"A Petty Blunder Allows Van Dorn To Capture Holly Springs"

By: "C. D. Burchfield"

"Moans of the wounded and dying floated across the field of Fredericksburg, Virginia, as the sun set that Saturday evening of December 13, 1862. Numerous assaults by Ambrose Burnside's Grand Divisions against Robert E. Lee's entrenched Confederates had ended in slaughter. A Federal said,"It was a great slaughter pen . . . they might as well have tried to take Hell."

Meanwhile, in the Western Theater of the war, Major General U.S. Grant began his thrust against Vicksburg, Mississippi, by sending dispatches from his forward headquarters in Oxford, Mississippi, to execute his plans.

Orders were dispatched from General Grant to his chief of cavalry, Colonel Theophilus Lyle Dickey of the 4th Illinois Cavalry, 13th Army Corps. These orders would begin a raid on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.

Unknown to both, this raid not only would hinder the Confederate war effort, but also would have severe implications on Grant's strategy upon Vicksburg. Failure of communications would allow Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn to raid Grant's critical supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Camped a few miles east of Water Valley, Col. Dickey received his orders from General Grant on the night of December 13, about 11 p.m. His orders were to take part of his division of cavalry and destroy the Mobile and Ohio Railroad as far south as possible. At 9 a.m. on Sunday the 14th, Col. Dickey picked a small escort from Company F, 4th Illinois Cavalry. Also included were Colonel Edward Hatch's detachment of 800 men from the second Iowa Cavalry and the seventh Illinois Cavalry. Dickey then set out on his expedition traveling the road for Okolona by way of Pontotoc.

On the march to Pontotoc, the Federals encountered small scouting parties of Confederates, which Dickey's command captured. The command reached Pontotoc at 9:30 on Monday morning after a 45-mile march in a gentle rain.

Citizens informed Dickey that a body of infantry from Bragg's army was encamped nearby. One group was reported to be camped 5 miles east of Pontotoc on the road to Tupelo, and another body camped near Tupelo.

Dickey sent a small reconnoitering party dashing on the Pontotoc-Tupelo road. After splashing on the road 5 or 6 miles, the party found no enemy and returned to Pontotoc.

While at Pontotoc the gentle rain changed into a violent storm and the roads became sodden. At this time, Colonel Dickey ordered all of the ambulances and prisoners sent back under an escort of 100 troopers. Two wagonloads of leather with the Federal Government surveys and township maps of the State of Mississippi were included.

From Pontotoc, Major Datus E. Coon of the 2nd Iowa Cavalry, accompanied by 100 men armed with Colt revolving rifles, destroyed Coonewah Station, the telegraph line, railroad, and the railroad bridge north of Okolona. The rest of the command remained at Pontotoc until the afternoon.

At 1 p.m. on Monday the 15th, with the rest of his command, Dickey took the road for Tupelo. Traveling through a terrific rainstorm, the command encountered nightfall about six miles west of Tupelo. The approach was on a zigzag route with intersecting roads, located on low and muddy ground. Much of the area was timbered and intersected by small indolent streams, passable only on small frail bridges in bad condition.

A little after dark the light of a considerable fire was observed some miles distant to the south. To the north, a less brilliant but broader light could also be seen. An officer sent to a dwelling not far from the road was told by the occupant that those fires were Confederate campfires. Pushing cautiously forward to within two miles of Tupelo, Colonel Dickey learned from an occupant of a house that Federal troops from Corinth had reached Saltillo. The darkness and driving rain caused the occupant of the dwelling to mistake the Federal troopers as Confederate cavalry.

The Confederates being forced south of Saltillo by Federals caused Colonel Dickey to be attentive to a prior order. Fearing that Major Datus Coon might encounter a strong force at Coonewah Station, Dickey dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Prince of the seventh Illinois Cavalry with about 100 troopers promptly into Tupelo. The remainder of the force retired seven miles to a point where the Aberdeen road broke off to the southeast. With the remaining troops stationed at this junction, Major Coon could be given support.

Lieutenant Colonel Prince found that Major Coon had dashed into Coonewah in the afternoon, had stampeded a small party of Confederate cavalry, and had taken a few prisoners. An effort to capture a railroad train passing Coonewah Station to the south was unsuccessful.

