Fighting for Forage: The Scrap at Dobson's Ferry Tennessee
In the days leading up to the Stones River campaign, the Army of the Cumberland settled into its camps around Nashville, Tennessee and due to the condition of the Cumberland River and the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, was forced to rely on foraging from the surrounding regions to sustain the army. “So large an army as this has in its service thousands of mules and horses and these consume an immense quantity of provender. Formerly this was supplied from the north. But now it is principally obtained in the region surrounding the encampment or in the country through which we march,” recalled Sergeant John H. Purvis of the 51st Ohio. “When the enemy is in such close proximity, and watching every chance to annoy us, it is attended with a vast deal of trouble and danger to life to obtain the requisite supplies, for the Rebels are always on the alert to capture our forage trains and the guards sent with them.”
Thirty miles south, the Confederate Army of Tennessee lay in its camps centered around Murfreesboro with the same aim in mind: foraging off the rich surrounding country. It was natural then that the two armies would come in contact on their various foraging expeditions and the battle of Dobson’s Ferry is the result. A contingent of roughly 1,000 Federal troops drawn from Colonel Stanley Matthews’ brigade marched into the area seeking forage and came under a heavy attack from Confederate cavalry forces based at LaVergne. Dobson’s Ferry was fought December 9, 1862 about four miles from LaVergne, Tennessee at a point near Stones River. Utilizing Captain Nathaniel Michler’s 1863 map of central Tennessee, I would estimate that Dobson’s Ferry (which is not on the map) could be located where the “Chicken Road” intersects Stones River a few miles northeast of LaVergne. A current map of the area little resembles the 1863 view of this area.
Sergeant John H. Purvis of the 51st Ohio accompanied this expedition and provides the following account which saw publication in the December 26, 1862 issue of the Tuscarawas Advocate. As an added bonus, Purvis also provides a “love letter” he obtained from a Confederate prisoner named Nelson Petry from the 5th Alabama Cavalry; I have been unable to identify this soldier and present this basically as it is.
Camp Rosecrans, near Nashville, Tennessee
December 11, 1862
We moved to a camp within sight of Nashville and number of the boys availed themselves of the opportunity to visit the old city where we had so pleasantly passed several months of the spring and summer. But the Nashville of six months’ ago and the Nashville of today are greatly changed in appearance. Now it is only a military post, the people are nowhere. During the time that Buell’s army was north of the city, it was strictly blockaded and communication was cut off on all sides. Provisions became scarce and also fuel. To supply the latter, most of the shade trees which cooled and beautified the hot narrow streets were cut down, and nearly all the wooden fences were used for the same purpose, even some frame or log buildings were torn down for fuel and several large brick edifices were taken down and the material used on fortifications or blown up because they obstructed the range of the artillery on the forts. The entrance of every street is ditched and blockaded by breastworks of earth or cotton bales, only a narrow passage for wagons being left. All the wooded hills in the vicinity are divested of their trees and converted into string forts mounted with numerous guns of large caliber. In short, Nashville is thoroughly fortified and, defended by resolute men, would be exceedingly difficult to overcome, a face the Rebels will discover should they attack us here, of which there are some indications at present.
The army is here waiting for supplies of clothing and provisions before it advances southward, and as these are arriving constantly, it is likely a forward movement will be made at no very distant day; even now, we are beginning to push onward. Generals [Phil] Sheridan and [Joshua] Sill are moving their columns forward on the Nolensville road and General [Horatio] Van Cleve’s division is camped eight or ten miles from Nashville on the Murfreesboro Pike. Rousseau has not yet crossed the Cumberland, being encamped at Edgefield opposite Nashville. It is rumored that preparations are going on up the river to capture Morgan and his thieving band whenever his hankering after plunder leads him that way again. Gallatin, Carthage, Lebanon, and other favorite rendezvous of the redoubtable John are in the hands of the Federal army.
So large an army as this has in its service thousands of mules and horses and these consume an immense quantity of provender. Formerly this was supplied from the north. But now it is principally obtained in the region surrounding the encampment or in the country through which we march. This is as it should be. When the enemy is in such close proximity, and watching every chance to annoy us, it is attended with a vast deal of trouble and danger to life to obtain the requisite supplies, for the Rebels are always on the alert to capture our forage trains and the guards sent with them. Oftentimes the wily rascals resort to means of strategy not usual in civilized warfare, such as tampering with a flag of truce- an emblem generally held sacred but which has been frequently violated by the faithless Rebels. They, at the beginning, broke the most binding oath and raised the standard of war against the best government ever made by man and now nothing to them is binding or sacred.
