- The General's Close Call
Widely scattered events conspired to bring remarkable cavalry leaders together at Monroe's Crossroads, North Carolina. Union Brevet Major General Judson Kilpatrick would face three Confederate counterparts -Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, Major General Matthew C. Butler, and Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler. Kilpatrick had battled each man before, but never the trio simultaneously. The combatants all had fought nearly nonstop since the war began, leaving only to recover from serious wounds. They were tough, determined, and bold beyond most people's comprehension.
Kilpatrick and Wheeler skirmished against each other often as 1864 neared an end. During most of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's march from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean, Wheeler and his small band were the only effective fighting force standing in his way. The Confederates had no hope of halting the powerful Union forces, but repeatedly harassed them, especially stragglers and foraging parties.
Most of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by General John Bell Hood, that had fought Sherman until Atlanta fell eventually ended up in middle Tennessee. Hood's troops were crippled by Union forces in November and December 1864. The Confederates suffered some 7,000 casualties in vain assaults against Union troops at Franklin on November 30. Then, near Nashville, Union Major General George Thomas's army swooped down on the Confederates in one of the Federals' most decisive victories, taking almost 5,000 prisoners. The Army of Tennessee seemed finished.
But in Washington, D.C., advisors warned President Abraham Lincoln that the Army of Tennessee was still a threat. The President characteristically answered their concerns with a tale. Farmer Slocum, he said, had a mean yellow dog, Rover, the neighborhood terror. One day, some boys cornered the dog, tied firecrackers onto him, and set them afire, killing the animal. Farmer Slocum, looking sadly at his dead dog, said, "Rover was a good dog. There wasn't any better dog than Rover. But I reckon that Rover's usefulness, as a dog, is about over." In short, President Lincoln wasn't worried about the Army of Tennessee, although he should have been.
In Virginia, General Robert E. Lee's once proud army suffered in the cold. Stuck in a labyrinth of trenches protecting the city of Petersburg, south of Richmond, the Confederates were in tatters, shivering and hungry. Some were barefoot. Hardtack, made with flour and water, was often their sole nourishment. Days passed when there was no meat or any other protein, leading to malnutrition, sapping the men's strength. And there was little hope of help. The Union naval blockade was strangling the Confederacy, while Union troops methodically destroyed Southern industries. Confederate enlistments were few as male manufacturing workers, the elderly, the young, and the infirm remained close to home throughout the South. Those civilians who were able drilled in preparation for more Union invasions.
For the Confederate Army, life in the Virginia trenches was a numbing mix of tedium and danger. Union sharp-shooters trained powerful rifled-muskets with telescopic sights on the earthworks, ready to shoot anyone who raised his head for even an instant. An army that so often had been the aggressor crouched trapped in the cold dirt.
Lee's officers could hope only that warmer weather, when it finally arrived, would dissipate the despair slowly overtaking the troops who were deserting in unprecedented numbers. Some risked the short dash to surrender behind Union lines against the chance of being shot; others simply headed home. Officers spent much of their time trying to rally spirits, a task made harder by painful letters full of privation and destruction from wives and families. Many in Lee's army hailed from North and South Carolina, and as Sherman, after stopping in Savannah, Georgia, marched into the Carolinas, soldier apprehension about loved ones grew. Privately, some whispered what would have been unthinkable just months earlier - the cause was doomed. Depressed realists, including Lieutenant General James Longstreet, had lost hope of victory.
Even so, many in Lee's command refused to quit. Despite the cold, the hunger, and their own shrinking numbers, they clung to the belief that the general would somehow pull off another amazing feat. For his part, Lee knew that Sherman's army had to be prevented from joining Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's force, if there was to be any hope. He made a fateful decision. To slow Sherman's momentum, he sent one fourth of his prized cavalry into the Carolinas. The overall cavalry commander, Hampton, and his subordinate, Butler, would also go.
Dispatching so much cavalry, considering the weakened condition of the army, was risky. Losing Hampton alone from the dreary trenches in Virginia was a blow to morale because he had become a bigger-than-life hero. When Confederates had little to cheer about, Hampton grabbed victories, despite facing a foe usually equipped with more men, guns, and horses. Indeed, his renown was partly responsible for Lee's decision to send Hampton to South Carolina. Perhaps his presence in his native state would energize residents, encourage them to enlist, and induce them to supply the army with badly needed horses.
