Friday, July 26, 2013

Battle of Brown's Mill: Where everything went horribly wrong for Union cavalry

Thomas E. Redwine shows movement of Union troops into Newnan
Not a whole lot went wrong for Union Gen. William T. Sherman during his successful 1864 campaign to take Atlanta, a huge win for the North and President Abraham Lincoln, who needed a victory to assure re-election.
While his unsuccessful assault of Kennesaw Mountain was costly, Sherman’s decision to send about 5,200 cavalry troopers to tear up railroad track south of Atlanta turned into an outright disaster.

Author David Evans
His aim was to disrupt vital supply and communication lines and avoid a protracted siege by forcing the South to abandon Atlanta.

“Sherman had no experience to speak of with cavalry. He never truly appreciated their abilities and their limitations,” argues historian David Evans.

In his book, “Sherman’s Horsemen,” Evan details the use of cavalry during the campaign and the ill-fated McCook-Stoneman Raid.

Two previous Union raids -- which came up against few Confederates -- proved successful. Sherman was emboldened.

List of Rebel casualties
“He decided to put all his eggs in one basket and decided to conduct one of the largest raids in the Civil War.”

As another large Federal column engaged elsewhere, Brig. Gen Edward M. McCook, with about 3,000 troopers and Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s 2,200 men set out in separate columns. They agreed to rendezvous at Lovejoy Station to destroy track.

“They are riding into a hornet’s nest,” Evans tells the Picket.

The hornet stings ended up paralyzing McCook while his men tried to escape a horde of Rebel pursuers a few miles outside of Newnan, a hospital town.

The Confederates sprung their trap at Brown’s Mill in a well-timed ambush. After a council of war, McCook ceded effective command. He lost artillery pieces, horses and about 1,200 men forced to surrender during their pell-mell rush to cross the Chattahoochee River and reach the safety of Union lines.

Campaign map at Newnan depot
It was a bloody debacle, in which there was saber-to-saber fighting, a trail of bodies and the heroic actions of a Union trooper who received the Medal of Honor.

A portion of the battlefield will be formally dedicated Saturday as Brown’s Mill Battlefield Historic Civil War Site. The 105 acres includes two short trails, a meadow and a half dozen interpretive signs detailing the battle.

McCook had initial success after setting off July 27, 1864, tearing up Atlanta & West Point Railroad track at Palmetto and capturing Confederate supplies at Fayetteville. “There is some pretty good evidence that McCook got into some captured liquor and overimbibed,” says Evans.

Stoneman, who had moved south on the east side of the Ocmulgee River, was unable to ford and abandoned plans to meet McCook. He decided to move up plans to free Union prisoners at Andersonville. Stoneman and much of his command, however, were captured at Macon.

McCook and his men reached Lovejoy Station on July 29. They did little damage to the Macon & Western Railroad.

“There is no sign of Stoneman. This puts McCook in a quandary,” says Evans.

Brig. Gen. McCook
McCook makes what he calls a “strategic withdrawal” and is hounded by Confederate cavalry after he made the decision to head back to Union lines via Newnan.

Early the morning of July 30, after skirmishes at Line Creek and Shake Rag, troopers of the 8th Indiana ride into town, surprised to find dismounted Confederate cavalry at the railroad depot. McCook decides to avoid battle and continue his push for the river.

Confederate Lt. Gen. Joe Wheeler, urging his exhausted men, was soon on McCook’s heels.

“O, how joyfully we hailed them,” Confederate nurse Kate Cumming wrote in her diary. “They came galloping in by two different roads; the enemy in the meantime hearing of their approach, were retreating.”

Newnan children attempted to follow the Union troopers, but were told to go home.

Nurse Kate Cumming
An ambush at what is now the intersection of Old Corinth and Millard Farmer roads demoralizes the advance Indiana, Iowa and Kentucky regiments in the column, setting up the short, but ferocious battle.

“Wheeler see his lines wavering and he rides to the front, draw his sword, orders his bugler to sound charge and orders the men to ‘follow me,’” says Evans.

Sandra Parker, comprehensive planner for Coweta County, which owns the new historic site, said Wheeler and other commanders made an assault on the larger Union force, which was now straddling what came to be known as Ricketyback Road.

Fighting see-sawed across the road.

Wheeler “used (his men) very strategically in a huge horseshoe and moved in on them,” says Parker. 

McCook held a brief council of war, suggesting the force surrender. Other officers decided to fight and McCook basically gave up command. It was every man for himself then, with separate columns attempting to break out from the trap.

“They were outgeneraled and fled south,” says Parker.

There were moments of heroism among the jolted Union troopers.

Cpl. George W. Healey (Healy) of Company E, 5th Iowa Cavalry is to win a Medal of Honor for his actions at Brown’s Mill.

George Healey
According to the citation, “When nearly surrounded by the enemy, (he) captured a Confederate soldier, and with the aid of a comrade who joined him later, captured four other Confederate soldiers, disarmed the five prisoners and brought them all into the Union lines.”

Larry Conzett of Nashville says his great-great-uncle, David, also of the 5th Iowa, rode with Healey. David Conzett died shortly before Healey took the prisoners.

“This family folklore was George fought back with David’s empty pistol, capturing Confederates, feigning the gun was full,” says Conzett, who will attend Saturday’s dedication of the site.

David Conzett fell near a tree within 75 yards of the home of George W. Cook. The home was on high ground where McCook placed artillery and the council of war during a “last stand.”

One of three nieces staying at Cook’s home was killed during the fighting. Later, Cook wrote a letter demanding the return of horses taken by Union troopers during the battle.

David Conzett and two comrades were buried at the Cook property before being moved to a national cemetery in Marietta, north of Atlanta.

Planners and preservationists hope a small visitor center will someday be built on the high ground.

The 5th Iowa was among the 500 troopers that were captured on the battlefield while trying to cover the Union retreat.

An interpretive sign for battlefield (Coweta County)
The fighting at Brown's Mill cost McCook about 100 killed and wounded, while Wheeler's casualties probably numbered less than 50, according to Evans. Wheeler freed about 500 prisoners and captured supplies.

“By 5 p.m. it was completely over, with the nurses out there already,” says Carolyn Turner, president of the Friends of Brown’s Mill Battlefield Association.

Confederate nurse Fannie Beers wrote about the carnage she encountered.

"The dead lay around us on every side, singly and in groups and piles; men and horses, in some cases, apparently inextricably mingled. Some lay as if peacefully sleeping; others, with open eyes, seemed to glare at any who  bent above them. Two men lay as they had died, the 'Blue' and the 'Gray,'  clasped in fierce shot in the head, the throat of the other was partly torn away.”

The retreat of the remaining Union forces was chaotic, with another 700 captured before they could ford the Chattahoochee. Some men, including an officer naked except for his hat, managed to swim or take a few ferries to safety.

Route of the Union retreat at Brown's Mill
According to Evans, the McCook-Stoneman escapade and the loss at Brown’s Mill changed the way the Atlanta Campaign was fought.

Sherman could no longer depend on his now-crippled cavalry. A siege of the city ensued and infantry was used to move on two crucial railroads.

“It forced Sherman to change his strategy and while it did not change the ultimate outcome… these Confederate victories prolonged the campaign at a crucial moment of American history.”

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