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The Battle for Coffeeville

by

Mr. Don Sides, of Oxford, Mississippi

At 9 o’clock p.m. on December 3, couriers brought advices that Lee had crossed the Yockna, or Yocknapatalfa, on the Paris road, about 8 miles due south from Oxford, having driven the enemy from a burning bridge and repaired it. About the same time a dispatch from Hatch reported that the enemy had burned the bridge on the main Coffeeville road and had thus far successfully resisted his attempt to cross; that he had been skirmishing most of the day and was at the Yockna, and the enemy in considerable force on the opposite bank. At once orders were sent to Lee to move cautiously, bearing to his right, down the river, and to co-operate with Hatch in effecting a crossing and not to advance till the south side of the river was cleared of the enemy and Hatch communicated with; and to Hatch, that if he failed to effect a crossing in the morning he should turn up the river to some point where he could cross, and that he should approach or join Lee’s column after crossing, and both, when communication, should move on toward Coffeeville.

Before daylight on the 4th couriers reported Hatch had crossed the Yockna at Prophet Bridge, some 18 miles from Oxford and 7 miles from Water Valley, and about the same distance down the river from the burned bridge. Again couriers were dispatched, ordering Lee and Hatch to approach each other, communicate before advancing, and then pursue the enemy hotly.

At 8 a.m. on December 4th Colonel Mizner was sent with the Third Michigan Cavalry and one piece of artillery, under Lieutenant S.T. Durkee of Battery “G”, Second Illinois Artillery, to join and co-operate with Hatch, while I proceeded on Colonel Lee’s route with another piece of artillery, commanded by a sergeant of the same company, escorted by a detachment of Cavalry. Major-General McPherson, at my request, had sent me the two pieces or artillery. I overtook Lee near Water Valley, which he was reconnoitering before entering. Here Colonel Hatch came up with his command, and the two brigades entered the town about the same time. The enemy had crossed the Otchalofa and burned the wagon bridge, about a mile from the town. It had turned out that Lee and Hatch had failed to communicate with each other; that Hatch on the morning of the 4th pushed directly for Water Valley, entered the town before noon, skirmishing sharply with the rear of that part of the enemy that had crossed the Yockna at and below the railroad crossing and the burnt bridge, drove the through the town and across the Otuckalofa. About this time he discovered a strong rebel force approaching from the northeast, upon his left and rear, and withdrew his main force back through the village to a strong position, facing the road upon which the approaching force was advancing.

The enemy attacked with determined vigor with a force of cavalry, estimated at eight regiments; but after a fierce fight was worsted and driven back with considerable loss. Another detachment of the enemy at this moment threatened the rear of Colonel Hatch’s command. Leaving Lieutenant-Colonel Prince with the Seventh Illinois to hold the ground Colonel Hatch went with the rest of his command to the rear, on the route he had advanced over. At this juncture Colonel Lee’s command Made its appearance from the northeast. Colonel Prince supposing it to be another detachment of the enemy, thought it prudent to withdraw to the northwest, on the road upon which he had advanced. The former approaching learned from prisoners that Colonel Hatch had been in Water Valley, had a fight, and afterward fell back. Inferring that Colonel Hatch had been beaten he advanced with great caution, waiting to communicate with Hatch.

The country being hill and densely wooded it took some time to establish communications. By this chapter of accidents the enemy found time to escape across the Otuckalofa and burn the bridge near the railroad: but we arrived in time to save the railroad bridge. We bivouacked on the north bank of the river. While here it was reliably ascertained that Federal forces from Helena had been at or near Grenada and on the northwest-infantry at Charleston, cavalry at Oakland-and that some cavalry fighting had taken place at the latter point on Tuesday and Wednesday. The desire to communicate with these forces, relying somewhat upon the moral effect of their presence at this point, determined me to press the enemy on daylonger.

Colonel Mizner’s command, with one piece of artillery, was ordered to take the advance on Friday morning followed by Lee’s brigade, and that by Colonel Hatch’s. Considerable delay occurred in getting across the river, and Colonel Lee, having found a bridge near his camp, reached the main road on the south side of the Otuck (as it is familiarly called), before the advance of Colonel Mizner’s command. To avoid delay he was ordered to take the advance, and did so, followed by Colonel Mizner’s Command, and his by that of Colonel Hatch’. Thus the entire command was concentrated, and, from the absence of parallel roads, compelled to move on the same road.

At about 2’oclock the head of the column came up with the rear of the enemy and pressed him sharply. Having discovered a small part of rebel cavalry on our right carefully watching our movements, a detachment was sent to dislodge it, and an order was sent to Colonel Lee, at the head of the column, to move cautiously, throw out strong flankers, and show a wide front. Colonel Hatch and Mizner were also directed to throw out flankers at the head of each of their commands.

Riding rapidly to the front I found one piece of our artillery moving cautiously forward and now and then throwing shell beyond our skirmishers as they steadily advanced. At about 1 mile from Coffeeville a few shells, were thrown to the front, when suddenly the enemy opened at short range upon our position with shell, using I think, four pieces of artillery, perhaps six. At the same time his infantry in line opened upon our advanced dismounted skirmishers with rapid volleys, while heavy skirmishing was in progress on both flanks of the head of our column and extending to the rear of the head of the column. From all this it was quite evident we had encountered a heavier force than we were able to combat, under the jaded condition of our men and horses.

