Boys, Remember Iowa! The 3rd Iowa at Hatchie Bridge

     The charge of the 3rd Iowa Infantry across Davis Bridge over the Hatchie River on October 5, 1862, proved to be one of the highlights of that regiment’s extensive combat service during the Civil War.

“General Stephen Hurlbut, as cool as if on review, placed himself at the head of the 3rd Iowa and led the way across the bridge,” one veteran recorded. “We passed the raking fire that swept in front of the bridge, the shot crashing into the buildings on either side of the road. On we passed across the bridge at the double quick, the boys keeping well closed up and cheering. Across the bridge we came to another open space where we seemed to receive the full fire of the batteries loaded with canister shot. As we passed the bridge, the Generals found that if we charged upon their batteries from that point, we should receive the full fire of their troops stationed along the banks of the river in a thick jungle and amid the crash of artillery and musketry, it was impossible to order them to cease firing and to wait for it to be done would be annihilation to us. So we were filed off upon the bank of the river and went to work with the musket for at this time we had not a single piece of artillery that could be used against the enemy.”

Pinned down under intense enemy fire with seemingly no way out, a few men tried to break for the rear. “Two poor frightened fellows attempted to cross the bridge and were driven back by the guards when they went back a little way, placed their left hands over the muzzles of their guns, and shot their fingers off. One artilleryman undertook to run when he was caught by three of his fellow artillerymen, thrown upon the ground, and pounded well-nigh to death, the boys all the while singing out ‘kill him, kill him.’”

This intense account of the action at Davis or Hatchie Bridge was written by Private William H. Nichols of Co. K of the 3rd Iowa writing under the nom-de-plume of St. Charles, a regular correspondent with the Cedar Falls Gazette. His letter originally appeared in the October 24, 1862, edition of that newspaper.

 

This tangled growth of bushes and timber marks the spot where the Federals crossed the Hatchie River under fire. " General Stephen Hurlbut, as cool as if on review, placed himself at the head of the 3rd Iowa and led the way across the bridge," one veteran recalled. "We passed the raking fire that swept in front of the bridge, the shot crashing into the buildings on either side of the road." No evidence of either buildings or bridge these days. If the area wasn't marked, you'd have no clue what happened here in October 1862. 


Bolivar, Tennessee

October 8, 1862

          We are again in camp at Bolivar. Upon the 4th at 5 o’clock in the morning, we left Bolivar and marched towards the Hatchie River at a place known as Davis Bridge on the Corinth and Grand Junction road. We arrived at Middleton on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad at about 3 in the afternoon. We met the advanced scouts of the enemy at this place and for the rest of the day and for the rest of the day our cavalry drove them before us past the Big Muddy. Before coming to the Muddy, we had to pass over a corduroy road through a swamp for half a mile. Upon this road and over these bridges the First Brigade with two batteries passed in safety, but the rear battery broke down both bridges and the Second Brigade was compelled to remain on the west side of the river.

          The First Brigade passed up and over a bluff and camped for the night within a mile of the advance of the enemy. From this camp are two roads, one passing straight to the Hatchie over a series of ridges and the other passing to the right upon a ridge coming into the direct road at the Davis Bridge, and beyond the bridge is a narrow bottom and then an irregular bluff about 50 feet high. At a little before 11 o’clock, the Second Brigade being over the Muddy, passed on by us and engaged the advance of the enemy upon the ridge about one half a mile ahead of us, shelling them and driving them from their position in double quick time. On they passed, pushing them over the next ridge and up the next. Here they found the First Division of the enemy stationed in force. They immediately engaged these and after a severe contest succeeded in driving the enemy before them down the hill, across the bottom, and finally across the bridge, not giving them time to take it up a single plank; indeed, the Second Brigade followed across the bridge themselves and took their position upon the bank of the river.

General Jacob G. Lauman


In the meantime, a detachment of Ross’ brigade, the 12th Michigan and 68th Ohio  numbering in all perhaps 600 strong, passed upon the ridge road to prevent a flank movement. They met a force as was expected and drove them back, but unfortunately for the Rebels, they did not retreat in time to reach the bridge until the Second Brigade had taken it. The consequence was some of them took to the river and swam, some across and some to the bottom, while others gave themselves up as prisoners. At this juncture, the 28th and 53rd Illinois of the First Brigade came down and passed the bridge and took up their position on the right and left.  By this time, the Second Division of the enemy were on the ground and posted on the bluff supporting their batteries, one of which contained three 20-lb howitzers and one 24-pounder. The situation of affairs at this moment was critical in the extreme, for if they could rake the passage of the bridge and command that the forces that had already crossed would be at their mercy.

