When the Union General, John Coburn, and his command of 2837 troops, 600 of which were cavalry and the remainder belonged to the infantry, marched out of Franklin toward Spring Hill on March 4, 1863, little could he imagine the appalling circumstances in which he would find himself the following day. The Eighteenth Ohio battery of six long-range Rodman rifled cannons accompanied the column. An expedition that began as a reconnaissance and forage mission ended in a bloody battle that forced the surrender of General Coburn and his command.
On March 3rd, General Rosecrans, of the Army of the Cumberland in Nashville, issued an order through his chief of staff, Brigadier General Charles C. Gilbert, commander in Franklin, to send a cavalry force down the Spring Hill Road (now the Columbia Pike) to investigate Confederate activity in that area. General John Coburn's brigade was selected to execute this mission since his troops were assembled and ready, eager for something other than camp duty. General Coburn was ordered to take with him a forage train to gather food from the countryside for the Franklin garrison. His brigade was composed of four infantry regiments: the 33rd Indiana (Coburn's old command) under Lieutenant Colonel James Henderson, the 85th Indiana with Colonel John Baird, the 19th Michigan commanded by Colonel Henry Gilbert and the 22nd Wisconsin led by Colonel William Utley. The 124th Ohio, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Pickands was attached to Coburn's brigade.
Also in the command were about six hundred men from the 2nd Michigan, the 19th Pennsylvania and the 4th Kentucky, all veterans of a year of war. They were led by Colonel Thomas Jordan, second in command to Coburn. The weather was cold; some reports said it was snowing.
Coburn's forces were burdened by one hundred one wagons; most of the infantry regiments were brand-new to army life and none of the regimental commanders were professional soldiers. Coburn, Baird and Gilbert were lawyers, Utley a politician and Henderson a twenty-six year old teacher.
At 9 o'clock on the morning of Mar. 4th, Gen. Coburn, with 2,837 of his troops, marched out of Franklin with four wagons for each of his regiments in addition to eighty forage wagons strung out behind them in a long line. They passed the Harrison House, home of William Harrison - at one time a sheriff of Williamson County.
Confederate troops commanded by Major General Earl Van Dorn and Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest were camped at Spring Hill, four miles south of Thompson's Station, on the Tennessee & Alabama Railroad. They, too, had begun a reconnaissance expedition toward Franklin to evaluate Union activity there.
There were twice as many Confederates in Van Dorn's command. It was divided into two divisions led by Brigadier Generals William Martin and William "Red" Jackson. Attached to Van Dorn was Forrest's brigade. All the units were cavalry. All the officers were native to the area, their information was good and the men were fit. All were battle veterans and led by very able officers. Major McLemore, in command of the 4th Tennessee, had been born less than two miles of the battle ground, and was thoroughly acquainted with every foot of the surrounding area.
Van Dorn was a handsome, blue-eyed, blond man with a shaggy mustache and a quick, decisive manner. His fellow comrades called him "Buck". Except for his small statue (he stood only five feet five), he was the epitome of the dashing, young Southern soldier the young ladies dreamed about. He had shown his courage in the face of great danger many times.
Appointed to West Point by his great-uncle, Andrew Jackson, he had gone on to collect two higher honors and five wounds as a lieutenant in the Mexican War (1846-1848) and in skirmishes with Comanche's on the warpath. He had been rewarded with a captaincy in Sidney Johnston's 2nd Cavalry.
Van Dorn's home was near Port Gibson, Mississippi; and when that state seceded in 1861, he resigned from the United States Army to command Mississippi troops. He was commissioned a colonel in the Confederate army. Other acts of bravery earned him a general's star. His one weakness, which eventually led to his death, was women.
An account of his tragic end, because of his attention to Jessie Peters, wife of Dr. George B. Peters, can be found in Obituaries From Tennessee Newspapers by Jill L. Garrett.
General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) was born in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. He was a successful cotton planter and land owner when the Civil War began. He enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army in June, 1861 and went on to become a brilliant cavalry leader, gaining the rank of lieutenant colonel and, finally, lieutenant general in 1865.
