03 August 2012
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
In the Shadow of Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest:
Private John C. Lilly’s War Gets Nasty—Part II
By Ken Robison
For The River Press
August 1, 2012
This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Central Montana. In Part I, John C. Lilly, of Shelby County, Ky., joined the Confederate Army, and was assigned to Company A in Colonel N. B. Forrest’s Old Regiment. Part II continues Private Lilly’s wartime experiences as the action in the [then] western border states of Kentucky and Tennessee went from mild to wild.
Private John C. Lilly spent Christmas 1861 in Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s winter camp at Hopkinsville, Ky. in relative comfort. The reconnaissance, light skirmishes and limited action of the Regiment as they protected the Confederate base and capital at Bowing Green, would soon to change dramatically.
Sometime after the Civil War, Private Lilly wrote about his wartime experiences. [Portions of his narrative are presented with his creative spelling and expressions “normalized” by this author.] Lilly continues, “After a few days in Camp the news came to Forrest that the First Kentucky Cavalry (Union) were South of Green River in the neighborhood of Greenville under the command of Major More. Col. Forrest, always ready for a fight, ordered three days rations and to be ready to move early on the next morning. This time [Col. Forrest] took, for the first time, his whole Regiment with the exception of a few [men] to do Camp duty and what was on the sick list.
“The next morning we started on the road to Greenville. . . . we got to Greenville and camped at a big hay ranch or farm. It was bad weather in [late] December with a cold drizzling rain all day and night. A scouting party was sent out that night. They came back and reported the Yankees were close and Captain [C. E. or Ned] Meriwether with an independent squad was ‘working them’ as we called [it] now in the west.
“Forrest ordered to sound the bugle for Boots and Saddle. In 10 minutes we were on the road towards Sacramento, Ky. When we got to a crossroad [one mile south of the town], an old farmer and his daughter who were coming from Sacramento told Forrest that the Yankees were but five miles ahead of us. Forrest . . . sent his orderly back to the other Captains of Co B and Co C, [for these companies] to come up in good order a little behind our Co [A]. Forrest then gave the command to our Company by fours double quick march and him in the lead on a fine thoroughbred Sorrel, and he went charging down a lane into our first battle.
“I must state here an incident in regard to myself. I was on a Chesnut mare as fine a little Kentucky animal as ever was under the saddle. She was a present to me from Olivia Harris, the daughter of Henry Harris of Shelby County, Ky. This little mare got it in her head that no other horse should beat her, and there were but a very few that could do it. So the little mare struck [out] and passed my company and passed the Col. right straight for Yankee Cavalry.
“Right at the end of the lane was a big stand of timber land. When I [was] very near to the end of the lane, the Col. saw that I was going right into the Yankees. He called to me to pull her into the fence corner, which I did just in time. When the Sorrel came to a halt near the rear guard of the Federal Cavalry, Col. Forrest jumped off his horse while I tried to get my mare quiet. He says, ‘Give me your gun,’ which I handed over. He fired into the enemy, gave back my gun, and was mounting at the same time.
“The Yankees fired at the same time but the balls went over our heads . . . [As] we dashed forward into the edge of the timber, to our surprise they were formed in a splendid line of battle. Before we could form a line, they give us a volley and kept it up. [This] being our first engagement to face the enemy in such close quarters, they had the advantage on us in position with the exception that the ground [was] so situated that they fired too high. Under this fire we tried to form in line [but it] was almost impossible. Col. Forrest and our Lieutenant Ward had their horses shot. Being a foot, [they ordered] us not to run. If the Yankees had made a charge that moment they would have demoralized us right there.
“Captain Meriwether had got to the front with a few men and one of his men and himself were killed and two wounded laying in the road. By this time Captain May of Company B had formed in our right when they drew our fire. So we got in line and fighting was pretty severe for five minutes when Captain Gughle with Company C came up the lane in good order by fours. When Forrest ran back and got Capt Meriwether’s horse, [he] says to Capt Gughle, ‘Capt, charge them!’ When Capt Gughle gave the command to his Texas Rangers, ‘Charge them boys,’ they then gave the Rebel yell which went thru the woods echoing [so loud] that you could scarcely hear the sound of the rifles. When the sound of that yell from the Texas Rangers reached the ears of the Yankee Cavalry, that was too much for them, and our battle was won. That splendid line of battle in Blue was broken and retreating in bad order thru the little town of Sacramento, Ky.
“Right here in the streets of this little town there was a hand to hand duel with sabers which perhaps is not on record or in the history as the Yankees . . . but those were Kentucky Yankees and as brave of men as ever faced a gun or used a pistol or drove a saber which was shown.
