SEAC: THE SWAMP STOPS THE FEDERAL ROUT
THE SWAMP STOPS THE FEDERAL ROUT
The Federal soldiers charged through the underbrush. In a short distance they reached the swollen artery of the swamp, Nicholson Creek. Many immediately waded into the flood waters. Quickly they were neck deep and stumbling in the tangle of vines and trees just below the surface. Soldiers on the bank, keeping watch for the expected arrival of their pursuers, called for their comrades to return.
The veterans, determined not to be shot down while floundering in the water or, worse yet, drowned, turned and rushed back to a small rise they had crossed at the edge of the swamp. Prone, and covered behind the small elevated sliver of earth, men examined and prepared the weapons they had instinctively grabbed at the outset of the attack. All their senses were riveted to the front, anticipating the Confederates’ arrival, but instead, there were only shouts and shots coming from the camp where the pillaging Confederates were destroying any of the Federals’ horses they could not lead away. Soon the Federal soldiers realized the Confederates were not coming; opportunity was offered and accepted as word was passed to abandon this precarious position. The line of men formed by encountering the creek moved forward at a crouch. Familiar voices were recognized, as instructions were given to keep the men together. As they neared the edge of the swamp the vegetation thinned, providing them with a view of the Confederates helping themselves to the spoils of their premature victory. The Federal soldiers’ blood rose, followed by their carbines.
As the Confederates searched the camp, they had to contend with small groups of resisters. The camp was a veritable treasure trove to the hungry Confederates. Everywhere were things the Confederates so greatly lacked. Unable to resist, the hungry soldiers scurried about grabbing what they could. Private W.S. Redderick, C.S.A., Company D, 5th Tennessee Cavalry, was one of the first to reach Brevet Major General Kilpatrick’s Headquarters. "The General left his sword, uniform, and boots, also a woman, presumably his wife" (cf Inzer 1904).
Observing only Confederate soldiers around the house, Colonel Spencer, Lieutenant Colonel Way, and members of Brevet Major General Kilpatrick’s staff barricaded themselves on the second floor of the farmhouse.
Order was becoming impossible to maintain as Confederate Regiments intermingled in the confined area of the camp. Soldiers, enticed away from their Regiments by the treasures of the camp and the arrival of additional Regiments, added to a growing sense of chaos.
Lieutenant General Wheeler, separated from his staff, recognized some of his men and ordered them to cease their plundering, harness some animals, and begin pulling away the Federal artillery and wagons.
In the open field, Confederates, intent on resupply from the abandoned camp, were startled by the report of gunfire coming from the direction of the swamp.
As their attention was drawn toward the swamp, the treeline that bounds it erupted with muzzle flashes. Their desire for the armloads of booty they carried quickly diminished as bullets ripped through the canvas shelters around them. The Confederates reacted, dropping their armloads, seizing their weapons, and cowering down behind whatever might afford protection.
The rapid firing Spencer carbines of the 5th Ohio Cavalry soon made the south end of the camp too hot for the Confederate cavalrymen. At a crouch and leading their horses, the Confederates headed for the top of the ridge and safety.
In the initial assault, a number of Federal cavalrymen had managed to escape across the Nicholson Creek. Those mounted fled to the Blue’s Rosin Road crossing, while others on foot took their chances and forded the swamp. The shaken fugitives continued south, hoping to reach the safety of the Federal XIV Army Corps.
Captain Northrop and his scouts, who had gone into camp south of Nicholson Creek the previous day, were awakened by a band of refugees from the 3rd Brigade and 4th Brigade (dismounted) stumbling through their camp. The excited half-dressed lot, some on foot and some mounted and riding two and three to a horse, quickly informed the Captain of the events that led to their arrival in his camp.
Captain Northrop, Chief of Scouts, 3rd Cavalry Division (Northrop 1912; 1913):
Reacting to the commencement of firing by their comrades on the edge of the swamp, additional Federal troopers rallied to them. Individuals began enforcing order on the impromptu organization maturing at the edge of the swamp. Soon the mass of men, muddy, sweaty, and drenched with rain, bore a faint resemblance to a Federal battleline. Firing from the line began to be directed and controlled, with increasingly effective results.
