East Tennessee, January 1862
Pap Thomas was worried. True, he had won the race to the vital Ox Crossing and his troops had spent the night digging thin rifle pits fronted by whatever rocks and sticks they could wrench from the cold ground. But they were mostly untested and spread thinly to cover the three roads along which the rebels might debauch.
His right was anchored by Lieutenant Colonel Luck’s 7th US Battalion, the original garrison of Ox Crossing. Having been there longer they had built a substantial redoubt on top of a grassy prominence known locally as Hare’s Hill. The rest of Gibb’s brigade covered the Grigg’s Bypass, including the only unit that had seen action, the 3rd Tennessee.
The center was held by Brigadier General Wilson and his polyglot brigade which had been hastily assembled from four separate depots and had only been brigades for three days. Johnson’s Track snaked its way through a small valley at the center of Wilson’s position.
Finally, to the Union left was Grover’s Brigade. They sat astride the Knoxville Road and had 2nd Battery, Ohio Light Artillery with its four 6-pounders enfilading the road. Rush River closed the flank, but Grover lacked the troops to provide a continuous front, leaving a gap between his left and the river.
George B Crittenden had an impressive resume – West Point education, experience in the Black Hawk and Mexican Wars – but he was out of his depth. In the race to Ox Crossing he split his “Army of East Tennessee” into three equal columns, gave conflicting orders and lost. Now he ordered them forward as three separate attacks against the intrenched bluebellies.
Patton Anderson led a Mississippi brigade over Grigg’s Bypass. Anderson was in good spirits – his brigade had just received a shipment of Austrian rifled muskets to replace the Tower of London flintlocks that had armed three of his regiments.
In the center, Manigault’s brigade was spoiling for a fight. Although they had marched with the trains, it had been discovered that the sacks of coffee they had captured from a Union rail depot the previous week had been filled with sand by some blue-coated quartermaster with a sense of humor. Rumor had it that quartermaster was in Ox Crossing.
Finally, on the Confederate right, on the Knoxville Road, advanced Hindman’s Brigade of Alabamians and Dent’s Battery of 6 guns. Hindman, however, had been recalled by Crittenden for “consultations” that morning so the column was led by the political general Felix Zollicoffer.
The Ohio battery duly opened the action by sending a few balls down the road. Zollicoffer, in his first taste of actual battle, saw his orderly’s horse disemboweled and ordered his column to deploy almost 600 yards short of the Union line. Unmolested by artillery, Anderson and Manigault deployed much closer, Manigault in more open terrain, slightly quicker though soon the pop of muskets was heard all along Gibb’s and Wilson’s front and clouds of smoke drifted into the cold mid-morning air.
Hindman, hearing the gunfire, raced to the front. Creating order from Zollicoffer’s chaos, he ordered Dent to unlimber and sent his brigade looping to the right, attempting to exploit the gap between Grover’s line and the river. Alas, Hindman was too late. Thomas had already sent a reserve regiment sidling to his left and Grover had moved his reserve further left to block the gap.
Manigault attacked first but with Thomas calmly walking his horse up and down the line and Wilson shouting encouragement the attack was repulsed. A musketry duel ensued at ranges of less than 100 yards. Manigault’s brigade fell back, their anger at the coffee/sand cooled by the loss of almost 400 men killed and wounded.
Anderson swept forward with the 44th Mississippi making it to the works on Gibb’s right with the 41st Mississippi in support but after a brief crossing of bayonets they were forced back. Down the road advanced the 10th Mississippi with the 9th in support. At a range of 25 yards they engaged the 3rd Tennessee and the 63rd Pennsylvania for more than thirty minutes. But it was too much. With the assault on the redoubt stopped and Manigault recoiling the rest of Anderson’s brigade was forced to fall back.
Hindman’s attack was overtaken by these events. Organized slowly due to Zollicoffer’s delay, his 19th and 39th Alabama had come to grips with Grover’s repositioned brigade just as a rider galloped up from Crittenden ordering a general withdrawal. Pinched by the river and Grover’s Bald Hill works the packed ranks suffered over 100 casualties in fifteen minutes. They had the consolation of watching the 2nd Tennessee find the action too hot and pull back to a grove of trees.
With two more blue regiments forming behind, shuffled over by Thomas, Hindman reluctantly acceded to the general withdrawal order. Ox Crossing, at least for now, would stay under the Federal flag. The three uncoordinated rebel attacks cost them 850 casualties; Thomas counted almost 600.
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Diatribes are simply often humorous recountings of the games played by the Long Island Irregulars. We play with toy soldiers and are unabashedly happy to have never lost this part of our childhoods..