Skirmish at Ten Islands Ford
Larry E. Lee
Major General (Ret) AUS
Rousseau's Raid & Skirmish at Ten Island Ford
By the summer of 1863, the South had suffered devastating defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. The war had begun to take a dramatic turn against the Confederacy. The Union Army had become stronger and more aggressive. By early summer of 1864, Union General William T. Sherman, commander of all Union forces in the southern campaign, had begun to pressure Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and his army back toward Atlanta. Union General A. J. Smith was in position to occupy the attention of Confederate Generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and Stephen D. Lee in western Alabama and Mississippi.
In early spring of 1864, General Sherman had informed his senior commanders that once he had pushed General Johnston beyond the Chattahoochee River, he would initiate attacks from Memphis and Baton Rouge against the Confederates. When these actions were well underway, he would then launch a raid deep into Alabama with the purpose of destroying the railroad between Montgomery and Opelika. This railroad link was providing much needed material and supplies to General Johnston's army.
General Sherman selected Major General Lovell H Rousseau to lead the raid. Though not a professional or cavalry officer, Sherman picked Rousseau because of his outstanding combat record and because they had developed a friendship while serving together in Kentucky in 1861. Headquartered in Nashville as the commander of the District of Tennessee, Rousseau received the following message from Sherman's headquarters near Kennesaw, Georgia, dated June 30, 1864:
W. T. Sherman, Major General
Near Kenesaw, June 30, 1864
Maj. Gen. LH. Rousseau, Nashville:
The movement that I want you to study and be prepared for is contingent on the fact that General A. J. Smith defeats Forrest or holds him well in check, and after I succeed in making Johnston pass the Chattahoochee with his army, when I want you in person, or to send some good officer, with 2,500 good cavalry, well armed, and sufficient number of pack-mules, loaded with ammunition, salt, sugar, and coffee, and some bread or flour, depending on the country for forage, meat, and cornmeal. The party might take two light Rodman guns, with orders, in case of very rapid movements, to cut the wheels, burn the carriages, taking sledges along to break off the trunnions and wedging them in the muzzle. The expidition should start from Decatur, move slowly to Blountsville and Ashville, and, if the way is clear, to cross the Coosa at the Ten Islands or the railroad bridge, destroying it after their passage, then moving rapidly for Talladega or Oxford, and then for the nearest ford or bridge over the Tallapoosa. That passed, the expedition should move with rapidity on the railroad between Tuskegee and Opelika, breaking up the road and twisting the bars of iron. They should work in that road night and day, doing all the damage toward and including Opelika. If no serious opposition offers, they should threaten Columbus, GA., and then turn up the Chattahoochee to join me between Marietta and Atlanta doing all the mischief possible. No infantry or position should be attached, and the party should avoid all fighting possible, bearing in mind, for their own safety, that Pensacola, Rome, and Etowah, and my army, are all in our hands. If compelled to make Pensacola, they should leave their horses, embark for New Orleans, and come round to NAshville again. Study this well, and be prepared to act on order when the time comes. Selma, though important, is more easily defended then the route I have named.
W. T. Sherman, Major General
Near Chattahoochee, July 7, 1864
Maj. Gen. L. H. Rousseau,Nashville or Decator:
I have no new instructions or information to convey to you, but expect you to leave Decatur on the 9th. If Roddey be about Tuscombia, you might send a small infantry force to Waterloo to amuse him by threatening to cross [and] to burn the Bear Creek bridge, eight miles back from Eastport and about five miles east of Iuka. You may give out that you are going to Selma, but be sure to go to Opelika,and break up railroad between it and Montgomery. There is but a single road there, which unites the Mississippi road with the Alabama roads. I am convinced General A.J. Smithy will give full employment to Forrest, and I will keep Johnston fully employed, and Major-General Canby will look out for the Mobile garrison. When you reach the road do your work well; burn the ties in piles, heat the iron in the middle, and when red hot let the men pull the ends so as to give a twist to the rails. If simply bent, the rails may be used, but if they are twisted or wrenched they cannot be used again. In returning you should take the back track, and, if pursued, turn for me or for Rome or Kingston or Allatoona. Be sure to take not wagons, but pack some led horses. Travel early and late in the day, but rest at midday and midnight. Spare your horses for the first week, and keep the horses ready for the return trip. I think the only force in your route is Pillows, about Oxford or Jacksonville or Gadsden. We are down to the Chattahoochee, and will soon be across. All is well with us.
