A Fight for Corn: Eight Medals of Honor Awarded at Nolensville

Today, the little town of Nolensville, Tennessee is a bedroom community of the booming metropolis of Nashville. But during the Civil War, it was little more than a country crossroads all but forgotten by war. But in one afternoon in February 1863, an intrepid band of Federal soldiers fought off ten times their number of Confederate cavalry in a little remembered engagement that later resulted in eight of the men being awarded Medals of Honor.  Borrowing The History Guy Lance Geiger's favorite phrase, the little "affair" at Nolensville is history that deserves to be remembered... 

By February 1863, Nolensville lay on the fringes of both the Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee. In the quiet months following Stones River, both armies scoured the area with foraging parties to secure the rich produce of middle Tennessee. Occasionally those foraging parties would blunder into one another and a sharp skirmish would ensue, and that is precisely what happened on February 15, 1863.

The Federal troops involved in this engagement came from Colonel Ferdinand Vanderveer’s brigade of General James B. Steedman’s division which lay in camp near town, tasked with protecting the boundary of the Federal position in middle Tennessee. A detail of 60 men from the 2nd Minnesota Infantry were ordered out that morning to secure 10 wagons full of hay and corn for the command and soon found themselves in the fight of their lives.

“They were loading their wagons from a large and well-filled crib when they were suddenly surrounded by two companies of Confederate cavalry numbering about 125 men,” remembered Colonel Judson Bishop of the 2nd Minnesota. “The cavalry charged down upon them, firing their carbines and yelling, ‘surrender you damned Yanks!’ Our boys did not think it necessary to surrender, but commenced firing in return with deliberate aim, emptying a saddle with almost every shot. The astonished cavalry soon quit yelling and withdrew out of range for consultation, then decided they had had enough of the ‘damned Yanks’ and disappeared altogether.” The plucky Federals suffered three men slightly wounded but gathered up their corn along with some wounded Confederate troopers, then headed triumphantly back to camp.

Their story of fending off ten times their number of Confederate cavalry electrified the dreary winter camp. In a general order to the brigade, Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer said the “little affair is one of the most creditable of the campaign and deserves to be remembered and cited as worthy of the emulation of all.” General Steedman agreed and sent a detailed report of the “little affair” to General Rosecrans’ headquarters in Nashville. Ultimately eight Medals of Honor would be awarded for this fight over hay and corn, one of the highest totals for any engagement during the war.

Among those recipients was Milton Hanna, a private in Co. H of the 2nd Minnesota, who provided the following vivid description of the engagement to the editors of Deeds of Valor

In this image from Deeds of Valor, the soldiers from the 2nd Minnesota take cover in the barnyard as they fight off Confederate cavalry in this forgotten skirmish near Nolensville from February 15, 1863. The determined fight these men staged in the barnyard was celebrated in both brigade and divisional general orders and later resulted in eight of men receiving Medals of Honor in 1897. 


    On Sunday morning, February 15, 1863, after inspection and before breaking ranks, we were ordered to reported to regimental headquarters. Here we found Co. C of the 9th Ohio commanded by a second lieutenant who was awaiting us with First Lieutenant Harrison R. Couse of the 2nd Minnesota; he being the ranking officer had command of both companies.

          We received orders to go to the front to forage for mules and started with ten teams. We marched south along the turnpike about three miles from camp on a crossroad known as Concord Church Road. Here a colored man informed us that just over the hill about a half mile away near where the turnpike crossed over the 6th Alabama Cavalry [note: this is likely in error as the 6th Alabama Cavalry was not in middle Tennessee at this time- DM] , 500 strong, had camped the night before. After satisfying ourselves that this was true, we turned to the left on the mud road and went a mile east to a farmhouse.

          At this point, Sergeant Lovilo H. Holmes received orders from Lieutenant Couse to take 14 men and four wagons and head in a southwesterly direction to the foot of a hill near where the turnpike crossed over and where the enemy was supposed to be while he with the rest of the company should keep on east about three miles to another farmhouse to load the other six wagons. We could not understand why we were separated as there was more forage at either place than the ten wagons could hold.

          On reaching the farmhouse located on a little hill with a small creek some eight or ten rods away, we came to a leading from the house some 500 yards in length, running east and west, at the head of which were some barns, cribs, etc., arranged in the form of a letter V. The sergeant at once stationed sentinels at different points to prevent surprise and John Vale, who stood at the foot of the hill, was soon hailed by a colored man coming on the run and nearly out of breath yelling, “See ‘em, see ‘em!”

