- 10 Jun 2022 13:02
June 10, Friday
At his headquarters at Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley, General Hunter has been pondering his next move. Grant’s orders mentioned Charlottesville as a target, and he sent with Sheridan a letter emphasizing that preference. But Hunter never received it. Now, at Strother’s urging, Hunter chooses a more ambitious prize—Lynchburg, a huge Confederate supply depot and a vital rail center linking Richmond with the West and the Deep South. He decides to continue up the Valley to Lexington, cut through the Blue Ridge at the Peaks of Otter, and head east toward Lynchburg. It is a bold plan that requires swift execution. Hunter has to send to Harpers Ferry for a fresh supply. Moreover, there are 1,000 stands of Confederate small arms to be destroyed along with the Staunton depot buildings and fifty miles of Virginia Central track. Thus it isn’t until today, five days after the Battle of Piedmont and two days after Crook’s arrival, that Hunter’s combined force, now styled the Army of West Virginia, is ready to march southward. Confederates under Breckinridge again gather to oppose him, with action at Middlebrook, Brownsburg, and Waynesborough.
This same morning Morgan rides into Lexington, Kentucky, to find, along with much else in the way of supplies and equipment, enough horses in its several government stables to mount all his still-dismounted men and replace the animals broken down by the long march from Virginia. Despite this valid military gain, today is another stain on the reputation the raid had been designed, in part, to burnish. As the local paper will report tomorrow, “Though the stay of Morgan’s command in Lexington was brief, embracing but a few hours, he made good use of his time—as many empty shelves and pockets will testify.” Once more looters take over, and this time veterans join the pillage. Another bank is robbed, though more forthrightly than the one two days ago; the celebrants simply put a pistol to the cashier’s head and make him open the vault, from which they take $10,000 (2020 164,848). Several buildings are set afire and whiskey stores are stripped, with the result being that a good many troopers, too drunk to stay on a horse, have to be loaded into wagons for the ride to Cynthiana, thirty miles northeast. Morgan has learned there are supplies and a 500-man garrison there, and he is determined to have or destroy them both. He moves by way of Georgetown, Kentucky, and a smaller band heads toward Frankfort, Kentucky, carrying out a demonstration.
In Mississippi, the march of Forrest’s men to meet Sturgis’s invaders begins before dawn. Forrest leads the way with his hundred-man escort company and Lyon’s small Kentucky brigade; Rucker and Bell are to follow, along with Morton’s guns, and Johnson will come in from the east. The result is the battle that will be variously called Guntown, Tishomingo Creek, or Brice’s Crossroads. The enemy has close to a two-to-one advantage in men, as well as nearly three times as many guns, but Forrest believes that boldness and the nature of the terrain, which he knows well, will make up for the numerical odds he faces. “I know they greatly outnumber the troops I have at hand,” he tells Rucker, who rides with him in advance of his brigade, “but the road along which they will march is narrow and muddy; they will make slow progress. The country is densely wooded and the undergrowth so heavy that when we strike them they will not know how few men we have.” His companion might point out, but doesn’t, that the road they themselves are on—called the Wire Road because in early days before the railroad, the telegraph line to New Orleans had run along it—is as muddy and narrow as the one across the way. Moreover, all the Federals are within nine miles of the objective, while aside from Johnson’s 500 Alabamians, seven miles away at Baldwyn, all the Confederates have twice as far to go or farther; Lyon, Rucker, and Morton have eighteen miles to cover, and Bell just over 25. Forrest has thought of that as well, however, and here too he sees compensating factors, not only in the marching ability of his troopers, but also in the contrasting effect of the weather on their blue-clad adversaries. The rain has stopped and the rising sun gives promise that the day will be a scorcher. “Their cavalry will move out ahead of their infantry,” he explains, “and should reach the crossroads three hours in advance. We can whip their cavalry in that time. As soon as the fight opens they will send back to have the infantry hurried in. It is going to be hot as hell, and coming on the run for five or six miles, their infantry will be so tired out we will ride right over them.” Quickly returning to present matters, he adds, “I will go ahead with Lyon and the escort and open the fight.”
