The Fourth Kentucky Infantry, Colonel John T. Croxton, veteranized at Chattanooga, in January, 1864, and went home on furlough. Upon reassembling, the regiment was mounted, and, after a little more than two months spent in recruiting, left Lexington, on the16th of May, over nine hundred strong, to join the army moving on Atlanta. The long ride, interrupted by a week's delay at Nashville for muster and pay and to gather in detachments, was without incident worthy of note until Chattanooga was passed.
On the night of June 23d, at the close of the first day's march from that place, the regiment camped at Rock Spring Church, about eight miles from Lafayette. The next morning, just after reveille had sounded, two men, reporting themselves as belonging to the Seventh Kentucky Cavalry, galloped up to the pickets on the Lafayette Road, followed shortly afterward by several others. They stated that Colonel Watkins, with a detachment of his brigade, stationed at Lafayette, had been attacked, just before day, by a heavy force, and, if not captured, as they thought most likely, was greatly in need of assistance. They said they had been on picket on the Chattanooga Road; the enemy had got between them and Lafayette, and they has started for Chattanooga to give the alarm and get aid. Upon hearing their report, Croxton, leaving one company to load and bring up the train, started with the rest on the gallop for Lafayette.
A few miles from town, Captain McNeely, of the Seventh Kentucky Cavalry, with a small body of men, was encountered. He, as well as citizens met along the road, confirmed the report of Watkin's capture. McNeely was well acquainted with the ground, and, at his suggestion, Croxton sent Hudnall's company off on the right of the road to advance toward the town and feel for the enemy's position in that direction. Captain McNeely volunteered to dash forward on the road and ascertain the situation of things in the town. Just at the outskirts, he encountered a line of dismounted men who opened on him, wounding several men and horses and forcing him to retire. Croxton, who had moved up after McNeely, keeping about a quarter of a mile in his rear, now turned from the road on the right, dismounted, and ordering Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly to deploy two companies and move forward with them along the road and engage the enemy, keeping two companies in reserve to hold the road, himself with four companies moved rapidly to the right to join Hudnall, reach the Dug Gap Road; and strike the enemy from that direction.
Hudnall, hearing the firing on McNeely, had moved down a valley half a mile from the road toward the town. His approach was covered by timber. As he emerged from this, he saw on his front, not two hundred yards away, the enemy's line. Immediately dismounting, he moved forward to the attack, opening a brisk fire. His firing had hardly begun when Croxton connected with his left. Croxton's command was armed with Spencer carbines and the Ballard breach-loading rifle, Jacob's company, which was next to Hudnall's, having Spencers, and their fire was so rapid and their attack so unexpected, that the enemy at once broke and fled in confusion, leaving eighteen or twenty wounded, including three commissioned officers, as prisoners.
An ambulance belonging to Watkins's command and his brigade flag, which the Confederates had found at his headquarters, were also recaptured by Croxton's men.
In the meantime, Kelly's detachment had moved forward into town without opposition, having been joined just before reaching it by Colonel Faulkner of the Seventh. Kelly's column was heartily welcomed by Watkin's men, who came pouring out of the court-house, jail, and other buildings they had been defending, on its approach.
Information of the situation was immediately sent Colonel Croxton, then on the Dug Gap Road, and he at once pushed two companies forward to the Summerville Road, south of town, where they were promptly joined by two of Kelly's companies and by all of Watkin's men who had horses left, and the fleeing enemy were pursued for five miles, when, owing to his rapid retreat, the blown condition of Croxton's horses and the fatigue of Watkin's men, who had been engaged since three o'clock, the further pursuit was considered unadvisable. A detachment sent out by Croxton on the Bluebird Gap Road learned that a body of the enemy escorting about forty prisoners had passed out in that direction about two hours before.
The town bore evidence of a severe struggle. A large number of killed and wounded rebels lay in the streets, and a considerable number of prisoners were corralled in the jail. Pillow's prompt retreat before Croxton's energetic attack was explained by the rough reception he had met with Watkins. He had got more fighting than he expected and all he wanted. Attacking Watkins as he did, without warning and before day, he had hoped to make a cheap and easy capture. Watkins was a Georgian by birth, not long graduated from West Point, and it did not suit him to be captured. The story of his fight must now be told.
