||The road had only been paved for less than ten years, and, out of respect to its Entrenched behind both natural and man-made barriers, Bragg and his 47,000 Confederates hoped to prevent the Federal army from controlling Middle Tennessee and reaching their ultimate objective, Chattanoogaone of the South’s most important railroad centers and the gateway into East Tennessee and Alabama.
During the six-month period from January until June 1863, there was virtually no military activity between the two opposing forces. The fighting that had occurred was by Confederate cavalry under Forrest, Morgan, and Wheeler. The Confederate cavalry outnumbered Union cavalry by more than 7,000 men and was at that time the toughest, most effective, and most ably led body of troops on either side. Union General William S. Rosecrans concerned himself with the construction of a huge earthen fort and supply depot on the outskirts of Murfreesboro, which he then named in honor of himself, “Fortress Rosecrans.” Despite urging from Washington and his superiors, he was in no hurry to attack Confederate strong positions, using the excuses of inadequate cavalry and the need for reinforcements. Even General Grant’s insistence of some military effort in middle Tennessee was ignored, with Rosecrans stating the possibility of Grant losing at Vicksburg. Obviously, Rosecrans was not eager to face the immense tactical and strategic problems which awaited the Army of the Cumberland along the Confederate defensive line, running from Shelbyville to Wartrace to Tullahoma to McMinnville. Bragg had placed one corps at Shelbyville under the command of General Leonidas Polk on his left, and the other corps at Wartrace on his right was under the command of General William J. Hardee. General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry guarded the extreme right flank at McMinnville, while General Nathan Bedford Forrest covered the extreme left at Columbia. The ridge north of the Confederate position on the Duck River presented a very serious barrier to any southward advance on Tullahoma by the Federals and could only be penetrated through a series of four passes, west to east, Guy’s Gap, Bell Buckle Gap, Liberty Gap, and Hoover’s Gap. Polk posted a strong advance force to hold Guy’s Gap, with the rest of his corps within supporting distance at Shelbyville, thought to be the likely target. Hardee’s men were assigned to hold the other three gaps, Hoover’s Gap being the most important with the Murfreesboro-Manchester turnpike passing through it.
In early May, Rosecrans knew that Bragg’s army had been weakened by detachments having been sent to aid the Vicksburg Campaign11,300 men in all (9,300 infantry and 2,000 cavalry). And, then on June 13, General John Hunt Morgan and his 2,500 cavalrymen rode out on what was to be the “Great Ohio Raid.” The time was now right for Union forces to move so on June 24, Rosecrans’ army of 50,000 men began its advance on Tullahoma. Rosecrans very cleverly attempted to deceive Bragg from seeing the drive on Manchester as the main Union objective and sent troops to Shelbyville as a devisive maneuver. The goal was the capture of Hoover’s Gap, then Manchester Pike and Bradyville, ultimately moving onto Manchester, thus forcing Bragg to recall his forces to Tullahoma. If Union forces could capture Manchester and force Bragg to abandon the Shelbyville-Wartrace line, they could also make his Tullahoma base untenable with another flanking move, thereby cutting Bragg off from his main supply base at Chattanooga. Hoover’s Gap was critical for the success of this plan
The task of capturing Manchester was assigned to Corps commanders George H. Thomas and Alexander M. McCook, both seasoned veterans of war. Before dawn on the 24th, Colonel John T. Wilder’s Brigade moved out in advance of Thomas’ corps. A slow drizzling rain turned the roads into quagmires. This rain continued for the next eleven days, and was described by Rosecrans as “one of the most extraordinary rains ever known in Tennessee.” Despite the discomfort, however, Wilder’s men marched on eagerly, anxious to try their new Spencer repeating rifles, in what they knew would be a major encounter with the enemy. Wilder himself had arranged for the financing of these new weapons with his hometown bank in Greensburg, Indiana when the Army brass in Washington had refused to purchase them. At 10:00 a.m. Colonel Wilder and his Brigade, almost nine miles ahead of the rest of their division, reached the entrance to Hoover’s Gap.
The 1st Kentucky Cavalry was on duty when Wilder’s sudden and unexpected advance took them completely by surprise. Confederate forces retreated after a valiant fight through the seven-mile length of the gap and Wilder pushed on through, seizing the hills at the south end of Hoover’s Gap, which he was determined to hold until reinforcements arrived. This was the very position that Confederate forces had planned to use for their own defense. Brigadier General William B. Bate rushed his Confederates to the front and for over an hour they gallantly attacked Wilder’s entrenched, but badly outnumbered, brigade.