Sturgis rises at Stubbs Farm in a better frame of mind, encouraged by the letup of the rain and the prospect that a couple of days of mid-June heat will bake the roads dry, down through Tupelo and beyond. The flying column returned from Rienzi last night, and though their mounts are jaded the 400 troopers are doubly welcome as replacements for about the same number of “sick and worn-out men” he starts back toward Memphis this morning in forty of the wagons his two divisions have eaten empty in the past nine days. While Sturgis knows that it is “impossible to gain any accurate or reliable information of that enemy” and that it behooves them “to move and act constantly as if in his presence,” but that is precisely what he fails to do—compassion for his weary foot soldiers leads him to give them an extra couple of hours in camp to dry their clothes and get themselves in order for another hard day’s march. Grierson and his troopers ride off for Guntown at 5:30 am but McMillen’s lead brigade doesn’t set out till 7:00, thus giving Forrest a full measure of the time he estimates he will need to “whip their cavalry” before the infantry hurries up.
The first word that Sturgis receives that a battle is underway comes shortly after 10:00 am, when a courier from Grierson comes pounding back with news that the cavalry is hotly engaged, some five miles down the road, with a superior hostile force; he has, he says, “an advantageous position,” and can hold it if the infantry is brought up promptly. Leaving orders for McMillen to proceed “as rapidly as possible without distressing the troops,” Sturgis gallops ahead to examine the situation at first hand. It doesn’t look at all good from the rear, where a nearly mile-long causeway across a stretch of flooded bottomland leads to and from a narrow bridge over Tishomingo Creek; artillery and ambulances and lead horses jam the road, and when he reaches Brice’s about noon, another mile and a half toward Guntown, he finds the cavalry hard pressed, fighting dismounted amid “considerable confusion.” One brigade commander declares flatly that he will have to fall back unless he receives some support, while the other, according to Sturgis, is “almost demanding to be relieved.” Grierson is more stalwart. Though the rebels are there “in large numbers, with double lines of skirmishers and heavy supports,” he is proud that he and his rapid-firing troopers have “succeeded in holding our own and repulsing with great slaughter three distinct and desparate charges.” The sun is now past the overhead. How much longer he can hang on he doesn’t say, but it can scarcely be for long unless he is reinforced, heavily and soon, by men from the infantry column toiling toward him through the mud and heat. Sturgis reacts promptly. With no further mention of “distressing the troops,” he sends word for McMillen to hurry his three brigades forward and save the day.
Grierson is wrong in almost everything he has said, and Sturgis is fatally wrong in accepting his estimate of the situation. Those three “desperate charges,” for example, were simply feints, made by Forrest—a great believe in what he calls “bulge”—to disguise the fact that his troopers, dismounted and fed piecemeal into the brush-screened line as soon as they come up, are badly outnumbered by those in the two blue brigades, who overlap him on both flanks and have six pieces of horse artillery in action, unopposed, and four more in reserve. Forrest opened the fight, as he said he would, by attacking with Lyon astride the Wire Road, then put Rucker and Johnson in on the left and right, when they arrived, for a second and third attack to keep the Federals off balance while waiting for Morton’s guns and the rest of his command to complete their marches from Booneville and Rienzi. “Tell Bell to move up fast and fetch all he’s got,” he tells a staff major, who rides back to deliver the message. It is just past 1:00 pm when this last and largest of his brigades come onto the field, close behind Morton; by which time, true to his schedule, Forrest has the cavalry whipped. Convinced that he has been “overwhelmed by numbers,” Grierson is asking to have his division taken out of line, as it is “exhausted and well-nigh out of ammunition” for its rapid-firing carbines. McMillen rides up to the crossroads at this point, in advance of his lead brigade, and is dismayed to find that “everything is going to the devil as fast as it possible could.” Like Sturgis earlier, he throws caution to the winds. Though many of his troops have already collapsed from heat exhaustion on the hurried approach march, and though all are blown and in great distress from the savage midday, mid-June Mississippi sun, he sends peremptory orders for his two front brigades to come up on the double quick and restore the crumbling cavalry line before the rebels overrun it.
