“I know it will gratify you when I tell you nearly every wound was inflicted with the saber.”
So wrote Col. Edward M. McCook at 2:00 a.m. on October 3rd, 1863, in a dispatched dashed off to Acting Union Cavalry Corps commander Brig. Gen. Robert B. Mitchell. McCook, commanding the First Cavalry Division, was updating Mitchell on the results of the previous day’s fighting. McCook’s Federals were hotly pursuing several thousand Confederate troopers under Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler, who had just inflicted a crippling blow on the Union Army of the Cumberland’s supply line.
Just over 72 hours earlier, Wheeler’s men crossed to the north bank of the Tennessee River at Cottonport, some miles above Chattanooga, with the intent of savaging the last Union supply link to the outside world. The Federals held that city in strength, dug in and daring Braxton Bragg to attack them head on; something Bragg was understandably loath to do. Instead, Bragg decided to starve them out.
Wheeler’s initial movements caught the Federals off-guard. After crossing the river on September 30, his roughly 5,000 troopers ascended Waldon’s Ridge in several columns the next day. The Union supply line flowed down the tracks of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad as far as Bridgeport Alabama, and then wound another 60 miles up the Sequatchie Valley, then over Waldon Ridge and into the city, all via wagons drawn over torturous mountain roads barely worthy of the name.
On October 2 a portion of Wheeler’s men fell upon part of an enormous Union supply train headed into Chattanooga at a place called Anderson’s crossroads. The head of the Union train was already well up the mountain, but hundreds of wagons snaked back down the ridge’s western face into the valley below.
They inflicted severe damage. 300-500 wagons were probably destroyed, though the more exaggerated claims put the number as high as 1,000. The convoy was comprised of a mix of government and private sutler’s wagons, so no one really knows how many vehicles were actually involved.
In his history of the 4th Tennessee Cavalry, Lieutenant George B. Guild painted a dramatic picture:
We commenced overhauling Federal wagons, partially plundered; then the cry of a wagon train was raised. As the pace quickened, these captures thickened along the way; and after going ten or twelve miles . . . there opened the richest scene that the eye of a cavalryman can behold. Along the side of the mountain hundreds of large Federal wagons were standing, with their big white covers on them, like so many African elephants, solemn in their stately grandeur.
As the train was overrun, teamsters cut the traces, scattering their animals. Some mules scattered, some were taken by the Confederates, and some were ridden by Federals in a bid to escape. A fair number of guards, waggoners, and animals – as well as the head of the train – managed to escape up Walden Ridge.
Guild reported the capture of 750 wagons, “twenty-six hundred fat mules,” and 1,200 prisoners. “Orders were given,” he recalled, “that no plunder was to be carried off.” Given the rich haul, “this, however, was but partially obeyed.”
Wheeler might have completed the destruction of the Union train if not for the appearance of a handful of Union cavalry under Col. McCook. Private Robert S. Merrill, Co. K of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, recorded the day’s events:
October 2: Jasper TN
Friday: Reveille early & had hardly time to eat our breakfast before forward was sounded. Stopped & fed horses after marching 8 or 10 am. Saw heavy smoke soon after marching & found that our train was being burned. Formed line of battle & the forward our regiment in advance: Our whole train consisting of 200 wagons & ammunition train burnt. Saw the rear guard of the rebs soon after passing the last of the train & after following them up we made a charge on them. We had 1 man wounded: Rebs had a dozen or so killed & wounded & 30 or more prisoners.
Another Wisconsin Private, Horatio K. Foote of Company B, blamed McCook for the disaster. In his letter of October 21, Foote complained that:
Our orders were to march through to a train of wagons which were in Sequatchie Valley, without stopping for rest or food, a distance of 33 miles, but our General stopped over night at a small place [Jasper] 12 miles from Bridgeport; and again to feed [the next morning] ten miles from there in consequence of which the rebs burned all of the train that had not got on the mountain.
During the morning feed, Private Foote was detailed as a courier, tasked with finding McCook’s First Brigade, supposedly not far behind. As a result, Foote missed the most thrilling incident of the day:
My regiment had made a saber charge which . . . completely routed the rebs, causing them to leave in great haste.
McCook reported that Wheeler lost “120 killed and wounded, and 60 prisoners.” Despite being outnumbered, (McCook estimated 5 or 6 to 1) “Our men charged splendidly, and with another hour of daylight I could have largely increased the number of prisoners.” He also noted that “most” of the captured mules were recovered; some 800 of the animals were either re-taken or rounded up as strays.
Confederate accounts, not unsurprisingly, emphasize the heady success of destroying the train in the first place; not this final coda to the day’s fight. For the Rebels, it was a grand beginning to what Bragg and Wheeler both hoped would prove a devastating blow to Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans’s lifeline.
That night, Wheeler rode for the Union depot town of McMinnville Tennessee, there to re-join his main column, where another rich haul awaited him. The Federals pursued with all haste.