Union General William Sherman considered
Judson Kilpatrick, his cavalry chief, ‘a hell of
a damn fool.’ At Monroe’s Cross Roads, N.C.,
his carelessness and disobedience of orders
proved Sherman’s point.
By William Preston Mangum II
Major General William Tecumseh Sherman had made a swift and steady advance through Georgia and South Carolina, and by late February 1865, his army was approaching Charlotte, North Carolina. This was a planned deception, however, to draw Confederate forces away from his real objective, Goldsboro, where two fresh corps of Union troops were waiting to link up with him.
Sherman’s actions convinced General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of all Confederate forces in the Carolinas, that the Federals planned to attack Charlotte. Accordingly, Beauregard concentrated his forces in that vicinity. At the same time, fearing
he would be outflanked, Beauregard ordered Lt. Gen. William Hardee to evacuate Charleston and hurry to Charlotte. When the Federals halted their northward movement and started to swing east toward Cheraw, S.C., and Fayetteville, N.C., General Beauregard realized his error. He tried to send word to Hardee to turn east toward Fayetteville, but Hardee never received the message.
Because the situation was desperate and Beauregard was in poor health, other Confederate generals on the scene exerted great pressure on President Jefferson Davis to restore General Joseph Johnston to command. This was done, and Johnston was given the formidable job of driving Sherman out of the Carolinas. When Johnston assumed command, he finally managed to reach Hardee and ordered him to turn back through Carthage, N.C., and enter Fayetteville on the Yadkin and Carthage roads.
Union Brigadier General Hugh Judson “Kill Cavalry” Kilpatrick’s 3rd Division, comprising some 6,000 cavalrymen, protected Sherman’s left flank and acted as a screen between the enemy and the advancing infantrymen. Although Sherman privately called Kilpatrick “a hell of a damn fool,” he had personally requested the headstrong young general to command his cavalry in the March to the Sea, reasoning that Kilpatrick (who earned his nickname in part because of his recklessness) was “just that sort of man to command my cavalry on this expedition.” On March 7 and 8, Kilpatrick’s cavalry moved from Wadesboro and passed through Rockingham. There, they fought a small engagement with some of Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry. Wheeler’s corps of 5,000 cavalrymen had ambushed Kilpatrick only weeks before at Aiken, S.C., and Kilpatrick had nearly been captured. After the latest skirmish with Kilpatrick, Wheeler’s corps advanced farther west, crossed the Peedee River and marched 12 miles north to Grassy Island Ford, where it halted.
Hardee crossed the Peedee at Cheraw with Maj. Gen. Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry, which had come up through Columbia. At Beauregard’s recommendation, Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton was placed in command of both Wheeler’s and Butler’s cavalry. Hampton sent orders to Butler to join forces with Wheeler on the east bank of the Peedee River. On the 8th, Hampton linked up with the other generals. By the afternoon of the 9th, the Confederates were moving toward Fayetteville to rendezvous with Hardee. The night before, during a heavy rainfall, Kilpatrick had crossed over the Lumber River and proceeded to Solemn Grove, a country post office that was also called Buchan’s. There, his forces collided with the rear guard of Hardee’s main force of 11,000 men, which was then entering Fayetteville.
Kilpatrick’s brief engagement with Hardee’s rear guard netted several hundred Confederate prisoners. From the prisoners, Kilpatrick learned that Hampton’s cavalry was in the area to the west, advancing east along the Yadkin Road toward Fayetteville, and that Hampton’s mission was to link up with Hardee there.
From the prisoners’ information, Kilpatrick deduced that Hampton’s force could only advance along three possible roads: Morganton Road, Chicken Road and Yadkin Road. Knowing that he had time to intercept Hampton’s force, he planned to send Colonel Smith Atkins’ 2nd Brigade to Morganton Road and Colonel Thomas Jefferson Jordan’s 1st Brigade to Chicken Road. Kilpatrick would take the Yadkin Road, along with Colonel George Eliphaz Spencer of the 1st Alabama (Union) Cavalry, commanding the 3rd Brigade, and Lt. Col. William W. Way of the 9th Michigan Cavalry, commanding the 4th Provisional Brigade of dismounted troops.
