Wilder's Last Ride: On Wilson's Raid with the 17th Indiana

 The war record of the 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry reads as one of the most illustrious of all the regiments that served in the Army of the Cumberland. “During its term of service, the 17th Indiana marched over 4,000 miles and captured over 5,000 prisoners, more than 6,000 stand of small arms, seventy pieces of artillery, eleven stand of colors, and more than 3,000 horses and mules,” reported the Indiana Adjutant General.

Mustering into service in June 1861, the 17th Indiana first saw combat at Greenbrier, Virginia in October of that year then transferred to Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. It took part in the Shiloh campaign (missing the fight by one day) and the Kentucky campaign of 1862 but missed being in action at both Perryville and Stones River. In May 1863, the regiment was mounted (becoming the 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry), armed with Spencer Repeating Rifles, and formed a part of Wilder’s Lightning Brigade, where it earned high praise for its services in the Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns. The men of the 17th re-enlisted as veterans in early 1864 and took part in numerous battles of the Atlanta campaign; they missed the battles of Franklin and Nashville due to being at Louisville, Kentucky where the regiment was equipped with fresh horses and again sent South in what proved to be their final campaign of the Civil War. 

In March 1865, Major General James Wilson, commander of the Cavalry of the Military Division of the Mississippi, led three divisions of cavalry and mounted infantry in one of the longest and most successful cavalry raids of the war. Starting off from Eastport, Mississippi on the Tennessee River, Wilson’s men marched through the heart of Alabama with the aim of destroying the last of the Confederacy’s iron industry, striking near Birmingham and at Selma. Moving east, the raiders took Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy, before moving east into Georgia, taking both Columbus and finally Macon.

Among the ranks of the 17th Indiana on this raid was Adjutant William E. Doyle. A native of Mitchell, Indiana, Doyle had been with the regiment from the beginning and in June 1864 was commissioned adjutant. He wrote the following account of his regiment’s final campaign for publication in the Bedford Independent, but while in Macon, Georgia, he also wrote and published an 82-page book entitled The Seventeenth Indiana: A History from its Organization to the End of the War, the appendix of which focused specifically on this campaign. A second edition of the book was published in Indianapolis later that same year by Holloway, Douglass, and Co.

Macon, Georgia

April 29, 1865

          After a long and arduous campaign through the states of Alabama and Georgia, I avail myself this first opportunity to send a letter through the kindness of a Rebel officer going North to write you.

          The cavalry corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi, three division under General James Wilson, left Eastport, Mississippi March 23, 1865 on a grand raid. Our destination to us soldiers was unknown; surplus baggage was disposed of and no one was allowed to carry more than one blanket and a change of underclothing. With one wagon to each brigade and ration reduced to just coffee and sugar, with 100 rounds of ammunition to each man, the march commenced and bidding farewell to our friends in hastily written epistles, we left the banks of the Tennessee. The march for the first six days led through the mountain region of Alabama through Frankfort, Russellville, and Jasper; the roads were in a terrible state from the heavy rains that poured upon us, the mountain streams were swollen into rivers and everything tended to dampen our feelings and make the outset gloomy.

National colors of the 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry (Indiana Historical Society)

But we toiled on, night and day, over mountains and through swamps, never losing courage until on the 29th we got into the beautiful valley in which lies the little town of Elyton. Here we paid for our sufferings with an abundance of everything. Here also, we first met and drove some of Roddey’s forces gathered to oppose us. On the 30th, we passed through Elyton and destroyed the Red Mountain Iron Works with the foundries and machine shops four miles from Elyton and considered one of the most important in the South. On the 31st, we destroyed the Central Iron Works and machine Shops, coal mines, and mills, and crossing the Cahaba River, marched to Montevallo. Here the enemy, about 1,000 strong, attacked General Upton’s advance and to use a cant expression “got used up.,” losing about 60 men. Upton lost 11.

On April 1st, we marched to Randolph and destroyed the town. Here Upton took the east road and continued on the straight road towards Selma. Fifteen miles from Randolph at Ebenezer’s Church, the roads meet again. Here General [Nathan Bedford] Forrest had disposed his forces, about 5,000 men, to check and drive us back. We, however, did not know this.

We arrived near the church with Colonel [Abram O.] Miller commanding the Wilder Brigade and finding the enemy trying to delay us, ordered Lieutenant Colonel [Frank] White forward with four companies to charge the enemy off the road. White moved forward, found Patterson’s Alabama regiment confronting him, and charged them, cutting them to pieces and dashed on until he encountered the enemy’s line. Nothing daunted, he charged through them and over their artillery, sabering left and right to where General Forrest was with his bodyguard. Here another line confronted them and support being so far off, White faced to the left and charging the enemy, cut his way out. General Forrest was cut on the head and wrist, both unfortunately slight wounds. We lost in this dashing little affair 10 men killed and wounded and five captured. Captain James D. Taylor of Co. G was killed. The enemy lost, as he admits, 65 killed and wounded and we captured 18 prisoners. Our line being advanced, and the charge having demoralized them, the enemy commenced their retreat and Upton coming up at this time again charged on them, causing them to leave their four artillery pieces on the field.

