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Action at Tazewell

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As has been discussed previously, the terrain around the Cumberland Gap created a logistical nightmare for the movement of supplies and ammunition into the Federal positions.  With roads no wider than foot paths and steep grades the supplies which did travel the 80 miles from Central Kentucky to Cumberland Gap were received not in a flood but a trickle.

The supply situation had a reaching impact on the overall military operations of the 7th Division.  Without a sustainable flow of supplies, the impregnable fortress that Cumberland Gap represented could be starved out much in the same way the medieval castles of Europe fell. Additionally, with a supply conduit which was unreliable at best, the Division could not sustain its operations should it advance towards Knoxville.

The most obvious short term answer to the problem would be to forage for supplies in the region directly north of the Gap in Eastern Kentucky while suitable roads were built.  Located behind Federal lines, there was little chance of a foraging force being challenged.   When an army relies on foraging operations for supplementing the available supplies, it is usually done in conjunction with an army on the move.  The key being that an army moves on before any one area is completely exhausted of supplies.  Morgan’s dilemma was compounded by the necessity to stay in place at the Gap.  Without the support of Buell, General Morgan did not have sufficient forces to launch a sustained invasion of East Tennessee. By remaining in place, the forage in the immediate area of the Gap was quickly exhausted.

Unfortunately for the defenders of the Gap, Mother Nature was as powerful an enemy as Kirby Smith’s whole army. The torrential rains during the spring followed by a severe drought reduced the available food stuff to the lowest levels in years.  Additionally, the whole area had been ravaged by Confederate forces under both Zollicoffer and Humphrey Marshall during the campaigns of late 1861 and early 1862.  These events created a situation where the local population was struggling to feed itself and would face starvation trying to feed an additional 7,000 mouths.

With Morgan unable to draw enough supplies from Central Kentucky and the region north of the Gap unable to provide enough forage to supplement what little he was getting, other avenues had to be explored.  With careful consideration of his options, Morgan found the answer to his problem right in front of him.  By sending foraging patrols into the rich and fertile Powell Valley, he could satisfy two of his immediate needs.  First, by foraging he could relieve his supply situation until suitable roads could be built into the region.  Secondly, these foraging missions would serve as scouting opportunities giving him some advanced warning should the Confederacy mount an attempt to re-take the gap.

The supplies from East Tennessee did present Morgan with a problem.  The very strong Unionist sentiment in the region would preclude the Federal forces from simply seizing the supplies they needed from individual farms.  Care had to be taken to target only food stuffs which were destined to feed Confederate soldiers and every item taken must be paid for with either a Federal voucher or Federal script.  Fortunately for Morgan, one such source of supplies did exist quite close to the federal lines.

South of the Cumberland Gap lays the small Tennessee town of Tazewell.  About 4 miles farther south along Sycamore Creek was a grist mill which was reported to have several thousand pounds of meal in storage awaiting delivery to Kirby Smith’s forces at Knoxville.  The meal would drastically improve the Federal supply situation and denying to the Confederates would strike a dual blow.  With his sights set on the mill, General Morgan called Lt. Col. DeCourcy to his headquarters to lay out his plan.

Morgan authorized DeCourcy to advance with a heavy brigade to the town of Tazewell which lies about 10 miles south of the Gap proper.  Once reaching Tazewell, DeCourcy was instructed to reconnoiter the area, confiscate any usable supplies and issue Federal script for their payment, and move to the grist mill to obtain all the meal stored there.  This expedition would also give Morgan a chance to test the waters for future operations south of the Gap.

On the morning of August 2, 1862, DeCourcy led his brigade and 200 wagons south toward Tazewell.  The hot August weather made even the short 10 mile trip arduous.  It took almost eight hours to cover the distance with the brigade reaching the outskirts of Tazewell in the mid afternoon of the 2nd.  As they neared the town, DeCourcy discovered rebel pickets on the ridge just north of Tazewell.  Calling up part of Major Kershner’s 16th Ohio infantry, the federals pushed south down the Tazewell Road.  The Confederate pickets exchanged a few shots with the advancing Federals but quickly realized they were greatly outnumbered.  Assuming the town was the objective, the pickets retired south in the direction of Bean Station.

