Updated: May 12, 2021
by Gordon Thorsby
Skirmishes occurred daily during the Civil War. The skirmishes at Paint Rock Bridge and Limestone Creek were two examples. Books may not detail these small actions, but it was these types of small engagements that most every soldier experienced, even if they were not on the front lines.
Paint Rock Bridge and Limestone Creek came about as Union efforts, first from Generals Juan Carlos Buell and later from Henry W. Halleck were attempting to prepare ways for a military incursion into Alabama in April to June, 1862. The objective was to secure and repair telegraph lines, railroads, bridges and roads to support movement of large forces to invade the South. In April and May, Brigadier General Ormsby Mitchel (see below) with a division of 8,000 men pushed south from Nashville and stretched its way from Tennessee into North Alabama. With the likes of Cols. Nathan Forest and John Morgan lurking about, a successful outcome would be tested.
Paint Rock Bridge
A small group of sixteen men from the 10th Wisconsin stood guard over a bridge near the small town of Woodville, Alabama. Th sixteen, probably sensing that were somewhat abandoned and isolated, in the middle of “reb” territory, babysitting a bridge called “Paint Rock” must have concluded that they might serve little importance sitting at the crossing. That is, when their lives and safety seemed more important. They were not even commanded by a commissioned officer at the bridge. It was an NCO, Sergeant William Nelson. Nelson and the fifteen enlisted men guarded the bridge while the company commander, Lieutenant Harkness took a second group of 20 men to guard the village of Woodville down the road a couple of miles.
It was at some time prior to the action, a “Negro” approached Harkness and warned the Lieutenant that the bridge was about to be attacked. The assault began just after midnight when an unnamed partisan cavalry force ("bushwackers" according to Northern reporters) of 250 assaulted both sides of the bridge at once. The horsemen dismounted and fired several volleys at Nelson and the men, using pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Heavily outnumbered, Nelson’s very small defenders returned fire that was accurate but it was evident they could not hang on much longer.
Harkness hearing the gunfire in the distance sent a Sergeant Makimpson and ten infantrymen to see that the bridge was secure. Double-quicking it down the road, the eleven infantrymen arrived to see that the outcome was about to be decided if nothing was to alter its course. Makimpson and his men began to add their fire from a new position to begin plant doubts into the irregulars that considerable Union reinforcements might be en route to the bridge. To the Southerners, their objective was the bridge and proposed a surrender but either Nelson or McKimpson when offered a way out, replied “he would not do it as long as a man was still alive.” Concerned that partisans might be captured by more forces if they remained much longer, they gave up and withdrew taking their dead and wounded.
The action of the 27 men held off 250 partisans for two hours. The bridge remained intact with reported losses of 7 wounded Federals and 8 Confederate loss. An after action report is added:
report of Col. Joshua W. Sill, Thirty-third Ohio Infantry.
headquarters Ninth Brigade, Camp Taylor, May 13, 1862.
Sir: I beg leave to transmit herewith reports concerning a skirmish at Paint Rock Bridge on the night of the 28th ultimo, between 24 men of the Tenth Wisconsin Regiment and about 250 rebels, in which the enemy is reported to have lost 6 killed and several wounded. Our men had 6 wounded. This affair is one of the most brilliant of the campaign as regards personal bravery, and I trust will meet a proper reward. The conduct of Sergeants Makimpson and Nelson, especially that of the former, merits the highest approbation. To their firmness and resolution we are indebted for still having the railroad in our possession to Bellefonte.
Very respectfully, yours,
The 18th Ohio Volunteers were prepared for any action but lacked supporting artillery as accompanying repair crews worked on roads and rail lines. The Ohio Volunteers could only be a deterrent and could not defend against a determined attack of a regiment of Confederate Louisiana Regulars under the command of Colonel John S. Scott. The Southern Colonel on this day was determined and he was accompanied by a section of horse artillery.
Concluding that his men were no match, Col. Timothy Stanley, the 18th Ohio’s commander was in the process of withdrawing the men, when Brigadier General Ormsby Mitchel arrived and took over while he also commandeered a small train. Mitchel and Stanley conferred and then acted. The train would be used to provide a quick withdrawal. A second train for the use of transporting supplies followed close behind. The second train included three engineers of the 1st Michigan Engineers & Mechanics manning the locomotive of Harvey (as chief engineer), Jenkins, and Bates (the latter two as firemen.)
The 18th proceeded up the line to Huntsville aboard the lead train when they observed the wood trestles at the Limestone Creek Bridge afire, in flames and smoke on the tracks. Seeing the problem, the engineer in the first train decided to run through the flames at top speed. The first train plowed through with no problem. Engineer Jenkinson, controlling the second train and very close behind was not so fortunate. The bridge collapsed under their weakened condition taking the three Michiganian Engineers and most of the supply train to the creek below.
As Scott’s troopers had fired the bridge and witnessed the effort, they now added to the results, stealing supplies and firing on bluecoated troops. Hearing the commotion, a small detachment of Company K, First Michigan Engineers approached the bridge and began firing into plundering Confederate troopers. The Rebel Cavalry were quickly driven off. Jenkinson still in the in the engine had become trapped in the wreckage and on the creekbed. He helplessly appealed “to be got out or shot dead at once” only to eventually suffocate from the smoke. The bridge was severely damaged and to return it to full use would require significant repair by engineers. Harvey and Bates would be discharged within six months due to their injuries.
Paint Rock Bridge and Limestone Creek became two incidents along with several other encounters that demonstrated that Union forces were not prepared to be able to defend large stretches of roads without easily being preyed upon by Confederate raiders. Within the next months, secure lines of supply would significantly worsen as regular Confederate cavalry, mounted guerilla forces and even armed civilians would make security virtually impossible.
Cincinnati Gazette “The Bravery of Our Wisconsin Boys”
Military Reports: Colonel Alfred R. Chapin, 10th Wisconsin Infantry:
Colonel Joshua W. Sill, commanding Ninth Brigade
Sgt. William Nelson, commanding the detachment of the 10th Wisconsin
My Brave Mechanics, The Story of the 1st Michigan E&M, by Hoffman, Mark. Wayne State University Press, pp 74-75. 2007.