Surprise Attack at the
Michael J. Hathaway
Return to Battle of Monroe's Crossroads
Confederate General John B. Hood assigned Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler the daunting task of attacking Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union army on their march to the sea in the fall of 1864. General Wheeler’s 4,500 cavalry troopers could not seriously oppose Sherman’s army of 60,000. Instead, he concentrated on the Federal cavalry.
Amid complaints from civilians that Wheeler was leading a band of lawless thugs that rivaled Sherman’s bummers, he was investigated by the Inspector General. With a recommendation for Wheeler’s immediate replacement, Lieutenant General Wade Hampton assumed command of the cavalry when he arrived in South Carolina on February 16, 1865.
Command of the Union’s Third Cavalry Division was assigned to Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick. General Sherman is said to have told General James H. Wilson, “I know Kilpatrick is a hell of a damned fool, but I want just that sort of man to command my cavalry on this expedition.” He was reckless and drove his men hard but always ensured they were well supplied.
The opposing cavaliers skirmished for the first week of March then attempted to outmaneuver each other in a desperate race for Fayetteville. After fording Drowning Creek, Kilpatrick halted at Solemn Grove to allow his units to close ranks. After skirmishing with General Hardee’s rear guard, Kilpatrick learned from prisoners that his position was between Hardee’s Infantry Corps and Hampton’s cavalry.
To stop Hampton from reaching Hardee, Kilpatrick quickly devised a plan on March 9, 1865 to block three roads the Confederates could use for travel; Chicken Road, Morganton Road and Yadkin Road. Sherman specifically instructed Kilpatrick not to force the Confederate cavalry to battle. Disregarding orders, Kilpatrick sent Sherman a message stating he was going to try and cut the Confederates off.
A Georgia soldier riding with Wheeler’s cavalry explained, “After nightfall, while riding leisurely along, it being rather dark, to my surprise, I discovered a Yankee riding in our column by my side.” Reporting what he saw to an officer, he was sent back to check the Union prisoners. He discovered the Federal cavalry had, “…captured our guard and prisoners. Returning and reporting this, we were halted. The Yankees were marching on a parallel road and soon mixed up with us.”
Kilpatrick’s First and Second Brigades were oblivious that they were traveling on a road so close to the Confederates. Gunfights and light skirmishes erupted along the entire road. This should have alerted Kilpatrick to the close proximity of the Confederate cavalry, but he didn’t seem to care.
Dividing his forces, Kilpatrick directed Brigadier General Smith Dykins Atkins to camp his Second Brigade at the intersection of Yadkin and Morganton roads to block the Confederate route. Colonel Jordan’s First Brigade was ordered to block Chicken Road near the Malcolm Blue farm. Rain fell in sheets when Kilpatrick ordered Colonel George Spencer’s Third Brigade, and Lieutenant Colonel William B. Way’s Fourth Brigade Provisional (Dismounted) to camp at Charles Monroe’s farm, directly in the Confederate’s path.
Confederate General Hampton knew that Kilpatrick had to be somewhere to the south, but was more concerned with reaching Fayetteville first. Hampton also planned to camp at the Monroe farm as General Hardee had done.
General Butler’s division caught up to Hampton’s rear guard at the Yadkin and Morganton roads intersection at dusk on March 9th. While inquiring about the delay, they were made aware of hoof prints and wagon ruts in the road. As the generals were surmising how much Federal cavalry passed, unidentified horsemen approached in the dim light.
Satisfied that none of his men were on that road, Butler challenged them. When they identified themselves as the 5th Kentucky, Butler invited them to join him. Knowing they were Kilpatrick’s men, Butler drew his pistol and demanded surrender. Captain John Humphrey surrounded and captured the remaining men and their regimental colors without firing a shot.
Hampton assumed the small group was a rear guard for the Federal cavalry that just passed by. He had no way of knowing they were Kilpatrick’s personal escort. The wily general slipped away with his staff just in time to elude capture. Hampton did correctly surmise that he just isolated a portion of the Federal cavalry from the main body.
Charles Monroe’s farm sat on the east side of a slight ridge that runs north to south. The south and west sides of the ridge sloped toward a wide, deep swamp at the headwaters of Nicholson Creek. The occupants likely fled soon after Hardee’s men broke camp.
