‘Before the Enemy Can Load’ – Union Cavalry Victorious in Tennessee

January 27, 1864 (Wednesday)

Col. Edward McCook
Col. Edward McCook

General Samuel Sturgis had prepared his men, reinforcing them where necessary and sending orders to attack the Rebels at dawn. But as the darkness waned, it revealed only a thick gray fog, overflowing the banks of the Little Pigeon River.

The day previous, Longstreet’s Confederate cavalry had surprised him, attacking from two directions. But their assaults were disjointed and without much force. Reports, however, told of infantry. Sturgis wanted to strike first.

Sturgis had three divisions, two of which, commanded by Colonels Israel Garrard and Frank Wolford, were positioned northeast of the village of Sevierville. The third, under Edward McCook was to the east, waiting near a fork in the road.

Despite the fog, Archibald Campbell’s Brigade was ordered forward down the right fork with artillery. Campbell dismounted both a Michigan and Pennsylvania regiment, which held the left of his line. A mounted Tennessee Regiment was his right. He knew that two brigades of Rebel cavalry under the command of John Morgan held the hills before him, their lines every bit as long as his own. His troops, led by the Michigan unit, advanced to the river where they came under fire from Morgans’s skirmishers.

Rather than simply crossing under fire, Campbell ordered a charge. The Michiganders let out a yell and with artillery booming behind them, they beat back the Confederates. With the enemy in an organized retreat, he brought forward the guns and shelled their position.

But this wasn’t Sturgis’ only move. Around the time when Campbell began to shell the Rebels, Col. Oscar La Grange’s Brigade was ordered forward, taking the road on the left. Before marching even a mile, they met the enemy’s pickets, pushing them back a half-mile to their main force – three full regiments from Moragn’s other Brigade. The Rebels were determined to make a stand. La Grange was unsure how to proceed, trying first the enemy’s right to no avail. The Confederates had taken a position on a hill before them, and though it was superior, a woodlot separated the two sparring foes.

Map drawn by General Sturgis describing today's action.
Map drawn by General Sturgis describing today’s action.

And so he dismounted two regiments from Indiana and Wisconsin, creeping them between the trees. Under such cover, they delivered a telling fire upon the Rebels, while the Rebels fired harmlessly over their heads. Hardly outdone, the Confederate artillery opened upon La Grange’s mounted troopers, sending men and horses scrambling for the shelter of a nearby valley.

Even with the artillery, the Confederate line before La Grange began to fall back on his left. Far off to his right, he could see Campbell’s men driving the Rebels. This was good, but his own troopers had advanced to bring them under the fire from the Rebels facing Campbell. To check this, he sent the Wisconsin Regiment out to his left, bolstering the numbers on his flank, but he also sent reinforcements into the woods, applying more pressure to the Confederate center. Finally, he ordered half of an Indiana Regiment to charge, rushing them forward with wild cheers.

As quickly as the Rebel lines broke, they began to reform. La Grange ordered two columns to attack, one focused upon the battery, the other upon the colors where the enemy was rallying. The colors were driven back, while the guns were captured, “the drivers sabered, and the teams stopped in a deep cut within a quarter of a mile,” recorded La Grange.

But the Rebels noticed that La Grange’s numbers weren’t quite as fearsome as they had first seemed, and this gave them all the security they needed. Quickly a battalion was thrown together and they raced to retake the guns. But it was not to be. Just as the Confederates charged, the remaining companies of the Indiana regiment sprang forward, driving them back.

As they did, Campbell ordered a further advance, sending the Michigan and Pennsylvania regiments forward. They charged across an open field to the Rebel position, hidden in another woodlot. There was some confusion and crossfire as the two units maneuvered, but before long, they were driving the Confederates slowly back and through the woods. They backed them to and across another branch of the Little Pigeon, where they broke and fled.

Campbell seemed to be surprised by their flight, as he formed columns and gave chase. They marched for two miles before coming upon the Rebels, though only skirmishers. They were easily driven back, and it was here that he came into contact with La Grange’s Brigade on his left. Finally, together, they discovered the Rebel line, meeting first their artillery, shells exploding all around them.

“I advanced by the right flank under cover of the woods to within easy musket-range of the enemy’s artillery, which was strongly supported,” wrote Campbell in his report. He called for his own artillery, asking if they could be lugged into position. “Yes,” came the reply, “before the enemy can load.” Splendid.

Today's approximate map.
Today’s approximate map.

“I then ordered my line to charge the enemy and dislodge him from his position,” he continued, “and with the assistance of one piece of artillery, compelled him to abandon his position, and he fled in utter confusion, when the Fourth Indiana Cavalry charged and captured the enemy’s artillery.”

General Sturgis was elated. He had whipped half of Longstreet’s cavalry with only a third of his own. In a message back to headquarters in Knoxville, he told of the 100 prisoners and the two pieces of artillery captured. “Some 50 or 60 of the enemy were wounded and killed in the charge alone,” he boasted. “In the whole day’s fighting their loss must be very large.”

And it was. Longstreet himself admitted as much. “General Martin [William Martin, commanding both Confederate Divisions], had a severe cavalry fight on the 27th,” he wrote to Richmond. “He was driven back 4 miles, with a loss of 200 killed, wounded, and missing, and 2 pieces of artillery. The enemy’s cavalry has been greatly increased by the cavalry from Chattanooga. Most of the cavalry force from that place is now here. […] We can do but little while this superior cavalry force is here to operate on our flank and rear. Do send me a chief of cavalry.”

Sturgis was exultant over his victory, but wished to follow it up the next day. Neither Garrard’s nor Wolford’s Divisions had been utilized, being moved only as reserves. The next morning, he would move his entire command toward the French Broad River toward Dandridge, seeking out the Rebel cavalry, wherever they might be.

“We will pursue them until we drive them out of the country,” wrote Sturgis in closing, “or are driven out ourselves.”

((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p134, 136, 139, 142-143, 144, 149 – 150.))

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‘Before the Enemy Can Load’ – Union Cavalry Victorious in Tennessee by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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