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There exists a number of detailed accounts of the Battle of Tazewell. As with all such events, the accounts differ, somewhat, and certain facts told by each are inconsistent. However, by reading each account one can eventually gain a rather clear picture of the actions and movements that occurred that warm summer day, 15 miles south of Cumberland Gap.
The following is an account of the battle as described by who has now been identified as Cpl. Theodore Wolbach, Company E. This company was one highly involved in the battle, many of its men, including the author, being captured. The soldier-author tells the story from the perspective of Company E, including his capture and release, nine days later. The account was presented in a series of articles entitled Camp and Field - The Old 16th Ohio published in a Holmes County, Ohio newspaper about 26 years after the battle. See the entire Camp and Field collection which provides a comprehensive history of the 16th Ohio.
Early on the 6th we were up and astir, preparing a cup of hot coffee, the soldiers' favorite beverage. Moving out into the road, we passed on through town, ascended the ridge, and relieved the troops stationed there. Some of these men, as they passed to the rear, told us we would have hot work before night, as the "Greybacks" were plenty just ahead of us.
At the top of the ridge a by-road diverges from the main road to the right, following a spur from which most of the timber had been cut years before. Out on this, about one-fourth of a mile from the forks of the road, the two Holmes county companies, E and B, were sent. One ten-pounder Parrott gun, of the 1st Wisconsin Battery, accompanied them. The balance of the 16th was stationed in detachments on the main road, and to the right and left of it in the rear. The advanced companies, soon after arriving at their post, caught sight of small squads of the enemy, evidently skirmishers. The sharp crack of the rifle and the whistling bullet soon made things seem warlike. The cannon, from a commanding knoll, at long intervals sent a few shells far over the tree-tops in the valley toward Sycamore Spring, where an exposed point in the road revealed troops advancing. The writer, being a member of Co. E, and with the advance, vividly recollect the increasing fire of the enemy, as their forces became more numerous in front, and how, under the gallant Taneyhill and Edgar, we sent our answering shots back from behind trees and stumps and fences. Presently a crash of musketry, accompanied by sharp yelling, is heard in the rear and in the vicinity of the main body of the Regiment. We don't understand the meaning of it. A mounted orderly came to us on a furious gallop and orders the artillery "Into camp on double-quick." There is something wrong. We have no orders, but soon our sergeant-major, Bates Smith, reaches us almost out of breath, and orders us to fall back and join the Regiment as quick as possible. The two companies form with the rebel bullets zipping about their ears, and move off by the flank. As they retire their pace increases into a run. When the head of the detachment reaches the forks of the road, no waiting comrades are there to receive them, but a perfect horde of rebel soldiers suddenly appear beyond a fence a few rods to the left. They are there to intercept us. Many voices command us to halt. In a moment nothing is distinguishable in the tumultuous uproar. A shot is fired, followed by a volley. "Yank" and "Reb" blaze away at each other at short range. We are one against twenty, but their massed condition gives us the advantage. Some of the grey-clad men sink to the earth perforated with caliber 70 bullets. There is temporary confusion in their ranks, which is soon checked by the industrious efforts of a large, fleshy, mounted officer, wearing a broad brimmed hat. This man, we were afterward told, was Gen. Stevenson.
The troops opposed to us are the 41st and 42d Georgia Infantry. As their fire grew hotter we crouched to the earth and let the hail storm of death sweep over us. Every rail of that fence, for many rods, seemed pierced and splintered with balls. Captain Joseph Edgar, conspicuous for his noble appearance, staggers, and falls dead, shot through the brain. He is one of three stalwart brothers who enlisted in Co. B from Holmes county. Today they are all in their graves. Their aged, widowed mother still survives. Sergeant-major Smith lies in the dust of the road desperately wounded, with four bullet holes in his body. Humane nursing in rebel hands for many days brought him safely to his feet again, to wear the well-earned bars of a Federal captain. Columbus Whinery receives a ball in his hip, which cannot be extracted without fatal results. He recovered and rejoined his company (E,) but ever afterwards limped. He declined to be discharged from the service and stayed with his comrades for more than a year afterward, but was finally forced to leave them and the cause he loved so well.
Other men were struck, and one had an ankle shattered. His name was Mapps and was a member of Co. F, and was temporarily attached to Co. E on this expedition.
Our men in coming so suddenly in contact with the enemy, in a flash realized the peculiar situation. The portion of the 16th left here had been surprised by an overwhelming body of the enemy, who had crept close under the fog of the early morning, and suddenly pounced upon them, forcing them out of their position. This accounted for the heavy firing and yelling heard by our advance. When the fire of the Georgians was somewhat expended, many of our boys, every man for himself, broke away for their freedom, though the greater portion of both companies fell directly back to the woods in the direction we had just come from. Some of the boys, too close to the enemy to retire with safety, surrendered. These were taken to the jail in Tazewell and kept there nine days. Those that escaped from this trap at the forks of the road had experiences that were intensely exciting.
One fragment, numbering eighteen men, with Lieut. M. B. DeSilva, escaped to a large piece of timber to the eastward. .There, after a hasty consultation, they decided that the probabilities were that they would be captured and to prevent their guns falling into the hands of the rebels they would hide them, which they all did with the exception of W. B. Taneyhill and another man; these two stuck to their guns. The whole squad after eluding the watchful enemy reached the brigade in safety that night. W. S. Carpenter, commonly called "Old Holy," made a lively run through a large corn field with a rebel officer in swift pursuit and gaining at every step. Finding the situation getting very critical, Carpenter turned and shot his pursuer. Paul Wilder and McCulloch, of Co. B, in their flight, suddenly ran upon a rebel officer -- Lieut. Col. Gorden, of the 11th Tennessee Infantry -- captured him and his horse and conducted them safely through to DeCourcey's headquarters. Wilder was sounded the following winter at Chickasaw Bayou, Miss., and died from its effects. Gorden became a Brigadier General in the rebel army and was again captured at Franklin, Tenn., in Hood's campaign.
Those of us who fell back into the woods waited there in painful suspense for hours, while a furious skirmish was going on between our men and the enemy, near the edge of town, not more than a quarter of a mile from us, but just over the hill and out of sight. Our artillery and a rebel battery kept up a lively duel until the middle of the afternoon. During this an occasional shell from our cannon, over shooting its mark, crashed through the tree-tops near us.
While we were lying there undecided what to do we could hear a lot of infantry reinforcements passing up a ravine below us. Although we could not see them, on account of the undergrowth, we could plainly hear their conversation; we also heard the officers scolding the men for breaking from the line when a shell struck near them. The day had been hot until along toward night, when a shower of rain cooled the air a little. About five o'clock in the evening when the artillery had ceased firing and only an occasional rifle-shot could be heard, we rose up in a body and moved for the edge of the woods, back far enough, as we thought, to escape any large bodies of the enemy, but to our amazement, as we came out of the heavy timber into a partially open place, we stood in the presence of a force of the vigilant enemy. A glance at their uniforms told us that they were not a part of those we had encountered at the forks of the road, as they wore dark brown, or, as the boys expressed it, "butternut" uniforms, and the men before us were dressed in light grey. The numbers in our front being less apparently than ours, induced some of our fellows to demand a surrender. Short and excited challenges cam from both sides, succeeded by some of the wildest shooting ever done by soldiers. We were so close that from the number of shots fired it seemed a miracle that no one was hit. Sergeant H. Tipton, of Co. B, and a big rebel stood so close to each other that but a few steps separated them. Both fired and both missed.
It subsequently proved that these rebels were but the skirmishers of the 11th Tennessee Infantry, who immediately appeared on the scene with fixed bayonets, and with terrific yells charged among us, and, presto, we were prisoners of war. Not all. Two men, Jonathan Cornel and Thomas Graham, of Co. B, darted back into the woods and concealed themselves in the bushes. Two days afterward, with torn clothing and bruised bodies, they reached our lines at Cumberland Gap. Less than a year afterwards, their names were on the "death roll," and they were laid to rest in honored graves on the banks of the mighty Mississippi.
Forming us in single rank they marched us up on the open ridge, where we met several regiments that were hurrying to the scene of the firing. These formed in open order and faced inward and we marched through under guard. Taking us to an open space at the edge of the forest, near the forks of the road, they formed a circle of guards around us. In a short time we were the objects of curiosity to the thousands that crowded around us. They all wanted to see the "Yanks." The brigade that captured us was under the command of Colonel Rains. He was a gallant soldier and a gentleman. Captain Taneyhill's sword had been taken. Rains had it returned to him. Less than half a year after, Rains had been promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and fell before the deadly fire of the Federals at Murfreesboro.
During the evening we made many inquiries about the losses on both sides, but got nothing that we considered truthful. During the two or three days succeeding, we received more reliable information. One thing we learned quite satisfactory to us, the enemy had lost more in killed and wounded than we did. Col. Vaughn, of the 3d rebel Tennessee Infantry, had a letter published in one of the Knoxville papers, setting forth the prowess of his regiment at the Tazewell fight, claiming they had lost nine killed and sixty wounded. One of their cannon, belonging to an Alabama battery was dismounted by our artillery.
The portion of the 16th that fell back toward the town, yielding the ground slowly and reluctantly, fought the enemy for hours under that sweltering August son. A number were wounded, and private James Hoke, of Co. K, was shot. Major Kershner's horse was shot under him. The lively resistance that this portion of the Regiment, and one gun of the 1st Wisconsin Battery offered to the exultant rebels, had the good effect of giving the rest of the brigade a splendid chance to put themselves in shape for defense. DeCourcey kept his men well in hand north of town. Moving them over elevated places in sight of the enemy, and making movements to deceive them as to the actual numbers and their real intentions. When darkness came the brigade retired to Cumberland Gap.
There is a road from Morristown that converges with the Tazewell road at Powel's river ford, south of the Gap. Col. Leadbetter, with his brigade of rebels, was sent out on the former road to intercept the retreat of DeCourcey, but Gen. Morgan evidently anticipating such a movement, had hurried a brigade to the this point, thus allowing DeCourcey, with his forage laden wagons, to pass on to camp without interruption.
During the nine days that we were held in captivity, many things came to our notice that left their impressions on our minds, and the years with their varying and often trying circumstances, has done but little to remove it. Many of our rebel captors treated us with marked respect. Two Whetmore brothers, members of the 11th Tennessee and cousins to Capt. Whetmore, of the 9th Ohio Battery, came daily to sit outside of the guard line and chat with us. These two boys had a fair education and were intelligent, and were an exception to the class of men that composed the regiments around us. We saw some of their troops receive pay. They had no elaborate system of pay-rolls, because the majority of the men were too illiterate to sign them. The captain of each company simply reported the number of men present, and procured a proportionate amount of Confederate money, which he distributed without scratch of pen or record. Some of the enemy had blue U.S. clothing, that came from a supply that had been captured from General Banks in Virginia. A chaplain came to preach to us on Sunday, but his sermon was too sectional for the boys, and he was frequently interrupted by embarrassing questions, that, by and by, made the gray-coated divine wrathy, and his discourse tapered off into a tirade of abuse against the
Captain Edgar's cap and coat buttons had been taken by the rebels as trophies. The cap, with the bullet hole in it, was returned to some of his men in our crowd.
August 8th, a large number of rebel soldiers, under arrest for various offences, were brought up from Bear Station and placed in the "bull pen" with us. They were guarded by a company of Cherokee Indians that had been enlisted from the old reservation in North Carolina. Very few of these indians were full blooded; some of them had wavy hair and the full lip of the African. Among their numbers might have been found all the grades of complexion from the bronzed face of the common soldier to the deep copper tint of the aboriginal, but all wore the listless, lazy look of the true indian.