Early spring rains continued when the Union Fourth Provisional Brigade arrived at the deserted farm. The Third Brigade was next, setting up camp behind and beside the Fourth Brigade in a large field south of the residence. Earlier in the day, Captain Theo Northrop’s scouts camped across Blue’s Road several hundred yards southeast of the house. Third Brigade’s commander Colonel Spencer, the Fourth Brigade’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Way, and General Kilpatrick with his female companions camped within the main house.
Recent archaeological evidence of several fired Hotchkiss fuses suggests the Tenth Wisconsin Battery parked the two cannon on Blue’s Road with the wagons, not on the high ground about 150 yards south of the residence where unfired fuses were previously found.
Colonel Spencer ordered pickets posted in the direction of Fayetteville while Lieutenant Colonel Way was supposed to post pickets to the south. General Kilpatrick failed to take the situation seriously and seemed indifferent about the Confederate threat when he arrived. Confederate prisoners who were corralled in a prison pen near the wagons had no shelter from the cold rain. For unknown reasons, the north and west sides of the camp went unguarded.
General Butler was much more serious and dispatched scouts to track the Union soldiers. He sent an urgent message to General Hampton that reported the capture of his rear guard and fresh hoof prints on Morganton Road. Wheeler was with Hampton when the message arrived. They rode forward to meet Butler who left a detachment of scouts to spy on the Union camp. The scouts described a large Federal camp clustered on a ridge with wagons and artillery but no pickets. The leaders decided to attack at dawn.
The Confederates quietly moved off the road and dismounted but kept their horses ready. There was to be no talking above a whisper and no fires, but they could rest. General Butler wrote, “It was a cold rainy March night. In the open pine woods I established my headquarters for the night on the road, and, with a pine knot for a pillow, slept on the ground with my bridle on my arm, covered with my raincoat.”
Voices awakened him to find that his cavaliers captured a lone Union officer who wandered among them. The lieutenant, sent to recover a disabled wagon, confirmed General Kilpatrick’s presence in the house.
General Atkins, prudently cautious due to earlier skirmishes, halted his brigade with news of Confederates ahead. He rode with the scout to the top of a hill where he observed the rear of General Butler’s division at the road intersection where he was supposed to camp. Atkins suspected an attack on Kilpatrick’s camp was imminent.
To maneuver around the Confederates, he decided to backtrack and search for a usable road or trail. Brush was thick, rain was heavy and the marsh was deep and cold as they headed east through the Piney Bottom Creek basin. “After marching about three miles, we turned to our left, striking a swamp which, on account of the recent heavy rains, we found almost impassable for a man on horseback,” a Ninth Ohio Cavalry soldier remembered. “Our artillery stuck, the horses floundering in the mud and water until it was with great difficulty they could be saved from drowning,” he wrote. The battle would be over before they could recover.
Jordan’s First Brigade rode from the Bethesda Church at first light. However, valuable time spent skirmishing with Hampton’s cavalry prevented him from supporting the camp at the Monroe farm. The only aid General Kilpatrick could count on was Captain Northrop’s company of scouts to his south.
While most Union soldiers slept during the early morning hours of March 10th, the Confederates were busy reconnoitering the Union camp. Creeping into position, the noisy rain allowed them to move very close. General Butler reported that they saw no guards, which “enabled us to ride almost up to his campfires without being discovered.”
General Wheeler ordered his chief of scouts Captain Alexander May Shannon to learn General Kilpatrick’s location. The scouts rode along the western slope of the ridge and captured the few pickets they would encounter. Shannon sent two volunteers into the camp to locate the prisoners. The men returned with two stolen horses each and reported prisoners near the house.
Maneuvering quietly, the Confederates formed a crescent around the north and west of the camp. General Wheeler’s two divisions occupied the middle with less than half of his usual 4,000 troops. General Butler’s division of about 1,200 was to the north and Brigadier General William Y. C. Humes led his division at the south edge of the swamp on a small peninsula of land.
By 0530 the rain finally stopped and a thick fog rolled in. The Confederate cavalry readied themselves for the raid. General Hampton with the reserves, observed from the top of a rise to the northwest of the camp.
