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Wheeler’s Raid.—1863

NEARLY all through September, dryness had prevailed and produced a veritable plague of deep dust, most trying to troops and supply trains. At last, on October 1, relief came in a good rainfall. At first it expedited transportation, but as rains gradually became frequent and heavier, the blessing was turned into another affliction. By the time of my trip from Bridgeport the roads were miry, and from day to day the reports regarding their condition grew worse. They soon spoke graphically of the animals sinking in the mud up to their bellies in the bottoms of the Sequatchie and along the Tennessee. The rains proved very trying in another respect. They filled the enclosed works and the ditches around them and the connecting trenches more or less deep with standing water, which it was found very difficult to drain off. The work on the fortifications was naturally very much obstructed. The steady rain made it almost impossible for the troops to keep dry, although they were provided with tents or had secured shelter in huts and dug-outs. There was a consecutive downpour for thirty-six hours during the first week of my stay. The pontoon bridge was broken on the night of October 15 by the force of the current, but fortunately the boats and timbers were saved and the bridge restored after a few days. The rebels, taking advantage of the elements, sent a number of rafts down stream to destroy it, but these happily passed while it was broken, and proper precautions subsequently taken neutralized all efforts in this direction.

I need not say that I too was made very uncomfortable and hampered in my work by the inclemency of the weather. Owing to the increasing trouble in feeding horses, I had concluded to try to get on without one, but, under the circumstances, locomotion became steadily more and more restricted, as every sally meant getting wet through. Weather prognostications formed the main subject of talk at the various headquarters. The flood from above quickly swelled the rivers also, and their rise assumed such proportions as to involve dangerous consequences and render the condition of the army still more precarious. By the middle of the month, the Sequatchie was so high that it could no longer be forded at Jasper, and our supply trains were compelled to come and go by a circuitous route, lengthening the time of the round trip and entailing still greater destruction of wagons and animals. The high water in the Tennessee also did great mischief right under our eyes. Of the two bridges by which Chattanooga was connected with the north bank, the trestle had to be given up.

The protracted wet spell acted as a damper on the rebels as well as on our side. The hostile guns had not apparently increased in number, and they were fired so desultorily at long intervals that the enemy seemed to be under the restraint of a scarcity of ammunition. The damage they did to life and property was so insignificant, too, that we grew entirely indifferent to them. Those were indeed dull and gloomy days, not even enlivened by the regular arrival of the mails. While the bridge was broken, not a letter or newspaper reached the camps. Even the telegraphic connection was very irregular, and several times our only communication with the North was by couriers. Some slight ripples of excitement were produced, however, by the Ohio elections.

It must seem passing strange to foreign military men, and even our present generation will find it difficult to understand, that the discord and disintegration of party politics were deliberately introduced in the armies in the field. But party exigencies, in consequence of the really threatening character of the internal political situation in 1863 in the loyal States generally, and especially in Ohio, where the bitter contest between Brough and Vallandigham for Governor was waged, made the Republican leaders feel justified in bringing about the passage of the State laws permitting their respective contingents in the national armies to cast their ballots for State tickets wherever they might be. No agitation by meetings and speeches among the troops in behalf of the candidates of either party was allowed before the election, yet so many politicians were serving in the rank and file that considerable quiet canvassing went on nevertheless. The voting took place on October 13, with very satisfactory results to the loyal cause. Out of nearly 10,000 votes, less than three per cent, were cast for Vallandigham. General Garfield, having actually won his seat in Congress, left for good on the 15th, under orders to proceed to Washington and to deliver in person to the War Department General Rosecrans's report of the Chickamauga battles, and to make such verbal explanations regarding the campaign as might be called for. I could but lament his departure, for our relations had become so friendly and even intimate that he was always ready not only to give me all the army news, but to talk our situation over with me in the frankest manner. I was but too conscious that I should probably not again be able to form such a genial and professionally profitable connection in that army.