          The enemy were west of the turnpike and had passed into the timber where we were unable to see them. They aimed to cut us off from our camp and the other foraging party. Sergeant Holmes ordered me to go to the crossroad and see what they were doing, while he returned to the cribs to prepare for defense. I placed myself in a cedar thicket a few rods from where the enemy crossed over the turnpike and could hear them talk and laugh as the horses’ hoofs pattered over the road.

Corporal Milton Hanna
Co. H, 2nd Minnesota Infantry
Medal of Honor

          The captain of Rebel cavalry remarked that he would pick up the squad of 14 bluecoats and take them prisoners as they would not offer fight but throw up their hands and beg for mercy. He would then send them with a small guard over the hill to the reserve. I returned at once and reported, but the enemy had already arrived at the farm. They filed into the field following the same course we had taken, spreading out and making as large a showing as possible, giving us a chance to count them. They numbered 125 men, all mounted. Holmes saw them coming to us first and ordered us to get under cover as best we could and hold our fire until he shot first. “We can die,” he said, “but we’ll never surrender.”

          With these orders, we took refuge in the buildings. I took shelter in the lower part of the barn, Holmes with two men in the haymow, the others in cribs, hog pens, and other outbuildings between the house and barn. When the enemy reached the head of the lane, they put spurs to their horses, each trying to be the first to catch a live Yankee. On the came across the creek yelling, “Surrender, you damned Yanks!’ Moments seemed hours as we sighted our rifles and waited for the signal gun.

          The advance was less than two rods from us when three shots from the haymow took down the leading horse which fell on its rider, and held him down during the fight, after which he was taken prisoner. Other shots quickly followed, killing eight horses, and wounding several men. The others quickly dismounted and running back, took shelter behind the fences. During their confusion, we had time to reload our guns and as some loaded quicker than others, we kept up a continuous fire until the enemy was driven away.

          When the fight had continued for some time, I noticed a man sitting on his horse in a very dignified manner who, we afterwards learned, was the captain in charge of the command. He was out of my range, but I took careful aim and fired. As he did not heed my salute, I gave him two more charges of powder and ball. Those familiar with the old musket know what this meant at my end of the gun. He had occasion to dismount and lead his horse farther back. I yelled that I had to do something on account of my shoulder. This, of course, was done in jest, and the other boys began yelling and asking why they didn’t come and take the ‘damned Yanks’ if they wanted us.

          The Confederates finally withdrew and when the smoke had cleared away, we found two dead Rebels, several wounded, and ten dead horses. We took three prisoners and three horses who had broken free from their riders and came to us. Jim Flannigan was mounted on one of the captured horses and sent to camp, and Charles Krause on another was dispatched to the remainder of the company which was nowhere to be seen at that time. We finished loading our wagons and prepared to return to camp. Our losses included Sergeant Holmes, Charles Liscomb, and Sam Louden, all slightly wounded, one mule killed, and a wagon tongue broken. We had three good horses to return to Uncle Sam for the dead mule.

Three of the eight men who were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions near Nolensville: Orderly Sergeant Lovilo Holmes (left), Byron E. Pay (center), and Milton Hanna (right)
(Deeds of Valor)

          First Lieutenant Harrison R. Couse, writing on February 19, 1863, had command of this expedition and offered his own memories of the “little affair” in this letter published in the March 6, 1863, edition of the Mantorville Express. Lieutenant Couse attributes the rapid retreat of the Confederate force to his arrival with the balance of the command in the Confederate rear, an account at variance with what Milton Hanna reported in his account. Interestingly, no mention of Lieutenant Couse is made in either Van Derveer's or Steedman's complimentary orders regarding the action. 

Camp 2nd Minnesota Volunteers, Concord Church, Tennessee

February 19, 1863

     The Rebels seem as active as usual. I have had the honor of fighting them once more, in rather a singular way. On Sunday, the 15th, I was sent out on a foraging expedition, with 60 men and 11 wagons. I had got four miles from camp when a negro came to me and told me that 500 Rebel cavalry were in the woods two miles ahead, waiting to capture our train.

I at first thought of sending back for more force; but reflecting that if it should prove false, the General would laugh at my fears, I concluded to push on. We had got to the forage and I had divided the train, leaving 30 men and 4 wagons to load one stack of hay, and with the remaining 30 men and 7 wagons had gone over the hill about half a mile, when I heard the boys that I had left back firing.

