, did not challenge his statements, or cross examine him in any way. Rather, they closed the court so that they might deliberate the findings and reach a verdict. That verdict was soon in coming, and, within a couple of hours, David Creigh was found guilty of both the charge and the specification. Despite what should have been mitigating circumstances, they sentenced him to be hung with a sign around his neck stating that he was a murderer of a Union soldier, and that his home be burned to the ground. The next day, Union forces began withdrawing from the county for an advance on Lynchburg, Virginia, and they took Creigh with them. On June 9, Generals Averell and Crook approved the court’s findings and forwarded them to General Hunter for review and final approval.
Of course, there was no chance Creigh would find any mercy at Hunter’s hands—he was just the kind of example Hunter needed. Hunter approved the findings and sent Averell orders to execute the sentence immediately. Averell and his brigade were on the march when the orders arrived. He promptly halted the column near Brownsburg, Virginia, at the home of Reverend James Morrison. Creigh was taken inside and told that he was to be hung. However, General Averell had given orders that, despite Hunter’s approval of the court’s recommendations on sentencing, the Creigh home would not be destroyed or molested in any way. Creigh was given the evening to make his peace and write Emily a final letter.
The next morning, he was taken to a nearby tree to be hanged. But, no one on Averell’s staff wanted to do the job. They not only stated to a man that they had not enlisted to be executioners, but they had also come to like and respect David Creigh. Finally, a 19-year old private was ordered to carry out the execution, which he did with great reluctance. A Union army chaplain who was present later said that, of the 300 men who witnessed the execution, there was not a single dry eye. Despite Hunter’s orders that Creigh’s body remain hanging as an example to others, the Morrison’s lowered his body as soon as the Federal troops departed and buried it quickly in a blanket. Six days later, David Creigh’s son, Cyrus, arrived, procured a coffin, and reburied his father in a nearby churchyard. It remained there until a month later, when Cyrus returned and had the remains taken home to Greenbrier County. David Creigh is still buried there, resting along side his wife, Emily.
David Creigh was a man simply defending his home. But, in war, especially when one lives on the margins of the war, self-defense can quickly become a crime. For David Creigh, there was no justice, only the satisfaction of a need by Union authorities to ensure the occupied feared their occupiers. His story is, indeed, tragic and perhaps more so because he was almost certainly not alone in his fate. Any war, and especially a civil conflict, can strip people bare of their humanity, of simple decency, of any sense of justice. The ends seem to justify any means, and, in this case, the end was the brutal pacification of Greenbrier County with David Creigh paying the ultimate and terrible price to achieve it.
The Campaign Begins
In the final months of 1864, as fall moved relentlessly towards winter, the last great drama of the Civil War’s Western Theater took place in central Tennessee. It would pit two opponents with decidedly differing views of war against one another, and see the last major battles to be fought on the far side of the Appalachians. The resulting campaign would, therefore, end a process that had begun at Fort Henry in early 1862 and write the final chapter in the theater that had, for all intents and purposes, decided the war’s eventual outcome.
General William T. Sherman had successfully taken the city of Atlanta in September 1864, having pressed steadily against the skillful defensive maneuvering of General Joseph Johnston and the Army of Tennessee, and then finally smashed the offensive counter attacks of Johnston’s successor, General John B. Hood. The loss of this vital industrial center and transportation hub now left the Deep South seemingly at Sherman’s mercy, and the loss was as much psychological as it was military and economic.
In late September, Confederate President Jefferson Davis traveled to Palmetto, Georgia to confer with Hood and develop a strategy for dealing with Sherman’s next move. It seemed clear that Sherman would eventually strike out from Atlanta towards either the Gulf coast or the Atlantic. However, the question was what Hood should do to stop him and, frankly, what he was capable of doing. He was facing an opponent who was numerically superior, well supplied, and possessed strong morale. The Army of Tennessee had been battered Sherman’s offensive against the city. More so, the heavy casualties inflicted upon the army after Hood took command did not make the general very popular with his men. In any case, Davis needed Hood to somehow drive Sherman and all Federal forces out of Georgia and, hopefully, out of Alabama and Tennessee, as well.
Hood proposal to Davis called for him to move his army north to threaten Sherman’s primary supply line, the railways leading to Chattanooga and Nashville. This, Hood concluded, would force Sherman to either come after the Confederate army or move to the coast, where he could be supplied by sea. If the Union general chose the former, Hood would fall back into the rugged terrain of northern Georgia or Alabama and bring Sherman to battle on ground advantageous to the Confederate army. If, on the other hand, Sherman struck out for the coast, Hood would follow him, continuously destroying his lines of communication, harassing his rear, and eventually forcing Sherman to turn and fight at a place of Hood’s choosing. Hood also foresaw the possibility that Sherman might choose to divide his forces, sending some to Tennessee to guard the Union rear. In that case, Hood proposed to fight the Union forces in Georgia, drive them out, and then deal with the remaining Federal elements in Tennessee.
Davis liked what he heard, but added one proviso: Should Sherman move north to protect the rail lines, he wanted Hood to withdraw to Gadsden, Alabama. Once there, Hood could be resupplied via the railways from southern Alabama, which remained in Confederate hands, while still threatening Sherman. Hood agreed to the president’s idea but, most importantly, he promised Davis that, whatever direction Sherman moved, he and the Army of Tennessee would follow.
Davis departed for Richmond on September 27, 1864, and, two days later, Hood marched his army out of Palmetto towards the line of the Georgia Central Railroad, which linked Atlanta with Chattanooga. Sherman quickly realized that Hood was on the move and marched part of his army north to intercept him. However, the Union general’s cavalry had difficulty locating Hood and, as a result, Sherman was unable to bring him to battle. For his part, Hood moved quickly and screened his movements well. But, Sherman refused to divide his forces as Hood had hoped and, while the two men would play cat and mouse for three weeks, the climactic battle Hood wanted never came to fruition. By October 20, Hood had managed to reach the safety of Gadsden, but Sherman ceased to follow him.
Sherman had decided to take an approach neither Hood nor Davis had foreseen. While Sherman would, indeed, head for the Atlantic and would decide to create a new army to protect Tennessee, the idea of Hood threatening his lines of supply and communication would not concern him. Taking a page from Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, he would abandon any lines of supply, providing for his army via foraging as he struck out for Savannah. He was going to eliminate the need to worry about his supply lines simply by not having any. At the same time, he directed General George H. Thomas in Nashville to assemble whatever forces he could muster into an army and deal with Hood should the Confederate general make a move north into Tennessee.
At this critical juncture, Hood apparently decided to revise the strategy he had agreed to with Jefferson Davis. His new plan was nothing if not wildly imaginative and highly aggressive, and, thus, very characteristic of John Hood. In Hood’s new vision of operations, he would quickly strike northward into Tennessee, and destroy Thomas’ scattered forces before they had a chance to merge. Then, rather than turning to follow Sherman, he would continue north into Kentucky, rally new recruits, gather supplies, and threaten Ohio. This, in turn, would force Sherman to abandon Georgia and pursue him. Hood could then either turn and fight or, perhaps, even cross the mountains and join with Lee in Virginia.