Sherman had sent a message to Kilpatrick on March 4 ordering him to Fayetteville. In the message, Sherman had warned Kilpatrick that his primary mission was to protect the army’s left flank and that under no circumstances was he to confront the Confederate cavalry in battle. Therefore, Kilpatrick’s decision to order his division to picket the roads to intercept Hampton’s cavalry was in violation of a direct order.
At about 2 o’clock that afternoon, Spencer’s 3rd Brigade arrived at Solemn Grove and halted to let the rest of the division close up. About 5 o’clock, Way’s 4th Brigade arrived and was sent ahead on the Morganton Road. Spencer’s brigade, with two pieces of field artillery, followed closely behind and was ordered to halt for the night where the Morganton and Yadkin roads intersected near Green Springs (Monroe’s Cross Roads), 12 miles from Solemn Grove and about six miles west of Longstreet Church.
Kilpatrick waited for the 2nd Brigade in order to tell Atkins to join him at Green Springs. Shortly after the meeting, Kilpatrick started off, accompanied by his staff and escort, to rejoin the 3rd and 4th brigades.
After leaving Solemn Grove, Jordan’s 1st Brigade advanced over Patterson’s Bridge and headed east toward Chicken Road. The brigade crossed Devil’s Gut (now Aberdeen Creek) west of Aberdeen and halted near Blue’s Church (also known as Rockfish Church and Bethesda) on Bethesda Road. Because of rainy weather, the road was very muddy and in poor condition, and Jordan ordered his men to dismount and pull the wagons and artillery by hand through the soggy sand.
By midnight, Jordan’s troops were at rest for the night. Small earthworks across the road from the church and behind the old cemetery protected the camp. Although some of the men rested at the church, Jordan stayed in the Malcolm Blue farmhouse, only a short distance away. Other troopers camped in and around the farmhouse and reportedly killed every cow, hog and chicken owned by the Blue family.
In compliance with Kilpatrick’s orders, Jordan reached the Moore County Road before dawn on the 10th, and at about 9 o’clock reached Chicken Road at Big Rockfish. Upon his arrival, Jordan heard firing in the distance to the north and pushed his troops to join Kilpatrick.
Around dusk on the evening of the 9th, the Confederate cavalry approached the Solemn Grove area. The Confederates knew that there was Union cavalry to the south of their main force, but did not realize that Spencer’s brigade had arrived at their designated campsite at Green Springs ahead of schedule. Hampton instructed Butler to camp at a farm a few hundred yards east of Green Springs. The division was comprised of Captain John Humphrey’s squadron of the 6th Regiment, South Carolina Cavalry. The front guard was Butler’s brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Evander Law, while Wheeler’s division brought up the rear.
Moving toward the designated campsite, the Confederates traveled south from Yadkin Road onto a side road and then hit Morganton Road. Humphrey abruptly halted at the intersection of the road to Fayetteville. The Confederate cavalrymen were now between Kilpatrick’s 2nd Brigade, which was moving toward Green Springs, and the 3rd Brigade. Butler rode up to determine the cause of the delay, and Humphrey pointed out the signs that enemy cavalry had recently passed ahead of them. While discussing the situation–they all agreed that it was Kilpatrick’s cavalry–Butler turned to see a squad of about 30 mounted men riding up the road. This small squad, approaching from the west, was Kilpatrick’s personal escort.
After learning that Humphrey had not sent anyone down the road, Butler called out, “Who comes there?” The answer was, “Fifth Kentucky.” Aware that this was a regiment under Kilpatrick, Butler called out to the officer in charge, “Ride up, sir, I want to speak with you.”
The commanding officer halted the squad and, along with his orderly, calmly rode up to Butler. Unable to see very clearly in the reduced light and not knowing who the men were, the two followed Butler into the midst of Humphrey’s men. Butler then turned to the two mounted men with pistol drawn and ordered them to surrender. After disarming the two cavalrymen, Butler ordered Humphrey and Law to surround the 5th Kentucky, still halted in the road, and take them prisoner.
