Clubbed Gun Against Bayonet: The Fatal Charge at Tupelo
More than 40 years after the Battle of Tupelo, Henry Ewell Hord wrote the following intense account of the fierce fighting at this little remembered Civil War battle. An inmate at the Tennessee Soldiers’ Home and “still as deaf as a post” from the concussion of an artillery shell that exploded next to his head while charging into this battle, Hord recalled the determination of his comrades to drive the enemy, with even the wounded men taking part in the attack.
“When Colonel Edward Crossland gave the command to charge, the whole line swept forward like one company. Some went over the works and were killed in the ditch; scores of them were killed on the works, but they stopped us. Again, and again we made a rush for the works only to be hurled back. Finally, we made a lodgment on our side of the breastworks and fired across with our guns almost touching the enemy. Aleck Cowan of my company, sitting on the ground just behind me with his leg broken, handed me his Spencer. I pitched him my empty gun to load and did firing for both. Wounds did not count; nothing but death could keep a man from fighting. Such reckless courage and desperate fighting were never before seen by our regiment,” he wrote.
The Battle of Harrisburg, also known as the Battle of Tupelo, was fought July 14, 1864 and was a bloody disaster for the Confederate army in Mississippi. Rushing up against an entrenched position manned by double their numbers, Hord and his comrades didn’t stand much of a chance. By the end of this short battle, General Stephen D. Lee’s army had suffered 215 killed and 1,125 wounded or missing out of the 9,100 men engaged. Federal losses amounted to less than half of that. Hord served in Co. D of the 3rd Kentucky Mounted Infantry and his account was published in the August 1905 edition of Confederate Veteran.
|The Confederates of Crossland's Kentucky brigade got close enough to the Federal works at Tupelo that one officer used his sword to slash at his blue-coated opponents.|
The Harrisburg fight was the hardest one our brigade was in during the war, at least we suffered more in proportion to the time engaged. General A.J. Smith commanding the 16th Army Corps with infantry, cavalry, and artillery amounting in all to near 17,000 men started from Memphis to “clean up” General Forrest, march through Alabama, and join Sherman in Georgia. We had only a few small cavalry brigades at that time in northern Mississippi. General Buford’s division consisting of Lyon’s and Tyree Bell’s brigades was sent out toward LaGrange to delay Smith’s advance and enable Generals Forrest and Stephen D. Lee to concentrate all the troops they could to repel Smith’s force.
We met the enemy south of LaGrange and immediately commenced a kind of guerilla warfare- capturing pickets, ambushing, night attacks, rushing in while they were on the march, killing the wagon guards and burning the wagon, then rushing out again before they could get a whack at us. Constantly annoyed in this way, Smith’s corps could not march more than 6 or 7 miles a day on his route. He had to be ready to fight at all hours, day, or night. The road in his rear was strewn with dead mules, burnt wagons, and fresh-made graves. Our loss was almost nothing except hard riding and a lack of sleep, things we were accustomed to. We were confident we should soon wear Smith out, get his men demoralized, and make his raid end like General Sturgis’, and we would have done it if Generals Forrest and Buford could have had their way. All the way from LaGrange to Harrisburg we acted as an invisible escort for General Smith. He could not water his horses without taking his army to the creek with him and he camped every night in line of battle with heavy skirmish lines thrown around him.
|General Stephen D. Lee|
General Stephen D. Lee came up from the south just before Smith reached Harrisburg and, as he commended the department, he took charge. All the available reinforcements that could be spared from other places were utilized. Our brigade commander, General Lyon, was put in charge of a lot of dismounted militia and two batteries while Colonel Edward Crossland commanded our brigade. Mabry and McCulloch, our old friends under General Edmund Rucker, and General Philip Roddey with his division from Alabama were all up and eager for the fight. The night General Smith reached Harrisburg, our brigade had been worrying him all day and when he finally went into camp, we were so close to him that we thought we were in for a night attack.
We were marching in line of battle with skirmishers out when word came down the line to “halt, dismount, and lie down.” I had been asleep only a few moments when I heard a voice in a stage whisper ask, “What’s the matter with Company D?” I raised up and recognized Otey O’Bryan, a member of Co. B of the 3rd Kentucky. He had made a considerable reputation as a bold and reliable scout and General Forrest very often made use of him. When Otey wanted any men to go with him, he would come to Co. D and ask for volunteers. Generally, the boys were eager to go, but that night everyone was tired and sleepy, and no one volunteered. As soon as I found out what was wanted, I told him I would go then another one of our boys volunteered. “That’s all I want. Leave your horses and guns with the No. 4. Bring one pistol is you want to; we are going afoot.”