Colonel Lee was ordered to fall back steadily in the center and strong parties were at once sent to the support of our skirmishers on the right and left flanks. The column was faced to the rear and colonels Mizner and Hatch were ordered to form successive supporting lines of detachments on each side of the road to cover the retreat of our skirmishers and check the advance of the enemy on the main road. The enemy pressing hard upon our retiring forces, the moving back of the led horses of dismounted men and the reversal of wagons and ambulances occasioned considerable confusion, though no indications whatever of a panic were at any time perceptible.

Our flanks were repeatedly attacked by the enemy’s infantry, but our flankers as often succeeded in repulsing the. The column was steadily withdrawn about 1-½ miles to the rear to an open, field, when the fighting ceased. Night having come on in the mean time the column was halted at this point, a strong rear guard sent back to watch the enemy and check his pursuit if attempted, while suitable parties were detached to watch the approaches on the right and left flanks of the rear. Having waited about an hour to enable our dismounted men to find a mount their horses the division was marched back to the camps, which it had occupied the night before, arriving there at about 11 p.m. Here I at first thought of resting the next day and sending scouting parties toward Coffeeville, but upon the advice of Colonel Lee the command was moved early on the morning of the 6th to Yockna River, crossing at Prophet Bridge, about 6 miles distant from Water Valley. The command was encamped so as to watch the approaches and gather forage.

In the action near Coffeeville, as well as during the entire pursuit, the men and officers behaved in the most gallant manner, cheerfully bearing every hardship in order to inflict injury upon the enemy.

Lieutenant-Colonel McCullough, of the Fourth Illinois Cavalry, fell while covering the retreat of our column with the mounted companies of his regiment. He was at first reported wounded and a prisoner, but it is now ascertained that he was instantly killed. A better or braver man never fought or fell. He died with his face to the foe, at the head of his command, thus nobly sacrificing his life for the safety of his fellows. His loss is a severe one to the country and the service.

Lieutenant Woodburn, of the Seventh Kansas, fell mortally wounded at the first volley of the enemy. Captain Townsend, Fourth Illinois Cavalry: Lieutenant Colbert, of the Seventh Kansas: Captain Eystra and Lieutenants Reed, Budd, and Harrington, of the Second Iowa, and Captain Caldwell, of the Third Michigan Cavalry, received honorable wounds in the action. Sergeant Baylor, of my escort, was wounded by my side near the close of the action. The horse of Colonel Lee was wounded: that of Colonel Hatch killed.

The conduct of Colonels Mizner, Lee, and Hatch in the handling of their troops was worthy of praise. Major Ricker, of the Fifth Ohio Cavalry, conducted the rear guard in the retreat with cool bravery and good judgment.

Lieutenants Wilson and Davis of my staff deserve special commendation for their efficiency in transmitting my orders and effecting their execution and for valuable suggestions in the midst of the action.

Other officers were self-possessed and inspired the men with confidence. I mention only those whose conduct came under my own personal observation.

As to the troops, they fought well, without exception. The Seventh Illinois and the battalion of the Fifth Ohio, which had until very lately been illy armed, have proven themselves, with good arms in their hands, as effective in the face of an enemy as their most noted companions in the field.

This action was fought under peculiar difficulties. The road was narrow and extremely muddy, lined nearly all the way on both sides by a dense and almost impenetrable growth of oak trees and underbrush, running over a broken and impenetrable growth of oak trees and underbrush, running over a broken and impracticable country or through river bottoms of a miry character. It was impossible to see the enemy’s position or note his strength till we we5e upon him. It was equally difficult to and the horses of the dismounted men.

In this pursuit, over muddy roads and through almost incessant rains, in a country destitute of forage for horses and without rations for men, the enemy was followed four successive days, skirmishing daily and almost hourly, and chased as far a Coffeeville, a distance of about 50 miles, and after fighting him at that point several hours, engaging his artillery and infantry, I withdrew my command steadily and fell back to a place of security where I could give the troops the rest they so much needed.

In the expedition we captured 750 prisoners and near 200 horses and mules: also 5 railroad cars, 4 wagons loaded with supplies, $7,000.00 of Confederate money in the hands of a rebel quartermaster: compelled the enemy to burn several hundred tents and to abandon and destroy several hundred stand of small-arms: saved from destruction all of the railroad bridges on the route and most of the trestle work, and obtained a correct man of the country through the assistance of the assistant topographical engineer who accompanied me.

We lost 10 Killed, 63 wounded, and 41 captured. Of the enemy at least 70 were killed, 250 wounded, and 750 taken prisoners. His loss in stragglers and deserters on the retreat is probably 600 or 700 more.

I transmit herewith a list of the casualties, which is respectfully submitted.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

T. LYLE DICKEY

Colonel and Chief of Cavalry, Commanding Cavalry Division.

Battle of Coffeeville, Union Report. Colonel Theophilus Lyle Dickey, Fourth Illinois Cavalry, Colonel and Chief of Cavalry, Commanding Cavalry Division.

(Page 494 of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Chapter XX1X.