In late October, he briefed this grandiose plan to his new theater commander, General Pierre Beauregard. Beauregard was shocked, as he pointed out that Hood was abandoning the critical element of his earlier plan and the one considered sacred by both himself and the president: that he would pursue Sherman no matter what. However, after hearing Hood out, Beauregard reluctantly agreed to the plan. Nevertheless, he did insist on one change, ordering Joe Wheeler’s cavalry to be detached from Hood, so they could follow and harass Sherman. Wheeler’s men would be replaced with the cavalry of the legendary Nathan Bedford Forrest, currently operating in western Tennessee.
Hood knew time was of the essence and immediately moved his army north to Guntersville, Alabama to await Forrest’s arrival. Unfortunately, the cavalry’s arrival was delayed by heavy fall rains and flooded rivers, so Hood moved further into northern Alabama to Tuscumbia to allow a quicker union with Forrest. However, when he arrived there on October 31, he found Forrest was still far away, further delayed by heavy rains, which also slowed the delivery of rations critical to the coming campaign. Hood had no choice but to wait for both Forrest and his supplies, a process that would take three weeks. Meanwhile, George Thomas began to assemble his new army and, on November 15, Sherman departed Atlanta to begin his inexorable march to the sea.
As I indicated earlier, Hood and Thomas were men with vastly different approaches to war and, in some ways, no two men could have been more different. John Bell Hood has been described many different ways. Words like reckless, pugnacious, aggressive, hotheaded, mercurial, brave, and resolute have been used to characterize his fundamental approach to war and life. But I believe the word passionate best applies to this native Kentuckian. After all, the only two books he ever checked out from the West Point library while a cadet were Jane Porter’s Scottish Chiefs and Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. In many ways, Hood was Quixotic, a romantic, passionate man better suited to another time.
On the battlefield, Hood seemed to follow his heart more than his head. While serving as a brigade and division commander in Longstreet’s corps of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Hood’s aggressive style was a perfect fit to Lee’s offensive mindset, and he would prove himself a critical asset in the legendary eastern Confederate army. After he was seriously wounded at Gettysburg, he lost the use of his left arm. Following recuperation in Richmond, he returned to command the lead elements of Longstreet’s attack at Chickamauga, where he received an even worse wound, this time in the upper right thigh. The wound shattered his leg and led to amputation. Left with only a small stump, he would be forced to use crutches to walk and had to be strapped into the saddle atop his horse.
Despite these wounds, wounds that would have left a lesser man prostrate, Hood lost none of his aggressive nature. He was a firm believer that his men would be better soldiers if they were used in frontal attacks, and that defensive fighting behind the safety of trenches and barricades made for lesser men. Therefore, when he took over command of the Army of Tennessee from the defensive-minded Joe Johnston, he immediately changed course and ordered a series of brutal offensive attacks against Sherman’s army, with nearly disastrous results. As his army awaited the move into Tennessee, he promised his men a different approach. He deliberately implied that there would be no more direct frontal assaults and that they would fight only when and where they had a distinct advantage. This led one officer from Texas to write that Hood said, “…we will have some hard marching and some fighting, but that he is not going to risk a chance for defeat in Tennessee. That he will not fight in Tennessee unless he has an equal number of men and choice of ground.” Sadly, this was a promise that the ever passionate Hood would not keep.
Waiting across the line in Tennessee was George Thomas. Like Hood, there have been a variety of word used to describe Thomas as a soldier and a man, among them slow, cautious, deliberate, steadfast, loyal, brave, and stouthearted. Here, I opt for resolute and professional. George Thomas was a Virginian by birth and, when his native state seceded, there was never a question as to his loyalties. He was a man for whom the oath he had taken on the plains of West Point meant everything, even if it led to irrevocable separation from his family. After he announced his decision to remain in the U.S. Army and fight the rebellion, his sisters turned his picture to the wall, burned all his letters, and never spoke to him again.
Through his steadfast nature and competent abilities as a soldier, Thomas steadily rose in command while serving in the West. He was a corps commander under Rosecrans by the time of the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, and it was here he would earn his famous nickname, “The Rock of Chickamauga.” As most of Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland disintegrated and fled back to Chattanooga, Thomas lone outnumbered XIV Corps held the line, beating back repeated Confederate attacks and stubbornly holding until they could fall back in order under the cover of darkness. His stand allowed Rosecrans and the army to reach the safety of Chattanooga and likely prevented their complete destruction.
When Rosecrans was relieved and Grant was given overall command in the West, the new theater commander’s first act was to appoint Thomas to command in the besieged city of Chattanooga. Grant had strong reservations about Thomas, reservations that he never relinquished despite Thomas’ performance in the field. Grant saw Thomas as slow and overly cautious, a characteristic he considered fatal in a commander. Grant was almost certainly too harsh in his judgment. George Thomas was not so much cautious as he was deliberate. He would always make certain that, as much as was possible, he was ready to fight and able to fully leverage every possible advantage. Most importantly, however, when he was ready to fight, he would fight with tenacity and resolve. In many ways, given Hood’s passionate, sometimes reckless approach to battle, George Thomas was ideally suited to counter him.
On November 21, Hood finally moved his men across the Tennessee River at Florence, Alabama, and headed for Tennessee. His three undersized corps consisted of 12 divisions with 38,000 men and 108 guns. Rations were still critically short, many of the men had no shoes, and their tattered uniforms barely clung to their backs. To make matters worse, while the rain had stopped, winter had arrived in full force. The ground was frozen hard and a cold wind accompanied by sleet blew in the men’s faces as they marched. However, many soldiers were optimistic. After all, the general had promised them only to fight when it was to their advantage and, besides, with more than 30 of Hood’s regiments being from Tennessee, many looked forward to returning to their home state and driving the hated enemy from its borders.
As Hood began the campaign in earnest, George Thomas was scrambling to assemble an army to oppose him. In early October, he had only about 10,000 troops plus quartermaster personnel in Nashville, with smaller detachments scattered about Tennessee and northern Alabama. Before he departed for Savannah, Sherman had ordered two fresh divisions from St. Louis to hurry east to reinforce Nashville. But, as Hood marched into Tennessee, they had not yet arrived. Thomas also knew that, with Forrest supporting Hood, he would be facing the South’s best cavalry. His own cavalry was not in good shape, so he placed James Wilson, an industrious young general, in charge of trying to reorganize his rather sad collection of troopers into something capable of countering the legendary Forrest.
Thomas’ best and largest force consisted of two corps from Sherman’s army left behind to form the nucleus of his new army. These were the XXIII and IV Corps, a total of 30,000 men under the command of an ambitious 33-year old general named John Schofield. Schofield was one of those officers that peers and superiors soon learn to distrust, the sort of man who sends backchannel communications in which he criticizes the actions of his superiors and recommends their replacement. He was a soldier by training and profession, but a politician by nature. However, he was not entirely without ability and he had a nose for danger. As Hood moved north into Tennessee, his nose told him there was definitely trouble coming and it was headed straight for him.
