October 7, 1863 (Wednesday)
General Joseph Wheeler, far behind enemy lines in Tennessee, had ordered Henry Davidson, commanding one of his dispersed divisions, to fall back upon the center of his line should the enemy get too close. These were simple orders, and Wheeler felt that they should be simple enough to follow.
The enemy, commanded by Generals Robert Mitchell and George Crook, were encamped seven miles north of Shelbyville. Davidson’s Division was two miles south and across the Duck River. With scouts thrown out, Wheeler believed that Davidson should have nine miles worth of warning before the enemy hit him. And, of course, the enemy wasn’t supposed to get close enough to do anything of the sort.
Col. George Hodge, commanding a brigade under Davidson, was ordered on the morning of this date to march for Farmington, which was two miles behind Wheeler’s center, and so two miles away from where Wheeler actually wanted them. Just as they started off, Davidson rode up and informed Hodge that the Federals were coming down the Shelbyville Road, which came in on Hodge’s flank. This was news indeed, and Hodge dispatched a regiment to check them.
Crook’s Federals had marched the seven miles from their camp and passed through Shelbyville before the Rebels were even aware of them. Surprised by the complete lack of preparedness on the part of Davidson’s Confederates, Crook ordered a vicious assault.
First, he hit the regiment sent forward by Hodge with an entire brigade of mounted infantry, charging forward on horseback. The Rebels ran for a woodlot, and the Union troops dismounted and followed.
Davidson sent forward his other brigade, commanded by John Scott, but they were soundly thrashed into a swirl of confusion by a second brigade of Federals unleashed by General Crook. With sabers drawn, they charged, beating the Rebels back.
At the call for reinforcements, the rest of Hodge’s Brigade went forward, counter-marching on the road to Farmington, racing back to the fight. “Ahead of me,” wrote Hodge, “I encountered the whole of Scott’s Brigade crowded in frightful and horrible confusion, wild and frantic with panic, chocking the entire road and bearing down upon me at racking speed. It was too late to clear the way; they rode over my command like madmen, some of them stopping only, as I am informed, when they reached the Tennessee.”
Hodge was literally ridden over. His horse was knocked down and he only managed to escape capture through good fortune. As the Federals surged forward, Hodge was able to grab the 27th Virginia Battalion, throw it against a fence where it opened fired upon the flank of the enemy. This checked the Federals, but not before the battalion’s captain was sabered out of his saddle.
“I seized the opportunity to gallop ahead of the fugitives and extricate my own brigade from the disorderly mob,” continued Hodge, “this I formed line with and in some order received the now advancing enemy. He came on in heavy force and with determined obstinacy.”
Though it seemed as if all the Federals were charging at once, it was not so. General Crook had left a small brigade of 500 troops under the command of Col. Robert Minty. When the Rebels scattered, he feared that some would play upon his right flank, and sent word back to Minty to come forward to face them. Minty, however, never received orders to march. Without reinforcements, Crook deployed his artillery and began to shell the impromptu lines thrown together by Hodge.
The Rebel line had but two mountain howitzers, and there was little they could do but fall back as Crook’s Federals gave chase. Every quarter of a mile or so, Hodge’s Brigade would turn to give battle. Each time, Crook would charge, and Hodge’s lines would hold. Seeing he couldn’t get at the Rebels from the front, Crook extended his lines and tried the flanks, which, outnumbering Hodge’s small brigade, was easily accomplished.
“For five hours and a half, over 7 miles of country, the unequal contest continued,” wrote Hodge. “My gallant brigade was cut to pieces and slaughtered. I had informed the officers and men that the sacrifice of their lives was necessary and they manfully made the sacrifice.” These seven miles had backed the Rebels to the eastern edge of Farmington. It was around 3pm.
Through the morning, General Wheeler could hear the fighting, and assumed that Davidson was falling back as ordered – Davidson’s dispatches to Wheeler even said as much. But when Wheeler questioned the couriers themselves, they informed him that their commander was instead headed for Farmington. Frustrated, Wheeler left the Duck River, ordering his two other divisions to Farmington, with William Martin’s Division in the lead.
Wheeler and Martin arrived just in time, allowing five regiments to get into position at Farmington before Davidson’s Rebels fell back beyond it.
It was then that General Crook learned that Minty would not be joining him, and he would have to do what he could against fresh Confederate troops drawn up before him.
“Finding the enemy vastly superior to me,” wrote Crook, “I left one regiment of cavalry to protect my rear, holding the other two regiments as a support to the infantry, the country being impracticable for the cavalry to operate in. The enemy’s battery was posted in a cedar thicket some 400 yard distant from me, pouring into me a heavy fire of grape, canister, and shell, and made one or two charges on my men, at the same time attempting to turn both of my flanks.”
It was time enough for all of Davidson’s Division to slip through the new Confederate lines and head south from Farmington, while the last division, under General John Wharton, who accompanied the wagons, was also able to slip south.
“The enemy soon came up in strong force with a division of infantry and a division of cavalry,” wrote Wheeler, greatly exaggerating the Federal force before him. “We fought them with great warmth for twenty minutes, then we charged the line and drove it back for some distance. General Wharton’s column and our train having now passed, and the object for which we fought being accomplished, we withdrew without being followed by the enemy.”
General Crook’s account differs from Wheeler’s, however. Following a sharp artillery duel, which apparently dismounted a Rebel gun and blew up a caisson, Crook ordered his infantry to charge. This they did, and “broke through the enemy’s line, scattered them to the right and left, capturing four guns, some wagons, and several prisoners. The enemy then being in an open country, I ordered Colonel Long to the front to make a saber charge, but they had the roads barricaded so as to rend it impossible. It now getting dark, I went into camp near Farmington.”
As the Rebels retreated to safety, Crook was furious that Minty was not there. If he had been, he wrote, “I should have thrown him on the left flank, and as things turned out since, I would have captured a large portion of his [Wheeler's] command, together with all his artillery and transportation.”
The Confederates would spend the next couple of days racing for the Tennessee River. The Federals would not be able to keep up.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 2, p686, 691, 724, 727-728. [↩]