A Sentence of Fire: Wheeler’s Raid Around Rosecrans at Murfreesboro

In the aftermath of the Battle of Stones River, the Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg retreated south from Murfreesboro and spread out amongst several towns in middle Tennessee. Among those towns was Winchester and General Bragg made his headquarters there for a few weeks in January 1863. W.J. Slatter, editor of the Winchester Daily Bulletin newspaper, reported on the arrival of various officers from the army and his January 11, 1863 issue noted the arrival of General Joseph Wheeler and staff. Wheeler was riding high after his successful raid around Rosecrans army during the campaign and Slatter praised the young officer as “one of if not the greatest cavalry officer in the service.”
Unidentified Confederate officer
Library of Congress

Joe Wheeler, Bragg’s chief of cavalry, had battled with advance of the Army of the Cumberland along the Nashville Pike for four days before departing the main Confederate lines and heading for the Federal rear in the early morning hours of December 30, 1862. Wheeler led his brigade completely around the Army of the Cumberland in the ensuing days, striking Federal wagon trains at several points along the Nashville Pike and beyond, capturing or destroying hundreds of wagons (at least 250 according to this article), while paroling hundreds of Federal prisoners.  Following this raid, which Slatter opined “far surpassed” J.E.B. Stuart’s celebrated ride around McClellan’s army, General Wheeler also ably covered the retreat of the army when Bragg decided to abandon Murfreesboro on January 4, 1863.

Among Wheeler’s staff officers was Lieutenant Colonel William S. Hawkins, a native of Tennessee, who Slatter praised as a “young man of extraordinary mind, a ripe scholar, noble soul, quick perception, elevated ambition, and invincible determination in what he believes to be right. He was contributed much to the good of our cause by his valor on the field and his pen in literature.” Two days later, Slatter ran a two-column unsigned article describing General Wheeler’s operations during the Murfreesboro campaign that I suspect was written by one of Wheeler’s staff officers with Hawkins’ direct input. It’s a fine piece that provides some details into “raiding” and gives the reader a good sense of the rapid tempo of events during the raid.
Abandoned Confederate camps at Murfreesboro, Tennessee in January 1863

As the din of battle dies in the distance and the dim war clouds rise from the bloody pageantry of the past 15 days, we can begin to educe some order from what before seemed a chaotic maze. The last year died with the boom of cannon as his requiem, and the infant breathings of ’63 were greeted by the rude lullabies of volleying musketry- the groans of the fallen and the wild enthusiastic cheering of Southrons victorious. Many the deeds of daring there enacted and many the scenes of romantic tinge that there fleeted past the beholder’s strained and eager view. We pass from the main battle lines of our valorous infantry, pass from the more immediate plains of strife to view the splendid episode to which we now call attention.

          All day on Monday the 29th of December, General Wheeler’s cavalry was slowly dropping back before the insolent advance of overwhelming numbers. All that day the men of Bragg’s army in serried ranks awaited the long expected but now imminent how. At nightfall, the long ranks of horsemen filed slowly to their position on the army’s flanks and after a time the glare of the hostile camps extended wide and far in our front. At midnight, after a few hours rest, the word ‘forward’ was given, the little Brigadier was in the saddle, and around him were gathered his regimental and battalion commanders, his well-chosen, well-traveled staff. It was dark but in the flashing eyes of those few determined men shine the true and tender light of patriot devotion. A cold, drizzly rain fell, but nothing could dampen the ardor that beat in those valiant and trusty hearts.
Union supply train under attack by Confederate cavalry as painted by William Travis

          Then it was resolved to boldly attack the rear of that mighty Yankee horse that seemed only to await the dawn for a rude onset against our rights, our homes, and our kindred. “Tomorrow,” said the little hero, “as his lines move so vaingloriously forward, his heart shall shake with fear to hear that his trains are burning, his supplies cut off, and thousands of Southern cavalry hovering in his rear like birds of prey.” On and on, what heed in such a cause be given to cold and hunger and fatigue? Daylight finds him below Jefferson. A little breathing spell is given for this is the fifth day those men have been doing work- four days already they have been making history.

          What white line in the distance? Yankee wagons. Forward, but cautiously men, cautiously, close up quickly, but without noise. A shot- a volley- a yell- and like the wolf on the fold, the men of the South hurl themselves on the invader. Soon a shuddering, shrinking group of prisoners are mounted on the captured mules and with the light of 50 blazing wagons to signal the first accomplishment, of a glorious design, the line moves on. Past cedar glades and wild inland copses, past rising streams and over hills and fields, the cavalcade moves on. LaVergne, once a sweet village on the plain, but now almost a desert wild with its blackened homesteads and eloquent silence of a few habitations which the monster of invasion has spared. LaVergne is before us! Three columns quickly deploy and at the word three eager, daring, and unbroken lines pounce on the unsuspecting foe. Again, the weapons are dropped, the hands held up imploringly, and the pale, frightened faces seemed to expect a righteous doom.
An event that this Confederate did not write about was the deliberate massacre of Negro teamsters along the Nashville Pike by troopers of Wheeler's command. Depiction from Harper's Weekly February 7, 1863

General Wheeler and his staff approach. Colonel Hawkins, in a solemn and touching manner, administers the parole, and others quickly take the registry of names. The evening gathers but its shade is powerless. Two hundred wagons laden richly, almost with the wealth of argosies from foreign strands, light the horizon with a ruddy glow. Burn and brighten cheerily, oh Christmas fires of freedom! Whose fine trunks are these? McCook’s? Pile on the blazing brands. Word hard boys. Cut the spokes, unhitch the mules, mount Yankees and away! More miles of cedar thicket, more pallid and tearful faces at the wayside, doubtful whether we be friend or foe. Ah, those coats of brown and gray! The white handkerchiefs wave, the dainty hands throw kisses warm with love and trust to us in the bleak December air.
Colonel John C. Starkweather's brigade provided defense for the Center Corps wagon train that Wheeler struck at Jefferson, Tennessee on December 30, 1862. The four regiments of his brigade (1st and 21st Wisconsin, 24th Illinois, and 79th Pennsylvania) lost 122 casualties at Jefferson, 113 of them paroled prisoners of war. 

Still on to Nolensville, more deserted homes, and more timid, cowering foemen. “Fall in prisoners, in two ranks!” More paroles, more wagons, more mules, more Yankees distraught at such wanton destruction of property. Night falls; Wheeler and his gallant troopers have gone the grand rounds for old Rosecrans; may he sleep easy. Two days after to LaVergne again, Wheeler, as ever, in the van. The long reach of the pike is like a wide sheet of flames. How eagerly they lick in the fresh New Year’s air. Blaze after blaze, till it seems as if Fate had written there a sentence of fire, punctuated every few rods by a dead Yankee.

          Our loss in numbers is trifling, but a few have suffered. Allen is wounded. McCaw is down to rise no morel Patterson reels a bleeding corpse from his horse, his gray hairs to be a laugh and a jest to those infuriated fiends; Prentice turns sick with pain from his place in front; Wailes moans “my friend I am wounded;” Ledyard falls. But the work is done and even from cannon’s mouth and muskets blazing no heavier blow has come than fell when Wheeler’s brave brigade with clattering hoof and clanging swords traced in lines of flame and gore another page in our country’s history.


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