He took us to where he had two suits of clothes, one a citizen’s and the other a U.S. uniform. I had to take the uniform as the other man could not get it on over his gray clothes. Otey told us that General Forrest was anxious to find out all he could about General Smith’s army as he expected to fight him early the next day and wanted us to go inside his lines and get all the information we could. He said it was not really necessary for three to go as each man would go alone and use his judgment as to his movements, but it was a dangerous mission and meant death sure and swift if we were caught. We shook hands and separated, never to meet any more in this world. The other volunteer never came back and Otey was killed the next day on the breastworks.
|Colonel Edward Crossland|
General Smith was on the same ground his battle line fought on the next day and we were in the field just in front of him. As soon as we separated, I went to where I was certain the enemy’s skirmish line would be and manage to locate it without being heard or seen. I then crawled up close to the sentinel and waited till the relief came around. The weeds were about as high as oats. When the guard was changed, I heard the countersign given then slipped back and went to another sentry, was challenged, gave the countersign “Grant” as bold as brass, told the fellow I had been out scouting for General Smith, and then just for devilment, told him the Rebs were out there in the weeds and he had better keep his eyes peeled.
I made my way to where I thought General Smith’s main line was and by good luck struck one end of it. They had thrown up breastworks about four feet high, stacked arms, and were all sleeping soundly around the guns. I did not see any guards at all except one sentry in front of a new tent with a light burning in and, and as that was the only tent I saw, I supposed it was General Smith’s headquarters. I went from one end of the line to the other, got the exact position of each battery, the number of guns, and where the Negro brigade was.
I got out about daylight by doing some of the fastest running a boy ever did. I found that while I was gone, my command had retired from the woods in front of General Smith about a mile and in plain view. I made my report to General Forrest and several of his officers who seemed to be holding a council with General Buford among them. I told them that if they attacked from that side, they would have to cross that old field a mile wide and take the raking fire of those batteries. As far as I could tell from their faces, they all seemed to agree with me. I heard afterwards that Generals Forrest and Buford were very much opposed to making the attack from that side. I don’t think General Lee knew how strongly the enemy was posted.
While in the Yankee camp, I had stolen a fine new haversack and I found that it contained a package of roasted coffee and hardtack. I concluded to make me some coffee but had only an old Confederate canteen to boil it in. I had just made the coffee when we were ordered to fall in. I hung it up in a tree until the fight was over as I did not want to be bothered carrying a canteen of boiling coffee into a battle. In the meantime, word had passed around that we were going to attack. Roddey’s division had formed on our right, Mabry on our left, with Bell supporting Mabry. Two of Morton’s batteries were with us and two with Bell. But few of Lyon’s infantry had gotten up.
When we were ordered to advance, our brigade moved promptly and Roddey moved on a line with us for some 500 yards then halted; the other brigades, for some cause, did not move with us. As soon as we emerged from the woods, we were in plain view of the Yanks and they opened on us with all their batteries. Only two of our batteries responded. General Smith’s line was formed in the shape of a crescent with batteries on both points and in the center and we were nearly in front of the center battery. We started in quick time and halfway across the field changed to double quick.
About 500 yards or so from the Yankee lines, a shell burst just as it passed between John Duke’s head and my own. We were in the front rank and the concussion knocked us both down, the fragments killing two men in the rear rank. I was the first to come to with my face turned towards the woods from which we had come. My first impression was that the fight was over as I could see nothing of the command and could hear no firing. I happened and turn around and saw them 200 yards off going as regular as clockwork on to the Yankee line. The concussion of the exploding shell had destroyed my hearing. John Duke raised up about then and we raced to catch up with the command. They had halted 150 or 200 yards from the breastworks and dressed up as we got in our places. The Yankees were concentrating their fire on us from 24 guns with a heavy line of infantry behind breastworks. It was awful. The two end batteries could enfilade our entire line. I was stone-deaf myself, but I have heard the boys say that the bones breaking sounded like grinding coffee.