The danger Schofield sensed came from his position. Schofield’s 30,000 men were at Pulaski, Tennessee, astride the Franklin & Columbia Turnpike leading from Decatur, Alabama to Nashville. Nashville was approximately 60 miles in Schofield’s rear and Thomas had assumed that, once they knew Hood was moving, Schofield could simply retire to the north and join with Union forces in Nashville. Unfortunately for Schofield, both he and Hood realized there was one weakness in Thomas’ plan: the Duck River. That river lay halfway between Pulaski and Nashville, where the turnpike ran through the town of Columbia, Tennessee. If Hood could reach Columbia before Schofield, he could trap him south of the river, prevent his small army from reaching Nashville, destroy it, and then attack Thomas in Nashville.
Schofield quickly got his men and their 800 wagons on the move in a race for Columbia and the Duck River. The sleet had now turned back into rain, making the roads a quagmire, but Schofield drove his men onward. To make matters worse for the retreating Union troops, Forrest’s cavalry began to make concerted attacks on the column’s rear and Wilson’s new and outnumbered cavalry faced the daunting task of trying to fend off the increasingly vicious assaults. Wilson’s efforts were not completely successful and the resulting Union losses were heavy. Still, he slowed Forrest enough to allow Schofield’s small army to reach Columbia on November 27 and secure the river crossing before Hood could get there. The Union troops quickly dug trenches and took defensive positions as Hood’s army arrived to their front from the south.
With night approaching, the rain turned into sleet then snow, and the ground froze once more. Schofield realized that he was not out of danger, as Hood was capable of getting his army across the river via a ford, trapping him. Therefore, as darkness fell, he moved his army to the far side of the river and burned the both of Columbia’s bridges. For his part, John Hood immediately moved into Columbia and decided to wait until morning before sending his army east a few miles, where they would cross the river at a ford secured by Forrest and his cavalry. He would then make a rapid march to Spring Hill, 12 miles north up the turnpike, and, once again, seek to block John Schofield’s path to Nashville.
On November 28, Hood got his army moving while Schofield sat on the high ground across the river from Columbia, seemingly oblivious to the new threat. In the afternoon, he received a series of messages from General Wilson informing him that Forrest’s cavalry was fording the river below Columbia. At 2:10 p.m., Wilson wrote to Schofield’s adjutant:
HDQRS. CAVALRY CORPS, MIL. DIV. OF THE MISSISSIPPI, November 28, 1864–2.10 p.m.
MAJOR: Colonel Capron reports, 11.20 a.m., his force driven back from south side of Duck River by heavy force of the enemy; he is now fighting them across river. I move everything in that direction. Order Stewart’s brigade, sent below the town, to join me by the road toward Rally Hill; he will, however, have to keep well to the north, as the force crossing above Huey’s also seems heavy, from all I can learn. Maybe Stewart had better go pretty well up to Spring Hill before striking across.
J. H. WILSON, Brevet Major-General.
For some reason, Schofield was slow to respond to this news, despite its obviously ominous nature, and his intransigence continued for the balance of the day. Meanwhile, Hood began moving towards the Union rear. Next, in the early morning hours of November 29, Wilson once again sent additional news to Schofield, which seemed to confirm the worst: Hood was throwing pontoon bridges across the river and his infantry would soon be crossing in an attempt to get in the Union rear and block the turnpike.
Again, despite this news, Schofield was unmoved. As the morning of November 29 dawned, the one unit left behind in Columbia by Hood kept up a constant bombardment of artillery fire, convincing Schofield that Hood still intended to attack across the river to his front, which was exactly what Hood wanted him to believe. Meanwhile, Hood, with one corps in the lead, was already headed towards the turnpike and Spring Hill. Schofield did decide to have General Stanley send two divisions from the IV Corps north towards Spring Hill, but that was his sole move in response to Wilson’s repeatedly urgent appeals.
However, as fate would have it, this small move by Schofield proved a pivotal one. The Union troops moved rapidly up the pike and the lead brigade, led by Colonel Emerson Opdycke, a tough commander from Ohio, reached Spring Hill in time to fight off a determined attack by Forrest’s cavalry. General Stanley hurried the remainder of his lead division to join Opdycke’s brigade and, by 3:00 p.m., the Union troops were dug in and ready. Hood’s corps under General Cheatham drew up southeast of the town and, with a better than 2 to 1 advantage, Hood seemed assured of taking the vital crossroads.
However, as Cheatham’s men went forward, nothing went right. Forrest had not scouted the Federal positions and, therefore, the lead Confederate infantry under General Patrick Cleburne did not have accurate information on where Stanley’s line was placed. As a result, Cleburne’s men headed in the wrong direction and ended up presenting their exposed right flank to the Federal troops rather than coming at them head-on. As Union artillery and rifle enfiladed the Southern lines with deadly effect, Cleburne was forced to withdraw. Cheatham called for reinforcements but none could get into position before nightfall. Hood called off the attack and ordered the men to bivouac for the night. The attack on Spring Hill could wait until morning. However, what followed was one of the most bizarre incidents of the war.
With the news of Cheatham’s attack on Stanley’s isolated division at Spring Hill, John Schofield finally figured out that he had been totally outmaneuvered by Hood. He had only one course of action: Pull out and hope that he could somehow get his men up the turnpike and past Hood’s army. Remarkably, as nightfall approached, Union scouts reported that the pike was still open—John Hood failed to order anyone to block it. The Confederate army was encamped nearby, at some places within 100 yards of the road. But, inexplicably there was not so much as a single Southern sentry watching the turnpike. Schofield’s men quietly stole up the road to Spring Hill, muffling every sound and even throwing blankets down on the wooden bridges to quiet the sounds of tramping feet and the wheels of hundreds of wagons. By 7:00 p.m., the lead Union brigades had already passed Hood’s army and made it to Spring Hill. Captain James Sexton of the 72nd Illinois Infantry remembered the fateful night years later.
We were in such close proximity to the Confederates, that we could see their long line of campfires as they burned brightly; could hear the rattle of their canteens; see the officers and men standing around the fires; while the rumbling of our wagon train on the pike, and the beating of our own hearts were the only sounds we could hear on our side.
During the night, several reports reached Hood indicating that someone had seen or heard movement on the pike. However, in each case, Hood dismissed the report, pulled up his blanket, and remained snugly warm in his cot for the night. Meanwhile, the balance of 25,000 Federal troops marched past his army in the darkness to safety.
By sunrise, Schofield’s entire force had reached Franklin, eight miles beyond Spring Hill. When Hood was informed of Schofield’s escape, he was livid, blaming everyone but himself for the turn of events. Even years later, he would write that the errors of his generals, in particular Cheatham, had destroyed the most brilliant military maneuver of his career. Worst of all for the men of his army, Hood’s anger now caused him to change his mind on how the Army of Tennessee would fight the campaign. The real problem, he decided, was that his men were soft and afraid to fight. This, he further concluded, was a lingering symptom from Joe Johnston’s preference for fighting from behind the protection of fortifications. The cure, he resolved, was to send his men into battle via the frontal attack. With his promise to his men now irrevocably broken, Hood set out to catch John Schofield and bring him to battle before he could reach Nashville.
