8 - A Dangerous Opportunity
The Confederates charged through the fog, battle flags waving in a breeze created by their rushing horses. They moved as one, with Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler leading the center, Major General Matthew C. Butler commanding the left, and the Texans surging forward on the right. Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, whose battle plan they followed, waited in the rear.
The attack came as a deadly surprise to the Union soldiers, some of whom were shot before they could climb out of their blankets. The Confederate cavalry rode full speed into the camp, shooting, yelling, spurring their horses at a breakneck pace. Bullets ripped holes into tents where men slept. Everywhere Union soldiers grabbed their weapons and ran. Confederates bore down on them, slashing deep cuts into backs and shoulders with their sabers.
A host of Union soldiers near the north end of the camp threw up their hands in surrender. Resistance seemed hopeless, yet other Federals defiantly fought back. They crouched, lifted their carbines and fired, sometimes hitting their targets. Confederate trooper Jim Jack of the Cobb Legion, Georgia troops, was an early casualty. He was shot and tumbled dead from his horse. Union soldiers clustered in the barn, in sheds, behind tents, anywhere they could find cover and defend themselves.
Confederate horses were the easiest targets and stumbled onto the ground when hit, throwing their riders. Confederate J.H. Moses, a graduate of South Carolina's Citadel, lost his mount and was immediately pounced upon by a large Union soldier. They fought hand-to-hand, wrestling and biting until a Confederate private, Bill Martin, reached in under the Union soldier and fired. The blast lifted the man off Moses, killing the Federal instantly.
Further back in the camp to the south, Union soldiers who had a few more minutes to react leaped onto horses and fled. Many others didn't risk taking time to untie their animals. They sprinted on foot as fast as they could downhill toward the swamp at the south end of the camp. Hundreds of soldiers, many half dressed, streamed down the incline, running for their lives. Confederates on horseback rode hard after them, emptying their pistols. Some Federals somersaulted forward, wounded or dying.
"My command was taken completely by surprise, the enemy being in force in every part of my camp. The officers and men were completely bewildered for a short time," wrote Major George H. Rader of the Union's 5th Ohio Cavalry Regiment.
Standing on the porch of the house, Union Brevet Major General Judson Kilpatrick was transfixed as the first Confederate warriors poured out of the woods. Some galloped directly toward him. It must have seemed like a slow motion nightmare to Kilpatrick who was cornered, looking for a way out. Confederates swarmed everywhere. The Union commander resigned himself to capture.
Captain Bostick, followed by his detail, galloped up to the house, stopping his horse within a few feet of Kilpatrick. The Confederate pointed his pistol into Kilpatrick's eyes and demanded, "Where is General Kilpatrick?"
The Confederates didn't know who he was! Kilpatrick must have struggled not to reveal his surprise. He wore no insignia, no identifying uniform, just his shirt and long underwear. This young captain obviously had no idea he was pointing his weapon at the leader of General William Tecumseh Sherman's cavalry.
Kilpatrick's mind raced as he looked about. He spotted a Union officer swinging himself onto a moving horse and pointed at him. "There he goes on that horse!" he yelled. Bostick yanked the reins to one side and spurred his mount, racing after the man he thought was Kilpatrick. In the exuberance of the chase, Bostick forgot his orders. His commander, Butler, had told him to surround the house and wait.
Kilpatrick saw his chance. He leaped over the porch rail, landing on bare feet, and ran, dodging this way and that, disappearing into the swirling collision of horses and men.
In the first moments of the attack, some of Wheeler's troops also rushed forward, intent on capturing Kilpatrick, but headed toward the wrong target. Posey Hamilton from Alabama remembered their attempt. "Ed Knight and I were the only ones sent from our company. The objective was to ride up quietly to Kilpatrick's tent and capture the General and others with him. What we took for Kilpatrick's tent was a large one located on a round knob in the pine timber about 300 yards from where we waited [to begin the initial charge]."
Hamilton remembered that as the charge began his fellow soldiers were so devoted to their goal that they passed up chances to kill Union soldiers. "We soon came up to where the Yankees were lying under good blankets fast asleep, and while we were passing by we said nothing and did not intend to molest them. Our objective point was the big tent, and thus far we were moving in fine order and thinking we were going to make a good haul," Hamilton said. The detail galloped to within 50 yards of the big tent where some 25 horses were hitched nearby.
Hamilton looked around and saw scores of other Confederates pouring into the camp. The violent claps of hundreds of firearms filled the air. "The Yankees' camp looked like a cyclone had struck it all at once. Their blankets were flying in the air, and the men were running about in every direction in their nightclothes, while the men from the big tent were legging and heeling it down the hill to beat the band. If this was not a stampede on foot, then I never saw one."
Suddenly, the bullets were moving closer to Hamilton. A gunshot came toward him from some 200 yards away.
Then there was another close shot, and another, until it seemed as if bullets were flying all around the detail ordered to search for Kilpatrick. Just then Hamilton spotted fellow Confederates charging toward him, revolvers blazing.
"Our advance guard had to get out of the way of bullets fired by our own men as we were directly between them and the big tent," he explained.
At that moment, Hamilton and his comrades decided that their duty to find Kilpatrick was finished. "We could do no more and we had to look out for ourselves."
Indeed, confusion was rampant in the assault, almost from the start. Confederate prisoners near the house were already awake when the attack began, perhaps because of their uncomfortable night without shelter. Seeing the Confederate cavalry approaching, they taunted their Union guards, saying, "That is Wheeler charging," and warning, "You better save yourselves."
The guards quickly dashed away, dropping their weapons. Delighted with their freedom, the former prisoners, some picking up Union firearms, ran excitedly toward oncoming troops led by Butler. A few managed to grab Union horses to ride headlong into the Confederate charge.
"I had not advanced far into the camp when I was astonished to meet 130 or 140 Confederates rushing wildly towards us," Butler recalled. Mistaking them for the Confederates who had led the charge into the camp, Butler thought the soldiers had been repulsed and were running back in wild retreat. He and troops near him probably slowed their advance, preparing to take defensive positions. But other Confederates stormed menacingly forward into the former prisoners, mistaking them for Union troops. C.M. Calhoun of Butler's Division recalled that the escaping prisoners met "...us on the first sound of the rebel yell. This somewhat disconcerted some of our men at first, and, sad to say, one over joyous fellow was shot with his arms around the neck of one of our trooper's horse."
At least two former prisoners and perhaps more died in the early minutes of the battle, shot by fellow Confederates. Butler, realizing the fatal mistake, waded in and began shepherding other escapees to safety in the rear. He happened onto one former prisoner, Glenn Davis (perhaps Flinn Davis), who took a seat in the middle of the pandemonium to eat from a kettle of food left over a campfire. As Davis ate, a bullet smashed into the kettle, opening a round hole at the bottom. Butler yelled at Davis, asking him what he was doing.
"I am getting a little bite, General, the first in three days; will be with the boys in a minute," came the answer between mouthfuls of food.
Davis soon picked up an abandoned carbine, mounted a Union horse, and rode into the fight. His brother, also a Confederate soldier, handed Davis two pistols, adding to his arsenal. Davis then went searching for an especially cruel Union guard who had kicked the prisoners and slapped them in the buttocks with the broad side of a saber. Davis found the man, known to him only as "Dutchey," already dead, shot numerous times, perhaps in retaliation by other freed prisoners.
The Confederate scout, Lieutenant Clay Reynolds, who had been forced to walk behind the two womens' carriage, was now also free, and lost no time joining the fray. He grabbed a Union carbine and horse and galloped toward a Union officer. The officer, taking up the challenge, rode at Reynolds, both men firing pistols. After several rounds, one of Reynolds' shots knocked the Union officer out of the saddle and he fell, wounded.
The first wave of Confederates charged by the Union's 4th Brigade. Many of these 400 dismounted soldiers were partially blocked from view by the Monroe House, where their commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Way, was trapped inside. Way, many of Kilpatrick's staff, and Colonel George Spencer, 3rd Brigade commander, retreated upstairs where they barricaded themselves when the attack began.
Soldiers of the 4th Brigade were understandably unnerved by the ferocity of the surprise Confederate offensive. Because their commander was unavailable, a regimental leader, Lieutenant Colonel William Stough, took charge, preventing the soldiers from bolting. Trying to maintain order by the force of his will and firmness of his voice, he yelled for everyone to assume battle formation, then barked for soldiers to fix bayonets to their rifled-muskets.
When the next wave of Confederate cavalrymen saw the flash of the Union bayonets, some screamed, "Infantry!" It was a dreaded call. The battle-hardened cavalrymen all knew that their charge on horseback would inevitably falter against the lethal barrier of infantry in formation. The troops slowed their horses and pulled out of their units, breaking the momentum of the Confederate assault. Officers lost track of soldiers as they splintered away from the group. But the realization that Union soldiers were assembling on foot also ignited a cohesive assault from the Confederates, who seemed to fire as one against the dismounted troops of the 4th Brigade. Many Union soldiers fell. The rest broke rank and ran, chased by Confederates. Union Major Christopher T. Cheek remembered seeing the dismounted troops "flying in every direction, the rebel cavalry in hot pursuit." Many ran some 500 hundred yards to hide among the trees.