“Right in that little engagement at the outskirts of this little Kentucky town met Col.. Forrest in the lead of his command victorious and Captain Backer in the rear of his Command defeated. With sabers drawn, they both went at it, as foes would meet. As Captain Backer was better fighting with a sword, as Forrest found out in a few minutes or seconds, I might say I think that and believe, Col. Forrest would have ready left that field of life. But in such conflict where it is in such close quarters it was a pistol ball that ended that saber duel between Col. Forrest and Captain Backer, when the brave Capt tumbled off his horse a dead man. The supposition is that the shot that killed Capt Backer was fired from a man of our Company, his name I will not mention.
“Here the battle was ended in a glorious victory for Forrest and his Old Regiment. I have forgotten now the number of prisoners we took. I think that the Yankees lost in that fight between forty or fifty killed, wounded, and prisoners. Our lost, I believe, was three killed and five wounded and a few horses killed. The reader will imagine here that there never was a prouder Regiment in the Confederate Army than Forrest’s Old Regiment of Cavalry, and the old Col. himself, after that fight, thought that he could lick the whole Yankee army.
“That same day we marched back with our prisoners to Greenville. The next day we started back for Hopkinsville to our winter’s quarters going through that little town called Cloverport [Ky., on the Ohio River] which I shall never forget, though I have never been or seen it since. The ladies of that place gave us the finest picnic in the winter that I have ever been to before or since. I never saw as much fine eatables in my life, and we were supplied with socks, mittens, gloves, blankets, most everything forced on to you, whether you wanted it or not. God Bless the people of Cloverport, Ky. is my wish today. In fact in the beginning of the war the people of the South could never do too much for a Confederate soldier and especially the women.
“When we got back to our winter quarters the first news was that there was a gunboat going up the Cumberland River. General Clark had some Infantry camping at the Hopkinsville Fairgrounds with a few pieces of artillery. Now I will give the reader a plan of Col. Forrest’s scheme. Col. Forrest wanted to capture that gunboat with his Cavalry. His idea was to capture that boat and then go down the river under the U.S. flag and destroy the whole Yankee fleet at Paducah, Ky. and at Cairo, Illinois which I believe he would have done if we could have got away with the Yankee gunboat.”
Private Lilly provides a detailed account of this bizarre attempt by Forrest’s Cavalry to capture a Yankee steamboat. Although ultimately their trap did not succeed, it did result in the death of a dozen of the steamboat’s crewmen and damage to the gunboat. Lilly concludes the story, “one of our cannon shots had bored a hole thru the boat. So that ended the charge of Cavalry charging a gunboat on the Cumberland River where we [did] not lose a man.”
Lilly’s narrative continues, “We landed again with triumph in our camp. The people of the surrounding country and of Hopkinsville would visit our Camp and thought that Col. Forrest and his Cavalry were the heroes of the Southern Confederacy. Then we had a good time in camp [with] plenty of good rations and fat and slick horses [with only] a little camp duties and drilling to do. [We] got passes to go out in the Country and see the girls who thought more of Forrest’s Cavalry than they would of themselves. Who would not be a soldier under such circumstances but as God knows we saw some hard times afterwards.”
Subsequent events would have a profound impact on the outcome of the Civil War. Two legends emerged from the action in Tennessee in early 1862. The North would finally find a “fighting” general in Ulysses S. Grant, while the South would find a legend in the daring and determination of Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest. In the first use of rivers for major operations during the Civil War, Fort Henry was attacked by Union naval gunboats and surrendered after most of its guns were disabled. Then, Confederate troops were trapped at Fort Donelson, mainly because of indecisiveness by rebel commanders. Several thousand Confederates did escape, including Forrest’s Old Regiment through decisive action on the part of Col. Forrest. The loss of Forts Henry and Donelson was a stunning defeat for the Confederacy. Gen. Grant had seized the initiative, forced the Confederates out of Kentucky, broken their defense line in northern Tennessee, and permanently changed the strategic situation in the West. And Private Lilly and his Forrest’s Old Regiment were knee deep in the action.
Private John Lilly continues his narrative, “From now on our hard times begin. Five days of the month of February  have passed, and rumor in camp is that [BGen.] Grant is marching on to Fort Henry. Another day and orders were given to cook up three days rations. The next day we were marching to Fort Donaldson over the same road that we came over five months before to go into our winter quarters. Before we crossed the old Cumberland River we could hear the cannon booming at Fort Henry fourteen miles distance. We were taken across on a steamboat the next morning, one company at the time. When our Company got across, Col. Forrest started immediately out on the Fort Henry road. About six miles out we met the Yankees and fighting commenced. We skirmished all day and fell back at night when our whole Regiment was across the River.