They are hurrying to destruction, and hurrying needlessly at that; for just as they come into position, every bit as “tired out” as Forrest predicted, a lull falls over the crossroad. It is brief, however, lasting only long enough for the Confederate commander, now that all his troops are on the field, to mount and launch his first real assault of the day. Giving direction of the three brigades on the right to Buford, a Kentucky-born West Pointer two years his senior in age, he goes in person to confer with Bell, whose newly arrived brigade comprises the left—Bell it to begin the charge, with the rest of the line following suit when they hear his bugles and guns. This done, he comes back to the right, checking his line along the way and passing on the same instructions. Drawing rein at Morton’s position, Forrest tells him to double-shot four of his guns with canister and join the charge when the bugle sounds, then keep pace with the front rank as it advances. Afterwards, the young artillerist, who celebrated his 21st birthday on the field of Chickamauga, will tell his chief: “You scared me pretty badly when you pushed me up so close to their infantry and left me without protection. I was afraid they might take my guns.” Forrest will laugh, saying, “Well, artillery is made to be captured, and I wanted to see them take yours.”
With the main effort begun there is a grim struggle, much of it hand to hand, before the contest reaches the climactic point at which Forrest judges the time has come to go all-out. Returning to the left, where he believes the resistance will be stiffest, he puts an end to the thirty-minute lull by starting Bell’s advance up the Guntown road. McMillen’s second brigade is posted there, sturdy men from Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota who, winded though they are from their sprint to reach the field, not only break the attack but launch one of their own, throwing the Tennesseans into such confusion that Forrest has to dismount his escort troopers and lead them into the breach, firing pistols, to stop what has the makings of a disaster. Over on the right, Buford too is finding the enemy stubborn, and has all he can do to keep up the pressure along his front. Finally, though, the pressure tells. Orders come from Forrest—who fights this, as he does all his battles, “by ear”—that the time has come to “hit ‘em on the ee-end.” It is past 4:00 pm by now, and simultaneous attacks, around the flanks and into the rear of the Union left and right, makes the whole blue line waver and cave in, first slowly, then with a rush.
Fleeing past the two-story Brice house at the crossroads, the fugitives seek shelter back up the road they ran down, four hours ago, to reach the battle that’s now lost. But conditions there are in some ways worse than those in what had been the front: especially along the causeway through the Tishomingo bottoms and on the railless bridge across the creek, the narrow spout of the funnel-shaped host of panicked men, who, as Sturgis will say, “came crowding in like an avalanche from the battlefield.” Morton’s batteries have the range, and their execution is increased by the addition of four Federal guns, captured with their ammunition. Presently a wagon overturns on the high bridge and others quickly pile up behind it, creating “one indiscriminate mass of artillery, caissons, ambulances, and broken, disordered troops.” Some escape by leaping into the creek, swollen neck-deep by the rains, and wading to the opposite bank. But there is no safety there, either. Though Sturgis hopes to form a new line on the far side of the stream, the rebels are crossing so close in his rear that every attempt to make a stand only brings on a new stampede. The only thing that slows the whooping graybacks is the sight of abandoned wagons, loaded with “fresh, crisp hardtack and nice, thin side bacon.” They pause for plunder, wolf it down, and then come on for more.
This continues, well past sundown, to within three miles of last night’s bivouac, where there is another and still worse stretch of miry road across one of the headwater prongs of the Hatchie River. It is night now and the going is hard “in consequence of abandoned vehicles, drowned and dying horses and mules, and the depth of the mud.” Despairing of getting what is left of his shipwrecked train through this morass, Sturgis goes on to Stubbs Farm, where he is approached before midnight by Colonel Edward Bouton, whose Black brigade has served as train guard during the battle and has therefore suffered less than the other two infantry commands have done. Bouton wants more ammunition with which to hold Forrest in check, on the far side of the bottoms, while the remaining guns and wagons are being snaked across to more solid ground beyond. Sturgis is too far in despair, however, to consider this or any other proposal involving resistance. Besides, he has no ammunition to give. “For God’s sake,” he breaks out, distraught by the events of this longest day in his life and the prospect of a sad birthday tomorrow, “if Mr. Forrest will let me alone, I will let him alone! You have done all you could, and more than was expected.... Now all you can do is to save yourselves.”
