March 4, 1863 (Wednesday)
Since the Battle of Stones River, the two western armies had done little. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had retreated thirty miles to the south, settling in behind the Duck River. The Union Army of the Cumberland, commanded by William Rosecrans, stayed put in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Though both sides were more or less stagnant, the same could not be said for the cavalry. Confederate cavalry general, Joseph Wheeler, was sent by Bragg to hold up traffic on the Cumberland River. This brought the cavaliers to Fort Donelson, where they were turned back by the small Federal garrison. The defeat, on February 3rd, was stunning and convinced one Confederate general that his troops needed to be better prepared.
Nathan Bedford Forrest had lost twenty-five percent of his men in that ill-advised battle. He had never wanted to fight it and was determined to reorganize the troops under him into a more efficient machine.
For Fort Donelson, the Confederate cavalry retreated southeast to Columbia, eighty miles away. There, Forrest and his men were plucked from Wheeler’s cavalry and placed in Earl Van Dorn’s. Though he had commanded the Army of the West, Van Dorn had been demoted to the head of cavalry under General Pemberton in Mississippi.
Van Dorn’s band of cavalry numbered around 6,000 in two divisions; General Forrest commanded a brigade, though it acted almost as an independent division. All through the month of February, Forrest drilled his men, holding dress parades twice a week, until they were fully organized and ready for battle.
Joining with Van Dorn’s Cavalry, they moved north, crossing the Duck River, on a forced reconnaissance towards Franklin. Leading the column was the division of William H. Jackson, a West Point graduate who served out west prior to the War. Throughout the early days of March, they picked their way north along the Columbia Pike.
At the same time, General Rosecrans had a desire to know what the Rebels under General Bragg were about. To uncover this, he ordered a brigade from Franklin to be sent south along the Columbia Pike. Selected for this duty was Col. John Coburn and his infantry brigade. The orders were sent out on the 3rd, and on this date, the 2,800 men stepped off.
The weather was cool, but comfortable, and the road, being a turnpike, was in great shape. After four quick miles, however, Col. Coburn spied what he called “a considerable force of cavalry.” He figured it was about 1,000-strong. This was the vanguard of Van Dorn’s small army of horsemen.
Coburn immediately snapped into action. He deployed cavalry to the right of the road, and both infantry and artillery on either side. Though the day was clear, due to the rolling hills, visibility was limited. He saw only 1,000 Rebels, but figured that might be more.
The Confederates fired their artillery and Coburn replied in kind. While the field pieces exchanged fire from atop hills and ridges, Coburn advanced much of his infantry, leaving behind some cavalry to guard his eight-wagon-long supply train.
As they advanced, however, more and more Rebels seemed to appear out of nowhere – perhaps as many as 3,000. Suddenly, they were on his left and seemed to be trying to circle in around his rear. Caring little for envelopment, Coburn ordered his brigade to fall back to their original positions, near the artillery, which had suffered the loss of a gun.
Unsure of what to do, he sent for orders from his commander in Franklin, General Charles Gilbert. A response came to send the supply wagon back, but to otherwise hold the ground. He sent the cavalry forward to see how many Rebels were really before him, but they came back telling of an enemy camp a few miles off.
Along with the response from Gilbert in Franklin came a scout to determine what to do next. He was convinced that the Rebels had but 1,000 troopers and three pieces of artillery. This would be a fairly low estimate.
Only a fraction of Van Dorn’s men had been seen by Col. Coburn. Throughout the night, the remaining would arrive, bringing him to full strength, outnumbering the Yankees two to one. As they came in, Van Dorn sent out patrols and quickly learned the strength of the enemy. Well before dawn, he was determined to attack.1
- Sources: The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman by Brian Steel Wills; Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company by Andrew Nelson Lytle; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, Part 1, p76-79, 86, 116. [↩]