The Attack by Naked Union Cavalrymen
Updated: Jun 6, 2021
Adapt and Overcome? Is that the phrase?
The story is retold on occasion. Please allow a slightly different angle on it.
It was in The Atlanta Campaign of 7-9 July, 1864. Union Major General William T. Sherman issued orders for his advance troops to force a crossing of the Chattahoochee River. Expecting a serious clash, resistance was rather mild. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston shocked his officers, and Richmond, when he unceremoniously withdrew from the Chattahoochee line of defense without presenting a major fight. However, there was some resistance from Wheeler’s cavalry.
The Chattahoochee River can sometimes be peaceful, and meandering and often wild and unpredictable. The river can be very wide in places, as much as 400 yards, narrower in others, shallow in spots, and rocky in others. It also had deep holes that could swallow a fording soldier or horse from sight. It was to an equipment loaded soldier who could not swim, not something to cross lightly and more preferred by bridge. The Confederate cavalry, being very efficient, had burned all of the bridges. So fording was the only option.
To corporals and privates slugging it out day after day in the Georgia heat, in torrential downpours, and over the tough red clay of Georgia, the month of July was brutal. The new demand of crossing the wide open river under fire was one more great hurdle that was just too much. Forcing a crossing was the order of the day. Did the average soldiers really know where the orders originated from or why? No.
The move first started from Sherman's headquarters. From there, orders would have dropped to corps command, then down to division command, then to brigade command and then to the troopers peering from the north side of the river at Wheeler’s Confederates on the south side the Chattahoochee. The privates hoped there might be another way. They looked to see if there was someone to pass these orders to but they were the last of the line.
The precise location was near a ford on the Chattahoochee called Cochrane’s Ford. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Brownlow was in command of the 1st Tennessee (U.S.) Cavalry and the son of Tennessee's now Unionist governor. The First Tennessee (U.S.) had some allies in Tennessee, and many enemies who considered the cavalry regiment as nothing more than traitors.
The officers of the Fist Tennessee peered through binoculars to the opposite shore not liking what they could not see in the darkness of early morning. It was also pouring rain. Confederate pickets on the other side were small in number, but with a high commanding view of the river an enemy crossing the river were easy targets.
Several mounted troopers started to carefully work their way into the middle of the river. That is when smoke erupted from the opposite shore--bullets whizzed by, splashing in the water all about, and and the wading troopers immediately turned back to the riverbank, ending any further thought of a quiet crossing.
The First's officers had a confab to consider ny aother options, and bluecoated troopers exchanged fire with butternut men. Brigade Colonel Joseph Dorr rode up to see why the crossing had not been accomplished, and whatever the explanation was, it better be good. It was at this point that Dorr pulled Brownlow aside and proceeded to command him to charge across the river and take the rifle pits without further delay. According to the regimental historian what happened next was as follows:
“Brownlow was given orders (by Dorr) to cross the River, but due to the depth of the water and the enemy snipers on the opposite shore was unable to do so. There much “cussed and discuss” by the men, After Colonel Door, commanding the brigade, discussed the matter with Colonel Brownlow and gave him preremptory orders ‘Move across the River at once’ and uttered unnecessary threats in the event his orders were now made.“
It takes little imagination to think how the conversation went. There was no recorded detail of the meeting. The discussion would certainly have included some colorful language that is still used today. The discussion abruptly ended and “Colonel Brownlow was truly in a 'fighting mad' frame of mind.“
Now, it was Brownlow’s turns to give orders and here is what was described:
"A few of the boys were called to the rear—there were just nine men in all—and Colonel Brownlow said, 'Boys, we are going to cross that river. It is plain we can't ford it here, and as we have no pontoons, and can't very well make a swimming charge, we'll find another way or break the breeching.'" Brownlow ordered the group to strip to the buff except for their Spencer carbines, hats, and cartridge belts. The historian further described:
“...both during and after the execution of the order, and the conclusion was reached that the "General' who is- sued it must have considered the men of the First Tennessee not only web-footed but thick-skinned fellows, capable of swimming a river which they or their horses could not ford, and of going into battle minus clothing or even wearing the proverbial undress uniform of a Georgia major—'a paper collar and a pair of spurs.'"
While the rest of the First Tennessee kept defenders occupied, the colonel led his butt naked band through the brush to a point about a mile up the river, behind a bend, where they lashed a couple of logs together to make a raft. Placing their carbines, cartridge-boxes and belts on the raft they would use to cross. The nine men couldn’t resist the snarky jokes and laughter when they might get killed doing what they were about to do. On command to begin crossing, the laughing immediately ceased.
Across and onto the river bank, they penetrated into the brush, but oh, so carefully. They would lurch here and bark a swear word there when accidentally stepping on sharp stones, if exposed skin was poked by thorns, or were bitten by mosquitoes. Profanity was aplenty but in muffled tones to prevent giving away their position. At the desired moment near the Confederate pits, the men fired and the Butternuts immediately scattered, clearing the shore to enable the crossing of the others. With a handful of Rebel cavalrymen captured, one commented that if the Union troopers without uniforms had been caught, they would have been hung for spies.
Part of General McCook’s report includes: “Reaching the other side, Brownlow’s force captured 4 men. They would have got more, but the rebels had the advantage in running through the bushes with clothes on."
Orders were orders, but there was something to honor and dignity.
And that is the way it was on the 9th of July, 1864 as reported from the Headquarters, First Cavalry Division of General Edward McCook commanding.
Jacob D. Cox, Campaigns of the Civil War: Atlanta, (Dayton, OH: Morningside House
Scaife, Campaign for Atlanta.
W.R. Carter, History of the First Tennessee Cavalry
Company C, WR Carter, Emory University Library, Knoxville, TN 1902.
Georgia Historical Quarterly, Philip Secrist, Vol.56., No.4, winter 1972, pp 510-28, Georgia Historical Society.
Jenkins, Robert D., To the Gates of Atlanta, Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2015. pp. 114-115.
Photo: Library of Congress, Harper's Weekly, Aug 13, 1864.