At first light General Wheeler gave the command, “Forward!” As word spread down the line, the men advanced. Wheeler commanded, “The Walk!” Most of the cavalry was moving forward, now within 500 yards of the house. Wheeler shouted, “The Trot!” The sea of men and horses quickened their pace, closing the distance. On his left, Butler’s men were almost in the open. Finally, Wheeler yelled, “THE GALLOP!” With this command, the entire force surged forward and streaked toward the sleeping Federal camp.
War cries from the charging raiders sliced rebel yells through the chilly morning air. Riding full speed through the camp shooting and yelling, the Confederate cavalry bore down on the awakening camp with deadly surprise. Some Federal troops were shot through their tents before they could scramble out of their blankets. Unarmed men were captured while others awoke with a start, grabbed their weapons and ran.
The Federals sought refuge from the onslaught where they could and fired into the swarm of attackers. Even firing wildly into the fog, they were bound to hit someone. Many engaged in hand-to-hand combat as the battle developed.
The depth of the swollen swamp was not considered during the recon. As a result, General Humes got bogged down as his men struggled to get across. The First Alabama (U.S.) heard the men thrashing in the water and laid down suppressing fire that forced Harrison’s and Ashby’s brigades to dismount and seek cover. Humes was forced to withdraw and assist the main force.
Sprinting down the hill into the swamp, the Federals tried to outrun the Confederate cavalry. “My command was taken completely by surprise, the enemy being in force in every part of my camp. The officers and men were completely bewildered for a short time,” wrote Major George H. Rader of the Union Fifth Ohio Cavalry Regiment.
Half dressed on the farmhouse porch as the Confederate warriors poured out of the woods, General Kilpatrick saw, “The most formidable cavalry charge I have ever witnessed.” His first thought was, “My God, here’s a Major General’s commission after four years hard fighting gone up with an infernal surprise.”
Confederate Captain Bostick galloped to the house and pointed his pistol at Kilpatrick’s face. “Where is General Kilpatrick?” he demanded. Surprised that he wasn’t recognized, he pointed and yelled, “There he goes on that horse!” Captain Bostick raced away, neglecting his orders to besiege the house. Unarmed, Kilpatrick leaped over the railing and disappeared.
Guards at prison pen were quickly overrun. Some Confederate prisoners scooped up discarded firearms while others managed to acquire horses and ride directly into the Confederate charge. Unaware of the freed prisoners, some Confederates mistakenly shot their own men until General Butler realized who they were and led them safely to the rear. Prisoners that grabbed weapons joined in the battle.
The first wave of attackers rushed right by the Union’s Fourth Brigade. Because their commander was trapped in the house, Lieutenant Colonel William Stough took charge and ordered a battle formation with affixed bayonets. Someone cried, “Infantry!”
The Confederate cavalry knew they would not last against a coordinated ground attack and broke formation. Before the Federals could assemble, an attack from the Confederates drove them back.
With the Federals routed, the
Confederates scattered throughout the camp. With complete discipline
breakdown and loss of command control, the men began to raid the wagons.
This attracted the attention of more men that wanted their share of
plunder. Wheeler ordered troops to stop looting, hitch the wagons and
artillery to horses and haul them away. He was too late.
The two sides fought viciously, but neither would give ground. Captain Northrop mustered 200 men and charged the camp occupied by 2,000 Confederates. The Confederates scrambled for cover and retreated to the north end of camp.
Confederate Couriers had orders to bring the reserves forward, but they were gone. Wheeler asked Butler where the men were, “Scattered like Hell” was the reply. Apparently, General Hampton brought the reserves forward with him at the start of the battle, denying both commanders support from the reserves.
The din provided the Tenth Wisconsin Battery an opportunity to reach their Griffen guns. Although surrounded, the crew under First Lieutenant Ebenezer Stetson loaded, primed and fired the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle. The Hotchkiss canister ripped a bloody hole in the Confederate line. More Union soldiers scrambled to assist the gun crew and fired into the Confederate line.
Concentrating deadly fire on the ordnance gun, all Yankees were out of action except for Lieutenant Stetson. Working alone, Stetson managed to fire twice more before he was felled with a pistol shot (he later recovered from his wound). The gun fell into Confederate hands.
