The 83rd Illinois’ Finest Hour: Holding Dover Against Wheeler and Forrest

     Garrison duty at Dover, Tennessee had for the 83rd Illinois Infantry amounted to months of monitoring of Federal steamboat traffic along the Cumberland River while dealing with the occasional local bushwhackers. But despite the dullness of duty, Dover was an important post as it lay right along the Army of the Cumberland’s primary wintertime supply route. In early February 1863, rumors that General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry was in the neighborhood prompted the local garrison commander Colonel Abner C. Harding to be on the alert. Located about a mile south of Fort Donelson, the Federals chose to lightly fortify the town of Dover itself rather than occupy the old Confederate works. To combat the approaching Confederate cavalry, Colonel Harding had at his command the nine companies of his own regiment, two sections of Battery C, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery, a single 32-lb siege gun, and a company of Iowa cavalry, the whole force totaling 600-800 men. (Estimates vary)  

General Wheeler’s reputation as a cavalryman was riding high in the aftermath of his command’s performance during the Stones River campaign. The diminutive West Point graduate had entered the Confederate service as colonel of the 19th Alabama Infantry and had shown much promise at Shiloh; by the end of 1862 Wheeler was the Army of Tennessee’s cavalry chief. His efforts during the campaign gained widespread renown within the Confederacy, some of the local Tennessee newspapers praising Wheeler as the Confederacy's best cavalryman. As both armies licked their wounds after Stones River, Wheeler kept his command busy by plucking at isolated Union commands, keeping up the pressure of the vulnerable Union supply lines throughout middle Tennessee.

         The attack began on the afternoon of February 3, 1863. Wheeler’s force surrounded the Dover garrison but after repeated bloody mounted charges which cost Wheeler a quarter of his 2,500-man force, the Confederates left under fire from the gunboat U.S.S. Lexington which arrived at sunset. It was an embarrassing defeat for Wheeler, and one that so infuriated General Nathan Bedford Forrest (whose command was part of the expedition) that Forrest swore he would never serve under Wheeler again.

          It proved to be the finest moment of the war for the 83rd Illinois which mustered out in 1865 having rarely ventured far from Dover. Colonel Harding’s steadfast defense of Dover would win him a brigadier general’s star in May 1863. An account from one of his soldiers, writing under the pen name “Vid,” appeared in the Wood County Reporter in Wisconsin a few weeks after the battle and gives a stirring account of the engagement.  


This map of the February 3rd, 1863 battle of Dover, Tennessee was drawn by a soldier in the 83rd Illinois. It depicts the location of each company as well as indicating that Colonel Harding's headquarters lay right at the one intersection in town. The Confederate cavalrymen charged repeatedly into town, one Alabama colonel being shot down literally on the steps of Harding's headquarters. But the 83rd Illinois held their ground until the U.S.S. Lexington sailed into view and pounded at the Confederate troopers. The following day, reinforcements arrived from nearby Fort Henry. 

Fort Donelson, Tennessee

February 5, 1863

          One of the most gallant fights of this or any other war has just occurred at this post. Our forces consisted of nine companies of the 83rd Illinois (Colonel Abner C. Harding), two sections of Flood’s Illinois battery under Lieutenant Elijah V. Moore, and part of one company of the 5th Iowa Cavalry, in all 600 effective men. The attacking force was 4,500 strong under Wheeler and Forrest; the former is said to have been lately made a major general. Colonel Harding, who was in command of the post, had one 32-lb siege gun in position. Fort Donelson proper has never been occupied by our forces. It has no advantages as a position save to command the river below. The old village of Dover nearly a mile further up the river has been partially fortified and occupied by our forces. It is surrounded on all sides by high ridges, frequently broken by ravines and partially covered with underbrush and timber.

          The attack, though anticipated for a week, was not known to be imminent until noon on Tuesday the 3rd. At 3 p.m., a battery of Rebel artillery took position on the ridge to the west at a distance of three-fourths of a mile and opened fire upon the town with shells. Soon their artillery was playing upon our forces from three or four directions; their forces completely encompassed the town in a semi-circle of perhaps three miles in extent from river to river. After thus formidably displaying the strength of his forces, the Rebel General sent a flag of truce to Colonel Harding demanding an unconditional surrender of the place. It was promptly refused, the Colonel declaring he would fight as long as he had a man left.