Coon's advance party on the full gallop fired on the train. One trooper, leaping from his horse, pistol in hand, mounted the side of the tender under way. The trooper was compelled promptly to jump off to avoid a leaning post close to the track. Major Coon's troop burned the depot, which contained commissary stores And corn. The party also destroyed small bridges and trestlework on the railroad near Coonewah.

Lieutenant-Colonel Prince returned about 3 a.m., Tuesday the 16th to Colonel Dickey's camp west of Tupelo. Prince had destroyed trestlework north of the town after seeing destruction caused by Colonel Mersy's troops.

The supposed rebel campfires seen to the south the night before proved to be light from the depot burning at Coonewah Station by Coon's troopers. The light seen by Dickey's command to the northeast proved to be the campfires of Union Colonel August Mersy's troops from Corinth. Mersy's troops had begun returning to Corinth the morning of the 16th after making contact with Colonel Dickey.

This force from Corinth was composed of the ninth Illinois Infantry, 81st Ohio Infantry, along with 111 troopers of the 5th Ohio Cavalry and 53rd Illinois Independent Cavalry. For added punch, one section of the first Missouri Light Artillery accompanied the raiders. Before Colonel Dickey's force arrived, Mersy's force had captured 68 prisoners; two large rebel mails and forced Colonel Barteau's 350 Confederates to retire south of Tupelo. With their mission accomplished, Colonel Mersy and his troopers began their return to Corinth.

Colonel Dickey's command labored Tuesday and Wednesday destroying trestlework and bridges from Saltillo to Okolona. A total of 34 miles of the Mobile and Ohio railroad, including a large bridge that crossed a branch of the Tombigbee River below Okolona, was destroyed.

The Federals' actions created great excitement among the Confederate authorities. These disruptions were to be diversions from Grant and Sherman's move upon Vicksburg, Mississippi.

General Joseph E. Johnston sent a telegraph from Grenada, Mississippi, to General Braxton Bragg in Murfreesborough, Tennessee, on the 17th. Johnston stated, "General Pemberton reports enemy on railroad to Columbus. Hurry your cavalry operations and hasten the troops this way."

On the same day as Johnston's telegraph, another was sent from Lt. General John C. Pemberton to Brig. General Ruggles. Pemberton orders Ruggles, "Have all sick removed off line of railroad above Meridian and all stores brought down that transportation can be got for."

Colonel John Adams commander of the arsenal in Columbus, telegraphed General Ruggles. He stated, "Enemy's cavalry destroyed depot at Okolona; fear Barteau's cavalry are not resisting their advance. Federal cavalry reported about 400, Barteau has perhaps 800. Please order Barteau to oppose enemy, or there is nothing to prevent his reaching Meridian."

This brought a response from Colonel C. R. Barteau of the second Tennessee Cavalry; "Force of 300 which burned Shannon Depot was from Oxford and has returned. Force stationary at Tupelo, 2,500 infantry, nine pieces of artillery, and some cavalry. Force at Pontotoc probably 1,000 cavalry with artillery, not advancing, but ravaging country. I do not think their demonstration is now threatening to Columbus, though such may have been their original intention. I retreated to this place last night, the better to counteract any possible movement by way of Fulton and Aberdeen. Also apprehending attack from Pontotoc. I need more cavalry!"

While at Verona, Lieutenant-Colonel Prince captured eighteen boxes of infantry equipment, some marked "Col. P.D. Roddey," several boxes of canteens, a quantity of Confederate army clothing, over 100 new wall tents, several barrels of sugar along with small arms and ammunition.

Eight wagons were pressed into Federal service to bring away as much as possible; the rest were destroyed. On the return to join Colonel Dickey at Harrisburg, a bridge gave way and the loads were burned.

Wednesday night, the 17th, the entire Federal party camped two miles northwest of Tupelo at a deserted town called Harrisburg. Before daybreak Thursday morning the troop marched toward Pontotoc, halting a little before noon to eat nine miles east of the town.

Around noon, two miles further west of the main column, Col. Dickey with his escort made a startling discovery. A large Confederate cavalry force, estimated from 6,000 to 7,000, were in Pontotoc.

Believing this force was sent to cut off his small command, Dickey closed up his column and moved off the road to the north. By traveling this road, Dickey intended to avoid the Confederates by passing four miles north of Pontotoc.