Shifting fire to the north, the First Alabama was joined by the Fifth Ohio and the Fifth Kentucky regiments. General Wheeler attacked, but they were easy targets for the dismounted men. With the assault repelled, General Wheeler tried again but heavy, rapid fire from the Spencer repeating rifles drove them to the north end of the camp. The Federals finally recovered their cannon.
General Butler decided to brave the deadly fire to recapture the artillery. Blistering shrapnel from cannon fire exploded into charging Confederate ranks, slaughtering man and beast, but the Union line held firm. General Butler later wrote, “They had got to their artillery and, with their carbines, made it so hot for the handful of us we had to retire. In fact, I lost sixty two men there in about five minute’s time.”
General Hampton ordered his troops to withdraw over concerns that Federal support would soon arrive. He was right. An infantry brigade from Morgan’s division of the XIV Corps under General Mitchell and the remainder of General Kilpatrick’s cavalry were closing in fast.
Wagons and Union prisoners were placed at the front of the column as the Confederates limped to Fayetteville. The Federals pursued them for about a half-mile, skirmishing with Colonel Dibrell’s rear guard until contact was broken. Shooting ceased around 0900 hours on March 10, 1865.
The wounded were carried to the main house, but Kilpatrick was eager to leave amid concerns of returning Confederates reinforced with infantry. That night, Kilpatrick camped near Sherman’s infantry eight miles from Fayetteville. Having learned a valuable lesson from leaving a camp unguarded, Kilpatrick ordered defenses built around his next bivouac site.
Despite serious negligence on each side, both claimed victory for a battle that had little or no tactical importance on the outcome of the war. Each side lost many seasoned veterans and officers they could ill-afford to lose. Casualty reports for both sides are inaccurate and contradictory. General Wheeler reported his loss was 12 killed, 60 wounded, 10 missing, had taken more than 350 prisoners and freed 175 of his own men that were captive.
Kilpatrick reported 103 missing, 19 killed and 75 wounded. Stetson reported about the same figures just for his brigade. Kilpatrick also reported taking 30 prisoners and burying about 80 Confederates. Undetermined numbers of severely wounded were left in the care of residents in the area. Some Federal Soldiers that later died from wounds were buried in a mass grave at Kilpatrick’s second campsite on the evening of March 10th.
Neill S. Blue, a boy of 15, hid in the swamp and witnessed the Monroe Farm battle on the fateful morning. After the soldiers left, he returned to the site and set sandstone markers on the graves.
The family that abandoned the farm never returned to the homestead. Shortly after the war, many of the Confederate dead were moved to the Long Street Church by John McKellar and John H. Currie among others in the community. Many more are interred at the Cross Creek cemetery in Fayetteville. Union dead that remained on the field were buried in several mass graves at various locations on the battleground.
Money was raised by the Gaelic Scot community of Argyle to erect a marble obelisk in 1870 that bears a simple inscription, “Confederate Soldiers” for about 30 unknown soldiers that rest in a mass grave at the Long Street Church. In 1881, Heirs of Charles M. Monroe sold the tract of land where the battle took place to Neill S. Blue.
The U.S. Government purchased land that would become Camp Bragg in 1917 and later Fort Bragg on September 30, 1922. Markers were erected by the Quartermaster Corps from Camp Bragg in 1921. Throughout the twenties, families would picnic on the battlefield and spend an afternoon gathering Minnie balls and rusty musket parts from an obscure battle fast fading from memory.
During World War I, Camp Bragg saw a need for a regular security presence on the reservation. Forest rangers, called Range Riders, established several stations around Camp Bragg. Ranger Station #2 was located in Quewhiffle Township near the Monroe’s Crossroads battlefield. Before a program to manage historic property was created, the rangers protected historic sites against arson, vandalism, trespassing and theft of historic objects.
In 1997 and 1998, the National Park
Service sponsored archaeological studies of the battlefield. Historian
Kenneth Belew and archaeologists Douglas D. Scott and William J. Hunt, Jr.
published the works for the XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg. Just to
the south of burial area C on the Monroe’s Crossroads Civil War
Battleground, a large monument was erected by the U.S. Army 307th
Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Airborne) in April, 1996.
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