A Gallant Defense: The 1st Michigan Engineers and the Fight for LaVergne

          The fight of the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics regiment at LaVergne, Tennessee on January 1, 1863 represented the proudest moment in that regiment’s service during the Civil War. Numbering only 315 officers and men under the command of Colonel William Innes, the regiment hunkered down in their breastworks and protected one of the army’s baggage trains from destruction by Joe Wheeler’s cavalry and suffered but small loss to themselves. But it was desperate fighting as remembered by Private William L. Clark of Co. K.

          “The main force came plunging up on the left of the company, discharging their pieces and wheeling to the left when they found our defenses so good that they could not gallop their horses over them. They were an excellent mark for every musket, rifle, and revolver loaded in the company and many were killed or wounded. One gallant fellow tried to spring his horse over in front of Lieutenant Curtis. “Don’t come over here, sir!” said he and a ball from his revolver passed directly through his body which, however, was carried some distance before it fell to the ground,” Clark noted.

          Clark's regiment originally began as a fusileer regiment, but William P. Innes convinced the War Department and Governor Blair to accept the regiment into the service as the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics; recruiting proceeded with rapidity and 1,032 men were in the ranks when the regiment mustered into service on October 29, 1861. The regiment left for Kentucky in December 1861 and was attached to the Army of the Ohio, accompanying that army on its marches through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. The regiment was broken up into four detachments and attached to various divisions of the army where the regiment soon garnered a solid reputation for their skill and speed with which they performed their duties repairing bridges and constructing corduroy roads. This was the reason that the 1st Michigan was at LaVergne on January 1, 1863- they had been tasked with repairing a bridge of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad at that point to support the advance of Rosecrans' army. 

          Private Clark’s description of the defense of LaVergne first saw publication in the January 21, 1863 edition of the Marshall Statesman.

 

This unidentified soldier of the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics poses with his Hardee hat complete with an ostrich plume and an engineers badge in the center of the hat. 

 Camp of the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics

La Vergne, Tennessee, January 5, 1863

 

          Before we left the camp from which I last wrote, we were aware of the proximity of a considerable force of the enemy’s cavalry and took more than usual precaution against a surprise. On the last day of last year, our wagons were sent around on the turnpike to arrive here while we marched across the country for part of the distance on by-roads of the narrowest and poorest description. As we reached here, we first had quite a resting spell and while waiting many stragglers from the battlefield came along and reported the Right Wing cut to pieces and falling back from the line of battle. We could then easily hear the heavy guns, probably seven or eight miles away.

          Various were the speculations upon the result of the battle at Murfreesboro; some men were inclined to believe that Rosecrans was not equal to his position and would be defeated, and that so many changes in commanders would prove the nation’s ruin and nothing would go right until McClellan should be reinstated. Nobody defended General Buell or wished him in command. Others were willing to wait awhile before looking upon defeat in front as a positive fact, past, present, or to come to call, and dared to believe Rosecrans would bring things out alright.

          Stragglers continued to pass on the railroad track as well as the turnpike, which I assured you looked very bad and disgraceful; hearty, strong soldiers getting away on horseback or by foot away from their regiments, away from their comrades, and away from their officers, leaving them to do double duty or lose the day and subsequently bear the disgrace of defeat. When our wagons came, they were placed so as to enclose the north end and almost the west side of an oblong camp about six or eight rods from the road and parallel to it. No tents were raised. Regimental headquarters were established in an old log building on the east line of the camp.

Colonel William P. Innes
1st Michigan Engineers & Mechanics


          Early on New Year’s Day, a large detail from each company was employed throwing up a breastwork of small trees and brush on the east line and south end. A surprising amount of work was soon performed and by noon we had defenses worth mentioning if attacked only be cavalry. Up to this time, it was not known that we should be molested as wagons trains and prisoners under guard had been frequently passing along, but we had orders to be in readiness to meet an attack at any moment.

          Suddenly early in the afternoon, on the north side and close to us, boom, boom, popped a couple of pieces of artillery. “Company, fall in! Fall in!” sounded throughout the camp. Each company took its assigned position with directions to change points of defense whenever ordered. Looking north along the road, the Rebels had already captured a portion of a train and now the wagons were burning. Along a ridge at right angles to the road, a long line of cavalry was drawn up, preparing to charge upon us. As they appeared fairly upon the highest point, some eighty rods off, a heavy volley was fired upon them. They turned and retreated down out of sight and commenced firing upon with artillery and sharpshooters. As the shot and shell whirred over our heads or cut the trees, or took the legs or heads of mules, some timid hearts are said to have supposed we were “gone up.”