While on the Pontotoc-Tuscumbia, Alabama road, the Union forces encountered a small number of Confederate troops. The Federals captured three and wounded another, with others escaping.

Dickey determined that the Confederate column was moving out from Pontotoc on the Ripley road directly north. Also, he observed the smoke of campfires and the head of the Confederate line feeding onto the road 1 ½ miles distant. Scouts informed Colonel Dickey that around 400 of the Confederates were still in Pontotoc.

The force of Confederate cavalry was General Earl Van Dorn's command on the way to raid Grant's supply depot at Holly Springs. The Confederate rearguard was the first Mississippi Cavalry led by Colonel Robert A. Pinson of Pontotoc.

No doubt, many of Pinson's Pontotoc Dragoons wondered why they were not allowed to engage the Federals that had raided their town a few days earlier. Nor did they understand that Earl Van Dorn had bigger game in sight.

Colonel Dickey did not wish to engage a superior force. He reasoned, "My horses were so worn down from hard and long marching that it was deemed imprudent to encounter an enemy so superior in numbers and mounted on fresh horses. My object was to avoid him if possible; if not, to fight at his rear."

Throwing out a small guard at a strong position to guard his right flank, Colonel Dickey moved toward Pontotoc on the Tuscumbia road. Couriers were detailed with a dispatch to advise General Grant of the Confederate cavalry moving north. An escort was ordered to conduct the couriers 8 miles west on the Oxford road.

At sundown, Dickey's command left Pontotoc on the Rockyford road to the northwest of the Ripley road. According To Dickey, this was to make a demonstration of attack on the enemy's left flank. After following this road for three miles, the Union troops turned to the southwest as daylight disappeared.

Dickey's troopers traveled to the Pontotoc-Oxford road using paths through the countryside. Traveling the Rockyford road a few miles, the Federals turned south. After crossing the Yocona River on a bridge, they made camp Thursday night the 18th.

It was here that Colonel Dickey found to his surprise that the escort and couriers had not left the column. This, according to Dickey, was due to, "a misapprehension of his orders." At once Dickey sent other couriers forward to Oxford.

Before daylight, Dickey ordered Colonel Hatch to lead the command to their cavalry camp on the Yocona River. Dickey and his escort arrived in Oxford at 5:30 p.m. and reported the large Confederate cavalry force encountered the previous day. Immediately a notice was telegraphed to every point on the railroad north of Oxford.

Having lost their way in the Yocona River bottoms traveling all night, the second group of couriers dispatched the evening of the 18th did not arrive at the 13th Corps cavalry camp until the morning of the 20th. The troopers found themselves farther from Oxford than Thursday night on the Yocona River.

Van Dorn's Confederate cavalry stood to horse shivering in the pre-dawn chill of December 20, 1862. Friday night the troop had halted within 5 miles of Holly Springs, Mississippi, and Grant’s important supply depot.

Dashing past the Federal infantry in their tents, the Confederates came upon the 2nd Illinois cavalry in line answering roll call. These troopers were preparing to search for Van Dorn's force when shots and thundering hoof beats were heard.

Sweeping in from three directions, Van Dorn's 3,500 troopers routed the Federals. While about 1,500 prisoners were taken, the vital supply depot with its tons of medical, quartermaster, ordnance and commissary stores fell into Confederate hands. In 10 hours, Van Dorn had destroyed $1.5 million worth of supplies and burned several buildings, including a new 2,000 bed hospital.

Van Dorn had destroyed Grant's most important supply depot, forcing Grant to pull back his forces from Oxford, Mississippi, to LaGrange, Tennessee, on December 21, 1862. Van Dorn selected the objective that had the greatest impact upon the Federals, Grant's supply base in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Van Dorn's destruction of the Federal supply depot eclipsed Colonel Dickey's raid. The judge from Illinois had marched around 200 miles in six days, worked two days destroying 34 miles of railroad, and captured about 150 Confederates. Dickey also led his cavalry around an enemy superior in number to his without having a man killed, wounded, or captured.

Ed. note (These were taken from the Federal land office which was located in the town of Pontotoc. Pontotoc was selected for the site of the land office after the Pontotoc Creek Treaty on October 20, 1832. The dispersal of government land purchased from the Chickasaws and sold to settlers required documentation. Hence, the maps, and surveys were stored until needed.)

