As October began, General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee was laying siege to Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland trapped in Chattanooga. To help starve the enemy into submission, Bragg directed Major-General Joseph Wheeler to lead 4,000 cavalrymen in attacking Federal supply trains north of the Tennessee River. Wheeler had two divisions under Brigadier-Generals William Martin and John Wharton.
Wheeler also had three of Brigadier-General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s brigades under Brigadier-General Henry Davidson, even though Forrest had argued that they were not ready for such an expedition. Wheeler confirmed this by later reporting that the men were “mere skeletons” who were “badly armed, had but a small supply of ammunition, and their horses were in horrible condition, having been marched continuously for three days and nights without removing saddles. The men were worn out, and without rations.”
Nevertheless, the Confederate force moved out and crossed the Tennessee near Muscle Shoals, upstream from Chattanooga. Brigadier-General George Crook’s 2,000 Federal cavalry, stationed nearby at Washington, Tennessee, rode up and fired on the approaching enemy. Wheeler left his casualties in the river and stormed through the Federal horsemen. He then rode up Walden’s Ridge at Smith’s Crossroads, driving off small Federal patrols, with Crook’s troopers in feeble pursuit.
The next morning, the Confederates descended the ridge and entered the Sequatchie Valley. Wheeler divided his force by sending Wharton toward McMinnville while he stayed with Martin to wreak havoc in the valley. Martin and Wheeler rode on to Anderson’s Crossroads, where they came upon an 800-wagon supply train that stretched nearly 10 miles. The Federal escort tried to put up a fight but eventually fled. The Confederates seized what they needed and destroyed the rest. The relentless way in which Wheeler’s men plundered the wagons embarrassed Bragg, but it severed a vital supply line for Rosecrans’s hungry army.
Rosecrans was alerted to Wheeler’s presence and began assembling forces to stop him. Residents of McMinnville warned the Federals stationed there that as many as 10,000 Confederates were coming down the Sequatchie Valley toward them. However, a scout told the local commander, Major Michael Patterson of the 4th Tennessee (U.S.), that “there was no enemy in force this side of the Tennessee River.” The commander believed his scout over the residents.
Wharton’s vanguard approached McMinnville on the morning of October 3. The Federals stopped the skirmishers, but soon the entire Confederate force arrived, which easily outnumbered the 400 Federal defenders. Patterson rejected a verbal demand to surrender, insisting that it be put in writing. When the written demand arrived at 1 p.m., he agreed to capitulate. According to Patterson:
“From 1 until 8 p.m. the men stood in line and were compelled to submit to the most brutal outrages on the part of the rebels ever known to any civilized war in America or elsewhere. The rebel troops or soldiers, and sometimes the officers, would call upon an officer or soldier standing in the line, when surrendered, for his overcoat, dress-coat, blouse, hat, shoes, boots, watch, pocket-book, money, and even to finger-rings, or, in fact, anything that happened to please their fancy, and with a pistol cocked in one band, in the attitude of shooting, demand the article they wanted. In this way the men of the 4th Tennessee Infantry were stripped of their blankets, oil-cloths, overcoats, a large number of dress-coats, blouses, boots and shoes, jewelry, hats, knapsacks, and haversacks…
“While all this was going on, Major-General Wheeler was sitting on his horse and around the streets of McMinnville, witnessing and, we think, encouraging the same infernal outrages, seeming to not want or desire to comply with his agreement…
“Several of the officers of the Fourth Tennessee Infantry called on General Wheeler for protection. He would pay no attention to them, saying that he had no control over his men, &c… Wheeler then ordered the command outside of his immediate lines, on the Sparta road, a section of country infested with guerrillas, where there was robbing and plundering the paroled prisoners all of the way, even compelling captains to sit down in the middle of the road and pull off their boots.”
The next day, the Confederates set out raiding the countryside northwest of McMinnville. Crook’s troopers continued their pursuit, charging the Confederate rear guard with sabers and pushing it back into the main force near Readyville. The Confederates disengaged and continued riding northwest toward Murfreesboro. On the 5th, they destroyed the important railroad bridge over the Stones River, which temporarily cut the Federal supply line from Nashville to Chattanooga. Wheeler reported:
“The following day we destroyed a train and a quantity of stores at Christiana and Fosterville, and destroyed all the railroad bridges and trestles between Murfreesborough and Wartrace, including all the large bridges at and near the latter place, capturing the guards, &c. We also captured and destroyed a large amount of stores of all kinds at Shelbyville, the enemy running from his strong fortifications upon our approach.”
Wheeler dispersed his three divisions along the Duck River, while Crook’s force was augmented by another cavalry division under Brigadier-General Robert B. Mitchell. The Federals surprised Davidson’s troopers, making up Wheeler’s isolated right flank, just south of Shelbyville. Davidson fell back toward Farmington as Wheeler hurried to bring his other two divisions up to reinforce him. The Confederates formed a strong line and awaited Crook’s approach. Crook reported:
“Finding the enemy vastly superior to me, I left one regiment of cavalry to protect my rear, holding the other two regiments as a support to the infantry, the country being impracticable for the cavalry to operate in. The enemy’s battery was posted in a cedar thicket some 400 yards distant from me, pouring into me a heavy fire of grape, canister, and shell, and made one or two charges on my men, at the same time attempting to turn both of my flanks.”
According to Wheeler:
“The enemy soon came up in strong force with a division of infantry and a division of cavalry. We fought them with great warmth for 20 minutes, then we charged the line and drove it back for some distance. General Wharton’s column and our train having now passed, and the object for which we fought being accomplished, we withdrew without being followed by the enemy.”
One of Crook’s brigades under Colonel Robert Minty did not receive orders to advance and thus stayed back near Shelbyville while the rest of the forces fought at Farmington. Crook wrote that had Minty been there, “I should have thrown him on the left flank, and as things turned out since, I would have captured a large portion of his (Wheeler’s) command, together with all his artillery and transportation.”
Instead, the Confederates raced southward, having accomplished their mission. They re-crossed the Tennessee at Muscle Shoals on the 9th. During this spectacular raid, Wheeler had inflicted over 2,000 enemy casualties, seized or destroyed 1,000 supply wagons and hundreds of draft animals, burned five bridges, tore up hundreds of miles of railroad track, and caused damage estimated to be worth over $1 million.
The Federal surprise attack on the 7th, as well as Wheeler’s loss of 3,000 men killed or wounded, blemished an otherwise flawless campaign. The Federal Army of the Cumberland, already on half-rations while under siege in Chattanooga, now had even fewer supplies to draw from due to Wheeler’s raid.
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