Chapter 7 (continued)
Atkins rode through his ranks so he could again be near the lead, searching as he went for a road leading south. Atkins knew Confederates were to his north because his soldiers had already battled with them, and he knew more Confederates were to his east because he had just seen them clustered by the road. He also may have surmised that Confederate cavalry was pouring in behind him to the west. Atkins was running out of time. He and his horse soldiers had to head south quickly.
Sometime during the night the rain diminished to a drizzle and visibility improved slightly, especially in open spaces along major roads. Because there were few residents in the area, there was little light from dwellings, but some light may have come from burning turpentine or pine rosin. Union infantrymen, some of whom were now within about five miles of the Union cavalry, often set such fires by torching containers collecting pine sap from trees. Flames from the burning sap sometimes shot high in the sky, making the trees look like giant torches and causing Union infantry traveling through North Carolina to complain about being covered with soot.
Atkins soon discovered a trail heading south snaking through thick woods where visibility was especially poor. The Union forces had stumbled on a path probably carved out of the woods for reaching a turpentine pit or rosin pile. The 2nd Division slowed to a walk because the trail became so narrow that soldiers had to ride in a single file. Atkins had to squeeze his horse by rider after rider as he moved forward to lead the column. The trail played out in less than a mile. The Union forces forged ahead through the woods, heading east in the direction they hoped would lead to Kilpatrick. The vegetation thickened and became more tangled. Soon some men plunged into a swamp.
"After marching about three miles we turned to our left, striking a swamp which, on account of the recent heavy rains, we found almost impassable for a man on horseback," a soldier with the 9th Ohio Cavalry recalled. "Our artillery stuck, the horses floundering in the mud and water until it was with great difficulty they could be saved from drowning."
Water rose to the hubs of wagon and cannon wheels. Some wagons were so pinned in by other vehicles and trees that there was no way to turn them around. Extracting themselves from their predicament took the soldiers of the 2nd Brigade until past dawn. Now both Kilpatrick's 1st and 2nd Brigades were out of range to help him, at least till midmorning, and couriers dispatched to warn him couldn't get through. When the fight came, Kilpatrick would have to depend on what he already had at Monroe's Crossroads - two cannons, the 3rd and 4th Brigades, and a company of scouts well south of the Union camp.
During the early hours of March 10 (Map 10), while most Union soldiers at Monroe's Crossroads slept, many of the Confederates were busy. Curious about his scouts' easy access to the Union camp, Butler decided to make his own reconnaissance (Map 11). He rode with some of the scouts into the thick underbrush near Nicholson Creek to the west of the Union camp. At the edge of a low-lying area, he parted leaves and looked up a gradual incline toward the Monroe farmhouse. The trees thinned into an opening where he could see the dwelling, probably lit by a few lanterns in the windows. Near the house, the light colors of tents stood out like beacons against a canopy of black. Small campfires flickered here and there along the ridge. Butler saw no guards, which "enabled us to ride almost up to his [Kilpatrick's] campfires without being discovered."
Butler rode back toward Morganton Road to report his findings to Hampton and Wheeler. Hampton began to plan the assault. Sometime after the meeting, Wheeler met his chief of scouts, Captain Alexander May (A.M.) Shannon. Wheeler told him what he knew about the layout of the Union camp and asked Shannon to learn more. Wheeler was particularly interested in any details about where Kilpatrick was spending the night.
Shannon, a Texan, was a daredevil. His scouts sometimes dressed as Union soldiers and frequently infiltrated close to Union camps and guards. They were also known for terrorizing Federal foraging parties and stragglers. Skillful as they were, their bravado sometimes led them to take foolish chances, and many were captured.
To meet Wheeler's request for more information, Shannon and his scouts investigated by riding along a ridge west of the Union camp. This ridge ran parallel to the other ridge where Union troops were, allowing the Confederates to see over thick underbrush along Nicholson Creek into the camp. The creek bank was heavily matted with turkey oaks and huckleberry and blueberry bushes. The ridge where Shannon rode had little understory because the tall long leaf pines shut off sunlight to the ground, choking off growth. Ground between the large tree trunks was quite open. Pine needles muffled the sounds of their horses.
