1 - The War Before Monroe's Crossroads
But the battle that in the beginning seemed to be a likely Confederate victory became less assured as Union forces rallied a defense. All together, 4,000 to 5,000 men exchanged gunfire that morning around the abandoned farm house where stout pine trees provided cover for some men and swamps proved to be the undoing of others. There was a fierce firefight, duels on horseback, hand-to-hand combat, and the perilous retaking of two artillery pieces that may well have been the most decisive move of the day.
The fight came near the end of four long years of war. To understand how the combatants happened to meet on this North Carolina farm, this volume traces back the footsteps of the leading officers involved. They include Brevet Major General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick for the United States and Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler, and Major General Matthew C. Butler for the Confederate States. Tracking their actions leading up to the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads, as well as the movements of others whose names are better known - General William Tecumseh Sherman, General Robert E. Lee - reveals the role that chance played in this engagement, and perhaps the entire war.
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As a wealthy planter with no military background, Wade Hampton was an unlikely candidate to become one of the most esteemed officers in Confederate General Robert E. Lee's army. High command posts were generally reserved for graduates of the United States Military Academy or other military schools such as South Carolina's Citadel or the Virginia Military Institute.
But Hampton, far from being the only Civil War officer without formal military training, was one of many. Most began uncertainly, their decisions reflecting their inexperience. Some couldn't handle the strains of combat and failed miserably, while others ultimately acquitted themselves admirably. Hampton was among the few who acted from the war's start as if he had been preparing all his life for military service, as evidenced by his quickly soaring prestige and eventual position as head of Confederate cavalry under Lee.
Hampton's great, great-grandfather, Anthony Hampton, arrived in South Carolina with his wife in the mid-1700s when much of the colony was still considered frontier.
The couple raised a brood of sons who helped carve out a home in the wilderness. Then the family's dreams turned to ashes in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. Cherokee Indians, incensed by repeated treaty violations and by colonists invading their land, launched raids against white settlers, encouraged by the British to coincide with their naval assault on Charleston, South Carolina. These Indian attacks file led anti-British feelings among many in the back country of South Carolina who before leaned toward supporting the Crown.
Five Hampton sons were away, and consequently spared, when Indian warriors invaded the homestead and killed Anthony Hampton, his wife, a son, and grandson. The surviving sons, including the first Wade Hampton, soon joined the rebel fight for independence from the British. Wade Hampton later also fought in the War of 1812 against the British. Between stints in the military, he established thriving plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as South Carolina, becoming, by his death in 1835, one of the richest planters in the nation.
His namesake, Wade Hampton II, also prospered at his plantation, Millwood, near Columbia, South Carolina, where he indulged a passion for collecting horses and books, developing one of the finest private libraries in the country. He also became a force to be reckoned with politically, though he remained primarily behind-the-scenes, with many of the state's powerful figures paying homage to him at his estate.
His son, Wade Hampton III, was perhaps as proficient at business as his grandfather, although, like many other prosperous Southerners, much of his wealth was built on human bondage. While some slave holders were more humane than others, denying a slave's basic rights and dignities was inherent in the system. Slave families were routinely torn apart, often never to see each other again. A slave child began a life full of work as soon as he or she was big enough to move stones out of the plow's way. Many planters or their hired hands whipped and beat slaves to enforce control or increase productivity, and their victims had little hope of escape. Laws banned teaching slaves to read and write or own property. Nor were they allowed free movement, a restriction enforced by white patrols who roamed the countryside, stopping any black they met and demanding written proof that the individual had permission to be away from a slave holder's property.
At some point, Wade Hampton III developed misgivings about slavery, apparently not because of moral scruples, but because he concluded the system was uneconomical. As a state legislator, he argued the point with his peers. In 1860, when secession fever hit South Carolina after Abraham Lincoln was elected President, Hampton opposed leaving the Union. Nevertheless, when South Carolina opted to break away, Hampton resolved to abide by the decision. Using his own money, he recruited and supplied a legion of troops - infantry, cavalry, and artillery - and, at the rank of colonel, led the force to Virginia where fighting was expected to begin.
In the first major clash of the war on July 21, 1861 at Manassas, Virginia (also known as the Battle of Bull Run), Hampton led 600 infantry soldiers into ferocious fighting. His second-in-command, and the only officer with military experience accompanying Hampton, was killed soon after fighting began. Attacked on three sides by Union troops, Hampton's soldiers stubbornly held their position amidst a hailstorm of bullets until his superiors urged Hampton to retreat. The men, resting briefly in a ravine, prepared for further battle. Soon they were back in action, capturing a Federal artillery piece and joining the pursuit of retreating Union soldiers in the first major Confederate victory of the war. Hampton, who suffered a superficial wound, lost 20 percent of his force, 121 men.
