Figuratively speaking, many men in times of peace as well as in the momentous time of war, are faming to accomplish the end of in view, have been compelled to “take water.” It does not very often happen in reality that a major-general of cavalry, caught in the toils, with all other avenues of escape closed to him, has shown himself so desperately in earnest not to be captured as to plunge on horseback at full speed over the high bank of a river in the raging torrent below. There have been recorded in history two such instances, and, by a strange coincidence, the heroes of both occasions had been christened “Joseph.” The one was Prince Joseph Poniatowski, Marshal of France under the great Napoleon; the other, Major-General Joseph Wheeler, then of the Confederate army, recently appointed by the President Major-General of Volunteers in the army of the United States. Every reader of the life of Bonnaparte remembers the tragic death of Poniatowski after the defeat of Napoleon at Leipsie, when he rushed in a mad charge through an intervening line of the enemy, and although wounded, at full speed rode over the steep bluff of the Elster into the river below, where horse and rider disappeared beneath the surface, never to rise.
The calvary fight at Shelbyville was the liveliest engagement which marked the retreat of Bragg’s army from Tullahoma to Chattanooga, in the summer of 1863. Inasmuch as the Confederates were finally driven from the field, the honors of the day rested with the Union troopers, although they stopped short of reaping the full success which was in their grasp as the result of the brilliant fighting they had done. The Southern troops, who for more than three hours, in the outskirts of Shelbyville, stood up before and held at bay a largely superior force of Federals, were a forlorn hope numbering 1200 men, placed there and commanded by Major-General Joseph Wheeler, in the desperate effort to protect from capture or destruction an immense wagon-train loaded with supplies invaluable to Bragg’s Army. While the fighting was going on, this immense train was filing across the narrow bridge which two miles from the battle field spans Duck River, and was making its small like progress over the muddy and almost impassable road to Tullahoma.
The army of Rosecrans began its forward movement from Murfreesboro on the 22nd of June, 1863. Convinced of the inadvisability of rising a great battle with so large a stream as the Tennessee River immediately in his rear, General Bragg had ordered a withdrawal of his picket-lines of calvary under Generals Wheeler and Forrest to the south bank of Duck River. At Shelbyville, on the northern bank of this stream, there had been gathered a large supply of commissary and quartermaster’s stores and it became of the utmost importance to remove these to some point of safety. Wheeler was directed by General Bragg to withdraw his troops south of Duck River by way of Shelbyville, holding off the Federal advance until the wagon trains were across, when by destroying the bridge, they would be safe from pursuit. In accordance with these instructions, General Forrest who was operating in the neighborhood of Franklin and Spring Hill, was directed to fall back, in order to unite with General Wheeler at Shelbyville. The junction was to be effected as early in the afternoon of the 27th of June as was practicable, and the two commands were then to form the rear guard of the army which was in retreat, and convoy the wagons southward. However,
General Wheeler had calculated that the force he had left to hold the Union Calvary in check at Guys Gap would be able to maintain their position long enough to permit Forrest, who had the greater distance to travel, to effect the junction at the time agreed upon; but upon this day the Federal troopers were evidently intent upon great deeds. Advancing on Guys Gap, they were backed by a corps of infantry under the command of General Gordon Granger, making a combination of strength against which the small Confederate calvary command was able to make but feeble resistance. In addition to Granger’s infantry, Major-General David S. Stanley, commanding all the cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland, was here at the head of the troopers, leading in person one of the best brigades of mounted men at that time in the Union army. At eight o’clock on the morning of the 27th of June, as Colonel R.H.G. Minty, in his official reports says, “the entire calvary force was ordered to move on Guys Gap, the first division in advance.” Colonel Minty at the head of the Fourth Regulars, and Major-General Stanley leading the Seventh Pennsylvania, Fourth Michigan, and Third Indiana, so overmatched the Confederates that they quickly passed by the left flank and gained the rear of their position,a nd drove them rapidly toward Shelbyville. Major-General Granger says, “Our advance met here with no resistance to speak of.” From the Gap to within a few miles of Shelbyville the fight resolved itself into a horse race, with the stampeded Confederates as far in the lead as they could get. The writer of this, who at the time was filling the humble role of a private in the Confederate calvary, was one of a determent stationed on this day about two miles in from of Shelbyville, several hundred years int he rear of some abandoned earth-works which had been thrown up there earlier in the war. Even after the lapse of thirty-five years there comes vividly to mind the forlorn appearance of these flying troopers from Guys Gap as they passed through the line together with the trampling of horses’ hoofs, had converted the roads into beds of mortar, and these demoralized cavaliers were so bespattered with mud from head to foot that no one could have told what uniform they wore. Many of them were hatless, some had lost their guns, and fully one-half of them seemed to have lost heart and hope.