Mr. Forrest, as Sturgis so respectfully styles the man he had said a month ago is “too great a plunderer to fight anything like an equal force,” has no intention of letting him alone so long as there is profit to be gained from pressing the chase. Heaving the wreckage off the Tishomingo bridge and into the creek, along with the dead and dying animals, he continues to crowd the rear of the retreating bluecoats. “Keep the skeer on ‘em,” he tells his troopers, remounted now, and they do just that, past sunset and on into twilight and full night. “[Sturgis] attempted the destruction of his wagons, loaded with ammunition and bacon,” Forrest will report, “but so closely was he pursued that many of them were saved without injury, although the road was lighted for some distance.” Furious at this incendiary treatment of property he considers his already, he comes upon a group of his soldiers who have paused, still mounted, to watch the flames. “Don’t you see the damned Yankees are burning my wagons?” he roars. “Get off your horses and throw the burning beds off.” Much toasted hardtack and broiled bacon is saved this way, until finally, some time after 8 pm, “It being dark and my men and horses requiring rest,”—they do indeed, having been on the go, marching and fighting, for better than sixteen hours—he throws out an advance to follow slowly and cautiously after the enemy, and orders the command to halt, feed, and rest.
By 1 am he has his troops back in the saddle and hard on the equipment-littered trail. Within two hours they reach the Hatchie bottoms, where they come upon the richest haul of all. Despite Bouton’s plea, Sturgis has ordered everything movable to proceed this night to Stubbs Farm and beyond, abandoning what is left of his train, all his non-walking wounded, and another fourteen guns, all that remains of the original 22 except for four small mountain howitzers that haven’t seen action anyhow. This brings Forrest’s total acquisition to 18 guns, 176 wagons, 1,500 rifles, 300,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition, and much else. He himself has lost nothing, and though he has 492 killed and wounded in the battle—a figure larger in proportion than the 617 casualties he has inflicted—his capture of more than 1,600 men on the retreat brings the Federal losses to 2,240, nearly five times his own. Many of the enemy, especially from Bouton’s brigade, which have the misfortune to bring up the rear and suffer heavily in the process, are picked up here in the Hatchie bottoms.
The “irregular” skirmishers haven’t prevented Sheridan from crossing the North Anna and camping near a crossroads store barely three miles north of Trevilian. The Confederate scouts have become more aggressive, and Sheridan concludes that a large force of Confederate cavalry has succeeded in getting ahead of him. If he is right, there will be a fight in the morning.
He is right. By nightfall, General Hampton and his 4,700 troopers have reached Trevilian Station. Indeed, Brigadier General Thomas Rosser’s brigade bivouacs this night on the Gordonsville road beyond Trevilian. Fitzhugh Lee’s division, meanwhile, camps near Louisa Court Hous, on the railroad four miles to the east. They have beaten the enemy to the Virginia Central. Now they have to fight him off.
In Georgia Sherman’s three armies move forward cautiously toward Johnston’s mountainous positions northwest of Marietta. Action occurs at Acworth, Pine Mountain, Roswell, Lost Mountain, and Calhoun. Muddy roads and swollen streams still hamper operations.
Grant at Cold Harbor refines his plans for the movement of the Army of the Potomac to the James River. Fighting erupts at Old Church and Newport, Virginia, and Kabletown, West Virginia. In the West the day is marked with an affair near St. James, Missouri; another at Lewisburg, Arkansas; and considerable scouting in Missouri.
The Confederate Congress in Richmond authorizes military service for men between seventeen and eighteen years of age and between forty-five and fifty
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.