He garnered more attention in 1862 during a bungled Confederate advance on the outskirts of Richmond where he was shot in the foot on May 31 in the Battle of Seven Pines. Despite his wound, Hampton refused to leave the fray, insisting that he be treated while remaining astride his horse. With bullets whizzing through the air, he continued to direct his troops while a surgeon extracted the bullet.
In the heady days that followed, while Hampton recuperated, Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. He and Major General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson built an army that for a time seemed almost invincible. Jackson moved his infantry at such lightning speed in the Shenandoah Valley that more than once the soldiers almost seemed to be in two places simultaneously. Trapped between two converging armies, Jackson boldly attacked one, then wheeled around to face the other, within two days sending both armies into retreat. With such feats, he kept Washington, D.C. cowering in fear that he would attack the capital, and when Jackson joined Lee near Richmond, together they held a massive Union Army at bay.
Hampton, convalescing, was apparently less than thrilled by Southern women admirers seeking his attention. Mary Chesnut, who vividly wrote about the Civil War, quotes an observer saying that Hampton "looked as if he wished they [the ladies] would leave him alone." His bravery and coolness under fire were also noted by his superiors, who promoted him to brigadier general. In the summer of 1862, Hampton was given a command post in Major General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry.
Smart and daring, Stuart had a knack for deciphering enemy intentions, making him invaluable to Lee. A United States Military Academy graduate, he was also an able teacher for those in his command. He hungered for praise and found defeat nearly impossible to admit. Many civilians, however, knew Stuart more for his flamboyant ways than his military astuteness. His plumed hat, gray cape, yellow sash, gold spurs, and high boots suggested a character drawn from the pages of popular fiction. And unlike Hampton, Stuart enjoyed female attention and went out of his way to court it, although he rarely had to search far.
The red-haired Stuart, with full beard and mustache, had already gained considerable fame in mid-June by leading his cavalry in a ride around the Union Army commanded by Major General George B. McClellan. Stuart was ready for an even more audacious raid into Union territory by the fall of 1862. Hampton would play a key role.
The Confederates had recently suffered their first big setback. Brimming with confidence, troops had advanced into Maryland in the first major invasion of Union territory. Then, disastrously, a copy of Lee's orders somehow fell into Union hands, and McClellan, notoriously cautious, became suddenly aggressive. He nearly overwhelmed Confederates at Antietam, Maryland, in a clash known to Southerners as the Battle of Sharpsburg. The Confederates managed to retreat to Virginia, where discouraged, they looked to Stuart's cavalry to lift their spirits. Lee ordered a raid into Union territory, primarily to gather intelligence on the disposition of Federal troops, but also to disrupt communications and supply.
In early October 1862, few guessed that Stuart was preparing for this critical maneuver. He camped with his staff at The Bower, the Virginia plantation of Stephen Dandridge, and apart from army tents dotting the grounds beneath massive old oaks, the place appeared to be the setting for a nearly non-stop, grand party. Dandridge and his wife maintained a stately home filled with their eligible daughters and female cousins. The ladies took advantage of the presence of the soldiers by accompanying them on daily strolls, horseback rides, and boat outings on Opequan Creek flowing through the plantation. Formal teas in the afternoon were followed by music and dancing at night. The soldiers also joined in friendly parlor games. There was much flirting, with Stuart, who was married, joining in, apparently kissing some young women clamoring for his attention. Some even tore the buttons from his uniform for souvenirs; others begged for locks of his red hair. Stuart soaked up the adulation like a sponge, but his close aides insisted that he never strayed farther from Flora, his wife, than kissing.
On the evenings of October 7 and 8, as word spread that the soldiers were about to invade the North, there were two more balls at the Dandridge plantation. Two of Stuart's subordinates provided entertainment for one, costumed as a farm couple from Pennsylvania, which is where the cavalry was ultimately headed. The officer dressed as a woman stood more than six feet tall and weighed some 250 pounds. Big cavalry boots peeking out beneath his white skirt added to the ridiculousness, prompting Stuart to laugh so heartily that tears came to his eyes.
On Wednesday night, October 8, Stuart retired from the dance about 11:00 p.m. to toil at paper work until 1:00 a.m., when he ordered a torch-lit concert with banjos and violins. Charmed women and other residents leaned out the windows to hear this farewell performance, punctuating every song with applause. Stuart, never one to shy from the limelight, played the banjo and sang four solos.
The next day, Stuart rode toward the Potomac River where he joined Hampton and a cavalry unit of 600 men. Hampton's soldiers would spearhead the raid into Maryland and then Pennsylvania. Two other cavalry commands would follow, raising Stuart's force to 1,800 men. They were to shadow a Union Army numbering some 100,000. The dangers were obvious. Besides being vastly outnumbered, they faced a hyper-vigilant Union force determined not to be surprised again.