A quote in The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest's Cavalry by John Watson Morton says, "General Lord Garnet Wolseley, who was sent by the English government to study American war tactics, says of General Forrest: He possessed that rare tact - unlearn from books - which enabled him not only to effectively control these fiery, turbulent spirits, but to attach them to him personally `with hooks of steel.' . . . There was a something about the dark gray eye of Forrest which warned his subordinates he was not to be trifled with and would stand no nonsense from either friend or foe. He was essentially a practical man of action, with a dauntless, fiery soul and a heart that knew no fear."
John Allan Wyeth says in his book, That Devil Forrest, Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, "that Forrest loved fighting, that he loved the military life, life in the open, life on horseback, the pounding of the cavalry, the fluttering of banners, the smell of powder, the flash of the saber, the life of heroism and of danger. And as Forrest was a born fighter, he was a born leader of men."
Colonel John Coburn, of the Union army, was a native of Indianapolis. He was a graduate of Wabash College and had spent a number of years in public service in the legal profession prior to the war. He was a leading force in promoting the publication of the series of volumes entitled The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (sixty-nine volumes and index; Washington, 1880-1901).
About noon, when Coburn and his men were approximately 4 miles out of Franklin, they encountered advance scouts for Confederate General Earl Van Dorn. A sharp skirmish occurred, resulting in fifteen Confederate soldiers killed or wounded and the rest being driven back. General Coburn and his men camped at this location for the night, probably on a rise just before reaching the West Harpeth Road.
Early the next day, March 5, 1863, Coburn and his men continued their march down Columbia Pike, which at this time was only a wagon trail. They passed Laurel Hill, the home begun in early 1800s and finished by James P. Johnson, son of Thomas B. and Harriett Patterson Johnson from Fayette County, Kentucky.
On this same day General Van Dorn began a reconnaissance toward Franklin from Spring Hill, also over Columbia Pike. About 1200 of his men, under the leadership of Brigadier General Jackson, preceded the main force, arriving at Thompson`s Station by mid-morning. They arrived on the south side of town just as General Coburn's forces arrived on the north.
Thompson's Station is almost completely surrounded by small, irregular hills. A range of these hills lies just south of the village where Jackson set up his troops in a line a mile long. This range crosses the Columbia Pike at Sedberry's curve with a high hill on either side of the highway. At the foot of these hills, near the village, ran a gully about 100 yards in length. Paralleling the gully was a stone fence about the same length. Remnants of this fence can be seen today. Behind these obstacles, Confederate dismounted troops awaited whatever might develop from the Union lines on the other side of town. Confederate sharpshooters also occupied the train depot and several of the other buildings, hoping to warn the main line of Confederates of any attack in the direction of the village.
Forrest's regiments, some 2,000 strong, were deployed in line on a hill that bordered and overlooked the narrow (about a half a mile wide) valley. Forrest occupied the extreme right with Freeman's Artillery Battery of six guns posted on a knoll. To Forrest's left was F. C. Armstrong's Brigade, consisting of about 1600 strong, posted on the crest of a narrow ridge which was cut by the railroad and by the Columbia turnpike. Next, on the left and in line with Armstrong was J. W. Whitfield's Texas Brigade consisting of about 1,800 troopers. Captain Houston King's Second Missouri Battery, part of the Texas Brigade, consisted of six pieces of artillery planted in two favorable positions on the right and left respectively of the Columbia turnpike.
For six hours a savage battle raged from the Confederate lines to the Union lines, which were entrenched on the cedar-covered hill on the northwest end of Homestead Manor, home of Dr. and Mrs. William J. Darby.
Earlier in the day, Dr. Elijah Thompson and his wife had gone to attend a sick neighbor, leaving their younger children in the care of their seventeen-year-old daughter, Alice. Soon a Confederate soldier came to the home and asked all to leave as trouble would be expected shortly in the area.
Alice sent the maid with the children to a more distant place for safety. She would follow as soon as she attended to some things she thought very necessary. However, before reaching her destination, she was forced to seek shelter in the basement of Homestead Manor. At the time the home was owned by Lieut. Thomas Banks, who was fighting in the battle.
As the Confederate color-bearer passed the basement window, from which Alice was watching the fighting, he was shot down. Alice sprang from the cellar, caught up the flag and waved it over her head. Colonel Samuel G. Earle, of the Third Arkansas Regiment, saw her and shouted, "Boys a woman has your flag". Upon seeing this heroic action from one of their women, the Rebels raised a great battle cry and drove the Yankees back. While Alice held the flag, a bombshell fell within a few feet, throwing dirt all over her. Fortunately, the shell did not explode. One of the soldiers pushed her back into the cellar.
