A Volcano of Fire: Rediscovering Ashby’s Tennessee Cavalry Brigade At Pickett’s Mill
Updated: Jan 6
The Battle of Pickett's Mill, fought on May 27, 1864, was particularly nightmarish in its ferocity and carnage, made worse by the heavily wooded and tangled terrain the men struggled through. The actions of Granbury’s Texans to stem the waves of Union infantry attacking through the ravine are well known; the stuff of legend, punctuated by their famous night attack which swept the ravine of Federals. Long missing from modern accounts of the battle, however, are the actions of the dismounted cavalrymen of Ashby’s Brigade in Hume’s Division. These men fought desperately for over an hour on the right end of Granbury’s line to prevent the men of General Wood’s 3rd Division of Howard’s Corps from turning the Confederate Right. Ashby’s all Tennessee cavalry brigade, and the infantry under General Cleburne eventually sent to their support, “preserved,” according to General Joseph Johnston, “the Texans from an attack in flank which must have been fatal.” (8)
Union General William T. Sherman had turned wide to the west off his line of attack down the Western and Atlantic railroad in hopes of getting between the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Joseph E. Johnston and his supply base at Atlanta. Clashing soon after in a series of three battles known collectively as “The Hell Hole” by the soldiers who fought there, Pickett’s Mill was the second of these fought on May 27, 1864. At the brutal epicenter of this battle were the Union brigades of Generals Hazen, Gibson, and Knefler which formed General Wood’s 3rd Division. Opposing them were Gene,ral Cleburne’s Division of crack infantry which consisted of the brigades of Generals Granbury, Govan, and Lowrey. Before Cleburne was in place to stop the waves of Federal infantry, portions of the cavalry divisions of Kelly and Hume (Ashby’s Brigade) would be rushed into position to keep the right from collapsing.
Joseph Johnston left a good description of the overall action at Pickett’s Mill which helps us understand the cavalry fight at the right of Granbury in greater detail. He states:
The Fourth (Howard's) Corp came on in deep order, and assailed the Texans with great vigor, receiving their close and accurate fire with the fortitude always exhibited by General Sherman's troops in the actions of this campaign. They had also to endure the fire of Govan's right, including two pieces of artillery, on their right flank. At the same time, Kelly's and a part of Humes's troops, directed by General Wheeler, met the Federal left, which was following the movement of the main body, and drove back the leading brigade, taking thirty or forty prisoners. The united force continued to press forward, however, but was so much delayed by the resistance of Wheeler's troops as to give time for the arrival, on that part of the field, of the Eighth and Ninth[Nineteenth] Arkansas regiments under Colonel Baucum, detached by General Govan to the assistance of the cavalry. This little body met the foremost of the Federal troops as they were reaching the prolongation of Granbury's line, and charging gallantly, drove them back, and preserved the Texans from an attack in flank which must have been fatal.” (8)
The brigades of Kelly's cavalry division that fought in front of Granbury’s position have long been identified as those of Colonel Hannon and General William Wirt Allen. But the “part of Hume’s” as described by Johnston above, which fought a much more lengthy and desperate fight at “the prolongation of Granbury’s line,” has continued to lie in relative obscurity. Modern historians incorrectly assert that all of Humes' men were engaged in a skirmish action against Scribner's main body to the north east of the Cornfield. Fortunately, we have several corroborating veteran accounts that dispel this, and name Ashby’s Cavalry Brigade as the “part of Humes‘s” Division that fought desperately to the right of Granbury.