On entering the town, DeCourcy’s brigade was met with mixed emotions by the population.  Like so many towns in Eastern Tennessee, both Confederate and Union sentiment ran deep.  As the troops moved down the main street, they were met with few cheers and many jeers.  DeCourcy was disturbed by what he perceived as a lack of support from an area where he had been told strong Unionist ties existed.  It must be understood however that the town was in enemy territory.  With only a brigade, the Unionists in Tazewell must have understood that the Federals were not there to stay and those who flaunted their allegiance to the old flag would most surely face open hostility when the Federals left.

DeCourcy established his headquarters in the home of a strong Unionist family.  The 16th Ohio Regiment was stationed in the fields south of the town as an advanced guard and the remainder of the brigade found areas to bivouac in and around the town.  At the close of the 2nd of August, the Federals were firmly in control of Tazewell and the immediately surrounding countryside.

Beginning Sunday morning, August 3rd, and proceeding into Monday, the brigade busied itself with collecting all the available forage in and around the town.  According to correspondence between DeCourcy and General Morgan, the expedition was proving successful.  The Federals acquired horses, cattle, sheep and hay and prepared them for shipment north to the Gap.

Sunday afternoon, August 3rd, DeCourcy accompanied by a regiment and two guns made a reconnaissance in force southward on the Morristown road. About 2 miles south of the town, the Federals encountered a force of approximately 100 mounted Confederates possibly of the 5th Tennessee Cavalry.  Thinking a little show of force from their superior numbers would disperse them, the Federals made a show of advancing.  Arrogantly, the Confederate cavalry stood its ground.

Unwilling to commit the infantry to a fight without knowing what was behind the cavalry, DeCourcy called up the accompanying two 10 pound Parrott rifles.  The guns unlimbered and began to engage the cavalry with long range shell fire.  After a few shots, the cavalry retired from its position.  Not wanting to force a general engagement, DeCourcy retired to Tazewell to plan the expedition to the Sycamore Creek Grist Mill.

The Federal foraging parties did not operate with complete impunity.  On Monday evening, August 4th, two citizens were brought to DeCourcy’s headquarters.  According to the guard, these two “loyal” residents of Tazewell were captured giving notes and tallies on the exact composition of the Federal force to Confederate Cavalry scouts.  It was supposed these rebel sympathizers were forwarding the details of the raiding force to General Kirby Smith’s Division located in and around Knoxville with hopes it could be trapped and destroyed in detail.  After hearing the story and seeing the evidence, DeCourcy ordered the spies held for trial.  In correspondence with General Morgan, DeCourcy asked for permission to execute the spies publicly as it would provide “a good example” of the law.

August 5, 1862

On Tuesday morning, August 5, 1862, DeCourcy moved south down the Morristown road in the direction of Sycamore Creek and Bean Station.  Reaching the mouth of Little Sycamore Creek, DeCourcy with the 16th OH, 22nd KY, and part of the 42nd OH along with four guns of Foster’s 1st WI Artillery accompanied the 200 wagons up the valley of the Little Sycamore Creek.  The 22nd KY remained in Tazewell to protect the already gathered forage and maintain control of the town.   To cover the road junction up the little Sycamore Valley and make sure the escape route was not cut off,   Lt. Col Pardee of the 42nd Ohio was left with five companies of the 42nd and 2 guns of the 1st WI to position as he saw fit.

Pardee positioned his force immediately south of the road junction.  Companies A, B, K and I were deployed  in what was described as skirmish order perpendicular to the roadway and extending well beyond the road on each flank.  To make his force seem larger, Lt. Col. Pardee broke each company into platoons and stationed them at intervals allowing him to cover a larger front.  Captain Bushnell’s Company C was advanced forward to a heavily wooded high knoll on the east side of the road. One gun was placed at the road junction and the second gun was placed on an elevated rise north of the junction in a position  supporting the first.

