Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

Forrest's Chase of the Raiders

Foremost in dash and daring among the cavalry leaders of the confederacy was Lieutenant-General Nathan B. Forrest, a hero in the saddle, some of whose exploits were like the marvels of romance. There is one of his doings in particular which General Lord Wolseley says "reads like a romance." This was his relentless pursuit and final capture of the expedition under Colonel Abel D. Streight, one of the most brilliant deeds in the cavalry history of the war. Accepting Wolseley's opinion, we give the story of this exploit.

In General Rosecrans's campaign against General Bragg, it was a matter of importance to him to cut the railroad lines and destroy bridges, arsenals, etc., in Bragg's rear. 'He wished particularly to cut the railroads leading from Chattanooga to Atlanta and Nashville, and thus prevent the free movement of troops. The celebrated Andrews expedition of scouts, described in a previous volume of this series, failed in an effort to do this work. Colonel Streight, a stalwart, daring cavalry leader, made a second effort to accomplish it, and would doubtless have succeeded but for the bulldog-like persistence with which t' that devil, Forrest" clung to his heels.

Colonel Streight's expedition was made up of four regiments of mounted infantry and two companies of cavalry, about two thousand men in all. Rome, Georgia, an important point on the railroad from Chattanooga to Atlanta, was its objective point. The route to be traversed included a barren, mountainous track of country, chosen from the fact that its sparse population was largely composed of Union sympathizers. But the road was likely to be so steep and rocky, and forage so scarce, that mules were chosen instead of horses for the mounts, on account of their being more surefooted and needing less food.

The expedition was sent by steamboat from Nashville, Tennessee, to Eastport, Alabama, which place was reached on the 19th of April, 1863. This movement was conducted with all possible secrecy, and was masked by an expedition under General Dodge, at the head of a force of some ten thousand men. The unfortunate feature about the affair was the mules. On their arrival at Eastport these animals, glad to get on solid land again, set up a bray that trumpeted the story of their arrival for miles around, and warned the cavalry of General Rodney, who had been skirmishing with General Dodge, that new foes were in the field.

When night fell some of Rodney's cavalry lads crept into the corral, and there, with yells and hoots and firing of guns and pistols, they stampeded nearly four hundred of the mules. This caused a serious delay, only two hundred of the mules being found after two day's search, while more time was lost in getting others. From Eastport the expedition proceeded to Tuscumbia, General Rodney stubbornly resisting the advance. Here a careful inspection was made, and all unfit men left out, so that about fifteen hundred picked men, splendidly armed and equipped, constituted the final raiding force. But the delay gave time for the news that some mysterious movement was afoot to spread far and wide, and Forrest led his corps of hard riders at top-speed from Tennessee to the aid of Rodney in checking it. On the 27th he was in Dodge's front, helping Rodney to give him what trouble he could, though obliged to fall back before his much greater force.

Streight was already on his way. He had set out at midnight of the 26th, in pouring rain and over muddy roads. At sunset of the next day he was thirty-eight miles from the starting-point. On the afternoon of the 28th the village of Moulton was reached without trace of an enemy in front or rear. The affair began to look promising. Next morning the mule brigade resumed its march, heading east towards Blountsville.

Not until the evening of the 28th did Forrest hear of this movement. Then word was brought him that a large body of Union troops had passed Mount Hope, riding eastward towards Moulton. The quick-witted leader guessed in a moment what all this meant, and with his native energy prepared for a sharp pursuit. In all haste he picked out a suitable force, had several days' rations cooked for the men and corn gathered for the horses, and shortly after midnight was on the road, leaving what men he could spare to keep Dodge busy and prevent pursuit. His command was twelve hundred strong, the most of them veterans whose metal had been tried on many a hard-fought field, and who were ready to follow their daring leader to the death, reckless and hardy "irregulars," brought up from childhood to the use of horses and arms, the sturdy sons of the back country.

