More Scared Than Hurt: A Buckeye Describes the Narrow Escape at Spring Hill

     In the closing days of November 1864, the Army of the Ohio under the command of Major General John M. Schofield found itself nearly trapped in Spring Hill, Tennessee by a rapid movement made by General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee. The three brigades of General George D. Wagner’s division of the Fourth Army Corps arrived in town just in the nick of time to keep the road open, and at the tail end of Wagner’s column marched First Lieutenant John K. Shellenberger commanding Co. B of the 64th Ohio.

    A sharp fight ensued with dismounted Confederate cavalry and the lieutenant recalled the narrow escape he had with a bullet that had his name on it. “A bullet, coming from the right, passed through my overcoat, buttoned up to the chin, in a way to take the top button of the blouse underneath the coat. The big brass button struck me a stinging blow on the point of the left collar bone. Clasping both hands to the spot, I began feeling with my fingertips for the hole, fully convinced that a bullet had entered there and had inflicted a serious and possibly fatal wound. It was not until I opened the coat to make a closer investigation that I found was worse scared than hurt. Some of the enemy had secured a position on our right flank and had opened an enfilading fire. It was one of their bullets that had hit me,” he recalled.

    Lieutenant Shellenberger’s account of the Spring Hill and Franklin battles saw publication in the March and April 1928 editions of Confederate Veteran, more than two years after Shellenberger died at the age of 83. Following his wartime services, he had worked for the Federal government as a superintendent of various national cemeteries, his last assignment being St. Augustine National Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida. After his 83rd birthday in February 1926, Shellenberger retired from government service and passed away March 30, 1926. He is buried on the grounds of his last assignment in St. Augustine.


First Lieutenant John K. Shellenberger, 64th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

    I was commanding Co. B, 64th Ohio Infantry of General Luther Bradley’s Brigade, Wagner’s Division, 4th Corps. This brigade was called under arms that morning by 4 o’clock and had orders to keep in readiness to march on a moment’s notice. It is assumed that the same orders were given to all the rest of the army, and that this action was taken in consequence of the information brought by Wilson’s courier at 3 o’clock. Wagner’s advance, double quicking through Spring Hill at noon and deploying just beyond on a run, arrived barely in time to head off the approach of Hood’s cavalry. Wagner, arriving by the Columbia Pike from the southwest and the cavalry by the Mount Carmel Road from the east. General Forrest, commanding the Confederate cavalry, had used his superior numbers so skillfully as to push back our cavalry just north of Mount Carmel, five miles east of Spring Hill, before noon. Leaving one brigade to watch our cavalry, Forrest then turned over to Spring Hill with all the rest of his three divisions of cavalry. If Wagner had arrived a few minutes later, he would have found Forrest in full possession at Spring Hill.

    When Bradley’s brigade, the rear of Wagner’s column, was nearing Spring Hill, a few of the cavalry approached through to the fields to the east of the pike to reconnoiter and the 64th Ohio was sent to drive them back. With the right wing deployed as skirmishers and the left wing following in reserve the regiment advanced steadily, driving before it the cavalry replying to the long-range fire they kept up with their carbines, but always galloping away before we could get within effective range. About a mile east of the pike we crossed Rally Hill Road. This was the road by which Hood’s infantry column arrived. It there runs north, nearly parallel with the pike, to a point about 500 yards east of the village where it turns west to enter the village.

    Leaving one of the reserve companies to watch the road, the rest of the regiment pushed on in pursuit of the cavalry until our skirmish line was abreast of the Caldwell House, about 800 yards east of the road, where a halt was called. A few minutes later at 2:30 p.m. the left of our skirmish line north of the Caldwell House was attacked by a battle line in front while the cavalry worked around our left flank. At the time we all supposed that the battle line was composed of troops from Hood’s infantry column. I later learned that the battle line was composed of mounted infantry belonging to Forrest’s command. They were armed with Enfield rifles and always fought on foot like ordinary infantry, using their horses to travel rapidly from place to place.