The Third Brigade, First Division of cavalry, constituting of the Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Kentucky Cavalry Regiments, commanded by Colonel Watkins, of the Sixth, had been for some months camped at Wauhatchie, recruiting such horses as they had, and waiting for a remount for a large part of the command, and at the same time charged with the duty of scouting the country toward Lafayette and Trenton. Colonel Watkins had ordered Colonel Faulkner, of the Seventh, to send a detachment of a hundred men to Lafayette, and spend a few days in hunting guerillas who infested that portion of the country. As Wauhatchie was dull, Faulkner concluded that he would like to command the scouting party in person, and applied to Watkins for authority to do so. Upon Faulkner's giving his reasons, Watkins thought he would like to go himself, and getting the necessary orders without any difficulty from General Steedman, commanding the district, he selected four hundred of the best mounted men from the brigade, and taking his staff and band along, moved his headquarters to Lafayette, under orders to scout the country toward Rome and the Alabama line.
The detail from the Fourth was under Captain John M. Bacon, that from the Sixth under Major J. M. Fidler, while Colonel Faulkner commanded that from his own regiment. The move to Lafayette was made on the 19th of June. The town, at that time had been abandoned by most of its population, and empty houses afforded comfortable quarters for the troops, while their horses were picketed in the streets. Captain Bacon's detachment from the Fourth occupied frame houses on one side of the court-house, which, as in most southern towns, occupied the center of an open square; Major Fidler, with the detail from the Sixth, took a similar position with reference to the jail, while Colonel Faulkner, with his men, took possession of the seminary, about a quarter of a mile from the court-house, on the Chattanooga Road, and on his right going toward Chattanooga, except that about thirty of his men occupied some log cabins about two hundred yards in front of the seminary, and on the opposite side of the road.
Where the streets prolonging the Chattanooga Road entered the court-house square, on the corner next to the jail, was a tavern with a large barn, in which the headquarters and escort horses were stabled. Colonel Watkins took up his quarters in a house a few doors down from the tavern, in the direction of Faulkner's position.
Scouting parties were sent out daily, but without incident, except for an occasional chase after squads of guerillas. On the night of the 23d, Captain Coffman, of the Sixth, returned from a scout, in which he had gone as far as Summerville, without seeing or hearing of any enemy but the usual guerilla squads. The next morning, about three o'clock, an alarm was given by sharp picket firing west of the town. Almost simultaneously with the firing, a trooper rushed into the hotel, where Watkins and a number of his officers were, and reported the character of the enemy and their probable strength. His story was that he had been spending the night fishing at a point several miles south of the town, where the road crossed a stream over a bridge; that hearing the enemy approaching, and having no better place of concealment, he had ensconced himself under the bridge and listened to their conversation as they passed over him. He learned that the force was under the command of General Pillow, and had set out to destroy the trestle at Whitesides; but hearing on the way of Watkins's little command, had concluded to turn aside for a few minutes and take him in. The listener learned too, that the force consisted of some regular troops, but mostly of militia called out by Pillow for the expedition. He counted the horses as they passed over him, and put their number at two thousand five hundred. Remaining quiet till they had passed over him, he then ran by short cuts through the fields, arriving almost breathless, just in time to explain the meaning of the unexpected picket firing.
Pillow, coming on the town from the south, had moved around it on the west side, to gain the Chattanooga Road, and got inside the pickets on that part of the line, but was fired on by those on the Dug Gap Road. Passing them, he first assailed the detachment of Faulkner's men in the cabins on the west side of the Chattanooga Road, and swept over them before they could get into shape to offer any effective resistance. Faulkner himself, who had but a short time previously returned from the tavern, and, a little uneasy about the pickets on the road by which Coffman had come in, had laid down without taking off his clothes, aroused by the firing, got his men at the seminary up, saddled, and in line in time to meet the enemy just after they reached the road and moved on it toward the town. Day was just beginning to break, and there was a heavy fog, and forty or fifty yards was the extreme limit of vision. When the enemy had approached to within about thirty paces, his men opened fire, and emptied their guns and pistols into the approaching column with deadly effect. At this point, Majors Lewis and Redwood, of the Confederate forces, were killed, and Lieutenant-Colonel Armistead wounded.
