Dispatch from Monroe's Crossroads, NC -- 7 March 1998
Civil War sites are numerous in the southeastern United States, from major battlegrounds to the scenes of much smaller but still deadly actions that involved no more than a handful of troops on either side. Nowhere is a Civil War battle ground in so nearly original condition, however, as Monroe's Crossroads, North Carolina -- where a little known fight between mounted and dismounted cavalry units occurred in the early hours of 10 March 1865.
The primary reason for its well-preserved state is that Monroe's Crossroads lies today wholly within the confines of the Fort Bragg military reservation -- home of the United State's Army's elite 82nd Airborne Division. Even the approach roads used by Union and Confederate forces prior to the battle, for dozens of miles, are in the same unpaved condition as 133 years ago.
The 1st Alabama Cavalry (U.S.V.) played a crucial role in the fight. It was their timely stand behind a nearly impassable swamp that broke the momentum of the Confederate assault and bought time for their outnumbered comrades to rally and drive their attackers off with heavy losses. On another cold, rainy morning near the 133rd anniversary of the battle, two members of today's Company C, guided by topographical maps and a Fort Bragg archaeologist, walked the original field and stepped back in time...
* * * * *
Late on the evening of 9 March 1865, Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick rode through a wet, black North Carolina night at the head of his 4,500-man cavalry division. His mission was to guard the left wing of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman's army as it ground its way north, wearing down Confederate resistance in this fifth winter of the war. Foremost in Kilpatrick's mind that night was his intended target, the city of Fayetteville -- which he'd been given permission to capture, along with any rebel troops unfortunate enough to be there when he arrived.
Kilpatrick -- "Kill Cavalry, " as he was known to the troopers he pushed without letup -- had crossed into North Carolina with his Third Cavalry Division a week before. Since then, his force had battled heavy rains and nearly impassable roads. At one point, Kilpatrick's artillery had taken seven hours to travel five miles through a sea of mud, manhandled by cursing gunners and equally unhappy troopers detailed to lend a hand with the guns. Confederate cavalry was all about the column. Skilled at hitting Yankee outriders suddenly and slipping away into the surrounding woods, they did not hesitate to make their presence known in frequent hit-and-run attacks.
The gray horsemen under Confederate generals Hampton, Wheeler, Humes and Butler, were determined to penetrate Sherman's cavalry screen and learn where he would turn next. Sherman had kept the Confederates guessing, however, in no small part because Kilpatrick's veteran troopers were good at their work.
Before leaving Savannah in late January, Sherman had told a confidante, "I know Kilpatrick's a hell of a damned fool, but that's just the kind of man I want to lead my cavalry on this expedition."
Kilpatrick was operating well forward of the Union main body as he approached Fayetteville, where Sherman planned to destroy the federal arsenal and rendezvous with supply ships coming up the Cape Fear River. He then planned to call in his cavalry screen and turn east for Wilmington. Meanwhile, as Kilpatrick's division neared Fayetteville, his brigades were separated by several miles along their line of march. Efficient scouting alone kept the components within supporting distance of one another.
* * * * *
About 2100 hours on the night of 9 March, Kilpatrick and his escort, riding southeast on Morganton Road, were planning to halt at nearby Monroe's Crossroads where the division's dismounted (4th) brigade was, by then, setting up camp. In pitch darkness and heavy rain, the riders topped a small rise about 50 yards west of the intersection with the Yadkin Road. Somehow, a sense of impending danger communicated itself to Kilpatrick and his bodyguard, and they left the road at a gallop, crashing into the nearby woods heading south. What had alarmed them was the capture of part of the escort by troopers of Major General Matthew Butler's Confederate cavalry division, which had been moving along the Yadkin Road nearly parallel to the Federals and reached the intersection first. Butler didn't learn until months later that his men had come within seconds of capturing Sherman's cavalry commander. Meanwhile, Kilpatrick and his remaining escort detoured crosslots toward their intended camp about three miles ahead, at the intersection of the Morganton and Blue's Resin Roads.