The most detailed of the cavalry accounts is that of Adjutant William Gibbs Allen of the 5th Tennessee Cavalry (McKenzie’s), of Ashby’s Brigade. A respected farmer and merchant from East Tennessee before the War, Allen had become the Adjutant of the regiment following Chickamauga. Due to a series of wounds and illnesses among the staff of his regiment, Adjutant Allen commanded the 5th Tennessee that day. His brigade commander, Colonel Henry M. Ashby was in an Atlanta field hospital to repair a painful wound to his heel suffered on a Kentucky raid, and Colonel James T. Wheeler commanded the brigade in his place. In a series of memoirs and letters to newspapers, Adjt. Allen describes, as he puts it, the "horrible scenes enacted on that ridge of heavy timber and thick undergrowth on May 27th, 1864."(1)
Allen writes that on the "morning of the 27th, General Joe Wheeler had taken charge of General Allen's Alabama Brigade [of Kelly’s Division] and Ashby's Brigade of Humes division, leaving General Humes…to oppose General Gary's Infantry on [Allatoona] Road. General Wheeler moved West in the direction of Dallas. We were wet, sleepy, tired and hungry. After noon General Wheeler halted to feed and rest our horses. General Allen's Brigade of Alabamans stopped about 1/4 Mile North of us. General Wheeler with his escort was about 100 yards from headquarters of the Fifth Tennessee...We could hear the roar of cannons west of us. We had been halted about 30 minutes when we heard gunshots in the direction of General Allen's Brigade. Colonel James T. Wheeler galloped up to General Wheeler. General Wheeler ordered him to follow with Ashby's Brigade. The Fifth Tennessee was moved in front. We had gone but a short distance when General Wheeler sent a courier to hurry Colonel Wheeler up.”
Future author and Confederate veteran Sam Watkins would witness this rapid movement of the last half of Ashby’s Brigade from the area of New Hope Church towards Pickett’s Mill. His own brigade (Maney's), which had been marching to Dallas to rejoin their division, was brought back at the sound of the opening guns. He remembered, “We double quicked back to the church on the road side when the First Tennessee Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Lewis and the Ninth Battalion, commanded by Major James H. Akin passed us and charged the advance of Federal forces.” Watkins would have taken special note of these men as his own uncle, Asa G. Freeman was a Captain in the 1st Tennessee Cavalry (7).
Adjutant Allen continued;
“We found General Wheeler at the Crossroads of the Pickett's Mill and Powder Springs roads, the Dallas and Acworth roads. General Wheeler ordered me to left front and count, every 4th man to take care of four horses.* General Wheeler ordered me to form the regiment [5th] on the right of Pickett Mill Road, adjutant Frierson of First Tennessee to form on [the] left of the road. Colonel Wheeler was forming the 9th Tennessee Battalion on left of [the] 1st to connect with Allen’s Brigade. The Second Tennessee was [on] right of [the] Fifth Tennessee. While we were forming, General Hazen's [Brigade] of Howard's Corp drove our pickets from the top of the hill. General Allen was hotly engaged on our left. General Wheeler ordered Colonel James T. Wheeler to retake the ridge and hold it. We charged. The road made a bend and the 5th Tennessee covered both sides. We had gone but a short distance when Colonel Wheeler's horse was killed. A little further on my horse was killed. Adjt. Frierson gave Colonel Wheelers his horse. It was shot before we reached the top of the hill. The Federals drove our picketts back with two Brigade fronts. We were not able to hold our line, and we're forced down the hill. General Wheeler said we must hold the ridge. He ordered us to the second charge. When we reached the summit [top of the hill] the second time, we were badly blown.”
Trooper W. E. Sloan of Company D, 5th Tennessee Cavalry added, ”The enemy never attempted a charge, but moved forward very slowly until we checked him up, and then he stood still, all the time pouring forth a volcano of fire which I had never seen before.” (5)
* The “Lucky” Fourth Man: The process of Cavalrymen dismounting and fighting on foot as Infantry was described by William Hezekiah Mitchell, who was a 4th Sergeant in Company F, 1st Tennessee Cavalry (Wheeler’s). He wrote, “They usually rode quickly to the battle area and dismounted to make the actual attack on foot. When they came to the place to dismount, they would count off, ‘One, two, three, lucky, one, two, three, lucky.’ Each fourth man who was ’lucky’ was a horse holder who stayed behind to have the mounts ready for pursuit or withdrawal.” (28)
The left of Ashby’s Brigade had struck at approximately the center of Hazen’s line on Pickett’s Mill Road, which would become the focal point at which “the foremost of the Union men.” as Johnston put it, would attempt to flank Cleburne’s line. Hazen had divided his brigade into two “demi” brigades, and in the tangle of vegetation and terrain the two had become separated and went into line of battle as a single line, with each demi brigade roughly separated by Pickett’s Mill Road(15). As the battle progressed over several hours, Federal units from Gibson’s Brigade which had survived the ravine in front of Granbury would shift left towards Pickett’s Mill Road and reinforce Hazen, as well as two regiments that would break away from Scribner’s command to attack with Knefler’s brigade.
Opposite Ashby’s brigade on Pickett’s Mill Road was the 124th Ohio, led by Colonel Oliver Payne, who also described this initial clash. He reported:
“At 4 p.m. the final attack was made. This battalion moved briskly forward through a thick woods, coming up with the skirmish line at the foot of a deep ravine, where it had been stopped by a rapid fire from the opposite hill, the sides of which were thickly covered with an almost impenetrable thicket and in many places were almost perpendicular. Here, stopping long enough to rectify the lines, I ordered them forward, the battalion gaining the hill, and had advanced a few yards from the crest to within about thirty paces of the enemy’s works, when it was met with such a withering fire from the front and each flank that it was checked and compelled to find shelter behind the crest of the hill. So rapid and close was the fire, that seeing that it would be impracticable to make another effort to carry the works with the battalion, now much depleted, I ordered the battalion to cover themselves as well as possible and hold the position, expecting every moment to be re-enforced by the second line.”(23)
Unbeknownst to Payne, due to the tangled and convoluted terrain, the second line or “demi-brigade” had drifted to their left into the cornfield. As this second line charged forward they began receiving fire from Wheeler’s men along the ridgeline to their right and turned to meet them.(9)
Among the thin line of Ashby’s cavalrymen on the extreme right was Private Andrew Jackson Williams of the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry. His company had initially been detailed to act as skirmishers well out in front of the main cavalry position, but was quickly driven back by the main body of Hazen’s men. He stated,
“Our main line was on top of a steep ridge, but something like [400 yards] on our left the line [was] through open ground, and this part of the line the Federals advanced faster and drove our line back...We fell back to the foot of the ridge and formed in line again. General Wheeler and his staff was near our part of the line and he commenced sending staff officers and couriers in both directions and directly he ordered our part of the line back to the temporary breastworks [along top of the ridge]. …[The] Captain order(ed) our line to advance and the men...charged the Yankees down the ridge. In our front was timber and we could not see the enemy in our front until we had went some distance down the ridge. When we was some 75 or 100 yards from the breastworks they fired a volley into us that killed and wounded quite a number of our men.”
Williams later reported…”I went on through the War to the surrender and this was the hottest battle I was in. The bullets fairly rained all around me for a time and I got behind a small post oak tree and I have thought that tree saved my life and yet I do not think it was more than one foot through.” (4)
General William Wirt Allen's Alabama Brigade of cavalry, fighting on the left of Ashby, had given way after enduring intense fire as Granbury's infantry came into place behind them. Captain Samuel Foster of the 24th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted) of Granbury’s command stated, “These Cavalry men had been keeping up a very heavy fire until our arrival, when it got too hot for them." (12) Despite Foster’s dismissive description, General W. W. Allen’s men had by all accounts fought stubbornly and at great cost to keep the first waves of Wood’s Infantry division at bay until the men of Granbury’s Brigade were in place, the latter yelling “Hurrah for the Cavalry” as Kelly’s troopers passed through their line(13). Ashby’s Tennesseans of Hume’s Division, despite being driven back several times would continue to hold the ridge to the right of Granbury without assistance.
Adjutant Allen continued, "The woods were dense. Their artillery was cutting the tops out of the Timber. We had held the ridge about 40 minutes when General [Johnson] of Palmer's 14th Corps reinforced General Hazen. Again we were forced off the ridge backing and shootingj by heavy odds.” This reinforcement by Palmer’s men consisted of the 78th Pennsylvania and 37th Indiana which had broken away from Scribner’s stalled brigade to the north east of the cornfield. The see-saw battle between Wheeler's cavalry and Hazen and Scribner’s infantry are confirmed by officers of Granbury’s command who, in the confusion of the battle and terrain, believed the cavalry on their right had been completely repulsed. (12, 21). Though driven back by both a heavy fire to their front and an enfilading fire coming from the ravine on their left, Ashby’s men would gallantly regroup and make a final third charge(30, 1).
Allen continued, “General Wheeler again told Colonel Wheeler we must hold the ridge. Colonel Wheeler came running along our line of foot, his third horse had been killed. He was 6 ft 6 in tall, very slim and straight, with long, black hair. I see him in imagination while I write.”
“As he led this the Third charge over the same ground, over the dead and dying, wounded Confederates and Yankees all mixed up as they fell in that dense Woods. The Brigade responded quickly [to the Third charge], so quickly the federals thought we had been reinforced when we topped the hill. We did not stop till we had drove them across Pumpkinvine Creek at Pickett’s Mill. Here we held our line." Trooper Sloan of Company D added, “We were told to hold our position until reinforcements arrived, and we did it, though they were a long time coming. At last a part of Cleburne's division of Infantry moved up in our rear in line of battle, and infantry and cavalry mixed together in one line. Then a roar went up which those yankees could probably hear despite the noise of their own guns, at least if they could not hear it, they could see it and feel it too.”
The men of Wheeler's Cavalry had long since abandoned the double barrel shotguns they had begun the war with and carried both the long Austrian Lorenz and Enfield rifles/carbines as well as other captured pieces. They had become quite adept at fighting dismounted, behind hastily erected or available cover. Concealed in the heavy brush and trees, they would likely have appeared as infantry to Wood's men. (27)
Still held in reserve near New Hope Church, infantryman Sam Watkins recorded his impressions as the battle had raged. "We were expecting that the cavalry would soon break, and that we would be ordered into action. But the news came from the front, that the cavalry were not only holding their position, but were driving the enemy. The earth jarred and trembled; the fire fiend seemed unchained; wounded men were coming from the front. I asked the litter corp, ’Who have you there?’ and one answered, ’Captain Asa G. Freeman.’ I asked if he was dangerously wounded, and he simply said, ’Shot through both thighs.’ Asa G. Freeman was Captain of Company F, 1st Tennessee Cavalry (Wheeler’s) and was Watkin's uncle from Maury County, Tennessee. Regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis of the 1st Tennessee Cavalry (Wheeler’s), having taken temporary command for Colonel J. T. Wheeler while he led Ashby’s Brigade, would state that “only about 60 men of the regiment were engaged, but they suffered severely, losing about half that number in killed and wounded--Lieut. Stalling and A. G. Freeman being wounded, the first-named mortally." (11)
Cleburne’s infantry (Baucum’s 8/19th Arkansas Consolidated Infantry and Lowery’s brigade) were sent to reinforce Ashby‘s troopers at approximately 5:30-5:40 PM, and arrived and charged at nearly the same time. (19, 26) General Kelly, having pulled his cavalrymen back through Granbury's lines would personally take command and lead the charge of his old command, the 8th Arkansas Infantry. Private A.B. Foster, who fought with Lowery’s infantry brigade that day, recorded the moment when Cleburne’s reserves finally arrived to reinforce Wheeler's cavalry. He remembered, “Here the enemy tried to turn our flank or break our line of dismounted cavalry. Pat Cleburne's division was held in reserve. We were called to arms and double quicked about one and a half miles, passing the horse holders, and when we got to the line they were fighting across a rotten fence, the enemy in the field and Pat Cleburne and his staff afoot, pleading with the dismounted cavalry to hold them as his men were coming. When we got there, we fired into them and charged them across the field." (17)