"Another Article Written by Mr.Curtis Dean Burchfield"

Theophilus Lyle Dickey was born in Paris, Bourbon County, Kentucky, on October 2, 1811. His ancestry was of Scotch-Irish stock, who had settled in South Carolina, Virginia, then Kentucky.

His grandfather was a member of Marion's cavalry and served through the American Revolution. His father was Rev. James H. Dickey and his mother's maiden name was Mary Depew.

The family moved to Ross County, Ohio, when T. Lyle was three years of age. A year later his mother died, and he returned to live with his Grandmother on her plantation in Kentucky.

In 1826, at the age of 15, he entered Ohio University where he continued his studies for four years. Afterward he entered the senior class at Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, where he graduated with honors in 1831.

On December 6, 1831, at 20 years of age, Dickey married Miss Juliet Evans, daughter of an affluent farmer. He then taught school in Lebanon, Ohio, and Millersburg, Bourbon County, Kentucky, with great success.

Dickey rode on horseback with his small daughter Ann to Macomb, McDonough County, Illinois, in the winter of 1834. It was here that he Intended to become a farmer.

Arriving in McDonough County, Dickey made the acquaintance of Hon. Cyrus H. Walker, who induced him to begin the study of law. Shortly afterward Dickey was admitted to the bar of Illinois in 1835.

Dickey moved in 1835 to Rushville, Illinois, where he practiced for three years and edited a Whig newspaper. Here, Dickey began a profitable speculation in real estate. During the Panic of 1837, however, he lost all and was overcome with debt. Yet, within twenty years every creditor was paid in full.

Dickey was practicing law in Ottawa, Illinois when the Mexican war began. Quickly raising a company, he was chosen captain. After the company had been attached to the first Regiment of Illinois Volunteers, Captain Dickey resigned his commission due to ill health.

After returning home, Dickey was elected in 1848 as a judge of the circuit court comprising twelve counties. Four years later he resigned and returned to his practice in Ottawa, Illinois.

In 1854 Dickey opened a law office in Chicago, but resided at Ottawa, Illinois. Tragedy struck on December 3, 1855, when his wife died after a brief illness.

In 1858 he resumed his practice in Ottawa and associated himself in business with his son, Cyrus E. Dickey and W.H.L. Wallace. During this Period T. Lyle championed the cause of Stephen A. Douglas. Dickey delivered a number of articulate and potent addresses in various parts of Illinois in support of "The Little Giant."

The firm transacted a large legal business until 1861. After the Battle of First Bull Run, Judge Dickey immediately set about forming a regiment of volunteers for the Union. These volunteers were mustered into service as the fourth Illinois Cavalry, Judge Dickey as colonel.

In December the 4th Illinois Cavalry joined General Grant at Cairo, Illinois. February found Dickey leading the fourth Illinois in Tennessee. The fourth Illinois were present at the surrender of Fort Henry. In the attack upon Fort Donelson, Colonel Dickey led the way across the strip of timberland that lay between Fort Henry and the rifle-pits of Donelson.

The Judge was present at the surrender of Forts Henry and Donelson. After this success, Colonel Dickey accompanied Grant to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee.

On April 6, 1862, the Confederates attacked Grant's encamped Federal Army at Shiloh, Tennessee. Two battalions of Dickey's command were Assigned to Brigadier General William T. Sherman's Fifth Division on April 2, 1862.

Colonel Dickey arrived at Shiloh on April 5th with two battalions of cavalry. That evening, after overhearing of an encounter with Confederate cavalry by two young officers of W.H.L. Wallace's command, Dickey asked them to inform Sherman of their observations.

Both of Dickey's sons were with him at Shiloh. Also his son-in-law Brigadier General William H. L. Wallace was killed after fighting six hours in the Hornet's Nest.

The Judge's daughter, Ann Dickey Wallace arrived at Pittsburg Landing On April 6th intending to surprise her husband, General W.H.L Wallace. Instead of spending time with Wallace, she kept busy helping with the wounded aboard a Union transport in the Tennessee River.

After the battle, Ann Wallace was visited by her brother who was one of General Wallace's staff officers. Cyrus Dickey told his grief stricken sister, "Will was leading his division back toward the Landing when shot through the head." Cyrus Dickey had tried to rescue his brother-in-law's body, but Confederates were pursuing too closely. Before leaving, he laid Wallace's body beside some ammunition boxes to protect it from being trampled.

