The story of the 12th Rhode Island's Wagon Train
The 12th Rhode Island’s story in the Western Theater is a short but interesting tale of evading capture, fighting John Morgan’s men, and enjoying the beauty of the Bluegrass state. The 12th Rhode Island, under the command of Colonel George H. Browne, had experienced some rough months by 1863, fighting at Fredericksburg in December of 1862 and participating in the Mud March during the winter of that same year. The members of the regiment were certainly looking forward to the end of their nine month enlistment which ended in July 1863.
The regiment followed General Burnside as a part of the 9th corps into Kentucky in the spring of 1863. Like most of the units of the 9th corps, the 12th would be sent to various places with in the Commonwealth; either to garrison important outposts or rebuild damaged infrastructure. In the middle of June 1863, the 12th was sent to Jamestown, Kentucky tasked with guarding a portion of the Green River. After making it to Jamestown, the regiment, which now included a portion of the 32nd Kentucky Infantry, set up camp. With rations running low, Col. Browne ordered the quartermaster of the regiment, John L. Clarke, to gather the wagons belonging to both units and move towards Columbia, Kentucky where rations could be obtained. The wagon train which consisted of seven 6-mule teams of the 12th and four 6-mule teams of the 32nd moved out of camp on the morning of the 24th.
After trekking about 20 miles in rough, wooded terrain, the train finally made it to Columbia. Sadly, for the men of the 12th and 32nd, their rations had been moved elsewhere in previous days. Lieutenant Clarke had orders to make the 40-mile trip to Lebanon where a supply depot could be found, if rations could not be obtained in Columbia. After a long day's worth traveling, the wagon train finally made it to Lebanon in the evening where rations were found. Private Theodore F. Dexter of the 12th Rhode Island, who was detailed to the wagon train, recalled in the post war years that “the wagon train rations consisted of pork, bacon, rice, hominy, salt junk, hard bread, coffee, molasses, sugar, beans, etc and hay and oats for the animals”.
Spending a day loading up the supplies, the wagon train began its long journey back. After stopping for the night, the men continued on past the garrison at Tebbs Bend and crossed the Green River. After making it with in a few miles of Columbia, Lt. Clarke was informed of the presence of portions of Morgan’s men in the town. Not wanting the valuable train to fall into enemy hands, Clarke ordered the train back to the Tebbs Bend area. The train would have to cross the fragile bridge across the Green River and camp in the field below the Sublett house.
On the morning of the 28th, the situation for the wagon train worsened. Rain fell unceasingly every day since the 24th, and the Green River started to rise, causing the temporary bridge to wash away. Pvt. Dexter later recalled, “We sat on the bank watching the driftwood come down, and about 9 o clock the bridge trembled and gave way”. Lt. Clarke seeing the situation for what it was, decided to inform Col. Browne. Clarke decided to detail the cook of the wagon train to ride through about 20 miles of Confederate infested country. Before leaving, the cook was dressed in a Confederate uniform that was obtained and crossed the river above the ford. During the next two days the men of the wagon train mounted on the mules and went to local families trading military rations for local goods. On June 30th, a detachment of 35 men from the 7th Ohio Cavalry, under the command of Captain Joel P. Higley, arrived to escort the wagon train back to the encampment.
The small, 60 man column finally moved out of Tebbs Bend. Knowing that they might meet resistance if they went back towards Columbia, the column instead moved towards the crossing at Neatsville in Adair county. This arduous journey through rough roads took the men two days to accomplish. After crossing the river, the wagon train stopped for the night and in the morning of July 3rd the it continued on. After trekking for an hour, Lt. Clarke was informed by a local Unionist that the men were on the wrong path. After conferring with Capt. Higley, Lt. Clarke decided to continue on till the train could find a much wider area to turn around. The column soon came upon a wide enough area near a hill, where it discovered that an unknown cavalry force had camped there the night before. After getting on the right road, the Federals soon made up for lost time.
After moving just a few miles on the road, the column ran into Captain Mike Slaters’s company of the Confederate 7th Kentucky Cavalry. These men were sent to the area by Morgan. Initially, both sides were surprised to see each other. The 7th Ohio soon became engaged with the sixty-man Confederate force, and in the ensuing skirmish defeated them, taking Capt. Slater prisoner in the process. The wagon train quickened its pace when a half a mile up the road, the Confederates attacked a second time. Again, the Federal column sent them scurrying back. The total losses for the Confederates were one killed, two wounded and seven captured. Around noon, Capt. Higley sent a courier ahead to Jamestown to request more support. When the detachment moved to within just a few miles of their camp, 50 men from the Federal 1st Kentucky Cavalry met the wagons and escorted them the rest of the way. A trip that should have taken only two days to complete, turned into a nine day journey of evading capture, camping in horrible, wet weather, and fighting some of Morgan’s men. For the men of the 12th Rhode Island who went on this journey, it must have felt like one last ride before the end of their enlistments.
Betty J. Gorin,” Morgan is Coming, Confederate Raiders in the Heartland of Kentucky” Harmony House Publishers 2006.
“History of The Twelfth Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers”. eBook. Providence. Snow and Farnham Publishers. 1904.
Dexter, Theodore F. “A Personal Reminiscence”, “History of The Twelfth Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers”. eBook. Providence. Snow and Farnham Publishers. 1904.