October 2, 1863 (Friday)
Braxton Bragg was certain about a few things. He knew that William Rosecrans’ Union Army of the Cumberland was in a fine defensive position at Chattanooga. He was sure that Federal reinforcements were quickly coming. And he understood that all he could probably do was disrupt the North’s supply line, hoping to cut off Rosecrans from not only reinforcements, but to starve him into submission.
For the lines to be cut, he would need cavalry. The most likely choice would have been Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had already made a name for himself in such work. In fact, he had already ordered Forrest’s Cavalry Corps to make haste for East Tennessee to keep an eye upon Ambrose Burnside, reporting his movements back to Bragg. Soon after, Bragg changed the orders, but Forrest still discovered that Burnside wasn’t moving at all, that he was still more or less in the Knoxville area (much to the chagrin of every Yankee from Rosecrans to Lincoln).
Forrest skirmished with the Federals here and there, but on September 28th, two days after being ordered by Bragg back to East Tennessee, he received a very strange message. “The general commanding desires that you will without delay turn over the troops of your command, previously ordered, to Major-General Wheeler.” Forrest was enraged. He had sworn to all that he would never serve under Joseph Wheeler, and took the command from Bragg as a personal affront.
As he should have. Bragg had no real love for Forrest whatsoever. He accused the now legendary cavalryman of being “ignorant” and “nothing more than a good raider.” Forrest, still enraged, dictated an abusive letter in reply, accusing Bragg of being a duplicitous liar. The language was rough, and Forrest promised that he would arrive at Bragg’s headquarters in a few days to say it all to his face.
This Forrest did, though nobody bothered to record the date upon which it happened (anytime from this date until the 20th – though it seems more believable that it was either on the 2nd or 3rd, and probably before the 5th). Whenever it happened, Forrest arrived at Bragg’s headquarters on Missionary Ridge in an absolute fury. From here, we shall let General Forrest have the floor (though the transcription was written down four decades after the war):
“I am not here to pass civilities or compliments with you, but on other business. You commenced your cowardly and contemptible persecution of me soon after the battle of Shiloh, and you have kept it up ever since. You did it because I reported to Richmond facts, while you reported damn lies. You robbed me of my command in Kentucky and gave it to one of your favorites — men that I armed and equipped from the enemies of our country.
In a spirit of revenge and spite, because I would not fawn upon you as others did, you drove me into West Tennessee in the winter of 1862, with a second brigade I had organized, with improper arms and without sufficient ammunition, although I had made repeated applications for the same. You did it to ruin me and my career.
When, in spite of all this, I returned with my command, well equipped by captures, you began again your work of spite and persecution, and have kept it up; and now this second brigade, organized and equipped without thanks to you or the government, a brigade which has won a reputation for successful fighting second to none in the army, taking advantage of your position as the commanding general in order to further humiliate me, you have taken these brave men from me.
I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to. You have played the part of a damn scoundrel, and are a coward; and if you were any part of a man, I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it. You may as well not issue any more orders to me, for I will not obey them, and I will hold you personally responsible for any further indignities you endeavor to inflict upon me. You have threatened to arrest me for not obeying your orders promptly. I dare you to do it, and I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life.”
Whether this account was true or not, Forrest most certainly felt this way and Bragg undoubtedly knew it. But by this date, it was all pointless. On the 29th, Bragg ordered Wheeler to cross the Tennessee with his two divisions and three brigades from Forrest’s command (roughly 5,000 men). One of the protests lobbed by Forrest was that his men were not ready for such a task. In this, General Wheeler concurred, writing in his report that Forrest’s troopers were “mere skeletons.” They were “badly armed, had but a small supply of ammunition, and their horses were in horrible condition, having been marched continuously for three days and nights without removing saddles. The men were worn out, and without rations.”
Nevertheless, Wheeler crossed upriver from Chattanooga on the 30th, beating back Federal cavalry under General George Crook, who had been stationed at Washington, Tennessee with his 2,000 or so troopers. General Rosecrans was almost immediately informed, and quickly wired Ambrose Burnside to close in on his left. But as before, Burnside was silent. Rosecrans had no idea where he was or what he was doing.
In the meantime, Wheeler’s Rebels beat back Crook’s men, who regrouped and began to pursue them on parallel roads up over Walden’s Ridge and into the Sequatchie Valley. With Crook well behind him, Wheeler decided to divide his force, sending half toward McMinnville, while the other, which he would accompany, descended the Valley on the morning of this date.
Though General Wheeler quickly found the enemy, his morning did not begin with battle – at least not a hot one. His force, which numbered roughly 1,500, advanced about ten miles down the east bank of the Sequatchie before overtaking a small Federal wagon train. They hastily burned the contents, hardly even noting what they were, requestioned the mules, and moved on.
Across the Sequatchie, near Anderson’s, a small crossroads village five or six miles farther, Wheeler met the enemy, an Illinois infantry regiment that was being relieved by cavalry helmed by Col. Samuel Price of the 21st Kentucky. Price had been ordered by General Rosecrans to move his command to the Sequatchie Valley in order to protect a large supply train composed of 400 or more wagons carrying ordnance, ammunition, and supplies.
Col. Price had heard the rumors that a large force of Rebel Cavalry was in the area, and had even heard it was a division under Wheeler, who had specific designs upon his wagon train. When Wheeler attacked, Price was toward the rear of the miles-long train, hurrying along his stragglers, his second, Lt. Col. J.C. Evans advanced the regiment without his knowledge, but then, what else could he do?
Wheeler’s men easily threw back the Illinois troops, scattering them into the ranks of Evans’ advancing regiment. Those who could, regrouped and joined the line, and cheering, they pitched into the Rebels, who gave way. Behind the growing battle was the strains of a brass band, which was traveling with the wagon train. As they played, shifting from march to ayr and back again, General Wheeler began to move on the Federal left flank.
This caught Evans’ attention, and he rushed a company to bolster the flagging left, his right resting upon the west bank of the river. This helped, but he could easily see now that his regiment, numbering only 200, was out-gunned. By this point, Wheeler’s troopers had successfully captured the road, and it was clear enough that they would capture the wagons. What Evans did not want was for his regiment to be captured as well.
Since the road was held by the enemy, Evans ordered the regiment west, where they had to scale the sharp sides of the valley, clinging to rocks and clamoring through the thick underbrush. It was a scramble, to be sure, and Wheeler’s men wanted none of it. Their only concern was the wagons, wholly given up by the Yankees.
With the Federals sent running, Wheeler surveyed his bounty, selecting a few mules and wagons to keep, before shooting or stabbing to death the remaining mules and setting to the torch the vast majority of the train. This took eight hours, during which his band was bothered not at all. As the sun was westering and dusk was falling, the Federals had finally gathered enough forces to attack. But by then, the damage was done and Wheeler was moving north through the valley, before turning west to join his other column under General Henry Davidson ready to pounce upon McMinnville the next morning.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 30, Part 2, p664, 684-687, 703-706, 723-724, 726; Part 4, p710; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman by Brian Steel Wills; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Shipwreck of their Hopes by Peter Cozzens. [↩]