Updated: Jun 7
By Gordon Thorsby
3 March, 1863
Army of the Cumberland, Nashville Tennessee
Letter to Brig Gen. C.C. Gilbert:
The general commanding directs you to send a brigade and a sufficient cavalry force tomorrow on the Columbia Pike as far as Spring Hill. Send out a party from there towards Columbia, and one through Raleigh Springs on the Lewisburg Pike. A cavalry force from here (Murfreesboro) will communicate with your party at the place some time during the day after tomorrow. We desire to know what is in our front. Take a forage train along.
J.A. Garfield, Brigadier general and Chief of Staff
Major General William Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, devised plans to begin a spring offensive that advanced south from Nashville against Confederate Lt. Gen. Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. Rosecrans was certain he would be under pressure from Washington to move as spring approached. To move successfully, he needed to have intelligence. The letter above was one step to achieve his needs.
Brigadier General Charles Champion Gilbert’s (in division command awaiting promotion) command abilities were less than stellar, and his men despised him. This was not exactly two great military assets. His career after the engagement would precipitously decline further. Receiving the orders, Gilbert assigned Colonel Jon Coburn and his brigade to do the job. An officer in one regiment, the 19th Michigan, explained it another way, “Gen Gilbert’s division was comfortably quartered in Franklin,” with a few other choice words omitted that added emphasis.
On the afternoon of March 4, 1863, Coburn’s small force of 3000 men, consisting of the 22nd Wisconsin, 124th Ohio, 33rd Indiana, and 19th Michigan, infantry regiments, along with six cannons and an added force of 600 cavalry and 80 wagons, proceeded south on a cold, rainy trip. The effort was one of a simple reconnaissance. For Confederate General Van Dorn, he wanted a reconnaissance or investment of Franklin and with 5,800 troopers and he was ready for a fight. The reconnaissance forces were to inevitably meet, and approximately four miles into Coburn's march, the skirmishers collided and the battle opened.
The Rebel skirmishers fired and slowly gave ground to the Union cavalry and added Union artillery. To Coburn, he sensed the resistance was just too easy and sent a message off to get further orders. Awaiting a response, he halted for the night north of Thompson's Station and prepared his command for the possible engagement. The next morning, 5 April, Coburn with no new orders continued his push south. His only option was to proceed, and so he restarted his advance and continued to drive in Confederate skirmish lines. Gaining the station, Coburn could now see that he was up against superior forces and it would be an on hell of a fight--one he was not ready for. He continued to advance his two regiments from Wisconsin and Ohio on his right until they encountered dismounted Texas cavalry, and then began a slow withdrawal. Van Dorn’s straight forward advance froze Coburn's force in place and offered a new opportunity of a flanking maneuver. Forrest, assaulting multiple times without success, proceeded to swing around Coburn's left flank to the rear, causing the Union general's left to collapse. Coburn's entire force was now endangered with the line of retreat threatened. After desperate fighting, Forrest captured the entire wagon train. The only hope for Coburn now was a rescue.
Explained by one Confederate soldier, “[the fight] continued...about five hours, and, so deadly and stubborn was the nature of the contest, that at times bayonets actually clashed, and hand to hand fights to the death were not uncommon.” In the end, Coburn’s force, though brave, was “played out,” out of ammunition and forced to surrender. The 19th Michigan surrendered 345 men and the 33rd Indiana surrendered 407. Some of Coburn's men did manage to escape back to Franklin.
Van Dorn's and Forrest's forces swept up almost 1,000 Union solders and troopers, and a large train of wagons with Coburn in the bunch. The additional loss of Abel Streight’s entire brigade in an early May made for a bad start for Rosecrans in 1863.
What became of Brigadier Gen. Charles C. Gilbert? For him, the day before the battle, his pending promotion to major general expired and he reverted to major where he performed minor administrative duties for the rest of the war.
What became of Col. Jon Coburn? He spent a year in Libby Prison along with many of the men captured. He was exchanged in 1864 and he went on to serve in the Atlanta Campaign.
What of the Union soldiers who followed orders? There is an interesting story of one individual.
Edward Wentworth, was from a sparsely populated area of Michigan, and still is today, called Cooper Township. Born October 8, 1837, Wentworth enlisted August 30, 1862 at Kalamazoo in Lincoln’s call for 300,000 more men, and was made sergeant in Company F. He marched out of Nashville a cold, and soggy man on a trip to someplace south. Where exactly, he had no idea. The mud was thick and clung to soldiers' shoes as they slipped up and down hills. When the fighting started, the 19th was lined up off to the east of Columbia Pike where men simply sat down on the cold, wet ground while skirmishers pushed out for opposition. They camped for the night while they waited for further orders.
The next day when fighting went on for hours, the 19th stood their ground. With Forrest’s repeated assaults, and the obvious Confederate move around to the left, fellow soldiers began to break the line. Ed refused to leave his post. Somewhere in the fighting, and before his capture, Ed was wounded. How seriously is unknown, but he seemed well enough to march with the crowd of prisoners until he weakened so much that he fainted by the side of the road. Confederate authorities removed Ed to Wither’s hospital at Tyner’s Station. Despite care by doctors and nurses, he finally succumbed to wounds one month later on 4 April in the Academy Hospital where he had been transferred.
Cemeteries around the hospitals were populated by Confederate soldiers who died while under their care. Edward Wentworth was a patient of these hospitals so he is buried in what is now named the Chattanooga Confederate Cemetery with other Confederates. Through diligence by those who continue honoring those who fought in the Civil War, it is sometimes discovered that a soldier is misidentified as Union or Confederate and re-interred in a different cemetery. In the case of Edward Wentworth, this is not so. In his case, his wounds stopped the journey to a prison. Though doctors and nurses could not save him, his burial is in a marked place of rest rather than some unknown grave.
The Chattanooga Confederate cemetery was initially a spot near the Tennessee River, but to avoid flooding, the cemetery was moved to its current location from efforts of combined private groups in the South. Ed now resides with those he fought against at the Confederate Cemetery. Few there are identified including a mass grave of 2500 men, though Edward Wentworth has the fortune of having a marked grave.
Groeling, Meg, The Aftermath of Battle, Savas Beatie, 2015.
Frank L., Byrne, “The View from Headquarters: Civil War Letters of Harvey Reid,” Madison, WI, 1965.
Powell, David A. and Wittenberg, Eric J., Tullahoma, Savas Beatie, 2020.
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Wentworth Edward J.
Note: No known photo of Wentworth exists. The photo above is of an unidentified soldier.