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General Van Dorn's operations between Columbia and Nashville in 1863.

By Colonel Edward Dillon.
[The following letter was not intended for publication. but gives so vivid a description of the important events of which it treats that we print it just as it was received.]

Dear General — I take advantage of a few hours' detention here to say, in reply to your inquiry of the 12th instant, that while my memory is not fresh as to all the details of General Van Dorn's operations between Columbia and Nashville, Tennessee, in 1863, or as to the precise composition of his command at that time, yet I remember that it contained the brigades of Forest, Jackson, Armstrong, Whitfield and Cosby, numbering, perhaps, 7,000 effective cavalry and artillery; and I can no doubt give you with tolerable accuracy the main features of the transactions to which you refer.

General Van Dorn arrived at Columbia early in February, 1863, and shortly thereafter (perhaps in March) took up his headquarters at Spring Hill, protecting the left of General Bragg's army, and operating against the Federal line of communication so effectively as to confine the enemy closely to their fortified positions at Nashville, Brentwood, Franklin, Triune and other points. Vexed at. Van Dorn's frequent attacks and constantly increasing proximity to their lines, the enemy repeatedly moved out in force from their strongholds, but could never be coaxed far enough from them to justify any vigorous attack till some time in May, when General Coburn came out of Franklin with about 5,000 men, and was enticed to a point near Thompson station, where, after a sharp engagement, he surrendered in time to prevent a simultaneous attack in front and rear-Forest's brigade having gotten behind him. On, [145] the day following Forest was sent with his own and Armstrong's brigade to attack Brentwood (believed to have been weakened in order to replace the captured garrison of Franklin), and succeeded in beating and capturing the force there (about 1,200), together with a large number of horses and many arms of different kinds. Out of this affair came an altercation between Van Dorn and Forest, which is worthy of note as characteristic of both.

Forest had reported his success to Van Dorn, who had in turn reported to Bragg; and he being in need of just such things as Forest had captured, directed Van Dorn to send them forthwith to him. This order of Bragg was repeated by Van Dorn to Forest, who replied that he did not have the captured property, and could not comply with the order. I always supposed that Forest's and Armstrong's men appropriated most of the captured property at the moment of capture.

To this Van Dorn said: “Either your report to me was incorrect or your command is in possession of the property, and you must produce and deliver it up.”

Forest replied indignantly that he was not in the habit of being talked to in that way, and that the time would come when he would demand satisfaction. Van Dorn said, quietly: “My rank shall be no barrier; you can have satisfaction at anytime you desire.”

Forest passed his hand thoughtfully across his brow and replied, with a good deal of dignity and grace: “I have been hasty, General, and am sorry for it. I do not fear that anybody will misunderstand me, but the truth is you and I have enough Yankees to fight without fighting each other, and I hope this matter will be forgotten.” Van Dorn said: “You are right, General, and I am sure nobody will ever suspect you of not being ready for any kind of a fight at any time; I certainly am willing to drop the matter, and can assure you that I have no feeling about it; but I must insist that my orders shall be obeyed as long as I am your commander; let us drop the subject, however, as I have work for you to do.”

The conversation then turned on the subject of a Federal raid which had just been reported to Van Dorn by scouts, and Forest, being ordered to intercept it, left Van Dorn's presence — I think they never met again — to perform the most wonderful feat in the history of that remarkable man — I refer to the capture of Streight and his command. Very shortly after the departure of Forest, General Granger, having reinforced Franklin, moved out with a force of about 10,000 infantry and a large body of cavalry and artillery, and Van Dorn retired before him, hoping to repeat the operation [146] against Coburn; but finding Granger's force larger than was at first supposed, he determined to assume the defensive and take position behind Rutherford's creek, a tributary of Duck river, with which it unites only a few miles below Columbia. Accordingly he formed his command on the left bank of the creek, which at that point is about four miles from the river at Columbia, and for some distance is nearly parallel with the river, intending to receive Granger's attack there; but heavy rains having fallen on an already swollen river, it became past fording in a few hours, and Van Dorn deemed it imprudent, under the circumstances, to risk an engagement between the creek and the swollen river, in which, if beaten, he would probably both lose his command and leave Columbia exposed. He therefore decided to turn up the river to a bridge twenty miles distant, cross and return down the river by a forced march to cover Columbia, before the enemy could cross, he (Van Dorn) having forty miles to move and they only four. This bold and dexterious movement was accomplished in spite of the fact that the enemy, seeing his position, pressed vigorously upon Van Dorn's right to force him into the fork; but finding that he had extricated himself and reached Columbia before any preparation could be made by them to cross, they retired immediately, seeming to fear that their absence from Franklin might tempt so daring and expeditious an opponent as Van Dorn to precede them to that point. Van Dorn at once resumed his position at Spring Hill, and his assassination followed very quickly. My recollection is that during the few months of his brilliant career in Tennessee he captured more men than he had in his own command. I may not be entirely accurate in all I have said, but substantially it is correct. If, however, you want to be minute you had better send this to General Forest or General Jackson, either of whom can verify it or correct any inaccuracy of my memory, if it be at fault. It is deeply to be regretted that the details of Van Dorn's plans and actions as a cavalry commander in Tennessee, or while covering Pemberton's retreat before Grant to Grenada, and in the signal affair at Holly Springs, fraught as the latter was with results more momentous than those involved in any action of its kind of which I ever knew or heard, should be lost to the history of cavalry; but I fear to trust my memory, and must confine myself to these brief outlines, hoping that some one of those who followed him whose memory is better than mine may yet do justice to a cavalier whose feats when written out must give him a place beside the greatest of those who in time past have ridden to victory and immortality.

Yours truly,

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