The scouts rode several hundred yards along the ridge before spotting movement ahead. Shannon gave hand signals to his soldiers. Silently, they converged on a handful of Union troops. The Union soldiers didn't see the Confederates until it was too late. Surrounded, they surrendered. They were the first and only guards the Confederates discovered around the camp.
While some of the scouts returned to Wheeler with the prisoners, Shannon concocted one of his risky moves. He wanted to know more about the Union camp, particularly the location of any prisoners, including his close friend, Lieutenant Clay Reynolds, who was captured March 8. Reynolds was the Confederate prisoner forced to walk behind the buggy occupied by Kilpatrick and the two women.
Shannon decided to send volunteers into the Union camp on foot, cautioning them that even one misstep would endanger the entire Confederate plan. The volunteers, leaving their horses with fellow scouts, crept forward from different directions and disappeared. Scout A.F. Hardie waited in the woods.
"While sitting on our horses and keeping a strict watch for any movement, we heard someone coming from the direction of our command on horseback," he remembered. "We sat alert, with pistols cocked, waiting for him to ride up, as we were too close to the enemy to challenge him. When he rode up, we discovered that it was General Wheeler; and as he knew each member of the scouts by name, I said: 'This is Hardie, General.' He asked: 'Where are the enemy?' Pointing to them, I said: 'There they are, General.'"
Wheeler looked where Hardie pointed, then, incredulous, said, "What, that near and all asleep? Won't we have a picnic at daylight?" He asked to be directed to Shannon, who was waiting elsewhere on the ridge, and rode toward him. As Wheeler and Shannon conferred, Confederate scouts Joe Rogers and B. Peebles emerged from the woods, each leading several horses. They had walked around unnoticed inside the Union camp and stolen the animals.
Furthermore, they had learned that prisoners were located near the farmhouse where they thought Kilpatrick was quartered. Wheeler complimented them on getting the new mounts, then ordered Shannon to station men on the camp perimeter. They would appear to be the Union's own pickets. That way, if some Union officer glanced about, he would think proper guards were in place.
Later, Wheeler may have also ordered other soldiers to enter the Union camp on foot, according to Natt Holman of the 8th Texas Cavalry, known as the Terry Texas Rangers. "General Wheeler called for four men from my regiment to go on foot, as horseback was considered too risky, to spy out the situation of the enemy, telling the volunteers to meet at a designated place.... After several hours, the men returned, riding bareback, and each led a horse that he confiscated for his trouble. The Terry Texas boys had much aversion to walking."
As daylight approached, more and more of Wheeler's cavalry arrived after a long night of hard riding on bad roads, but it became obvious that not everyone would be in place in time for the battle. Wheeler and his officers moved the soldiers they had into position according to Hampton's plan.
The Confederates would form a modified semicircle around the west and north of the Union camp. Wheeler's two divisions would occupy the center of the semicircle, as well as the southernmost point. To the north would be Butler's Division. These were the soldiers who would probably reach the farmhouse first. Sometime in the predawn hours, Kilpatrick and his female companion moved back into the house.
Near daybreak, Wheeler ordered Brigadier General William Y.C. Humes to lead his division nearer the Union camp (Map 12). Humes' soldiers would charge from the southernmost part of the Confederate lines. Born in Abingdon, Virginia, Humes, 35, graduated second in his class of 1851 from the Virginia Military Institute and practiced law in Tennessee before the war.
Humes directed his soldiers to take their places behind the long ridge that blocked their view of the Union camp. According to Hampton's plan, Humes' Division was to form for attack on dry ground between U-shaped wetlands created by the confluence of two small streams, Nicholson Creek and a tributary.
In the darkness, Humes' soldiers bogged down in the swamp, pulled back, and swung away about 20 yards. This small directional error proved costly because they moved outside the U-shaped lowlands. When the battle began, instead of crossing a relatively small area of swamp, they confronted some 200 yards of deep, virtually impenetrable muck. Brigadier General Thomas Harrison's Texas Brigade would lead the division's charge into the swamp.
Major General William Wirt Allen's Division would charge from the center of Confederate forces. Allen, 30, owned an Alabama plantation and graduated from Princeton University. He had convalesced from serious battle wounds most of 1863 before returning to action. Allen had Wheeler's utmost confidence.
