Run-In with a Rake: The 40th Fights at First Franklin

    In early April 1863, the 40th Ohio Volunteer Infantry along with the other troops of the General Gordon Granger’s Reserve Corps of the Army of the Cumberland lay in camp north of the Harpeth River at Franklin, Tennessee. Confederate cavalry had become increasingly active in recent days and on March 25th, General Nathan Bedford Forrest had struck Brentwood on the outskirts of Nashville and captured two regiments of the Reserve Corps. “General Earl Van Dorn with 9,000 cavalry, two regiments of infantry, and several pieces of artillery was reported at Spring Hill and along the pike south of there to Columbia, and on April 9th, General David Stanley was ordered from Murfreesboro by way of Triune to strengthen General Granger at Franklin,” wrote Surgeon John Noble Beach of the 40th Ohio. “It is probable that the movement of General Stanley from Murfreesboro precipitated the attack made on Franklin at noon on the 10th. If Van Dorn could have had any hopes of a successful attack on Franklin, he knew that it must be made before General Stanley could reach there.”

          The war for Major General Earl Van Dorn thus far had been a mixed bag: the Mississippi-born veteran of the Mexican War and the prewar 2nd U.S. Cavalry had lost both the battles of Pea Ridge and Corinth but had redeemed himself with the spectacular successes at Holly Springs in December 1862 and at Thompson’s Station in March 1863 when his troops (and Forrest’s) captured Colonel John Coburn’s Federal brigade. His skill in commanding small units of cavalry was evident, as was his love of the ladies, one reporter calling the curly-haired lothario “the terror of ugly husbands.” Following the success at Thompson’s Station, General Braxton Bragg tapped Van Dorn to command the cavalry corps of the Army of Tennessee, supplanting General Joseph Wheeler.

One of the two guidons identified as belonging to the 40th Ohio. (Ohio History Connection)


          On April 10, 1863, Van Dorn directed his troopers to make a drive at Franklin but standing square in their way was the 40th Ohio commanded by Captain Charles G. Matchett picketing the approaches south of town. “Although we had a strong cavalry picket still farther out, yet apprehensive of danger, Captain Matchett disposed his small force so as to best resist an attack. At the Carter House, Companies A, B, E, and I were left as a reserve while Companies G and H were sent forward on the Columbia Pike, Company C to the left on the Lewisburg Pike while Companies D and F were posted on the right on the Carter’s Creek Pike,” Beach remembered. “While in this position, a large mounted force suddenly drove in our cavalry and made a furious attack on our advance posts but were so warmly received that they fell back in some disorder. Co. C being particularly exposed, Captain Matchett ordered Cos. A and B to its support, these companies coming up just in time to check a second attack and save Co. C from capture.”

          It was clear that a single regiment would not be able to hold back Van Dorn’s troopers, but Matchett’s hands were tied due to the position he was in. “Behind them for the distance of more than half a mile lay an open field without an obstacle or shelter on it,” it was written in the county history of Darke County, Ohio. “But momentarily expecting reinforcements, they held their ground.” To retreat over such ground would leave Matchett’s men exposed to easy capture by Van Dorn’s swift moving troopers, but once the Buckeye captain saw the long line of battle arrayed against him, he gave the order to fall back slowly but continue to fire upon the enemy.

          “This retrograde movement was the signal for the rapid advance of a great mass of mounted Rebels and before we could reach the protection of the town, the enemy was upon us, dashing beyond us through the village and down to the pontoon bridge,” Beach remembered. “Van Dorn’s artillery advanced and took position at the Carter House and from that point threw shells into Fort Granger and our camps on the north side of the Harpeth River. At this time, our regiment was broken into detachments, each man or group of men fighting the enemy wherever he appeared in front or rear.”

          “Although the charge of Van Dorn through and over our regiment through the town and almost up to the muzzles of the guns in Fort Granger was a brilliant and daring feat, it was fruitless as it was unsupported by infantry, the daring riders had to get out of Franklin more rapidly than they entered,” Beach continued. Between the thundering guns of Fort Granger and the arriving troops under General Stanley, Van Dorn wisely saw that his position was untenable and left Franklin having suffered heavily for his adventure. Federal losses amounted to three killed, four wounded and ten missing in the 40th Ohio; Confederate losses were reported as 137 with Surgeon Beach stating that his regiment buried eleven Confederates on the field that night.

Major General Earl Van Dorn, C.S.A.

          Among those captured by Van Dorn’s troopers was Sergeant Jesse N. Orin of Co. B of the 40th Ohio who was captured near the Lewisburg Pike. Orin, who later served in the Ohio Statehouse, was brought to General Van Dorn along with the other nine prisoners of the regiment, and the Mississippian proceeded to question the sergeant.

          “What commands do you belong to, boys?” asked Van Dorn.

          “40th Ohio, sir,” answered Orin.

          “You don’t all belong to the same regiment, do you?”

          “Yes, sir.”

          “What officer was that in command of the forces you had in today’s fight?”

          “Captain Matchett of the 40th, sir.”

          “Have you got down so low that captain must command your brigades?”

          “Brigades? There was no other regiment fought against you today but the 40th and only seven companies of that. One company was in town as provost guards and two companies were on the west of the town and were not engaged.”

          “Then why in name of thunder did not your captain quietly surrender when my brigade of cavalry attacked them?”

