"Tennessee Trails" through Bedford County



Battle of Dover

The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest's Cavalry
Excerpt -- By John Watson Morton 1909

New Year's Day, 1863, was a busy one for General Forrest's artillery and cavalry. After a few hours' rest the night before at Lexington, the army was now on its way to Clifton, where it was expected the aforementioned "ferries" would be found and used before they were "picked up." There were now over three hundred prisoners, and these had to be paroled and losses ascertained. While this was in progress scouts brought information that a heavy Federal force was moving from Corinth. Knowing that the troops engaged the day previous would also be in pursuit, the Confederates hurried on and soon encountered a cavalry force of about 1,200. They were stationed across the road in battle array. With Dibrell, Starnes, and Biffle supporting, Morton's Battery charged through the center, and the road was soon cleared. The Federal loss was some twenty or more killed and wounded and about fifty prisoners. The Confederates did not lose a man.

The crossing was reached at noon. The two flatboats, which had been raised from the mud by a detachment sent ahead under Maj. Jeffery Forrest for that purpose, were put into immediate requisition, and Freeman's and Morton's Batteries were first ferried across and posted on the opposite bank. Not a gunboat was in sight, and the crossing was effected with great dispatch. The water was not as cold as it had been two weeks before, and many of the horses were made to swim. This was accomplished by towing a horse across after the boat, while other horses were led to a high bank and pushed off into the water, where they had to swim, and they followed the horse ahead. In this way there were over a thousand horses in the water at one time; and if the gunboats had come up at that time, the "wiping out" process would have been completed. The river was three-quarters of a mile wide at this point, but the crossing was accomplished in ten hours.

In the meantime, General Sullivan, deceived by General Forrest's tactics, had remained in line of battle all night after the fight, expecting attack. When none came, he set his troops in motion and gave chase as best he could over the miry roads in the wind and rain. Reaching Clifton on the 3d, they found that they had been eluded once more. Colonel Fuller, in his official report, says: "The march on this day was more severe on my command than any I have witnessed. The road was horrible, and the rain, which fell steadily, made it more so, Colonel Noyes (Federal) also made complaints of the hardships which his men had undergone (and which the Confederates had experienced just before) : "The road was covered with jagged rocks, whose crevices were filled with mud. The men, in stepping from rock to rock, frequently slipped and fell, bruising themselves severely. Twenty of my men are reported missing, and have not since been heard of. As General Forrest had just preceded the Federals over this same road without the loss of a man or a wheel, comparison is useless.

That the government at Richmond was duly sensible of the work done by this expedition is attested by the vote of thanks passed by Congress to General Forrest and his troops. General Bragg also complimented the achievement: "General Forrest proceeded with his brigade of cavalry to West Tennessee. His command was composed chiefly of new men, imperfectly armed and equipped, and in his route lay the Tennessee River, which had to be crossed by such means as could be hastily improvised. The result of this expedition was brilliant and decisive. The enemy, in consequence of this vigorous assault, in a quarter vital to their self-preservation, had been compelled to throw back a large force from the Mississippi, and virtually to abandon a campaign which so seriously threatened our safety. . . . The number of prisoners taken by General Forrest amounted to 1,500.

Columbia Hospitality.

Returning to Columbia, the Federals were found stationed at Franklin, but they were not very active, and General Forrest's force obtained three weeks of much- needed rest. With the quick recuperation in those times they were soon rested; and as nothing presented itself for the exercise of their warlike ardor, they quite contentedly engaged in a round of pleasant visits, dinners, dances, and such other entertainments. Maury County has always been noted for its hospitality and for the beauty of its women, and the good old section never gave a more convincing example of both than in the pleasant recreations provided for the men of General Forrest's cavalry in the spring of 1863. The author loves to turn the leaves of memory and look upon the pictures indelibly imprinted by the beauty, the gentleness, and warm-hearted hospitality of those gracious types of Southern women, and patriotic pride recalls the feasts of dainties provided under circumstances of hardship, cheerfully and willingly sustained.

One of these feasts is remembered with particular distinctness. It was given on the plantation of Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, who was one of the largest slave owners in that section; but at the time of the dinner all the slaves had deserted their owners, and the abundance of delicious viands to which valiant trenchermen sat down was prepared and served solely by the hands of General Pillow's fair daughters.

Ordered to the Cumberland.

