The Battle of Dallas: “The Massacre of Noble Men”

Maj. Gen. William Bate

Maj. Gen. William Bate

The situation in “The Hell Hole” was misery. To lift your head above the trench top was inviting certain death, and the stench and humidity were becoming overwhelming in the late-May heat. Twice Sherman attempted assaults, and twice they were repulsed with heavy losses. On May 28, Johnston expected another move, perhaps for Sherman to flank his position again. So far, Sherman had hit his center and right flank, so Johnston now looked to the left. He sent orders to Hardee to order Maj. Gen. William Bate’s Division forward to “develop the enemy” and determine if McPherson was still in his front. Bate would be aided in his move my Gen. William “Red” Jackson’s division of Cavalry.

Bate determined to have Jackson advance against the area where the flank of the Union line should be. If they encountered entrenched soldiers, then they were to disengage and withdraw; however, if they found little, they were to turn northward and roll up the line to determine the extent of the Union withdrawal. On the signal of two volleys of cannon fire, the Infantry would advance due west to aid the cavalry.

View of the Federal position at Dallas from the perspective of the Orphan Brigade

View of the Federal position at Dallas from the perspective of the Orphan Brigade

Many men in the ranks already knew what they would find on the ridge to the front on the east side of Dallas. Roderick Shaw had been killed on the picket line, and other random shots took lives throughout the morning. Indeed, Pvt. Johnny Jackman of the famed “Orphan Brigade” noted, “The boys generally know what is in front and could have told Gen. Bate better.” However, at around 4 p.m., Jackson’s troopers dismounted and moved forward.

Johnston’s hunch had been right—Sherman was intending to move, but a move to slide his army back to the east to get closer to the railroad. He had sent orders to McPherson earlier in the day to move to the north and east, although for most of the day McPherson had been unable to do so. Now as the Confederates prepared to advance, he began his preliminary moves.

Jackson initially faced little fire, overrunning the Union skirmish line and getting close to the main line before firing intensified. The attack forced back part of the line, and the cavalrymen stormed over the Union trenches and captured an artillery battery—but the moment was short lived as a Union counterattack struck.

The din of the battle and the artillery fire was misinterpreted by some of the officers of Bate’s Division, and part of the command started forward—Finley’s Florida Brigade and the Orphans. Bate tried to stop them, but it was too late.

“After moving about one hundred and fifty yards the command was halted, dressed, and ‘forward guide right’ was echoed along the line,” one Floridian later wrote to the Memphis Appeal:

The brigade moved steadily forward and very soon overtook our own skirmishers. Soon the first regular volley from the Yanks was received, killing Adjt. Kilpatrick of the 1st and 4th Florida, and wounding quite a number of them. Nothing daunted, however, this little brigade . . . closing its ranks, hurried on, and the left composed of the 1st and 4th soon found itself in the midst of the Yankee skirmishers It was along this portion of the line that almost a hand to hand conflict ensued, several individual instances having occurred, only one of which will however be given, that of Private Beal, Company G, 1st Florida Cavalry, who ran his bayonet through one of the Yanks. I am sorry to say that he was afterwards shot dead near the enemy’s breastworks. The brigade moved on, and did not again waver or halt until within thirty paces of the Yankee works, when, owing to the superior forces of the enemy, within their intrenchments, they were, together with the division engaged, forced to retire, which was conducted in an orderly a manner as the nature of the ground would admit. The loss of the brigade in this charge was one fourth of the entire number engaged, in the short space on an hour.

Captain John McKinnon of the 1st Florida Infantry further testified to the intensity of the fight near the Union works:

Our flag bearer, Sgt. Bazemore, fell at my right with flag and face toward the enemy. A commissioned officer jumped out of the pit with sword drawn, pointed to the flag, saying to his men, ‘Take it! Take it!’ I directed John Love McLean to direct the firing line on this officer, and he did and was wounded in return in the thigh . . . Others fired at him, but he seemed to be invulnerable. In the meantime, Sgt. Bridgman snatched up the flag and lifted it high in its place. Bridgman was shot down and the flag fell again. The smoke rose from the firing of the two armies became so dense it almost enveloped the place in darkness, which was to our advantage. Lt. Stebbins grabbed the flag where Bridgman fell. The order was given to fallback to our breastworks. Stebbins, though badly wounded, tore the flag from its staff, crammed it in his bosom, and brought it off . . . near our works of safety, Capt. Columbus Cobb . . . turned to me and said, ‘Did you ever hear of such a fool order for the massacre of noble men?’ These words had scarcely escaped his lips when a minnie ball struck him in the left side, and he fell over on his face a dead man without a struggle. I ran to him, tried to life him, but soon found he was gone. Almost safe behind our impregnable breastworks, but lost!

Trenches of the Orphan Brigade

Trenches of the Orphan Brigade

On the right of the Floridians, The Kentuckians faced the same rough fight. “On the 28th, we made a disastrous charge against the enemy’s works,” Fred Joyce of the 4th Kentucky recalled:

As soon as we came within sight of them we knew we had met them in vain. For there behind their entrenchments the ‘boys in blue,’ amazed at our audacity, were evidently waiting for another line or real force to come on in our wake, the and storm their works. We had been drawn up in two ranks to make the charge, and the gaps between regiments showed plainly our weak condition. As soon as we reached the crest of a hill immediately in front of them, and not distant more that seventy five yards, we halted, and Sergeant Guill and myself took shelter behind a benevolent looking log. By this time their line was a sheet of flame and death was feasting in our midst. The sergeant went to work on them with his Enfield and being a champion shot and extra cool he hit a man every time. Presently his rammer got fast in his gun after he had driven the ball half way down. ‘Shove it against the log, John,’ said I. ‘All right,’ said he, and drawing back and giving a lunge, he drove the rammer through the log (which was rotten) as if it had been mush. Thankful for our miraculous escape so far, we rolled back down the hill and joined our retreating columns.

Another Kentuckian noted: “At every step Kentucky was paying a double toll with the lives of her noblest and best. To push forward meant certain and complete annihilation.”

The battle of Dallas was a debacle. The Florida Brigade lost 223 men killed and wounded, the Kentuckians reported 197, and Armstrong’s Cavalry lost 167. The fight at Dallas would be the last battle in the Hell Hole and made itself a fitting companion to Pickett’s Mill and New Hope Church.

Gravesites of members of the Orphan Brigade killed at Dallas

Gravesites of members of the Orphan Brigade killed at Dallas

This entry was posted in Battles, Campaigns, Western Theater and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply