The Battle of Coffeeville
From Water Valley on the morning of December 5, Dickey's advance cavalry was ordered into line for another day's pursuit of the retreating Rebels. The Rebs were one step ahead, and hour by hour hundreds more poured into Coffeeville. The roads were terrible and the advance was generally confined to a couple of narrow wagon roads. Soon, Dickey's force of 3,500 or so men were soon strung out for two miles.
Grant's Chief of Cavalry, Colonel Theophilus Lyle Dickey, 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry
"This action was fought under peculiar difficulties."
Confederate scouts quickly noted the vulnerable condition of Dickey's force and rode south where they found General Mansfield Lovell north of Coffeeville. Here, he decided to make a stand and exploit this Union weakness. The end of General Price's rear guard was now getting the last of their equipment wagons to safety, and many of the re-enforcements were now in town, just one mile away. Lovell posted his infantry in the woods on a ridge north of Coffeeville, with four cannon along this line. Above them was the Kentucky battery with two Parrott guns under Captain Hedden. The ambush had been set.
Report by McClanahan & Dill, owners of the
the Memphis Daily Appeal, being printed in Grenada. December 13:
"Compelled to turn at bay by the slowness with
which the trains were moved, parts of General Tilghman’s and Rust’s divisions
formed in the line of battle on the hills three quarters of a mile north of
Coffeeville, and with the cavalry and six pieces of artillery in the center,
quietly awaited the onset of the enemy, who were slowly driving in a small
party of our sharpshooters, which had been bravely skirmishing with him for
more than an hour from one to two miles in front." As
Dickey approached Coffeeville the Confederates had sent mounted skirmishers to
slow his advance column as the last Confederate equipment wagons neared the
safety of Lovell’s line. The skirmishing was light and the Rebels steadily
retreated back toward their ambush point. As was customary in such engagements,
the federal cavalry dismounted and began moving forward cautiously on foot. By
groups of four, one soldier would hold the horses and lead them out of the way
to the rear, while the other three men advanced on foot. This had a profound
effect on the battle. Now, the effective strength of the Federal cavalry was
reduced by 25% -- one of every four was dis-engaged holding horses. And the
horse-holders, moving four strapped horses through the heavy woods, no doubt
had trouble with the horses tangling around bushes and undergrowth. This
created further confusion and congestion near the head of the column.
"Compelled to turn at bay by the slowness with which the trains were moved, parts of General Tilghman’s and Rust’s divisions formed in the line of battle on the hills three quarters of a mile north of Coffeeville, and with the cavalry and six pieces of artillery in the center, quietly awaited the onset of the enemy, who were slowly driving in a small party of our sharpshooters, which had been bravely skirmishing with him for more than an hour from one to two miles in front."
As Dickey approached Coffeeville the Confederates had sent mounted skirmishers to slow his advance column as the last Confederate equipment wagons neared the safety of Lovell’s line. The skirmishing was light and the Rebels steadily retreated back toward their ambush point. As was customary in such engagements, the federal cavalry dismounted and began moving forward cautiously on foot. By groups of four, one soldier would hold the horses and lead them out of the way to the rear, while the other three men advanced on foot. This had a profound effect on the battle. Now, the effective strength of the Federal cavalry was reduced by 25% -- one of every four was dis-engaged holding horses. And the horse-holders, moving four strapped horses through the heavy woods, no doubt had trouble with the horses tangling around bushes and undergrowth. This created further confusion and congestion near the head of the column.
Fletcher Pomeroy, Company D, 7th Kansas Cavalry, explained the maneuver:
"I may as well state here the tactics of cavalry in a general action. When in rank we are always numbered by fours. Beginning at the right of the line we count one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four and so on, repeatedly to the end of the company throughout each company of the regiment, on going into action. Numbers one, two and three of each set of fours would dismount and fasten their horses together by means of a short strap buckled to the pommel of the saddle and by means of a snap on the other end of the strap fastened to the bit of the horse on the right. Number four remained mounted and led the horses of one, two and three, on his right by means of the strap from the pommel of his saddle. The dismounted men then formed and moved as directed. The led horses were also moved as required."
Company D, 7th Kansas Cavalry
"At the Battle of Coffeeville the bullets rained about me like hail, cutting the twigs and bark from the trees on every hand."
