Battle of Rowlett’s Station, KY

Texas Rangers at Battle of Rowlett’s Station by Adolph Metzner 1861

Early December snow accompanied more than fifty thousand Union soldiers of the Army of the Ohio marching to Bowling Green, determined to oust the Confederates from Kentucky. Colonel August Willich and the Thirty-Second Indiana Volunteer Infantry formed the vanguard of Brigadier General Richard W. Johnson’s Sixth Brigade in Brigadier General Alexander McCook’s Second Division. They trudged out of Camp Nevin at 8:30 a.m. on December 10, bound for Munfordville, where the Louisville & Nashville Railroad bridge traversed a deep gorge at Green River. If that span was destroyed, Buell’s supply line would be degraded and their advance delayed for weeks or even months. Johnson instructed Willich to send two companies under Lieutenant-Colonel Henry von Trebra ahead of the brigade to reconnoiter. Von Trebra reached the town in time to flush out a small detail of Confederates who had already blown up one of the massive stone support piers and destroyed one hundred feet of track at the south end of the railroad bridge. Von Trebra’s men took a defensive position and waited until the rest of Johnson’s brigade arrived on Thursday, December 12.[1]

Willich’s pioneers faced a daunting assignment. They established camp on the south side of the Green River and constructed a temporary pontoon bridge over the waterway. They would make repairs to the damaged bridge in full view of Confederate cavalry. Willich established picket posts a mile forward of the bridge, which were immediately harassed by elements of Colonel Benjamin Terry’s Eighth Texas Cavalry. Willich’s men suffered two wounded in the brief encounter but managed to kill four enemy riders. Willich ordered two additional companies across the river while posting four companies to the north as skirmishers. The remaining two companies stayed in reserve on the north side of the river.

Soldiers and work crews awoke to perfect bridge-building weather on December 17. Willich rode to division headquarters at midday, leaving Lieutenant-Colonel von Trebra in temporary command of the regiment. Captain Jacob Glass’s Company B formed the right wing of a picket chain about a mile southeast of the bridge. Glass’s patrol engaged rebel skirmishers around noon, driving them back with support from the balance of the company. Suddenly, a large Confederate force came into view. Glass had stumbled upon Confederate Brigadier General Thomas Hindman’s thirteen hundred men another mile to the south, which included soldiers from the Second and Sixth Arkansas infantry regiments. He promptly pulled back. Lieutenant Max Sachs, in temporary command of Company C on the Union left, was not as prudent.[2]

Sachs ordered his bugler to sound a general alarm as Terry’s Rangers swarmed them. Reserve companies north of the river ignored Willich’s instructions and rushed across the pontoon bridge to support their comrades. Von Trebra formed them in close column and assigned companies K, G, and F to reinforce Glass on the right, while companies A and I supported Sachs on the left. Confederate infantry hesitated, but Texas cavalrymen were emboldened by the opportunity to rout the Federals. They attacked all along the Union line in a headlong dash, firing with pistol and shotgun from as close as fifteen yards away. Union soldiers kept their cool, allowing the Texans to close in before letting off a withering reply that killed and unhorsed a large number of attackers. Fifty Rangers surrounded Sachs and one of his platoons who had foolishly advanced forward into an open plain and demanded their surrender. Sachs repeatedly refused to give up his sword. He and his comrades were riddled with bullets, killing Sachs and three of his men while disabling seven others. The wounded men were barely saved when Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Erdelmeyer arrived on the scene with Company A to chase the rebels away. “The wild riders were thrown back,” Erdelmeyer later recalled, “but again and again they returned. The battle raged for nearly two hours with Willich’s 450 men attempting to hold firm against a force nearly three times their size.[3]

Artillery batteries from both sides engaged briefly, however changing troop positions on the field exposed Union infantry to friendly fire from their own batteries. Battery A of the First Ohio Artillery commanded by Captain Cotter was effective in silencing four guns of Mississippi Captain Charles Swett’s Warren County Light Artillery Battery, aided by a flanking maneuver from Erdelmeyer. Von Trebra led an advance on the rebel left center, drawing a furious response from the Texans, who recklessly drove their horses into and through the Union ranks, only to be chopped down by reserves led by Adjutant Carl Schmitt.

The situation was desperate on the Union right. The Texans attacked relentlessly, taking down ten men of Company F in one charge and driving them back behind the reserves of Captain Peter Welschbillig’s Company G. The Union captain deployed his fifty men in a hollow square and awaited another attack by the Confederate horsemen, now numbering more than two hundred. Rebels first assaulted the front and left flank of the square but were repulsed by disciplined firing at short range. The Texans reformed and came at Company G again, this time from three sides. The square held and more Confederate cavalrymen lay prostrate on the field. A third charge resulted in fierce hand-to hand combat, with a number of Confederates unhorsed by bayonet. Colonel Terry was killed. The remaining Confederate cavalrymen rode off in wild disorder, dismayed at their inability to overwhelm such a small force. In their place, Hindman’s infantrymen appeared on the scene.[4]