The sudden rush of Ashby’s Cavalry and Cleburne’s Infantry, charging from the Western and Southern ends of the cornfield and sweeping North, was simply too much for Hazen’s exhausted second line or “demi” brigade, consisting of the 5th, 6th, and 23rd Kentucky, the 6th Indiana, as well as other units that had flanked further to the Union left. Retreating along the western fence of the cornfield and back up the way he came, Hazen took up temporary position on a hill near Pickett's Mill.(9) Stranded units of his right most demi-brigade stayed under whatever available cover they had until dark. Subsequent waves of Union infantry under Knefler, joined by survivors of Hazen and Gibson's decimated Brigades as well as Scribner’s 78th Pennsylvania and 37th Indiana, together fought to stall the “victory flushed” Confederates and held them at bay at the northern boundary of the Cornfield. Here a heavy trading of musket fire ensued until nightfall. (22)
With darkness approaching and the day’s fight drawing to a rapid close, Adjt. Allen described the scene as the cavalry retired,
"The numbers actually engaged were 10 Yankees to 1 Confederate. Many of our men were out of ammunition. All that had cartridges kept firing. We held this line till Colonel Wheeler gave orders to fall back slowly, that General Pat Clayburn's [Cleburne' s] men was to take our place. [Cleburne's] men was much surprised when they found two small brigades of Calvary had held [Elements of] Howard's and Palmer’s Corp and check for 4 hours. When I gave orders to fall back, one of General Hume’s staff came galloping up on a pony and halted the regiment and said " what are you falling back for[?]. I did not think you so cowardly as that. He halted us long enough to call (Colonel) Wheeler's attention. He came up [and] said what was the trouble? I told him Captain Marshall had halted us and charged me with cowardice, and if my pistol was loaded, I would shoot him. Colonel Wheeler took him by the back of the neck, gave him a shake and told him to go. By the time we got back to our horses it was dark. General Wheeler ordered us back to camp near where we had started from where we engaged in a battle. This was the hardest fought battle, the greatest loss in killed, wounded and missing the 5th Tennessee engaged in during the war. The night of the 27th of May 1864, was the miserablest night I ever spent. Tired, worn out, and did not know how many of our brave boys have been killed. Captain Jack Reagan, Captain John Blythe, and the writer spent the night in that dense forest among the dead and dying, trying to find our wounded who had not been taken off the battlefield. We would hear the moans, sometimes it would be one of our boys, sometimes it would be a Federal Soldier. Just at day, we found Alex Reagan, Captain Jack's brother. He was cold and stiff in death. We held the battlefield, their dead and 26 wounded. Morning of May 28. At roll call, the Gallant old 5th Tennessee regiment was short 143 men killed, wounded and missing(out of 490- 500 effectives), a sad roll call for our dead we're still scattered in that dense forest on both sides of Pickett Mill Road. Our wounded lay in a provisional Hospital on Powder [Springs] Road, some of them dying, others would soon die."
Sam Watkins had moved forward and observed the area where the infantry and cavalry had fought. What he saw was that “The trees looked as if they had been cut down for new ground, being mutilated and shivered by musket and cannon balls. Horses were writhing in their death agony, and the sickening odor of battle filled the air.” Trooper Sloan of Company D, 5th Tennessee Cavalry would added, ”the ground was strewn with the enemy dead, which they left on the field. This can be accounted for in several ways. First, their ranks were so densely massed that it was almost impossible for a bullet to pass through without hitting a man while our line was so thin and scattered that it was hard to hit anyone. Then it is evident that these yankees shot too high, which might partly be accounted for in the fact that part of our line was in brushwood which partially concealed us, and they shot at the smoke over our heads; while we could easily see the position of their front rank and take deliberate aim at them, and if we shot too high for the front rank we were very liable to hit a man in rear, as we were on higher ground than they. Our boys are in the habit of taking aim when they shoot and our watch-word in battle always is "draw low.” Many years later, he added to his original diary entry, "I have always regarded this New Hope (or Pickett's Mill) battle as the hardest fight I was in during the entire war, though it was not of long duration; in fact it was too furious to last long."
Not only did Ashby’s cavalrymen play a critical role in preventing the Confederate right from collapsing but also affected the outcome of the battle to their left as noted by Adjutant Alexis Cope of Gibson’s brigade. He wrote, "The fact is, when General Hazen's brigade advanced it changed direction to the left, and our brigade came into action on its right, our regiments slightly overlapping it’s right, that his desperate encounter was with Kelley's and Hume's dismounted cavalry of Wheeler's Corps and Lowrey's infantry brigade, while ours was with Granbury's brigade. We were too fully occupied in our front to go to Hazen's relief, and his repulse but added to our difficulties, for it left our left flank exposed to the enfilading fire from Wheeler's dismounted cavalry, when we were already suffering from a similar enfilading fire from Hotchkiss's terrible rifled guns and howitzers on our right flank."(6)
Gibson’s and Hazen’s valiant brigades suffered the heaviest, with estimates ranging from 600-700 dead and 1,500 wounded. Many lay in heaps within feet of the Confederate positions along the ridge. According to multiple reports, Ashby’s Tennesseans, though only the size of a regiment, had lost well in excess of 173 of their roughly 600-700 man brigade at Pickett’s Mill, which is among the highest known casualties for a Confederate brigade that day. (1,4, 11,16, 20)
The contributions and sacrifice of Ashby’s men at Pickett’s Mill, led by the gallant Colonel James T. Wheeler and Adjutant William G. Allen (the latter being promoted to Major for his actions), sadly continue to be ignored by modern historians. Cleburne's account of the battle, written by a Captain Buck of his staff and upon which modern historians rely so heavily, simply omits the major role that Wheeler’s cavalry played on May 27, 1864. Perhaps little love was lost between Cleburne and Wheeler when earlier in the year the latter failed to support Cleburne’s controversial plan to arm and free slaves to fight for the South, but we may never know the cause with certainty. Union General Hazen and Adjutant Alexis Cope of Gibson’s command both took Cleburne’s report to task and state clearly in their memoirs that Hazen’s fight was largely with Kelly and Hume’s Division of cavalry, until the latter were reinforced by Cleburne’s infantry. Generals Cleburne, Granbury, and Kelly would all be killed later that year and Colonel Ashby and Colonel Wheeler did not live long after the war, perhaps contributing to the lack of clarification on the actions of the cavalry at Pickett’s Mill. But from what we do have from multiple, credible, and corroborating accounts from both cavalry and infantry who fought that day, we know that Ashby's Tennessee cavalry brigade, fighting down both sides of Pickett’s Mill Road, was that part of Hume‘s at the right of Granbury, and that their actions were crucial to preventing a “fatal” attack on Granbury’s right where “the foremost” of the Union infantry attempted to pour around the Confederate right flank. General Wheeler left one of the few early tributes to these men in his General Order No. 6, given within one month of the battle. "At New Hope [Pickett' s Settlement], May 27th, a portion of Humes' and Kelly's commands repulsed with immense slaughter a most desperate attempt on the part of the enemy... to gain our rear and held him at bay until reinforced by our infantry line. This service was most signal and was alone due to your valor."
Early War photo of Shelton F. Scott of the 1st Tennessee Cavalry (Wheeler) who was among those reportedly killed/mortally wounded at Pickett's Mill on May 27, 1864 Photo: John Sickles Collection
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