Company E, of the 72nd Indiana overran its position and while returning to the battle line, and being fired upon by Confederates, came across three small children, two girls and a boy, trying to find their way out of the woods amid the shower of bullets. The firing suddenly stopped. Sgt. Wilhite of the 72nd dismounted, helped the children over a fence and headed them toward a house out of range of the battle. The fighting then resumed and Company E went about its business of fighting its way back to the brigade.
The battle continued throughout the day, with charge after charge of brave Southern men being repulsed by a storm of Yankee bullets from their new “seven-shooters.” Bate’s Tennesseans staggered but filled their ranks and came on time and time again only to fall back in a hail of bullets. General Bate reorganized his men, brought up his reserves, and together with Bushrod Johnson’s newly arrived brigade, began preparations for a new attack on Wilder’s position. In the meantime, Wilder was ordered to withdraw immediately, but refused and steadfastly maintained that he could hold his position and would take responsibility for the consequences, even under the threat of arrest. He was accurate in this assessment and the last attack of the day was easily repulsed. By 7:00 p.m., Union reinforcements had arrived and on June 26th Confederate forces withdrew toward Tullahoma.
The 1,500 Spencer repeating rifles were capable of firing 14 rounds per minute and proved to be the difference between Union forces and the numerically superior Confederates. General Thomas declared following the day’s battle that he had not expected to capture the gap for three days and that henceforth Wilder’s men would be known as the “Lightning Brigade.” Over two hundred, or nearly one forth of the Confederate forces, were killed or wounded at Hoover’s Gap while Wilder’s Brigade suffered only fifty-one casualties. General Bate later commented that judging from the fire power of the Union force, he thought he was outnumbered five to one. It may very well be that this first encounter with repeating rifles at Hoover’s Gap was the beginning of the expression which traveled around the Confederate army for the remainder of the war, that the “Yankees could load on Sunday and shoot all the rest of the week.”
The Battle at Hoover’s Gap was the beginning of what was to be known as the ill-fated Tullahoma campaign. It was the first battle to see the use of repeater rifles. The loss of Hoover’s Gap resulted in the loss of Middle Tennessee, a blow from which the South would never recover, and ultimately set the stage for the Atlanta Campaign and Sherman’s March to the Sea one year later. It was also the beginning of the end of two military careersBragg and Rosecrans. Although over-shadowed by the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the importance and impact of those eleven rainy days in Tennessee cannot be denied.
The key players
General Braxton BraggAlthough there was much discontent among Confederate army leaders and Bragg having lost much of the respect of his men, he never-the-less had the support of President Jefferson Davis and remained in charge of the Army of Tennessee for another year.
After victory at Chickamauga in September, the loss in November at Chattanooga/Lookout Mountain resulted in the loss of Tennessee and retreat to Georgia, where he was finally replaced by General Joseph E. Johnston.
Gen. William Starke RosecransRosecrans’ embarrasing defeat at Chickamauga in September and the demoralizing retreat to Chattanooga resulted in his being replaced by George H. Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” thus ending his military career.
Lt. Col. John T. WilderAfter the war, Wilder returned home to Greensburg, Indiana. In 1866, he relocated his family to Chattanooga, where several members of the “Lightning Brigade” followed. He founded the Roane Iron Company and was a very successful businessman. He worked hard at healing the war wounds of the city and was elected mayor in 1871. An ex-Confederate soldier wrote of him: “It was deemed appropriate that Wilder should be elected mayor of the free choice of the people of Chattanooga to show that no bitterness engendered by war remains in our hearts.” In 1876, running as a Republican, he lost a bid to Congress, but was appointed Post Master the next year by incoming President Rutherford B. Hayes.
It was said of Wilder: “He has lived many years among a people whom he once fought with all his dash and vim, and has not yet received one uncivil or unkind word from any man in the South, and what is more, he has a host of friends among them.”
Wilder was appointed Chairman of the Chickamauga National Park Commission and an 85-foot tower in his honor was dedicated on the 40th anniversary of the battle in 1903. Wilder died in 1917.
The Beech Grove Confederate Cemetery
High atop a hill, with the Confederate battle flag flying proudly in the breeze, nestled between the hustle and bustle of busy Interstate 24 and U.S. 41 just about halfway between Murfreesboro and Manchester, is the first Confederate cemetery to be established after the War Between the States. It also holds the distinction of being the final resting place for 50 unknown Confederate soldiers who were killed at the Battle of Hoover’s Gap, where Spencer Repeating Rifles were first used by Union troops. Despite the changing character of surrounding lands evolving into twenty-first century icons, the integrity of this small cemetery, and the tranquility of that place in time, still exists today.