Streight was now in the ugly mountain country through which his route lay, and was advancing up Sand Mountain by a narrow, stony, winding road. He had two days the start of his pursuer, but with such headlong speed did Forrest ride, that at dawn on the 30th, when the Federals were well up the mountain, the boom of a cannon gave them the startling notice that an enemy was in pursuit. Forrest had pushed onward at his usual killing pace, barely drawing rein until Streight's camp-fires came in sight, when his men lay down by their horses for a night's rest.

Captain William Forrest, a brother of the general, had been sent ahead to reconnoitre, and in the early morning was advised of the near presence of the enemy by as awful a noise as human ears could well bear, the concentrated breakfast bray of fifteen hundred hungry mules.

The cannon-shot which had warned Colonel Streight that an enemy was near, was followed by the yell of Captain Forrest's wild troopers, as they charged hotly up the road. Their recklessness was to be severely punished, for as they came headlong onward a volley was poured into them from a ridge beside the road. Their shrewd opponent had formed an ambuscade, into which they blindly rode, with the result that Captain Forrest fell from his horse with a crushed thigh-bone, and many of his men and horses were killed and wounded before they could get out of the trap into which they had ridden.

The attack was followed up by Forrest's whole force. Edmonson's men, dismounted, advanced within a hundred yards of the Federal line, Roddy and Julian rode recklessly forward in advance, and Forrest's escort and scouts occupied the left. It was a precipitous movement, which encountered a sudden and sharp reverse, nearly the whole line being met with a murderous fire and driven back. Then the Federals sprang forward in a fierce charge, driving the Confederates back in confusion over their own guns, two of which were captured with their caissons and ammunition.

The loss of his guns threw Forrest into a violent rage, in which he made the air blue with his forcible opinions. Those guns must be taken back, he swore, at the risk of all their lives. He bade every man to dismount and tie their horses to saplings—there were to be no horse-holders in this emergency. Onward swept the avengers, but to their surprise and chagrin only a small rear-guard was found, who fled on their mules after a few shots. Streight, with the captured guns, was well on the road again, and Forrest's men were obliged to go back, untie their horses, and get in marching order, losing nearly an hour of precious time.

From this period onward the chase was largely a running fight. Forrest's orders to his men were to "shoot at everything blue and keep up the scare." Streight's purpose was to make all haste forward to Rome, out-riding his pursuers, and do what damage he could. But he had to deal with the "Rough Riders" of the Confederate army, men sure to keep on his track day and night, and give him no rest while a man on mule-back remained.

Forrest's persistence was soon shown. His advance troopers came up with the enemy again at Hog's-back ridge an hour before dark and at once charged right and left. They had their own guns to face, Streight keeping up a hot fire with the captured pieces till the ammunition was exhausted, when, being short of horses, he spiked and abandoned the guns.

The fight thus begun was kept up vigorously till ten o'clock at night, and was as gallant and stubbornly contested as any of the minor engagements of the war, the echoes of that mountain desert repeating most unwonted sounds. General Forrest seemed everywhere, and so fearlessly exposed himself that one horse was killed and two were wounded under him, though he escaped unhurt. In the end Colonel Streight was taught that he could not drive off his persistent foe, and took to the road again, but twice more during the night he was attacked, each time repelling his foes by an ambuscade.

About ten o' clock the next morning Blountsville was reached. The Federals were now clear of the mountains and in an open and fertile country where food and horses were to be had. Both were needed; many of the mules had given out, leaving their riders on foot, while mules and men alike were short of food. It was the first of May, and the village was well filled with country people, who saw with dismay the Yankee troopers riding in and confiscating all the horses on which they could lay hands.

Streight now decided to get on with pack-mules, and the wagons were bunched and set on fire, the command leaving them burning as it moved on. They did not burn long. Forrest's advance came on with a yell, swept the Federal rear-guard from the village, and made all haste to extinguish the flames, the wagons furnishing them a rich and much-needed supply. Few horses or mules, however, were to be had, as Streight's men had swept the country as far as they could reach on both sides of the road.