Colonel Dickey had allowed the artillery (two cannon) of the 2nd Illinois, Battery G, to lob shells to the front during this advance. This defeated Dickey’s purpose for several reasons: Although Dickey was trying to capture the rear rebel force and wagons, his cannon fire pushed them harder. The Confederates, trying to stay ahead of this fire were moving too fast for Dickey to over-take before Coffeeville now. It also antagonized the Rebels and put them in more of a fighting humor.
By 2 p.m. Dickey’s forces were near the ambush point. Dickey rode to the front, and with his field glasses spotted a small mounted group of Confederate Col. Jackson’s men posted in the woods ahead, and to his right. Dickey further weakened his front by sending some of his men in that direction to dislodge these Rebels. Dickey’s attention was distracted as his main army now moved down the slope, across the open field, and then up the small wooded eminence.
"At about 2 o'clock the head of the column came up with the rear of the enemy and pressed him sharply. Having discovered a small party of rebel cavalry on our right carefully watching our movements, a detachment was sent to dislodge it, and an order was sent to Colonel Lee, at the head of the column, to move cautiously, throw out strong flankers, and show a wide front. Colonels Hatch and Mizner were also directed to throw out flankers at the head of each of their commands.
"Riding rapidly to the front I found one piece of our artillery moving cautiously forward and now and then throwing shell beyond our skirmishers as they steadily advanced. At about 1 mile from Coffeeville a few shells were thrown to the front, when suddenly the enemy opened at short range upon our position with shell, using, I think, four pieces of artillery, perhaps six. At the same time his infantry in line opened upon our advanced dismounted skirmishers with rapid volleys, while heavy skirmishing was in progress on both flanks of the head of our column and extending to the rear of the head of the column. From all this it was quite evident we had encountered a heavier force than we were able to combat, under the jaded condition of our men and horses.”
CSA General Mansfield Lovell
Lovell set the trap in Coffeeville that stopped Grant, producing the first real Confederate victory in the west.
(Oddly, both he and Confederate General Tilghman are buried at Woodlawn Cemetery -- in the Bronx in New York City. A third CSA general in Coffeeville, Loring, died in New York City and was buried in Florida.)
Confederate General Tilghman wrote in his report:
"At about 2:30 o'clock on Friday afternoon, 5th instant, while engaged in the town of Coffeeville with the various duties of my command, I learned that the enemy, emboldened by their successes heretofore, had pushed their advance within 1 mile of the town, and that, having commenced skirmishing with our rear guard of cavalry, Major-General Lovel, commanding First Corps, had gone out with a portion of my division to check them. I immediately rode out with a portion of my staff and body guard to the point selected by General Lovell on which to form…"
"Upon the main road and in rear of the First Brigade, upon a small eminence, four pieces of artillery had been placed, being part of Captain [Alcide] Bouanchaud's company of the Point Coupee Artillery, while at 300 yards to the rear of this battery two Parrott guns from Captain [W. H.] Hedden's battery, of my own division, were placed on a still higher point and in a position not to endanger the infantry or the battery in front should occasion present itself to open upon the enemy."
"The Brow of the Rise"
The Open Field is in the foreground. The Confederate infantry was fifty yards behind camera position; the cannons behind and above that. This picture was taken on December 5th, 2000, at 4 pm. One hundred and thirty-eight years -- to the minute -- from when the last Federal line collapsed at the Brow of the Rise.
This is the field where the dismounted Federal cavalry crossed to the ambush point in the woods up the hill in the foreground. Camera position is near where the Illinois artillery was located. The Brow of the Rise is about 100 yards directly behind.
The 4th Illinois and 7th Kansas were in the advance in the ambush. They were moving on foot over the open field, and now up the small eminence where Captain Bouanchaud of the Louisiana Pointe Coupee artillery and his rebel cannons were waiting. When the Illinois cannon fired again to the front, the battle broke wide open. This cannon fire was answered by heavy Confederate fire from the four smoothbore guns in the center of the road up the small eminence. Bouanchaud (pronounced “Bone-Shaw”) was firing canister shot —- a large tin can full of round balls. This fire ripped hard through the advancing Federals, sending them in immediate retreat.
