Wheeler Burns a Swath through Tennessee

October 6, 1863 (Tuesday)

The Rebel Cavalry under General Joseph Wheeler were still crossing the Tennessee countryside virtually unopposed. After they sacked the town of McMinnville on the 3rd, they moved northwest the next day towards Murfreesboro, which they reached on the afternoon of the 4th.

George Crook and his very respectable whiskers.
George Crook and his very respectable whiskers.

Though Wheeler had few Yankees in his front, roughly 2,000 Federal cavalrymen under General George Crook were in pursuit. Crook arrived in McMinnville on the morning of the 4th to find it in ruins. He did not tarry long, but started his men on the road to Murfreesborough. After a march of only two miles, he ran into Wheeler’s rear guard left behind by the Rebel to slow the chase.

Crook, not wishing to be delayed, ordered a saber charge, which dispersed the Confederates in their front. For four miles they charged, pushing the rear guard back into the main Rebel column near Readyville. There, Wheeler threw out more troops to keep the Federals at bay before turning his attention to other matters. Thus far, Crook’s pursuit seemed more of an annoyance than anything else.

Though Wheeler could hardly be bothered, Crook took it seriously and deployed his artillery, hoping to break the line. The Rebels were dislodged, but their main body had continued on to Murfreesborough. Night fell before much else could transpire.

On the 5th, Wheeler still paid little attention to whatever it was that Crook was up to. Instead, he drew his artillery up against a stockade at Murfreesborough that was guarding the railroad bridges. Following a sharp fight, Wheeler was able to capture the stockade and bridge, along with fifty-two Yankees. All that day was spent dismantling and burning the bridges and track. Wheeler had also dispatched troopers south to Christiana, where they performed much the same duty. A stockade guarding the railroad was taken and the railroad destroyed.

Today's approximate map is very approximate.
Today’s approximate map is very approximate.

Wheeler did not, however, capture Murfreesborough. It was never his intention. He wanted to destroy the railroad running from Nashville toward Chattanooga. And on this date, after leaving Murfreesborough, he accomplished it with great haste.

“The following day [the 6th] we destroyed a train and a quantity of stores at Christiana and Fosterville,” reported Wheeler, “and destroyed all the railroad bridges and trestles between Murfreesborough and Wartrace, including all the large bridges at and near the latter place, capturing the guards, &c. We also captured and destroyed a large amount of stores of all kinds at Shelbyville, the enemy running from his strong fortifications upon our approach.”

Wheeler had divided his forces as there was quite a bit of work to be done. By nightfall, after a full day of tearing up track, they were encamped along the Duck River south of Shelbyville. One division, under Henry Davidson, was at Warner’s Bridge, and held Wheeler’s right (since he was encamped facing north in the direction of the enemy). Another, under William Martin, was two miles downstream holding the center. The left was under John Wharton.

Unsure of his left, Wheeler gave General Davidson orders to observe Crook’s Federals, who were now moving closer. If the enemy made a go at him, he was to fall back on Martin’s Division in the center.

By nightfall, General Crook’s Federals were encamped seven miles north of Shelbyville. He had been joined by General Robert Mitchell, Cavalry Chief from the Department of the Cumberland, here commanding the Cavalry’s First Division. Though the troops were generally spread out and fatigued, together, Mitchell and Crook’s combined commands probably mustered 4,000. It still was not equal to Wheeler’s 5,000 Rebels, but Wheeler was also dispersed.

Through the night, both sides rested. It had been a frantic few days.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 2, p685-686, 691, 693, 697, 727. []
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Wheeler Burns a Swath through Tennessee by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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