A division from the Federal Army of the Ohio, led by Brigadier General Ormsby M. Mitchel, left its supply base at Nashville to invade Alabama and capture Huntsville, a town strategically located on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. Mitchel planned to use Huntsville as a new base from which to move eastward and capture the key railroad town of Chattanooga before continuing north to Knoxville.
The Federals approached on April 11 and took the Confederates by complete surprise. Mitchel took 200 prisoners, 18 locomotives, 106 railcars, and vast amounts of supplies. The town’s capture enabled Mitchel to seize the Western & Atlantic Railroad from Decatur in the west to Stevenson in the east.
Mitchel reported to Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Army of the Ohio, “We have at length succeeded in cutting the great artery of railroad intercommunication between the Southern States.” From Huntsville, the Federals moved southwest and captured Decatur on the Tennessee River.
A few days later, one of Mitchel’s brigades under Colonel John B. Turchin advanced 40 miles eastward from Decatur along the railroad line toward Chattanooga without resistance. Mitchel ordered Turchin’s men to return to Decatur upon receiving intelligence that Confederates were threatening Mitchel’s division from Corinth. Mitchel instructed Turchin to burn the railroad bridge over the Tennessee River.
Near month’s end, Mitchel led an expedition eastward past Stevenson and scattered a small Confederate force from Bridgeport, near the Tennessee border. Mitchel seized the railroad bridge over the Tennessee River and burned a smaller bridge past Bridgeport.
Mitchel’s expedition into northern Alabama did much to minimize that state’s role in the Confederate war effort, and Alabamans personally affected by the Federal presence began to turn against Governor John G. Shorter. However, the expedition was hampered by James J. Andrews’s failure to burn railroad bridges during his train robbery and the refusal of Major General Henry W. Halleck–Federal commander in the Western Theater–to send Mitchel reinforcements. Moreover, Mitchel’s Federals were isolated in enemy territory and therefore vulnerable to constant attacks by guerrillas and resentful civilians.
- Cochran, Michael T. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 10, Part 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.