After completing the raid and being safely back in his headquarters in Nashville, General Rousseau sent General Sherman the following detailed report, dated August 10, 1864, about the raid, (Only the portion of the report that leads up to and including the skirmish at Ten Islands Ford in included here).
Headquarters District of Tennessee,
Nashville, Tenn., August 10, 1864
GENERAL: I respectfully submit the following report of the expedition for the destruction of that part of the West Point and Montgomery Railroad between Opelika and Chehaw Station, Ala.:
On the 30th ultimo [June] I received instructions from Jam. Gen. W.T. Sherman, copies of which accompany this report, to take 2,500 good cavalry, and go myself or send a good officer in command, and destroy the West Point and Montgomery Railroad from a point opposite Tuskegee to Opelika. On so hazardous an undertaking I greatly desired to have with me officers and men whom I knew to be of tried courage and efficiency to insure the success of the expedition. I selected portions of the Eighth Indiana Cavalry, Colonel Harrison; Second Kentucky, Colonel Watts; Forth Tennessee, Major Stephens;Ninth Ohio, Colonel Hamilton, and the Fifth Iowa, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick. Most of these troops, except the Forth Tennessee, were dismounted, and much difficulty was found in obtaining horses, and I was forced to take horses from other regiments. I also took with me a section of 10 pounder Parrott guns of the first Michigan Artillery, under Lieutenant Wightman. The command was brigaded; Colonel Harrison assigned to the First Brigade and Colonel Hamilton to the Second, but this organization was changed in a day or two, and Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick assigned to the command of the Second Brigade on account of the very small number of officers in Colonel Hamilton's regiment, which rendered it necessary to give his personal attention to it. Capt. Alfred Matthis, fifth Iowa Cavalry, was appointed provost-marshal, Lieutenant Frey, of the Ninth Ohio, and Lieutenant Langdon, of the Fifth Iowa, were appointed quartermaster and assistant quartermaster, and Doctor Waterman, of the Eighth Indiana, was appointed surgeon for the expedition. I took with me Capt. T.C. Williams, nineteenth U.S. Infantry, as assistant adjunct-general;Capt. Ed Ruger, Thirteenth Wisconsin Infantry, as topographical engineer, and Capt. T.A. Elkin, Fifth Kentucky Cavalry, as aide-de-camp. The regiments designated for the expedition did not all reach Decatur until the evening of the 9th of July. Orders were given to be in readiness to start next morning but owing to difficulty in getting the pack train ready the command was not prepared to move until 1 o'clock on the10th. Taking the direction indicated in the instructions received from Major-General Sherman, I proceeded to Somerville, seventeen miles from Decatur, and halted for the night. Crossing Sand Mountain on the 11th and passing through Bloutsville and over Strait Mountain on the 12th, I halted the main command at night five miles from Ashville, sending Capt, Thomas A. Elkin, of my staff, and Major Stephens, from the Tennessee Cavalry, forward to that place to secure any supplies the enemy might have stored there. They took possession of the town and found a sufficient supply of corn for the animals of the command; and also a quantity of commissary stores, which were issued to the men next day.
On the evening of the 13th I reached the Coosa River at Greensport, and found a ferry-boat on the opposite side which was secured and brought over by a detail of men, who, under the directions of Captain Elkin, swam across for that purpose. I immediately ordered a squad of sharpshooters to be placed in some buildings on the opposite side of the river, and a detachment of 200 men to be thrown across to protect the crossing at the ferry and at the ford at Ten Islands, four miles below, as I had information that a small force of rebels was on that side of the river. A portion of the eighth Indiana Cavalry, under command of Major Graham, was accordingly sent by Colonel Harrison, and effected a crossing without opposition. Lieutenant -Colonel Patrick was also ordered to cross the artillery forming a part of his brigade, which was accomplished in the night, and the command bivouacked until morning. Before reaching the river, the rear of the column was fired into by a party of guerrillas, and I regret to say that Capt. William Curl, and efficient officer of the Fifth Iowa Cavalry, was killed, and Capt. J.C. Wilcox, of the same regiment, severely, but not dangerously, wounded. I here ordered a thorough inspection of the command to be made, and with about 300 horses being reported in unfit condition for service required, they were sent, together with the ineffective men, to Guntersville, forty miles distant, at which point the detachment crossed the Tennessee River, and reached our lines in safety. The effective force of the command was not reduced to less then 2,300 men.