The news that General Forrest had been ordered to make a raid on the Cumberland was received with acclamation by all except the great leader himself. He pointed out to General Wheeler, his immediate superior, and to General Bragg also, that he had not more than twenty rounds of ammunition for small arms and only about fifty for the artillery, the captured supplies having been sent to General Bragg on arrival at Columbia. Besides this, the equipment was incomplete in some other details. These objections were overruled, however, and General Forrest set out on his march toward the Cumberland on January 28, Dover, a small post west of and adjacent to memory-haunted Fort Donelson, being the objective point. Morton's Battery was selected to accompany the expedition.

Attack on Dover.

At the Cumberland Iron Works, nine miles from Dover, two companies of Federals were seen and quickly charged and captured, with the exception of three men, who escaped and gave the alarm to the fort. On arriving about noon, therefore, it was found that the enemy was ready to repulse an attack. General Wheeler assigned General Forrest to attack on the right simultated, of the road, less than a mile from the courthouse, where its fire could be most effective. The Federals had a piece of artillery in the courthouse yard on the main street, which was the object of Captain Morton's first fire. It was dismounted after some heavy shelling. As Captain Morton was directing the firing from one of the guns, he saw an approaching shell, and, dropping to the side of the hill to escape it, had his hat taken off by the rebound of the missile as it struck the top of the hill and ricocheted. This shell was found forty years later by the author of this book while visiting the battlefield, and is now preserved among his collection of souvenirs.

As has been stated, it had been arranged that the two commanders make a simultaneous attack; but while waiting for Genera! Wheeler to reach position, General Forrest saw a body of Federal troops marching rapidly from the fort toward the river, and, mistaking this for an at- tempt to escape, he ordered a charge. The Federals turned and hastened back to the fort. General Forrest pursuing quickly and pushing dauntlessly on toward the works, with the intention of entering with them if unable to capture them before shelter was reached. In this fierce onslaught the Confederates rushed almost into the Federal trenches before the garrison could train their artillery upon them; when they did, however, they created terrible havoc, as the heavy siege guns, double-shotted, poured death and horrible slaughter into the advancing Confederates, only ten feet away. General Forrest's horse was shot under him and the General himself seriously wounded, but he continued the attack with his customary spirit until the bugle sounded retreat and firing ceased.

Night fell, but a brilliant moon rose and flooded the scene with light enough to enable the Confederates to gather up the wounded and bring off the captured blankets and ammunition. Also a detachment succeeded in burning a boat load of supplies at the landing, the garrison evidently contented to rest on its laurels, or else never dreaming that troops which had suffered so severely could recover sufficiently to attempt such movements. During the afternoon Col. Frank McNairy, a volunteer on General Forrest's staff for the fight, was killed while leading his company of sharpshooters down the road into the town. The author saw the gallant dash, the galling fire, and the fall of the courageous young officer and several of his men.

Camp was made that night four miles from Dover. It was bitterly cold and the wounded men suffered greatly. General Forrest was in agony, too, as he had had two horses shot under him during the action of the day and was severely bruised internally. He felt a bitter regret that the outcome of the battle had borne out his prophecies, and suffered the keenest remorse that he had not refused to lead his men into an action which his judgment so bitterly opposed. Morton's artillery was encamped not far from the cabin which was the headquarters for the night of the two generals. Seeing the condition General Forrest was in, Captain Morton was not surprised to hear the result of the interview between them that night, when General Forrest told General Wheeler that he would never serve under him again. General Wheeler, with that wisdom and generosity which ever characterized him, made no demurrer to this. He realized that the genius of General Forrest was an abnormal was not to be trifled with and would stand no nonsense from either friend or foe. He was essentially a practical man of action, with a dauntless, fiery soul and a heart that knew no fear.

Of General Forrest's men he says: "They possessed as an inheritance all the best and most valuable fighting qualities, accustomed as they were to horses and the use of arms from boyhood.

These characterizations are, perhaps, as fair as could be expected from an Englishman visiting this country for the first time and under such circumstances. Captain Morton found the artillerymen especially apt at learning artillery tactics, and the study and drill of this period resulted in a great improvement in the management and serving of the guns.

As General Forrest kept himself fully informed of the plans of the enemy, he was prepared for the sortie that set out from Franklin on the 4th of March in the direction of Spring Hill. Major General Van Dorn, who had come from Mississippi with fresh troops, had been placed in command of the left wing of General Bragg*s army. He took position near Thompson's Station, and General Forrest was ordered to join him.