While the danger of being shelled out of Chattanooga was no longer looked upon as great, the problem of preventing our being driven from the place by starvation became more and more difficult of solution. The troops had been put on reduced rations before my arrival, but, notwithstanding this, the increasing difficulties of transportation had so limited the additions to the supplies on hand that, by the middle of October, there were not more than half-rations for a week left for officers and men. All, from the General-in-chief down to the privates, had nothing better than the reduced regular ration without fresh meat. No sutlers' stores could be drawn on to eke out the allowances by extra eatables and drinkables. Money had lost its purchasing power. I wrote that it seemed to be impossible for us to remain in Chattanooga. Dana had the same opinion and wired it to Washington. On the 15th he telegraphed that the scarcity of food would soon make it necessary for all persons other than soldiers to leave, and that he desired instructions whether he should return to Washington or make his way to Burnside in Eastern Tennessee. The distress was still greater for beast than for man, as forage grew more scant than provisions. Yet more work had to be exacted from the poorly fed animals in hauling trains, in consequence of the steady increase of mortality among them. Hundreds fell daily en route, and the roads were literally lined with dead horses and mules. The weakness of the stock was such that teams had to double up to get empty wagons over Walden's Ridge, and it took as many as ten days for a trip only one way. Between the foot of this ridge and the banks of the Sequatchie, hundreds of teams were reported to be stopped owing to the exhaustion of animals. Artillery horses fell daily by scores. Around us in Chattanooga, the sight of famished and famishing beasts became a common one. Numbers of them could be seen tied to trees and left by their owners to starve. Many officers incurred losses in this way and had to attend to their duties on foot. Nor did there seem to be any prospect of an early alleviation of this discomfort and suffering.

The chief cause of our sorry plight was the abandonment, upon the retreat of our army into the town, of the northern slope of Lookout Mountain, which commanded the direct approaches to the town from the west, including the wagon road around the face of the mountain. This important position had been held by a brigade, but General Rosecrans ordered its withdrawal, against the protest of his chief of staff and General Granger, as I was repeatedly told by the former. They argued with him that from 1500 to 2000 men would suffice to hold the ground against any force of the enemy, and distinctly warned him of the certain consequences of the other course; but he would not be convinced, and the hazardous step was taken. Military critics have justly said that this was as great a mistake on his part as the fatal order to General Wood in the second day's battle of Chickamauga. It not only absolutely prevented our utilization of the shorter and better land route from Shellmound on the south bank by way of Whiteside and Wauhatchie, but also the use on the river of the steamboats which had fallen into our hands below and at Chattanooga, and which, in the then favorable stage of water, would have alone sufficed to supply all the wants of the army. Moreover, it enabled the enemy to station sharpshooters on the south bank within easy range of the road on the opposite side over which our transportation had to pass for a distance. From the second week in October on, their fire proved a dangerous hindrance in the daytime to the movement of men and animals.

But the Confederates did not confine themselves to obstructing our transportation from the secondary base at Bridgeport; directly after Chickamauga they resumed their old game of breaking up our railroad connection with Nashville, so as to prevent the movement of supplies from the North to the Tennessee. Their efforts were at first alarmingly successful. The chief raider, General Wheeler, started from the rebel right on September 29, and on the following day succeeded in crossing the Tennessee near Washington, some forty miles northeast of Chattanooga, with his own two divisions and three brigades from Forrest's command, amounting in all only to between 4000 and 5000 officers and men. A cavalry division of our own, under General Crook, not over 2000 strong, had been charged with the duty of watching the fords above Chattanooga, but his force was scattered over a distance of fifty miles, and hence was unable to prevent the passage of the enemy. Wheeler reached the Sequatchie Valley over Walden's Ridge on October 2. He divided his force, sending the greater portion under General Wharton over the Cumberland plateau, and proceeding himself down the Sequatchie towards Jasper. Unfortunately for us, the whole train of the 14th Corps, loaded with commissary, quartermaster, and ordinary stores, sutlers' and medical supplies, numbering some 400 vehicles, including a number of ambulances, was then strung out between the stream and Walden's Ridge, and fell an easy and most rich prey to the raiders. They loaded themselves up with all they could carry; stripped the teamsters and other persons accompanying the train (including a party of men and women from the United States Sanitary Commission) of their clothing and all their valuables; selected the best of the animals to remount themselves and to be driven along; shot the rest of the horses and mules, or cut their throats with their sabres, and finally set fire to the wagons and ambulances.