Lee didn't address the departing men or in any way publicly acknowledge them. As few people as possible knew they were going because Union spies, the newspapers, and ultimately Grant, had to be kept in the dark as long as possible.
Even so, word spread fast once the cavalry reached South Carolina and began battling elements of Sherman's army.
Sherman entered Columbia, the South Carolina capital, on February 17, 1865, prompting retreating Confederates, led by Hampton, to torch cotton bales to keep them from Union hands. Brisk winds spread the flames, as well as other fires set by Union sympathizers, until entire sections of Columbia were ablaze. Sherman ordered his troops to fight the inferno, but winds kept roaring and the fires spread, blackening about a third of the city. Businesses, churches, and mansions were destroyed.
The fires provided many Confederates with one more reason to hate Sherman. Indeed, four brutal years of war had stirred a deep animosity on both sides. Union forces especially despised Confederate cavalry, feelings returned in kind. From the earliest days of Sherman's campaign in north Georgia, there were charges that Union and Confederate soldiers alike were executing prisoners. There was also the account that Union cavalry in a dash behind Confederate lines allegedly tried to kill wounded soldiers in a field hospital.
Tensions mounted further after Sherman left Atlanta. His troops, taking whatever they could find, deliberately punished civilians whom Sherman thought bore heavy responsibility for the war and must be dissuaded from continuing it. There were apparently few incidents of bodily harm to civilians, and soldiers torched only a small percentage of residences, but soldiers frequently confiscated food and supplies. Called bummers, these men stripped farms and plantations of everything edible or useful. What the army missed, mobs of Confederate and Union deserters, trailing Sherman, took, only to be followed by more hungry hordes, hundreds of former slaves who shadowed the army, seeking safety from previous masters. Wheeler's Confederate cavalry also scavenged. The result of all this was a path of devastation some 60 miles wide.
The Union Army had plenty of its own reasons to inflict as much damage as possible on their foes. Nearing Savannah, the force stumbled onto Confederate land mines called torpedoes. Sherman was outraged. "This was no war, but murder and it made me very angry," he wrote. He forced Confederate prisoners to walk in front of his army to remove the torpedoes and suffer the risk of being maimed or wounded by the mines.
Moving through South Carolina, Sherman exchanged angry letters with Hampton after 18 dead Union soldiers were found with their throats slit or heads bashed. Some of the corpses wore signs saying, "Death to all foragers." Sherman, concluding the Confederate cavalry had killed them, wrote to Hampton promising that the Union Army would retaliate. Foraging, he insisted, was "a right as old as history."
Hampton replied that he would order two Union soldiers shot for every Confederate killed because of the incident, about which he and Wheeler both denied any knowledge. Furthermore, the Confederate general wrote, he had commanded shooting anyone trying to burn a house. "This order shall remain in force so long as you disgrace the profession of arms by allowing your men to destroy private dwellings."
Sherman didn't respond, but told Kilpatrick, his cavalry commander, to ignore Hampton's complaints about "...warring against women and children. If they claim to be men, they should defend their women and children and prevent us reaching their homes."
Consequently, it was no surprise that as the Union Army approached North Carolina fear spread among residents for their safety and property. Newspapers ran upbeat articles to quell concern, and rallies challenged citizens to pledge undying support to beat back the invaders, but local leaders quietly sent urgent messages to the Confederate government demanding Sherman be stopped. In response, Lee, recently named Confederate General-in-Chief, appointed General Joseph Johnston commander of the Departments of Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. Soon, he also gained leadership of the Department of North Carolina. In effect, by February 25, 1865, Johnston was the general in charge of halting Sherman. He established headquarters in Charlotte, in southwestern North Carolina.
Charlotte was exactly where Sherman's force seemed to be headed, with Kilpatrick's cavalry in front of the army, which Sherman divided into two wings. The two sections moved on parallel routes, at times straying precariously far apart.
Confederate troops numbering 6,000 to 8,000, led by Lieutenant General William Hardee, were also moving toward Johnston after evacuating Charleston in mid-February. Hardee's troops weren't far in front of Sherman's almost 60,000 soldiers as they trudged north. Joining the moving sea of soldiers were remnants of Johnston's old command, the Army of Tennessee, which President Lincoln had prematurely dismissed as a threat. The only other Confederate forces nearby were two cavalry units, one commanded by Hampton and Butler, the other by Wheeler. They operated separately, each striking hard at Sherman's troops whenever possible. Other Confederate forces were bogged down near the North Carolina coast near two Union armies.