Brigadier General James Hagan's Alabama Brigade would spearhead the charge of Allen's Division. Allen chose 20 Alabamians for a special detail. Once fighting started, they were to ride to a large tent in the Union camp where Allen thought they would find Kilpatrick.
The third Confederate division, Butler's, was to be led by Young's Brigade, led by Colonel Gilbert J. Wright, with troops from Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Mississippi. A few soldiers from this brigade were also picked to help capture Kilpatrick. Butler instructed a Captain Bostick to race with this detail toward the house where he thought Kilpatrick was. They were to surround the house and wait for reinforcements.
Wheeler also sought the honor of capturing Kilpatrick, ordering Shannon, his chief of scouts, to ride to the house when the battle began. These three separate schemes to capture the Union commander demonstrated that none were sanctioned or coordinated by Hampton, theorizes Ken Belew. Pouring so much energy into chasing one man diverted precious resources from the far more pressing concern of winning the battle.
By 5:30 a.m., Butler's Division maneuvered into position in woods north of the Union camp. Butler had about 1,200 soldiers, with some held in reserve, ready to spring into action when called. Wheeler's two divisions usually consisted of slightly more than 4,000 soldiers, but some units were slow arriving because of the bad weather and poor roads. One source contends Wheeler had 1,189 troops when the battle began, but his total strength may have been greater. He, like Butler, kept some soldiers in reserve to be summoned when needed.
At the start of the battle, each side had at least some 2,000 soldiers, but the Confederates may have had more. Also, Confederate troops kept arriving during the battle. Monroe's Crossroads presented an uncommon chance for the Confederates, who had become accustomed to fighting forces more numerous than their own.
There was one final conference before the charge. Wheeler met with Hampton to review last-minute details. He suggested that the best results would come from soldiers dismounting before charging into the Union forces, but Hampton disagreed. With great dignity, according to a private who viewed the exchange, Hampton replied, "General Wheeler, as cavalrymen, I prefer making this capture on horseback." Wheeler didn't argue. Everything was set, except for one last graceful gesture. Hampton, demonstrating again the deference to Wheeler he had shown since being appointed his superior, asked the general to command all the Confederate forces and to lead the charge. Hampton would wait with Wheeler's reserve troops until called.
Wheeler accepted the honor and swung onto his white charger, raised his pistol, and rode with his escort to the front to take his place at the center of the bristling semicircle of troops. A bugler named Pelote, whose first name is unknown, rode beside Wheeler. Shannon's scouts, riding in front of Allen's Division, were next in order. The rain had stopped. A thick fog floated up from the swamp and drifted into the Union camp. Birds chattered. Horses flicked their tails. Soldiers' hearts thumped inside their chests.
Wheeler gave the command, "Forward!"
His white horse took its first steps. Officers echoed Wheeler's orders down the line. Some distance away, Butler watched Wheeler's troops, waiting for movement. When he saw them stir, he waved for his own men to advance.
Wheeler commanded, "The Walk!"
Now, most of the cavalry, a sea of uniforms and horses, was moving. On Wheeler's right, many of the cavalrymen hadn't yet seen the Union camp because they had formed in the dark behind the long ridge. Even when they reached the ridge summit, they couldn't see much because of the fog, but they could make out the Monroe House above the fog about 500 yards away.
Kilpatrick stepped onto the porch, perhaps not yet fully awake. He must have intended to be outside only briefly because he wore only a shirt and long underwear. Perhaps he was checking to ensure his prized horses were well cared for and fed. He leaned across the porch railing. All around him, hundreds of soldiers slept. Here and there, a few stirred. Some yawned as they rolled up their blankets. Others folded their makeshift shelters. A few early risers had coffee brewing and breakfast cooking over open fires.
Wheeler shouted, "The Trot!"
Horses quickened their pace. Soldiers gritted their teeth, clenched their sabers, checked their revolvers. Some must have murmured prayers and wished their friends good luck. On Wheeler's right, the cavalry rode down the ridge slope into the fog. On his left, Butler's soldiers were now almost in the open.
Wheeler yelled, "The Gallop!"
The entire force leaped forward almost as one. Wheeler, Butler, and hundreds of others streaked toward the camp (Map 13). Wheeler lowered his pistol, pointing it straight ahead. The bugler lifted the horn to his lips to play the notes signaling a charge. Loud, chilling war cries knifed through the air.