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Van Dorn's operations in Northern Mississippi--recollections of a Cavalryman.

By Colonel A. F. Brown.
The writer having had the honor of serving with Van Dorn's cavalry from its organization until the death of its gallant commander, proposes to narrate some of the events connected with its history. As the sketch is written without access to official data of any kind, it claims to be nothing more nor less than the “recollections of a cavalryman.”

General Van Dorn took command of cavalry in December, 1862, but, to understand clearly the causes which led to his being transferred to that arm of the service, it will be necessary to glance at the situation of affairs in Mississippi just prior to the date mentioned.

The summer and autumn of 1862 brought to the people of North Mississippi the first of the many dark days which they experienced during the war. The Federals occupied Memphis and Corinth and held undisputed possession of the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers north of those points, and it became obvious, early in the autumn, that they were preparing to avail themselves of the easy means of transportation afforded by these streams for concentrating at Memphis, Corinth, and other points along the northern border of the State, a force destined for the invasion of Mississippi.

The army of Tenessee had retired from Corinth and finally from the State, leaving only a few battalions of cavalry scattered from the Alabama line to the vicinity of Memphis and a single brigade of infantry--General Villipegue's — stationed on the south bank of the Tallahatchie river, near where the Mississippi Central railroad crosses that stream. These forces could accomplish nothing beyond observing the movements of the enemy and protecting the country to some extent against small marauding parties. The country was teeming with immense supplies of bread-stuffs and forage; for no portion of the cotton States yielded finer crops, prior to the war, than North Mississippi, and its patriotic people had almost entirely abandoned the cultivation of cotton and devoted their energies to the production of grain. It became a matter of grave importance to avert or, at least; delay the threatened invasion, until these supplies could be transported to interior points for the use of the army. To accomplish that end, the Confederate authorities determined [152] to assume the offensive and attempt the capture of Corinth before the arrival of Grant's hosts on the northern border of the State. An expedition was organized, consisting of a detachment from Bragg's army and such other forces as could be hastily gathered from various points, including Villipegue's brigade and a portion of the scattered cavalry already mentioned. The command of the expedition was entrusted to Major-General Earl Van Dorn. The regiment to which the writer belonged was ordered in the direction of Memphis, and did not accompany General Van Dorn. The attack on Corinth was made early in October, and failed. As the force employed was deemed adequate for the assault, many and diverse reasons for the failure were adduced by those who participated in the movement; but in the absence of all personal knowledge on the subject, none will be reproduced in this paper.

After his repulse at Corinth, General Van Dorn retired across the country to Holly Springs, to await the movement of the enemy which he had vainly tried to prevent. The troops, particularly the infantry, were much dispirited by hard marching and unsuccessful fighting, but fortunately a period of several weeks of inactivity ensued, affording ample opportunity for rest.

In the meantime, General Grant, reinforced by Sherman, who had recently returned to Memphis after an unsuccessful attack on Vicksburg, was massing a heavy force at various points on the Memphis and Charleston railroad. Early in November General Van Dorn retired across the Tallahatchie river with his infantry, artillery and wagon train, leaving the cavalry, General W. H. Jackson commanding, still posted north of Holly Springs. General Grant's advance was not as rapid as had been anticipated, but his heavy columns soon made their appearance. Our cavalry retired slowly, and, in a few days, rejoined the infantry near Oxford. So far no fighting had occurred, except a few unimportant skirmishes. The situation was gloomy. General Grant, with a magnificent army, 80,000 strong, was moving leisurely south through the interior of the State, repairing and using the railroad as he advanced. In front of him was about one-fourth of that number of dispirited Confederate troops and a crowd of fleeing citizens, carrying with them negroes, horses, mules, cattle, hogs and every imaginable kind of movable property.