On to Franklin
On November 30, 1864, John Hood has his men moving up the pike towards Franklin before the first light of dawn had even begun to peak over the eastern horizon. It was only eight miles to Franklin and, if he hurried his men, he might be able to catch John Schofield as the Union general scrambled to get his men and supply train across the Harpeth River, which ran its course immediately north of the town. The last of his army, Stephen Lee’s corps, which had remained behind to demonstrate in Schofield’s front and hold the Union army in Columbia, was already heading north but trailed the main body by several hours.
The embarrassment of the previous night’s events must have cast a pall over the mood of Hood and all his generals, and there was likely an intense desire to redeem themselves by nabbing Schofield and destroying his two corps before they could reach the relative safety of Nashville’s defenses. In his memoirs, Hood remembered the morning as follows:
A sudden change in sentiment here took place among officers and men: the Army became metamorphosed, as it were, in one night. A general feeling of mortification and disappointment pervaded its ranks. The troops appeared to recognize that a rare opportunity had been totally disregarded, and manifested, seemingly, a determination to retrieve, if possible, the fearful blunder of the previous afternoon and night. The feeling existed which sometimes induces men who have long been wedded to but one policy to look beyond the sphere of their own convictions, and, at least, be willing to make trial of another course of action.
Of course, memories are tricky things and memoirs often cannot be trusted. However, the official records from November 30 say very little about the mood of the Army of Tennessee. For his part, the famous memoirist of the Army of Tennessee, Sam Watkins, remembered an initial feeling of elation that Schofield might be trapped:
About two hours after sun up the next morning we received the order to “Fall in, fall in, quick, make haste, hurrah, promptly, men; each rank count two; by the right flank, quick time, march; keep promptly closed up.” Everything indicated an immediate attack. When we got to the turnpike near Spring Hill, lo! and behold; wonder of wonders! the whole Yankee army had passed during the night. The bird had flown. We made a quick and rapid march down the turnpike, finding Yankee guns and knapsacks, and now and then a broken down straggler, also two pieces of howitzer cannon, and at least twenty broken wagons along the road. Everything betokened a rout and a stampede of the Yankee army. Double quick! Forrest is in the rear. Now for fun. All that we want to do now is to catch the blue-coated rascals, ha! Ha! We all want to see the surrender, ha! Ha! Double quick! A rip, rip, rip; wheuf; pant, pant, pant. First one man drops out, and then another. The Yankees are routed and running, and Forrest has crossed Harpeth river in the rear of Franklin. Hurrah, men! keep closed up; we are going to capture Schofield.
Indeed, John Schofield feared the same thing. He wanted to march the last 18 miles to Nashville, but upon arriving in Franklin, he discovered both bridges over the Harpeth had been damaged and would not support the weight of his troops and wagons. Worse, the river seemed unfordable and he had been forced to leave his pontoons behind in Columbia. His only recourse was to have his engineers repair the bridges. However, that delay meant exactly what John Hood was hoping for: the possibility that Schofield would be caught crossing the river when the Army of Tennessee arrived.
Soon, however, scouts rode in to tell Schofield that they could ford the river; however this would still mean a slow crossing and the potential of being trapped midstream by Hood. Therefore, Schofield decided to send some of his artillery across the river and position them in a redoubt on the north bank, along with most of IV Corp’s infantry. He also ordered Wilson to take his cavalry to the far side of the river as well, patrolling the north bank to prevent either Forrest’s cavalry or Hood’s army from crossing on his flank again. As for the rest of the army, they were told to quickly erect field fortifications in a semicircle along the town’s southern boundary in case they had to make a fight of it. Schofield hoped he could avoid a battle before nightfall, when he would get his wagons and men across the river once more under the protection of darkness.
While deeply fatigued from a night of marching, the Union troops began work in earnest. Using the home and cotton gin belonging to a man named Fountain Branch Carter as a center point, the soldiers of XVII Corps dug a formidable series of rifle pits and breastworks that stretched from the banks of the Harpeth west and above Franklin to the river shores east of town. The ground in front of them made for one the best defensive positions the war had ever seen. For nearly two miles to the south of the Union lines, the ground was flat and nearly devoid of trees. There was no cover for any attacking force and the only high ground, Winstead Hill, was too far away to afford any advantage to Hood’s men. In fact, one Federal division under General Wagner was posted to the top of the hill to watch for Hood’s approach, which came in the early afternoon.
At 2:00 p.m., Hood could plainly see Wagner’s colors flying at the top of Winstead Hill as he rode north up the pike. He ordered Stewart’s corps forward to flank the hill and force the Federals from the high ground, which they did, sending Wagner falling back towards the Union lines around Franklin. Hood and his staff rode to the top of Winstead Hill so they could observe what was happening in Franklin. What they saw was almost certainly unexpected. The Federal army was not in the process of fleeing across the river but, rather, was entrenched and ready to fight. Hood was unstrapped from his horse and he hobbled forward using his crutches. He raised his glasses and studied the Union positions for a very long time.
What happened next is unclear. Hood recalled giving orders to Cheatham and Stewart to deploy their corps to the left and right of the turnpike, respectively, and force the Federals into the river via a direct, frontal assault, orders that, in his recollection, were met with enthusiasm. However, the picture provided by others was not so rosy. It is reported that Forrest counseled against a frontal attack, suggesting that he and one division of infantry flank Schofield and drive him out of the entrenchments. General Cheatham agreed, saying, “I do not like the looks of this fight; the enemy has an excellent position and is well fortified.” Meanwhile, Patrick Cleburne, the hard fighting Irish division commander from Stewart’s corps, declined to state his opposition openly. Instead, looking at the Union fortifications, he quietly murmured, “They are very formidable.” While Hood would later say Cleburne was particularly enthusiastic, one of Cleburne’s brigade commanders, General Govan, recalled that, before the assault, the Irishman was “more despondent” than he had ever seen him. But Hood’s decision was final: the army would attack immediately and destroy Schofield before darkness.
Given what would happen between the moment of his decision and darkness several hours later, one has to wonder what drove Hood to this decision. The odds were not good and one of his corps, that of Stephen Lee, and much of his artillery would not arrive until nearly dark. Hood would later write that artillery was not a concern because he deferred from using mass artillery barrages, lest it indiscriminately kill the civilians in the town. Some would say that Hood was determined to “blood” his men and raise their fighting spirit by aggressively attacking the enemy. That was probably an element in his decision, but how influential an element is a question. It probably was not as critical as much as some might argue, but it was certainly more important than offered by his later supporters and apologists. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle. More than likely, the biggest single thing driving his decision was his determination to not let John Schofield slip away again. Fate had presented this opportunity and he was not going to let it slip from his grasp.
