Colonel A.B. Moore Explains the Hartsville Disgrace

     The Battle of Hartsville, Tennessee fought December 7, 1862, ended Colonel Absalom B. Moore’s promising military career. Just a few months removed from civilian life in LaSalle County Illinois, Colonel Moore found himself commanding the green 39th Brigade consisting of his own 104th Illinois, the 106th Ohio, and the 108th Ohio. He assumed command of the brigade on December 2nd and as his obituary later stated, "it was his misfortune to hold a command for which he was unfitted by reason of inexperience, the want of confidence in the part of many of his officers, and the absence of those military instincts which soldiers recognize and trust." 

    Moore was a political colonel par excellence. He had moved to Illinois from New Jersey in the mid-1850s and became a successful businessman as an agent for the Illinois Central Railroad. Besides preaching in the Methodist Episcopal Church, Moore favored the nascent Republican Party and was a staunch advocate for Lincoln in the 1860 election. Moore was elected to his post as colonel in August 1862 as the regiment was being organized in Illinois, and led it into Kentucky that fall. By early December, the 104th had taken position at Hartsville and had settled into camp for the winter.

    The brigade was tasked with guarding Hartsville out on the left flank of the Rosecrans’ army as it rested roughly 40 miles southwest at Nashville preparing for a campaign to drive into Middle Tennessee. Hartsville’s importance lay in the fact that it guarded an important crossing of the Cumberland River, offering a backdoor approach for daring Confederates who might have their eyes on destroying the recently re-opened Louisville & Nashville Railroad which supplied Rosecrans army.

          Colonel John H. Morgan spied Hartsville as a plum ripe for the picking in early December 1862. An isolated outpost, Morgan suspected that he could march his command on Hartsville by stealth and take the town with nary a shot fired like he had at Gallatin months earlier. The weather that Sunday morning aided the enterprising raider in his endeavor as upwards of four inches of snow fell. It took most of the night to cross the icy Cumberland River.  As Morgan's troopers moved along the road from the ford, Moore's rookie pickets saw Morgan's men wearing captured light blue Federal overcoats and mistakenly thought it was a Federal cavalry patrol. The pickets were soon captured which allowed Morgan to approach Moore's encampment unseen, but the alarm was raised and in the 90 minutes fight which ensued, the Confederates lost 139 men, roughly 10% of Morgan's force. But the prize gained more than offset the losses: Moore's entire brigade numbering more than 2,000 men surrendered along with 58 dead and 204 wounded. 

         The disaster at Hartsville set off a storm of official hand-wringing, started with President Lincoln who demanded an explanation for how an entire brigade could have been captured. It took Rosecrans a few months to make his determination, and the onus for the disaster landed solely on Absalom Moore's shoulders. Colonel Moore’s letter written to an unnamed friend from Libby Prison on January 29, 1863, was originally printed in the February 14th 1863 edition of the Chicago Tribune. As indicated in his letter, Moore was aware of the harsh things that had been written about his performance at Hartsville but begged that folks “withhold censure until they can get all the evidence of the case.” But General Rosecrans recommended Moore's dismissal from the army in February 1863. However, Moore was later granted permission to resign his commission for ill-health instead of having a dishonorable dismissal as his final record with the army.


Colonel Absalom B. Moore, 104th Illinois Volunteer Infantry

Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia

January 29, 1863


          Of course, you are aware that I am a prisoner of war and am now confined in a room 78 feet x 43 feet with 125 men composed of officers, citizens, sutlers, thieves, deserters. Highwaymen, and robbers, all thrown together promiscuously, and you can fancy what a comfortable position I am in. We are full of vermin; if we did not slaughter them wholesale every morning, we should be soon eaten up alive. As I assure you that these filthy creepers and Confederate money are the only two things abundant in Dixie. It is useless for me to write about our living in this place as I must reserve that until I see you for I indulge the hope that I shall get out of this place by and by, but when I cannot say.

          I purchase the Southern papers and from Northern extracts contained in them I infer that the Secessionists and cowards of the North contemplate working a compromise. If they only knew how their exertions for such things are ridiculed by the Southern press, they would renounce and abandon the idea instanter. I see by the resolutions of those peace men that they find great fault about putting Northern citizens in confinement for disloyalty and call upon the Administration to cease such things; but I find nothing in those resolutions condemning the same things in the South. There are citizens in prison here and have been here month after month simply because they are not loyal to the Confederacy. They should denounce Old Abe for that also. No man in the South dare speak against the Rebel government. If he does, confinement is his doom. There are men in this prison who are here for being alien enemies, having the misfortune to have been born in Maine.

          Now a word in reference to the fight at Hartsville where I and my whole force were captured. I had been in command of the 39th Brigade but a few days before the fight having succeeded Colonel Joseph R. Scott of the 19th Illinois who gave up the command and returned to his regiment. I had in my brigade the 104th Illinois, the 106th and 108th Ohio regiments, and about 250 of the 2nd Indiana Cavalry, one company of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry, and a section of Nicklin’s Indiana battery. I had my pickets and videttes well thrown out and kept the country scouted for miles around every day. My scouts reported to me that Lebanon, Tennessee was picketed by the Rebels about 15 miles from Hartsville.

