Thursday, March 6, 2014

On the Road to Muscle Shoals (Summer 1862 - fiction)

Brigadier General Harry T. Hays lay shivering under a heavy blanket even though the midsummer Alabama noon heat was causing a lethargy amongst his staff in the next room. It was all they could do to lift the glass of lemonade that the “girl”, Bessie, had brought them, from the table to their lips. General Hays had managed to catch a fever and had been shivering and miserable for the past three days. Fortunately, Union General Lovell Rousseau had been nowhere near, resting his division 30 miles to the west. Unfortunately, Major General Henry Halleck had ordered Rousseau to clear the Tennessee River of rebels east to Muscle Shoals the day before.

Rousseau, ever the reliable officer, had packed some extra cigars and a special bottle of cognac he had “borrowed” from an Alabama planter and set his blue-clad troops in motion. Hays had ordered entrenchments built before he had taken to his bed, but had not remembered about pickets or vedettes. His ranking brigadier, Robert Hoke, failed to order any scouts as well. General James R. Chalmers, commanding Hays’ other brigade, had just returned that morning from leave and was receiving reports over lunch about a mile away from where Hays was shivering.

Leading the Union advance was companies A and E, 1st Ohio Cavalry, all the mounted troops assigned to Rousseau. Early that July morning, Captain Morris, spied the Confederate works and reported back to Rousseau in person. The general, cigar in place, rode up to a small rise two miles from the Confederate lines.

Quickly assessing the situation, he summoned his three brigadiers, the taciturn regular Shepherd, the dapper lawyer John Starkweather, and the heavy-set former county sheriff, Samuel Beatty. Rousseau issued his orders in his slow, deep voice and bid his subordinates godspeed.

Beatty had only recently joined the division with a brigade of mostly untried recruits. Starkweather’s men at least had “seen the elephant” but were not nearly the “old hands” of Shepherd’s Regular Brigade. Rousseau’s plan depended heavily on the regulars (By God!). Hays would be badly outnumbered but his men were mostly veterans under seasoned regimental officers.

Starkweather opened the ball by bringing up in a powerful cloud of dust, Battery A of the Michigan Light Artillery. Their 6 10-pounder Parrots set up on the tallest hill in the area and began sending shells screaming 800 yards into the works held by the Confederate Guards Response Battalion of New Orleans. Starkweather brought his brigade up methodically, deploying two regiments in front of the battery and sending two more echeloning to the left to wrap around the end of the Confederate line.

Equally methodically, Beatty supervised his raw regiments in their approach. His brigade had the Union center and marched up along a farmer’s track, utilizing a fine wood lot to provide cover. His Kentucky light artillery deployed a full 45 minutes after Starkweather’s guns, their screening infantry having a little difficulty going through its drills under fire for the first time.

On the Union right, Shepherd’s regulars developed the attack swiftly with the Battery H, 5th United States Artillery supporting the 5 battalions who approached in open order, stretching around the Confederate left. The 1/18th and 2/18th combined with the guns to cut the 25th Alabama to pieces.

The situation on the Confederate left had rapidly become precarious as the disciplined and accurate fire from the regulars supported by the US Artillery and the Kentucky guns had already torn a hole in the line and threatened to break through the works and make the entire line untenable. Hoke had swiftly brought his two reserve regiments, the 7th Mississippi and 10th Mississippi, into position, the 10th on a cliff on the far left and the 7th behind the lines where the hapless 25th Alabama had just been eviscerated. However, he hesitated to leave the works.

It was at this moment that General Hays appeared, gaunt and white as a ghost but sitting tall on his sorrel gelding. Hays spoke softly to the much less experienced Hoke and the latter then sent a courier galloping to Colonel Simms of the 7th.

Simms was a newspaperman and a storyteller. Many a cold winter night he had regaled his regimental officers and other colonels with tall tales and embellished tales of the Indian Mutiny, actions in Afghanistan and expeditions into the darkest Africa (none of which places he had ever been, not that he let anyone know THAT particular fact).

Simms was, in addition to being a marvelous campfire one-man thespian, personally brave and quite desirous of having an actual personal adventure. Therefore, when the courier galloped up to him and said, “General Hoke’s compliments, Sir! He orders you, Sir, to push those people away!”

With a flourish the teller of tall tales embarked on his personal adventure. Placing his hat on the tip of his sword he thundered to the front of the regiment, bellowed, “Mississippians! Send the sowbellies back to Chicago! Forward, Seventh!”

Their charge was not the glorious one of the Napoleonic Age. No even, serried ranks with glittering bayonets and matching pom-poms. A ragged line of butternut burst over the hasty works, gathering momentum and losing cohesion, some of their ancient smoothbores lacking bayonets at all, most with tarnished, though sharp, blades. The blood-curdling rebel yell erupted from 400 throats and the open ordered 2/18th and 19th Battalions of US Regulars raced for the relative safety of Berger’s Knoll a mile to the rear.

The charge impetuously carried forward right past the Kentucky guns who poured canister into the tiring and scattering attackers. The 1/18th came to their brothers’ aid and finally, on the slopes of Berger’s Knoll, the three regular battalions turned on Simms and his now badly disorganized men. Simms would pen quite the tale for his newspaper, but from the “safety” of a Chicago prison, as he and 236 of his men surrendered.

Shepherd continued his attack with the 15th and 16th and the supporting US Artillery. Hoke’s howitzers scored a lucky hit on the Kentucky artillery as it attempted to reposition to reengage the 7th Mississippi after it had charged past. One shell hit a caisson and the ensuing explosion destroyed a battery wagon and stampeded a gun team that had just been limbered up. A second shell burst on the barrel of a Napoleon, killing 6 gunners.

However, it was a Pyhrric victory as the US Artillery landed Parrot bolts on two howitzers, disabling them and forcing young Lieutenant Dann to order the battery back. Without the guns the 21st Alabama and 5th Mississippi could not stand to the disciplined volley fire of the Regulars.

On the Union left, Starkweather and Beatty now pressed their attack, though their less experienced troops found it hard going against Chalmers’ veterans. After 30 minutes of fierce fighting though, with Hoke collapsing to his left, Chalmers ordered his brigade back as well.

Wheat’s Battalion had decimated the 21st Wisconsin but had in turn suffered almost 180 casualties. Chalmers’ guns engaged in a lopsided firefight where 55 gunners and almost every horse were shot down. A mere 23 men and a single Blakely rifle managed to pull back. The Confederate Guard Response Battalion, having rallied back, stopped a potentially devastating charge by the 15th Kentucky, preserving Chalmers’ ability to fight another day.

Hoke reformed with barely 700 men the next day; Chalmers had 1200. Rousseau was in complete control of the Tennessee River to Muscle Shoals.