“We camped that night in a kind of a ravine but worked all night building breastworks for the Infantry. All the next morning the Yankees advanced [so] that the Infantry got to skirmish with them. Then the gunboats came up and attacked our batteries on the River and the Infantry [attacked] by land. But the Yankee Fleet got the worst of it, and five of their boats were sunk and others disabled so that they were poled off. The gunboats made it pretty warm for us but with very little harm to us. We were not there to charge gunboats.” The battle for Fort Donelson had begun.
“Then the next morning we were completely surrounded by Grant’s army and fighting commenced in earnest with Forrest and his Cavalry on our extreme left. By noon the enemy were driving [us] from the field. About noon a Regiment of [our] Infantry took a battery from the Seventh Iowa. As it happened then the Confederate Regiment gave out of ammunition and could not hold the Battery. As the Battery was right at the head of a deep ravine and as the Seventh Iowa was in the Ravine and was about to retake the guns, Col. Forrest led one of the grandest Cavalry charges on the Seventh Iowa Infantry. The charge was made by placing two companies . . . to charge up to that ravine and fire, one company to wheel to the right, and the other to the left in the ravine . . . and load while the other platoon would charge right here.
“That brave Capt May of Company B fell before the charge was made and several of our brave boys beside him. The Seventh Iowa gave us a terrible fire while we were forming in line, and it stood time in hand for the move what was coming if they could keep us from forming in line. Reinforcement was coming for them, and they would have retaken their battery, but Forrest with actually tears in his eyes led the charge and the Seventh Iowa was very nearly all slaughtered in that famous Death Hollow.
“When the roll was called of the Seventh Iowa after that charge of Forrest’s Cavalry into that Hollow of Death there were not many to answer to their names, and so it was the same with Forrest’s Cavalry. If the Reader has never been in a battle he has no idea what it is to form a regiment of Cavalry especially under heavy fire, especially in timber and brush as it was at that battleground but we were victorious for a short time.
“As the Yankees retreated we marched down that same ravine, and [I] must say that it was almost impossible for our horses not to step on a dead man. It was but [a] short ravine yet it was horrible to look at the brave men in the different shapes and positions where they were laying.
“As we were following up the retreating Army which was but a short distance, when General Grant massed a heavy battery on a hay hill and turned loose on us all at once before we knew what was going on. We were wheeled right about by fours to get out of range of that heavy artillery fire. Shells and solid shot was whistling over our heads that were ranging a little too high but close enough that the boys would dodge when Col. Forrest made the remark, ‘don’t dodge, Boys.’ When he had hardly said the word, a shell came so close to his said that he could not help from dodging. When he looked around with a smile and said, ‘Boys dodge them of you can,’ which the boys never forgot all thru the war.
“We were then marched back inside our camp and thought that Grant was retreating. Firing had ceased with the exception on our left near the river bottom where General Buckner with his Infantry was doing some hard fighting, and the Motor Boats would throw a few shells into our camp when the night closed the battle. If the reader has read the history of the battle of Fort Donaldson, he must know that the object of attacking the Yankee’s right wing and going out of our breast works was to open the road to Nashville and for our Army to retire. Such was the plan of Generals Pillow, Floyd & Buckner, and Col. Forrest to cover the retreat of the Infantry, but that was not carried out and was without a doubt a mistake of General Pillow’s as he was Commander in Chief.
“That Saturday night [15th] everything was quiet but it snowed about three or four inches about twelve o’clock at night. No bugle was sounded but every man was called from under his blanket of snow to be quiet and get ready to march. The generals had agreed for Genl Buckner to surrender the troops but Col. Forrest had no notion to surrender. In one hour from the time that we were notified, we were in line when Forrest spoke, ‘Boy’s the Confederate Forces have surrendered and the white flag is now floating over Fort Donaldson. After our hard fighting yesterday and the brave men that we left on the field, I have concluded not to surrender. We may have a hard time to get out, but any of you that want to follow me, Forward March.’
“And the Col. moved on, but I don’t think that there was over five hundred of the Old Regiment that followed. Some were killed. Some wounded. Some had their horses killed or wounded. Col. Forrest followed close up the River without any trouble until we came to a large slough which was full from the backwater of the old Cumberland River and partly frozen. We were fired into by a Michigan Regiment of Cavalry, but they could not stop Forrest and his men. Forrest and the advance guard [rode] right into the backwaters, and the balance followed. Some had [to] swim their horses and some could even ford them. The charge on the Michigan Cavalry took them by surprise as it was not daylight yet, and in a short time we were behind the Yankee Army. I am not able to tell whether we lost any of our men or not as we did not know who followed in our retreat, and as far as the Yankee Cavalry we did not lose any time to get out after we got thru the Yankee lines. We could hear the bugles and the drums in our ears. So far Col. Forrest had escaped from Fort Donaldson but what was before him he did not know.”
To Be Continued Photo:
(1) Private Lilly's Legendary Cavalry Commander Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest. [Courtesy of Wikipedia]