His attack plan was simple and, perhaps, murderously so. He would advance seven brigades directly up the pike at the center of the Federal line; while six brigades would assault the Union right and four more would advance against the left. Beyond that, there was no real planning involved. The idea was to attack and do so quickly before nightfall. At 3:00 p.m., as the bright sun began to move lower in the late fall sky, the Army of Tennessee moved forward and prepared for the attack.
On the Union side, all was in preparation but there were imperfections in the defenses. At the apex of the Federal line astride the turnpike, there was a gap in the breastworks left there by design. General Cox felt that he needed to allow a way for Wagner’s men to retreat back inside the Federal works, so he ordered the gap be left open and defended by a battery of four guns. He added a trench line about 200 yards to the rear and across the road, and placed additional guns on high ground to the rear so they could sweep the front if necessary. However, the biggest weakness involved Wagner’s division.
As his division retreated from Winstead Hill, Wagner received orders to form his men about one-half mile in front of the main line in what was an extremely exposed position. To this day, no one is certain from where those orders came or precisely what the instructions ordered. Several officers maintained that they were told only to remain in place until they observed Hood’s main force advance and then they were to fall back into the fortifications. However Wagner believed that he was hold his line at all costs. The last of his brigades to reach the new position was that of Colonel Opdycke. When he heard that Wagner was determined to hold his ground, Opdycke refused to do so and led his men into Franklin, where he ordered them to fall out and rest near the Carter House.
Meanwhile, at 3:30 p.m., Hood’s men began to move forward, bands playing and their tattered colors flapping in the breeze. By all accounts, it was a magnificent sight. One Union infantryman later recalled that, “It looked to me as though the whole South had come up there and were determined to walk right over us.” As Hood’s men approached, the men in Wagner’s exposed division began to become uneasy, not because they were cowards but because, as veterans, they knew they had no business trying to fight where there were. As Federal artillery opened fire on Hood’s advancing lines, Wagner’s men poured a massive volley into the Confederates. At that, the attacking line broke into a run, the rebel yell coming from every throat. Wagner’s line immediately broke and thousands of Union troops ran for the safety of Franklin, as mass confusion broke out.
Hood’s men ran right behind them, actually mixing in with the retreating Federals. Neither side could fire into them and were forced to wait for a clear line of fire. Wagner’s fleeing troops soon reached a point where locust trees had been felled to form a natural abatis across the road. In their panic, many Union soldiers became entangled in the trees only to be killed by their pursuers. As the Confederates paused to deal with the abatis and the men caught in it, the remainder of Wagner’s men ran past, through the gap, and into Federal lines. As soon as they cleared the gap, Union guns began to rake the Confederates with canister, but the weight and speed of the attack was too strong to stop. The butternut-clad attackers poured into the gap and the Federal defenders positioned there fled north up the streets of Franklin, joining Wagner’s panicked brigades. Schofield’s defenses had broken at what was supposed to be their strongest point and a seemingly irresistible flood of Confederate troops was pouring into Franklin. By all appearances, a Union disaster was in the making and John Hood’s hope for a major victory suddenly seemed bright.
In a meadow near the Carter House, Emerson Opdycke had heard the firing begin and, as the sounds of battle grew louder, he ordered his men into line. They had been resting, making coffee with their rifles stacked nearby. Just as the men took their positions, Opdyke turned and saw the mass stampede of Union soldiers running up the street, followed by Hood’s men. He shouted for the brigade to go forward and his men ran past the Carter House, gathering two Kentucky regiments and those from Wagner’s brigades who still had some fight left in them in the process. Running full speed, the wave of blue collided head-on with the surging Confederates. What ensued was the most brutal hand-to-hand combat of the entire war.
Men shot one another at point blank ranges, beat one another to death with rifle butts and even shovels, while wildly slashing each other with bayonets and knives. Smoke and dust rose up obscuring the melee. Men recalled blood being everywhere, along with brain matter splattered about, covering the collapsed bodies of the dead and wounded from both sides. Captain Sexton, the officer who so clearly recalled the night march past Hood’s men on the pike, later wrote that he fired his pistol nine times during the brawl and the furthest man he shot at was less than 20 yards distance. Even Colonel Opdycke waded into the fight, “firing every shot from his revolver and then breaking it over the head of a rebel.” Sexton also remembered observing the personal battle of one of his men against a Confederate colonel who ordered the private to surrender:
Private Arbridge of Company D, 72nd Illinois, thrust his musket against the abdomen of the rash colonel, and with the exclamation, “I guess not!” instantly discharged his weapon. The effect of the shot was horrible and actually let daylight through the victim. The doomed warrior doubled up, his head gradually sinking forward and downward until he finally plunged head foremost into the pit below, at the very feet of his slayer.
Opdycke’s counterattack proved too much for the Southern attackers, who fell back, eventually going up and over the breastworks, and finally seeking cover at the foot of the fortifications. Opdycke’s men seized control of the gap and quickly erected a barricade, as the Federal crisis ended.
However, all along the line Hood’s men continued to press their attack, surging ahead into waves of rifle and artillery fire like men walking into a strong wind. Many made it to the base of the Federal earthworks only to have the attack stall out, while others were simply stopped in their tracks as men fell by the dozens. Those who made it to the foot of the Union barricades now were trapped. To retreat meant being shot down from behind while going forward over the breastworks would result in certain death or capture. So, for hours, they would remain there, shooting at any blue cap that showed itself, and being shot down by the defenders, many of whom simply pointed their rifles down into the pit and fired blindly. Up and down the line, the story was the same. Hood’s assault ground to a halt and the death toll mounted steadily. As night fell, many of the men trapped in front of the Federal lines began to surrender and those that could fell back toward Winstead Hill. The Battle of Franklin had ended and, by 3:00 a.m., Schofield’s army at last made its final escape across the Harpeth, burning the bridges behind them as they hurried north to Nashville.
Every battle from the Civil War seems to leave a legacy all its own, and Franklin was no different. However, the scale of the slaughter here and the foolhardiness of the attack was what were remembered most. For many Confederate soldiers, this was the place the Army of Tennessee died. Years later, Sam Watkins wrote that it was a battle he could barely bring himself to recall, much less write about. When he recounted how the fields around Franklin appeared the next day, all he could see was absolute horror:
But when the morrow’s sun began to light up the eastern sky with its rosy hues, and we looked over the battlefield, O, my God! what did we see! It was a grand holocaust of death. Death had held high carnival there that night. The dead were piled the one on the other all over the ground. I never was so horrified and appalled in my life.
Hood’s army had lost over 7,000 men with approximately 1,750 killed in action and the remainder wounded or missing. It was a bloodletting he could ill afford. Perhaps even more staggering a loss came in the form of leadership—six of his generals were dead, including Patrick Cleburne. Plus, a deep sense of bitterness now descended over many of his men, some of whom would never forgive John Hood for Franklin. One of them, Captain Samuel T. Foster of the 24th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted) wrote in his diary:
This is not the kind of fighting he promised us at Tuscumbia and Florence when we started into Tennessee. This was not a “fight with equal numbers and choice of the ground” by no means. And the wails and cries of widows and orphans made at Franklin Tenn Nov 30th 1864 will heat up the fires of the bottomless pit to burn the soul of Gen J B Hood for Murdering their husbands and fathers at that place that day. It can’t be called anything else but cold blooded Murder.