          “I presume, sir, the captain’s orders were to defend the picket line as long as he could and not to surrender.”

          “But why were you not reinforced?”

          “I do not know, sir. Just before we began to fall back the captain rode along our lines and told each company that it was evident that we were not to be reinforced and we could not successfully retreat over that cotton field unless each company implicitly obeyed his commands. We all understood this, and he concentrated and retired us in the manner you saw.”

          “How did you boys come to be captured?”

Topographical map of Franklin Tennessee looking south with Fort Granger on the north bank of the Harpeth River at the bottom. Seven companies of the 40th Ohio fought with Van Dorn's cavalry primarily on the left side of the picture between the Columbia Pike (middle of map) and the Lewisburg Pike which was close to the Harpeth River on the left. Co. K of the regiment was provost guards in town and Cos. D and F guarded Carter's Creek Pike on the right leaving seven companies to picket the rest of the line. Van Dorn was able to push the 40th Ohio back on the third charge but the heavy guns of Fort Granger combined with the arrival of Union forces on the north bank of the Harpeth convinced Van Dorn to return to Spring Hill. 


          “When our regiment had retreated about half the distance between the picket line and the town, a column of your cavalry threatened to pass by our left and get between us and the town and gobble us all up. Captain Matchett ordered me and another sergeant with about 20 men to a position about 300 yards to the left and rear of our regiment in order to oppose that threatened movement with orders to hold that position at all hazards until the regiment had retired beyond the cotton gun and then we could make our way back to town as best we could. We stayed there as ordered but when your forces in front of the regiment were repulsed, they swept around to our position and took us all in except a few who started to run the gauntlet back to town.”

          At this, a fine-looking officer broke out in a loud laugh and said “General Van Dorn, the joke is on you. You promised to show us how neatly you could take in the Yankees at Franklin, and it seems you have been cleverly repulsed by seven companies of infantry commanded by a captain with his left protected by a sergeant’s squad!”

          At this, Sergeant Orin spoke up. “General, I would like to be permitted to say one word in your defense. There is not a private in the 40th Ohio who would not make a good colonel nor a non-commissioned officer who would not make a good brigadier. And as to the captain who commanded us today, he could handle an army equal to Bonaparte.”

          “Thank you,” said Van Dorn who then turned to his fellow officer. “How could you expect me with my division of cavalry to overcome a Bonaparte, his field marshals, his 60 generals, and 500 colonels?”

          Van Dorn then turned back to Sergeant Orin. “How many men have you at Franklin?”

          “I do not know, sir, and if I did, I should decline to answer your question.”

          “What is the extent and nature of your fortifications there?”

          “General, possibly you had better obtain that information by another reconnaissance.”

          “Well Sergeant, you’ll do,” chuckled Van Dorn. “When you rejoin your regiment, give my compliments to your brave comrades and captain and say to him I hope he may never be promoted.” Turning to an officer on his staff, Van Dorn directed him to “see that these men are treated with courtesy of respect due brave men.”

          Van Dorn’s troopers moved back to Spring Hill that afternoon where General Van Dorn soon got into an argument with Bedford Forrest who questioned his judgment in the action at Franklin. The two hot-headed generals almost had a duel before cooler heads prevailed. But upon his return to headquarters from the Franklin adventure, General Van Dorn faced a knottier problem than an angry Bedford Forrest: a cuckolded local physician named George Peters. While Van Dorn was headquartered in Spring Hill, he had been seen around town with Dr. Peters’ young wife, a vivacious woman named Jesse Helen. The two had been seen taking carriage rides together and Van Dorn was a frequent visitor to her home while the good doctor was away. Carriage rides and household visits all sounds innocent to 21st century ears, but these were 19th century codewords for unacceptable intimacy between two unmarried adults, i.e. an affair. The local rumor was that the Van Dorn had been sleeping with Jesse while Dr. Peters was away from town. Given Earl’s reputation as a rake, his actions with Mrs. Peters were downright scandalous.  

Dr. Peters arrived home on April 12th and was soon made aware of his wife’s peccadilloes. He resolved to kill Van Dorn and lay in wait for his chance; it didn’t take long before Van Dorn resumed his amorous visits with Jesse and one night, Dr. Peters caught the two in a passionate embrace. Peters threatened to shoot Van Dorn, but the General pleaded for mercy and was able to escape with his life, but the seeds of his end had been sown.

Dr. Peters, apparently still enraged that his homelife had been upset by his wife’s philandering and deeply humiliated, arrived at Van Dorn’s headquarters on May 7, 1863 seeking a pass. He had done this several times before, so his presence was nothing unusual; the guards let him in, perhaps unaware of what had previously transpired between the two men. Upon finding Van Dorn alone in his office writing, Peters walked up and shot him in the back of the head. Earl Van Dorn died later that night never having regained consciousness.

The First Battle of Franklin against the 40th Ohio was General Van Dorn’s last military action of the Civil War.

         

 

Sources:

Beach, John N. History of the 40th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. London: Shepherd & Craig, 1884, pgs. 30-32

Howe, Henry. Historical Collections of Ohio in Two Volumes. Norwalk: The Laning Printing Co., 1898, pgs. 537-38

Carter, Arthur B. The Tarnished Cavalier: Major General Earl Van Dorn, C.S.A. University of Tennessee Press, 1999.

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