Willich arrived on the field and took command of the right wing just as Welschbillig was shuttling his wounded to the rear. Willich feared that Arkansas troops might turn his right flank, so he withdrew to a safe position. The rebel infantry also withdrew. Both sides claimed victory in what became known as the Battle of Rowlett’s Station, but the Union Army held the field, successfully defended a critical bridge, and killed one of the rising stars of the Confederate cavalry. Willich lost thirteen men killed or mortally wounded. Estimates of the Confederate dead vary widely, but rebel losses were significantly greater. Willich’s troops proved that infantry could repel an attack from a larger force of enemy cavalry using classic infantry formations like the hollow square combined with disciplined troop management.[5]

Colonel Willich Meets Captured Texas Rangers by Adolph Metzner 1861

The victory at Rowlett’s Station was a small, but badly-needed triumph in a year when Union defeats at Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, and Wilson’s Creek damaged morale in the North. The New York Times, in a burst of hyperbole, called it, “the most brilliant National victory yet achieved.” The battle resulted in widespread acclaim for the Thirty-Second Indiana. Buell bragged to McClellan that, “the little affair in front of Munfordville was really one of the handsomest things of the season.” In his General Order Number 23, he applauded the Indianans “as a study and example to all other troops under his command,” asking them to “emulate the discipline and instruction which insure such results.”[6]

Willich led a graveside service atop a knoll near the battlefield for ten of his men who had “paid the highest price that a citizen of the Republic can pay, which he, however, also must be prepared to pay, when the Republic is in danger.” Willich then read portions of a poem by William Cullen Bryant. “Ah! Never shall the land forget, How Gushed the life-blood of her brave- Gushed warm with the hope and courage yet, Upon the soil they fought to save.”[7] The eulogy moved many men to tears. Each soldier was handed a bouquet of evergreen. As the band played La Marseillaise, troops filed by the graves, dropping sprigs onto the bodies of their dead comrades. Willich then proclaimed, “that as their brave comrades had fallen in the struggle for human rights and liberty, and were now on their journey to eternity, they would give them three cheers.” The ceremony ended with hurrahs. Afterward, the colonel led his regiment through the skirmish drill. It was a peculiar burial service for Christians present.[8]

As a final tribute to the slain patriots, Private Adolph Bloettner of Company F chose a piece of local limestone and sculpted a beautiful monument in their honor. Bloettner carved an eagle with outstretched wings in relief on the top of the marker, adorning the face of the stone with cannon, American flags, an oak sprig and an olive branch. Names of the dead and their birth dates were inscribed on the tablet along with an inscription in German that translated into English reads: “Here rest the first martyrs of the Thirty-second, the first German regiment of Indiana. They were fighting nobly in defense of the free Constitution of the United States of America. They fell on the 17th day of December, 1861, in the battle at Rowlett’s Station, in which one regiment of Texas rangers, two regiments of infantry, and six pieces of artillery, in all over three thousand men, were defeated by five hundred German soldiers.” The stone survives as the oldest Civil War memorial marker.[9]

This post contains an edited excerpt from David T. Dixon, Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020).

[1] Michael A. Peake, Indiana’s German Sons (Indianapolis: Max Kade German-American Center, 1994) 24-26.

[2] Peake, Indiana’s German Sons, 29.

[3] Peake, Indiana’s German Sons, 31, 36.

[4] Peake, Indiana’s German Sons, 37-41.

[5] War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series 1, vol.7, 16-19.

[6] Gerald J. Prokopowicz, All for the Regiment: The Army of the Ohio, 1861-1862 (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 2001), 54-59.

[7] William Cullen Bryant, Poems by William Cullen Bryant (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1855), 208.

[8] Peake, Indiana’s German Sons, 44. Joseph R. Reinhart, ed., August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters fro the 32nd Indiana Infantry (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2006), 52.

[9] Peake, Indiana’s German Sons, 53-55.

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7 Responses to Battle of Rowlett’s Station, KY

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    There were a number of powerful, driven men who helped guide the military aspirations of the Confederacy from early on… but died too soon. Albert Sidney Johnston and Texas Ranger Ben McCulloch spring to mind. But Benjamin Terry ranks with them. It was fortunate for the Union that Colonel Terry met his end at a little-known engagement in Kentucky. He had potential to become another Nathan Bedford Forrest. [For more detail about the politically connected Terry family, see Meg Groeling’s excellent article of 27 July 2018 “ECW Weekender: Visit the Site of the Broderick – Terry Duel.”]

  2. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Thanks for recalling this battle. It, like Camp Wildcat, has been largely forgotten.

  3. W Charles Young says:

    The photo shows the monument in a National Cemetery. Which one is it in?

    • The photograph shows the original monument which has weathered over the years and has been since moved from the National Cemetery located within Cave Hill Cemetery near Louisville KY and placed indoors to preserve it. A replica now stands in its place. Mike Peake and other dedicated volunteers are responsible for preserving this important relic

  4. Chris Mackowski says:

    GREAT piece. This is a forgotten battle, but your retelling of it brought it to life vividly. Thanks, David!

  5. grandadpookers says:

    This story is completely new to me. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Pingback: Around the Web January 2022: Best of Civil War & Reconstruction Blogs and Social Media - The Reconstruction Era

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