March 9, 1865 (Thursday)
Union Cavalry General, Judson Kilpatrick, along with his division, was screening the left of Sherman’s columns as they entered into North Carolina. All the way, they had been driving Rebel cavalry under Matthew Butler of Wade Hampton’s command as they made their way toward Fayetteville. This was no easy slog. The weather was spring and rain fell in abundance.
“At times on the march we encountered terrible roads,” read the report of Smith Atkins of Illinois, “from Rockingham to Solemn Grove it was swamp after swamp; artillery and ambulances were dragged through the mud and water armpit-deep, and frequently bridges, hundreds of feet in length, were constructed by using pine trees or stringers and rails for flooring.”
And it was toward Solmn Grove they marched on this date, with the Third Brigade, George E. Spencer in command, well in the lead. They reached the grove at 2pm, as Spencer recalled, “some five hours in advance of the other two brigades.”
From the looks of things, Confederate General William Hardee “had passed that point the day before with his corps of infantry, and was marching as speedily as possible to Fayetteville.”
From scouts and from foragers, it was learned that the Rebel cavalry was not far – several miles to their left, taking a parallel road to Fayetteville.
“I determined at once to intercept him,” wrote Kilpatrick when it was said and done. “By scouts I learned that Hampton was marching upon two roads, the Morgantown road and a road three miles farther to the north and parallel to it just south and east of Solmn Grove. I posted upon each a brigade of cavalry, and learning that there was a road still farther north upon which some of the enemy’s troops might move I made a rapid night’s march with Colonel Spencer’s little brigade of three regiments and 400 dismounted men and one section of artillery, and took post at the point where the road last mentioned intersects with the Morgantown road.” This would effectively cut Hampton off from Hardee.
Kilpatrick had been riding with Smith Atkin’s brigade, and left to join George Spencer’s in the front, now resting at Solemn Grove.
“We remained in position at Solemn Grove till 5pm,” Spencer reported, “waiting for the balance of the command to join us, when we received order to move with the major-general commanding [Kilpatrick] toward Fayetteville to Monroe’s Cross-Roads, a distance of twelve miles.”
Taking with him a small escort of fifteen to thirty men, Kilpatrick left Atkin’s line of march and rode to meet up with Spencer. To do so, however, he had to dash his way through the dark. In the confusion, it was Hampton’s own General Butler who could tell this story best.
“About dusk Humphry halted at the intersection of a road leading towards Fayetteville, and upon my riding up to learn the cause he pointed out the sign of a heavy mounted column having recently passed ahead of us, evidently Kilpatrick’s cavalry, of Sherman’s army. While we were discussing the situation we discovered a squad of about thirty cavalry coming up the road.
“On learning from Humphry that he had nobody down that road I moved out to meet the squad, and when within hailing distance, it beign too dark then to recognize who they were, I asked, “Who comes there?” The reply was, “Fifth Kentucky.” I knew that to be one of Kilpatrick’s regiments. So I said tot he man at the head of the column, “Ride up, sir, I want to speak with you.”
“Kilpatrick’s column having just passed, of which I have no doubt this squad was the rear guard, the man, who turned out to be the officer in command, rode up to me with his orderly, supposing I was a friend. They followed me a few steps into the midst of Humphry’s men, leaving the squad halted in the road. I turned, with my pistol presented, and demanded the surrender of the two. Nothing else was left for them to do.
“After disarming the prisoners, I whispered to Humphry, General Law having ridden up, to send out, surround the squad of the Fifth Kentucky and take them in. He very promptly carried out the instructions, and brought in the twenty-eight or thirty men, with a regimental stand of colors, without firing a shot.”
Butler failed to mention, or perhaps never knew, that Kilpatrick had been among this squad. “My escort of 15 men and 1 officer was captured,” he said of the event, “but I escaped with my staff.”
Hampton and Butler realized now that it was not they who were cut off, but one of Kilpatrick’s brigades, which now lay between them and Hardee’s corps up the road.
“On my reporting these facts to General Hampton,” recalled Butler after the war, “he decided to attack Kilparick at daylight the next morning. I accordingly followed in his wake about four miles, and bivouacked on the roadside without unsaddling or making fires, although it was a cold, rainy March night, in the open pine woods.”
As Hampton and Butler were planning, at least a regiment of Federals nearly stumbled into them. “My regiment,” wrote Lt. Col. Matthew Van Buskirk of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry, “was wagon-train guard, and was ordered by General Kilpatrick to go into camp with the train on the Fayetteville road near the junction of another road; but before arriving at the place the rebel generals Hampton and Wheeler had occupied the place assigned for camp of the Second Brigade, which compelled a withdrawal, as they had superior numbers, it being dark, stormy, and their position unknown.”
Col. William Hamilton of the 9th Ohio Cavalry also described this darkened trod: “In the night march our flankers and those of the enemy came in contact with each other frequently; some skirmishing ensued, but nothing more. After marching about three miles we turned to our left, striking a swamp which, on account of the recent heavy rains we found almost impassable for a man on horseback. Our artillery stuck, the horses floundering in the mud and water until it was with great difficulty they could be saved from drowning. They were at length disengaged from the carriages, and I dismounted a battalion of regiment who, with some men from other regiments, dragged the guns and caissons through by hand, wading waist-deep.”
General Kilpatrick finally found his way to the Third Brigade and there made his camp. With him, or so the story went, was a lady who accompanied him in his quarters. Here, they planned to ride out the night, and move out again at dawn.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p861, 880-881, 883, 889, 894; “General Kilpatrick’s Narrow Escape” by Matthew Butler, as printed in Camp Fires of the Confederacy; Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior to Southern Redeemer by Rod Andrew; Hampton and His Cavalry by Edward Laight Wells. [↩]