Wheeler then started with his booty to rejoin Wharton, but he was not to get away without some punishment. When General Rosecrans learned from General Crook, on October 1, of Wheeler's movement, he wired orders at once to my friend Colonel Edward McCook, who was watching with his cavalry division the crossings of the Tennessee above and below Bridgeport, to move up the Sequatchie at once in pursuit of the rebel cavalry. Although his three brigades were scattered and he had only three regiments and a section of artillery with him, he set out without delay from Bridgeport. At noon on the 2d, he struck the rebel rear guard near the scene of the destruction at Anderson's cross-roads and at once charged and drove it before him. He pressed closely after the enemy on the 2d and 3d, up to the summit of the Cumberland plateau. The rebels repeatedly tried to make a stand, but gave way each time under the attacks of our men. The result was a considerable rebel loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners, the release of a number of our men belonging to the train escort, and the recapture of about 1000 mules.

General Crook, after collecting his command, followed rapidly in the rebel track. He was too late to prevent the capture of McMinnville (garrisoned by only one small regiment) and the appropriation and destruction of large stores of every kind; but he caught up with Wharton's rear and had a severe brush with it between McMinnville and Murfreesboro', and compelled the rebels to abandon their intended attack on the latter town. But they succeeded in destroying the railroad bridges and track southward to the Duck River. Near Murfreesboro' General R. B. Mitchell came to Crook's aid with McCook's division, which had made forced marches from the Sequatchie, and, as chief of cavalry, assumed command of all the mounted pursuers.

General Hooker had sent his chief of staff with an infantry force northward by rail from Bridgeport, to assist in the capture of the raiders. General Mitchell brought Wheeler to a stand near the village of Farmington, between Shelbyville and Columbia, a short distance south of the Duck River, and put him completely to flight after severe fighting. After this, it became a steady stern chase of the rebels to the Tennessee River, which they managed to ford between Huntsville and Florence, with about half of the force they had started with, but “loaded down to the guards,” as General Stanley expressed it, “with their plunder of dry goods, watches, jewelry, and greenbacks, and hundreds of them dressed in our uniforms.”

Another rebel cavalry force, under the notorious General Roddey, was to have started simultaneously with Wheeler from Northern Alabama to join him on the Duck River, but for some reason it crossed the Tennessee at Guntersville, Alabama, a whole week later than appointed — that is, on October 7 and 8 — and so failed to prevent, as expected, the concentration of the Union troops against Wheeler. Roddey reached Salem, Tennessee, on the 10th, but, learning there of Wheeler's defeat at Farmington, turned right around and retraced his steps as fast as possible to the Tennessee, and managed to reach Athens, Alabama, without having had more than a slight skirmish with the Federals.

Wheeler's raid was remarkable for the distance traversed, the hardships endured, and the work accomplished by his command. He was only eleven days under way, moved at the rate of from 40 to 50 miles a day, and certainly wrought as much damage as could be inflicted, on such a flying expedition. On our side, General Crook and his division showed equal tirelessness in the pursuit, for which they received well-deserved praise in a general order from General Rosecrans. There was naturally the greatest solicitude at the general headquarters regarding the extent of Wheeler's depredations and the duration of the interruption of our communications he would compass. The destruction of the wagon train had a most embarrassing immediate effect. Railroad connection was happily restored in four days — another of the many demonstrations during the Civil War that raids never succeeded in crippling railroads for any length of time.