Later that evening, after his scouts had located and observed the enemy camp, Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, commanding the Confederate cavalry, realized his troops might defeat the Federals if he could get his force in close undetected. Given the rain and darkness, Hampton thought this could be done, especially since the scouts had reported the Federals had no pickets out north or west of their camp to watch their rear.
As he thought over his next move, Hampton considered three factors. First, Confederate forces in Fayetteville needed time to withdraw across the Cape Fear River and rejoin their main body further north. The Federals in his front were, at most, two brigades, with the remainder not close enough to offer much support. And within the confines of the federal camp was an undetermined number of Confederate prisoners who might also be freed. Even though his own force wasn't fully assembled, Hampton decided to attack the Federal camp at dawn. Accordingly, in total darkness, leading their mounts and ordered not to talk above a whisper, the Confederate troopers began moving into attack positions north and west of the Federal camp.
The Federal force at Monroe's Crossroads consisted of two cavalry brigades, one dismounted and one mounted -- altogether about 1,500 men.
The troopers had arrived by regiments, tired, wet and groping through the dark woods for places to pitch tents and find shelter from the incessant rain. Their camps ran from the Monroe house facing Blue's Resin Road, southwest about 500 yards to the sloping bank of a tiny stream called Nicholson Creek. After days of rain, the normally lazy stream had become a swamp, narrow, but long and deep, filling the little gully through which it flowed.
The camp of the Federal 1st Alabama Cavalry marked the farthest extent of the bivouac and was closest to the creek. A section of the 10th Wisconsin Light Artillery, two 3-inch ordnance rifles under Lt. Ebenezer Stetson, was posted on a slight rise about 250 yards behind the Alabamians' camp. Meanwhile, Kilpatrick's scouts under Captain Theo Northrup had bivouacked across Blue's Resin Road several hundred yards east of the main Federal camp. Northrup had been tempted by the comfortable Monroe house just south of the crossroads but thought it too exposed, and moved his men to what he considered a less vulnerable campsite.
As the Federals settled down for the night, Confederate scouts watched the camp. They had orders to locate General Kilpatrick's headquarters and the Confederate POWs. So close did they draw to the camp that four men from the 8th Texas Cavalry actually slipped inside the perimeter and made off with several horses. The scouts were surprised to learn that the Federals had no pickets north or west of the crossroads where Generals Hampton and Wheeler were assembling their men for a dawn assault.
Col. George Spencer, former commander of the 1st Alabama, now commanding the 3rd Brigade of Kilpatrick's Division, would later say that he placed his pickets to the east, facing Fayetteville, where he believed the greatest danger lay. A large Confederate force under General William J. Hardee still occupied the city, but hoped to get out before the Yankees arrived. It's likely that Kilpatrick and Spencer talked after the general's arrival in camp, and discussed Kilpatrick's narrow escape on the Morganton Road earlier that evening. Assuming that to have been the case, it's difficult to believe neither of the two experienced commanders sensed the presence of a strong enemy force in their rear. Nevertheless, no pickets or videttes were posted north or west of the Federal camp.
Throughout the night, more of Hampton's and Wheeler's units arrived and were assigned positions for the attack. As these assembled at the crossroads, one of Wheeler's divisions under Brigadier General William Y.C. Humes was posted to the Confederate right. Its task was to hit the Federals southwest of the Monroe house and either rout them, or keep them from coming to the aid of their comrades around the house. Humes's men were now directly across Nicholson Creek from the 1st Alabama, and facing about 200 yards of swamp which they would have to cross in their assault.
* * * * *
Just before dawn the rain stopped and a heavy fog hung over the swamp, obscuring the Federal camp and screening the force assembled against it. Although their entire complement still had not arrived, the longer Generals Hampton and Wheeler waited, the
greater grew the chance of discovery. Shortly after 0530, then, the word was passed to mount and the Confederates deployed into attack formation.
North of the Morganton Road, on the Federal right, General Butler's two brigades would strike the Monroe house and the Yankees camped on its grounds -- including, it was hoped, General Kilpatrick. Just south of the Morganton Road and west of the camp, behind a low rise of ground, Hampton had posted Brigadier General William Wirt Allen's division of Wheeler's Corps which had come up in the night. One of Allen's units was an all-Alabama brigade under Colonel James Hagan.
Another brigade under Brigadier General George Dibrell was there as well, being held in reserve. The assault on the west side of the Federal camp would be led by Shannon's Scouts, who would make straight for the POW compound they had located in their earlier reconnaissance. Meanwhile, some 300 yards further south and west of the camp Hume's division prepared to cross the swamp along Nicholson Creek and deal with the Federals posted there. Generals Hampton and Wheeler had a brief last-minute conference, in which Hampton rejected his subordinate's suggestion that the assault be made on foot. "As a cavalryman," said Hampton, "I prefer that this capture be made on horseback." Wheeler acknowledged with a salute, adding, "General Hampton, all is ready for action. Have your headquarters bugler blow the charge."
* * * * *
A late winter dawn in the Carolina sandhills doesn't break so much as filter reluctantly through the brooding pines and thick ground fog. But on this cold, sodden morning the blast of a Confederate cavalry bugle shattered the mist, and the peace of the Yankee camp, in a barrage of sound. The brazen notes poured forth, accompanied by General Butler's hoarse shout, "Troops from Virginia, follow me! Forward! Charge!" Before their commander's voice had died away, the troops north of the camp exploded from the woods and across the Morganton Road, screaming the Rebel yell and firing as they came.
The charge struck the camp of the dismounted brigade just as the first troops were stirring, overrunning the guards on the POW compound and setting off a stampede for the woods southeast of the Monroe house and across Blue's Resin Road. Those who didn't take to their heels surrendered or were shot down as they groped for their weapons to respond. Many of the Confederate prisoners dashed in the direction of the attacking force only to be taken by them for a Federal counterattack coming out of the mist. Several of the escapers were shot by their own men.
As Butler's men hacked and shot their way into the Federal camp, General Wheeler ordered his men to charge into the compound from the west. Wheeler, too, commenced the assault with his bugler blowing the charge -- as it turned out, just as the Federal bugler was preparing to sound reveille. Whatever notes the Yankee managed to play were drowned in the din of pounding hooves and yelling men.
At about that point, Kilpatrick emerged from the Monroe house in the face of what he later called "the most formidable cavalry charge I have ever witnessed." Coming from a man who spared little praise for his enemies, the words amounted to a high accolade. As the commanding general stood on the front porch clad, some said, only in his nightshirt, two flying squads of Confederate troopers pounded up and demanded to know the whereabouts of General Kilpatrick.
"Little Kil's" wits didn't fail him at that precarious moment. Glancing around quickly, he saw a figure on a black horse galloping into the mist. "There he goes," Kilpatrick replied, pointing, and the Confederates spurred their mounts in pursuit while their intended quarry watched them go. Thus, Sherman's cavalry commander narrowly escaped capture twice within ten hours -- at Monroe's Crossroad's Judson Kilpatrick's personal luck was definitely in.
* * * * *
"By this time," writes historian Mark L. Bradley, "the fighting around the Monroe house was a jumble of small battles at close quarters." So many men were fighting in that confined space that even wild or random shots hit living flesh. Those in the melee later wrote of the individual combats they saw or were part of; desperate little fights with no quarter asked or given as men shot, stabbed, clubbed and clawed each another in the gray dawn -- the last for many.
Butler's men, and the left half of Wheeler's force were now heavily engaged around the Monroe house. Up to this point, with the exception of General Kilpatrick's narrow escape, the Confederate attack had gone about as planned. But on Wheeler's right, a swamp and some stubborn Unionists were about to change that. The two brigades under Harrison and Ashby were still struggling across the swamp in their front -- a body of water wider and deeper than originally thought. Moreover, the two commands were attempting to cross it mounted -- a nearly impossible feat under the circumstances if the force was to hit its target with speed and concentration.
Behind the swamp, an equally formidable waited: the 1st Alabama Union Cavalry. The Southern Unionists were the last of Spencer's mounted brigade to come into camp the night before and had filed past the other units and halted along the south bank of Nicholson Creek. Now they were alerted by the din of battle near the Monroe house, and were in position to give a hot welcome to the Confederates across the swamp.
The Alabama Federals, according to historian Mark Bradley, now "laid down a heavy fire into the swamp, forcing Harrison's and Ashby's troopers to dismount and seek cover.
"The men of the 1st Alabama Cavalry were fiercely independent
Unionists from the hilly northern region of the state who refused to
truckle to the secessionist cotton planters of the flatlands further
south. In 1862 they formed their own regiment and joined the
For most of the war, these bluecoat Alabamians had served as
scouts, raiders and railroad guards. At the moment, however,
they were doing just what they had enlisted to do -- fight Rebels."
Fire from the Alabamians' Burnside, Spencer and Smith carbines poured into the swamp, forcing Harrison's and Ashby's men to give up their push and turn north to seek an easier route. As the Confederates across the creek pulled back, the 1st Alabama men turned their attention to the fighting near the Monroe house north of their camp. The 5th Kentucky had camped on the Alabamians' right, and now the two regiments combined forces to harry the Confederates and slow the pace of their attack.
As the 1st and 5th poured carbine fire into the Confederate attackers, First Lieutenant Ebenezer Stetson, commanding the brigade artillery section raced toward his two guns. The three-inch ordinance rifles had been posted on the only high ground in the vicinity -- a knoll so insignificant as to be almost invisible unless an observer carefully examined the contour of the immediate ground. Their crews had been shot down or driven off in the first assault and now the two guns stood silent, for all intents and purposes in the possession of hundreds of nearby Confederates who were pressing their advantage hard. Alone, Lt. Stetson managed to load a canister round into one of the two guns. He then raced to its rear where he single-handedly primed and fired the piece into the mass of struggling men. The round and its accompanying blast tore a terrible hole through the surprised Confederates. At such close range, men and horses were torn apart by flying iron or blown for dozens of feet. Those not hit were momentarily stunned by the sudden, unexpected discharge. Suddenly the momentum of the fight shifted to the blue troopers who until a moment before had been battling for their very lives.
Stetson continued to work his gun, grabbing another round and springing back to the loader's position at its muzzle. Here both Federal and Confederate accounts conflict as to exactly what happened. Some later recollections suggest that one of Stetson's sergeants and some of the surviving batterymen rushed to their lieutenant's aid and were later killed or wounded when the Confederates turned on the guns with renewed fury.. Battery after-action reports don't confirm those accounts, however, listing one gun disabled, ten battery horses captured and no artillerymen killed.
By now the Confederates, recovering from the shock of Stetson's first round, had turned their fire on the Federal cannoneers while forming for a counterattack to retake the guns. Lieutenant General Wheeler, working rapidly under fire, gathered several elements of the Confederate force into line and ordered a mounted charge against the Federal left. Wheeler knew that if he breached the line and took the guns on their tiny knoll, the blue troopers would have to abandon their camp. The Confederates came on with a rush, but the dismounted Federals, taking cover behind the many trees that covered the area and supported by the artillery, stopped Wheeler's men with a heavy toll. The Confederates pulled back toward the upper part of the camp where Hampton's men still had possession of the Monroe house and grounds.