With the exception of those pinned down, the Confederates continued abandoning the main camp as they came under ever increasing Federal fire. Unwilling to abandon the field entirely, they congregated at the north edge of the main camp, firing back sporadically.
Quickly recognizing the threat posed by the rapidly reorganizing Federals, Confederate commanders set about regaining the initiative. Lieutenant General Wheeler rode up to Lieutenant Reynolds, who until the attack was a prisoner of Brevet Major General Kilpatrick’s, saying: "Come with me. I have neither staff nor escort." Lieutenant Reynolds remarked: "General, we are between our line and the enemy’s, and both are shooting this way." "Never mind that; we must keep our men advancing," said Lieutenant General Wheeler.
At this critical moment, the Confederate command was suffering an effect of its own success. So fast and overwhelming was the initial assault that it had served to scatter the Confederate Regiments. So complete appeared the rout that the confident Confederate riders had turned their backs to the enemy. Now enthusiasm and indiscretion demanded a price, reorganizing under fire or calling on the reserve.
Following his near capture at the farmhouse, Brevet Major General Kilpatrick had run southwest into the swamp. Hearing the firing to his right, he worked his way along the edge of the swamp and joined his men. Desperate to regain the camp and heartened by the effect their fire was having, he made his presence known by encouraging his men to move forward. A cheer went up as the mud-covered veterans rose and started up the slope.
On the field, Major General Butler watched Colonel Wright striving to restore order to his command. The growing threat from the Federals along the swamp made it crucial that the Confederates reassemble.
Major General Butler had positioned his Division Reserve, Law’s Brigade, just off the field to serve as a collection point for prisoners and to facilitate the Brigade’s admittance to the fight if needed. Sensing the opportunity to complete the capture of the camp slipping away, he called for his reserve.
Major General Butler, Commanding, Butler’s Cavalry Division (Butler 1909a):
The organization of Allen’s Division had disintegrated upon entering the camp. With the Division hopelessly dispersed across the field and intermingled with various other Confederate units, it was impossible to reassemble.
Lieutenant General Wheeler, advised of Brigadier General Humes’ inability to cross the swamp, sent word for him to ride around the head of the swamp and enter the fight from the north.
No longer under pressure, but for a few Texans firing on them from the swamp, the 1st Alabama (U.S.) Cavalry, fell back, thus joining the Federal line and anchoring it on the swamp.
Lieutenant Stewart and his men, fired on continually by both sides, searched for a safe route off the field. With the departure of the 1st Alabama (U.S.) Cavalry, they saw their opportunity to escape. Heading toward the swamp they encountered Harrison’s Texans.
Posey Hamilton (Hamilton 1921):
The rider, sent earlier by Major General Butler to Brigadier General Law to tell him to bring on the reserve and continue the attack, returned, stating the Reserve Brigade had moved and could not be found. Major General Butler’s hope now was for the tardy Confederate right, Humes’ Division, to appear and carry the day.
Well aware that Brigadier General Humes’ circuitous route around the swamp might have his Division arriving too late to regain the offensive, Lieutenant General Wheeler went in search of Major General Butler.
Located near the Federal artillery, Major General Butler sat, hoping for the arrival of the rest of Lieutenant General Wheeler’s command. Major General Butler was surprised by the approach of Lieutenant General Wheeler himself, riding toward him at a gallop.
Major General Butler (Butler 1909a):
The Federal cavalrymen had continued a slow advance up the ridge. They had regained possession of the south end of the main camp, their concave line conforming to the contour of the ridge.
In the minds of the Confederate commanders, the issue was in grave doubt. Having declined to do so until all other options were exhausted, Lieutenant General Wheeler sent couriers to inform Brigadier General Dibrell to bring the reserve forward at once.