What comes next is perhaps the strangest method of communication used in the annals of war.  Lt. Col. Pardee was a cautions man.  Even with Company C positioned as an advanced guard, he was determined to have the maximum warning of any advance made by the enemy and their exact composition.  To complete this hazardous mission, Pardee choose two privates from the 42nd.  Privates Owen Hopkins and Joseph Andrews were instructed in a signal method which was unique to be kind. If the enemy was cavalry only, the two scouts were to get down on their hands and knees, if it were infantry and cavalry one would stand, one would get on all fours. The snapping of a stick over head was to signify artillery. Finally, if they were advancing, they were to fall back and if they were stationary then they were to drop a cap.

The Two intrepid scouts crawled forward to a high ridge covered by brush and blackberry bushes where they could see for a long distance down the Road.  As they reached the position, Hopkins was horrified to see what he could only describe as the entire Confederate Army!  About a mile in advance the scouts could see a Confederate column consisting of cavalry, infantry and artillery.  Much closer to their position near a farm house was an advanced guard of cavalry.  They were dismounted ,watering their horses, and filling canteens at the well.  In a tree line just to the right of the farmhouse was a column of infantry who had stacked arms and was milling about.

Attempting to remain under cover, Hopkins and Andrew began delivering what they saw to Pardee.  One can only imagine the sight of these two blue clad privates standing, kneeling, snapping twigs, dropping hats, moving to the rear, as if they were some medieval troop of carnival actors  Unfortunately their attempt at stealth was unsuccessful. After watching the gesticulations of these two through field glasses the officer commanding the detachment issued orders to the Confederate battery at the farmhouse to open up on the ridge.  The shell struck the hill behind the scouts throwing a column of dirt in the air.

Recovering from the impact of the shot, Andrew and Hopkins saw four or five Confederate scouts scurry from the brush and head toward the cavalry at the bottom of the ridge.  Reaching the troopers, they quickly informed them of the Federals on the ridge.  Putting spurs to their horses, a section of troopers thundered up the hill towards the two luckless men. With a company of cavalry above them and one below them at the base of the hill, capture seemed imminent.  Suddenly a crashing volley from Company A sent the troopers scattering. Seeing an opportunity, the two intrepid spies slipped past the troopers and into friendly hands.

What Owens had discovered was Colonel James E. Rains’ brigade of Confederate General Carter L. Stevenson’s division.  Rains’ brigade was composed of the 4th and 11th Tennessee, 3rd and 42nd Georgia, 29th North Carolina and Capt. Yeiser’s Georgia Battery.  This force was supported by cavalry from the 5th Tennessee Cavalry.  Consisting of almost 5,000 infantry, 200 cavalry and a battery of artillery; they posed a formidable force and severely outnumbered DeCourcy’s Brigade.  Advancing from Bean Station along the Morristown Road, the Confederates were to check the federal advance and if possible push them back to the Cumberland Gap.  Stevenson did not know this was only a foraging party, the Confederate cavalry picket had only reported the presence of Federal Troops in the Powell Valley of an unknown strength.  As far as he knew, the force at Tazewell represented the vanguard of a Federal push into East Tennessee and ultimately Knoxville.

With the Pickets forced back, the 5th Tennessee cavalry began its advance northward up the Morristown Road about 1 PM.  The route of the advance took the cavalry around the base of the hill on top of which Capt. Bushnell and Company C were posted.  With muttered commands to preserve their secrecy, company C loaded their rifles.  As the cavalry passed the foot of the hill all hell exploded in their faces!  Bushnell’s first volley devastated the cavalry.  Men were flung from saddles and the air was filled with the shrieks of wounded horses.  Looking down from his perch, Bushnell witnessed the devastation he had wrought.  Wounded horses thrashed wildly in the middle of the road while the silent dead moved no more.