On the morning of the 14th I proceeded with the main body of the command to cross at a ford at Ten Islands, four miles below Greensport. At the same time Major Graham, who had crossed with his detachment at the ferry, was ordered to proceed down the east side of the river to the same ford. Immediately after leaving the ferry he met the enemy in considerable force, posted to prevent his advance, and heavy skirmishing ensued. The enemy appearing to have a strong position, a re-enforcement of 100 men was sent across the ferry to Major Graham, and afterward Lieutenant-Colonel Jones, of the Eighth Indiana, also crossed with the remaining part of his regiment, half a mile below the ferry at a ford pointed out by a negro who guided an orderly across with dispatches from Major Graham. Major Grahm in the mean time pressed vigorously upon the enemy, and succeeded in routing them before the arrival of the reinforcements sent to his support. Whilst the skirmishing was going on the main portion of the command marched to the ford, and on attempting to cross the advance was met by a severe fire from the enemy posted on the east bank, sheltered behind rocks and trees. Lieutenant Colonel Patrick deployed the Fifth Iowa and Forth Tennessee on two islands from which they kept up a vigorous fire, and help the positions until Major Graham succeeded in driving the enemy from the road leading from the ferry toward the ford, and causing a precipitate retreat of the force opposing our passage of the ford. The enemy's force consisted of the Sixth and Eighth Alabama Cavalry, with militia, under command of Brigadier-General Clanton. Their loss, as nearly as could be ascertained, was 15 killed, 40 wounded, and 8 taken prisoners. General Clanton's acting adjutant-general, Captain Abercrombie, and a Captain Moore were among the killed, and lieutenant-Colonel Lary and Major McWhorter, of the Sixth Alabama, were captured. The only casualty in my command was the wounding of 1 man of the Eighth Indiana Cavalry. Major Graham and his command behaved with great gallantly and fought effectively, as the enemy's loss testified. I learned from guides that the ford we crossed was the one by which General Jackson effected the passage of the Coosa on his march to Talladega during his campaign against the Creek Indians in 1813. Five miles beyond the Coosa River an extensive iron furnace, which was furnishing valuable material to the enemy, was destroyed, under the direction of Capt. E. Ruger, of my staff. Owing to the heat of the weather and the character of the roads, the artillery was unable to move with the necessary rapidity, and I accordingly ordered one of the guns to be dismounted, the trunions broken off, and the carriage and caisson destroyed, which was effectually done, and the horses attached to the remaining gun and caisson.
The only significant resistance faced by General Rousseau during his raid was that of Confederate Brigadier General James Holt Clanton and his brigade. In early 1863, General Clanton commanded a strong, robust brigade composed of the 57th Alabama Infantry, the 61st Alabama Infantry, the 6th Alabama Cavalry, the 7th Alabama Cavalry, and two batteries of artillery. One of the batteries was commanded by Clanton's younger brother.
In February, 1864, General Clanton and his brigade were ordered to North Alabama. Clanton was to establish his headquarters in Gadsden and given the mission of protecting the coal and iron resources and production in the area, as well as the public works in Selma. He was also to organize and complete the 8th Alabama Cavalry. The 6th Alabama Cavalry, which was in Meridian, Mississippi, was ordered to join the brigade in Gadsden.
However, by July of 1864, Clanton's once proud brigade was a mere shadow of its former structure and strength. Decimated by combat losses, brigade units being attached to other commands or assigned missions outside the brigade's area, and an extreme difficulty in recruiting replacements, the brigade was not fully combat ready.
A serious problem that sometimes plagued the Confederate Army was a lack of unity of command. This was embarrassingly illustrated during Rousseau's raid. Generals Johnston and Lee did not have a cohesive plan to mutually support their respective areas of responsibilities. Consequently, the northern frontier of the Confederacy's industrial and agriculture heartland had been left almost completely open. Thus Rousseau was able to get all the way to Ashville before his force was reported.