His men having expended their loads, Faulkner ordered them to mount and fall back through the seminary grounds, and endeavor to gain the Chattanooga Road in the rear of the Confederates, which most of them succeeded in doing. As his orderly was approaching with his horse, the enemy charged, capturing both horse and orderly, and passed all around him, but he was unnoticed in the darkness and confusion, and, watching his opportunity, slipped out of the throng and made his way through the fields to the Dalton Road, on which he had a picket post. Securing a mount there, he rode back at the head of the picket squad toward the town, and, as he approached it, encountered in the fog a column of the enemy. He fired into them first, throwing them into a little confusion, and gaining time to wheel and ride off; but their return fire killed his horse, and he had just time to dismount and get to the shelter of the trees on the side of the road, when the enemy rushed by in pursuit. He then made his way back toward the Chattanooga Road, getting there in time to join the advance of Croxton's column.
In the meantime the firing of Faulkner had aroused the whole command, and they were promptly under arms. Watkins's escort had saddled at the first alarm, and so had the staff officer's servants, and Watkins, after ordering the detachment of Bacon and Fidler to hold themselves in readiness, started at a gallop down the Chattanooga Road, toward the firing. They had not gone far before they perceived, through the fog and glimmering dawn, a column of mounted men advancing up the road toward them. Their first impression was that it was Faulkner's command, and halting, throwing his men into line, Watkins hailed them, asking what troops they were. An answer came some distance in the rear that it was the Ninth Alabama Cavalry. Watkins immediately ordered his men to fire, and they delivered a volley at point blank range, which momentarily checked the advancing column, and Watkins fell back toward the Courthouse Square. Major Fidler, of the Sixth, had in the meantime captured a whole company, which had advanced on his position through a side street, and had corralled them in the jail. Captain Bacon drew up one company of the Fourth, which was armed with Colt's rifles, across the street leading to the square from the Chattanooga Road, and Watkins disposed his remaining men in the houses on both sides of the street, Fidler holding the jail, which was a strong building, and the houses adjacent.
It was by that time getting fairly day, but the fog had not been dispelled. The column of Confederates which Watkins had encountered moved steadily after him, but, when they got within fifty yards of the square, were met by a galling and continuous fire, against which they could not stand. They fell back, leaving the ground cumbered with their dead and wounded.
Taking advantage of their repulse, Watkins threw his men into the court-house and jail, and several brick buildings in their vicinity, and ordered them to barricade the doors and windows, and make loop holes for firing. The best horses, as many as possible, were taken into the same defenses. The day before, a considerable quantity of grain in sacks had been received from Chattanooga and stored in the court-house. This was used effectively in the windows, up stairs and down by putting two sacks at the bottom, and one on top, leaving good loop-holes in the middle and on both sides.
These hurried preparations were hardly completed, when the enemy resumed his attack, the court-house, front and rear, and attacking with great vigor and courage. Some of their dead fell within five feet of the court-house door. The reception they met with, however, was too warm for them, and they finally fell back in confusion. As they retreated, Major Fidler sallied from the jail, opened fire on their flank from the rear of the hotel barns, and captured some prisoners.
Advantage was taken of the lull in the attack to still further strengthen the position, and preparations were made for a long resistance. Firing was resumed in a desultory way by the enemy, who by that time completely surrounded the position. The ammunition of the Fourth Kentucky Cavalry had been stored in the buildings they occupied on the side of the square, and volunteers called for by Captain Bacon, to cross over and bring it to the court-house, had to run a dangerous gauntlet in their progress over and back.
