A Beautiful Fight: The McCook-Prentice Duel on the road to Stones River

     On Saturday January 3, 1863, Colonel Daniel McCook of the 52nd Ohio was ordered to escort a supply train of 95 wagons loaded with ammunition and hospital stores destined for General William S. Rosecrans’ army at Murfreesboro. McCook assembled as escort for the train six companies of the 60th Illinois (300 men), Companies A and D of the 10th Michigan Infantry (100 men), five companies composing the left wing of his own 52nd Ohio (250 men) and the 213-man strong 6th Tennessee (Union) Infantry, totaling in all roughly 1,000 men including the teamsters.

The train set out that morning along the Nashville Pike heading south but seven miles out, a detachment of General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry supported by a battery of cannon struck the train and cut it in half. The 60th Illinois and two companies of the 10th Michigan climbed up on the wooded slope of Cox’s Hill on the right of the pike and opened fire on the Rebels, while McCook ordered up the Ohioans and Tennesseans to repulse the attackers. Colonel McCook dove right into the fight for the train, having what was described as “a beautiful fight” with Major Clarence J. Prentice of Dortch’s 2nd Battalion of Kentucky Cavalry. The 22-year-old Prentice was shot down in the fight, and McCook later learned the bitter truth that he had shot the son of a close friend of the McCook family.

Sergeant Samuel A. Harper of the 52nd Ohio recalled this fight in an account he originally shared with the Chicago Inter-Ocean in 1905; his account saw wide publication in numerous newspapers in the U.S.

 

Colonel Daniel McCook, Jr. (1834-1864) was killed while leading his brigade in the assault on Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864, the last of four members of his immediate family to die in the Civil War. McCook, a class of 1858 graduate of the University of Alabama, went into the practice of law before the war and was among the first volunteers in the 1st Kansas Infantry, missing Wilson's Creek due to pneumonia. In 1862, he was commissioned colonel of the 52nd Ohio after having seen action as a staff officer at Shiloh. 

          In December 1862, I was in command of Co. H of the 52nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. During the Battle of Stones River, the left battalion of the 52nd Ohio was detailed to guard a supply train from Nashville to the army at Stones River. Colonel Dan McCook was then commanding the brigade on post duty at Nashville, but eager to find an excuse for going to the front, he on this occasion took command of his regiment and we started.

          When we reached the old asylum on the Murfreesboro pike about eight miles out, Wheeler’s cavalry attacked us and before the battalion could be concentrated, they cut a wide swath through the moving train. When Co. H double-quicked up from the rear to the point of attack, we met Colonel Dan coming to meet us from the head of the train. At that minute, we became hotly engaged as did the detachment with the colonel.

          In a few minutes, I looked up to see how Colonel Dan was faring and saw him and a Confederate officer riding in a circle firing rapidly at each other with their Colt revolvers. It was what the boys called a beautiful fight and finally the Confederate officer fell from his horse. Colonel Dan rode on to form the arriving companies, but Captain Edward L. Anderson of his staff dismounted and placed the wounded officer behind a tree and gave him such assistance as he could render.

Major Clarence J. Prentice
2nd Battalion, Kentucky Cavalry 


          Colonel Dan soon had his men in hand and drove Wheeler off. He delivered the train to the army in front and with his one battalion participated in the closing fight of Stones River. Meantime, Captain Anderson learned that the officer wounded in the spectacular fight was the son of George D. Prentice [editor of the widely-read Louisville Daily Journal] and he so reported to Colonel Dan. As the latter was a warm personal friend and great admirer of George D. Prentice, and had written him the day before in regard to the course of the war, he was grieved beyond measure that he had shot the son of the old friend of his family and himself. However, he had young Prentice cared for and used his influence to have him sent home.

          When Colonel McCook next met Mr. Prentice unexpectedly at a hotel in Nashville, he hesitated to approach him. Prentice, noticing his constraint and diving the cause, took the matter in his own hands. He gave the colonel the most cordial greeting and the two talked over the fight at the asylum, the Colonel expressing his regret that the fortunes of war had made him an antagonist of his old friend’s son. When Colonel Dan fell at Kennesaw in June 1864, no more touching tribute was paid to his memory than that which came from the pen of George D. Prentice.

 

Major Clarence J. Prentice would survive the war but succumbed to a buggy accident while turning into his driveway near Louisville on November 20, 1873.

 

Sources:

“McCook-Prentice Duel,” Account of Sergeant Samuel A. Harper, Co. H, 52nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Neodesha Register (Kansas), March 3, 1905, pg. 6

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