Chapter 8 (continued)
Many others hit the deep water and went no further. Most couldn't swim. They floundered desperately about, getting caught in and slipping on underwater snags and tree branches. Fearing being shot while tangled helplessly in the bog, they waded back the way they had come to find fellow soldiers crouched behind trees near a slight rise in the land. These Federals were waiting for the next Confederate assault. Some of them were half dressed, and most had left all of their meager possessions behind, except for their weapons. Experienced soldiers, almost all had instinctively grabbed their firearms and ammunition as they fled. Now they grimly trained their weapons forward, prepared to die rather than submit.
But the expected assault never came. Confederates pursuing Union troops into the swamp soon turned around and scattered, concluding that the escaping Union troops would continue running for miles. In fact, momentum of the Confederate attack was spent, although some fighting continued in the camp as pockets of Union soldiers continued to resist. Despite the continuing gunplay, many Confederates were already celebrating victory. Hooping and hollering, they tore into the Union wagons, ripping apart boxes and sacks laden with clothing, ammunition, food, and other supplies. The spoils were irresistible. Scores of Confederates dismounted, became separated from their regiments, and began hauling away whatever they could grab. Seeing this frenzy, other Confederates eagerly rode toward the wagons for their share of the goods, carelessly turning their backs on a still potent foe. Wheeler, growing concerned, commanded troops to cease plundering and to hitch horses to the wagons and artillery to haul them away. But his orders came too late.
Union officers were assuming control, organizing troops on the edge of the swamp, joined at some point by Kilpatrick, who added his voice to encourage the soldiers. Recovered from their initial shock, the Union forces were now ready to fight. They crept forward, using the cover of pine trees, and began firing into the camp.
This time it was the Confederates who were caught unaware. Startled by the flurry of gunshots behind them, they turned to see hundreds of Federal firearms flashing. Mimicking the Union troops just moments before, some Confederates hunkered down behind whatever cover they could find. Others, carrying loot from the wagons, dropped their loads and ran to their horses. Many retreated to the north end of the camp. Officers tried organizing them to fight, but halting the confusion amid gunfire was difficult. Regiments mingled together; some soldiers had strayed far from their own units. Commanding officers were also separated from their troops.
Confederates north of the camp began shooting back at the blue-coated soldiers climbing the hill, catching fellow Confederates, and perhaps some Union troops, in the crossfire. Wheeler was among those trapped between the lines, separated from most of his staff. He was determined to regain the initiative. Spotting Reynolds, the former prisoner, Wheeler ordered him to act as his escort and staff. Reynolds was dumbfounded. "General," he shouted, "we are between our line and the enemy's, and both are shooting this way!"
"Never mind that," Wheeler insisted. "We must keep our men advancing." Wheeler, alarmed by the growing disarray of Confederate troops, sent a courier to find Humes' Division, which had been blocked by the swamp. Wheeler sent orders that the division should move toward Morganton Road and storm into the camp from the northwest, the same route Wheeler had followed at the beginning of the battle.
Butler, in another part of the field, also saw that the Confederates were in increasing danger and dispatched a courier to summon his reserves. The reserves, commanded by Brigadier General Evander McIvor Law, waited at the intersection of Morganton and Blue's Rosin Roads. Or so Butler thought.
The courier, arriving at the crossroads where Law was supposed to be, found neither him nor the reserves, and galloped back to tell Butler that no back-up troops were coming. While Butler considered his next move, Wheeler rode across the field to confer with him. Later, Butler remembered that Wheeler "...came through himself with a few of his staff and escort. He rode up and inquired about my command. I replied, 'scattered like the devil; where is yours?' He said he had encountered a bog through which his division could not pass, and that he had ordered it to make a circuit to the left, and come around on my track. This, of course, took time, and in the meantime Kilpatrick's 1,500 dismounted men recovered from the shock of our first attack and gathered themselves behind pine trees and with their rapid-firing Spencer carbines, attacked us savagely."
Wheeler rode back to his troops. As Butler waited for Wheeler's missing division to appear, he watched a developing duel between soldiers whose joust on horseback resembled the clashes of knights of old.