An instance of their faithless perfidy I will state: on the last day of November, a part of the 14th Brigade escorted a train for the purpose of obtaining supplies of forage into the country bordering on the Murfreesboro Pike some miles outside our picket lines. While the wagons were loading, a flag of truce escorted by a small body of Rebel cavalry came to our guards upon some trifling pretext and while the guards’ attention was engrossed by them, two Rebel regiments of infantry stealthily approached and fired a volley into the train escort, which threw them into momentary confusion. Our boys immediately rallying returned the fire with such effect that the enemy were driven back, but they were so troublesome that the wagons were compelled to return empty to camp.
However, forage must be had at all events, so the next day, another train set forth escorted by the 51st Ohio. We reached the scene of yesterday’s skirmishes, a narrow plain in the heart of the cedar barren, a kind of land of which there are large tracts in this vicinity, affording excellent places of concealment for roving guerilla bands. In the fields, and at the several barns were abundant quantities of hay, corn, oats, and fodder blades, and with quick dispatch, these were placed on the wagons. But hark! The fire of artillery came sounding through the dense woods and over the plain, apparently two or three miles distant. There is fighting in progress over there, thought we, and the corn and hay were tossed on faster. Then came a courier in hot haste, with an order to get the wagons within the lines without delay. But Lieutenant Colonel Richard McLain, who had command, was loathe to go without full loads of forage and sent detachments of the guards to expedite the loading with their help. All labored with a will and a dispatch seldom excelled, demonstrating that soldiers can ‘work’ if necessary. In a marvelously brief space of time, the train got under way upon the homeward route, all safely reaching camp.
However, on another occasion, we did not escape so easily, but saw a part of the ‘elephant’ as the sequel will show. On the 9th instant, a large force train was sent out guarded by four regiments of the 23rd Brigade: the 51st Ohio, 35th Indiana, 8th Kentucky, and 21st Kentucky and a section of artillery from the 7th Pennsylvania battery numbering in all about 1,000 men, the Indiana and Kentucky regiments being very small. Colonel Stanley Matthews commanded this expedition. For miles beyond our lines all the forage is gleaned, the country being completely ‘cleaned out’ of food for animals. So, we were obliged to go far into the region towards Stones River before a supply could be obtained. Leaving the Murfreesboro road, we crossed to another which runs nearly parallel to it four miles to the north. About noon we reached our destination being then ten miles from camp, as far as we dared to go. After some search, Lieutenant Charles G. Harger (Co. B) discovered a sufficiency of forage to load all the wagons. While they were being loaded, the various regiments were stationed at the different points most likely to be attacked, for an attack was fully expected because we were not four miles from the Rebel encampment at Lavergne- indeed, we were inside their lines or what had been in the morning. Their picket fires were still burning upon our arrival, the pickets having retired as we approached.
In the center of an open field, the artillery was planted supported by the 51st Ohio facing to the front or east. We had stacked arms and were resting on the ground close to our guns when suddenly in our rear where the Indiana regiment was stationed in the woods was heard the report of a musket-another and another came, then a heavy volley came crashing through the thick, dark cedar woods, startling us all to our guns in an instant. The Indianans were fiercely attacked by a large force of mounted infantry, and they being few in numbers, the Rebels were too strong for them. At the first onset, their adjutant Lieutenant Mullen was killed, a Rebel ball crashing through his skull and Lieutenant Colonel Balch commanding the regiment had his left arm shattered causing him to leave the field. The enemy had dismounted, and with savage yells the infernal gray backs charged their ranks but the gallant Indianans met them with indomitable spirit, sending a crashing volley through the Rebel ranks which for a time checked them. But rallying quickly, they renewed the charge and our men, overpowered by numbers, were giving way.
But at this crisis, Lieutenant Colonel McLain with five companies of the 51st Ohio and a piece of cannon arrived on the scene. “Go in men,” said the Colonel and they needed no second command. In an instant, their muskets were levelled, a sheet of flame leaped from their muzzles, a storm of Minie balls swept through the ranks of the foe, sending them reeling back again and again was this renewed. Then coming to a charge bayonet, with a ringing shout echoed wide over the plain, thrilling the hearts and firing the blood of those of the left companies who were not yet engaged, they rushed upon the enemy aided by the 35th Indiana. Our Sergeant Major, Henry Kaldenbaugh, riding gallantly and fearlessly at their head and united they scattered the miscreant foe. The field officers of the 35th all being slain they had no leader until Kaldenbaugh took charge of them. The Rebels sprang to their horses and fled precipitately, leaving guns, blankets, and ammunition behind. Their flight being accelerated by a couple of shells, the artillery being at last brought to bear upon them.