The dismounted Federals, retreating quickly across the open field, were now pushed harder with heavy fire from the Confederate infantry. The 2nd Illinois artillery, with both guns now positioned at the edge of the open field, came into action, firing into the Confederate cannon position on the small eminence. Confederate Generals Lovell, Tilghman, and cavalry commander Col. Jackson were mounted near the Confederate cannons, and a Union solid shell plowed the ground in front of them -- most likely close enough to kick dirt up onto their horses. At this time Jackson went to his cavalry in the small valley and prepared an advance. Generals Lovell and Tilghman rode to the rear to the Kentucky artillery position and ordered them to fire their two Parrott guns with fused and exploding shells to the Federal cannon position. For a few minutes all eight cannons, north and south, were firing as rapidly as they could be loaded. This fire was so loud and intense that it could be heard in neighboring Calhoun County.
Confederate Colonel W. H. Jackson
His keen ability during Grant's railroad campaign -- especially at Coffeeville and Holly Springs -- earned a promotion to Brigadier General on December 29, 1862.
Shrapnel from one of the first Parrott shells killed the orderly of Col. Mizner of the 3rd Michigan cavalry. Subsequent shots killed three more of his men as Union officers urgently sent couriers up and down the line with orders to turn the entire column around -- that they had met an overwhelming ambush on the ridge above Coffeeville. The Union soldiers retreating across the open field were met with re-enforcements and were all ordered to form lines in support to hold off a Confederate advance as the stragglers and wounded came in while the cavalry was turned around in the narrow road. To the east of the road were the 3rd Michigan and the 2nd Iowa. To the west was the 4th Illinois and the 7th Kansas, although the men from all regiments at the front were inter-mingled.
Soon, the Federals realized they were out gunned and ordered their cannons drawn up the hill into the safety of the woods. Then, there was a lull in the battle. The Confederate generals had the Federals on the run and soon ordered the center of their line to press forward across the open field.
McClanahan & Dill:
"After our artillery had played upon the advancing Federals about a half hour, the order was given by General Lovell to advance upon them and to “press ‘em.” And press ‘em we did…"
The Confederates began moving across this field, and when about half way across the 4th Illinois and 7th Kansas opened fire into the left, or west, into the Kentucky and Arkansas advance. Soon Colonel Albert Lee of the 7th Kansas ordered the 12 pound Howitzer brought back into play and aimed and fired it himself into the advancing Rebels. He, too, was firing canister shot. After the first shot he then ordered a double load of canister and fired again into the Rebel line, then ordered the cannon taken up the hill and for the dismounted soldiers to open fire in support.
William Lyman, orderly to Colonel Lee, wrote:
"Very soon the enemy’s force came in sight, extending for a long distance right and left. As they approached the Colonel gave me his horse to hold while he took charge of the one gun, aimed it himself and ordered "fire." Mounted as I was I could very clearly see the effect of that shot. Some of the men on the right began to fire their pieces, upon which the Colonel shouted, “Hold your fire! Don’t fire a shot till you get orders."
"The battery men were evidently a little nervous, but Colonel Lee ordered “Load her up again. Double shot her with grape and canister. That was quickly done and the Colonel aimed and fired again. The result was appalling. “Now,” ordered the Colonel, “open with your support.” And to the battery, “Now limber up and get out of here!”
Simeon Fox, 7th Kansas, wrote:
"Our artillery, supported by the Seventh Kansas, was served until the charging Confederates were within a hundred feet of the muzzles and then was successfully dragged away at fixed prolonge, with a sergeant riding the last gun, facing to the rear with his thumb to his nose at the eluded rebels, who sent a shower of bullets after him."
Colonel Jackson’s 7th Tennessee cavalry was now in action, moving in a wide front across the open field with three hundred men, while two hundred more flanked to the west and another two hundred flanked to the east. Jackson hoped to surround the Federals at a weak point near the brow of the rise and capture the front of the column.
With cavalry re-enforcements now moving in support, the rebel infantry re-loaded and charged the hill. As the Confederates neared the federal line with their muskets blazing the Federals fired a strong volley in return with their repeating rifles. The Rebels, however, had all the momentum, and as they charged in the skirmishing Federals broke and ran farther up the hill -- through their support line -- and eventually re-positioned with the last line at the Brow of the Rise. Subsequent rebel charges broke this line at 4 pm.
Phineas O. Avery, the 4th Illinois Cavalry, gave this report:
"We found our command all dismounted and in three lines, excepting the balance of our regiment. They were kept mounted to guard the flanks. Our first line with the two pieces of artillery were posted at the edge of an open field. A large force of the enemy's infantry charged across this field. They received a warm reception from our carbines and artillery, which caused scores of the rebels to "bite the dust."
