March 10, 1865 – Lieutenant General Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry caught Federal horsemen by surprise in a fight separate from the main Federal thrust into North Carolina.
As Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies moved into North Carolina, Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division screened the advance. Federal infantry began crossing the Lumber River, while the cavalry rode ahead to harass Lieutenant General William Hardee’s Confederate rear guard. According to a Federal trooper named Smith Atkins:
“At times on the march we encountered terrible roads; from Rockingham to Solemn Grove it was swamp after swamp; artillery and ambulances were dragged through the mud and water armpit-deep, and frequently bridges, hundreds of feet in length, were constructed by using pine trees or stringers and rails for flooring.”
Kilpatrick’s lead brigade under Colonel George E. Spencer reached Solemn Grove ahead of the remaining troopers, where Spencer learned that Hardee “had passed that point the day before with his corps of infantry, and was marching as speedily as possible to Fayetteville.” Kilpatrick then discovered that Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry was heading to Fayetteville as well. Kilpatrick reported:
“By scouts I learned that Hampton was marching upon two roads, the Morgantown road and a road three miles farther to the north and parallel to it just south and east of Solemn Grove. I posted upon each a brigade of cavalry, and learning that there was a road still farther north upon which some of the enemy’s troops might move I made a rapid night’s march with Colonel Spencer’s little brigade of three regiments and 400 dismounted men and one section of artillery, and took post at the point where the road last mentioned intersects with the Morgantown road.”
Hoping to isolate and destroy Hampton’s force, Kilpatrick rode with Spencer’s men to Monroe’s Cross Roads, an intersection surrounded by forest and swampland, and awaited Hampton’s arrival. Kilpatrick narrowly missed being captured by a detachment of Hampton’s force under Major General Matthew C. Butler. The Federals bivouacked without posting pickets, and Kilpatrick took up quarters in an empty house with Mary Boozer, “an exceedingly pretty young girl” of questionable repute.
Meanwhile, Butler’s Confederates seized some troopers from the 5th Kentucky, who told their captors that Spencer’s brigade was waiting ahead. Butler reported this news to Hampton, who discovered that the brigade was not adequately guarded. Hampton quickly resolved to counter the Federal ambush by isolating and destroying Spencer. Confederate cavalry under Major General Joseph Wheeler would join in as well.
The Confederates attacked at dawn on the 10th and caught the Federals by complete surprise. Many were still sleeping when the enemy was upon them, with the commander of the 5th Kentucky reporting: “We were awakened from our slumbers by the deadly missiles and fiendish shouts of the rebel cavalry.” Some Federals were trampled, some surrendered, some were shot, and others fled into the woods.
Kilpatrick heard the commotion and came out of the house wearing only his nightshirt and boots. When a Confederate rode up to him and demanded to know where Kilpatrick went, the general quickly replied, “There he goes on that black horse!” As the trooper rode off, Kilpatrick bolted into the swamp. Mary Boozer also fled to safety.
The attack soon stalled as Confederates dismounted to loot the Federal camp, while Joe Wheeler’s troopers were bogged down in the swamps and unable to join the fight. This gave Kilpatrick time to call up his two remaining brigades to rescue what was left of Spencer’s command. The Federals from these brigades came up and opened on the Confederates with horse artillery and repeating rifles.
Butler reported that “Kilpatrick’s 1,500 dismounted men had recovered from the shock of our first attack and gathered themselves behind pine trees, and with his rapid firing Spencer carbines attacked us savagely…” Hampton ordered a withdrawal, and the fight ended.
Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee received reports of the engagement and notified Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge:
“General Hampton attacked General Kilpatrick at day light this morning, and drove him from the camp, taking his guns, wagons, many horses, several hundred prisoners, and relieving a great number of our men who had been captured. The guns and wagons could not be brought off for want of horses. Many of the enemy were killed and wounded. Our loss is not heavy.”
When Federal infantry arrived to reinforce the troopers, they jokingly called the fight “Kilpatrick’s shirt-tail skedaddle.” Others called it “the Battle of Kilpatrick’s Pants.” According to Kilpatrick himself: “This battle speaks for itself and needs no comment from me.”
Kilpatrick reported that his losses were 190 (19 killed, 68 wounded, and 103 captured), though the Confederates claimed to have inflicted at least 500 casualties. Kilpatrick also stated, “The enemy left in our camp upward of 80 killed, including many officers, and a large number of men wounded. We captured 30 prisoners and 150 horses with their equipments.” He did not mention that the Confederates had captured his uniform, sword, and pistols.
The Federals thwarted Hampton’s effort to destroy Kilpatrick’s isolated brigade. But they failed to secure the road to Fayetteville, thereby enabling Hardee’s Confederates to escape to that town. They also failed to destroy Hampton, thereby enabling him to link with Hardee.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22111; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 544-45; EmergingCivilWar.com, “Kilpatrick’s Shirttail Skedaddle, The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads,” Parts I, II and III; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 563-64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 649-50; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 506; SonofTheSouth.net, Harper’s Weekly article excerpt from 25 Mar 1865