The deadly seven-shot Spencer Repeating Rifle used so effectively by the 17th Indiana during the last two years of its service. All of the 13,500 Federal cavalry and mounted infantry were armed with Spencers or similar firearms, making them a formidable force. This particular example is property of the Gettysburg National Battlefield.

On the 2nd we advanced on Selma. Here they had works on which they had spent three years’ labor to complete them. Our division, the Second, got before the town at 4:40 p.m. and at 5 o’clock, our brigade charged the works and carried them. Our regiment charged Forts Nos. 15, 16, and 17, defended by Armstrong’s Brigade, with four pieces of artillery, drove the enemy out and back to the second line of works. We drove them from there and were in the town at dusk where we proceeded along the west side of town, attacking the enemy in flank and rear and driving him from all the forts from No. 17 to No. 33, capturing 300 prisoners, including nearly all of the 1st and 11th Mississippi regiments, including their colonel, lieutenant colonel, major and adjutant of the former, and the lieutenant colonel of the latter, along with the colonel of the 8th Mississippi, four pieces of artillery, the ordnance wagons of Armstrong’s Brigade, and a great number of small arms. We lost 12 killed and 80 wounded, among the latter 7 officers. Our loss was the heaviest in the brigade as we did the most fighting. In Selma, we found enormous quantities of supplies of all kinds. We found in the arsenal 150-160 cannon, many of them ready for use. The entire captures by the corps in Selma amounted to 2,300 prisoners and 200 pieces of artillery.

Detail from 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry monument at Chickamauga

On April 8th, having destroyed all the arsenals and works, we crossed the Alabama River on a pontoon bridge and started for Montgomery. Forrest escaped from Selma and skedaddled towards Plantersville. The remnant of his force under Buford ran before us. On the 13th, our forces occupied Montgomery without a fight, the enemy retreating with us in pursuit towards Columbus, Georgia. On the 15th we passed through Tuskegee and on the evening of the 16th, Winslow’s brigade, having charged and taken Columbus, we marched through on the 17th and marching night and day got to within 45 miles of Macon, Georgia on the evening of the 19th. On the 20th, Colonel Minty (our division commander), gave our regiment the advance and we fought the enemy, charging him constantly. At Tobesofkee Bridge, 13 miles from Macon, we charged through a burning bridge, driving the enemy from it and saving the bridge. Advancing on Macon, we charged the enemy’s rear guard for 12 miles and got inside the defenses with them (so close we were together) and took the town. The enemy in the works being thus cut off, they surrendered. Our regiment captured everything: 1,200 prisoners (more than twice our number), 14 pieces of artillery, railroad stores, and two flags, making four captured on the raid. [The Indiana Adjutant General’s history for the regiment states that “by a ruse the enemy were led to believe that our force was but the advance of two divisions of cavalry and the city was surrendered, and with it Generals Howell Cobb, William Mackall, Mercer, and Gustavus W. Smith, 3,000 prisoners (including officers of all grades), five stands of colors, 60 pieces of artillery, and 3,000 small arms. The 17th had in action during the day 451 officers and men of whom one was killed and two wounded.”]

Spencer Repeating Rifle Co., Boston, Mass. Patented March 6, 1860

We are now camped here waiting the issue of an armistice between Johnston and Sherman having for its object peace. Wilson’s corps since it left Eastport has captured 6,000 prisoners, 300 pieces of artillery, and over 6,000 horses and mules and destroyed over $10 million worth of property, having destroyed the most important mines, works, arsenals, and manufactories in the South. Our wounded were left in Selma in charge of Surgeon J.B. Larkin, he being considered (be it said to his credit) at once the most skillful and careful operator in the division. The wounded of the entire division, some 200, were left in his charge and it afforded the wounded pleasure when they heard of his assignment to this duty, he having been known and tried by them sufficiently to give them full confidence in his treatment and care. Good hospitals were provided and although now in the Rebel lines, we hear of their kindness to our wounded who are doing very well. Expecting soon to be with you enjoying the blessings of peace, I remain your Doyle.


Letter from Adjutant William E. Doyle, 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry, Bedford Independent (Indiana), May 17, 1865, pg. 2


  1. The Souvenir, The Seventeenth Indiana Regiment printed for the 1913 Regiment reunion held in Anderson, by Regimental Sec. Treas. and Historian W.H.H. Benefiel fills in more campaign details. Reprinted copies are available online. One gap in time for the 17th was more than a brush with the rear guard of Gen. Bragg's forces at Munfordville,KY. Long story short too bad Hollywood didn't make a documentary on the 17th Ind. before Hoover's Gap until the final mustering out of the Regiment.The 17th helped make up a small force with Lt.Col John T. Wilder commanding the garrison guarding the vital Green River railroad bridge,Sept 21,1862 in the end surrendering and then marched south then paroled. As we know the Regiment and Col. Wilder were reunited early 1863. Yes I'm biased about anything related to the Lightning Brigade. My wife is related to Lt. Col. Henry Jordan from Corydon,IN. I'm related to two Johnson brothers from Franklin,IN. From the Many,One


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