Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Sean Michael Chick
One of the most dramatic and decisive cavalry clashes of the American Civil War occurred at Shelbyville on Sunday, June 27, 1863. John A. Wyeth of 4th Alabama Cavalry, writing in 1898, recalled the Battle of Shelbyville as the most dramatic of his long military career. It was the turning point in the contest between Union and Confederate horsemen in the west.
The battle was part of Major General William Rosecrans’ Tullahoma offensive. Rosecrans needed to force his army through the fortified highland rim of middle Tennessee, held by General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Beyond this point were fertile fields of Tennessee and then Chattanooga. Rosecrans paused his army for six months after his victory at Stones River, improving training and staffs. Mostly, he wanted a cavalry force that could compete with the Rebels. By June 1863, Rosecrans felt his force was ready.
The bulk of the Army of the Cumberland was sent through Hoover’s Gap and Gilley’s Gap in an attempt to turn Bragg’s right flank. Rosecrans sent Alexander McCook’s XX Corps to attack Liberty Gap in the center. To the west, Rosecrans sent two divisions to threaten Shelbyville, a town that Bragg had fortified over the winter. One was the cavalry division led by Brigadier General Robert Mitchell. The other was an infantry division commanded by Brigadier General Absalom Baird. Overall command of the feint was held by Major General Gordon Granger, although Major General David Stanley, the cavalry corps commander, was with Mitchell’s division. Rosecrans’ entire offensive was slowed down by a great rainstorm that began on June 24 and did not abate until July 4, Granger’s feint began on June 23, striking Brigadier General William Martin’s division of Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry corps. The Confederates were out of position. Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s corps was concentrated at Columbia, guarding the rich farmlands from Union raiders. Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan was planning a thrust into Kentucky. As such, Wheeler’s two divisions were stretched thin, and he fell for Granger’s feint. He did, however, ask Forrest to move his command to Shelbyville.
Around 4:00 pm on June 26 Bragg heard that the position at Hoover’s Gap had collapsed. His right had been turned. He ordered Polk to give up Shelbyville. Wheeler and his cavalry would hold off Granger. In the early morning, on June 27, the Confederates abandoned Shelbyville. Granger approached with his Reserve Corps, spearheaded by Mitchell’s cavalry. Stanley, reinforced by Colonel Robert Horatio George Minty’s cavalry brigade, was eager for a fight. Early on June 27 he was told to “dislodge” the enemy from Guy’s Gap, just north of Shelbyville. With Granger’s permission, Stanley bolted ahead, leaving behind the wagons and cannons. Minty led the way with Colonel Archibald Campbell’s brigade far behind him. Marshall Thatcher of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry was impressed: “The sun burst through the heavy clouds and shone full in the faces of 10,000 cavalry, in two lines, division fronts; banners flying, bands playing and the command marching in as perfect lines as if on a parade. Such a sight was rare in the history of the war.”
Mitchell became ill and failed to get his division going on time. Stanley took direct command. He ordered Minty to attack even without Mitchell’s division in direct support. Martin fell back from Spring Hill with two brigades. One was led by Colonel Alfred Russell, a competent Wheeler favorite known to nervously unbutton and rebutton his coat in battle. The Other brigade was led by Colonel James Hagan. Wheeler was not yet present. Private John W. Dubose of the 3rd Alabama Cavalry recorded that the Rebels were “soaked to the skin, nine out of ten rifles too wet to shoot.”
Guy’s Gap was held by a few regiments of cavalry. Stanley brought up his artillery and while the cannons boomed regimental bands played “Yankee Doodle” and “Dixie.” Minty’s brigade attacked, cautiously at first, but then rushed headlong in a mounted charge. Some 200 of Martin’s cavalry were captured and many hundreds more were now scattered, although his artillery escaped.
Martin’s men rallied in the trenches that covered Shelbyville after a seven-mile retreat, followed closely by Stanley. Wheeler then arrived and sensing that affairs were desperate, took personal command. He had roughly 600-900 men. Shelbyville was heavily fortified, but the lines needed a large body of men to be properly used. Wheeler later claimed a courier assured him that Forrest was on the way and he needed Wheeler to hold so he could cross the rain swollen Duck River. The messenger also indicated that Forrest hoped to strike Stanley’s rear. Forrest, for his part, denied that any such promise was made. Regardless, Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s wagons were not yet out of Shelbyville.