 

“They came with a flag of truce asking permission to pick up their dead and wounded but Colonel Innes told them they could have all they could find out of the range of our guns, but if they came in range, we should fire on them. So, on the head of that they skedaddled leaving about 50 dead outside of our stockade. We captured one private and one private and six wounded men. The sun is now down and with ends this New Year’s dance for it was a dance I assure you.” ~Private Isaac Roseberry, Co. D, 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics

 

          Presently, the cavalry made a charge and were driven back. Then they charged on the east and were jilted again. Once more and again repulsed. Then more artillery firing and sharpshooting while the cavalry, under cover of the woods, gained ground on our southwest and camp up dismounted upon Co. D’s defenses supposing they were not seen. Coming up in good order as fallen treetops, stumps, and obstructions would permit, they were allowed to gain a close distance before they were assailed by a volley so well-directed that a rapid retreat ensued, and they were contented to leave for parts out of sight for a considerable time. Several straggling soldiers came in on our colors being displayed in the road and some Ohio cavalry so that we had a little help.

          Mule teams and horses had broken loose and ran about, and several teamsters ventured pretty close to the enemy’s position after them without injury. We heard firing to the south on the road and supposing reinforcements were coming, we cheered loudly. During this temporary lull, the enemy was planning to attack on the east, north, and south. Co. K was ordered from the western to the southern defenses. A tremendous cheer in that direction proved to be the signal of general assault. While the charge was made in other directions and accordingly to Colonel Kinsman Hunton, “splendidly made,” and as gallantly repelled. I can only speak particularly of that on the south.

 

The stout fight of the 1st Michigan at LaVergne inspired this "war song" in early 1863. 

“While the regiment numbered only a little over 300, it fought a greatly superior force until dark with the loss of one killed and six wounded, defeating every attempt at capture until darkness compelled the enemy’s withdrawal. During the engagement, which last for five hours, the enemy made seven distinct charges, something forcing their horses up to the breastworks, but were as often gallantly repelled. While these charges were being made by the cavalry, their artillery kept constantly at play with considerable effect, killing some 40 or more horses and mules and damaging the wagons. General Wheeler three times sent a flag of truce to Colonel Innes demanding a surrender each time claiming an increase of his force and threatening the consequences of a refusal, to which Colonel Innes invariably replied, ‘I can’t see it so long as my ammunition holds out!’ By this gallant fight, the entire rear of the army and nearly all the baggage trains were saved.” ~ Clarence F. Bronner, 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics

 

          Forming behind the woods, they charged up handsomely along the road and through the woods on the southwest corner. The main force came plunging up on the left of the company, discharging their pieces and wheeling to the left when they found our defenses so good that they could not gallop their horses over them. They were an excellent mark for every musket, rifle, and revolver loaded in the company and many were killed or wounded. One gallant fellow tried to spring his horse over in front of Lieutenant Cyrus M. Curtis. “Don’t come over here, sir!” said he and a ball from his revolver passed directly through his body which, however, was carried some distance before it fell to the ground. It is thought that Captain Emory Crittenton killed one with his revolver as his aim was good and mark pretty close. Many of the men feel sure their aim was too good to have entirely missed. Several horses fell and on one an officer’s dress clothing was found. He probably fell in the charge as the officer was dressed in good citizen’s butternut.

The men of the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics busily at work rebuilding the Elk River bridge in this image from the Photographic History of the Civil War


          I am told 23 dead have been found and buried. Of course, most of their wounded could easily ride away. Many arms have been picked up and brought in; Captain Crittenton found a good Enfield rifle today near the first line formed by the cavalry. I lost my two best and nearest aims from the non-explosion of poor caps on my revolver, so I probably killed none but although at a greater distance, I fired amongst the butternut gang eight or nine times. After the last charge, a flag of truce was sent in the first place to demand a surrender, and at last, to bury their dead. Of course, Colonel Innes did not surrender. The enemy’s force was about 3,000.

 Sources:

Letter from Private William L. Clark, Co. K, 1st Michigan Engineers & Mechanics, Marshall Statesman (Michigan), January 21, 1863, pg. 2

“Defending the Train,” Clarence F. Bronner, 1st Michigan Engineers & Mechanics, National Tribune, August 9, 1888, pg. 3

Diary of Private Isaac Roseberry, Co. D, 1st Michigan Engineers & Mechanics, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University


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