One of the women, sleeping in the house, was shocked awake by the commotion and rushed outside, still in her night clothes, according to one report. Apart from the violent chaos around her, she had to be apprehensive about how she would fare if captured, especially if the Confederates learned, as some stories contend, that she was a Southerner accompanying a Union general. Her companion and protector, Kilpatrick, was nowhere to be seen, while Confederate and Union soldiers fought to the death all around her. She looked frantically in the direction of her buggy some distance away. Bullets raked across the house, kicking up wood splinters. A young Confederate officer, seeing the woman's distress, forgot about his own perilous fight and galloped to her aid. Swinging off his horse, he charged up the steps, probably grabbing her hand and urging her to follow. Shielding her as best he could, the Confederate ran with her to the nearby ditch paralleling Blue's Rosin Road. This is where she apparently spent the rest of the battle, hidden from view. There are no reports detailing the other woman's whereabouts. Perhaps she remained inside the house.
Early in the battle, despite some serious setbacks, the Confederates seemed in control, except for Harrison's Texans. The Texans, along with Arkansans and Tennesseans, led by Brigadier General Thomas Harrison, a Texas lawyer and state legislator, had a terrible time. They were supposed to lead Humes' Division into the western side of the Union camp, but when Wheeler began his charge, they rode into a swamp much deeper and wider than expected. They had trouble seeing because of the thick fog and plunged deeper into the mire. Blindly thrashing their way forward, some riders were unhorsed by low limbs. Horses, panicked in the confined space, kicked and bucked, heaving riders into the underbrush. Riderless horses moved this way and that, compounding the chaos.
Because of the rain, Nicholson Creek had overflowed, creating a bog, and as Harrison's force drove deeper, their horses sank, becoming submerged up to their backs, necks, and heads. Riders' legs disappeared into murky, chilly water as the horses strained to escape. Some men hung on, wrapping themselves around their horses' necks. Others dismounted into the muck and grabbed hold of saddles or their horses' tails or manes. Many, sunk into the muddy water up to their necks, risked being fatally kicked by their mounts or pulled under to drown. Their part of the charge dragged to a near standstill.
Soldiers from the rest of the division trying to pile in behind Harrison's force couldn't advance. Their adrenaline pumping, they cursed and gestured and pleaded for those in front to get out of the way. Some officers in the rear began stopping their men, preventing them from even trying to make their way across. The bottleneck worsened.
Most of Harrison's horse soldiers doggedly refused to turn back. Riding, wading, and swimming, covered in mud, some finally reached the other side and immediately began firing pistols and shotguns at Union troops. The shotguns, preferred weapons for many of the Texans, erupted with loud fiery booms. But by now the Union troops were ready and waiting, returning rapid fire with Burnside carbines.
The Union soldiers shooting at Harrison's force were part of the 1st Alabama (U.S.) Regiment. They had settled on the far western side of the Union camp and therefore missed much of the impact of the first Confederate charge. However, soon after the attack began, the charging Confederates spotted the Alabama troops and subjected them to heavy fire.
"At the sounding of reveille on the morning of the 10th instant, we were aroused from sleep by the whistling of bullets and the fiendish yelling of the enemy, who were charging into our camp. Then followed a most bloody hand-to-hand conflict, our men forming behind trees and stumps and the enemy endeavoring to charge us mounted, with saber," explained Major Sanford Tramel of the 1st Alabama (U.S.) Regiment.
After they rallied to beat back these early attacks, the Union soldiers from Alabama watched as more danger in the form of Harrison's men struggled slowly toward them through the swamp. When the Confederates at last were free of the bog and began riding their way, the Federals were ready. They began their own fusillade, driving Harrison's men back into the swamp. Soldiers and horses floundered as bullets ripped the air and popped against the water like rain. Trapped, the Confederates couldn't effectively respond. Some kept shooting, but their onslaught was all but finished. Expected to play a major role in the assault, instead they were temporarily blocked from the action.
Humes, waiting behind the swamp to lead the rest of his soldiers forward, saw this was impossible and ordered everyone to pull back. They would have to find another way to break through to the Union camp. Had Humes' cavalry remained and backed up Harrison's force, the Union troops from Alabama might have held their position, theorizes military manual author Ken Belew. As it was, the Alabama soldiers quit their campsite and hurried down the same hill where many of their fellow soldiers had retreated. There they joined other Union troops who were forming to counterattack.