"After we got past our lines we were ordered to dismount and fall in by a fence by the side of the road. The officers of Company I went to the rear with the lead horses. We fought the best we could, with no one in command of us.
"At first we were altogether, then when a new line was formed we fell in with the other troops and were mixed up with them. We formed a new line twice in this way. The last time we formed, at a bend in the road, we were about the last to get there. The boys, I believe, all squeezed in the line somewhere, but I took a position behind a small tree a little in front of the extreme right of the line where I had command of the road. My attention was taken in my immediate front. I could not see that the enemy were advancing and heard no order to fall back and did not know the line had retreated until I heard Elliott Hyde say, "Avery you had better get out of here, the rebels are flanking us." I turned around and saw him standing facing me a rod or two in the rear. And not another blue coat in sight that I could see. The instant my eyes caught Elliott's he threw up his hands and fell over backwards—shot through the brain. The ball entered the left eye; he didn't utter a word."
P.O. Avery, 4th Illinois Cavalry.
"We fought the best we could..."
Colonel Edward Hatch, 2nd Iowa Cavalry. Post War photo. Hatch was about 30 years old at the time of the battle.
Colonel Hatch of the 2nd Iowa wrote:
"At 4 p. m. forces engaged in front of us passed to the rear. I brought my line of dismounted rifle companies, concealed under the ridge, supported by two saber companies, being all of my brigade not detached. In a few minutes the enemy were advancing in great force, two regiments by head of column, with skirmishers on their flank. Ordering Major Coon to have his men lie down until the enemy were close, his men, armed with the revolving rifle, reserved their fire, and when the enemy were within 20 yards, pouring in our volleys, firing nearly three rounds to each man, when the enemy, outflanking us, fell back to the next ridge, when we again opened fire, held our ground until again outflanked, fighting back slowly, standing at every practicable point, the final stand being made at the junction of the road to Water Valley and Panola."
General Grant wrote a telegram to Washington during the time of the battle:
Major General H.W. HALLECK, General-in-Chief.
OXFORD, MISS., December 5, 1862. 4 p.m.
Cavalry are still in pursuit of retreating enemy. Have captured and killed many and forced them to destroy much property, including cars. Cavalry will be near Coffeeville to-night.
Little did Grant realize as he was writing this -- at 4 pm -- that his cavalry had been ambushed above Coffeeville and now his last line of defense had just collapsed and his forces were being routed on the Brow of the Rise at the Battle of Coffeeville.
The fighting now moved down the backside of this ridge until it reached an open field. Colonel Hatch of the 2nd Iowa threw his men on each side of the road behind a house and a rail fence, trying to hold off the Confederate attacks. Just before dark the colonel's horse fell from under him. He then discovered that his horse had just suffered its third gunshot wound. Hatch then pulled his saber and navy revolver as the Rebels were moving quickly between him and the main column, trying to cut off the last retreating Federals.
"I immediately prepared to make a charge in the rear, having been informed that the enemy were between myself and the main body. Immediately running forward I found the enemy had thrown a company into the road and had ordered one of our companies to surrender. I ordered all the stragglers near me into line. I opened fire with revolvers, ordering Company E, of the Second Iowa Cavalry, forward to the charge. Our fire, however, opened the communication. I then moved my command into the field on the left, and, covering the left flank with a company of dismounted rifles, moved forward to the main column."
Dwight Allen Brown
Co. M, 4th Illinois Cavalry
Shot in the right thigh at the Battle of Coffeeville. The bullet exited his leg and then lodged in his saddle holster.
John M. Snively
Co. C, 7th Kansas Cavalry.
Holding Sharps Carbine, one of the main weapons used by the Federals in the Battle of Coffeeville.
McClanahan & Dill:
"The army of Grant is almost entirely made up of Northwestern men, and they, we know, fight better than any other Yankees."
Tilghman believed his cavalry could have captured the union artillery in its last position but knew that it would be at a heavy loss of life and did not give the order. By now it was getting dark and a cease-fire was ordered. However, many of the men would not quit fighting. The action continued and Colonel Hatch of the 2nd Iowa wrote in his battle account that now his men were shooting only at the flash of gunpowder from Confederate muskets.
Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman.