Recovering from the shock of the initial volley, the cavalry re-formed and attempted to dislodge the Federals from the hill.  Each assault was driven back by concentrated rifle fire from the 42nd.  After delivering three well placed rounds into the Confederate troopers, Bushnell observed the 4th Tennessee supported by the 3rd Georgia infantry advancing up the road formed in line of battle maneuvering to sweep the Federals off the hill.  With the Cavalry attempting to move around the right flank of the hill and a full regiment of infantry advancing in his front, Bushnell wisely withdrew Company C to a position on the east side of the crossroads.

The Confederate infantry passed through the Cavalry screen and continued up the road.  Nearing the crossroads, Col McMurry’s 4th Tennessee came under accurate fire from the artillery stationed at the intersection.  The ensuing rifle and artillery fire was enough to stifle the rebel infantry’s advance.  What Col. McMurry did not know was how many Federals he was facing?  The divided Federal Companies were instructed to parade back and forth across the wooded and broken ground, stopping periodically to fire a volley or two.  Their constant movement did not allow either Col. McMurry or Lt. Col. Stovall of the 3rd GA to determine exactly how much infantry was protecting the crossroads.  Little did they know, they were facing only about 200 men while their strength was over 800.

As the Confederates prepared to make one more push to drive the Federals from their position, a section of Yeiser’s Georgia Battery came rumbling forward.  Unlimbering, the guns began a brisk counter battery fire against the federal positions.  The artillery duel lasted throughout the day with little real effect.  Continuing to use deception, Lt. Col. Pardee was able to delay the Confederate advance for the remainder of August 5th.  On hearing the exchange of gunfire, General DeCourcy chose to take a different but longer road back to Tazewell.  By taking this circuitous  route, DeCourcy was able to avoid the battle.

As darkness fell Lt. Col. Pardee began to withdraw the companies of the 42nd holding the road.  The decision had been made by DeCourcy to withdraw his troops to a ridge about two miles south of Tazewell.  The artillery was the first to move.  Limbering up, they retired to Walden Ridge and set up to provide cover for the remainder of the forces.  While the withdrawal was being executed, DeCourcy advanced five companies of the 14th Kentucky to Walden ridge to support the artillery and provide an advanced guard for the town.  Slowly, Pardee withdrew all five companies of the 42nd and passed through the 14th, ending up in the encampment in the valley below Walden Ridge.

August 6, 1862

In the early hours Wednesday, August 6, the 14th KY was relieved by 5 companies of the 16th Ohio.  Under the command of Major Kershner, the detachment was divided into two sections.  Companies B and E were stationed in support of the two guns of Foster’s 1st Wisconsin Battery on the west side of the road, the other three companies were deployed on the east side of the road along the ridge.  As the morning sky began to lighten, a heavy fog descended on the whole area. Visibility was cut to several yards in places with the valley on both sides of the ridge completely shrouded.

On the hill where the 42nd Ohio’s Company B under Captain Edgerwas stationed, the men stacked arms and leaving a scant guard, the others retired to pick blackberries or laid down to get some much needed rest.  Unbeknownst to them, Rains’ brigade was already on the move. As the sun began to burn through the morning fog, the crash of men moving through the brush was the first sign they were in trouble.

Moving silently, the 11th Tennessee and the 42nd Georgia had begun their march well before dawn.  With bayonets fixed and rifles loaded, the gray clad infantry mounted the hill.  As the Confederates broke through the brush on the lower elevations of the hill, the alarm was finally sounded.  Falling in on stacked arms, Captains Edger and Tanneyhill tried desperately to organize their scattered companies.  As the 42nd began to exchange fire with the confused Federals it dawned on them just how bad their situation was.  While the 42nd GA mounted the hill from the front, the 11th TN was advancing on the right flank.

