The Surrender and Humiliation of McMinnville, Tennessee

October 3, 1863 (Saturday)

Joseph Wheeler
Joseph Wheeler

Confederate Cavalry under General Joseph Wheeler had been sent across the Tennessee, upriver from the Federal Army of the Cumberland, more or less besieged at Chattanooga. They had not crossed without the knowledge of William Rosecrans, commanding the Union army, and while he had sounded the alert and even dispatched cavalry and infantry, they were still gathering when Wheeler struck.

The Rebels had crossed at Cotton Point, and continued through the town of Washington, before traversing Walden’s Ridge at Smith’s Crossroads. Having entered the valley of the Sequatchie River the previous day, they stopped for the night at Pikeville. The previous day, General Wheeler divided his forces. While he overtook a large wagon train, driving off the guards, killing the mules and burning the wagons, another column was en route to McMinnville, which, under the command of General Henry Davidson, they reached on the morning of this date.

The town was held by Major Michael Patterson and the 4th Tennessee Infantry (US), who took full command of the town on the 26th of September. After a thorough examination, he found rifle pits enough for a whole division. His force exceeded not 400 men, and with seven roads and a railroad bridge to picket, he saw little use for the pits. Seeing that the town could not be held with his regiment alone, should the enemy attack, he wired for reinforcements on the 28th, 30th and again on October 1st. Each time, he was told that no troops could be spared for McMinnville.

Henry Davidson
Henry Davidson

All through the 2nd, civilians, including a local judge, had come into town, telling him that as many as 10,000 Rebel raiders had crossed the Tennessee River and were moving down the Sequatchie Valley. Though his scouts reported not an enemy in sight, Major Patterson trusted the civilians, and made plans to evacuate the town, leaving the storehouses and supplies smoldering behind him, as he felt little hope in holding his position against such an enemy arrayed.

However, as more of his scouts reported back that night, he changed his mind. A roving company of cavalry had reported that “there was no enemy in force this side of the Tennessee River.” Patterson questioned their commander several times, but this was his conclusion. The local judge, however, disagreed. Patterson thought it a good idea to get both men together and the three of them could suss it out. His honor insisted that thousands of Rebels had streamed across the Tennessee, while the cavalryman “offered to pledge his right arm that there were none.” Finally deciding to take the word of an officer over that of a civilian, Major Patterson decided not to evacuate the town nor to burn the cache of supplies.

On the morning of this date, Patterson was apprehensive, but fairly certain he had made the right decision. This he quickly regretted. The first scouting party that he sent out just after dawn had not returned. The second, however, came scurrying back to camp carrying the news that the local magistrate was in the right.

The rifle pits, which Patterson never believed he could hold, were the first to fall. But then, it was hardly a fight. General Davidson threw forward a handful of skirmishers, which Patterson’s troops thrice beat back. However, nobody was mystified over what the outcome might be. Though the Federals could not see the full Rebel force before them, it was assumed that it was no less than 5,000, and perhaps even the 10,000 heralded by the judge.

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

After the third probe by the Rebels, Davidson sent Patterson a demand to unconditionally surrender his force and the town. Patterson, perhaps hoping to buy some time, asked if he could first count the Rebel forces before coming to a decision. Of course, Davidson would allow no such thing.

The first demand for surrender was only verbally issued. Patterson took issue with this and requested that it be put in writing. It was done and Patterson surrendered.

The garrison and the town were in Rebel hands by 1pm. In his report, Major Anderson described what followed:

From 1 until 8 p. m. the men stood in line and were compelled to submit to the most brutal outrages on the part of the rebels ever known to any civilized war in America or elsewhere. The rebel troops or soldiers, and sometimes the officers, would call upon an officer or soldier standing in the line, when surrendered, for his overcoat, dress-coat, blouse, hat, shoes, boots, watch, pocket-book, money, and even to finger-rings, or, in fact, anything that happened to please their fancy, and with a pistol cocked in one band, in the attitude of shooting, demand the article they wanted. In this way the men of the Fourth Tennessee Infantry were stripped of their blankets, oil-cloths, overcoats, a large number of dress-coats, blouses, boots and shoes, jewelry, hats, knapsacks, and haversacks.

When the officers tried to save the records of their companies (the assistant quartermaster, acting commissary of subsistence, and commanding officers their records) the papers were pulled out of their pockets, torn to pieces, and thrown away. All, or about all, of the officers’ clothing was taken — valises and contents. While all this was going on, Major-General Wheeler was sitting on his horse and around the streets of McMinnville, witnessing and, we think, encouraging the same infernal outrages, seeming to not want or desire to comply with his agreement. The attention of Major-General Wheeler, Major-General Wharton, General Martin, General Davidson, and General [Colonel] Gillespie, and Brigadier-General Hodge was called to the same several times by Maj. M. L. Patterson, to gain his officers and men protection according to promise and agreement, and they would send some subordinate officer, who had no control over the men, or would reply that he (Wheeler) could not control his men; that they would do as they pleased, &c. Several of the officers of the Fourth Tennessee Infantry called on General Wheeler for protection. He would pay no attention to them, saying that he had no control over his men. &c.

Major-General Wheeler then ordered the command outside of his immediate lines, on the Sparta road, a section of country infested with guerrillas, where there was robbing and plundering the paroled prisoners all of the way, even compelling captains to sit down in the middle of the road and pull off their boots.

Wheeler’s tactics would soon draw the attention of his own commanding officers, but until then, he burned and generally pillaged McMinnville. That night, the railroad bridge and a train were set ablaze. With the Federals paroled, the next day, the Rebels would march for Murfreesboro.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 2, p685, 691, 692-693, 709-711, 726-727; Part 4, p80. []
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The Surrender and Humiliation of McMinnville, Tennessee by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “The Surrender and Humiliation of McMinnville, Tennessee

  1. Very interesting — a foreshadowing of the vicious fighting between Wheeler’s and Kilpatrick’s troopers during the March to the Sea.

    Also worth noting on this date: Lincoln issued a proclamation for a day of thanksgiving (in large part due to the urging of one Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). Although other presidents had from time to time proclaimed such days, this one would lead to Thanksgiving becoming an annual national holiday.

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