Some 30 prisoners, along with a regimental stand of colors, were quickly captured without firing a shot. The Confederates, however, did not realize that the men were Kilpatrick’s personal guard, and thus allowed the general to make his escape into the sandy-floored pine forest with his staff. Reportedly, Kilpatrick, who had a reputation as a notorious Don Juan, had been riding behind his guard in a carriage with a lady companion or two. Although the true identities of these companions have never been determined, one might have been Marie Boozer, allegedly the prettiest belle in South Carolina. She had traveled from Columbia with Sherman’s army. It was also reported that Kilpatrick had forced a Confederate prisoner, Lieutenant H. Clay Reynolds, to walk behind the carriage. Reynolds managed to escape later that evening.
After Butler reported to Hampton what had occurred, the decision was made to attack Kilpatrick early the next morning. Hampton ordered Butler to follow the tracks of Spencer’s brigade and scout for the location of the Federal camp. Butler traveled about four miles and camped for the night near Johnson Mountain.
It was a cold, rainy night, and after sending out skirmishers and establishing his headquarters, Butler bivouacked along the roadside. However, a short time later, one of Kilpatrick’s lieutenants accidentally rode into the Confederate lines and was taken prisoner. From the unlucky trooper Butler learned the exact location of Kilpatrick’s headquarters.
Kilpatrick’s 2nd Brigade, commanded by Atkins, stumbled upon the rear of Butler’s camp and turned back in an attempt to circle the Confederates by a southern route. Having no clear knowledge of the country, the brigade turned around and moved west for two or three miles. Atkins then turned off to the south and again tried to circle the Confederates, but he ended up in the Piney Bottom and Juniper Creek area and failed to reach the Monroe farm to participate in the battle.
Jordan’s 1st Brigade also failed to reach its destination, and was now at Rockfish Church, west of Aberdeen. Atkins and Jordan both realized that Hampton’s main force was passing them on a parallel road, and each made efforts to reach Kilpatrick’s camp before dawn. Both forces were subsequently engaged in skirmishes with Confederate forces all along the 10-mile stretch, and both failed to reach Kilpatrick in time. Kilpatrick was now actually cut off by the very Confederate forces that he was attempting to surround and had only a third of his division present at the Monroe farm to face the enemy.
With the help of the Rev. Evander McNair, a Presbyterian minister who served as a pilot to the Confederate forces, Butler arrived outside Kilpatrick’s headquarters around midnight. Observing the campground, Butler realized that Kilpatrick had not posted any pickets to guard his encampment from the rear. The Confederates would be able to ride almost up to the campfires without being noticed.
Way’s 4th Provisional Brigade, consisting of 693 dismounted men from the 9th Pennsylvania, 9th Ohio and 5th Kentucky, had camped in front of the Charles Monroe house, parallel to Morganton Road. Spencer’s 3rd Brigade, comprising the 1st Alabama (Union) Cavalry, 5th Kentucky Cavalry, 5th Ohio Cavalry and a section of the 10th Wisconsin Battery, had camped in a large, open field that lay on a ridge a few hundred yards north of Green Springs. Together with the dismounted brigade, there were approximately 1,500 Federal troops camped around the farmhouse. Artillery was positioned about 50 yards from the house on a small rise at the top of the ridge. Some tents had been thrown over fence rails and pine trees for shelter.
Kilpatrick had positioned his command at the head of a large swamp at the top of Nicholson Creek, with the swamp protecting both his right flank and rear. However, he had failed to post pickets on his left flank, which left the camp open to an attack from the west. This arrangement also meant that the cavalry units located between the road and the swamp were vulnerable to attack, with only one escape route back up the ridge toward the road. Unfortunately, this route was blocked by the infantrymen of the 4th Brigade.
Taking shelter from the rain, Spencer and his staff made themselves comfortable in the abandoned farmhouse. Kilpatrick and his staff soon joined them, leaving their numerous mounts tied to the railing of the front porch and garden fence. The carriage was parked close by.
That night Hampton, Wheeler and Butler agreed that they would attack Kilpatrick’s headquarters at daybreak, which would allow time for Brig. Gen. William Y.C. Humes’ and Maj. Gen. William Wirt Allen’s divisions to reach the battle area. Butler closed up his division in columns of regiments. During the night, his men camped in the woods, close enough to observe the Federal camp. Despite the darkness and rain, no fires were allowed and all conversation was prohibited. The men spent the miserable night in the woods sitting on the ground, holding the reins of their horses’ bridles.
