In last week’s Palmer’s Almanac I wrote about a little-known Civil War battle that took place just outside the borders of Marion County in Oct. 1863. The Battle of Vinson’s Crossroads took place as the 1st Alabama Cavalry, United States Volunteers (USV) were returning to Corinth, Miss., from Alabama. The 1st was a Federal army unit composed mainly of Union men from Northwest Alabama. The battle took place over a large area in Mississippi and Alabama. Only a few accounts of the battle have survived.
When we last heard from the 1st Alabama Cavalry, United States Volunteers (USV), they were returning to Alabama after the unit’s commander, Col. George Spencer, called off the secret mission that would take the 500 men of the 1st deep into the heart of Alabama to destroy railroads at Selma. The unit was travelling with tools to destroy the railroads and two small cannons. The unit got to about as far as Nauvoo in Walker County and turned around due to rain and sickness. On the return trip the 1st camped at Bull Mountain, a stronghold of Unionism in north Marion County. The next morning Oct. 26, 1863, the unit, and an unknown number of refugees and new recruits that had attached themselves to the returning army, crossed the Mississippi state line after travelling through what was then called Vinson’s Crossroads, modern-day Red Bay, Ala.
After travelling through the small crossroads town the 1st moved west to a road that would take them straight north called the Iuka and Fulton Road, modern day Highway 25 in Tishimingo County, Miss.
Little did the men of the 1st know that Confederate Gen. Sam Ferguson was moving south on that road ready to give battle.
Not knowing the 1st Alabama’s exact location, Ferguson sent a squadron of men west to Bay Springs, Miss., to check for signs of the Federals. “With the remainder of my force (about 300 effective men) I moved toward the Bull Mountain country,” Ferguson wrote in a report on Oct. 31. “After pursuing this road about 3 miles I received the first positive information of the position of the enemy from a scout I had sent out, who reported them advancing on the same road…and continued the march until the advance guards met and skirmishing began about 1:30 p.m.”
Federal soldier John R. Phillips, for whom Phillips High School in Bear Creek is named, was among the first soldiers to encounter the Rebels. Phillips had been a member of the 1st only about one month at this time.
“We had stopped for dinner, just about noon,” Phillips wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Life, published in 1923. “About that time we had been commanded to eat our lunch the pickets opened fire and we got orders to mount,” Phillips wrote. “I remember having my pancake about ready to turn when the bugle blew to mount. Instead of turning it over in the pan I just turned it over the pommel of my saddle, with the cooked side up, mounted and went to eating on the crust as we were preparing to go in my first fight.”
Sgt. Francis Wayland Dunn of the 1st was with Col. Spencer and a group of soldiers at the Patterson Plantation west of Vinson’s Crossroads. They had just left the plantation and reached the Iuka and Fulton Road when the first shots were fired.
“Went about two miles,” Dunn wrote in his daily diary. “I had not got to the front when several shots were fired. I pushed ahead and found the two guns on a little rise of ground and the gunners loading. (Companies) F, B and G had been deployed to the left of the road, E and A to the right and H was just going in. On the right was a narrow field 30 or 40 rods wide for almost half a mile, only broken by a strip of underbrush about 20 rods through” Dunn wrote.
Confederate Gen. Ferguson encountered the Federal army as they were forming lines on either side of the road. “The enemy were formed in thick woods across the road, with an open field in front, through which, swept as it was by two pieces of light artillery planted in the road. I had to advance to the attack. As rapidly as possible I formed my lines, the men dismounted and attacked the enemy,” Ferguson reported.
1st Alabama soldier P.D. Hall, 18, from Barnsville in Marion County, was a member of Company B that had also dismounted and “went into action on the left of the road near Widow Clark’s house.” Hall wrote in 1899. “The rebels yelled and charged us. The artillery opened fire on them and checked them on the start, but soon they rallied and came again,” Hall wrote.
Dunn says the rebels began extending their lines to outflank the Federal companies. “The two guns were brought back to the house in the middle of the field. (Companies) E, A, and H were soon driven out and the Rebs began to fire on Companies L and D. They stood the fire for a while and then retreated,” Dunn wrote. Companies B, F, and G were ordered to fall back.
Ferguson, seeing that he had the Federals on the run, called for the horses to be brought forward. “As soon as the horses could be brought up the fleeing enemy were hotly pursued and their retreat converted into a wild panic,” Ferguson wrote.
As the terror-stricken Federal soldiers fled, Dunn began letting down a fence to open an escape route. “The refugees tried to get by and the pack mules were running everywhere,” Dunn recorded.
Phillips’s company, L, was ordered to dismount and reform a line to provide cover as the other companies retreated, but they were soon sent running and tried to remount. “There was so much confusion and so much going on that it was sometime before I found my horse,” Phillips wrote.
The wild retreat moved south into a swamp and the soldiers abandoned the cannons in a creek that fed into the swamp.
Spencer pulled his pistol and pointed it at his fleeing soldiers ordering them to form a line. But the soldiers paid no heed. Dunn, seeing Spencer’s efforts also tried to get the fleeing men to form a defensive line. “but there was no use,” Dunn said. The men were in a full panic retreat and drove past Spencer. “They had heard a few shots in the right and then spread out each side of the colonel and when turned I could not see him but the men had divided into two streams.”
Phillips’s company kept falling back and forming lines for a defense but the Rebs kept up the drive. “This continued until dark, but a little before sunset we came to a creek where the road seemed to give out. Here we found our artillery deserted and did not see a way of crossing the creek,” Phillips recorded. “The banks were from six to eight feet high and perpendicular. The Rebs were pressing us in the rear, charging us and shooting a continuous volley in the rear. Our men were shouting forward at every breath. I plunged my horse off a steep bank, into the creek and commenced pawing and trying to go up on the opposite bank. I slid off of him in the water… and as he went up the bank I caught him by the tail and went out with him.”
As he retreated Phillips encountered a less panicked squad of soldiers attempting to form a defensive line. Phillips said the men were “headed by an old uncle Sim Tucker, a private, who was calling everyone that passed to fall in line. Many were too badly excited to stop although his gun was pointed in their faces. As soon as I saw Uncle Sim in his shirt sleeves and bareheaded, my energy was renewed and I rode up by his side and said, ‘Uncle Sim, I will die by your side.’” The squad held their fire until the rebs were close enough that they could do some damage, Phillips said. “(The Rebs) were led by a large man, riding a gray horse. I took a good aim at him and when the smoke went up I saw him fall backwards off of his horse. I think the whole bunch of us shot at him, as everyone I talked to afterwards claimed the honor of shooting him,” Phillips said.
After firing that volley the Federals retreated to form another line. “In making my retreat my horse ran astride a sapling that lifted his hind legs off of the ground, and I fell off the right side of him. My left foot caught in my baggage and ammunition bag on the rear end of my saddle and my right hand on the ground. In this condition I struggled for a while but finally I regained my position in the saddle. By this time the rebs were in a few yards of me shooting at me continually. I just fell over my saddle and reached after my horse with my spurs and soon caught up with my companions.”
Phillips encountered a group of Federals preparing to make a stand. “I saw our First Lieutenant, Perry, whom I had not seen since the engagement commenced. He was in line and I rode up beside him, but just about that time a volley was fired in to us and Lieut. Perry fell dead off his horse. I was told afterwards that he was shot through the heart. Another fell dead in the line. I heard the word, ‘Surrender’ from some one, so I just pulled back my horse and started west, the opposite direction from them,” Phillips wrote.
“The rebels pressed us hard until about dark, and our company was completely demoralized,” Hall wrote.
Phillips and three or four other men headed west and then turned north to try to make it to Glendale, Miss. They arrived three days later after hiding in swamps and eating nothing but raw corn taken from cornfields.
Ferguson reported that “the chase was kept up for some ten miles through dense woods and over mountainous country until dark. Their perfect knowledge and our ignorance of the country enabled most of them, however, to escape by separating into small squads and leaving the road.”
Ferguson reported that Confederates had two killed and 11 wounded. The Federals, Ferguson said, lost 20 killed. Nine men were wounded and 29 prisoners were taken. “The woods was so dense and the fight kept up for so great a distance that many killed and wounded were not found,” Ferguson said.
According to Glenda McWhirter Todd, in her book, First Alabama Cavalry, Homage to Patriotism, the 1st Alabama, USV, soldiers killed in the battle were Marshal H. Byrd, Erasmus D. Chandler, James Mack Cooper, James K. Morphis, James Perry, Phillip Sternberg, James C. Swift and William Tyler.
Dunn and a large group of soldiers headed east and circled back north and reached Iuka the next morning. Spencer reached Glendale the next day. A few days later Gen. Grenville Dodge promoted Spencer, his old friend, to become his chief of staff.
After Alabama was readmitted to the Union in 1868, Spencer, with the help of the north Alabama Unionists, was elected as a United States Senator to represent Alabama in Washington D.C. After serving for 12 years Spencer was appointed by Dodge as a commissioner for the Union Pacific Railroad. Dodge had been summoned to Washington D.C. in 1863 by president Abraham Lincoln and asked to determine the starting point for the railroad.
After the Battle of Vinson’s Crossroads Confederate Gen. Ferguson reported that he had “succeeded in effectually destroying the First Alabama Tory Regiment,” However, this was only braggadocio on Ferguson’s part. Ferguson would see the 1st Alabama, USV again, and their handiwork. Ferguson harassed General Sherman’s left flank during Sherman’s 1864 “March to the Sea.” Sherman chose the 1st Alabama, USV as his escort cavalry. The 1st Alabama, USV, led the way as Sherman burned a 20-mile wide swath from Atlanta to Savannah.
See complete story in the Journal Record.