|Detail of Blue & Gray magazine's map of the Battle of Tupelo with a focus on Crossland's assault on the Federal line. The 3rd Kentucky hit the breastworks held by the 58th Illinois, 21st Missouri, and 119th Illinois.|
We had not fired a shot as yet, and when Colonel Crossland gave the command to charge, the whole line swept forward like one company. Some went over the works and were killed in the ditch; scores of them were killed on the works, but they stopped us. Again, and again we made a rush for the works only to be hurled back. Finally, we made a lodgment on our side of the breastworks and fired across with our guns almost touching the enemy. Aleck Cowan of my company, sitting on the ground just behind me with his leg broken, handed me his Spencer. I pitched him my empty gun to load and did firing for both. Wounds did not count; nothing but death could keep a man from fighting. Such reckless courage and desperate fighting were never before seen by our regiment, though they were in the charge that broke up the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh.
One of the Yankee officers jumped up on the works, waving his sword. I was standing a little to the right of him. He caught me with an empty gun, but I struck him over the head with it and he tumbled off on our side. His company rose en masse to rescue him. As I struck him, something hit me in the side. I lost my balance and fell on our side of the works. Glancing back to see what it was that had pushed me off, I saw a Yank with his throat cut from ear to ear. He had dropped his gun and had both hands clasped around his throat trying in vain to check the blood that was gushing through his fingers. They were crowding over the works and no one had time to load; it was clubbed gun against bayonet.
Lieutenant John Jarrett was close beside me and I never have forgotten how he seemed to be in half a dozen places at once. He was a stout, broad-shouldered man and could do more things with a saber than most men ever dreamed of. Captain Milt Kinkead was shot through the arms, but he did not give up the command of the company and did all he could to hold the boys to their work. Old Colonel Crossland saw the break and rushed into it fighting like a wild man and yelling, “Die in your tracks! Don’t give an inch!” But in spite of all that we could do, they crowded us back step by step. Fortunately for us, they had broken over only in front of our company and the boys to the right and left of us who had tome to load concentrated their fire on them, killing everything that crossed over and we regained our position alongside the works. I looked around to see if Aleck had a loaded gun for me, but he had caught another ball and was dead. The officer I knocked off the works fell with his head in Aleck’s lap and they were lying side by side. Aleck had evidently grabbed him by the throat and was choking him when death overtook him, for the fellow’s face was as blue as his uniform and even in death he held on to him. I kicked his wrist and broke his hold, but don’t know whether the officer ever came to or not.
Colonel Crossland, seeing that no reinforcements were coming to him, ordered a retreat. The brigade closed up and retired slowly, front rank fire and fall back. The Yankees showed a disposition to follow us at first, but we kept such a bold and steady front that they gave it up. Some of the men helped the wounded to get off, all that were able to be moved. About 200-300 yards from the breastworks we ceased firing and retired on quick time to where we started from, halted, and awaiting reinforcements. I happened to think of my canteen of coffee I left hanging on the tree and went to look for it. I found it was just about the right temperature to drink. I felt as if we had been fighting for hours.
Nearly two-thirds of our command had been killed or wounded, yet it all happened while a canteen of coffee was cooling. Lieutenant Jarrett came to me after we halted and examined my jacket. He said he was just behind me when I jumped upon the works and saw a Yankee lunge at me with his bayonet. He found two holes in my jacket where the bayonet had gone through from one side to the other, barely missing my breast. I asked him about the Yank I had seen with his throat cut and he admitted that he had reached across the works and slashed at the fellow with his saber, but was not certain he had got him as his attention was called to another place.
Majors Turk and Charlie Jarrett volunteered to go with us on that charge “just for fun” but they got more than they bargained for. Jarrett was knocked off his horse by the concussion of a shell and lost his horse besides. Turk also lost his horse. I am not sure at this distant day, but I don’t think a single horse that went in with us got back. Our loss was particularly heavy in officers; some companies did not have an officer left. Bell and Mabry were ordered forward and made a gallant charge but were repulsed with heavy loss. Had we all gone together, with Morton’s guns rushed close up, the result might have been different. General Lyon got his batteries up in time to engage the Yankee guns and they let us go. We were not engaged anymore that day.
“Personal Experiences at Harrisburg, Miss.,” Private Henry Ewell Hord, Co. D, 3rd Kentucky Mounted Infantry, Confederate Veteran, August 1905, pgs. 361-363
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