December 17, 1861 (Tuesday)
It had been a month since Union General Don Carlos Buell took over the Department of the Ohio from General William Tecumseh Sherman. For a time, little had changed. Buell was just as reluctant to push forward as Sherman did. Though there was much prodding from Washington, Buell seemed unsure what was in front of him.
Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s line cut across southern Kentucky with strongholds near Columbus (to the west), Bowling Green (center), and Mill Springs (to the east). Aside from General Grant’s command near Paducah, which did not fall under Buell’s jurisdiction, the Union forces in Kentucky were centered on Columbia, Munfordville and Somerset.
The taking of Munfordville was actually a recent development. In the beginning of December, the Confederate line rested on the twisting Green River, just south of the town. Before the Union troops under General Alexander McDowell McCook even approached, Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner ordered the railroad bridge across the Green to be destroyed to halt the Union advance along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.
McCook and his division reached the bridge on December 10th. Fortunately for them, the bridge only sustained damage on the southern end. This required a detail of bridge builders and a military escort to set up shop on the southern bank of the Green. A pontoon bridge was to be constructed, reconnecting Munfordville with Woodsonville.1
It was the 32nd Indiana, a German-speaking regiment commanded by Col. August Willich, that had been selected to guard the bridge building. To protect the bridge, four companies were posted on its north side, with another four on its southern end. The two remaining companies took up posts two miles south of the crossing, at Rowlett’s Station.
Around noon, Confederate skirmishers were spotted on the right of the Union picket line. Several shots were exchanged, but Company B of the 32nd rallied together and pushed the Rebels back. Meanwhile, Company C, the other advance company, pushed south along the turnpike until they ran into the 8th Texas Cavalry, also known as the Texas Rangers, and pushed them back.
Knowing that they were outnumbered, the two advance companies sent word back to the rest of the regiment. Col. Willich and the 32nd responded immediately. The eight companies rushed across the pontoon bridge, up the bank of the Green and formed a line of battle across the turnpike, pointing south.
The crossing surprised the Texans, commanded by General Thomas Hindman, who were accompanied by artillery and two Arkansas infantry regiments. In his report Hindman stated that the Union had several regiments that crossed at this time. In truth, all that protected the bridge was this single Indiana outfit.
The Rebels were not staggered for long, however. After about a half-hour lull, the Texas Rangers came screaming and firing at the Hoosiers, who were deployed in a loose skirmish line. The riders were quickly within the Union ranks, the fighting bloody and fierce. A large body of Texans surrounded a platoon, demanding the sword of its lieutenant. He refused and chose to die for his cause. The wave of Rebels soon broke, repulsed by rifles on the Union right.
On the center and left, several Union companies advanced against the Texans, who met the challenge with another charge, again breaking the blue line. This too was repulsed with the help of a company held in reserve along the pike.
The battle had fallen relatively quiet when Confederate artillery opened an accurate, but ultimately only noisy fire upon Col. Willich’s men. As the barrage echoed through the valley, the Union right was again assailed by about 150 Texas Rangers. Three Indiana companies were holding the line as the Rangers charged, firing shotguns at fifteen yards. The Union troops put up a fight, but soon retreated to the cover of another company, which had formed a hollow square for protection.
Thinking they could simply ride over the square, the Rangers came at the well-protected and compact body of about fifty men. When they rode to within twenty yards of the square, the men unleashed a sharp, concentrated volley upon them, scattering the horsemen for the time being.
The Rangers tried again, charging the front as well as the left and right. In this endeavor, they fared no better. A third charge was attempted, but it lacked the spirit of the first two, and was quickly dispersed from the field.
Not yet out of danger, the square of Indiana boys next heard the 1st Arkansas’ band playing a march as the enemy infantry took up where the Rangers left off. Not wanting to be overrun by infantry, the square on the Union right retreated to the banks of the Green.
Col. Willich himself took command of the right flank of his regiment, rallied his men and quickly took in the situation. The left of the regiment held the pike, their line of retreat across the river. If the right wing were completely scattered, Rebel infantry would take the pike from the rear of his left wing. Knowing he could do little against two regiments of infantry and one of cavalry, not to mention the artillery, Willich ordered a slow retreat. The Confederates, it seemed, were poised to win the day.
Two things then happened that changed the fate of the battle. First, when forming Companies B and G of the right wing to retire, the enemy seemed to believe that Willich had received reinforcements and backed off from making another attack. Second, on the Union left, Company A had been slow at getting into line and must have gotten a bit lost. They appeared (probably accidentally) on the Confederate right flank, threatening the artillery, which quickly limbered their guns and retreated. With the cavalry and artillery dispersed, the Rebel infantry followed suit and Willich’s Indiana regiment held the field.
Believing that they were outnumbered two to one, the Rebels retreated ten miles to their camp at Cave City.2
Losses from the battle are difficult to calculate. Both sides grossly exaggerated the others’ losses and probably misrepresented their own. Union losses were probably thirteen killed, about thirty wounded and three to seven missing. Confederate General Hindman reported that only four had been killed and ten wounded, but it was likely several times more than that, possibly as many as ninty-one casualties, with thirty or so killed.3
Though the results of battle have been classified as “inconclusive,” the Union troops did hold back the enemy and retained control of the field. It’s unclear how that is not a victory.