Union staff officer's button

    The four reserve companies were thrown in on a run at the point of contact, but our line was speedily compelled to fall back by the cavalry turning our left flank, where they cut off and captured three of our skirmishers. One of the three was badly wounded that evening in trying to escape, a bullet passing through his mouth in a way to knock out about half of his teeth. Eventually the 64th Ohio was driven back across the Rally Hill Road where it made a last stand in a large wood covering a broad bridge abutting on the road about three-fourths of a mile southeast of Spring Hill. While in these woods occurred a bit of exciting personal experience. A bullet, coming from the right, passed through my overcoat, buttoned up to the chin, in a way to take the top button of the blouse underneath the coat. The big brass button struck me a stinging blow on the point of the left collar bone. Clasping both hands to the spot, I began feeling with my fingertips for the hole, fully convinced that a bullet had entered there and had inflicted a serious and possibly fatal wound. It was not until I opened the coat to make a closer investigation that I found was worse scared than hurt. Some of the enemy had secured a position on our right flank and had opened an enfilading fire. It was one of their bullets that had hit me. To get out of this fire the regiment fell back toward the interior of the woods where it was so close to the main line that it was called in.

“Just as our line climbed into the lane, we were met with a galling fire from the woods. Seeing the enemy in some force, it was not difficult to find a target. I laid my gun upon the fence and drew a bead at a dead rest upon an audacious fellow who stood boldly out from a protecting tree blazing away at us. I pressed the trigger of my gun, but there was no report. I pulled, but it would not go off. I took both hands and pulled, but it was no go. My captain, standing by noting this, said “Now Keesy, that is too bad. Let me see that gun.” The captain tried to make the gun fire but couldn’t get it to work, then suggested I sit down and repair the gun. “There under fire, I sat down, took out the tools from my cartridge box, took the lock off, and found it had gotten wet. The dog was released, but the works were so rusted that the mainspring could not pull the hammer down. I worked it a few times, clapped it on, and was ready for action. The captain afterwards said that I took it coolly, but I guess he did not know how fast my heart was beating.” ~ Private William A. Keesy, Co. D, 64th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

    It was then about half past 3 o’clock. By that time, the situation of our army had become so critical that nothing short of the grossest blundering on the part of the enemy could save it from disaster, and there was a fine possibility of destroying it. Wagner’s division had so much property to protect that it was stretched out on a line extending from the railway station, nearly a mile northwest of Spring Hill (where two trains of cars were standing on the track) to the Columbia Pike on the southwest. Behind this long line the village streets and adjacent fields were crammed with nearly everything on wheels belonging to our army- ambulances, artillery carriages, and army wagons, to number not more than 800 vehicles. If Wagner’s division had been destroyed, an easy possibility for the overwhelming numbers confronting it, the rich prize of the ambulance train, six batteries of artillery, and all our wagons with their loads of supplies would have fallen into Hood’s hands, and the retreat of the four divisions at Duck River would have been squarely cut off while having a short supply of artillery and no food or ammunition except what the men were carrying in their haversacks and cartridge boxes.

Private William A. Keesy
Co. D, 64th O.V.I.

    General Bradley had four regiments in line in the woods on the ridge with the left near the Rally Hill Road and the right trending away toward the pike. The faced in a southeasterly direction. To cover more ground, there were short gaps between he regiments. The 65th Ohio was the right regiment of the four, and to the right rear of the 65th was a gap extending about 200 yards into cleared fields where the 42nd Illinois was posted, refused as to the 65th Ohio and facing south to cover that flank. To the front, right, and rear of the 42nd Illinois was a wide expanse of rolling fields extending on the right to the pike about 1000 yards away where two guns were posted to sweep the fields in front of the 42nd with their fire. To the left of the 42nd, an extension of the woods ran out into the fields and concealed the regiment from Cleburne until he had advanced almost abreast of its position. When the 6th Ohio came off the skirmish line, it was sent to the support of the 42nd Illinois. The 36th Illinois, Opdycke’s only reserve, was hurried across on the double quick from the other side of Spring Hill to support the two guns. Around the southeasterly skirt of the village as many guns of the reserve artillery as could be utilized were placed in battery looking toward Bradley’s position.

    The 42nd Illinois was posted behind a high rail fence, staked and ridered. To secure additional protection against musket balls, the men removed the stakes and riders and the top rails and placed them in front with one end resting on the ground and the other end on the top of the fence. As thus reconstructed, the fence was just high enough for the men, kneeling behind it, to fire over the top. When coming off the skirmish line, I passed through a gap in the center of the line in the woods to the left of the 15th Missouri. I then saw that the men in the woods had built barricades using fence rails, rotten logs, old stumps, stones, anything movable they could lay their hands on. Because of the scarcity of materials, the barricades were poor ones.

