November 14, 1861 (Thursday)
William Tecumseh Sherman, Union commander of the troops in Kentucky and Tennessee, was thought to be insane. During an October 17 meeting with Secretary of War Simon Cameron, he suggested that he needed 200,000 troops to hold Kentucky. When it hit the press that the request was insane, it quickly devolved into Sherman himself being insane.
While the Rebels in Tennessee had to worry about the Unionists in their midst, Sherman was also convinced, even paranoid, of Secessionist citizens staging an uprising. As each day went by, he became more certain that Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston was “making herculean efforts to strike a blow in Kentucky.” To meet this supposed threat, he had recalled General Thomas’ troops in eastern Kentucky, who were to have aided the eastern Tennessee Unionists in their rebellion against the Confederacy.
While Sherman was convinced that the Rebels from Cumberland Gap were advancing and about to cut Thomas off from the rest of the army. Thomas, who agreed to the retrograde movement, disagreed with Sherman’s conclusion. He even sent several dispatches stating the opinions of other officers who disagreed that the Rebels were advancing.
When Thomas again repeated his opinion, telling Sherman that the Rebels that had been at Cumberland Gap were gone, Sherman turned it around to support his own incorrect theory that all of the Confederate forces under Johnston in Kentucky were being consolidated for an advance upon Louisville.1
Finally, after Thomas sent an officer to Sherman to argue the point in person, Sherman agreed that Thomas could stay where he was. There was, however, a problem. Thomas was already obeying Sherman’s order to fall back, issuing marching orders for 8am on this date. He figured that if it was rescinded, he could simply cancel it.
When the order to retire reached his two brigades under Generals Carter and Schoepf, things did not go well. Many of the troops were from Eastern Tennessee and desperately wanted to defend their firesides. Entire platoons in Carter’s Brigade refused to obey the order. Many even left the ranks (though most soon returned). The troops were in open mutiny, smashing their rifles against rocks, and weeping uncontrollably.
Matters were even worse in Schoepf’s Brigade at Wild Cat Mountain. What the order to his two brigades actually said was that they were to march at “8:00,” making no reference to AM or PM. The orders were received by the brigade commanders at 3pm on the 13th. General Schoepf believed he was to have his men on the march in five hours. By 8pm, his very unhappy men were in full, hurried and disorderly retreat. 600 sick were left behind in the panic. This debacle was dubbed “The Wild Cat Stampede” by the Confederates. The needless retreat scattered supplies and camp equipment all along the road. It was so muddy that 100 horses became stuck, so treacherous that three men died.2
Along for the ride was Senator Andrew Johnson, who was responsible for whipping some of the men into a fury. When he reached General Thomas’ headquarters, he exploded in rage, aiming much of it at General Schoepf, but dishing out enough for everyone. Schoepf defended himself and reminded Johnson that it was General Sherman who issued the order. This caused Johnson to harshly criticize the entire campaign and command. For a time, it became so intense that Schoepf threatened to toss the Senator out of camp. Johnson couldn’t believe the audacity and dared Schoepf to try it. Just as Schoepf was about to, General Thomas strode from his headquarters to the scene, which had attracted a great number of soldiers and citizens, grabbed General Schoepf by the arm and escorted him away from the crowd. Nothing more was ever made of this exchange and it somehow never made the papers.3
Confederate Retreat at McCoy’s Mill
In Western Virginia, Union General Henry Washington Benham, in slow pursuit of the retreating Rebel General John Floyd, had spent most of the previous day waiting to hear back from scouts concerning the whereabouts of the Confederates. He, under the command of General Jacob Cox, had pushed Floyd from Cotton Hill, towards Fayette. Finally marching near dusk of the previous night, Benham moved through Fayette, and found it empty.
By dawn, they were still slowly slinking forward towards McCoy’s Mill on the way to Raleigh. About a mile before the mill, Benham’s men tangled for thirty minutes with some Confederate cavalry, killing a few, including a Lt. Colonel. A mile further, they found Floyd atop a ridge, arrayed for battle.
Benham, in order to turn the Rebel left flank, called for a regiment, and part of another, to attack. The Colonel who was asked to provide only part of his command refused to send them unless he commanded the entire flank attack. Somehow that was all worked out and the attack proved successful, sending the Rebels into retreat, leaving behind blankets, clothing and other supplies.
The pursuit was made with extreme caution. His men had marched all night, done battle and were marching again, all without full rations. They were tired and, after five miles, they encamped at Keton’s Farm.
General Floyd retreated past Raleigh, to Piney Creek, yet another “impregnable position.”4
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p350; 353-354; 357-358. [↩]
- Days of Glory: The Army of the Cumberland, 1861-1865 by Larry J. Daniel. [↩]
- History of the Thirty-Third Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry by John Randolph McBride, W. B. Burford, 1900. Burford’s account is the only primary source for this exchange. It says that it happened a few days after they arrived at camp, but I thought that it fit best here. I apologize for diving a few days into the future. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p278-280; 287-288. [↩]