While the disorganized Federal infantry tried to form some type of defense, the artillery under Lt. Anderson displayed a singular coolness under fire.  Loading and firing as if their life depended on it, which it did, the 1st WI delivered multiple rounds of double canister into the 42nd tearing great gaps in its ranks. The Confederate infantry advanced as close as 75 yards before the guns forced them to momentarily retire.  While the artillery provided much needed covering fire, the infantry was finally able to organize some sort of defense.

The infantry was operating at a disadvantage almost from the initial volley. Capt Edger was mortally wounded and unable to help with the defense.  While they were able to put up some semblance of a defense, the outcome was hopeless. As the Federals concentrated on the infantry to their front, the 11th Tennessee swept around the right and completely encircled the 16th OH.  Just before the gap closed, Lt. Anderson hooked up his pieces and was able to retire both guns before they were captured.  The Infantry was not so lucky.  Completely surrounded, the 16th OH cut its way out of the trap leaving behind about 40 prisoners and several dead.

As Company B and E scattered to the wind to avoid capture, Private Paul Wilder was taking a round about route back to the Federal Lines.  Crouching in a thicket, he heard the jingle of a horse near his position.  Peering from behind a bush he spied a mounted Confederate Officer resplendent in gold braid.  Stepping from his hiding place, he cocked his rifle and pointed it at the Officer.  Looking up he stated “surrender or I will blow a hole clean through you!”  Startled, Lt. Col. Gordon of the 11th Tennessee hesitated for only a moment before he surrendered his sidearms.  With his Prisoner in tow, Wilder returned to the Federal Lines.

While the left side of the 16th things were fairing only slightly better.  Unlike their comrades on the right, the companies on the left were not surprised.  Major Kershner was able to deliver several stinging volleys with the three flank companies.  Riding up and down the line, checking placements and directing the fire of his companies, Kershner’s horse was eventually shot our from under him.  Once dismounted, he was unable to control the actions of the companies effectively.  Flanked by two regiments due to the collapse of Company B and E, Kershner decided it was time to call it quits.  Ordering his remaining companies to the rear, the Federals began to retire in an orderly manor.  Halfway down the ridge, the 16th met the 14th KY which had been sent to support it.  With cool efficiency the Federals were able to slowly and orderly retire from the ridge to join the rest of thebrigade.

As the fog began to clear and the tempo of the firing increased, DeCourcy knew he was in trouble. At about 11 am he ordered the 14th Kentucky to form astride the Morristown road with the 42nd OH on the right and the 22nd KY on the left, he readied his troops to meet the assault.  The guns of the 1st WI, with the exception of the gun under the command of Sgt. Hacket, were positioned on a small rise behind the infantry where they could cover the valley.  Under a tremendous cannonade the guns of the 1st WI drove Rains’ brigade behind Walden Ridge.  Sgt. Hacket’s gun was posted in a concealed position along a road which intersected the Morristown road at the bottom of the valley.  Turning to a courier, he ordered a note taken to General Morgan stating he was heavily engaged with what could be Stevenson’s whole division.  The message arrived at the Gap about 3:30 pm.  Morgan immediately formed the division and started south to DeCourcy’s aid.

On Walden Ridge, Rains knew that with one more good push he could sweep the Federals from the field. Bringing up the remaining forces under his command, the Confederates began to shake themselves out in a long battle line.  Rains positioned the 4th Tennessee in the center of the line astride the road with the 3rd GA on the left flank and the 29th NC on the right.  The guns of Yeiser’s Georgia battery came up and deployed with one section between the 4th and the 29th and the other section between the 4th and the 3rd. Once unlimbered, the guns took the federals under long range bombardment.

