Our Maiden Fight: The 13th Tennessee at Belmont

     Among the hard-fighting regiments that comprised General Benjamin Cheatham’s division of the Army of Tennessee, the 13th Tennessee ranks as one of the finest. Raised in the western part of the state in June 1861, the 13th served with the army from its beginning in 1861 until its end in North Carolina in 1865 when less than 50 men remained in its ranks. Along the way, the 13th Tennessee saw action at Belmont, Shiloh, Richmond, Stones River, Chickamauga, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, and so much more.

          Its men, “made up of the flower of the South” as claimed by Colonel Alfred J. Vaughan, five of its ten companies were raised from Fayette County just east of Memphis, while one company each was formed from Shelby, Dyer, McNairy, Gibson, and Henderson counties. With names like the Gaines Invincibles, the Forked Deer Volunteers, and Secession Guards (which had a sprinkling of Mississippians among its ranks), the men left the state in late July 1861 to take up defensive positions near New Madrid, Missouri along the Mississippi River. The 13th Tennessee was among the first Confederate regiments to move into then-neutral Kentucky, entering Hickman on September 4th. There the men entered into the dull routine of camp duty, building fortifications, and the bane of all new soldiers: drill, drill, drill.

A crisp hand-colored ambrotype from the Liljenquist Collection depicting an early war Confederate volunteer equipped with a bayonet and musket and a Bowie knife made by the Cooper Iron Works in Etowah, Georgia. 

          A little over two months later, the Tennesseans had their first taste of battle at Belmont. As recalled by Colonel Vaughan, the regiment learned a lot in its first scrap with the enemy: although losing heavily in the engagement, the men displayed “heroic courage and deported themselves in a soldier-like manner.” Colonel Vaughan tended to be strict disciplinarian which made him an unpopular figure with the men, “but only one fight was necessary to satisfy the men that an undisciplined army was nothing more than an armed mob.”

Colonel John V. Wright, who led the 13th Tennessee at Belmont, was injured during the fight when his horse fell, left the regiment soon after to take his post in the Confederate Congress in Richmond. “No man ever stood higher in the estimation of his soldiers or was more beloved by them,” Vaughan recalled. Upon his resignation, Vaughan became colonel of the regiment and his recollections of the Battle of Belmont are reprinted below from the regimental history he published in 1897 entitled Personal Record of the 13th Regiment Tennessee Infantry, C.S.A.


On November 7, 1861, it was reported that the enemy in heavy force was advancing on Columbus on both sides of the river. The long roll was sounded and every regiment reported at once and fell into line on its parade ground. All were excited and anxious to meet the enemy. Soon it was ascertained that a heavy force had disembarked from their gunboats above and were moving down to a point near Belmont on the opposite side of the river.

The 13th Tennessee, under command of Colonel John V. Wright, having been supplied with ammunition, was ordered at once to cross the river and take position on the extreme left of our line of battle near Watson’s Battery. Never was a regiment more anxious or willing to face an enemy. It was the maiden fight of the regiment and every man felt he was “on his mettle.” As soon as regiment took position in line of battle, Lieutenant Matthew Rhea in command of Co. A was sent to the extreme left of our line with instructions to extend his line to the river, which he did. By some means, the enemy got between him and the regiment, thus cutting him off. Though surrounded, he continued to fight and rather than surrender his sword (which had been worthily worn by his grandfather), he fell at the hands of the enemy. A braver, truer, or more faithful officer never fought for any cause. One of the Negroes, seeing his young master fall while the battle was yet raging, went into the storm of shot and shell and brought the body safely back into our lines.

General Alfred J. Vaughan

Though our position was an unfortunate one (in an open field, the enemy being under the cover of thick woods), this regiment met the advance with the steadiness of veterans and held its position and fought while comrades fell on every side until the last round of ammunition was exhausted, and the order given to fall back to the river. By the time the regiment reached the river, reinforcements had crossed from Columbus which engaged the enemy and checked his advance. The 13th, obtaining a fresh supply of ammunition, rallied and again advanced gallantly to the contest which had become fierce and obstinate.

In a short time, the Federals were driven from their position and fled to their gunboats, hotly pursued by the Confederates. At their gunboats, such was their haste, confusion, and disorder, that they did not attempt to return the fire. The Federal loss here, as in previous engagements, was heavy. The loss of the 13th was also heavy: out of 114 killed and wounded, 34 were killed and the field, among them the very best men of Tennessee. J.P. Farrow [Co. C] and William J. Dunlap [Co. H] were the first men in the regiment who yielded their young lives in battle to the Confederate cause, and were killed by the first volley of the enemy’s fire.

Early in the action Colonel John V. Wright was painfully injured in the knee by the fall of his horse which was shot under him. I took command of the regiment and had two horses shot under me; the first at the very commencement of the engagement while the second was shot just as I reached the river bank. I had gotten this horse cut out of Watson’s Battery after its men had been driven from the guns. Never did men display more heroic courage and deport themselves in a more soldier-like manner.



Vaughan, Alfred J. Personal Record of the Thirteenth Regiment, Tennessee Infantry, C.S.A.. Memphis: Press of S.C. Toof & Co., 1897


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