The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads and the Civil War’s Final Campaign
by Eric J. Wittenberg, Savas Beatie, 2006, 366 pages, $32.95.
Readers who go with Eric Wittenberg on a cavalry campaign had better cinch up their reading glasses because they are in for page after page of fast-moving, hard-riding action. A veteran chronicler of Union cavalry engagements in Virginia, Wittenberg has taken his penchant for thorough research and his lively writing style to the Carolinas to tell the compelling story of the war’s last dramatic duel between mounted cavaliers.
The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads, fought on March 10, 1865, has all the ingredients of a classic war story. There are noble warriors and self-serving knaves, individual battlefield heroics and collective personal greed, grand strategy and petty revenge. All that played out during days of soaking rain that turned the pine barrens and scrub farm fields west of Fayetteville, N.C., into an oozing morass that threatened to swallow up the men, horses, artillery and wagons of both Union and Confederate cavalry detachments as they valiantly struggled toward the final day of reckoning at Durham Station.
Lieutenant Generals Wade Hampton and Joseph Wheeler led the gray horsemen as they tried to shield the dwindling ranks of General Joseph E. Johnston’s makeshift army, all the while nipping at the flanks of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s relentless bummers rolling north through the heart of the Confederacy. Similarly, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s blue horse soldiers screened Sherman’s juggernaut while gaining as much personal glory for their vain and ambitious commander as they could.
As the two mounted forces slogged toward Fayetteville, part of Kilpatrick’s command bivouacked for the night on some high ground surrounding the Charlie Monroe house. The Union general, thinking his position was safe even though most of his command was strung out for miles along muddy roads, found time to entertain a lady friend, who was traveling with him, in Monroe’s front bedroom. In his rush to the boudoir, however, Kilpatrick neglected to picket his encampment adequately. Lurking nearby, Hampton decided to seize this golden opportunity to punish his Union counterpart, believing Kilpatrick’s troopers were responsible for burning Columbia, S.C., earlier in the campaign.
Hampton and Wheeler devised an excellent battle plan that, with timely execution, would smash the isolated Union force and capture the negligent Kilpatrick. Wittenberg’s voluminous reading of personal letters, memoirs, diaries and regimental histories from both sides allows him to use the participants’ own words to document how a good plan quickly unraveled into a desperate hand-to-hand bushwhack.
Hampton insisted on an old-fashioned cavalry charge even though Wheeler favored dismounting his men, believing this would allow them to capture the entire Union position. The rain had finally stopped when Hampton’s men hit the camp at dawn, riding and yelling like hellions out of a heavy morning fog. They threw the sleeping Union troopers into disarray, but Wheeler’s horsemen became bogged down in a swamp, which delayed their entry into the fray. Kilpatrick managed to bolt out of his bedroom window wearing only his drawers as Lt. Col. William Stough rallied troopers of the 9th Ohio Cavalry.
Wittenberg relates that as the ragged Confederate troopers paused to loot the richly stocked Union camp, command and control of the attack slipped from Hampton’s hands. The fighting turned into a series of bloody skirmishes around the Monroe house. When the initial shock wore off, the weight of Union numbers and some timely artillery support from Lieutenant Ebenezer Stetson’s two guns began to turn the tide in Kilpatrick’s favor.
The embarrassed Union commander soon composed himself and helped rally his men. “Little Kil” used his official after-action report as an attempt to defend his reputation, stating, “no matter what the facts may be regarding the conduct of my people under the first terrible onset of the foe, they can proudly boast that without assistance they regained their camp, animals, artillery, and transportation, and drove the enemy in confusion from the ground he had taken by surprise and force of numbers alone.”
Wittenberg concludes his monograph with an excellent analytical chapter assessing the importance of the battle. It provides a concise recapitulation of the engagement and places it in the proper context of the war’s final weeks. The Confederates clearly lost the battle, although Wheeler’s official report describes it as “a decided success,” and Hampton’s reputation as a gentleman and cavalier remained untarnished. The Federals also suffered the bulk of the casualties: 248, nearly 200 of which Wittenberg lists as captured, to an estimated 40 Confederate casualties.
The engagement barely delayed the Union army’s relentless march toward the Virginia border, but it did deepen Sherman’s growing mistrust of his vainglorious cavalry commander. In his official report, Uncle Billy stated, “the cavalry on this march was handled with spirit and skill.” But Kilpatrick and his troopers would sit on the sidelines at the Battle of Bentonville, and it wasn’t until the outcome of the war was a foregone conclusion that Sherman allowed Kilpatrick free rein again.
Wittenberg augments his lively narrative with a profusion of photographs and, thankfully, numerous detailed maps drawn by James Acerra. Too many Civil War monographs leave the reader geographically blind, and Wittenberg’s publisher, Savas Beatie, is to be commended for including so many visual aids. The maps and photos are especially welcome since the battlefield is located between artillery firing ranges on the Fort Bragg military reservation. It is carefully maintained by the Army but will likely be off-limits to most readers.
The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads had little impact on the war’s outcome, but it offers an excellent study of Civil War cavalry tactics. This book vividly portrays the uncommon valor exhibited by horsemen in both blue and gray and reinforces Wittenberg’s reputation as a distinguished chronicler of Civil War cavalry engagements.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.