With this batch of prisoners came a member of the 22d Kentucky Infantry, who had been captured in the skirmish on the Knoxville road on the 4th, and a Union citizen named Dean, who had a recent experience that was perplexing to himself, though, as a whole rather laughable to us. While Dean was visiting a brother in one of the loyal Tennessee regiments at Cumberland Gap, he procured a complete blue uniform, which he wore beyond our lines on his way home. Being discovered by some rebel cavalry, he was arrested for a "Yank." He protested, but it did no good. Afterward, while being kept with their prisoners, he traded off his blue suit for a gray one, and in this attire we first formed his acquaintance. Being disinclined to cleanliness, his condition could not improve in such quarters and we had, where the earth was our bed and the sky our covering. The lice, of which he had got an abundant supply in his trade, annoyed him a great deal. Several times during our brief stay together, he took off his shirt and pantaloons, turned them wrong side out, and beat them against the small trees to get rid of the vermin. Dean was a voracious eater, and when our scant rations were dealt out to us whether green corn, fresh beef or unleavened bread, he was on the lookout for his share. One day, one of our boys, getting disgusted with Dean, called him a "East Tennessee hog," but he quickly retorted "You're an Ohioan possum." When we left the rebel lines Mr. Dean was released without parole or ceremony.
Another character we met here was a young fellow named McAfee. Relying on his own story, he was born in Philadelphia, Pa., grew up on the streets, traveled with Dan Rice's show, left it at Nashville, Tenn., enlisted in the Confederate army, had managed to be under arrest for petty offenses ever since, would desert the first good chance he got and didn't care a d--n for the Confederacy.
The 11th Tennessee Infantry were in bivouac near us. Their guns were stacked in line at the edge of the woods. When they organized, the ladies of Nashville presented them a beautiful silk flag, the "Stars and Bars." It had a scrolled inscription, "God and Our Country." The color-bearer cared for his trust with pride, and kept its silken folds protected with an oil-cloth sheath. Thus encased, it lay on the gun stacks when a soldier in trying to get at his gun without breaking the stack, accidentally shot through the flag. The shot instantly collected a crowd.. When the flag was enrolled, strange as it may seem, the only part mutilated was the word
Jones, a well-educated, tall young man, quite loyal, living just outside of Tazewell, on the south side, was arrested and placed with us as a hostage for a rebel citizen our men had taken.
Excepting the men of the 29th North Carolina, the deportment of the members of the Confederate regiments around us, whether on or off duty, differed little. These Carolinians were under good discipline. They furnished details to the guards that did duty around us, and while on post they would under no circumstances whatever hold conversation with us, though at other times they were sociable and friendly. They wore neat fitting dark gray uniforms of good material; frock coats, dark cloth caps, with the tops lopping well to the front, black stripe on shoulder and stripe on pants of same material. The bearing of these fellows seemed manly and military. Armed with the trusty "Enfield," they were without a doubt one of the very best regiments the Southern Confederacy could put forward.
The rifles captured from us were issued to a company of the 42d Georgia infantry. The succeeding summer, at Vicksburg, we captured the entire regiment, guns and all."
We were called into ranks on the morning of August 15th. Roll called by the Provost Marshal, and after an unaccountable tedious delay marched down into Tazewell, where we met the rest of our boys that were kept in jail; also Major Kershner who had come with the truce party from our lines. Another delay, during which we witnessed a street parade of Confederate cavalry --- a motley crowd. Aside from the horses there was no uniformity. They were principally fine looking animals and in good condition. With the men there was a disparity of ages and an astonishing variety of dress. Their collection of weapons would have attracted Barnum. Sabres of the most exquisite design and workmanship to the rude handiwork of the country blacksmith; fine breech-loading carbines to long clumsy flintlock rifles; splendid navy revolvers to uncertain home-made pistols. Thus panoplied for battle this cavalcade of fantastic warriors marched by.
The necessary arrangements being completed, a part of us were exchanged and the balance paroled. The business was transacted at a large brick house, the home of a Union family. While prisoners were waiting in the street, the lady of the house had the servants prepare some food and distributed it among us.
Leaving Tazewell, with its many Union citizens and the fresh graves on the hill slope, we struck out for our camp at a lively pace. The rebel pickets and guards along the road turned out and presented arms as we passed. And escort of their cavalry went with us far beyond their outposts. It was late in the night before the returning prisoners reached camp, where they were received with a noisy demonstration, a general handshaking and plenty of hot coffee.
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