Early in the evening of July 13, while at the depot and training facility at Blue Mountain, General Clanton received word that Union forces were in Ashville. Quickly recovering from shock, Clanton immediately began to develop a plan. He posted small detachments eastward to protect Jacksonville and Blue Mountain. He then hurriedly mustered a force of 200 cavalrymen from the 6th and 8th Alabama Cavalry and set out for Greensport and Ten Island Ford. Knowing that these two locations were the places that a force could cross to the east side of the Coosa River, Clanton intended to establish strong defensive positions at those sites. Arriving shortly after midnight, Clanton learned that a sizeable force had already crossed at Greensport. He didn't know their size or disposition. He ordered Lieutenant Colonel Livingston and the 8th Alabama Cavalry to establish a strong position opposite the ford. Then with Lieutenant Colonel Lary and the 6th Alabama Cavalry, Clanton moved up toward Greensport and positioned his troops. At 1 a.m. on the 14th, General Clanton sent a frantic message to Major Walthall, Post Commander in Talladega, ordering him to muster as many able bodied men as he could and send them to him. Although he responded as best he could, Walthall's reinforcements arrived too late to help.
Shortly after daybreak, General Rousseau and his command began to approach and start to cross the ford. They were immediately taken under heavy fire by Livengston and his men. Rousseau the ordered elements of the 5th Iowa Cavalry and the 4th Tennessee Cavalry to take up positions on two islands north of the ford and provide covering fire. Meanwhile, Major Graham and the 8th Indiana Cavalry had been ordered to proceed down the east side of the river toward the ford. They soon became engaged by Lary and the 6th Alabama Cavalry. After a lengthy firefight, Graham and his force to overpower Lary and causing him to begin a precipitous retreat. General Clanton quickly realizing that his force was about to be annihilated or captured, ordered his troops to withdraw back to Blue Mountain. Mistakenly, Clanton believed that Blue Mountain was Rousseau's objective.
The skirmish was disastrous for General Clanton and his valiant men, particularly the 6th Alabama Cavalry. Lieutenant Colonel Lary and his Executive Officer, Major McWhorton were captured. Several of the regiment were killed. Overall, Clanton lost over 30% of his command, including his entire staff. Fifteen cavalrymen were killed, 40 were wounded, and 8 were captured. After successfully crossing the Coosa River, General Rousseau states in his report that he learned of a furnace about 5 miles away. This was the Cane Creek Iron Works which had been in operation for a number of years before the war and was capable of producing 16 tons of pig iron a day. Rousseau also learned of the location of the Janney Furnace although he doesn't mention it specifically. He does mention in his report that he destroyed several iron furnaces "along the way". Rousseau sent his engineer officer, Captain Ed Ruger, and a detail of men to destroy the furnaces. The Cane Creek furnace was completely destroyed, all buildings, material and supplies were burned. The chimney of Janney Furnace was blown away and all wooden structures burned. The stone structure was left standing. Many believe that the furnace was not operational and was thus spared from being destroyed.
General Rousseau successfully completed his daring raid into Alabama. He completed his mission of destroying the railroad between Chehaw and Notasulga, and from Opelika to Columbus. About 30 miles of railroad was destroyed. Though the tracks were repaired in about 30 days, their destruction caused serious problems in getting supplies to Atlanta. Rousseau's raid was of some significance from a tactical and strategic viewpoint, but the greatest impact was its psychological impact on the populace. It proved that the Confederate Army could not protect its citizens. General Clanton and his men demonstrated their bravery and resourcefulness by valiantly engaging an enemy force that out numbered them more then 12 to 1. The remaining Janney Furnace structure is a constant reminder of those brave men who fought and died in that surrounding. Their commitment, dedication, and sacrifice in pursuit of independence and in defense of their homeland is a legacy and heritage that we, as Southerners, continue to proclaim and honor today.
No. 431 - Reports of Major General Lovell H. Rousseau, U.S. Army, of raid from Decator, AL to the
West Point and Montgomery Railroad. (July 10 - 22)
No. 726 - Report of Major W.T. Walthall, Confederate Army, of operations July 13 - 16 (Rousseau's Raid)
Brief History of Sixth Alabama Cavalry Regiment, Alabama Archives