Tactics give Union a victory at Vaught’s Hill


Rebel Raider falls short near Milton

Part 1 of a series When it came to the outcome of the Civil War, the Battle of Vaught's Hill was not a factor, but the bloody little battle fought near Milton community is brimming with interesting facts. The battle's outcome showed growing maturity of the Union Army of the Cumberland in the months following Stones River and demonstrated how proper military tactics could be used to defeat a superior Confederate force. It also marked a rare defeat of Confederate Raider John Hunt Morgan's cavalry. Morgan had bloodied the nose of the Army of the Cumberland on Dec. 7, 1862 at the Battle of Hartsville during the opening of the Stones River Campaign. Greatly outnumbered, Morgan left the battlefield with minimal losses and 1,844 Union prisoners and a wagon train heavily loaded with captured equipment and supplies. Confederate Western Theater commander Joseph E. Johnston described Hartsville as a "brilliant feat" and recommended that Morgan be appointed brigadier general immediately. CSA President Jefferson Davis, visiting the Army of Tennessee at Murfreesboro, promoted Morgan in person on the eve of his wedding. Victory at Hartsville has often been described as Morgan's wedding present to his wife, Murfreesboro socialite, Mattie Ready. But slightly more than four months later, the tables were turned and a Union brigade managed to defeat Morgan's famed cavalry division. On March 18, 1863, Col. Albert S. Hall, 105th Ohio Infantry, lead the 2nd Brigade of Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds' division on a reconnaissance in force of the Milton area. Hall, commanding some 1,300 men with rations for four days, was under orders to "reconnoiter the enemy and strike him, if the opportunity offers." Hall's brigade included the 123rd Illinois Infantry, 80th Illinois Infantry, 101st Indiana Infantry, 105th Ohio, one section of the 19th Indiana Battery, and Company A of Stokes' cavalry. On the night of the 18th, the Union brigade captured Cainsville, taking two prisoners. The following morning Hall took the Statesville Road toward Prosperity Church. At Statesville, Hall was met by a detachment of Rebel cavalry and fought a small skirmish. Light fighting continued toward Liberty as a larger Confederate force began to mass. Hall rested his command at Prosperity Church for two hours. "Becoming entirely satisfied that a large rebel force, under Morgan's command, was massed in the vicinity, and that I should be attacked by the next day [20th] at the farthest, I determined to choose my own ground for the engagement," Hall wrote in his official report. At dusk, the Union soldiers moved in the direction of Auburntown with the goal of a position closer to Murfreesboro near Milton. Hall wanted the "high ground," a classic military strategy predating the Roman Empire. The position, Hall had in mind was a "hillock" known locally as Vaught's Hill. That's where he would make his stand. The shape of the commanding hill was perfect for what Hall had in mind - a perimeter defense, which is a position without an exposed flank, consisting of forces deployed along the perimeter of the defended area. Typically, Civil War battles were fought in long battle lines and offenses tried to "flank" the opponent like at Stones River, where the Confederates dislodged the Union's left flank and folded it up like the blades of a jackknife. It was impossible to "flank" Hall's perimeter, which was anchored by two cannons from the 19th Indiana Artillery commanded by Capt. S.J. Harris. The cannon fire and volleys from the Indiana and Ohio infantry raked the Confederate columns, which were attacking the left and right side of the hill. "As it was, the terrible raking given it (the Confederate right) by the artillery, and the volley from the Eightieth Illinois which it finally received, quite effectually extinguished its valor and boldness, so that a thin line of skirmishers and part of Blackburn's little company was all that was necessary to control them thereafter," Hall reported. With the fighting intensifying on the left, Hall reshuffled his troops, moving the 80th Illinois. Morgan then opened fire on the Union's center with four cannons and ordered an attack on the rear of the hillock. That attack was repulsed as the fighting became more generalized, but the Union artillery continued to sweep the field, inflicting heavy losses. Morgan continued his artillery barrage. "My line encircling the hillock, inclosing us within 5 acres of space, was entirely surrounded by the enemy, and every reachable spot was showered with shot, shell, grape, and canister," Hall said. But Union troops were able to hold the high ground. "Artillery was never better worked. Again and again the enemy tried to break our devoted circle, and continued the unequal contest upon me steadily from 11:30 a.m. till 2:15 p.m., when, seeing it was of no avail, he drew off his cavalry to my front, leaving but a small force on my flanks; and, desisting from the attack with small-arms, continued to play his artillery till 4:30 p.m., when he finally withdrew it also," Hall reported. Hall had sought reinforcements from Murfreesboro and the 4th Michigan Cavalry, commanded by Col. Robert H.G. Minty, was dispatched about 1 p.m., but did not arrive until six hours later prompting Hall to launch an official protest. Meanwhile, John Hunt Morgan, the famous raider, was having troubles of his own.

© 2009 The Murfreesboro Post

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