Wheeler’s corps was delayed by the bad roads and heavy rains and was stretched back for some miles. It was nearly daylight before the advance columns of Humes’ and Allen’s divisions reached the area. The rain had stopped, and a blanket of fog hung over the swamp and covered the camp. Butler sent for Colonel Gideon Wright, who commanded Young’s Brigade in Cobb’s Georgia Legion. Butler told Wright to select a captain to lead the advance squadron when they charged the camp. Wright chose Captain Joseph Bostick and sent him to meet with Butler. Butler carefully described the location of the house to Bostick and ordered him to rush the house upon entering the camp, to surround it and hold his position until Butler and his column came to his assistance.
Wheeler now arrived in the area. Issuing commands in low tones, he arranged his men into five attacking columns. His plan was to cross the large swamp and fall upon the camp from the rear. Wheeler ordered Humes’ division to the extreme right. Brigadier General Thomas Harrison’s Texas Brigade was placed in the center, while Allen’s division was ordered south of Morganton Road.
Brigadier General James Hagan’s 3rd Alabama Brigade was placed at the head of the column, along with Wheeler’s escort and Captain Alexander M. Shannon’s scouts. Shannon’s Scouts (8th Texas Cavalry) was a handpicked unit of 30 men that had been organized for reconnaissance. The scouts had become so effective against Sherman’s foraging parties during the Georgia campaign (capturing 102 Federals and killing 43) that Kilpatrick had offered a $5,000 reward for Shannon’s capture.
Wheeler had his own plans to capture Kilpatrick, and had ordered Shannon to do so. Brigadier General George G. Dibrell’s brigade of Humes’ division was the reserve brigade. Butler formed his division north of Morganton Road, with Law’s brigade as his reserve unit.
The plan of attack was simple. With Wheeler to the right and right center, Wright to the left center and Butler’s division on the left, their lines would form a circle almost enveloping the camp. In the rain and darkness, they moved their main force within 600 yards of Kilpatrick’s camp.
Before daylight, Hampton asked Wheeler to take command of his and Butler’s cavalry. Hampton would wait in reserve with Dibrell’s brigade.Wheeler thanked Hampton, mounted his white horse and rode to the center of the attacking brigades. With the center brigade directly in front of the swamp, Wheeler raised his pistol, gave the command “Forward” and started for the camp. At the same moment, Wright gave the order to mount. Wright was the front brigade, followed by Butler with the rest of the left flank.
Kilpatrick had awakened early in the morning and had stepped to the front door of the house. Dressed in his underwear or a nightshirt, he looked out to see if his horses had been fed. Most of the camp was quiet, and his troops were still asleep. The buglers and drummers stood in the farmyard ready to sound reveille. All were unaware that in the stillness beyond the pine trees, death was coming for many of their comrades.
At that moment, the Confederates galloped into the camp screaming the Rebel yell and firing their pistols. Union troopers jumped from their bedrolls, blankets and equipment flying everywhere. Men in nightclothes scurried in all directions, grabbing their carbines and pistols and running for cover in the swamp. The Confederates, firing their pistols and slashing with their sabers, rode them down.
Partially dressed, Kilpatrick ran into the yard to make his own escape. As he did so, Captain Bostick and Captain Samuel Wilds Pegues of the 3rd Alabama, the first to reach Kilpatrick’s headquarters, rode up to him and asked, “Where is General Kilpatrick?” Kilpatrick coolly replied, “There he goes, on that horse,” and pointed at a Federal riding through the woods. Not knowing that they had just addressed the Union general himself, Bostick and Pegues turned their mounts around and galloped off. Kilpatrick ran barefoot to retrieve a horse. The general later claimed that he made his escape on horseback, but another account stated that although Kilpatrick started his escape on a horse, he then fell on the wet ground and disappeared into the swamp on foot. Kilpatrick confessed in his official report that he “retreated afoot.”