"You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered a mounted man approaching us and showing fight," Butler wrote. "About the same time I noticed a Confederate moving out to meet him, who, I supposed was a member of the Cobb Legion. His back was turned to me and I could not identify him in the early dawn. However, I said to myself, 'They are about matched; I will see it out without interfering.' They got within about 10 paces of each other, when the Federal fired first, followed in an instant by a shot from the Confederate's revolver.
"The Federal fired a second time and the Confederate fired almost simultaneously, and, I discovered, hit his antagonist, but the Federal managed to fire a third shot and with the report of the Confederate's third fire the Federal tumbled from his horse, mortally wounded. I dismissed the matter from my mind and was surprised afterwards to learn the Confederate was my brother, Captain James Butler. It was the gamest fight I ever saw."
About the same time, Butler's other brother, Nat, was shot in the right elbow, a wound so serious that surgeons later amputated his arm.
Hand-to-hand combat continued. Confederate Private Wiley C. Howard recalled watching another Confederate named Shed fighting with a Federal trooper. Howard hurried to help, slashing the Union soldier's head with his saber, presumably killing him and sparing Shed's life. But only for a time. Shed soon died at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina.
The confusion, the close contact fighting, and troopers shooting this way and that, sometimes at their own comrades, became too much for some Confederates who tried to get away from the battle. Posey Hamilton and a companion thought they could ride across the swamp on the western side of the battlefield, but ran into the Harrison's Confederate horsemen finally emerging.
"My friend and I rode down about 250 yards to find a crossing where some men and horses had crossed, but when we got to it nothing could go through," Hamilton recalled. "We saw horses all covered in mud except their heads and necks, and their riders trying to save themselves by clinging to tuffs. Knight and I looked at that black mud hole and decided at once that we would not attempt to cross, so we turned back and retraced our steps, finding that we were completely hemmed in."
Union forces formed a concave line, following the ridge line, and advanced to the southern limits of their former camp and stopped. The ongoing battle before them now seemed to be a draw. Bullets filled the air. Neither side gave an inch.
Wheeler sent a courier to summon his reserve brigade, commanded by Brigadier General George Gibbs Dibrell, a Tennessee merchant and farmer who had fought with Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The courier rode to where the reserve soldiers were supposed to be, but they were gone, and he couldn't find them anywhere. Disaster loomed closer for the Confederates. Now, neither Wheeler nor Butler could muster their reserves to charge the Federals. Hampton, when the Confederates began faltering in the Union camp, apparently had gathered both Wheeler's and Butler's reserves and moved them out of assigned position. Hampton then led at least some of the troops into action himself. They were swallowed up in the free-for-all of the battle, mingling with other units. Confederate Scout J.C. Covin recalled glancing up and seeing Hampton in the thick of fighting, shooting down a Union soldier.
Nonetheless, although Wheeler and Butler could not summon their reserves, Confederate and Union reinforcements were approaching the battlefield, including Union scouts (Map 15). The scouts, encamped on the opposite side of the Nicholson Creek swamp, south of the main camp, were awakened when fugitives from the battle began pouring into their midst. The fleeing soldiers arrived dazed, almost in shock, and they were covered with mud, having pushed all the way through the bog. Other Union troops soon followed on horseback, sometimes riding three to an animal, having managed to ride around the swamp.
Sizing up the situation, Captain Theo Northrop, Union scout commander, pulled together a mounted force numbering about 200 by combining the escaped horse soldiers with his scouts. Northrop later recalled what the fleeing soldiers had reported about the battle at their camp.
"They told us General Kilpatrick and the 3rd Brigade had all been captured, and they seemed to think they alone had escaped. We mounted and started for the camp, hoping that we might recapture some of the prisoners; but we soon heard the fighting and knew by that that all hadn't been captured."
Northrop's soldiers rode furiously toward the Monroe farm. They circled the nearly impenetrable swamp, then galloped north on Blue's Rosin Road where they were spotted by Union soldiers lined up south of the camp. "Here comes the 1st Brigade!" the Union line cheered, mistaking Northrop's small band for the approximately 1,500 men of the 1st Brigade. In reality, the 1st Brigade was still some distance away.
