7 - Under Cover of Darkness
Since the earliest days of the war, Confederate cavalry proved adept at capturing Union supplies and horses, and as the war dragged on and Confederate access to food, supplies, and animals diminished, plundering became less a strategy for weakening an opponent and more a necessity for survival.
The meager conditions of the Confederate cavalry nearing Monroe's Crossroads were evident. The soldiers were a tattered lot, especially those assigned to Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler. Some were in rags, embarrassed to ride into towns because of their appearance. Disapproving Southern newspapers and Confederate officials criticized Wheeler's Corps as undisciplined, probably largely because of their unruly appearance, speculates author Ken Belew. Because of various factors, including weeks spent off on their own targeting Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's force, Wheeler's troops had not been resupplied in two years; many wore a slapdash collection of odds and ends barely resembling uniforms, often including pieces of Union garb.
Archeologists studying the Monroe's Crossroads battlefield identified one suspected Confederate grave because of buttons found from both Union and Confederate uniforms. Union troops had no reason to borrow clothes from Confederates because, as in everything else, they were much better supplied by 1865. For instance, many Confederates had no overcoats, despite living outdoors nearly full-time, often in bitter cold. Those who did have coats likely took them from Federal soldiers.
The Confederate cavalry also carried a motley variety of weapons for which the bullet supply could dwindle dangerously low. The status of Wheeler's cavalry's weapons was described in an 1865 inspection report by Colonel Charles C. Jones. "As a general rule, there is a great want of uniformity in the armament of this command.... Many, if not all, of the breech-loading rifles and pistols are captured arms; for some of them...there is great difficulty in procuring the requisite amount of ammunition, the supply now in the cartridge boxes of the men, and in the ordnance train, having been obtained exclusively by capture."
Besides bullets, nourishing meals were often scarce for the Confederates. Stealing food from Union troops whenever possible had become a habit. Indeed, plundering sometimes diverted Confederate attention from warfare and played a role at Monroe's Crossroads.
Adding to these disadvantages was a new Union weapon, the Spencer repeating carbine. The Union 5th Ohio Cavalry Regiment carried the carbines in the fighting at Monroe's Crossroads. The Spencer fired 21 rounds per minute, far more bullets than the best other carbines and rifles in either army. For example, muzzle loading rifled-carbines used in the battle by some soldiers on both sides fired only three shots a minute.
But the Spencer's speed was not without drawbacks. The weapon discharged bullets so fast that soldiers aimed carelessly, wasting ammunition. Although some rifled-muskets Confederates used had a longer range, this advantage was useless when combatants confronted each other at fewer than 200 yards, as they often did at Monroe's Crossroads. Research by National Park Service archeologists Douglas Scott and William Hunt revealed just how crucial the Spencers were. They found more cartridge cases for the weapons at the battlefield than any other type.
The first skirmish leading to the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads began about 9:00 p.m. (shown as 2100 hours on Map 8) March 9. Confederate Major General Matthew C. Butler and troops from South Carolina nearly captured the Union cavalry commander, Brevet Major General Judson Kilpatrick, at the intersection of Yadkin and Morganton Roads. When this happened, the Union's 2nd Brigade was some miles back on Morganton Road, unaware that the Confederate column was just ahead, cutting them off from the Union 3rd and 4th Brigades which were moving into Monroe's Crossroads. Confederates held a decisive upper hand, for the moment, by splitting the Union cavalry.
The 2nd Brigade, riding toward Monroe's Crossroads, was traveling parallel with the rear sections of the Confederate column, Wheeler's troops, who were riding on Yadkin Road. The two roads were sometimes less than a mile apart, leading to Union and Confederate patrols repeatedly spilling into each other, igniting running gun battles. The popping of gunshots sometimes reverberated miles away. A Georgia soldier, E.W. Watkins, riding with Wheeler, explained how closely the foes rode that night. "During the march after nightfall, while riding leisurely along, it being rather dark, to my surprise, I discovered a Yankee riding in our column by my side." Watkins reported what he saw to an officer who sent him with several others to the rear to check Union prisoners. They discovered that Union cavalry had "captured our guard and prisoners. Returning and reporting this, we were halted. The Yankees were marching on a parallel road and soon mixed up with us."
The skirmishes between the 2nd Brigade and Wheeler's Corps were mere preludes of what would soon happen at Monroe's Crossroads where Morganton Road and Blue's Rosin Road intersected. Blue's Rosin Road trailed off to the south after the intersection, while Morganton Road continued toward the east and Fayetteville. A farm owned by Charles Monroe and perhaps his sisters was adjacent to Blue's Rosin Road. The family likely grew a few crops, raised livestock, and tapped trees for turpentine production.
