Tuesday, June 25, 2013

June 24-26, 1863: Hoover's Gap and the debut of the Spencer Rifle

Union Colonel John T. Wilder had the vision to arm his men with the revolutionary Spencer Repeating Rifle.
While Grant besieged Vicksburg and Lee's army marched into Pennsylvania, in middle Tennessee a small force of Union troops armed with revolutionary new weapons lunged forward. Union Colonel John T. Wilder's account of the Battle of Hoover's Gap is exciting, but it omits an important detail: Wilder's men were armed with the advanced Spencer Repeating Rifle, a repeater which used a tube magazine containing seven self-contained cartridges. The Spencer Rifle dramatically increased the firepower Wilder's men could produce, and they dominated their Confederate opponents in this battle as a result. Hoover's Gap was the first battle in which Confederate troops encountered massed repeaters with terrible results, but it would not be the last.
Numbers 20. Report of Colonel John T. Wilder, Seventeenth Indiana Infantry, commanding First Brigade.

Camp near Duck River Bridge, July 11, 1863.

MAJOR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by my command in the late movements, resulting in driving the rebel forces under General Bragg south across the Tennessee River:

On the morning of June 24, 1863, at 3 o'clock, my command moved from camp, 6 miles north from Murfreesborough, and taking the advance of the Fourteenth Army Corps, on the Manchester pike moved forward to Big Spring Branch, 7 miles from Murfreesborough. Here my scouts gave notice of the proximity of rebel pickets. The command was halted until the infantry closed up, when we immediately moved forward, the Seventy-second Indiana, Colonel Miller, being in advance, with five companies, under Lieutenant-Colonel Kirkpatrick, thrown out as an advance guard, and a party of 25 scouts, of the Seventeenth and Seventy-second, as an extreme advance guard. One mile from the creek we came upon the rebel pickets, who opened fire on the advance, which was returned by our men, driving the rebels to a hill thickly covered with cedars, where the rebel reserves were drawn up under cover of the hill, and opened a rapid fire upon our men, who advanced rapidly to the foot of the hill, when Colonel Kirkpatrick deployed one company on each side of the road, and, without halting, drove the rebels from their position, capturing 2 prisoners, without loss on our part. I directed the advance to push speedily forward and take possession of Hoover's Gap, and, if possible, to prevent the enemy from occupying their fortifications, which I learned were situated at a narrow point of the gap, 16 miles from Murfreesborough.

The orders were handsomely executed by Colonel Kirkpatrick, who dashed forward along the pike, pushing the enemy so fast that they had not time to deploy into their works before he had possession, the rebels breaking and scattering through the hills, with a loss of their battle-flag (a beautiful stand of embroidered silk colors, presented to the regiment, First Kentucky, by the sister of General Ben. Hardin Helm, while in Kentucky, under Morgan, last year) and several prisoners. Learning that a regiment of cavalry (Third Confederate) were stationed at the Garrison Fork of Duck River, 1 mile farther on, and that a brigade of infantry were encamped 2 miles to the right, I determined to take the entire gap, and, if possible, hold it until the arrival of the infantry column, now some 6 miles behind us, believing that it would cost us at least a thousand men to retake the ground we now held, if it was reasonably contested by the rebel force close at hand. My whole command was rapidly moved forward to the southern extremity of the gap, and while being placed in position we heard the long-roll sounded in the rebel camp at our right, 2 miles down the Garrison Fork.

The advance pushed on 2 miles farther, and captured 7 wagons belonging to the rebels. They were soon recalled, and were hardly in position before our pickets were driven in by a large force of rebel infantry from the direction of Fairfield. My dispositions were: The Seventy-second Indiana, Colonel Miller, stationed to the right side of the gap, and thrown forward to a hillock on which there was a graveyard; two mountain howitzers at their front, on the point of the hillock; four pieces of 10-pounder rifled Rodmans, of Captain Lilly's Eighteenth Indiana Battery, stationed on a secondary hill, facing toward Fairfield, on the right side of the gap, supported by the One hundred and twenty-third Illinois. Colonel Monroe; the Seventeenth Indiana, Lieutenant-Colonel Jordan, and the Ninety-eighth Illinois, Colonel Funkhouser, in rear of a high hill in reserve. I ordered two companies of the Ninety-eighth Illinois to take position on the hill at the left of the gap, and four companies of the Seventeenth Indiana to take possession of a high wooded hill about a quarter of a mile to our right, and to throw skirmishers forward to some cleared hills to their front, both for the purpose of observation and to prevent a sudden attack from that quarter. The enemy in the mean time advanced rapidly, and opened on our left from two batteries a rapid cross-fire, which killed 2 gunners and the animals of one of the mountain howitzers. They were promptly replied to by Captain Lilly, who dismounted one of their pieces and compelled both of their batteries to change position several times. In the mean time I observed a column of the enemy moving behind some hills toward our right, and immediately ordered the remainder of the Seventeenth Indiana to take position on the wooded hill before spoken of, with orders to look well to their right, and send me word if any attempt was made to flank them. They had hardly reached the hill when a heavy and rapid fire was opened from both sides, the rebels charging boldly up the hill and cheering loudly. Not hearing from Colonel Jordan, but seeing that he was hard pressed, I sent Colonel Funkhouser with the remainder of the Ninety-eighth Illinois to his assistance. He reached the ground just as the rebels has succeeded in turning Colonel Jordan's right flank.

Colonel Funkhouser immediately deployed his command to the right, thus outflanking the rebel left, and opened a rapid, raking fire upon them, caused them to break in disorder down the hill. The fighting for a few moments had been desperate, most of it at a distance of not over 20 yards between the combatants. In the mean time, on the left, two rebel regiments attempted to take our battery. Colonel Monroe, by my direction, ordered three companies, under Lieutenant-Colonel Biggs, forward to a ravine about 75 yards in front of Captain Lilly's position. They had hardly got in position before the rebels came over the hill in their front. They delivered a cautious and deliberate fire upon them, and Captain Lilly gave them a few rounds of double-shotted canister from his guns, while Colonel Miller, of the Seventy-second Indiana, opened an enfilading fire upon them, which caused them to first fall to the ground to escape the tornado of death which was being poured into their ranks. But finding no cessation of our leaden hail, they crawled back as best they could, under cover of the hills, and made no further attempt to take our left. They, however, made another attempt with five regiments on our right, but were easily driven back by Colonels Funkhouser and Jordan, with not over 700 men of the Seventeenth Indiana and Ninety-eighth Illinois engaged. The rebels now fell back all along the line, and opened a furious cannonading upon our battery, without doing much harm or receiving harm in return, they being under cover of the hills.

General Reynolds now arrived with two brigades of infantry, and placed one of them in support of and on a prolongation of our right. About dark we were relieved by a brigade of Rousseau's division, and at 2 o'clock next morning were again in line, and were held in reserve all day. Our entire loss in the action of the 24th of June is 1 commissioned officer killed (J. R. Eddy, chaplain Seventy-Second Indiana), 1 commissioned officer mortally wounded (Lieutenant James T. Moreland, Seventeenth Indiana), and 12 enlisted men killed and 47 wounded.

The conduct of both officers and men was all that the most sanguine could ask. To speak of individuals when all did their whole duty would be unfair. Each officer seemed to appreciate the importance of taking and holding the very strong position of Hoover's Gap, and the men were cager to obey and sustain their officers. Their conduct was the same whether in driving in the rebel outposts or defending their position against fearful odds, or when lying in support of our battery, exposed to a terrible cross-fire of shot and shell, or when advancing against the rebel columns; always earnest, cool, determined, ready, and brave, seeming best pleased when necessarily in greatest dangers.

On the morning of the 26th, we again moved forward, my command, on horseback, debouching into the valley of Garrison Fork, and filing over the chain of hills between that stream and McBride's Creek, flanking the rebel left, and causing it to hastily fall back before the infantry column of General Reynolds, who was advancing on the line of the Manchester pike. We then moved up McBride's Creek to the table-land, and marched rapidly around the head of Noah's Fork for the purpose of turning the strong position of Matt's Hollow; but on arriving at the Manchester pike, after it reaches the table- land, we found that the infantry column was passing, having met no enemy, they having retreated in the direction of Fairfield. We camped that night 6 miles from Manchester, and at daylight next morning moved forward, cutting off a rebel picket post, and were in Manchester before the few rebels there knew of our approach. We captured about 40 prisoners, including 1 captain and 3 lieutenants. Pickets were immediately thrown out, and, on the arrival of General Reynolds, I dispatched Major Jones, with four companies of the Seventeenth Indiana, and Captain [Lawson S.] Kilborn, with a detachment of pioneers, to destroy the trestle-work on the McMinnville Railroad, 4 miles from Tullahoma. Their object was fully accomplished, and they returned to camp that night. The next morning we started to get in the rear of Tullahoma, to destroy the rebel communications. We moved rapidly to Hillsborough, leaving two companies of the One hundred and twenty-third at that place, until relieved by a brigade of infantry, under General Beatty, and from thence toward Decherd; but, on arriving at Elk River, found that the incessant rains had so swollen that stream that we could neither ford nor swim it, the current being so rapid that our horses were washed down stream. There was a bridge at Pelham, 6 miles farther up. We turned our course for that place, sending Colonel Monroe, with eight companies of the One hundred and twenty-third Illinois down Elk River, to destroy, if possible, hundred the road and railroad bridges over Elk River at Estill Springs, with orders, if successful, to come down the railroad and join me at Decherd, or below. On his arrival at the railroad, he found a division of infantry guarding the bridges and a large wagon train. He immediately fell back to Hillsborough, finding it impossible to accomplish anything further, being pursued by a force of rebel cavalry, without any loss to himself, although skirmishing with and holding them in check for several miles. The next morning he moved forward, and safely joined us on the top of Cumberland Mountains.