The battle extended along Columbia Pike, encompassed all of the village, the yard of Homestead Manor and continued north along the railroad tracks and across the Columbia Highway. Remains of the redoubts on the wooded hill west of the railway tracks can still be seen. Homestead Manor was used as a field hospital for the wounded, as were many of the homes in areas where combat occurred.
Wiley Sword, in his book, Embrace An Angry Wind, relates an incident as follows: "Before dusk that evening Forrest's cavalrymen from Ross's Brigade, having pursued Wilson as he withdrew toward Franklin, had swung abruptly westward to strike the turnpike at Thompson's Station. A few wagons were moving along the pike and Ross sent his Texans sweeping down on them as they raced for a blockhouse guarding the nearby railroad bridge. A few wagons were taken, and while the Confederates swarmed over the depot at the railroad, a southbound train had appeared.
The train's engineer, when suddenly attacked by mounted Confederates, cut the engine loose and sped off toward Spring Hill. Although the railroad cars, which began rolling backward because of a retrograde, coasted back under the cover of the blockhouse and were saved, Ross's men soon fired the Thompson's Station railroad bridge and depot."
During the raging battle, while leading his men in a charge against the Union left flank, General Forrest's favorite war horse, "Roderick", was struck three times. Turning the horse over to his son and aide, seventeen-year-old Lieutenant Willie Forrest, to be led to the rear, the General mounted his son's horse and continued the charge. When Roderick arrived at the position of the horse-holders, his saddle and bridle were removed for greater comfort and he was not haltered. It was the nature of the horse to follow his master about much as a pet dog would do.
Being freed of any restraints, hearing the sounds of battle and possibly his master's voice, the horse pricked up his ears and tore across the fields, jumping three fences, and receiving a fourth and fatal wound as he reached the general.
General Forrest, the fearless and war-hardened soldier, tears streaming down his cheeks, left his beloved Roderick lying there on the ground and continued on into battle. (The horse was buried on the farm originally belonging to Spencer Buford, across Columbia Highway from Homestead Manor, although the exact location of the burial place was never marked. The historic farm has since been called "Roderick" in honor of the famous horse.)
Coburn's troops advanced toward the center of the village by moving in a diagonal direction to the right. When they were within one hundred yards of the battery, Coburn saw at once that the force behind the stone wall was too strong for him. Also, their troops were being reinforced, for by this time General Van Dorn and General Nathan Bedford Forrest had advanced with their men. Forming his command in line, Forrest now charged forward against the Federal lines, who poured a galling fire upon his men as they followed their leader. Capt. Montgomery Little, Commander of Forrest's escort, fell by his side mortally wounded. Major E. B. Trezevant was also mortally wounded nearby in this final charge. This did not check the Confederate advance and Forrest soon stood within a few paces of the Federal Commander whose surrender he demanded under the stress of a leveled revolver. Further resistance was in vain and this brave adversary did the only thing he could at this point - surrender.
Coburn placed his losses at 48 killed, 247 wounded and 1,151 captured or missing. The Federal command surrendered consisted of the Thirty-third and Eighty-fifth Indiana, Nineteenth Michigan, and the Twenty-second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.
The Confederate loss was heavy, being near four hundred men. Colonel Samuel G. Earle of the Third Arkansas Cavalry and Captain Alfred Dysart of the Fourth Tennessee had been killed and buried near where they fell. Captain William Watson of General Armstrong's Staff was lost. The Rev. Mr. Crouch, a brigade chaplain also was slain while inspiring the men to the discharge of their duty. Lieutenant John Johnson of the Ninth Tennessee was killed bearing the colors of his regiment. Major Trezevant, being wounded by a rifle ball through his abdomen was carried to the residence of Mrs. Blood at Spring Hill. He died there two days later.
No large-scale pursuit of the remaining retreating Federal force was made, and the Confederate troops were ordered back to their cantonments at Spring Hill.
Note: This description of the Battle of Thompson's Station is by Sue Barton Oden and is from her book: "Hold Us Not Boastful - The Story of Thompson's Station and Its People" and is used here by special permission.