The farm was deserted when the 400 dismounted men of the Union 4th Brigade arrived. The brigade, escorting supply and ammunition wagons, as well as Kilpatrick's headquarters wagon, turned south and marched a short distance past the two-story Monroe farmhouse. The men set up camp by the residence, while wagon drivers parked on or near the open area that soldiers called the lawn close to the house.
At some point, the two women who had earlier accompanied Kilpatrick arrived in their buggy and were escorted inside the house where soldiers likely built a fire in the brick fireplace to ease the chill.
The 3rd Brigade was next on the scene, camping behind and beside the 4th Brigade in a large field. The field was square and about 200 yards long, the length of two football fields, and equally wide. Nicholson Creek and adjacent swamps wrapped in a rough semicircle behind the southern and western sides of the field.
The 3rd Brigade of about 1,500 troops was divided into three regiments. The 1st Alabama (U.S.) Regiment camped on the far west of the field near Nicholson Creek and the swamps. Units from Alabama fought on both Union and Confederate sides during the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads. Northern Alabama was a hotbed for Union loyalists, many of whom hid in hilly wilderness near their homes to avoid retaliation from Confederate authorities. Most soldiers in the 1st Alabama (U.S.) Regiment came from this hill region.
The 5th Kentucky (U.S.) Regiment camped in the southern part of the field, near Green Springs, the popular campsite for farmers and other visitors. Kentucky was another state sending soldiers to fight for both the Union and the Confederacy. The last group in the 3rd Brigade was the 5th Ohio Cavalry Regiment, armed with the Spencer repeating carbines. These troops settled north of the Kentucky soldiers and near the house.
Rain was falling heavily when the soldiers arrived, so they dismantled a fence surrounding the field to use the rails to build cover. They stretched shelter tents, rubber blankets, and anything else that might repel water over the rails to create dry places to sleep. Others bent saplings, tied them down, and sheared off the limbs, then put covers over them and crawled underneath.
Cavalrymen probably also sought shelter in farm sheds, a pine log barn, and under the house. Archeologists discovered chunks of sandstone and a large sandstone block, which were probable remnants of footer stones used to raise the house above ground.
About 130 Confederate prisoners were herded into a tight circle near the wagons, with no shelter from the rain.
Union Colonel George Spencer, 3rd Brigade commander, chose to stay in the house, allowing soldiers to use his large headquarters tent. The tent stood toward the west, between Nicholson Creek and the house, near other tents. Joining Spencer in the house was Lieutenant Colonel William Way, commander of the 4th Brigade. Born in New York, Way was raised in Michigan and early in the war fought with the Michigan Cavalry.
Kilpatrick, fresh from his hair-raising escape, finally arrived, probably sometime before midnight. He, his staff, the two women, and the two brigade leaders, divided up the farmhouse rooms. Kilpatrick and one of the women apparently left the house for a while, staying part of the night in a nearby cabin.
The house, the cabin, other outbuildings, and the open field were on a ridge, running north and south, that sloped south toward Green Springs and a wide, deep swamp. The ridge made a good campsite on a rainy night because the rainwater drained away quickly to the south and west into the swamps. The drop-off was less than 100 feet, but high enough for anyone running downhill to gain considerable speed.
Soldiers parked the two cannons of the 10th Wisconsin Battery on high ground south of the house. Historical sources estimated that the cannons were about 50 yards from the house, but archeologist Douglas Scott found artifacts suggesting that the cannons were actually farther away, about 160 yards south of the house. A local battlefield enthusiast, James Legg, also discovered artillery artifacts southeast of the house, between 50 and 100 yards away, perhaps representing the position one or both cannons occupied late in the battle.
As Union soldiers settled in, Spencer ordered that pickets, armed guards, be stationed in the direction of Fayetteville. Way, 4th Brigade commander, was supposed to post pickets at the rear of the force. Because of heavy rain, getting a clear lay of the land was difficult. Spencer became disoriented about Fayetteville's direction, theorizes Ken Belew. Spencer's written description of the camp seems to show he was confused. Whatever the cause, much of the north and west sides of the camp were left unguarded.
Kilpatrick apparently was unworried about any potential danger as he retired, probably thinking that most of the Confederate cavalry was still some distance away, unlikely to arrive before noon the next day. Despite his earlier narrow escape, the Union general remained confident. He had survived one scrape after another throughout the war, so one more dust-up with a Confederate patrol likely didn't faze him.