After crossing the Tallahatchie, Grant's pursuit became more vigorous, and the multitude of refugees became a serious source of embarrassment, for their wagons had a knack of breaking down [153] just at the wrong places, thereby obstructing the movement of troops, particularly the artillery. The morning after the cavalry had rejoined General Van Dorn near Oxford, the enemy, now south of the river, commenced a rapid advance. Our infantry at once resumed their retreat in the direction of Water Valley, while the cavalry was ordered in the opposite direction to check the advance. About four miles north of Oxford the cavalry came in contact with a heavy force of the enemy, and a sharp skirmish ensued, resulting in our forces being driven back, but time enough was gained to enable the straggling infantry and refugees to evacuate Oxford. At an early hour, before the advance of the enemy was reported, the squadron to which the writer belonged had received orders to reconnoitre the Panola road to a point fifteen miles distant, and in the event no enemy was encountered to return to Oxford during the night. Not bearing the firing of the affair of the morning, and not meeting any enemy, we moved quietly forward, reached the point named in our orders, remained until late in the afternoon, and returned to Oxford. The night was exceedingly dark, and the town seeming remarkably quiet, it occurred to the officer in command that it might be prudent to halt and send forward a scout, who soon returned with the startling information that the enemy was in possession of the. place. We countermarched as quietly as possible, flanked the town, and by riding all night succeeded in joining our regiment the next morning. The enemy continued to advance rapidly, resulting in another sharp cavalry fight at Water Valley, in which we were again outnumbered and roughly handled. Two days later at Coffeeville, the tables were turned.

As they had done at Oxford and Water Valley, the enemy commenced a headlong advance as they neared the town of Coffeeville. The movement had been anticipated, and our forces had been well posted to receive the onset. Their advance consisted of what was known as the Kansas Jayhawkers, who enjoyed the reputation of being the most expert plunderers connected with Grant's army. They came forward with a rush and a yell, expecting, as it was afterwards ascertained, to take the town by a coup d'etat, and have the pillaging all to themselves.

Our line was so posted as to be concealed from view until the enemy were within a few feet of it, and the first intimation they had of its presence was a deadly volley, instantly followed by a splendid charge, which swept them back like chaff before the wind, until it became too dark to distinguish friend from foe. The [154] most remarkable feature of the affair was the singularly prompt and salutary effect it produced in quieting the enemy. No other advance was attempted, and during the next two or three weeks--in fact, until the commencement of General Grant's retrogade movements — the most perfect quiet prevailed between the lines.

The situation was now as follows: General Jackson, with the Confederate cavalay, held the country between Grenada and Coffeeville. The infantry had crossed the Yalobusha at Grenada, and occupied defensive positions along the south bank of the river. General Van Dorn had been superseded by General Pemberton. A few reinforcements were added to the force about the time General Pemberton assumed command, but the whole was entirely inadequate to cope with General Grant.

The main body of the Federal army was encamped near Water Valley, with advance outposts in the vicinity of Coffeeville. It seemed to have no rear, for strong detachments were posted all along the railroad, as far as our scouts had gone, and were known to extend as far north as Holly Springs. General Grant was accumulating an immense depot of supplies at Holly Springs; was repairing the railroad south of that place and hastening every preparation necessary for a continuation of his advance. To arrest his progress was a matter of vital importance, otherwise the whole interior of the State, its capital, Vicksburg, and its railroads would fall into his possession. The force in his front being insufficient to offer battle with any hope of success, the only other alternative — that of attacking his communications — was adopted.

On the 15th of December the main body of the Confederate cavalry was quietly withdrawn from the enemy's front and crossed to the south side of the Yalobusha.

At 11 o'clock that night we received orders to be ready to move at daylight, with sixty rounds of ammunition and ten days rations of salt. Many were the speculations indulged in by men and officers around the camp-fires in regard to our destination; but on one point all were agreed, that the order meant an end to the monotonous duty of waiting and watching for Grant's advance.

At daylight the column moved eastward up the Yalobusha river, and soon after sunrise it became known for the first time that General Van Dorn was riding at its head.

Prior to that time the cavalry had seen but little of General Van Dorn, and the most of them knew nothing of their leader, except [155] as they saw him on the morning of the 16th of December--a man apparently about forty years of age, small of stature, dark skinned, dark haired, bright, keen black eyes, clear cut and well defined features, straight as an Indian, sitting his horse like a knight, and looking every inch a soldier. Such was the man, who, four days later, with less than twenty-five hundred poorly mounted and badly equipped cavalry, dealt Grant a blow which sent him and his splendidly appointed army of 80,000 reeling back to their transports at Memphis.

During the entire day and most of the night of the 16th the command moved steadily forward in the direction of Houston, which place was reached about noon on the 17th. Up to this time conjecture had gradually settled down to the opinion that our destination was some point on the Mobile and Ohio railroad, but on leaving the town of Houston the head of the column was observed to turn north in the direction of Pontotoc, and again we were at sea. We bivouacked that night about fifteen miles north of Houston, and fed our horses from the adjacent corn fields.

On the following day, as the rear of the column was leaving Pontotoc, a regiment of Federal cavalry entered the town from a different direction. Had we been a few moments later, or they a little earlier, a collision would have been inevitable, and would, probably, have resulted in the loss of valuable time; as it was, only a few shots were exchanged between their advance and some loiterers of our rear guard. We were now nearer to General Grant's headquarters than to Holly Springs, yet it is singularly true that this force failed to notify the Federal commander that a considerable body of cavalry was moving rapidly in the direction of his depot of supplies. Their conduct cannot be accounted for on the hypothesis that they were not aware of the presence of a superior force, for their rapid and disorderly flight demonstrated that they fully appreciated the importance of taking care of themselves.

General Grant's headquarters were connected with the posts in his rear by telegraph, and any intimation of danger would have been quickly flashed over the wires; but it seems this regiment was too badly scared to think of anything except their own safety, for they strewed the road for miles with property which had been taken from citizens.

Arriving at New Albany at dark on the evening of the 18th, we crossed the Tallahatchie and slept on the north bank. Early on the morning of the 19th the column was put in motion on a direct [156] but somewhat unused road to Holly Springs, distant thirty-five miles, and by noon had reached a point within fourteen miles of the town. As it was important to avoid coming in contact with any reconnoitring parties the enemy might have out, we were now halted until night. A careful inspection of arms and ammunition was made, the horses were fed, and at dark we were ordered to move forward in perfect silence; at midnight, the head of the column being within a mile of the enemy's pickets, the men were ordered to dismount and rest in place.

It was a warm, star-light, December night, and oppressively silent. Even our horses seemed to comprehend the situation, for they quietly nodded in their places, while their riders, bridle rein in hand, enjoyed a brief rest on the ground at their feet.

There were various opinions in regard to the strength of the enemy. The sequel proved it consisted of a brigade of infantry and a portion of the Seventh Illinois cavalry--a force about equal in numbers to our own. The infantry was divided — a portion being camped near the railroad depot and very near where the road on which we were advancing entered the town; the balance were quartered in the centre of the town, occupying the courthouse and other buildings on and near the square. The cavalry occupied the fair grounds, immediately north of the town. The three positions were from a half to three-quarters of a mile from each other, and a simultaneous attack upon each would have necessitated the movement of a portion of the troops around the town, which, owing to the darkness and the nature of the ground, would have been impracticable.

There was no trouble about reaching the encampment first named, as that lay straight before us. To get at the other positions, General Van Dorn adopted the simpler plan of going through the town, instead of around it. By hurling his whole force straight at the enemy and entering their lines at one point, he would come in contact with only one picket-post and diminish the chances of alarming the garrison prematurely.

After passing the pickets and reaching certain designated points, the column, without abating its speed, was to divide into three attacking parties, the commander of each detachment being carefully instructed where tostrike. The first or head of the column was to dash into and capture the infantry camped in front of us; the second, following immediately after the first, was to sweep by the encampment, move straight into the town until it reached the [157] street leading north to the fair grounds, then wheel to the right and charge the cavalry camp; the third, following immediately alter the second, was to dash through the town, disregarding every thing until it struck the infantry occupying the public square. Everything indicated that the enemy had no suspicion of our approach. At daybreak the column was moved forward until within about two hundred yards of the pickets, when a staff officer pointed out their position and ordered us to ride them down without firing.

We moved forward at a trot, soon increased to a gallop, and when a turn in the road brought the pickets in view, they were standing peering at us through the gloom, evidently unable to decide whether we were friend or foe. A stern command from the officer in front to throw down their arms and get out of the road was quickly obeyed, and we passed them like the wind. Another turn in the road, and the white tents of the camp were in full view.

On a slight eminence near the road side, and within gun shot of the camp, were three or four horsemen; in passing them, General Van Dorn was recognized in the group, and was greeted with a tremendous cheer, which he gracefully acknowledged, and pointed to the enemy with his sword. The effect of the silent order was electrical; the charge was instantly turned into a steeple chase, and in another moment we struck the camp like a thunderbolt.

The sleeping Federals were partially aroused by the wild cheer given General Van Dorn, but before its echoes ceased to reverberate, we had literally ridden over them. The camp proved to be that of the One-hundred-and-first Illinois infantry. When the alarm was given, they rushed out of their tents, and taking in the situation at a glance, promptly commenced a series of manoeuvres, not laid down in tactics, to avoid being run over.

The scene of a regiment, with night garments fluttering to the breeze, trying to dodge an avalanche of horsemen, was truly laughable. Apparently there was no thought of resistance, and in a few moments the comedy ended without a shot being fired. The attack on the centre of the town was also a perfect success, although being a few moments later the surprise was not quite so complete. The cavalry at the fair grounds made a spirited defence. They were booted and saddled preparatory to starting on a scout when the alarm was given, and when Colonel Pinson, commanding the First Mississippi, dashed up to their camp, expecting to take it by Surprise, he found them formed and ready to receive him. They met him with a counter charge, and a sharp fight ensued at close [158] quarters. A portion of the troops to whom the One-hundred-and-first Illinois had surrendered, were now ordered to the rear of the cavalry engaging Pinson to cut off their retreat. Just as we gained their rear and got in position, they discovered the movement and attempted to cut their way out.

It was a gallant but hopeless effort. Some succeeded in escaping by passing around the ends of our line, but all who attempted to, cut through it fell or were captured. The conduct of one officer was particularly noticeable; he came riding furiously at our line, and when ordered to surrender, paid no attention to the summons except to draw his revolver and fire in our faces. His fire was returned, and he fell mortally wounded.

The fighting ended with the affair at the fair grounds, and before 8 o'clock General Van Dorn was in quiet possession of the town, with an immense quantity of army stores and a large number of prisoners on his hands. General Grant had accumulated at Holly Springs everything necessary to supply a large army during his. contemplated campaign. Every available building at and near the depot, including the machine shops, round house and large armory and foundry buildings, and many houses on the public square, were filled with commissary, quartermaster and ordnance stores. In addition to these were numerous sutlers' shops, stocked with articles so well suited to the wants of Confederate soldiers, that they seemed to have been provided for their especial use. Army followers, with well assorted stocks of merchandise, holding permits and “protection papers” from the Federal Government to trade in cotton, had established themselves, and were ready for business, but, unfortunately for them, their “papers” afforded no sort of protection against hungry and needy “Rebels.” Boots and hats seemed to be the most popular articles in the way of clothing, but it was amusing to see how tastes differed. Some men would pass by a dozen things which they really needed, and shouldering a bolt of calico, walk off apparently perfectly satisfied with their selection. Sugar, coffee, crackers, cheese, sardines, canned oysters, &c., were not neglected; sacks were filled with these articles and tied behind saddles, and when the column moved it presented the appearance of a long line of mill boys. Among the ordnance stores there was a large quantity of arms and equipments entirely new and in original packages, manufactured especially for cavalry, which that branch of the service did not fail to appropriate.

The captured property, with the exception of the comparatively [159] small quantity used in arming and equipping his command, General Van Dorn committed to the flames.

He has been censured for burning the buildings in which the property was stored, but there was no other plan he could have adopted. It must be remembered that he was under the shadow of a large, hostile army, while he occupied the town, and a considerable portion of his command had to be employed in guarding the prisoners, who were being paroled, and in covering the approaches of the enemy. He could not reasonably have hoped to hold his position long enough to have moved the stores out of the buildings and destroyed them with the force available for that purpose.

The explosion of the magazine and bursting of shells communicated fire to some buildings, which otherwise would have escaped being burned.

At sunset the work of destruction had been completed, the prisoners paroled, and the command moved out of town. In a few short hours, with a comparatively insignificant force, General Van Dorn had destroyed an accumulation of military supplies which it had taken months to collect from the factories and store-houses. of the North. It was a terrible disaster to General Grant; and as censure had to rest on some one, Colonel Murphy, the commander of the post, was selected as the scapegoat. Incompetency, negligence, and all sorts of charges were brought against him. It was said that he was not sufficiently rigid in excluding citizens from his lines, and in that way General Van Dorn obtained the information which enabled him to effect a surprise; but when it is considered that there were numbers of men in his command whose homes were in and around Holly Springs, and who were perfectly familiar with every road and by-path in the country, it may readily be supposed that he did not have to rely on citizens for information.