However, before they went, they gave those in the field a parting salute in the shape of a whizzing volley which wounded two men and to return the compliment Major Hayden filed off in pursuit at a rapid double quick. But ere we reached the other part of the regiment, the Rebels were invisible- but along the road we saw what ‘tall’ strides their steeds had made. All this time the wagons were being loaded and shortly after the fight was over, they started for camp. As the Rebels had gone the direction which we came, it was thought they might get reinforcements and make another effort. So, Colonel Matthews deployed four companies in front and on either flank to feel the way. The 8th Kentucky brought up the rear and the other regiments marched beside the train. No sooner had we started than on came the enemy again, heavily reinforced by infantry and artillery, they made a desperate attack on our rear. At one time they entirely surrounded the 8th Kentucky but we drove them back with heavy loss; their shells whizzed among us and over us but did not explode, so that they did no damage and our artillery soon silenced theirs altogether. But they continued to fight us until we reached the pike. They utterly failed in their object which was to capture our train and make us all prisoners. Every wagon safely reached camp with its load. During the engagement all our officers and particularly Colonel McLain evinced the utmost coolness and presence of mind. Colonel Matthews cannot receive too much credit for the masterly manner in which he conducted the expedition. All have the utmost confidence in his ability and courage. During the engagement Colonel Matthews was thrown from his horse and his left arm severely bruised.
The loss in the four regiments engaged is five killed, 41 wounded, and nine missing. All our killed and wounded were brought away except Second Lieutenant Corder of the 8th Kentucky who was wounded and taken prisoner. We have learned by brigade surgeon Major Woodruff who went to the Rebel camp under a flag of truce to bring away the wounded lieutenant that their loss was 52 killed and 27 wounded. Their force engaged was brigade of cavalry, three regiments of infantry, and two pieces of artillery. They had in all 3,000 men.
The names of those who were wounded in the 51st Ohio are as follows:
Corporal Emanuel Cutshall, Co. C, wounded in leg
Private Milton Burr, Co. C, wounded seriously just above the knee
Private William H. Hardy, Co. C, wounded seriously in the thigh
Private Marquis Norris, Co. C, mortally wounded in the small of the back
Private M. Latier, Co. D, wounded seriously in the thigh
Private M. McCoy, Co. D, wounded in thigh and arm
Private Madison Pomeroy, Co. D, wounded in the hand
Private William Smith, Co. D, wounded seriously in shoulder
Private Franklin Blaser, Co. F, wounded in the leg
Private Leander Courtwright, Co. F, wounded in the leg
Private Joshua J. Lemasters, Co. G, wounded in the foot
Sergeant Gotlieb Geiser, Co. G, wounded in the leg
Enclosed you will find a letter obtained from a prisoner we took in the affair I have described. He is a young man of the 5th Alabama [Cavalry] volunteers. It certainly is the most unique specimen of spelling that it has been my fortune to see, though I have read a number of letters written by Southern ladies to their lovers in the Rebel army. From the extravagant expression contained in the letter in question it might naturally be supposed that the gentleman is a paragon of manly beauty, but nothing could be further from the truth. He is a long, lank, knock-kneed gray back, seven feet more or less, gangling, illy built and with a face anything but handsome, but the lady believes all she writes.
[I cleaned up this letter considerably to facilitate understanding- DM]
November 23, 1862
My dear and only love,
I onst more imbrace the opportunity of writing you a few lines to let you know that I am well at present and I hope when these lines reaches you they may find you well and hearty. Nelson, I haven’t got no letters from you since June, only the one dated August the 17th. I have not forgotten you and I hope you ain’t forgotten me. I am still living a single life yet waiting to be a soldier’s wife. Nelson, I thought you might come home when you was so near I would have come and saw you if I have knowed you wasn’t a-coming home, I would have come and saw you. My feelings was very badly hurt when I heard you was gone on. Nelson, the last word you spoke to me sealed within my heart and if I never see you anymore, I will never forget you sweet and pretty looks. Nelson, I want you to come home at Christmas and see us all. Nelson, I would write you every week if I knew where you was. As I don’t know where to direct my letter.
Now Nelson, if the land was a sheet of paper and the ocean was an ink stand and I had thousands of pens I could not express my love to you this day. Nelson, I would give the world if it be allowed to me to get to see you this evening. I am still living with my old grandpa. Gosh, one sweet kiss from your lips would do me a bushel of good. I think I have been at two parties this week but parties are nothing like what they used to be to me when my old darling Nelson was here. Round is the ring that had no end so is my love to you my friend. So, no more at present only remember your love until death.
Nelson, write to me and let me hear whether you are dead or alive or not. If you loved me as I love you, you would write to me oftener than you do. We may see each other on earth again and we may not but if we never meet here I hope to meet my dear love in heaven when we never more shall part, so good bye love.
Mary A. Long to Nelson Petry