Johnston's chances for success were slim, but if he could assemble the disparate forces available to him he would have about 30,000 soldiers. Perhaps then he could crush one wing of Sherman's army before reinforcements arrived. If Johnston could somehow slow the Union advance, perhaps his army could join Lee's forces and continue the war.
Sherman's objective was to speed through North Carolina, combine with the two Union armies on the coast, then proceed toward Grant's forces in Virginia. Together, the two generals would then crush any remaining resistance.
All the principal actors whose actions would lead to the cavalry clash at Monroe's Crossroads were heading toward the battlefield.
On March 3, Kilpatrick's Union cavalry, the 3rd Division, crossed into North Carolina and camped in Anson County about four miles from the state line. Confederate cavalry led by Hampton and Butler attacked them in early evening, withdrawing after several skirmishes. Kilpatrick's Division was divided into four brigades, with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd each having some 1,200 to 1,500 mounted soldiers. The 4th Brigade consisted of 400 men, all on foot. This dismounted brigade included soldiers taken from the three other brigades. Kilpatrick also had six cannons, operated by the 100 men of the 10th Battery, Wisconsin Light Artillery.
Because the brigades often separated widely as they advanced, the lead brigade stopped periodically to allow the others to close the gaps. Sometimes the brigades traveled along parallel roads so that the rear brigade could avoid negotiating roads ruined by traffic from the rest of the division. The brigades also often camped separately.
The weather was miserable, with cool heavy rain that turned the dirt roads into slippery mud. Kilpatrick's 4th Brigade struggled to move artillery and wagons through the mud and dark, advancing only five miles after seven hours of effort. In pouring rain, soldiers pulled and pushed the cannons, cursing, slipping, and falling. They finally stopped to rest late at night on March 3.
The 1st Brigade encamped nearby. Officers posted pickets, armed guards, around the perimeter some distance from the main bivouac so that if attacked, they could shoot and fall back, giving soldiers in camp time to ready a defense. But the pickets were useless in this instance. Early in the morning of March 4, some Confederates managed to sneak in between the 1st Brigade's camp and the pickets and fire at the guards from the rear, no doubt causing pandemonium among the startled troops. The Union soldiers quickly recovered and drove the invaders away, but the battle was just beginning as Wheeler's cavalry furiously attacked the 1st Brigade.
Kilpatrick's response was quick and clever. He withdrew his Union forces to a more secure position, ordering the 1st Brigade to retreat through the 2nd Brigade, which then took the brunt of the Confederate attack. The 1st Brigade withdrew about two miles to build fortifications. Then Kilpatrick withdrew the 2nd Brigade through the 1st Brigade's barricades and summoned the rest of his other brigades and artillery. Now the Confederates, initially battling only one brigade, faced an entire division. They futilely charged the Union barricades several times before pulling back. Wheeler dispatched a plea to nearby Confederate infantry for more soldiers, but waited throughout the day and none came. After sunset, he ordered one final assault.
"About dark," described a Union artillery officer, "the enemy came charging upon our front, mounted, when I was ordered by Colonel [Thomas Jefferson] Jordan to open fire on them; after firing a few rounds the enemy drew off, and did not molest us again during the night."
The Confederates defiantly camped several hundred yards from the Union force, putting the Federals on alert, expecting a dawn attack that never came. At daybreak, they discovered that the Confederates had slipped away in the night.
The Union cavalry turned toward Fayetteville on March 5. Sherman feinted as if heading to Charlotte, then marched northeast instead. Kilpatrick's cavalry, which had been in front of the army, now had to rush to catch up to protect the infantrymen on the march when they were in most peril from attack. Although he was responsible for shielding the infantry, Kilpatrick was also under Sherman's orders to avoid pitched battles with Confederate cavalry so that Union cavalrymen and their horses were preserved for major battles expected ahead.
Confederate patrols, combing central North Carolina for signs of the Federals, reported their findings to headquarters in Charlotte, so Confederate commanders soon realized Sherman's new direction and ordered their forces converging on Charlotte to alter their plans.
Hardee, commanding Confederate infantry, sent troops on a wide arc toward Fayetteville. The men force marched, pushing hard, beginning early each day and going late, with few breaks. If they could reach Fayetteville before Sherman's troops, they might be able to cross the Cape Fear River without a fight. Then they would burn bridges behind them and hurry to meet other Confederates preparing for battle.