Saber charge pushes Rebels out of Shelbyville

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This Union map shows the Shelbyville-Murfreesboro Turnpike.
While Wilder’s Brigade moved like “lightning,” molasses might be a better description of the rest of the Union Army of the Cumberland as it strived to push the Rebels out of Tennessee’s Highland Rim.

There were reasons for that and each of them tended to work in support of Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ secret plan for the so-called Tullahoma campaign.

For reasons of his own, Rosecrans kept his master plan secret from his general staff, probably so they wouldn’t blab about it. Orders were issued a day at a time, and as a result some of the generals were convinced they were executing the main thrust of the army against the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s Gen. Braxton Bragg.

Rosecrans planned major feigns on Bragg’s left and right flanks.

Click here to download a large map of the Shelbyville area.

The Army of the Cumberland was divided into three corps: the XIV Corps led by the very capable George Thomas, the XX Corps led by Alexander McCook, who failed miserably at Stones River, and the XXI Corps commanded by Thomas L. Crittenden, popular, but still a bumbler.

Bragg believed Rosecrans would follow the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad line from Christiana to Bell Buckle, Wartrace, Fairfield, Tullahoma and ultimately Chattanooga. That, in many ways, was the logical approach.

But the direct route to Shelbyville presented more advantages. The turnpike from Murfreesboro to Shelbyville was a good, wide road that offered room to maneuver. Once in Shelbyville there was the Nashville and Decatur Railroad line. But that approach did little to achieve Rosecrans’ goal of forcing a battle with Bragg before moving on to Chattanooga.

Part of Rosecrans’ plan was to make Bragg think he was making a major move on Shelbyville. He would merge units from two corps, send four infantry divisions, a huge 300-wagon train and a massive cavalry screen toward the county seat of nearby Bedford County.

The first movements of the Tullahoma campaign had actually begun June 23 when Baird’s Division of the Reserve Corps under Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, with a cavalry division under Col. R.B. Mitchell, moved due west from Murfreesboro to Triune to begin the feint.

Previously, Granger was promoted to major general of volunteers on Sept. 17, 1862, and took command of the Army of Kentucky. His command was merged into the Army of the Cumberland, becoming the Reserve Corps. Granger would play a key role at Chickamauga, but is best known for declaring slavery dead on June 19, 1865 in Texas, originating the annual “Juneteenth” celebration.

Adding to the diversion was XX Corps Maj. Gen. McCook’s move on Shelbyville. Brig. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s division was to move down Shelbyville Pike before allowing Johnson’s and Davis’ divisions to head east to Liberty Gap, which was six miles away.

XX Corps moved out at daylight on the Shelbyville Pike and hit a line of Confederate pickets about three miles out of town.

Granger’s men passed between Salem and Eagleville and moved toward Christiana where progress slowed to a crawl. Mitchell’s 5,500 men cavalry division was making no or little progress much to the disgust of Maj. Gen. David S. Stanley, commander of cavalry for the Army of the Cumberland.

Mitchell’s First Cavalry Division had skirmished with a unit of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry near Unionville in Bedford County. The Union cavalry was fortunate. Forrest was absent from the field thanks to a gunshot delivered by one of his own lieutenants during an argument in Columbia.

Part of the problem was that Mitchell was ill, but the fiery Irishman Col. Robert H.G. Minty was like “a chained lion.”
Minty was the son of an Irishman who served in the British Army. He followed his father’s footsteps and had been assigned to the West Indies, Central America and Africa. He settled in Michigan after resigning from the military. He joined the cavalry after the Civil War began and was named colonel of the Fourth Michigan.

Minty looked and acted the part of a dashing cavalryman and was regarded as headstrong by other commanders who were less experienced than him.

Stanley, who was to win a Congressional Medal of Honor at Franklin, ordered Minty to take the lead on the attack at Guy’s Gap on the Shelbyville Pike.

Taking two regiments, the 4th U.S. Cavalry and the 1st Middle Tennessee Cavalry, Minty cleared Guy’s Gap. Frustrated by Granger’s slow movement of his infantry, Minty asked and received permission to advance against Col. Will Martin’s Division of Wheeler’s Cavalry, which was falling back from Guy’s Gap to the outskirts of Shelbyville.

Here Minty pioneered a cavalry tactic new to the Western Theatre. He ordered 500 cavalrymen to dismount and moved them toward Confederate fortifications about a mile from Shelbyville. They were backed by another 2,000 troops in column form. They quickly outflanked the Confederate position.

The Confederate cavalry, lead by Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler himself, made a stand on Shelbyville’s square. Wheeler was chief of the Army of Tennessee’s cavalry, outranking both Forrest and Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Out on the turnpike, two cannons from the 18th Ohio artillery unlimbered and opened fire on Wheeler.

Minty then ordered a spectacular saber charge by troopers of the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry.

As the cannon fired, bugler John Cole sounded the charge. Some 200 Pennsylvania cavalrymen responded at a dead run with Confederate artillery firing nearly a mile away. Two cannon blasts soared over their heads. A third hit Company G, killing three men and a horse, but the charge continued.

“As we reached the slight rise going into Shelbyville we saw the confederate cavalry waver and break. The artillery limbered up and joined the fleeing cavalry. The two hundred pushed on with the yell rejoiced. The last piece of artillery turned the corner of a street as the two hundred began to saber the cannoniers,” wrote Adjutant George F. Steahlin.

“Then the riders were cut off the horses. One piece was ours in a twinkling. The second piece was also ours in two minutes,” he continued.

Wheeler led his own escort in a counterattack near the railroad depot. The Confederates managed one volley before the 3rd Indiana rode up on their flank. Two Union lieutenants and 10 troopers died.

“Still we hardly stopped to look, cutting right cuts, left cuts, front cuts, and rear cuts, making thrusts right, left and front – dealing death at every blow until the Duck River was reached,” Steahlin wrote.

The Union cavalry had captured three cannons, 300 troops and cleared Shelbyville. Joseph Wheeler escaped by the skin of his teeth.

And Minty’s unit earned a new name, “The Saber Brigade.”
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