“…the enemy were uninterruptedly driven from every position and forced back to a point 3 miles from Coffeeville, when on reaching a commanding position they opened fire from their artillery, again supported by the severest fire of musketry we had yet encountered.”
"Having already driven the enemy much farther than was ordered by a message from General [M.] Lovell, I gave the order to halt and cease firing, very much to the chagrin of both officers and men, who, notwithstanding the severe duties and deprivations of the last week, seemed to forget everything but the desire showed by all to repay the injuries suffered by them during their long and barbarous imprisonment at the North."
Ironically, many of the Confederates at Coffeeville had surrendered to Grant at Fort Donelson the previous February. And many of the Federal regiments now fighting in Coffeeville had also fought under Grant when the fort was surrendered. After spending months in northern prison camps these Confederates were fortunately paroled and exchanged, and then allowed to re-join the army. Many had been assigned to units that were now trying to stop Grant in north Mississippi, arriving from Vicksburg, then Jackson, and sent north to Pemberton's force near Grenada.
Private Milton Ryan, 14th Mississippi infantry, captured at Fort Donelson:
"Sometime in September after our capture in February we, to our unspeakable joy received notice that we would soon be exchanged and sent back to dear ol Mississippi. We were this time marched to the railroad and packed in horse and cattle cars which were filthy in the extreme; but that was all right. It was a joy ride for us. We laughed, sang, and shed tears of joy at our release from prison."
McClanahan & Dill:
"They (Federals) contested every inch of ground with gallantry worthy of a better cause. But they could not stand before the men of Fort Donelson, and the devoted men of the South generally fighting for their homes and firesides."
Interestingly, a natural phenomenon had occurred that allowed the battle to continue well past sun-down. A full moon had begun to shine over the battle-field, and so the fighting had continued, allowing one particularly devastating flanking maneuver by the Confederates.
Shot of the (nearly) full moon taken December 7, 2000 at dusk – one hundred and thirty-eight years and two days after the battle. Taken in the McCullough Hollow.
Major Doss and his 14th Mississippi infantry flanked to the east, and followed a small valley that led to the top of the hill where the Federal retreat was moving hurriedly. The Federals learned of this and sent one of their most experienced officers with a detachment of men to serve as rear guard to stop any such advances. This officer was Lt. Colonel William McCullough of the 4th Illinois. He was forty-nine years old and an excellent cavalry man, despite the fact that he only had only one arm.
In the night, Doss’s men hid behind trees and watched McCullough and his party as they rode towards them in the woods. When McCullough was within twenty paces of Doss’s men, one of the Rebels called out “halt.” McCullough, thinking he had run across other Federal soldiers in the woods, stopped his horse. Most likely, his detachment walked their horses up and clustered around him to see what was happening. At this point the 14th Mississippi infantry fired into the Federal column. One of the first shots wounded McCullough in the right leg. For some unexplained reason McCullough dismounted his horse, and was then shot twice more, killing him. Doss’s men then surrounded and captured seventeen of McCullough’s escort, along with their horses and accoutrements. The prisoners were marched back toward Coffeeville and McCullough’s body was left on the field.
Lt. Col. William McCullough, 4th Illinois Cavalry. Killed in a night ambush at the Battle of Coffeeville.
For more on the night ambush of the 4th Illinois cavalry
P. O. Avery, 4th Illinois Cavalry wrote:
"It was now getting quite dark. There was now a call for volunteers to go back toward the front and form another line. About fifty of us went. The rebels advanced no further.
"Shortly afterwards everything was on the move to the rear and we were called in and mounted. Our regiment, Lieutenant Colonel McCullough commanding, was to be rear guard and was just moving out when they ran into a force of the enemy's infantry that had been sent up along our flank and had got across our road between the column and the rear guar. The rebels fired into the head of our column, killing Lieutenant Colonel McCullough and wounding several others. John Lansing of Company I, who was the Colonel's orderly, is crippled for life by a fall from his horse. Wm. Stillhamer, another orderly from Company G, was shot in both thighs. I took the latter off the field on my horse and after going several miles in this way I got him into an ambulance."
And so ended the Battle of Coffeeville. Grant's advance had pressed, sometimes recklessly, ahead of their support, until the line finally became too vulnerable. The Rebel victory above this small town was the first real Confederate victory in the west. It also set the stage for a profound shift in the Vicksburg strategy.
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