SEAC: EXECUTION (continued)
To the west, elements of Wheeler’s Corps, bringing up the rear of Hampton’s Cavalry Command, were traveling southeastward on Yadkin Road abreast of Federal Brevet Brigadier General Atkins’ 2nd Brigade moving east on Morganton Road. These two roads lay parallel to one another. On some stretches, they were less than a mile apart.
Blinded by the darkness and rain, neither command was aware of the other’s presence. With all of Hampton’s Command approaching Morganton Road from the northwest, an encounter was unavoidable.
Nearing Johnson’s Mountain on Yadkin Road, Major General Butler’s men heard the muffled sound of sporadic gunfire coming from the west. Who was firing and why was unknown.
Lieutenant General Hampton sent word to Major General Butler, instructing him to go into "camp at the Blue’s farm, east of Green Springs."
In the darkness Lieutenant General Hampton was approached by riders identifying themselves as from Wheeler’s Corps. The men reported that a Federal mounted column was on Morganton Road moving east. The gunfire was coming from encounters with the column’s flankers and advance guard. Moving southeast on Yadkin Road, Major General Butler’s advance guard, Humphrey’s Squadron, 6th South Carolina Cavalry, struck Morganton Road. The squadron halted. Lieutenant John Humphrey, C.S.A., rode forward, his lead troopers pointing to the road bed. Looking right, then left down the road, Lieutenant Humphrey moved into the road for a closer examination. Gazing down at the road, he quietly ordered a man sent back down the column to request Major General Butler to come forward (Brooks 1909).
Major General Butler and his escort soon arrived. Pointing to the thousands of small circular pools on the road, Lieutenant Humphrey estimated at least a brigade had passed only recently, because the impressions were not yet full of water. Major General Butler nodded in agreement. A voice alerted them of approaching riders. Instinctively the group back stepped their mounts off the road. The sound of riders approaching from the west grew louder. Speaking low, Major General Butler inquired of the Squadron Commander who they were. Lieutenant Humphrey claimed to have no riders in that direction. Major General Butler halted Lieutenant Humphrey and rode alone into the road. "Who comes there?" he shouted. Fifth Kentucky (U.S.) was answered. "Ride up, sir. I want to talk with you." The officer, with an orderly, approached. Major General Butler turned his horse, requesting the officer to follow. As the three struck the head of Lieutenant Humphrey’s column, Major General Butler drew his revolver, pointed it at the Federal officer, and demanded his surrender. Lieutenant Humphrey’s men quickly moved forward in an attempt to surround the rest. The nearest riders dropped their reins and remained motionless as they were surrounded by the Confederates.
A group of riders following the first group at a distance turned, spurred their mounts, and crashed into the bushes on the far side of the road. The group could be heard for some time, blindly making their way through the underbrush. Major General Butler would not learn until months later how close he came that night to capturing Brevet Major General Kilpatrick. For now, he and his men were satisfied with the capture of 28 Federal Cavalrymen and a stand of colors, without firing a shot.
Major General Butler ordered his scouts to follow the tracks, telling them he and the Division would follow shortly, at a distance. He sent a courier to find Lieutenant General Hampton and report the occurrences at the intersection.
While Major General Butler was explaining the events at the intersection, several of his scouts, sent out earlier to ascertain the destination of the tracks on the road, returned at a trot. They rode up and reported, telling the commanders that they had followed the tracks for three or four miles and that they led to a camp south of the road. They were able to get close without being noticed; the camp was filled with Federal Cavalry, and the Confederate scouts had left the rest of their party to watch it.
The column that Lieutenant General Wheeler’s men had skirmished with earlier was at least a Brigade, which told the commanders this could be no more than two. If they could get in close without being detected, a victory could be had. The weather was definitely in their favor.
Lieutenant General Hampton made the decision to attack.
Butler’s Division was available, but Wheeler’s Corps was strung out ten to 15 miles to the west.
The attack would commence at dawn.
Lieutenant General Wheeler would assemble as much of his Corps as possible and attack with it.