The Confederates slept in fields near the Potomac, awakening around 4:00 a.m., October 10. They burned no campfires, did nothing to alert an outpost of Union soldiers across the water of their presence.
In early morning, about 30 of Hampton's soldiers from South Carolina and Virginia moved upstream to wade stealthily across the river, their movements shrouded by thick fog. The remainder of Hampton's troops waited at McCoy's Ford, a shallow crossing. For about an hour, there were few sounds apart from the rushing of the river and call of birds, then gunshots. This signaled that the main body of Confederate troops should advance into Union territory. Troopers rode their horses into the river, led by Colonel Matthew C. Butler, Hampton's top subordinate who had resigned from the South Carolina Legislature to join Hampton's Legion. Butler, son-in-law of a South Carolina governor, was born in Greenville and attended South Carolina College.
By first light, the raid was underway. After Hampton's soldiers cleared the path, the entire Confederate force rode north, forming a line that stretched about five miles. At first, they encountered little resistance. Most of the Union Army was just to the east, off to the Confederates' right, as the Confederates moved steadily across Maryland and into Pennsylvania.
At 10:00 a.m., Stuart called a brief halt and issued these orders to be read throughout the ranks: "We are now in enemy country. Hold yourselves ready for attack or defense, and behave with no other thought than victory. If any man cannot abide cheerfully by the order and the spirit of these instructions, he will be returned to Virginia with a guard of honor." Nobody took him up on the offer. Instead, cheering broke out as the ride continued.
The force was divided into three divisions. Hampton's 600 soldiers in the lead were always on guard, ready to deploy for battle, if Union troops appeared. They were also ready to snare prisoners without firing a shot, if possible, and captured a small contingent of Union soldiers they surprised at a signaling station.
Hampton's lead soldiers, with Butler in command, rode into Mercersburg, Pennsylvania about noon. Soft-spoken soldiers from South Carolina soon crowded into a store and selected dozens of pairs of boots and shoes to buy. The merchant didn't realize they were enemy soldiers until, to pay for their purchases, they handed him scrip signed by the Confederate Army quartermaster. When he balked, they told him not to worry. They felt sure the U.S. government in Washington would reimburse him.
As the column pressed forward, Stuart ordered the 600 soldiers in the middle to fan out into the countryside to gather horses from local farmers. He strictly forbade stealing other items, an admonition many ignored. Most pillaging apparently involved food, with soldiers eating as they returned to the main column; some had roasted turkeys and hams strapped to their saddles. The haversacks of others were stuffed with bread and crocks of cream and butter, provisions not always easily surrendered by farmers. A private from Virginia, entering a house occupied by a woman and young children, requested food. When she insisted she had nothing to give him, he threatened, "I've never eaten human flesh. But I think I'm hungry enough to try one of them babies." The frightened mother found food for him after all.
As ordered, the cavalrymen collected some 1,200 horses, strong work animals that proved invaluable in the long ride ahead. Soldiers rode with as many as three horses in tow. As one mount tired, they switched to another.
Rain fell, sometimes heavily, as darkness enveloped the cavalry. Many troopers wore oilcloth coveralls to repel the wet. After traveling some 40 miles, the first soldiers reached the outskirts of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania where Hampton called a halt to assess whether the place was occupied by Union troops, and, if so, by how many. Lights from the town lit up the night sky as the Confederates heard the roll of drums, an ominous sound suggesting a military presence. They could see people darting from building to building, but were too far away to identify them.
Seeking to avoid an uncertain fight against foes who possibly outnumbered his own men, Hampton decided to bluff. He sent 10 soldiers into the town under a truce flag, a dirty white cloth tied to a stick. The men carried Hampton's terse demand for surrender, prompting three of Chambersburg's leading citizens to ride out to meet the commander. Their community was undefended by Union troops, they told Hampton, and on behalf of the citizenry, they surrendered the town. As Confederates poured into Chambersburg, Stuart arrived and ordered Butler to break into the bank, where Butler and his men found nothing of value. Money and other deposits had been spirited away and hidden at the first sign of Confederates.
Other soldiers attempting to destroy a key railroad bridge north of town failed because it was made of iron and couldn't be burned or axed. Soldiers did succeed in cutting the local telegraph line, but not before someone sent a message of alarm detailing the Confederate presence. Still, in a moment of playfulness indicative of his optimism, Stuart solemnly appointed Hampton military governor of Chambersburg, as if the Confederates planned to stay for months, not mere hours.
Rain continued to pour. The cavalry spread out through the town and tried to settle down for the night, but neither Stuart nor many of his soldiers slept much. Stuart worried that the continuing heavy downpour would flood the Potomac, making their return to Confederate territory impossible.