          On the evening of December 6th, John Morgan with his whole cavalry force of over 4,000 and eight pieces of artillery and two regiments of infantry (the 7th and 9th Kentucky) and Cobb’s battery started at 10 o’clock at night eight miles from Lebanon with the infantry mounted behind the cavalry and marched 25 miles that night, crossing the Cumberland five miles below my camp, cut off my videttes, and pushed on for Hartsville. My pickets gave the alarm in time for me to have my men in proper line to receive them. I commenced the attack upon the enemy and fought him for one and half hours. The fight while it lasted was very severe. The 104th Illinois and the 2nd Indiana Cavalry fought nobly, but the 106th Ohio led by their colonel [Gustav Tafel] behaved most shamefully and cowardly. I did my utmost to rally them and also called upon Colonel Stewart of the 2nd Indiana Cavalry to aid me in rallying them, but it was unavailing. They ran with their colonel at their head and were soon captured. The 108th Ohio did much better than the 106th. Indeed, I have no particular fault to find with the 108th as it did not have a single field officer in the regiment; Captains Piepho and Kreider did good service.

          The company of Kentucky cavalry also did nobly. The section of artillery also performed good execution. After the 106th had deserted their position without orders, it left three guns without any support on the right. I ordered the 104th Illinois to hold the Rebels in check until I placed the cannon in another position. They did so. I then ordered them to fall back for the reason that they were flanked on the right by the Rebels. They fell back in good order with a portion of the 108th Ohio accompanying them. By this time, we were completely surrounded. My gunners were either killed or wounded, no prospect of receiving reinforcements, and part of my command basely deserting me, I was forced to surrender to prevent any further slaughter. It was completely useless to make further resistance being hemmed in on all sides by an overwhelming force of five to six to one.

Captain William G. Gholson, my adjutant general, trying in a gallant manner to rally the 106th Ohio to perform their duty fell by my side pierced through the head by a Minie bullet. Lieutenant M. Randolph of the 104th Illinois was also killed, a most excellent, brave, and patriotic man. Lieutenant Colonel Stewart and Major Hill of the 2nd Indiana Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel Hapeman and Major Widmer and every officer in those regiments and also every man acted well their parts and all deserve the appellation of heroes. Captain Slater of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry done nobly, and Lieutenant Green of the battery and all in his command while they had opportunity did good execution. Lieutenant J. Dewald, my aide-de-camp, was with me in the most dangerous parts of the field and did me much service by the prompt and faithful delivery of orders.

 If ever I experienced a sensation of mortification, it was the moment when I was compelled upon consultation with some of my officers to surrender those brave men who had held at bay a force of Rebels for one and a half hours five times their number. I indulged the hope that reinforcements would come, but we were all disappointed. There were two brigades of infantry within weight miles of us and they could hear the reports of the cannonading, but never came to our relief until too later. Why it was so, I cannot tell. I was thrown out on the extreme left with a small force liable to be attacked and no arrangements made to render me relief. From the time the fight commenced, and we were marched away from camp, it was nearly three hours and no reinforcements. It was too bad. If they had started when the first cannon sounded, they could have reached us and saved us.

The force of the Rebels was six regiments of cavalry who dismounted and fought as infantry; also two regiments of infantry and 14 pieces of artillery making the aggregate about 5,000 men. My force consisted of 450 men of the 104th, 350 of the 106th, 250 of the 108th, and 250 cavalry along with two cannon. My whole force in the fight was about 1,200 but no more. I had sent the day before to Gallatin as an escort to our provision train three companies of infantry, one company of cavalry, and 25 men as mounted infantry making about 200 men that were not in the fight. There was also one company of infantry in the city of Hartsville acting as provost guard that were not in the fight. I am astonished that with my little force we held out as long as we did.

The Rebel loss in killed and wounded was about 400. They hauled them away by the wagonload but for fear that reinforcements might come to me, they were compelled to leave many of their dead and wounded on the field. What my loss was I cannot tell as I have had no opportunity to find out. If I had two more such regiments as the 104th Illinois, I could have cut my way out and could anyway if the 106th Ohio had stood up bravely. Upon my return, I will prefer charges against Colonel Tafel of the 106th Ohio for cowardice and every officer will sustain me in it. So conscious was Morgan himself that Tafel was a coward that he paroled him and sent him home as he would a private.

I have seen some extracts taken from Northern papers condemning me for surrendering. They know nothing about it and should at least withhold censure until they get all the evidence in the case. I have been told by some of the Federal soldiers captured at Murfreesboro that it was reported that  Negro had come into my lines and notified me that the Rebels were coming to attack me that night. That is untrue. Nothing of the kind was communicated to me in any way whatever. If it was told to any of my pickets, it never reached me. Others say it was a surprise. If it was a surprise, I was ready for them and commenced the fight. The only surprise was the overwhelming force which was brought against us. Yet I would have fought them to the last had there been 100,000. Morgan said I was isolated from the main army, and he brought the overwhelming force so as to take me before reinforcements would reach me and that he intended to take me without a fight.

I desire to try the Rebels again when I get released and I want no better men than the 104th Illinois. God bless them all!


Letter from Colonel Absalom B. Moore, 104th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Chicago Tribune (Illinois), February 14, 1863, pg. 2


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