On leaving the direct road to Decherd, and going in the direction of Pelham, we were compelled to ford streams that swam our smallest horses, and compelled us to carry our howitzers' ammunition on the men's shoulders across the streams. When near Pelham, we learned that a party of rebels were at the bridge, with the intention of destroying it on our approach. I immediately ordered the advance, under Lieutenant-Colonel Kitchell, Ninety-eighth Illinois, and about 30 scouts of the different regiments, to go forward on a run and prevent the destruction of the bridge. They dashed forward, not only saving the bridge, but taking 2 of the party prisoners, and capturing a drove of 78 mules, which were sent back to Hillsborough in charge of a company. We soon reached the South Fork of Elk River, and found the water deep enough to swim our tallest horses. The stream, though rapid, could, by crossing diagonally, be swum; and, by tearing down an old mill, we made a raft that, by being towed with our picket ropes floated our two mountain howitzers over. The crossing occupied about three hours. We immediately moved forward toward Decherd, half fording and half swimming another stream on the way. We reached the railroad at 8 o'clock in the evening, and immediately attacked the garrison of about 80 men, who, protected by a stockade and the railroad cut, made a pretty good resistance. We soon dislodged them, however, when they took a position in a deep ravine, with timber in it, completely protecting them, while our men had to approach over a bare hill to attack them, exposing themselves to sharp fire at 60 yards' range. I ordered up our howitzers, and a couple of rounds of canister silenced them and drove them out. We immediately commenced destroying the railroad track and water-tanks on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, and blowing up the trestle-work on the branch road to Winchester. The railroad depot was well filled with commissary stores, which we burned. We also destroyed the telegraph instruments. A large force was by this time approaching from the north side, and, having destroyed about 300 yards of track, we left, after skirmishing with their advance guard and capturing some 4 or 5 prisoners, who, on being questioned separately, stated that six regiments of infantry were about to attack us. Believing that I would have but little chance of success in a fight with them, on account of the darkness and our total ignorance of the ground, we moved off in the direction of Pelham, and, after going about 6 miles, went off the road into the woods at 2 o'clock and bivouacked without fires until daylight.

When we started again up the Cumberland Mountains, on the Brakefield Point road, I determined to break the road, if possible, below Cowan. When partly up the mountain we could plainly see a considerable force of infantry and cavalry near Decherd. We moved forward to the Southern University, and there destroyed the Tracy Railroad track. From there I sent a detachment of 450 men, under Colonel Funkhouser, of the Ninety-eighth Illinois, to destroy the railroad at Tantalon, and went forward myself in the direction of Anderson, intending to strike the railroad at that place. Colonel Funkhouser reporter to me that three railroad trains lay at Tantalon, loaded with troops, and my scouts reported two more trains at Anderson. Both places being approachable only by a bridle-path, I deemed it impossible to accomplish anything further; besides, the picket force left at the railroad, near the university, were driven in by cavalry, who preceded a railroad train loaded with infantry. They were now on my track and in our rear. I collected my force, and determined to extricate them. Leaving a rear guard to skirmish with and draw them down the mountain, I started on the road toward Chattanooga. When about 8 miles from the university, during a tremendous rain, which obliterated our trail, I moved the entire command from the road about 2 miles eastward into the woods, leaving the rear guard to draw them forward down the mountain, which they did, and then escaped through the woods and joined us, some not coming up until next morning. As soon as the rebel column had passed us, we struck through the mountains, without guides, in the direction of Pelham, and came out at the place we intended to strike, and reached the foot of the mountain, at Gilham's Cove, over a very rocky and steep road. We bivouacked at 10 p.m., and next morning at daylight started for Manchester, just getting ahead of Forrest, who, with nine regiments of cavalry and two pieces of artillery, aimed to intercept us at Pelham.

We reached Manchester at noon, having been in the saddle or fighting about twenty hours out of each twenty-four eleven days, and all the time drenched with rain, our men half starved and our horses almost entirely without forage, yet our officers and men seemed willing and cheerful, and are now only anxious for another expedition, if by such they can accomplish any good. We did not lose a single man in our expedition to the rear of Tullahoma. If our course had not been impeded by the streams flooded beyond all precedent, we must have captured one or two railroad trains, one of them having General Buckner and staff on board; we should have had ample time to have thoroughly torn up the railroad in daylight at several points, whilst on account of the darkness we were compelled to follow the main roads and the time lost in going via Pelham enabled the rebels to throw a large force in pursuit of us.

I am, very respectfully,


Colonel Seventeenth Indiana Infantry, Commanding Brigade.
Here's an interesting documentary that demonstrates the advantage gained by Union troops who acquired on of these repeating rifles. Compare the time it takes to reload the Spencer with the Enfield musketoon.

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