And in this perverse war among countrymen, fighting in their own towns, there would be loss that was painfully close to home. Fountain Branch Carter, whose home and cotton gin would be the center of so much fighting, had a son who was serving in Hood’s army. Theodoric Carter, known affectionately as Tod to his family, was a captain on General Thomas Smith’s staff and had participated in the attack on November 30. The next day, a Confederate soldier came to the Carter home and told the elder Carter that his young son had been badly wounded. Carter and another of his sons went in search of him. At first, they could not find him but, eventually, General Smith led them, along with three of Mr. Carter’s daughters and a daughter-in-law to where Tod lay on the field, nearly in sight of his boyhood home, which he had not seen in more than two years. His family lifted him gently and carried back to the house where he would die of his wounds the next day.
On December 1, John Hood ordered his battered and exhausted army into line and, by 1:00 p.m., what was becoming the ghost the Army of Tennessee continued its march north to Nashville. But, as the men prepared to march, they received a proclamation from John Hood that portrayed the battle as a victory. If so, it was certainly a pyrrhic triumph:
The commanding general congratulates the army upon the success achieved yesterday over our enemy by their heroic and determined courage. The enemy have been sent in disorder and confusion to Nashville, and while we lament the fall of many gallant officers and brave men, we have shown to our countrymen that we can carry any position occupied by our enemy.
On December 3, Hood would also telegraph Secretary of War Seddon and General Beauregard describing what sounded like a total victory for the Army of Tennessee:
About 4 p.m. November 30 we attacked the enemy at Franklin and drove them from their center lines of temporary works into their inner lines, which they evacuated during the night, leaving their dead and wounded in our possession, and retired to Nashville, closely pursued by our cavalry. We captured several stand of colors and about 1,000 prisoners. Our troops fought with great gallantry. We have to lament the loss of many gallant officers and brave men. Major-General Cleburne, Brig. Gens. John Adams, Gist, Strahl, and Granbury were <ar94_644> killed; Maj. Gen. John C. Brown, Brigadier-Generals Carter, Manigault, Quarles, Cockrell, and Scott were wounded; Brigadier-General Gordon was captured.
Meanwhile, George Thomas awaited John Hood in Nashville, where the last act would finally be played.
Hood and Thomas Meet in Nashville
While John Schofield and John Hood had been playing out their own drama on the pike to Nashville, George Thomas had been a waging a three-front war of his own. First, he had been in constant contact with Schofield, urging him on and providing what little support he could. He was terribly anxious to get IV and XXIII Corps back to Nashville, and feared that Hood might, indeed, succeed in nabbing Schofield before he could escape. Therefore, Schofield’s dispatch from Franklin was a very welcome sight.
FRANKLIN, November 30, 1864–7.10 p.m.
The enemy made a heavy and persistent attack with about two corps, commencing at 4 p.m. and lasting until after dark. He was repulsed at all points, with very heavy loss, probably 5,000 or 6,000 men. Our loss is probably not more than one-tenth that number. We have captured about 1,000 prisoners, including one brigadier-general. Your dispatch of this p.m. is received. I had already given the orders you direct, and am now executing them.
J. M. SCHOFIELD, Major-General.
By late afternoon on December 1, Schofield’s command marched into the defenses of Nashville, helping Thomas with his second problem, that of forming an army of sufficient size and strength to overwhelm Hood and the Army of Tennessee. Ever since Sherman had assigned him the duty of protecting the Union rear in Tennessee, Thomas had been waging a continual campaign to find men and material, and organize his new army. The struggle had not been an easy one. General Smith’s XVI Corps had been ordered east to Nashville from Missouri in mid-November, but had struggled against the weather, first in the form of torrential rains and then early snows in Missouri. They eventually made it to St. Louis on November 24, where they boarded steamers for the final leg of the journey up the Mississippi to the Ohio and then down the Cumberland River to Nashville.
However, by November 29, they had not arrived and there was no word on their status. Thomas had recently lost nearly 15,000 veteran troops to enlistment expiration and, with only about 5,000 men inside the defenses of Nashville, he was understandably anxious to see Smith’s 12,000 men arrive. In the meantime, he began arming his cooks and quartermasters and was even given authority by the Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, to “to call upon the Governor of Indiana and of any other Western State for militia.” Therefore, Thomas telegraphed the garrison commander at Clarksville, further up the Cumberland, on November 29, asking if there had been any signs of Smith’s transports. Luckily, the Union commander there replied, “The last one of eleven transports, with troops, and two gun-boats have just passed up.”
Just before Schofield and his corps arrived, the ships carrying Smith’s men docked in Nashville. That evening, another group of reinforcements, a provisional division and two brigades of black soldiers, arrived in Nashville under the command of General James Steedman. Now, with nearly 50,000 men under his command, Thomas felt better about his situation. However, most of the new troops were raw and inexperienced, and Thomas needed to get this new army organized to fight. Plus, there was the issue of his cavalry. If he were to take on John Hood, he wanted a cavalry force capable of handling the legendary Forrest. He had enough men, with about 15,000 troopers, but mounts were a serious issue. Many of his cavalry did not have horses and, upon arriving in Nashville, Wilson’s were about played out. So, Thomas set about trying to find sufficient horseflesh to mount his cavalrymen, a process that would take several days to complete. In the meantime, John Hood and his army arrived outside Nashville in the early afternoon of December 2, and began to dig in just south of the city.
However, the toughest battle George Thomas would fight was the one he fought with his own chain of command. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, Ulysses Grant, ever the bold, aggressive, audacious soldier, considered the deliberate Thomas to be a “plodder,” a trait he could not abide. As Thomas labored to bring his command together, Grant tried to give him some room, but Grant himself was besieged by a constant stream of urgent dispatches from Washington demanding that Thomas take to the field. At his end, what George Thomas saw was a three-headed monster spewing messages urging him to take the field. That monster was a product of the command structure Lincoln and Grant had carved out together and, while it was very effective for the most part, here it created command chaos.
In the Union command system at the end of the war, Grant was General-in-Chief of all Union ground forces, and he worked from the field, accompanying George Meade and the Army of the Potomac as they campaigned against Lee. Meanwhile, in Washington, Grant’s predecessor, General Henry Halleck, functioned as his Chief of Staff. Halleck’s job was to interpret Grant’s communications for President Lincoln and provide the president’s views to Grant. The third element in this mix was Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton seems to have operated somewhat independently, communicating directly with Grant at times, through Halleck on occasion and even directly with Thomas now and then. But no matter who the dispatches came from, the message to Thomas was always consistent: attack Hood now.
The fear, particularly among Lincoln and Stanton, was that Thomas would prove to be another general who organized but did not fight. They had visions of John Hood bypassing Nashville, crossing the Cumberland River, invading Kentucky, and moving on to the Ohio River, all while George Thomas remained safely behind his fortifications. The day after Thomas’ reinforcements arrived, Stanton telegraphed Grant:
Washington, December 2, 1864–10.30 a.m.