On went the raiders and on came their pursuers, heading east, keeping in close touch, and skirmishing briskly as they went, for ten miles more. This brought them to a branch of the Black Warrior River. The ford reached by the Federals was rocky, and they had their foe close in the rear, but by an active use of skirmishers and of his two howitzers Streight managed to get his command across and to hold the ford until a brief rest was taken.

The Yankee troopers were not long on the road again before Forrest was over the stream, and the hot chase was on once more. The night that followed was the fourth night of the chase, which had been kept up with only brief snatches of rest and with an almost incessant contest. On the morning of the 2nd the skirmishing briskly began again, Forrest with an advance troop attacking the Federal rear-guard, and fighting almost without intermission during the fifteen miles ride to Black Creek.

Here was a deep and sluggish stream walled in with very high banks. It was spanned at the road by a wooden bridge, over which Colonel Streight rushed his force at top speed, and at once set the bridge on fire, facing about with his howitzers to check pursuit. One man was left on the wrong side of the stream, and was captured by Forrest himself as he dashed up to the blazing bridge at the head of his men.

Colonel Streight might now reasonably believe that he had baffled his foe for a time, and might safely take the repose so greatly needed. The stream was said to be too deep to ford, and the nearest bridge, two miles away, was a mere wreck, impassable for horses. Forrest was in a quandary as to how he should get over that sluggish but deep ditch, and stood looking at it in dismay. He was obliged to wait in any event, for his artillery and the bulk of his command had been far outridden. In this dilemma the problem was solved for him by a country girl who lived near by, Emma Sanson by name. Near the burning bridge was a little one-storied, four-roomed house, in which dwelt the widow Sanson and her two daughters. She had two sons in the service, and the three women, like many in similar circumstances in the Confederacy, were living as best they could.

The girl Emma watched with deep interest the rapid flight, the burning of the bridge, and the headlong pursuit of the Confederate troop. Seeing Forrest looking with a dubious countenance at the dark stream, she came up and accosted him.

"You are after those Yankees?" she asked.

"I should think so," said Forrest, "and would give my best hat to get across this ugly ditch."

"I think you can do it," she replied.

"Aha! my good girl. That is news worth more than my old hat. How is it to be done? Let me know at once."

"I know a place near our farm where I have often seen cows wade across when the water was low. If you will lend me a horse to put my saddle on, I will show you the place."

"There's no time for that; get up behind me," cried Forrest.

In a second's time the alert girl was on the horse behind him. As they were about to ride off her mother came out and asked, in a frightened tone, where she was going. Forrest explained and promised to bring her back safe, and in a moment more was off. The ride was not a long one, the place sought being soon reached. Here the general and his guide quickly dismounted, the girl leading down a ravine to the water's edge, where Forrest examined the depth and satisfied himself that the place might prove fordable.

Mounting again, they rode back, now under fire, for a sharp engagement was going on across the creek between the Confederates and the Federal rear-guard. Forrest was profuse in his thanks as he left the quick-witted girl at her home. He gave her as reward a horse and also wrote her a note of thanks, and asked her to send him a lock of her hair, which he would be glad to have and cherish in memory of her service to the cause.

The Lost Ford, as the place has since been called, proved available, the horses finding foothold, while the ammunition was taken from the caissons and carried across by the horsemen. This done, the guns and empty caissons were pulled across by ropes, and soon all was in readiness to take up the chase again.

Colonel Streight had reached Gadsden, four miles away, when to his surprise and dismay he heard once more the shoats of his indefatigable foemen as they rode up at full speed. It seemed as if nothing could stop the sleuth-hounds on his track. For the succeeding fifteen miles there was a continual skirmish, and, when Streight halted to rest, the fight became so sharp that his weary men were forced to take to the road again. Rest was not for them, with Forrest in their rear. Streight here tried for the last time his plan of ambuscading his enemy, but the wide-awake Forrest was not to be taken in as before, and by a flank movement compelled the weary Federals to resume their march.