Sergeant A.F. Hardie, one of Shannon’s Scouts, recorded that Kilpatrick left “his hat, coat, pants, sword and pistol etc.” Wells caught a glimpse of the general and commented that he was a “sorry looking figure in shirt and draws cutting loose a horse.” However, Captain Theodore F. Northrop, Kilpatrick’s chief of scouts, reported that the general wore “a shirt, vest, trousers, and slippers or shoes, but without hat, coat and probably boots.” He stated emphatically that no nightshirt was in evidence.
At any rate, in less than one minute, the Confederates had overrun both camps and captured the farmhouse, surrounding some staff officers still inside. The surprise was complete. Wright’s command rode down the slope through the camp in a terrific charge, then turned around and charged back through again. Some of Wheeler’s men had stopped their charge in the farmyard to harness mules and horses to pull the captured artillery and wagons out of the camp. Meanwhile, Butler rode about with a “lady’s silver-mounted riding crop,” pointing out things he wished to have done.
This failure to press the retreating Federals allowed them precious time to recover and regroup. The Federals who had made it to the swamp, about 50 yards from the camp, now positioned themselves behind trees and poured a hot volley toward the Rebels. The 1st Alabama, 5th Kentucky and 5th Ohio formed a line in the swamp strong enough to check the Confederates’ advance. The Texas regiments in Harrison’s brigade tried to charge the swamp, but the fire from 1st Alabama forced them to withdraw.
In the meantime, the 200 Confederate prisoners had managed to overpower their guards and run toward Butler’s command. Butler halted Law near the entrance of the camp and ordered him to take charge of the prisoners and move them to the rear.
At the onset of the battle, Wheeler’s brigade had encountered a bog and had not been able to get through the impassable swamp. Trapped at the edge of the bog, they were helpless and fell before the Federals’ Spencer carbines. The fighting was intense, and about 20 South Carolina troops were killed outright in the first few minutes of the battle. Some of the victims of the withering fire were just boys, cadets from The Citadel, in Charleston. How many actually perished in this one area will never be known. Some were killed by gunfire, while others simply sank into the dismal bog. Skeletons of a horse and rider later found at the site revealed that the horse had sunk nose first before its rider could even dismount.
Wheeler ordered his men to circle to the left, while he went to find Butler and report what had happened. Butler told him that his command was “scattered like the devil.”
Harrison’s brigade of Texans, who had charged the swamp, now circled north to the head of the swamp to rejoin the fighting. But by the time they reached the rear of Butler’s division, the tide of battle had turned. The fighting became desperate, and encounters between the two fighting forces were reduced to hand-to-hand combat.
Lieutenant Ebenezer W. Stetson of the 10th Wisconsin Battery crept unnoticed through the ranks of the Confederates on his hands and knees and managed to reach the artillery fieldpieces parked on the ridge. Entirely alone, he unlimbered one of the pieces, loaded it and then fired it into a mass of Confederates. Sergeant John Swartz and a few other men then ran to Stetson’s location to assist in firing two more rounds at the Confederates. As the small group of Federals discharged double loads of shot at the Confederate troopers, the remnants of Kilpatrick’s cavalry took heart, regrouped and prepared to counterattack.
Some of Butler’s men concentrated their fire at the battery to knock it out. Then, with drawn sabers, they charged and swept down toward the camp; but they were met with such a shower of bullets from the swamp that they were hurled backward. The Federals moved up the rise from the swamp to the battery, and both cannons were then fired down at the Rebels. The Confederates again charged and attempted to take the battery. They managed to reach within 20 yards, but again were stopped by the withering fire.
The Confederates moved a column around the house in an attempt to take the battery from the rear, but Stetson noticed the movement and let go another round. It was at this point that the Federals started to move back into camp. Captain Theodore F. Northrop and his scouts vigorously attacked the Confederate left flank, driving them beyond the camp. Wheeler reformed his men twice and charged the Federals during the advance, but to no avail.
The solid line of Federal troops advanced slowly toward the mounted Confederates and poured a deadly fire into the enemy line, killing or wounding many of them. One account stated, “General Kilpatrick, mounted on a mule without a saddle with his drawers and shirt on and barefooted, advanced leading 150-200 men.”
