Maj.-Gen. John C. Brown’s account of the Spring Hill situation

Memphis, Tenn.,
May 20, 1877.

Maj.-Gen. John C. Brown, commanding Cheatham’s division, gave the following account of the same affair:

My division comprised four brigades of infantry, commanded respectively by Gen. S. R. Gist, of South Carolina, Gens. O. F. Strahl, O. W. Gordon and John C. Carter, of Tennessee. The whole command on the morning of November 29, 1864, when I left my bivouac on the Mooresville turnpike in front of Columbia, Tenn., numbered not exceeding 2,750 effective men. Gist’s brigade was the largest and Strahl’s was next in numerical strength, those of Gordon and Carter being about equal in the number of effective men. We started on the march about sunrise, and after traversing cedar brakes and pathless woods, crossed Duck river by a pontoon previously laid, about four miles above Columbia, at or near what was known as Davis’ ferry or Davis’ ford. Conforming to the daily alternations, my division was the rear of your (Cheatham’s) corps. After crossing Duck river, as I now recollect, at or near Bear creek, the commanding general, apprehending an attack on our left flank, ordered your corps, in its march from that point, to move in two parallel columns, so that it could come instantly into action in two lines of battle if attacked on the flank. Accordingly, my division was ordered to form the supporting column, and for that purpose to leave the road by which the main body was moving, and so conform its movements to that of the other two divisions (Cleburne’s and Bate’s), that in coming into action to meet an attack on our left flank, it would occupy a place in rear of and about 400 yards distant from the front line of battle. The march thence to Rutherford’s creek was made pursuant to these orders, and the whole distance thus traversed (five or six miles) was through fields and woods and over rough ground, adding greatly to the fatigues of the day. About the commencement of this movement, or soon afterward, by the orders of the commanding general in person, the whole of Gist’s and about one-half of Strahl’s brigade were detached for picket duty, to be relieved by the orders of the commanding general, thus leaving me with about one-half of my division.

When near Rutherford’s creek, learning that a crossing was not practicable east of the road, I changed the direction of the march to the left into the road and found Bate’s division preparing to cross the stream. After reaching the north bank of the stream, I was ordered to pursue the road leading in the direction of the Caldwell place, while Cleburne’s and Bate’s divisions moved at an angle to the left; but before reaching the Dr. Caldwell house, I was ordered to change the direction of my column to the left, and we reached the “Lewisburg,” or “Rally Hill” pike, near the toll-gate, a distance of one and a half mile from Spring Hill. This was within an hour or an hour and a half of sunset. I could distinctly see the enemy in force, both infantry and artillery, at Spring Hill, but did not, and perhaps could not at that point, see either troops or wagons, moving on the Columbia pike. Forrest’s cavalry were on higher ground northeast of my position. I was ordered to form line of battle and “take” Spring Hill. Gist’s brigade and the detachment from Strahl had not reported. I formed my line as speedily as worn troops could move, and after throwing forward a skirmish line, advanced 400 or 500 yards, when I discovered a line of the enemy thrown out of Spring Hill, across and threatening my right flank, and I then discovered for the first time that General Forrest’s cavalry, which I had been assured would protect my right, had been ordered to another part of the field, leaving me without any protection on my right flank or support in rear. I had neither artillery nor cavalry, and was left in a position where I must meet with inevitable disaster if I advanced on Spring Hill. A hasty consultation with my brigade commanders resulted in a determination to suspend the advance and confer with the corps commander. I need not remind you that in a very few minutes you were upon the field and fully approved of what had been done, as did also General Hood a little later, when he directed that the attack should be delayed until the arrival of Generals Stewart and Gist, and in the meanwhile, that the whole command should be held under orders to advance at a moment’s notice. General Gist’s brigade reported a little after nightfall and was immediately placed in position on my right. General Stewart’s corps came up later and went into bivouac on the stream in rear of my right, where it remained until the following morning. I received no further orders that evening or during the night to advance or change my position. After daylight on the morning of the 30th I took up the line of march for Franklin, the enemy in the meantime having preceded us under circumstances of which you are fully advised.

On the march to Franklin, General Cleburne, with whom I had long enjoyed very close personal relations, sent a message to the head of my column requesting an interview. Allowing my column to pass on, I awaited his arrival. When he came up we rode apart from the column through the fields, and he told me with much feeling that he had heard that the commanding general was endeavoring to place upon him the responsibility of allowing the enemy to pass our position on the night previous. I replied to him that I had heard nothing on that subject and that I hoped he was mistaken. He said, “No, I think not; my information comes through a very reliable channel,” and said that he could not afford to rest under such an imputation, and should certainly have the matter investigated to the fullest extent, as soon as we were away from the immediate presence of the enemy. General Cleburne was quite angry and evidently was deeply hurt, under the conviction that the com-mander-in-chief had censured him. I asked General Cleburne who was responsible for the escape of the enemy during the afternoon and night previous. In reply to that inquiry he indulged in some criticisms of a command (Bate’s division) occupying a position on his left, and concluded by saying that of course the responsibility rests with the commander-in-chief, as he was upon the field during the afternoon and was fully advised during the night of the movement of the enemy. The conversation at this point was abruptly terminated by the arrival of orders from yourself or the commanding general. As he left he said, “We will resume this conversation at the first convenient moment,” but in less than three hours after that time this gallant soldier was a corpse upon the bloody field of Franklin.

Source: Confederate Military History Volume 8:
Tennessee Chapter X

Also see:

  • Wikipedia article on John C. Brown

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