It was now bright day, and from the upper stories the Confederate force could be seen in every direction, and Pillow, with his staff, was moving about in plain view. There was no artillery in sight, which was a great comfort. Watkins's loss, so far, outside of Faulkner's command, the fate of which was unknown, had been slight, while the enemy had suffered severely. About seven o'clock, a flag of truce was seen approaching on the Chattanooga Road. It was halted as soon as within hailing distance, and Captain O'Donnell, of Watkins's staff, was sent out to receive it. The messenger bore a written communication from General Pillow, demanding a surrender, saying that he had the force to take the place, and adding: If I cannot drive you from your position with shot and shell, I shall resort to the torch to effect that object. In his report, Colonel Watkins says: I respectfully declined to surrender; but his actual reply was much less formal and more emphatic. A hot skirmish fire was then begun, and the enemy could be seen forming for attack on all the roads.
The situation of Watkins's command had now become very serious. The day was growing warm, and there was no water supply accessible, and they were not provisioned for a siege. Chattanooga was a long way off, and if any of Faulkner's men had succeeded in getting there, it would be night at soonest before relief could be hoped for from that quarter. There was no thought of surrender, but one of the plans suggested as a last resort was that as many as could be well mounted should make a sally and cut their way through to the nearest gap in Missionary Ridge, or toward Dalton, as seemed most practicable. On the whole, however, their belief was that they could not be taken as long as their ammunition lasted, even if Pillow should carry out his threat of burning the town. Watkins had no notion of being taken as long as there was any possibility of holding out or fighting out, and his men were all veterans and ready to take whatever fortune came as part of their soldier experience.
While affairs were in this situation, and the renewal of the attack in a more formidable shape was momentarily expected, the firing on McNeely's scout was heard, followed soon after by firing to the west of the Chattanooga Road. A great commotion, of a character that indicated that a new factor had entered into the combination, was observed in the rebel lines, and it was soon apparent that they were beginning to retreat. The advance of Kelly's column appeared moving up the street, and was welcomed with hearty cheering; horses were hurried out of their shelter, all available men were mounted, and the pursuit of the enemy begun.
Watkins's loss was light, four men killed; Captain Cook, of the Sixth, and six men, wounded; Captain Stacy and Lieutenant Evans, of the Seventh, captured, with about forty men of that regiment, of whom all but about twenty escaped and returned to camp within the next day or two.
Pillow's loss was much more severe. Majors Redwood and Lewis and several captains and lieutenants were killed; Lieutenant-Colonel Armistead and sixteen other commissioned officers were captured, mostly wounded, and, with the other dead and wounded and unwounded prisoners, his total loss was over two hundred and fifty.
It will not have escaped the attention of the intelligent military reader, that when the alarm was given at three 0'clock in the morning, the headquarters establishment and a number of the regimental officers were still up and about, an unusual fact, to which the saving of the command was largely due. The explanation of this happy vigilance was simple. Some weeks before the move to Lafayette, an officer of the brigade staff was in Nashville, just after the post commander had made a raid on the gambling houses and confiscated all their implements and equipments, among the rest, great stacks of what are sometimes known as poker-chips, which are thin ivory discs of convenient circumference, and different colors, used as counters in the game of that name. Visiting post headquarters, this officer happened to see these spoils of the gamblers, and it occurred to him that they might be made to furnish amusement at the front on dull days when there was no fighting to do. Mentioning this idea of his, he was invited to help himself, which he did, and the equipment was brought along with the other baggage to Lafayette.
Several respectable old gentlemen of Lafayette, who had not enlisted or refugeed, were fond of games in which these chips could be used. They had no money, a matter in which they were not singular, but they had a stock of very fine smoking tobacco, put up in five-pound packages, which was as good as gold. In order to promote a convenient exchange of commodities, a little game of draw, at which some of the officers as well as these citizens happened to be proficient, was arranged, and there were meetings on several evenings, and the night before Pillow's appearance was pitched upon for a decisive contest. The game proved interesting and well matched, and the sitting was just about to be adjourned, when the alarm of Pillow's attack was given. It was owing to the game that so many officers were on the alert when the alarm was given, and that Pillow never made his attack on Whitesides Trestle.
And yet, as Captain Simon Suggs once remarked, when pulling in an unusually heavy jack-pot, there are sich folks as say that keards is a waste of time.
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Ohio Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Kelly, R.M. 1889. A Brush with Pillow, pp 319 - 332. IN Sketches of War History, 1861-1865. Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Ohio, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Published by the Ohio Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Robert Clarke and Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. Volume III.
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