With flags fluttering in the hot summer breeze and bayonets flashing in the afternoon sun Rains’ Brigade began its advance.  With the 4th TN advanced forward of the flanking regiments, they stepped off quickly toward the valley floor.  Curiously, as they advanced there was no defensive fire from the Federals with the exception of the artillery which was engaged in counter battery fire against Yeiser’s guns.  Reaching the valley floor, the 4th TN moved at the quick step toward the enemy.  Col. McMurry was determined to close with the Federal lines to a range where a devastating volley could be quickly followed by a bayonet charge.  When they reached a position about 200 yards from the Federal line McMurry got the volley he anticipated but not the one he wanted.

As the 4th Tennessee began to cross the ______ Road it came within range of Hacket’s hidden gun.  At near point blank range, Hacket delivered a devastating round of double canister to the exposed left flank of the 4th.  The canister shredded the two flank companies and some shot continued on to reek havoc all along the exposed battle line.  When the canister was delivered, it was quickly followed by a crashing volley from the 14th KY.  The impact of the two was more than the gray clad 4th TN could stand.  Reeling from the shock, they fell back towards Walden Ridge in disarray under constant artillery and rifle fire.  As soon as the way was clear, Hacket limbered his gun and made a hasty retreat behind the Federal lines.

Repulsed in his first attempt, Rains tried a second time.  Lining up the 29th NC and the 3rd GA in a column of Regiments he pushed them toward the Federal Line.  Unlike the first attempt, the Federals did not hold their fire.  Taking the advancing Confederates under artillery and rifle fire almost from the start, the attack fell apart before it neared the Federal Lines.

With the second attack repulsed, the engagement devolved into a long rang artillery duel between the 1st Wisconsin and Yeiser’s Georgia Battery.  The fusillade continued into the late afternoon.  Rains was reluctant to press another attack. He was unsure of exactly what he was facing.  First reports had indicated the Federals had advanced a small brigade of about 2,000 men but the resistance put up by Federals seemed now to put that into doubt.  DeCourcy added to the deception by taking a note from Lt. Col. Pardee.  Dividing his regiments into companies and further into platoons, the Federals spent the late afternoon marching back and forth around the town and surrounding hills.  Each time Rains looked through his field glass he was unable to get an accurate count of the Federals.  Thinking he could be engaged with most or all of Morgan’s division, he elected to await the remainder of Stevenson’s division to re-enforce him before continuing the action.

DeCourcy on the other hand was faced with a different picture.  He had been pushed back by a Rebel force of unknown size and composition.  He, like Rains, considered the very real possibility that he was about to engage a whole division or more of Confederates.  Unlike Rains however, his mission was not to push the enemy out of Tazewell.  DeCourcy was tasked with obtaining forage and livestock to support continuing operations at Cumberland Gap.  As dusk fell, DeCourcy decided to withdraw while he had the opportunity.

About 7 PM, DeCourcy began to withdraw his brigade through Tazewell and northward to the Gap. As they neared the center of town, ___ B.F. Stevenson, Surgeon of the 22nd KY, witnessed a sight which would become a favorite story in his elder years.  As the troops fell back through the dusty streets, they encountered a “great tall, obese sable sister” dressed or undressed as he described it, in the uniform of the laundry brigade.  She was wearing a “sleeveless bodice and a red flannel petticoat” which left her “scantily clad”.  He describes the Negro washer woman as “bubbling all over with excitement and gesticulating wildly”.  She screamed loudly at the troops “Oh, Oh you yanks is skeedadling is you?”  obviously making fun of the hasty retreat in the face of the enemy.   The next sight was one which caused much raucous laughter among the passing troops.  Within full view of the regiment the laundress proceeded to lower her bodice and expose “an amazing extent of rotund nudities” to the men.  Just why this woman would choose to display her breasts as such is still a mystery.

With the wagon loads of forage and grain well in front of the main column, the Federals left Tazewell Tennessee behind and started north.  About two miles north of the town, DeCourcy encountered the vanguard of Morgan’s relief column.  Reversing its trek, Morgan’s column accompanied DeCourcy’s brigade back to the Gap.  The combined force reached the base of the fortifications about midnight on August 7, 1862

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