Northrop's force of 200 rode through one side of the Union line and charged wildly into the camp, meeting some 2,000 Confederates head on. Carbines and pistols blazed from both sides for a few fierce moments. Then the Union horsemen wheeled around and retreated. Despite its brevity, their assault reinvigorated dismounted Union comrades. Kilpatrick's soldiers advanced and the fighting intensified.
All the deafening noise and rampant confusion provided Union artillery officer First Lieutenant Ebenezer Stetson with a dangerous opportunity. Slipping in front of the rest of his troops, Stetson somehow reached the two Union artillery pieces Confederates had captured, then forgotten about in the heat of battle. How the Union officer evaded detection and reached the weapons is unclear. Some said he ran; some said he moved in a hesitant crouch. Others contended that he crawled.
Surrounded by Confederates, Stetson rammed a shell into one of the 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, usually operated by 11 men. Then he darted behind the weapon, primed it, and pulled the lanyard firing mechanism, sending a shell directly at Confederates (Map 16). The shot exploded with a roar, ripping a smoldering hole in the Confederates, who were blown back and crushed, as if smashed by some gigantic hand. Some died instantly. Others crouched in pain, their bodies sliced and mangled by hot shards of metal. Still other Confederates sat stunned on the grass, unable to move, as horses nearby sprawled on the ground, twitching in death throes.
Union Major Christopher T. Cheek with the 5th Kentucky Cavalry (U.S.) recalled the episode's impact on soldiers from both sides. "Lieutenant Stetson quickly fired a round of grape and canister into the rebel ranks, which greatly encouraged my men and demoralized and discouraged the rebels to an equal extent."
Heartened by the blast, several Union soldiers, including Sergeant John Swartz, scrambled ahead to help Stetson and to prepare the second artillery piece. At the same time, all the Confederates in the area pointed their weapons on the Union soldiers now swarming around the cannons.
One of Butler's men, Confederate Lieutenant John DeVaux, yelled above the din for soldiers to join him in a charge against the lethal artillery, but few heard his call in the swirling confusion and racket. DeVaux and a handful of others galloped forward anyway. Confederate Lieutenant John Humphrey, who earlier discovered the horse tracks leading to Monroe's Crossroads, rode in the pack. As the Confederates moved forward, another shell exploded, knocking DeVaux, Humphrey, and their horses to the ground. Shrapnel sliced into DeVaux in five places, but broke no bones, and he survived. Humphrey was not as fortunate. His arm was badly mangled, and he later died after a delayed amputation.
When Humes' Division finally arrived, the 4th Tennessee Cavalry mounted another attempt to stop the Union artillery. "I think the 4th did the most gallant fighting that I ever saw men do," stated one Confederate.
The Confederates' bullets and minié balls hit every Union soldier working the artillery pieces except for one man, who continued alone trying to fire one of the weapons after the others fell around him. This Union officer, whose identity is unknown, struggled to fire the cannon amid a hailstorm of bullets, all aimed at him. He remained standing until Confederates, charging while he was reloading, felled him with a pistol shot. "General Butler, when he saw it, said that it was a pity to kill so brave a man," writes author W.S. Nye.
On the grounds of the Union camp, confusion grew as the remainder of Humes' Division poured into the relatively small battleground. There were probably too many Confederate troops from too many disparate units rushing about to organize them successfully, especially considering all the gunfire, observes author Ken Belew. Nonetheless, Wheeler decided to rally another charge (Map 17), enlisting Humes, his division commander, and other officers in the effort.
Wheeler and the other officers managed to gather a group of soldiers, then Wheeler directed the bugler Pelote to play the notes signaling a charge. The Confederates, with Wheeler leading the way, rode quickly toward the western flank of the Union line. Their fast approach caught dismounted Union soldiers off guard. The Federals briefly faltered, then took cover behind trees where they returned fire, sometimes at point blank range against the Confederates who continued to pursue them. The Confederates circled the trees, slashing with sabers and shooting at the Union soldiers, but despite their ferocity, the mounted Confederates were relatively easy targets for armed men on the ground.
The Union stand broke the Confederate assault and resulted in many wounded cavalrymen. Wheeler, determined to try again, recalled the troops. Guiding his horse into a moving circle, he waved his hat in the air, showing troops where to reassemble. They obediently rushed back, some on foot because their horses had been killed in the charge. Soldiers on horseback lifted fellow troopers up to ride behind them, while the Federals kept shooting with their rapid firing carbines and other weapons.