W.G. Allen, Adjutant, 5th Tennessee Cavalry (Allen 1911):
Brevet Major General Kilpatrick finally succeeded in arriving at his camp. He was briefed on the situation, as those that had arrived earlier understood it. They were aware of Confederate patrols operating throughout the area. However, no large force had been detected. It was estimated Brevet Major General Kilpatrick’s encounter on the road was probably with one of the Confederate patrols. Most likely the Confederate Cavalry’s main force was in camp to the northwest and would not enter the area before noon the next day. If they did come into the area during night, they would strike the 1st or 2nd Brigade, thus alerting Brevet Major General Kilpatrick.
Exhausted after his harrowing adventure earlier, Brevet Major General Kilpatrick was ready to turn in. Not appreciating the coziness of the main house, he and Marie Boozer may have briefly occupied a smaller, but more private, cabin in the rear of the main house.
Major General Butler prepared his men to move, the order to do so being passed back along the column. In the darkness the reply was jingling bridles and squeaking wet leather as the troopers mounted and moved back into file.
With scouts in the lead, the command moved out onto the Morganton Road. Word was also passed as to Lieutenant General Hampton’s intentions and the closeness of the enemy. The command started along the rutted road, slow and silent. Major General Butler rode at the head, accompanied by Brigadier General Evander M. Law, C.S.A., commanding Major General Butler’s old Brigade.
The command moved steadily along for several miles. The road was straight, the only cover the rolling nature of the terrain. In daylight a rider could be seen approaching for a mile. Major General Butler followed behind his scouts far enough to keep them just in sight, straining his eyes for movement and his ears for a dreaded challenge. The scouts abruptly halted and moved off the road.
Major General Butler halted the command, instructing Brigadier General Law to move everyone off to the right. Riding forward, Major General Butler encountered his guides and several dismounted men. In the darkness, the dismounted men were identified as the scouts who had remained behind to observe the camp. The dismounted scouts quickly reported to Major General Butler that the camp was occupied by more than a Brigade and that the ridge south of the main house was covered in Yankees. He questioned them about picket locations and was surprised to learn they hadn’t encountered any. The scouts continued that the main house had tents and wagons all around and that there was some artillery on a rise behind it. Major General Butler asked if they had seen any Confederate prisoners. The scouts thought there were some in the yard of the main house which they believed to be the Yankee Commanders’ Headquarters.
Major General Butler instructed them to keep watching and turned and rode back to the head of his Division. Brigadier General Law was waiting, the command still mounted. Major General Butler spoke as he rode up, telling his officers to have the command dismount and move off the road. All mounts were to remain saddled, no fires were to be started, and the men were not to speak above a whisper. The men should wrap up, but the command had to be prepared to move.
Major General Butler suspected Brevet Major General Kilpatrick himself was in the camp.
The orders were passed. Major General Butler instructed Brigadier General Law to throw out a line of skirmishers to the front, with videttes well in advance.
Major General Butler established his Head- quarters on the roadside and settled in to wait on the arrival of Wheeler’s Divisions.
Major General Butler, Commanding, Butler’s Cavalry Division (Brooks 1909):
Major General Butler was soon awakened by loud voices coming from the rear. He stepped into the road to see what was happening. A group of riders approached, Georgians from Young’s Brigade, preceded by a young Federal lieutenant.
The lieutenant had ridden in to the rear of Butler’s Division and been quickly captured. Major General Butler had the lieutenant dismount and questioned the man himself, "getting all possible information from him, as to the location of Kilpatrick’s Headquarters."
Brevet Brigadier General Atkins halted his Brigade on seeing the officer in charge of his skirmishers galloping up. Catching his breath, the officer reported that a Confederate camp was up ahead. Brevet Brigadier General Atkins left the Brigade and rode forward with the officer. They trotted past the skirmishers and stopped at the bottom of the next rise, slowly walking their horses toward the top. From this vantage Brevet Brigadier General Atkins viewed the rear of Butler’s Division. The men at the rear of Butler’s Division were paying little heed to what was behind them, perceiving the threat to be the Federal Cavalry camp to their front.