At this time, the 3rd Iowa first and the 32nd Illinois second were ordered to charge across the bridge with fixed bayonets and up the bluff to take the battery. General Stephen Hurlbut, as cool as if on review, placed himself at the head of the 3rd Iowa and led the way across the bridge. We passed the raking fire that swept in front of the bridge, the shot crashing into the buildings on either side of the road. It was here that Lieutenant W.P. Dodd and Private Derringer of Co. H were instantly killed. On we passed across the bridge at the double quick, the boys keeping well closed up and cheering. Across the bridge we came to another open space where we seemed to receive the full fire of the batteries loaded with canister shot.

 “The 3rd Iowa was placed in the advance “because they can be depended upon,” said General Jacob Lauman. As they came to the bridge, the enemy opened fire. It was awful! The fire of three batteries and infantry was concentrated at that point at only half a pistol’s shot distance. Grape, canister, and musket balls fairly rained around, and the water bubbled as though it were hail instead of balls disturbing it. Lauman raised himself in his stirrups and exclaimed, ‘Boys, remember Iowa! Forward! Double quick, march!” ~ unnamed Federal eyewitness

 

As we passed the bridge, the Generals found that if we charged upon their batteries from that point, we should receive the full fire of their troops stationed along the banks of the river in a thick jungle and amid the crash of artillery and musketry, it was impossible to order them to cease firing and to wait for it to be done would be annihilation to us. So we were filed off upon the bank of the river and went to work with the musket for at this time we had not a single piece of artillery that could be used against the enemy. A portion of a battery had been taken across the river, but the fire was so hot that the only thing that could be done was for the artillerymen to keep as close as possible until the infantry could silence the guns of the enemy which were not much over 100 yards off.

3rd Iowa Reunion Ribbon
Cedar Falls, IA
1908

After remaining in the jungle for a short time, General Edward Ord (senior commander) came up and ordered General Hurlbut to charge the batteries. The General gave the order in a loud, clear voice, so clear and loud that the Rebels distinctly heard him. “Boys, you must take those batteries. They are supported by 20,000 men and if you could drive them, you will do a good thing.” The 3rd Iowa, 32nd Illinois, and 53rd Illinois received these orders and made the charge of the bluffs, but the Rebels were terror-stricken and abandoned their guns, and we soon had full possession of the bluffs, the enemy being in full flight. The cavalry soon joined in the pursuit and followed them until night. We took possession of the bluff about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

The prisoners we took were astonished when they ascertained the smallness of our force. We had charged upon them with such force and enthusiasm that they supposed we had a heavy force to back us. We had some 6,000 men engaged and the Rebels probably not less than 20,000. The prisoners set their number still higher. General Hurlbut and General Lauman were perfectly cool throughout the whole contest and were in the midst of danger continually. Captain Matthew M. Trumbull led the 3rd Iowa into the fight and a better specimen of bravery never was seen. After we crossed the bridge, he said to the boys that he was not going to retreat that day and would sooner die there. The 3rd Iowa beat her own good name for pluck. One of General Ord’s staff who witnessed the whole fight told me that the 3rd Iowa in charging across the bridge as they did and holding their ground saved a stampede and gained the day. General Ord told Hurlbut to take as good care of his men as he could for, he did not believe that another division in the service could do what they did. It is reported that General Ross, who came up afterwards to support us, said he could have come up sooner, but General Hurlbut informed him that he was only going to make a demonstration against the enemy, and if Hurlbut called that a demonstration, Ross wanted to know what in hell he called a fight.

          Most of our wounded men have severe wounds because nearly all were hit with canister shot, all but six or eight in our regiment. If you wish to know what the storm of canister at the bridge was like, go and read the storming of the bridge at Lodi. There were of course a few instances of cowardice shown. Two poor frightened fellows attempted to cross the bridge and were driven back by the guards when they went back a little way, placed their left hands over the muzzles of their guns, and shot their fingers off. One artilleryman undertook to run when he was caught by three of his fellow artillerymen, thrown upon the ground, and pounded well nigh to death, the boys all the while singing out ‘kill him, kill him.’

          I have conversed with many men from different regiments, and all say that at no time in the battle of Shiloh was the fire so hot as a portion of the time of the fight at Davis’ Bridge. Our surgeons were untiring in their efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the wounded. Too much credit cannot be awarded to them. Upon the 6th, the division was occupied in burying the dead. That night the wounded were sent to Bolivar, and at which place the division arrived on the 8th.

 

Sources:

Letter from Private William H. Nichols, "St. Charles," Co. K, 3rd Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Cedar Falls Gazette (Iowa), October 17, 1862, pg. 2

“Iowa Third,” Cedar Falls Gazette (Iowa), November 7, 1862, pg. 1

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