“Open ranks! Open ranks for the general,” commanded the staff of one of the most glamorous soldiers of the Civil War.
Morgan, receiving word of the Army of Cumberland’s reconnaissance in force in the Auburntown area, moved from McMinnville on the night of March 18, 1863,
It was his plan to catch Col. Albert S. Hall, 105th Ohio Infantry, who was leading the 2nd Brigade of Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds’ division, near Auburntown before he reached more defensible terrain outside of Milton.
Morgan’s brigade commanders Col. Richard Gano of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry and Col. William Campbell Preston Breckinridge of the 9th Kentucky Cavalry had already moved through the area and had skirmished with the Union troops. He was former U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge’s first cousin.
Auburntown residents left their homes to witness the troop movements. Women and children cheered the famous general, urging him to attack the Yankees.
Ironically, one company of the Union detachments was from the nearby Liberty, Tenn., area. Capt. Joe Blackburn commanded the men as part of DeKalb County native William B. Stokes’ 5th Tennessee Cavalry. Stokes served in the U.S. House of Representatives both before and after the Civil War.
Morgan had the Union troops outmanned, but Hall’s men had a considerable lead in the race to the high ground near Milton. Hall chose his battleground well and was able to set up a perimeter defense on a knoll called Vaught’s Hill.
At daylight on March 21, both Yankees and Rebels were already on the move.
“After daylight one of the scouts returned bringing intelligence that the enemy was moving. Captain Quirk was ordered to move forward with his company and attack the enemy’s rear,” Morgan wrote in his official report of the battle.
It was Morgan’s plan that Capt. Thomas Quirk delay Hall’s retreat toward Murfreesboro until the main body of the Confederate forces could arrive. Quirk, an Irishman, was one of Morgan’s most aggressive fighters.
Hall deployed skirmishers, but answered Quirk with an artillery barrage while the Union troops continued to move toward Vaught’s Hill.
Seeing that the Union artillery was largely unsupported, Morgan sent Breckinridge and Lt. Col. Robert M. Martin in an attempt to capture the two cannons. Hall pulled back his cannons to a position fronted by a cedar brake, which made it difficult for the Confederates to pursue.
By then Hall was in his final position atop Vaught’s Hill, and Morgan had no choice but to dismount his cavalry and order them up the hill to attack.
“Lieutenant-Colonel Martin, who still occupied his position on the left, was ordered to threaten the right of the enemy. At the same time, I ordered the command under Colonel Gano to move up, dismount and attack the enemy vigorously, immediately in the front. Colonel Breckinridge was ordered to move to the right with his command and attack their extreme left. Captain Quirk, in the meantime, had been ordered to get on the pike immediately in the rear of the enemy, which he did in most satisfactory manner, capturing fifteen or twenty prisoners,” Morgan wrote.
The Confederates were putting the squeeze on the outnumbered Union troops when a strange thing happened. Morgan’s men ran out of ammunition, but not before Hall’s troops inflicted heavy damage.
Col. Grigsby was wounded in front of his command, and Col. Napier was severely injured while encouraging his Rebels forward.
“At the same time the firing from the center of the line nearly ceased; a few scattering shots, now and then, gave evidence that nearly all of the ammunition was exhausted. Two more rounds would have made our victory complete and two thousand Federals would have been the result of the day’s fighting,” Morgan said.
Morgan ordered a quick withdrawal back to Milton where he found an ordinance wagon train and four cannons waiting for him. Oops.
The Confederates attempted to renew the attack with Quirk taking the point only to be repulsed.
Morgan withdrew his men to Liberty with no Union pursuit.
Col. Basil Duke, Morgan’s brother-in-law and second in command, commented on the impact of the Battle of Vaught’s Hill in his book, “Morgan’s Cavalry.”
“Our loss in this fight was very heavy, especially in officers. The list of wounded officers was large. Captains Sale, Marr, Cooper and Cossett, and a number of other officers were killed. Captain Sale was the third captain killed of Company E, Second Kentucky. Captain Cossett, of the Ninth Tennessee, was under arrest at the time, for charges of which he was acquitted after death. He was killed, fighting with his musket, as a volunteer. General Morgan’s clothing was torn with balls,” Duke wrote.
As for losing the battle, Duke offered a few reasons including the fatigue of horses and riders during the long and rapid ride from Auburntown to Milton. Some of horses failed, and men got scattered and separated from the main attacking body.
“The scanty supply of ammunition, however, and its failure at the critical moment was the principal cause of the repulse, or rather withdrawal of our troops. All who have given any account of his battle concur in praising the conduct of the combatants. It was fought with the utmost determination and with no flinching on either side,” Duke wrote.
There was good reason the Confederates lost so many officers at Milton. The exploits of Lt. Col. Robert Martin at Vaught’s Hill is one example.
“Just here Martin performed one of those acts of heroic but useless courage, too common among our officers. When his regiment wavered and commenced to fall back, he halted until he was left along; then at a slow walk rode to the pike, and with his hat off rode slowing out of fire.
“He was splendidly mounted, wore in his hat a long black plume, was himself a large and striking figure and I have often thought that it was the handsomest picture of cool and desperate courage I saw in the war,” Duke wrote.
Late in the Civil War, that same Robert Martin led a Confederate plot to take the war North by burning select buildings in New York City. The plot was uncovered and Martin fled to Canada, eventually returning to Kentucky where he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States.