Private Gustavus T. Henry
Co. C, 83rd Illinois

The attack was renewed with great vigor, charge after charge was made by the Rebels who were all mounted, but the Springfield rifles of the 83rd were unerring and each charge resulted in repulse and a score of emptied saddles. A body of Rebels, dismounting and leaving their horses, forced their way into town and fired upon our men from such houses as they could secure until they were driven out at the point of the bayonet or captured.

At about 5 p.m., the Rebel adjutant general approached our lines waving a white handkerchief.

“What the hell do you want now with that white rag?” sang out Captain [William G.] Bond of the 83rd. “Do you cowardly villains out there want to surrender?”

“I wish to see your commanding officer,” was the reply.

“I shall have to blindfold you,” Captain Bond said as he fumbled for his handkerchief.

“I give you my word of honor that I will report nothing that I see,” the Rebel said.

Captain Bond could not find his handkerchief. “Come on, God damn you, we can whip you anyhow, I don’t care what you see!”

The Rebel was conducted to Colonel Harding where the following parley ensued.

“Colonel, you have made a gallant defense and more could not be expected of you, but we do not wish to shed blood needlessly. I have come again to demand an unconditional surrender.”

“General, I have had no orders to surrender. Really, I could not think of it.”

“But it is folly for you to hold out longer. We have shown you but one half of our force. You must surrender or take the consequences!”

“Well, sir, I have shown you but one-fifth of my force. You may return and tell your men to pitch in. I’ll take the consequences!”

Colonel (later brigadier general) Abner Clark Harding, 83rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry

So the fight began again. Every man fought where he thought himself most needed, took deliberate aim, and made his shots tell whenever a butternut showed himself within rifle range. Such fighting against such odds has not yet been recorded in the history of the rebellion. By 8 p.m., Flood’s battery had lost 48 out of 64 horses, had fired its last cartridge, and lost one piece. But the Rebels, too, were out of ammunition and actually began to retire before the stubborn bravery of the “noble 600.” At this juncture, a gunboat [U.S.S. Lexington, see here] reached the scene of action from below and did splendid execution by shelling the retreating Rebels as long as they were within range.

Reinforcements were promptly sent from Fort Henry by Colonel Lowe as soon as the approach of the Rebels was telegraphed to him, but they arrived at 3 o’clock the next morning, too late to participate in the glory, as well as the loss, of the gallant 83rd. General Forrest admits the loss of 200 killed including one Alabama colonel left where he fell on the very steps of Colonel Harding’s headquarters while boldly leading a charge. His number of wounded must exceed that number. Of the latter, we have in our hands over 60 men, including three captains and several lieutenants. Forrest’s son is reported to be dangerously wounded. General Wheeler was at first reported killed, but the body proved to be that of Colonel McNary above mentioned. 

Our loss is comparatively small but includes some of the finest officers of the 83rd. Captain Philo E. Reed of Co. A and Quartermaster Russell were killed. Captains John McClanahan of Co. B[1] and James M. Gilson of Co. E were wounded. Lieutenant Elijah V. Moore of the battery[2] and Francis M. Sykes of Co. D of the 83rd were also wounded. We lost 14 men killed and 51 wounded, a few fatally. Two officers and 27 men of the 5th Iowa Cavalry along with several of the 83rd and a number of Captain Flood’s men were captured. The men were paroled and have returned and the officers, with whom paroling is ‘played out,’ managed to escape. One of them spiked one of their guns before leaving and made his escape on one of their best horses He reports them in a sorry condition, destitute of ammunition and of food, save what they could glean from inhabitants along the line of retreat. One of our paroled men reported that they gave him nothing to eat and gave as a reason that they had nothing, the men having fasted since the morning before the battle.

They left 150 of their dead for our men to bury. Among them were many mere boys. I saw one, with his brains oozing from a ragged hole in his narrow forehead who could not have been more than 14 years old. Although I think this is the last attempt Forrest or Wheeler will make in this vicinity, it is to be regretted that we have not cavalry enough to follow up this brilliant repulse by the capture or destruction of the whole force, anything short of which is not a complete victory.



Letter from “Vid,” 83rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Wood County Reporter (Wisconsin), February 19, 1863, pg. 3


[1] McClanahan would die of this wound February 23, 1863.

[2] Moore would die of his wound February 5, 1863.


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