Colonel Thomas J. Harrison’s Report on His Cavalry Brigade’s Action on Christmas Day, 1864.

December 25th, 1864 would be the last Christmas of the Civil War. The Army of the Potomac was locked in operations against the Army of Northern Virginia around Petersburg, Virginian, as it had been since June. General William T. Sherman’s army enjoyed the holiday in Savannah, Georgia, after completing its March to the Sea a few days earlier. Sherman famously presented the city to Lincoln as a Christmas gift. While many of the participants on both sides were quiet that day, there were two places where some active fighting of note was occurring. One was a Union Navy and Army attack on Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and the other involved the pursuit of General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee on the retreat following its defeat at the December 15th-16th Battle of Nashville.

Gen. James H. Wilson

Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s Cavalry Corps led the Union pursuit of Hood, while General Nathan Bedford Forrest commanded the Confederate rear guard. Forrest had about 3000 cavalrymen; he requested infantry from Hood, who agreed, and eight infantry brigades consisting of about 1600 soldiers under Major General Edward Walthall were placed under his command on December 20th. Bad weather–rain that turned roads into mud and flooded rivers, cold temperatures and cold winds, snow–made it miserable for both sides.

On the afternoon of Christmas Day, Wilson’s cavalry caught up with Forrest about seven miles south of Pulaski, Tennessee. Wilson’s scouts had underreported the size of Forrest’s command, and the Union commander was confident he could destroy or capture the Confederate rear guard. The Federals advanced into a heavily wooded gorge on the way to Anthony’s Hill, and the skirmishers from the two sides exchanged fire.

Leading the Union advance was Colonel Thomas J. Harrison’s cavalry brigade consisting of the 5th Iowa, 7th Ohio, and 16th Illinois Cavalry Regiments. The heavy timber concealed the enemy well, and Harrison had his men dismount and attack on foot. The brigade made progress initially, but as it approached a rail barricade, the Rebels unleashed cannon fire from three well concealed artillery pieces as well as musket fire from a pair of infantry brigades in front and a cavalry brigade on each flank. Then the Rebels charged the ambushed and outnumbered Federals, who had no choice except to flee to the rear, running right through another cavalry brigade that was deploying in support of Harrison. One union artillery piece that was unlimbering was overrun and captured by the onrushing Confederates. Wilson ordered third brigade of cavalry forward; these reinforcements pushed the Rebels back to the rail barricade, but were unable to recover the cannon. Wilson then ordered infantry forward, but by the time it reached the location of the fighting, Forrest had withdrawn his Confederates.

A Cavalry Charge by Edwin Forbes

This action is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Anthony’s Hill. Colonel Harrison submitted this report on his brigade’s not very merry Christmas of fighting:

HDQRS. FIRST BRIG., SIXTH DIV., CAVALRY CORPS,
MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI,
Near Sugar Creek, Tenn., December 27, 1864.

CAPTAIN: I have the honor to report that on the 25th instant this brigade had the advance in pursuit of the enemy, moving out of camp ten miles north of Pulaski at 5 a.m. The enemy’s rear guard was struck about two miles from the camp, when active skirmishing commenced. The Fifth Iowa Cavalry was in advance, drove the enemy from every position, and when near Pulaski charged gallantly through the town, saving the covered bridge across Richland Creek, which the enemy had fired, and which he was attempting to hold with a heavy force until destroyed. I immediately ordered two guns in position and deployed a force along the creek, obliging the enemy to withdraw. Crossing the bridge I followed up the pursuit rapidly, dislodging the enemy from strong positions, until reaching the head of a narrow gorge, some seven miles from Pulaski, where the enemy had taken position on a high hill behind strong barricades. His position was admirably selected, being hidden from view by heavy timber until within a few feet of it. Supposing that the enemy would retire from this position, as he had from others on a flank movement from us, I deployed the Seventh Ohio Cavalry on the right and the Sixteenth Illinois Cavalry on the left of the Fifth Iowa Cavalry, all dismounted. These regiments moved upon the enemy most gallantly, when suddenly he opened from a masked battery of three guns and charged over his works, in two lines of infantry with a column of cavalry, down the main road. Before this overpowering force my men were obliged to fall back about half a mile, when we checked the enemy, and, receiving support, drove him back.

Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest CSA

I regret to state that Company I, Fourth U.S. Artillery, were obliged to abandon one gun and limber at this time. The battery had been placed in position by General Wilson’s order. The stand made by the enemy at this point was to save his train, as we had driven his rear guard sharp upon it. From prisoners I learn that this rear guard consisted of seven brigades of infantry and one division–Jackson’s—of cavalry, all under General Forrest. In the hasty evacuation of Pulaski the enemy threw two cannon into the creek, burned a locomotive and train of five cars loaded with arms and ammunition, and it is reported he left near town two locomotives in good order. For six miles below Pulaski the road was strewn with abandoned artillery ammunition, and burning and abandoned wagons. I think he saved some twenty wagons entire.

We captured during the day 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, and some 50 or 60 men, also some 150 wounded at Pulaski.

Our casualties, mostly from the Fifth Iowa Cavalry, consisted of 3 killed, 18 wounded, and 5 missing. In charging the bridge at Pulaski the Fifth Iowa Cavalry lost 3 killed and 3 wounded.

Brevet Major-General Wilson expressed himself much pleased with the operations of the brigade during the day. The officers and men of the brigade behaved admirably; they are men who can be relied upon.

T. J. HARRISON,
Colonel, Commanding Brigade.

Capt. E. T. WELLS,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

Forrest and Walthall fought another successful rear guard action the next day, and on the 27th, the remnants of the Army of the Tennessee crossed the Tennessee River, eventually halting at Tupelo, Mississippi. Low on ammunition and food, with terrible roads bogging down his infantry and lousy weather, Wilson gave up the pursuit.

Sources:

The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville by Wiley Sword

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XLV, Part 1

The Union Cavalry in the Hood Campaign by James Harrison Wilson. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV. Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel


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