Stanley wanted to avoid a possible bloodbath, and he did not attack right away. He sent the 3rd Indiana Cavalry on the left to probe. The 4th Michigan Cavalry moved along the lines on the right, through a wooded path until they reached a spot where the lines were undefended. They entered the defenses and then struck the refused end of the hastily assembled Confederate line. As the troopers engaged the left end of the line the 7th Pennsylvania and 4th United States Cavalry assaulted the front.
Wheeler’s men were overpowered by overwhelming numbers. Wheeler though led a charge by the 3rd Alabama and 8th Confederate Cavalry that threw back the 7th Pennsylvania and 4th United States Cavalry for a time. In Shelbyville itself, Wheeler rallied his command for a desperate stand. The last of the supply trains had not yet cleared the town and the “War Child” was determined to protect them. Wheeler formed his men in the Shelbyville square, the courthouse on the left and the depot on the right. He faced one cannon from the 2nd Arkansas Artillery down the main road that Stanley would likely use to strike at the Rebels. The excited Wheeler rode about exhorting his men to hold out.
Wheeler’s artillery fire had the desired effect. Minty’s troopers fell back in surprise. Minty then moved out of range to regroup while the 18th Ohio Artillery shelled the Confederates. All winter and spring Minty had been training his men in mounted charges. He was about to show that such training had not been in vain. Minty ordered an attack. 150 men of the 7th Pennsylvania formed in a column in the streets of Shelbyville, just behind the guns of the 18th Ohio Battery and awaited the order to advance. Supporting them was the 5th Tennessee and 4th United States Cavalry. For the former unit it was a homecoming, as some in the ranks were residents of Shelbyville.
Two cannons were placed hub to hub on the street. When they fired the column emerged out of the smoke at a full gallop with sabers drawn. The Rebel artillery overshot, and only two Federals went down; the rest pressed on. Adjutant George Steahlin wrote that the men made “right cuts, left cuts, front cuts, and rear cuts making thrusts right, left and front – dealing death at every blow.” Major Charles Davis, who led the vanguard of the attack, was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
The surprise and shock value of the attack broke the Confederate defense almost immediately, with Wheeler’s right fleeing before Minty even came to grips with the Rebels. Wheeler retreated to the railroad depot where he made a brief stand before retreating. In the chaos two cannons were captured and their crews were cut down. Major Frank Mix’s 4th Michigan Cavalry forced 250 fleeing Rebels into an enclosed garden compound where they surrendered. Martin’s division was dissolving.
The 3rd Indiana Cavalry appeared out of one of the side streets after taking the Rowesville Bridge. Until now it had been unengaged. A close fought battle ensued, with sabers being freely used. The men also reverted to using their carbines as clubs. The Rebels fled across the Duck River. One cannon’s wheels broke on the Skull Camp Bridge, partially blocking the way and creating more panic. Nine men were trampled to death in the stampede for the bridge.
At some point Wheeler, wearing his full dress uniform with a plume, was shot at but survived when some of his men rushed in front him to form a human shield. Cut off from the Skull Camp Bridge, they had to brave the swollen Duck River. Wheeler with sixty men charged the Union cavalry. According to Private John A. Wyeth of 4th Alabama Cavalry, Wheeler charged with his sword out and his hat in hand. The Rebels broke through and were pursued. Martin was saved when Sergeant Phil Duncan of the 8th Confederate Cavalry drove off a Union horseman. Wheeler plunged into the river from a fifteen-foot height. Martin led his horse in less dramatically. Of the sixty men Wheeler had led in his escape, only thirteen had survived.
In many postwar accounts, it was claimed that Wheeler, after crossing the Duck River, was informed by Major Rambaut from Forrest’s staff that Forrest was approaching with his command from Columbia. Forrest wanted to know if he could cross using the Skull Camp Bridge, which had just then fallen into Union hands. Wheeler decided to attack again with 400 volunteers. It is possible that Wheeler did try to use last minute heroics, but it seems unlikely. The bridge was clogged with dead horses and men and an abandoned cannon. Martin’s division had been routed. Since none of the Confederate cavalry commanders filed reports after the battle, it remains a point of debate. Wheeler’s losses were at least 500 men and three cannon, although it is possible he lost as many as 900 men. Stanley’s losses were likely around fifty.
The Battle of Shelbyville was a turning point. Rebel cavalry in the west would have other fine showings in its future; they were, even as late as December 1864, a force to be reckoned with. However, Shelbyville was the resounding signal that their days of dominance would never return. The Union had achieved parity, if not superiority, in the western theater. After the victory and in honor of their charge, Minty’s outfit became known as the “Saber Brigade.” Never again would the Union cavalry be the laughingstock of either army.