So eager were their pursuers that we had scant time to jeer at or “guy” our unfortunate brothers. Moreover, this situation was not over-conducive to fun or folic. General Wheeler was with us, and in command of our detachment, 1200 in number, which made the sum total of our effective force. With him on hand, every one of us realized that a lively fight was sure to take place. He impressed upon us the necessity of holding the enemy at bay, no matter at what cost, until the train of wagons could clear the bridge, and added that General Forrest was coming to our aid. We were greatly encouraged when we heard that Forrest with his command was not far off, for we knew that, no matter how weak we were, if we could only hold our own until General Wheeler’s famous subordinate, who had already achieved a reputation as a successful fighter, could arrive, we could then beat back all the cavalry that could be sent against us.
For at least a mile in front of the position we occupied, which was upon a slight elevation, all the timber had been felled, in order to expose to view the approach of any attacking column. Along the road and out of the strip of timber to the north of this open space there came in sight a long array of Federal troopers, a deep blue fringe upon the border of the green forest beyond. There were so many of them it did not seem possible for us to stand up before them longer than it would take them to put spurs to their horses and ride over us: but fortunately for us, the dashing tactics which they had employed at Guys Gap earlier in the day they did not practice now. Wheeler’s bold front had evidently impressed them with the idea that we were there in strength, and were probably trying to lend them into a trap. If they had ridden down upon us then our destruction would have complete, for we had no avenue of escape except by one narrow bridge two miles in our rear. Instead of smashing us then and there, as they could easily have done, and as they did several hours of desultory fighting, in which time they lost the great prize they were fighting for, they dismounted the Seventh Pennsylvania under the brave Captain Davis, who deployed them as skirmishes, and advanced to engage our front. As this regiment advanced, another, the Fourth Michigan, moved from their heavy column in the turnpike around the left of our line, in order to turn our flank and force us back. Simultaneously the Their Indiana, was deployed in the opposite direction to overlap our short line upon the right. Immediately in rear of the Seventh Pennsylvania the famous Fourth United States Regulars came up directly before us, and behind this double line was a noisy section of artillery, which began to make its presence felt.
A calvary fight well sustained on both sides is lively enough when one takes part in it, but it seems exceedingly tame on paper. This one did not lack in spirit. Of about a score of such “scraps,” some of which, of larger growth, have passed to a place on the bloodiest pages of history, the writer does not recall a contest which, for downright pluck in giving and taking hard and heavy knocks through several hours, surpasses this Shelbyville “affair.” The carbines and rifles were flashing and banging away at times in scattering shots when the game was at a long range, and then when a charge came on, and the work grew hot, the spiteful, sharp explosions swelled into a crackling roar, like that of a canebrake on fire, when in a single minute hundreds of the boiler like joints have burst asunder. Add to all this the whizzing, angry whir of countless leaden missiles which split the air about you; the hoarse, unnatural shouts of command–for in battle all sounds of the human voice seem out of pitch and tone; the wild, defiant yells and the answering huzzas of the opposing lines; the plunging and rearing of frightened horses; the charges here and there of companies or squadrons, or more than these which seem to be shot out from the main body, as flames shoot out of a house on fire; here and there the sharp, quick cry from some unfortunate trooper who did not hear one leaden messenger–for only those are heard which have passed by; the heavy, soggy striking of the helpless body against the ground; the scurrying runaway of the frightened horse, as often into danger as out of it, whose empty saddle tells the foe that there is one less rifle to fear–all these sights and sounds go to make up the confusing medley of a battlefield. And then there was the artillery, not thundering away–for artillery never thunders when one is near. Two or three miles away the reverberations of the atmosphere convey to the ear the sound of distant thunder, but when, on the field, one faces or stands behind the battery which is engaged, the noise seems more like the sudden throb or impulse of some huge pump than the prolonged muffled sounds which are akin to thunder. So, for nearly three hours, passed this little fight.
The Federal advance upon the centre of our line did not succeed. Time after time is was attempted but the baffled troopers went back again. As they spread out upon our flanks, our own line was stretched out more and more to meet them. At last, about five o’clock, taking advantage of a momentary lull in the attack, General Wheeler, with the exception of Russell’s Fourth Alabama Regiment, withdrew the troops and ordered them to retire as rapidly as possible to the bridge and cross the river; 200 of us were left under command of Colonel A.A. Russell, with orders to stay until they rode us down, in the hope that this catastrophe would be delayed long enough to permit General Wheeler to clear the bridge in our rear. I did not understand this movement at the time, but have seared since from General Wheeler that it was only then that the last wagon had passed across Duck River, and he felt now that he could save at least a portion of his troops on the field by a rapid retreat. We were told, when we were beaten, to make our way, every man for himself as best he could. Before the Federal cavalry realized what had been done, he was gone at full speed, and reaching the bridge had the troops and artillery which accompanied him safe on the southern bank. But before all this was accomplished the lightning had struck our little forlorn hope. The Seventh Pennsylvania and Fourth United States Regulars rode out and over us in a brilliant cavalry maneuver the writer ever witnessed. They formed in columns of fours and advanced at a steady gallop, until they passed into the opening in the line of earth-works, through which the main road led, some two or three hundred years in our advance. As soon as they reached this point inside the works, still on the full run, they deployed from columns of fours into line of battle, like the opening of a huge fan. The movement was made with as much precision as if it had been done in an open plain, on dress parade, or in some exhibition of discipline and drill. Huddled there as we were, knowing what fate was impending, we could not refrain from expressing our admiration not only of the courage which they were displaying, but of the marvelous precision in the change of formation. Our orders were to stand until they approached within fifty yards, when we were to empty our rifles, draw our pistols, and then saure qui peut. The Union troopers, with sabers high in air, made no sound whatever beyond the rambling tattoo which their horses’ hoofs played upon the ground. It was only a short space of time, probably the fraction of a minute, until they were so near that we could distinguish their faces, and in fact their individual features. Leveling our guns at them, we fired our final volley, and by the time our horses’ heads were faced to the rear they, coming at full speed, were upon us. In an incredibly short space of time the writer found himself on the ground and well in the rear of the charging line. No more gallant work was ever done by any troops than was done on this day by there Seventh Pennsylvania and the Fourth Regulars. Meanwhile, General Wheeler, who had safely crossed the river, was in the net of firing this structure, when a member of General Forrest’s staff, Major Rambaut, reported to thin that Forrest, with two brigades, was within two miles of Shelbyville and advancing into town, taking with him two pieces of artillery and 500 men of Martin’s division, with this officer, hastily recrossed to the north side in order to hold the bridge and save Forrest from disaster. The guns were hastily thrown into position, but the charges had scarcely been rammed home, when the Union troops came in full sweep down the main street. When within a few paces of the muzzles of the guns they were discharged, inflicting, however, insignificant loss. With their small force of 500 men Generals Wheeler and Martin stood up as best they could under the pressure of this charge. They held their ground manfully as the calvary rode through and over them, sabring the cannoneers from the guns, of which they took possession, and then passed on and secured the bridge, leaving the two Confederate generals and their troops well in their rear. The bridge had become blocked by one of the caissons, which had been overthrown, and now, thinking they had them in a trap, the Union forces formed a line of battle parallel with the bank of Duck River and across the entrance to the bridge. The idea of surrendering himself and his command had not entered the mind of General Wheeler. As Poniatowski had done at the Eister, he now shouted to this men that they must cut their way through and attempt to escape by swimming the river. With General Martin by his side, sabres in hand, they led the charge, which made in such desperate mood, parted the Federals in their front as they rode through. Without a moment’s hesitation and without considering the distance from the top of the river bank, which was here precipitous, to the water level, these gallant soldiers followed their invincible leader, and plunged at full speed sheer fifteen feet down into the sweeping current. They struck the water with such velocity that horses and riders disappeared, some of them to rise no more. The Union troopers rushed to the water’s edge and fired at the men and animals struggling in the river, killing, or wounding and drowning a number. Holding to his horse’s mane, General Wheeler took the precaution to shield himself as much as possible behind the body of the animal, and although fired at repeatedly he escaped injury and safely reached the opposite shore. Some forty or fifty were said to have perished in this desperate attempt. “Fighting Joe Wheeler” never did a more heroic and generous deed than when he risked all to save Forrest from disaster.
Major General Gordon Granger missed that night the opportunity of a lifetime. Within nine miles of him, at dark on the 27th of June, floundering slowly through the muddy and almost impassable road to Tullahoma, Bragg’s enormous train of wagons was creeping at a snail’s pace. Forrest had been forced to make a detour of eight miles to effect a crossing. Martin’s division was temporarily in disorganization. With the bridge in his possession, had he been as bold and persistent in pursuit as either Wheeler or Forrest, he would have destroyed those wagons and administered a staggering blow to Bragg’s army. General D.S. Stanley proposed to go on that night in pursuit of the beaten Confederates; but his chief, satisfied with the performance of the day, dissented, and “bivouacked near the railroad station.”
John A. Wyeth