    It was shortly before 4 o’clock when Cleburne started to march across to the pike. His division consisted of four brigades but one was on detached service and he had three in line- Lowrey’s on his right, then Govan’s, then Granbury’s. First crossing a field in his front, Lowrey entered the extension of the woods that has been mentioned. On emerging on the other side, his right came into sight within easy range of the 42nd Illinois and that regiment opened an enfilading fire, Lowrey’s line then being almost perpendicular to the line of the 42nd. It was this accident of Lowrey’s right passing within range of the 42nd that led to the failure of Hood’s plan, which up to that minute had been a great success. When the 42nd opened fire, the two guns at the pike also opened, their fire crossing that of the 42nd. The 64th Ohio then ran forward and intermingling ranks with the 42nd, poured in their fire. When our fire had thus developed our position out in those wide fields, they could see just what we had.

    They pulled down the rims of their hats over their eyes, bent their heads to the storm of missiles pouring upon them, changed direction to their right on the double quick in a manner that excited our admiration, and a little later a line came sweeping through that gap between the 42nd Illinois and the pike and swinging in toward our rear. Our line stood firm, holding back the enemy in its front, until the flank movement had progressed so far as to make it a question of legs to escape capture. The regiment commanders then gave the reluctant order to fall back. The contact was then so close that as the men on our right were running past the line closing in on them, they were called on with loud oaths, charging them with a Yankee canine descent, to halt and surrender. When the call was not heeded, some of the men were shot down with the muzzle of the muskets almost touching their bodies.

Brigadier General Luther P. Bradley commanded the Third Brigade of Wagner's division at Spring Hill consisting of the 42nd, 51st, and 79th Illinois, 15th Missouri, along with the 64th and 65th Ohio regiments. The Illinois and Missouri units had previously served in Alexander McCook's old 20th Corps at Stones River and Chickamauga while the two Ohio regiments, usually called the Sherman Brigade, served in Thomas L. Crittenden's 21st Corps at those engagements. Bradley sustained his second wound of the war at Spring Hill (he had been wounded at Chickamauga)  and turned over command of the brigade to Colonel Joseph Conrad of the 15th Missouri. 

    By the recession of the two regiments on the flank, the rear of the four regiments in the woods became exposed. They were attacked at the same time by Forrest in front and by Cleburne on the right and rear and were speedily dislodged. The attack was pressed with so much vigor that in a few minutes after the 42nd Illinois opened fire, Bradley’s entire brigade was in rapid retreat with Cleburne in close pursuit and pouring in a hot fire. In falling back, we had to cross the valley of a small stream. As we descended into this valley, we uncovered our pursuers to the fire of the battery posted at the village which opened with shrapnel shells, firing over our heads. As soon as Cleburne encountered this fire, he hastily drew back out of sight. All pursuit, with its direct and crossfire, having thus ceased, Bradley’s men stopped running and walked back to the vicinity of the battery, where a new line was formed without trouble or confusion.

    In coming down slope toward the stream, Major Coulson (whose horse had been killed) was running a few feet in front of me and I was speculating whether my short legs could keep up with his long ones when he called back over his shoulder, “Rally at the fence,” meaning a rail fence we were approaching. I had a poor opinion of the fence as a place to attempt a rally, for we were still exposed to some of the crossfire. To obey orders, I made for the strongest looking fence corner in my front, and jumping over and stopping behind it, looked around to see if any concerted effort would be made to reform the line behind the fence. While there I noticed the effect of our artillery fire on the enemy. I saw by the smoke where a number of our shells had exploded, and they all looked too high in the air and too far to the rear. I did not see a single man knocked down by them. No doubt the fear of killing some of our own men caused our gunners to aim high, for the valley was so shallow that the shells passed close over our heads. It is probable that the surprise of so many guns opening fire and the noise made by them and by the exploding shells, had more to do with stopping the enemy than any execution that was done.

    General Bradley reported a loss of 198 men in his brigade. The most of it fell on the three regiments on the exposed flank, the other three regiments withdrawing with light losses because their position had become untenable. He himself was disabled with a wound that broke his arm. Colonel Joseph Conrad of the 15th Missouri then assumed command of the brigade. By the casualties in the 65th Ohio, the command of that regiment devolved on the adjutant Brewer Smith, a boy only 19 years old and possibly the youngest officer to succeed to the command of a regiment during the war.


Two articles by First Lieutenant John K. Shellenberger, Co. F, 64th Ohio Volunteer Infantry entitled “The Fighting at Spring Hill, Tenn.,” Confederate Veteran, March 1928, pgs. 100-103 and April 1928 pgs. 140-143

 Keesy, William A. War as Viewed from the Ranks. Norwalk: The Experiment and News Co., 1898, pgs. 99-100


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