I at once deployed the men I had with me, as skirmishers, and marched at double quick for the brow of the hill. On arriving there, we saw 250 Rebel cavalry engaging our boys. We immediately opened fire on them in the rear, and they seeing they were in a trap, with a force on both sides of them, commenced picking up their dead and wounded and leaving. We pressed them so hard that they left three men wounded, seven horses, four of which were killed. We also captured three guns and seven saddles.

The Rebels had killed two of our mules and wounded three of our boys, but not badly. I immediately sent a man to camp to inform the General of the case, as the Rebels had only retired into the edge of the woods and were preparing to attack us again. There we stayed for two hours in the old barn, waiting and looking anxiously for help, fearing to leave the barn to cross the field towards camp, for they would attack and capture us on open ground, being three of them to one of us.

At last, near dark, we saw our cavalry coming. They immediately charged for the Rebels, chasing them 13 miles. We came back to camp, not very much worse for the fight we had been in. The General seemed well pleased with my conduct.


Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer
35th Ohio 

          Colonel Van Derveer listed all 15 soldiers who took part in the successful “little affair” in a general order issued to the brigade a few days later. Those soldiers who later received the Medal of Honor for this action are listed in bold.

First Sergeant Lovilo H. Holmes (later captain)

Corporal Samuel Wright

Corporal William A. Clark (later sergeant)

Private Homer Barnard

Private Joseph Burgher (wounded at Kennesaw Mtn and discharged for disability in 1865)

Private Nelson Crandall (died of disease January 15, 1864, at Chattanooga)

Private James Flanningan (later sergeant)

Private Milton Hanna (later corporal, wounded at Chickamauga)

Private Charles Krause (wounded at Chickamauga)

Private Samuel Leslie (later corporal)

Private Charles Liscomb

Private Louis Londrash (also listed as Lindrosh, wounded in hand at Chickamauga, captured August 26, 1864, near Atlanta, exchanged February 27, 1865; died in 1880)

Private Samuel Benjamin Loudon (wounded at Chickamauga, killed at Missionary Ridge)

Private Byron E. Pay (wounded at Chickamauga)

Private John Vale (later sergeant)

    The Medals of Honor would not be awarded until the fall of 1897 and it took the efforts of Congressman Frederick C. Stevens to secure them for his fellow Minnesotans. Secretary of War Russell A. Alger notified Joseph Burgher of the award by letter which was read at the 2nd Minnesota’s regimental reunion in September.

“You are hereby notified that by the direction of the President and under the provisions of the act of Congress approved March 3, 1863, providing for the presentation of Medals of Honors to such officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates as have most distinguished themselves in action,” it read. “A Congressional Medal of Honor has this day been presented to you for most distinguished gallantry in action at Nashville, Tennessee on February 15, 1863, to wit: This soldier, then a private in Co. H, 2nd Minnesota Infantry, was one of a detachment of 16 men escorting a wagon train that was attacked by 125 cavalry. After a most heroic defense, the attack was repulsed and the train saved.”

Milton Hanna received his medal the first week of October. “The medals are made of bronze and style is similar to that of the G.A.R. badge, but heavier,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. “The engraving is the same on all the medals except the change of name. They are encased in a neat plush case. Accompanying the ribbon is also a little ribbon bow to be worn on the lapel of the coat by those belonging to the Medal of Honor legion.” 

Sources:

“The Damned Yanks Didn’t Beg For Mercy,” Corporal Milton Hanna, Co. H, 2nd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, from Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F. Keydel, Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor. Detroit: The Perrien-Keydel Company, 1901, pgs. 137-140

Bishop, Judson W. The Story of a Regiment, Being a Narrative of the Service of the Second Regiment, Minnesota Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War of 1861-1865. St. Paul: 1890, pgs. 81-82, 215-216

Letter from First Lieutenant Harrison R. Couse, Co. H, 2nd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, Mantorville Express (Minnesota), March 6, 1863, pg. 2

“Medals of Honor Ordered for Certain Members of the Second Regiment,” Saint Paul Globe (Minnesota), September 10, 1897, pg. 10

“Comrades Milton Hanna, L.H. Holmes, and W.A. Clark,” Minneapolis Star Tribune (Minnesota), October 4, 1897, pg. 8


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