The President feels solicitous about the disposition of General Thomas to lay in fortifications for an indefinite period “until Wilson gets equipments.” This looks like the McClellan and Rosecrans strategy of do nothing and let the rebels raid the country. The President wishes you to consider the matter.
E. M. STANTON, Secretary of War.
Grant told Stanton that he would order Thomas to get moving and sent two telegrams to Thomas:
CITY POINT, VA., December 2, 1864–11 a.m.
If Hood is permitted to remain quietly about Nashville, you will lose all the road back to Chattanooga, and possibly have to abandon the line of the Tennessee. Should he attack you it is all well, but if he does not you should attack him before he fortifies. Arm and put in the trenches your quartermaster employés, citizens, &c.
U.S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.
CITY POINT, VA., December 2, 1864–1.30 p.m.
Nashville, Tenn. :
With your citizen employés armed, you can move out of Nashville with all your army and force the enemy to retire or fight upon ground of your own choosing. After the repulse of Hood at Franklin, it looks to me that instead of fal1ing back to Nashville, we should have taken the offensive against the enemy where he was. At this distance, however, I may err as to the best method of dealing with the enemy. You will now suffer incalculable injury upon your railroads, if Hood is not speedily disposed of. Put forth, therefore, every possible exertion to attain this end. Should you get him to retreating, give him no peace.
U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.
Thomas responded prudently, sending dispatches to both Halleck in Washington and Grant at City Point. He carefully stated the situation trying to help them see that he was close to being ready, but that he needed time, hopefully only two or three days. He reminded Grant that the two corps Schofield provided were the weakest in Sherman’s army and that he needed to get the mix of men from Schofield, Smith, and Steedman organized into a command capable of fighting. He also told Halleck that, essentially, Hood was not going anywhere. Thomas had wisely ordered the Navy’s gunboats to constantly patrol the Cumberland, watching for any signs of a crossing, which they were to oppose vigorously, if discovered.
What no one seemed to see is that Thomas had the situation well in-hand. He was not shrinking from a fight, as Stanton and Lincoln feared. Rather, he was ensuring that he could execute the maximum combat power possible against an enemy who was exactly where he wanted him. By allowing Hood to deploy outside the city, Thomas had permitted his opponent, now outnumbered and operating on short rations, to further extend and expose his lines of communication and supply. Further, Thomas had no intention of remaining on the defensive. Once he was ready, he fully intended to strike Hood and strike him hard. But this was apparently lost on his chain of command, who continued to see only needless delay.
On December 5, Grant telegraphed Thomas, urging him to take the offensive, saying, “It seems to me whilst you should be getting up your cavalry as rapidly as possible to look after Forrest, Hood should be attacked where he is. Time strengthens him, in all probability, as much as it does you.” Thomas did not reply, causing Grant to send an even more strident dispatch the next day:
CITY POINT, VA., December 6, 1864–4 p.m.
Maj. Gen. G. H. THOMAS,
Attack Hood at once, and wait no longer for a remount of your cavalry. There is great danger of delay resulting in a campaign back to the Ohio River.
U.S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.
Thomas replied, saying, “Your telegram of 4 p.m. this day is just received. I will make the necessary dispositions and attack Hood at once, agreeably to your order, though I believe it will be hazardous with the small force of cavalry now at my service.” The next afternoon, December 7, Grant’s impatience began to get the better of him, and he wrote Secretary Stanton that, if Thomas did not attack immediately, he would order Schofield to assume overall command, reassigning Thomas to be his subordinate. Grant then wrote Halleck on December 8, saying, “If Thomas has not struck yet, he ought to be ordered to hand over his command to Schofield. There is no better man to repel an attack than Thomas, but I fear he is too cautious to ever take the initiative.” George Thomas might be steadily preparing to win a military battle in the field, but he was rapidly losing the political battle east of the Appalachians.
When one reads Grant’s communications with Washington, you can see that he still believed Thomas was the best man for the job. However, at the same time, the general-in-chief seemed to feel that he was running short of not just patience, but also political capital. That night, Halleck wrote to him that, if Grant wanted Thomas removed, no one would interfere. Grant replied saying, “I want General Thomas reminded of the importance of immediate action. I sent him a dispatch this evening which will probably urge him on. I would not say relieve him until I hear further from him.”
When nothing was heard from Thomas the next morning, Grant asked that all preparations be made to relieve Thomas of his duties. The Adjutant General wrote the following message:
WAR DEPT., ADJT. GENERAL’S OFFICE,
Washington, D.C., December 9, 1864.
In accordance with the following dispatch from Lieutenant-General Grant, viz–
Please telegraph order relieving him (General Thomas) at once and placing Schofield in command. Thomas should be directed to turn over all dispatches received since the battle of Franklin to Schofield.
U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.
The President orders:
I. That Maj. Gen. J. M. Schofield assume command of all troops in the Departments of the Cumberland, the Ohio, and the Tennessee.
II. That Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas report to General Schofield for duty and turn over to him all orders and dispatches received by him, as specified above.
By order of the Secretary of War:
But, the message was not sent immediately. Halleck wrote directly to Thomas, again urging him to move against Hood and adding that General Grant was very dissatisfied with his performance. Thomas replied, again stating his need for horses, but he added news of a new development: a major ice storm had struck Nashville on the morning of December 9 and there was no possibility of an attack, as the ground was totally coated with ice and more was coming down. He then telegraphed Grant, telling him that, “Major-General Halleck informs me that you are very much dissatisfied with my delay in attacking. I can only say I have done all in my power to prepare, and if you should deem it necessary to relieve me I shall submit without a murmur.” In fact, two hours before Thomas wrote to Grant, the commanding general had issued orders to relieve Thomas of command.
However, when he saw Thomas’ latest dispatch, he asked that the orders to fire Thomas be held back and dashed a telegram off to Thomas in Nashville:
CITY POINT, VA., December 9, 1864–7.30 p.m.
Your dispatch of 1 p.m. received. I have as much confidence in your conducting a battle rightly as I have in any other officer; but it has seemed to me that you have been slow, and I have had no explanation of affairs to convince me otherwise. Receiving your dispatch of 2 p.m. from General Halleck, before I did the one to me, I telegraphed to suspend the order relieving you until we should hear further. I hope most sincerely that there will be no necessity of repeating the orders, and that the facts will show that you have been right all the time.
U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.
Later that night, Halleck and Grant again exchanged telegrams over the matter of replacing Thomas. Once more, Grant expressed his frustration, but also stated his confidence in Thomas, saying, “I am very unwilling to do injustice to an officer who has done as much good service as General Thomas has, however, and will, therefore, suspend the order relieving him until it is seen whether he will do anything.”
The ice storm eventually abated, but the temperatures were now so low every surface was coated in several inches of ice. There was no way a man could walk upright on even a level surface, much less an army move to the attack. When Thomas informed Halleck and Grant on December 11 that it was impossible to attack until a thaw took place, Grant again ordered him to attack without delay “for weather or re-enforcements.” But, again, Thomas deferred and Grant finally decided it was time to relieve his plodding general and to do so himself. He left City Point en route to Nashville via Washington. On December 14, as Grant traveled north to the capital, Thomas telegraphed Halleck that the ice was melting and that he would launch his attack the next morning.