Butler, the Confederate general, viewed the evening far more seriously. After nearly snaring Kilpatrick, his next step was to learn the disposition of Union troops. He ordered scouts to follow the horse tracks heading east toward Monroe's Crossroads. He also sent a message to Lieutenant General Wade Hampton about the capture of Union soldiers and the hundreds of fresh hoof prints on Morganton Road.
Hampton was conferring with Wheeler when the message arrived. The two officers rode quickly forward to meet Butler. About 10:00 p.m., the three were discussing options when scouts returned from tracking the hoof prints. They had discovered a large Union cavalry camp about four miles down the road and had returned immediately, leaving other scouts behind to explore further.
The Confederate generals analyzed the situation. Wheeler's Corps, stretched out some 10 to 15 miles to the rear, had been encountering Union troops off and on throughout the night. Scouts had just found the Union camp ahead. Hampton, Butler, and Wheeler concluded that they had cut off part of the Union cavalry from the rest of the force. These three generals, veterans of many campaigns, had faced few opportunities so tempting. For once, the rain was an asset, ideal for muffling sound and preventing detection. The Confederates had a rare chance to sneak close enough to launch an all-out assault on the Union camp.
Hampton issued preliminary orders - troops should prepare to attack at dawn. Butler's soldiers were already close to the Union camp, but many of Wheeler's men would have to ride through the night to get into position. With any luck, by dawn, enough of Wheeler's cavalrymen would be ready. In the meantime, Butler would move his division, taking care to avoid discovery, closer to the Union camp.
Butler clicked his tongue and guided his mount out onto Morganton Road, leading his horse soldiers forward. They rode at a slow walk. Word passed through the ranks that everyone should be quiet. The Federals were up ahead.
Scouts rode some distance in front of the column. Butler strained to keep them in view, not easy on such a dreary night. The moon was full, about 94 percent of complete illumination, but the soldiers couldn't see it because of dark clouds and rain.
The road followed the gentle roll of the countryside, but was fairly straight. In daylight, approaching riders could be seen a mile away, but not on this rainy night. Butler could barely see his hands. He could have ridden closer to the scouts, but if they were attacked or challenged, Butler wanted room to maneuver. His priority was to keep his division concealed. He listened intently to every sound - the pounding rain, a horse snorting -anticipating the appearance of Union cavalry at any moment.
Suddenly, up ahead, the scouts turned off the road and vanished. Butler motioned for everyone to halt. Cautiously, he eased forward. There was motion ahead. Butler saw his scouts bending over their horses, talking to men on foot. Butler approached. The scouts were talking to the men they had left behind to spy on the Union camp. The bivouac was big, they told Butler, with wagons, artillery, and hundreds of Union soldiers clustered across a ridge. Unbelievably, the scouts had seen no pickets.
Did they spot any Confederate captives? Butler asked. The scouts thought they had seen an area for prisoners, but were unsure. By now, Butler probably suspected that the Union commander, Kilpatrick, was in the camp. Butler told his scouts to keep monitoring Union activities, then he rode back to the head of his column. He ordered everyone to move off to the side of the road and dismount. Officers relayed the message that soldiers could rest, but should keep their horses saddled and ready. No one was to build a campfire or talk above a whisper.
The soldiers, a few in overcoats, but mostly wearing ponchos or wrapped in rubber blankets, sprawled on the ground or against the big pine trees, the rough bark welcome after all the hours in the saddle. They had been riding and fighting with few breaks for days. "It was a cold rainy March night," remembered Butler. "In the open pine woods I established my headquarters, for the night on the road, and, with a pine knot for a pillow, slept on the ground, with my bridle on my arm, covered with my overcoat." Butler, like many combatants, had learned to nod off nearly anywhere and grab restful, deep sleep quickly, whenever he could. Soon, voices awakened him. A lone Union officer, a young lieutenant, probably a courier, had accidentally ridden among Butler's troops in the rear and was captured. Confederates brought him forward for Butler to question. Details of what Butler may have learned are unknown, but Civil War prisoners often were more forthcoming with information than soldiers of today who are instructed to give only name, rank, serial number, and date of birth if captured. Perhaps Butler learned for certain that Kilpatrick was at Monroe's Crossroads, accompanied by the 3rd and 4th Brigades. He may have also discovered the approximate locations of the Union's 1st and 2nd Brigades.
By 11:00 p.m., (shown as 2300 hours on Map 9), the Union 2nd Brigade was edging closer to Monroe's Crossroads. Skirmishes earlier in the evening had made the officer in charge, Brevet Brigadier General Smith Dykins Atkins, especially cautious. As Atkins rode at the head of his troops, a scout came trotting back to him with ominous news. A mass of Confederates blocked their way.