Wheeler ordered another assault, and Pelote again sounded the bugle. The Confederates shouted a grim and determined rebel yell as they galloped forward. But this time Union soldiers were prepared and responded with a blistering shower of bullets. The charge wavered. Confederates and their horses fell. Badly injured, Confederate commander Humes hung over his horse's neck, motioning for his soldiers to pull back. Every field grade officer in Hagan's Alabama Brigade was also wounded, including brigade leader Colonel James Hagan, who lay on the ground, surrounded by dead or wounded Confederate Alabama troops. Union troops from Alabama likely fired many of the bullets that killed or wounded the Alabama Confederates. For their part, the 1st Alabama (U.S.) Regiment also suffered, losing between three and eight officers killed.
Seeing Wheeler's unsuccessful attacks to the west, Butler, on the opposite side of the field, decided to lead his troops into the teeth of the Union strength toward the two deadly artillery pieces (Map 17), which the Federals had recovered again. As Butler's charge began, Wheeler spurred his horse across the field to shout encouragement. Hampton also cheered Butler's soldiers forward.
Confederate Lieutenant Colonel Barrington S. King of Roswell, Georgia, was near the front of the attack. As the Confederates bore down on the Union soldiers, the rapid firing carbines blanketed the air with bullets. Smoke floated across the battlefield like acrid fog. The Confederates raced to within 15 yards of the Union troops. Then the artillery erupted, spitting out canister and shell. Shrapnel exploded into the Confederate cavalry. Hot metal tore into King, severing a femoral artery, his blood splattering Private Wiley C. Howard. Howard and several companions reacted quickly, retrieving King's lifeless body, as the Confederates retreated. They carried King's body behind the Confederate lines and buried him in a shallow grave. Butler, like Wheeler before him, had failed to break the Union line.
"They had got to their artillery and, with their carbines, made it so hot for the handful of us we had to retire. In fact, I lost 62 men [wounded and killed] there in about five minutes time," Butler wrote.
With so many officers wounded or killed, Confederate commanders doubted whether they could mount another assault. They probably still outnumbered their opponents, but Union forces had the deadly efficient Spencer repeating carbines and artillery in their arsenal. Confederates feinted more charges here and there, but neither side attempted another serious offensive. Both forces had suffered a great deal.
Hampton, now concerned that Union infantry would soon arrive, ordered the cavalry to withdraw (Map 18). It was a timely move. The 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Division of the XIV (14th) Corps, some of Union General Sherman's best infantry, was just minutes away. The rest of Kilpatrick's cavalry was also riding hard to reach the camp.
Wheeler took command of Dibrell's Tennessee Brigade to cover the withdrawal. As Confederate units dropped back onto Morganton Road, Dibrell's Brigade deployed to hold off the Union forces while the Confederates withdrew from the action.
Some Union horse soldiers pursued, moving in close, firing their carbines, but most hung back. Some who chased the Confederates belonged to the 5th Ohio Cavalry Regiment, using rapid firing Spencer carbines, learned National Park Service archeologist Douglas Scott.
Scott traced the location of cartridge cases found at the battle scene from several individual Spencer carbines, and the cartridge case locations seem to show movement from south of the battlefield to far north of the Monroe House, in the direction of Morganton Road.
While Union soldiers fired on the withdrawing Confederates, Wheeler's forces faced them and fired back, not about to be hurried. Behind Wheeler's rear guard, Hampton organized his column of troops, placing some 400 Union prisoners and the wagons near the front. At Hampton's signal, the Confederates began a slow ride toward Fayetteville, careful not to move too fast for fear of jostling the many wounded.
Wheeler's force continued to face the Federals for long moments after the rest of the Confederates rode away. Then Wheeler's soldiers fired a few parting shots, turned, and rode to catch up with the rest of the cavalry.
Like the fog that morning on the North Carolina farm, the chance for Confederates to wage a victorious dawn attack against the Union Army drifted away and vanished. Monroe's Crossroads was the site of one of the last major Confederate cavalry charges of the war. The Confederates continued to fight with dwindling resources of men and materiel, but soon the only realistic option would be surrender.