Colonel Murphy's cavalry had been active and vigilant. There was no hostile force near the town at dark on the evening of the 19th. The attack on the morning of the 20th came like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, and under the circumstances was irresistible. Had Grant and every general in his army been present the result would probably have been the same. Mrs. Grant had established her headquarters in town; the General visited her frequently, and he must have known and been satisfied with the condition of affairs at the post. Holly Springs was connected with army headquarters by telegraph, and Colonel Murphy might very properly [160] have supposed that if any considerable portion of the enemy's cavalry were withdrawn from General Grant's front, and moved in the suspicious direction taken by.Van Dorn, that some intimation of the fact would reach him. The truth is, that if Colonel Murphy was censurable at all, it was for sharing in the feeling which seemed to pervade the whole army from General Grant down, that the march through the State was simply to be a walk over the track.

Leaving Holly Springs, General Van Dorn moved north and crossed the Memphis and Charleston railroad at Moscow, for the purpose of making a diversion in favor of General Forrest, who was at the time engaged on an expedition in Middle and West Tennessee. After succeeding in monopolizing the attention of the enemy at various points for a day or two, we moved across to Bolivar, cut off and captured the pickets, and turned south just in time to avoid a heavy force of cavalry and artillery which Grant had sent in pursuit. We were now moving by the same route which the Federal cavalry had just followed going north, and astonished many of their stragglers by gobbling them up when they least expected it. The railroad south of Bolivar was guarded by small detachments of infantry, the most of whom were picked up and paroled. The cavalry which we had eluded early in the morning turned about and pursued, and came up with our rear at Salisbury late in the evening. Prisoners represented that the force consisted of about 4,000 picked troops, accompanied by light artillery; and as they manifested a disposition to push matters, it became necessary to outwit them. General Van Dorn moved out rapidly on the road leading to Corinth, the enemy pursuing. As soon as it became dark enough to conceal his movements, he turned the head of the column to the right through the woods and gained the Ripley road, leaving a portion of his rear guard and some scouts, with orders to continue to move forward on the Corinth road, just in advance of the enemy. The ruse succeeded, and soon after reaching the Ripley road we were ordered to camp without fires. The march was resumed early the next morning, and continued without interruption until the afternoon, when the enemy again ma<*>e their appearance in our rear, and indulged in a little harmless shelling. We crossed to the south bank of the Tallahatchie, and went into camp, but they manifested no disposition to follow. The command arrived at Grenada about the 1st of January, having been absent two weeks. During that two weeks General Van Dorn had marched nearly 400 [161] miles, had killed, wounded and captured more Federal troops than his own command numbered, had destroyed supplies amounting to millions of dollars, and had forced General Grant to abandon an elaborately planned campaign and retreat precipitately beyond the limits of the State. The Confederate loss in killed, wounded and missing did not exceed fifty.

Judged by the magnitude of its results, the capture of Holly Springs was the most important cavalry achievement of the war. The expedition greatly improved the morale of the cavalry, and laid the foundation for the formation of the splendid corps which General Van Dorn subsequently handled with such signal success. He believed in cavalry, and handled it on the theory that it could do anything which the best trained infantry could accomplish. his old troopers will well remember the notable instance of his confidence in them, exhibited at Franklin, Tennessee, a few days before his death. He had sent Forrest around north of Franklin to capture a detachment stationed at Brentwood, and to divert the attention of the garrison at Franklin from Forrest's movement, a demonstration was made on that place. As nothing more than a feint was intended, we were drawn up in front of the earthworks, and for some time a scattering fire was kept up between the skirmishers and batteries on both sides; finally the enemy grew bolder and moved a column of infantry out on a piece of open ground and formed them into a hollow square, apparently for the purpose of inviting a charge. This was too much for a man of General Van Dorn's temperment. Without a moment's hesitation he ordered a charge. The ground was favorable, and the line swept forward in splendid order; for a moment it looked as though the blue square would stand, then it wavered, and at last broke and fled in disorder.

General Van Dorn possessed, in an eminent degree, the qualities essential to success in a cavalry commander, and his untimely death was an irreparable loss to the Southern cause.

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