All that night they rode despondently on, crossing the Chattanooga River on a bridge which they burned behind them, and by sunrise reaching Cedar Bluff, twenty-eight miles from Gadsden. At nine o'clock they stopped to feed, and the worn-out men had no sooner touched the ground than they were dead asleep. Forrest had taken the opportunity to give his men a night's rest, detaching two hundred of them to follow the Federals and "devil them all night." Streight had also detached two hundred of his best-mounted men, bidding them to march to Rome and hold the bridge at that place. But Forrest had shrewdly sent a fast rider to the same place, and when Russell got up he found the bridge strongly held and his enterprise hopeless.

When May 3 dawned the hot chase was near its end. Forrest had given his men ten hours' sleep while Streight's worn-out men were plodding desperately on. This all-night's ride was a fatal error for the Federals, and was a main cause of their final defeat. The short distance they had made was covered by Forrest's men, fresh from their night's sleep, in a few hours, and at half-past nine, while the Federals were at breakfast, the old teasing rattle of small-arms called them into line again. About the same time word came from Russell that he could not take the bridge at Rome, and news was received that a flanking movement of Confederates had cut in between Rome and the Yankee troopers.

The affair now looked utterly desperate, but the brave Streight rallied his men on a ridge in a field and skirmishing began. So utterly exhausted, however, were the Federals that many of them went to sleep as they lay in line of battle behind the ridge while looking along their gun barrels with finger on trigger.

The game was fairly up. Forrest sent in a flag of truce, with a demand for surrender. Streight asked for an interview, which was readily granted.

"What terms do you offer?" asked Streight.

"Immediate surrender. Your men to be treated as prisoners of war, officers to retain their side-arms and personal property."

During the conversation Straight asked, "How many men have you?"

"Enough here to run over you, and a column of fresh troops between you and Rome."

In reality Forrest had only five hundred men left him, the remainder having been dropped from point to point as their horses gave out and no new mounts were to be had. But the five hundred made noise enough for a brigade, it being Forrest's purpose to conceal the weakness of his force.

As they talked a section of the artillery of the pursuers came in sight within a short range. Colonel Streight objected to this, and Forrest gave orders that the guns must come no nearer. But the artillerymen moved around a neighboring hill as if putting several small batteries into position.

"Have you many guns, general?" asked Streight.

"Enough to blow you all to pieces before an hour," was the grandiloquent reply.

Colonel Streight looked doubtfully at the situation, not knowing how much to believe of what he saw and heard. After some more words he said,—

"I cannot decide without consulting my officers."

"As you please," said Forrest, with a sublime air of indifference. "It will soon be over, one way or the other."

Streight had not all the fight taken out of him yet, but he found all his officers in favor of a surrender and felt obliged to consent. The men accordingly were bidden to stack their arms and were marched back into a field, Forrest managing as soon as he conveniently could to get his men between them and their guns. The officers were started without delay and under a strong escort for Rome, twenty miles away. On their route thither they met Captain Russell returning and told him of what had taken place. With tears in his eyes he surrendered his two hundred men.

Thus ended one of the most striking achievements of the Civil War. Forrest's relentless and indefatigable pursuit, his prompt overcoming of the difficulties of the way, and his final capture of Streight's men with less than half their force, have been commended by military critics as his most brilliant achievement and one of the most remarkable exploits in the annals of warfare.

The outcome of Colonel Streight's raid to the South was singularly like that of General Morgan's famous raid to the North. Morgan's capture, imprisonment, and escape were paralleled in Streight's career. Sent to Richmond, and immured in Libby Prison, he and four of his officers took part in the memorable escape by a tunnel route in February, 1864. In his report, published after his escape, he blames his defeat largely on the poor mules, and claims that Forrest's force outnumbered him three to one. It is not unlikely that he believed this, judging from the incessant trouble they had given him, but the truth seems established that at the surrender Forrest had less than half the available force of his foe.