As Wheeler's men fell back toward the Monroe house, he rallied them for a second charge and, within minutes, they surged again toward the Federal line. But the dis- mounted blue troopers and their breechloading carbines again devastated the Confederates Gray troopers and their horses were shot down wholesale, consumed by the Federal firestorm. On Wheeler’s left Major General Butler was forming his men for still another charge, and they came on as Wheeler’s men withdrew. The result was the same. Butler later reported:
"They [the Federals] had got to their artillery and, with
their carbines, made it so hot for the handful of us we
had to retire. In fact I lost sixty-two men there in five
Among the casualties was Lieutenant Colonel Barrington King, commanding Cobb's Georgia Legion, who was struck during the charge by a piece of shrapnel from one of Stetson's guns. He bled to death within minutes.
About this time, the brigade scout company under Captain Theo Northrop galloped up Blue's Resin Road from the swamp where he had wisely chosen to position his men. Along with him came a number of the Federals who'd been blown loose from their bivouac around the Monroe house by the initial Confederate charge. Apparently thinking that these might be reinforcements, rather than part of the force in front of them, the remaining Confederates withdrew slowly north toward the Morganton Road.
At this point Lieutenant Generals Wheeler and Hampton conferred and agreed that little could be gained by continuing the fight. They assumed, correctly as it turned out, that Federal infantry was on the way to support their opponents and, not wanting to be cut off and overwhelmed, they decided to withdraw. Posting a rearguard while they hurriedly retrieved as many of their dead and wounded as possible, the Confederates retired to the Morganton Road and moved off into the piney woods toward Fayetteville. For a time the rearguard remained, then -- with a few scattered shots to discourage pursuit -- they too withdrew.
Spencer's weary brigade remained in possession of the crossroads and its camps. Thanks to the stubborn Unionists of the 1st Alabama Cavalry, their comrades in the 5th Kentucky and, not least, Lt. Stetson and his guns, Kilpatrick's reputation and his major general's commission, were safe. But it was a chastened "Little Kil" who emerged from the fight at the Crossroads. Fearing that the Confederates might themselves return with infantry, he anxiously pushed his officers to finish tending the wounded and get the troops on the move. As soon as the last casualty was seen to, the brigade rejoined the 3rd Cavalry Division and left Monroe's Crossroads behind. But, as the saying goes, `once bit, twice shy.' As Kilpatrick moved south he no longer marched far out on the flanks of the army, staying much closer to the Federal infantry than had heretofore been his wont.
* * * * *
Both sides claimed Monroe's Crossroads as a victory. Kilpatrick because his men regained their camps and inflicted heavy casualties on the Confederates, and Hampton because his men had captured over a hundred prisoners, freed all their own men held captive by the Federals, and opened the road to Fayetteville. In addition, the battle slowed Kilpatrick's advance and gave the Confederates additional time to evacuate the city and cross the Cape Fear River to safety.
Kilpatrick reported his casualties as 19 killed, 68 wounded and 103 captured. He further said of Confederate losses that his troopers buried "upward of 80 killed, including many officers," and captured 30 more. Confederate figures are imprecise and, not surprisingly, conflict with Federal reports. Lieutenant General Wheeler reported capturing 350 Union prisoners, and one of his biographers puts his losses at 12 killed, 60 wounded and 10 missing. There are no casualty figures for Butler's division, but it should be remembered that he later estimated his casualties at 62 in just the brief fight for the guns.
Kilpatrick's lack of vigilance while far out on the flank of the main Union army gave the Confederates a golden opportunity to inflict a stinging defeat on the Federal cavalry. The chance was lost because the swamp along Nicholson Creek stopped the right wing of the Confederate assault, and the fire of 1st Alabama and the 5th Kentucky drove it back. Their action bought the time the rest of the brigade needed to rally and drive out the attackers.
For those fortunate enough to see Monroe's Crossroads today, it's a rare chance to examine a battlefield practically unchanged by time. Terrain, vegetation, even weather, conditions are very, if not exactly, like those which existed in the day of battle. The Monroe house is gone but little has been added save a small monument. A soldier who fought there, could he return today, would find himself on completely familiar ground... ground for all practical purposes the same as it was on a wet March dawn 134 years ago.
###Written by Steve Ross, pictured