The following is a letter published in the Manchester Times newspaper in 1904 by Civil War veteran and former resident of Beech Grove, William Hume, which tells the story of how the cemetery came into being.
Dear Friend and Comrade, As you are aware, nearly every man able to bear arms in the First, Second, and Third Districts of Coffee County, and in the adjoining districts of Rutherford and Bedford Counties, was in the Confederate Army, and made the best of soldiers.
In the spring of 1866, quite a number assembled at Beech Grove, and reports were made that many Confederate soldiers had been hastily buried in the fields and pastures nearby, and in some instances the graves were so shallow that portions of the remains were showing. These men all having lately returned to their homeswith fences and stock to a great extent destroyed or stolen and the country devastatedat once agreed to have all these bodies of Confederate soldiers taken up and given a suitable resting place. They selected the top of the hill in the old graveyard on the Manchester Pike, near the Rutherford County line, and in full view of the Manchester Pike, on the land owned by David Lawrence. They then had a nice walnut coffin made for each and re-interred there, putting head-boards on each grave, but being unable to put any name, as all were unknown. They also put a nice paling fence around the graves.
This was done by the people there at their own expense, never having called on any other section for help, and was the first Confederate Soldiers’ graveyard in the South that I have any knowledge of.
The majority of these veterans and their fathers who did this work are dead. Possibly Stokley Jacobs, Bud Jacobs, and Henry Bivins could give you some information in regard to this.
I think it is due your country to have this honor, as it was done at a time when the Confederate soldier did not occupy the position in the State of Tennessee and the United States that he does today, and was entirely the work of love for fallen comrades.
Manchester Times, March 25, 1904
At the time this cemetery was chosen as the final resting place for these fifty unknown Confederate soldiers, there were a few family graves, including one Revolutionary War Soldier, on the site. In 1942, one other Confederate veteran was buried there. For many years it was cared for by local residents and former veterans. Despite their efforts, it fell into a state of disrepair and vandalism became a serious problem. Then in the early 1950’s, $5,000 in state money was appropriated to replace the deteriorating and missing original grave markers. Through the efforts of the late David Jacobs, a retired educator and historian, and with the help of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an additional $5,000 was raised. The land was purchased and the cemetery dedicated in 1955. Mr. Jacobs was its caretaker until his death in 1993. The SCV continues to care for the cemetery at present.
How strategic was the battle that left more than 200 Southern men either dead or wounded on top of the blood-soaked farmland in and near Hoover’s Gap that sits at the meeting points of Coffee, Rutherford, and Bedford counties near the unincorporated rural community of Beech Grove?
Historically, the Battle of Hoover’s Gap (or Beech Grove), was a significant engagement in the Tullahoma Campaign, following on the heels of the major Battle of Stones River six months prior. Overall, Confederate forces were out-numbered, ten to one. And if there were not enough odds against them when they came into battle armed with slow-firing musket rifles, they also held the unfortunate distinction of being the first soldiers in warfare history to be fired upon by the Spencer repeating rifles. Nearly one fourth of the brave Confederate forces defending Hoover’s Gap were either killed or wounded, as compared to only fifty-one Union casualties. Time stopped in 1863 for these fifty unknown Confederate soldiers resting atop this little hill and fate determined their destiny. Yet, “they shall remain nameless, and they shall remain faceless, but they will not be forgotten.”
“Lightning and Rain in Middle Tennessee: The Campaign
of June-July 1863”
Tennessee Historical Quarterly
Vol. LIT, No. 3, Fall 1993, pp. 158-169.
“The Steadiest Body of Men I Ever Saw: John T. Wilder and the Lightning Brigade”
Blue & Gray Magazine
Oct. 1992, pp. 32-36.
“The Deception of Braxton Bragg: The Tullahoma Campaign, June 23-July 4, 1863”
Blue & Gray Magazine
Oct. 1992, pp. 10-21.
Sunderland, Glenn W.
WILDER’S LIGHTNING BRIGADE The Book Works, Washington, IL., 1984.
The Manchester Times
March 25, 1904
Shirley Farris Jones is a Civil War historian and community activist and is a direct descendant of two Confederate great-great-grandfathers. She is a life-long resident of Murfreesboro, Tennessee and currently writes a monthly column for “The Murfreesboro Post.”