Brevet Brigadier General Atkins could see soldiers wrapped in rubber blankets and ponchos milling around the intersection of a road leading to the north. A couple of soldiers crossing Morganton Road from the south side indicated an additional camp there too. Brevet Brigadier General Atkins had seen enough. He turned his horse and headed back to the Brigade.
On his arrival back at his Brigade, he instructed his adjutant to inform the regimental commanders that the road ahead was blocked and that the Brigade would countermarch in search of a way around. Brevet Brigadier General Atkins and his staff turned and started back down the road, passing each soldier in the command. Showing no concern, he spoke confidently to faces he recognized through the dark. In his mind the situation was all too clear: the Division was cut in half by an enemy force of unknown size. Most unsettling was that the Commanding General could be oblivious to the fact.
He coaxed his horse to a trot, at the same time instructing his escort to ride ahead. The good roads they had passed earlier led north, but that was also the direction of the enemy he had skirmished with earlier. Low ground lay to the south.
Fearing the enemy was now on the road moving east, continuing his countermarch west meant an inevitable collision. He had to get his command off this road as soon as possible. Brevet Major General Atkins came upon his escort. In front of them lay a trail leading southeast. It showed little use, probably leading to a turpentine pit or rosin pile; nevertheless, it was going in the right direction.
As the command approached, Brevet Major General Atkins directed them down the path, the riders being forced into file. The command proceeded on in complete darkness. The trail played out after a quarter mile. Turning east, they started cross country, the ground sloping down in the darkness, the vegetation getting thicker. The column halted.
Brevet Major General Atkins, having fallen in on the rear when they left the road, moved forward, squeezing by his men to get to the front. In the front, the lead regiment had forced its way halfway across a swamp. Some riders had urged their mounts across the stream; others had floundered and turned back. To make matters worse, the wagons and artillery had also entered. Those that weren’t mired to the axle had no room to turn around.
Colonel William D. Hamilton, U.S.A., Commanding, 9th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry (OR 1885):
Federal Brevet Brigadier General Jordan’s 1st Brigade was camped five miles southwest of Solemn Grove at Bethesda Church. The soldiers had taken shelter where it could be found, many attempting to dry themselves under the church itself. The Malcolm Blue home, a quarter mile north of the church, was also occupied.
Reports persisted throughout the evening of enemy activity to the north. As a precaution, Brevet Brigadier General Jordan had breastworks thrown up on the road above the house.
10 March 1865
Armed with the information provided by the Federal lieutenant, he proceeded back up the road. When he located his scouts, they reported the camp was fast asleep. They also indicated they were able to move at will along the west and north sides of the camp and offered to take Major General Butler in for a closer examination.
Major General Butler accepted the offer and followed as they confidently rode off. The group rode several hundred yards closer, passing the head of a swamp, stopping just inside the growth that bounded it.
The commander surveyed what lay before him. From his position, the ground sloped gradually upward to a substantial farmhouse. The pines thinned just ahead of him and became fewer as he traced a route to the house. The farm house yard contained a large number of wagons and several tents. A ridge ran to the right of the house. The light from several low burning fires glistened off hundreds of small shelters on the ridge.
Major General Butler scanned to his right along the swamp and to his left toward Morganton Road realizing, "Kilpatrick did not have a vidette or a picket out as far as I could see, not even a camp guard" (Brooks 1909; Butler 1909a).
Returning to his command, Major General Butler was met by Lieutenant Generals Hampton and Wheeler. Major General Butler shared the information that he had collected from his personal reconnaissance and the Federal lieutenant.
Lieutenant General Wheeler now had part of his force marshaled behind Butler’s Division. Considering these facts, the commanders agreed upon a plan of attack.
Major General Butler, Commanding, Butler’s Cavalry Division (Butler 1909a):
The couriers returned after several hours, having failed to reach any one of them. Brevet Brigadier General Jordan was told that the roads north of Bethesda were occupied by Confederate troops, passing toward the east.
Brevet Brigadier General Jordan, Commanding, 1st Brigade (OR 1885):
Fearing a Confederate Column may turn south and come upon his position, Brevet Brigadier General Jordan had his artillery moved forward and placed in position behind his breastworks on the road.