As George Thomas battled his own chain of command, John Hood and his army fought Mother Nature. Their entrenchments were about 10 miles south and southeast of Nashville. The right end of their lines stopped about a mile short of the Murfreesboro Turnpike, where Cheatham’s corps dug in. From there, the Confederate line ambled generally west and southwest, with Lee’s corps in the center, until it reached a point just short of the Hillsboro Turnpike. There, the line turned almost 90 degrees and ran south in parallel to the pike, where Stewart’s battered corps held the line. Hood only had enough men to cover about four miles and, even at that, his men were stretched dangerously thin. He had requested reinforcements, but none were on the way. Meanwhile, his men shivered in the cold, many with no shoes or even head gear. Unlike their Federal opponents, there were no warm tents, much less barracks. Instead, they dug holes in the frozen earth as best they could, lined them with twigs and leaves, and then huddled together, three and four men to a hole, trying to find warmth under threadbare blankets.
Hood’s plan was to withstand the coming Federal assault, smash it, and then launch a swift counterattack that would send the Union forces reeling from the city. Given that plan and the fact that the massive Union line overlapped his significantly, it is odd that, on December 7, Hood sent almost all of Forrest’s cavalry and one division of his precious infantry to perform what he later called “a reconnaissance in force” of nearby Murfreesboro. If Forrest thought he could take the Federal garrison there, he was to do so, perhaps in the hope that Thomas would weaken his force to stop Forrest. However, Forrest determined this was not feasible and, while he sent the infantry back to Hood, he remained near Murfreesboro. As a result, Hood would go into the fight against Thomas without his “eyes,” which he badly needed to cover his extremely vulnerable flanks.
When December 15 dawned, the sun struggled to burn through a blinding white fog that blanketed the hills around Nashville. The ground was muddy as a result of the melted ice, slowing Union units moving forward to prepare for the attack. The terrain between the Union fortifications and Hood’s line consisted primarily of open, rolling farmland, punctuated by numerous ridges and small knolls that rose 200 to 300 feet above the fields surrounding them. There was plenty of room for maneuver and clear fields of fire.
Thomas’ plan of attack called for a feint against Hood’s right, where Steedman’s command would attack Cheatham and try to hold him in place. Meanwhile, Smith’s XVI Corps and Wood’s IV Corps, supported by dismounted cavalry from Hatch’s division, would swing wide to the right and make an enveloping attack against Stewart on the Confederate left. Schofield and his XXIII Corps would be held in reserve and move forward to exploit any gains made by Smith and Wood.
By 8:00 a.m., the fog began to lift and Steedman launched his attack against Hood’s right. While it was the first combat for his black brigades, they attacked with ferocity, climbing the hills where Cheatham was entrenched in the face of a murderous fire. They succeeded in capturing the first line of Confederate rifle pits, but then their attack bogged down. Still, they would hold this position and keep up a hot and continuous fire on Hood’s men. This had the desired affect: Hood believed that the main Union assault was being made on his right and Cheatham would be heavily engaged there for most of the day. While all this was happening, the real threat was steadily approach Hood’s left and, without Forrest’s cavalry to warn him, he never saw it coming.
The IV and XVI Corps swept forward, knocking Stewart’s men off Montgomery Hill and then they swarmed over the artillery redoubts Hood had constructed near the Hillsboro Pike. At 1:00 p.m., Thomas committed Schofield’s Corps to the attack and sent all of Wilson’s cavalry to the right, in an attempt to cut off Hood’s escape routes. Thirty minutes later, the wave of blue-clad infantry crashed through the main Confederate fieldworks and broke the salient in the Southern line. Stewart’s men began a retreat to the southeast toward the Granny White Turnpike, and the entire Confederate left collapsed. The retreat was, however, not a panicked one, as most units fell back in good order. As the left moved back, Cheatham also began to retreat, as Federal units maintained a constant pressure.
As darkness began to fall, Hood reorganized his line about two miles to the south and had his men dig in, his line now shrinking from four miles to only two. Luckily, Thomas’ attackers became disorganized by their success and the Union pursuit had to be halted for the night. Hood hoped to counterattack in the morning, while Thomas planned to continue the attack at first light. It would be a matter of who moved first.
Thomas decided to begin the next day with a massive artillery barrage, then execute another flanking attack on the Confederate left, while he simultaneously pushed hard against the Southern center and right. For his part, Hood rearranged his forces, placing Stewart’s men in the center with Lee on the right and Cheatham on the left. When December 16 dawned, Thomas would move first.
Union artillery opened up at 9:00 a.m., and continued firing for two hours. At 10:00 a.m., Steedman’s men assaulted the Confederate right, but could not make any gains against Lee’s corps, who stubbornly held their ground against repeated attacks. As these assaults continued, the Union artillery shifted their fire to Hood’s left against Cheatham’s corps. Because of their position, the Federal batteries were soon pouring a relentless barrage that enfiladed Cheatham’s line and, by 3:30 p.m., as XVI and XXIII Corps smashed into the Southern left, Cheatham’s infantry had essentially been neutralized as a fighting force. As Union infantry broke through the line, the entire Confederate left broke and the center would soon follow. This time, the retreat was not orderly, as men fled for their lives. Only Lee managed an orderly retreat and his fighting withdrawal probably saved Hood’s army from an even greater disaster.
That night, Hood skillfully reorganized what was left of the Army of Tennessee and began a full retreat. The next morning, George Thomas would send Wilson’s cavalry in pursuit but, once again, the weather intervened. Wilson was slowed by the muddy roads, as well as an effective rear guard fight put up by Confederate cavalry and infantry. When Forrest rejoined Hood on December 18, pursuing Federal troops had no hope of closing in any further. When Hood finally crossed the Tennessee River on Christmas Day, the Union pursuit ended for good. Hood would withdraw to Tupelo, Mississippi and could only muster 15,000 men upon arrival there.
On January 13, John Hood tendered his resignation to President Davis, which was accepted. With that, a proud, passionate warrior became a part of history. As for his army, I will rely on the words of Sam Watkins:
The once proud Army of Tennessee had degenerated to a mob. We were pinched by hunger and cold. The rains, and sleet, and snow never ceased falling from the winter sky, while the winds pierced the old, ragged, gray-back Rebel soldier to his very marrow. The clothing of many were hanging around them in shreds of rags and tatters, while an old slouched bat covered their frozen ears. Some were on old, raw-boned horses, without saddles….Our country is gone, our cause is lost. “Actum est de Republica.”
With the campaign concluded, the last major fighting in the Western Theater was finally at an end. The focus would now turn to the east, as Sherman’s army moved inexorably north up the coast, leaving a path of destruction through South Carolina. The final drama would be performed in Virginia and North Carolina, but the war’s outcome had already been determined in the West.