The Confederates formed a line with their horses. With pistols and carbines they fired volleys of hot lead into the Federal line, but between 7:30 and 8 a.m. they began to slowly yield the field. About 9 o’clock the firing slackened, and the Battle of Monroe’s Cross Roads was over.
Kilpatrick ordered no pursuit–his troops were not only exhausted but also out of ammunition, and most were only half-dressed. Instead, Kilpatrick remained on the battlefield until about 3 p.m., burying the dead and caring for the wounded. The Monroe house was used as a hospital, and the dead were buried in shallow pits and covered with white sand.
Late in the afternoon, Kilpatrick ordered a cavalry division to march to the point where Chicken Road crossed Little Rockfish Creek. There they built a circle of log breastworks and camped for the night. Several of the mortally wounded died and were buried there. Spencer’s 3rd Brigade rode about five miles in the direction of Fayetteville, where he joined Kilpatrick’s other two brigades and camped for the night.
Meanwhile, the Confederates retreated north of the Little River and on to Fayetteville, where they joined up with Hardee. There the Confederates made a hospital in a flour warehouse on Person Street, cared for their wounded and buried the dead. Spencer reported 103 dead left on the field, a large number wounded and 30 prisoners of war.
The actual loss to the Confederate forces during the Battle of Monroe’s Cross Roads is unknown, but it was said that every house along the road was full of killed and wounded soldiers. Out of Hampton’s two brigades, 86 troops were reported left dead on the field. Major Christopher T. Cheek of the 5th Kentucky reported counting 33 dead Confederates within the limits of his camp, including many officers. Ten days after the battle, a commissioned officer, William F. Sewell of the 5th Georgia Cavalry, was found lying about a half mile from the battlefield within arm’s reach of a small stream called Persimmon Branch. His body was lying on a pallet made from a small part of a tent with a collapsible rubber cup lying by his side. His black horse, his only companion, had remained near him, cropping the wire grass for a considerable space around.
There is no accurate number of Union casualties, and the existing accounts are confusing and contradictory. In his report to Sherman, Kilpatrick reported that he lost “4 officers killed and 7 wounded, 15- men killed and 61- severely and several slightly wounded, and 103 officers and men taken prisoner. The enemy left in our camp upward of 80 killed, including many officers and a large number of men wounded [about 30]…150 horses with their equipment.” Kilpatrick also lost around 30 valuable horses from his headquarters, including four of his own personal mounts: “two fine stallions–one a little spotted horse, and a large gallant black–and a pie bald and a bay.” What became of his female admirers is not known.
In a report to U.S. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stated: “Sherman from Fayetteville on the 12th. He says nothing about Kilpatrick’s defeat by Hampton. Hampton captured all the staff but two officers.” This limited statement of fact was publicly released on March 17 to The New York Times, doubtless to Kilpatrick’s great chagrin.
Months after the battle, the remains of cavalrymen who had been buried hurriedly were partially exposed by the rain and wind. Fleshless faces peered up from one grave and bony hands stretched forth from others. Soon after the war ended, the Confederate dead were reburied by local citizens. Under the leadership of Captain John McKeller, John H. Currie and others, the bodies were given a proper burial. About 30 to 35 unknown Confederate dead who fell during the Battle of Monroe’s Cross Roads are buried in a mass grave at Longstreet Church Cemetery, marked with a simple marble shaft bearing the inscription “Confederate Soldiers.” The remainder were removed and buried in the Fayetteville Cemetery.
The Federals killed during the battle were interred on the battlefield. In 1921, the Quartermaster Corps at Fort Bragg identified 33 Federal unknown graves with markers throughout the reservation. Today, the battlefield site is an artillery impact area at Fort Bragg. The farmhouse has since burned, and the gravestones are hidden throughout the woods. About 200 yards west of where the house and old road once were, 27 Union soldiers are buried in three graves. One soldier’s grave lies separate from the others in an isolated area on the opposite side of where the house stood. There is no explanation why this grave is by itself.
Chapel Hill, N.C., native William Mangum used state and federal records in his well-researched account of Kilpatrick’s narrow escape. For further reading, see Sherman’s March, by Burke Davis, or General Joseph Wheeler and the Army of Tennessee, by John W. DuBose.