After Shiloh, Judge Dickey took part in the Siege of Corinth and the Battle of Iuka, Mississippi. In June, Colonel Dickey was appointed Chief of Cavalry on General Grant's staff and sent to Memphis, Tennessee.

Dickey returned to Corinth during July, and Grant then dispatched him to Washington to procure additional arms for the cavalry. Upon his return, the cavalry was organized into a division of five brigades with Dickey in command of the Division.

December 1, 1862 found Dickey's command far in advance. At Water Valley, Mississippi, Dickey's troopers became engaged in a desperate struggle with Major General Earl Van Dorn's defenders along the Tallahatchie River in North Mississippi. Skirmishing between Federal and Confederate forces lasted almost four days as Grant's Army of the Tennessee advanced upon Oxford, Mississippi.

Soon after this engagement, Dickey made the first extensive cavalry raid into North Mississippi on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. Earl Van Dorns' raid on Holly Springs nullified this raid causing the loss of Grant's vital supplies.

General Dickey used this experience to formulate a plan to raid the interior of Mississippi. General Benjamin Grierson carried out this raid in April 1863, from Lagrange, Tennessee, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Dickey had already resigned on the 16th of February 1863. If the Judge had anything to do with Grierson's strategy, he was never recognized except by his friends.

Returning home, Colonel Dickey formed a law partnership with John B. Rice. After three years, Dickey became the Democratic candidate for the U. S. Congress but was defeated.

In 1868 Dickey was appointed Assistant Attorney General of the U.S. and retained this position until he resigned in 1870. On August 8, 1870, he married a Mrs. Hurst of Princess Anne, Maryland, and returned to Ottawa, Illinois. Dickey practiced law, this time as a member of the firm of Dickey, Boyle, and Richolson.

In December 1873, he moved to Chicago and practiced law with B.G. Caulfield. During this time, Dickey was elected to fill the vacancy of a judge of the Illinois Supreme Court. On June 6, 1879, Justice Dickey was re-elected by the people of Illinois for a term of nine years. A year later Dickey became Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Judge Dickey died July 22, 1885, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At his death, he left behind his widow and four children. Colonel Dickey was no stranger to grief during the war, having lost his son-in-law Brigadier General W. H. L. Wallace at Shiloh and later his son, Cyrus E. Dickey. Cyrus Dickey was killed at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads, Louisiana, during General Bank's defeat in the Red River campaign in April of 1864.

Cyrus E. Dickey was Assistant Adjutant General to Thomas E. G. Ransom of the 13th Army Corps. Colonel T. Lyle Dickey, like many lesser-known officers, has been overlooked by many historians. Men like Dickey helped build the 13th Army Corps of the Army of the Tennessee into an effective fighting force.

With Van Dorn's raid came the ridicule of failure, due to Dickey's failure to engage or divert. Van Dorn's successful raid led to critical evaluations of Colonel Dickey's raid and failure to forewarn his superiors of Confederate cavalry movements.

General Benjamin Grierson received recognition after pursuing Van Dorn's cavalry from Holly Springs. Although unsuccessful, Grierson's star ascended as Dickey's descended.

After Colonel Dickey resigned in February 1863, Colonel Benjamin Grierson was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of a brigade of cavalry. With Grierson's successful raid through Mississippi came the esteem of the nation. As Grierson gained promotion in the regular army, Judge Dickey gained a reputation in civil affairs. He was never given proper credit, however for his military service.

"In the democracy of the dead all men at last are equal. There is neither rank nor station nor prerogative in the republic of the grave."

1. Shiloh: Bloody April by Wiley Sword, p. 297

2. Senator John James Ingalls, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotes from the Library of Congress.


1. Illinois State Historical Library: Old State Capitol, Springfield, Illinois.

2. U.S. Army Military History Institute: Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.

3. Shiloh: Bloody April, by Wiley Sword.

4. Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

Researched and written by: Curtis Dean Burchfield

I would like to at this time give a very special thanks to Mr. Curtis Dean Burchfield a college professor in Mississippi, Who wrote these wonderful pages of history of the 4th Illinois for which you are about to read on this page.

He researched all the following information himself. He then himself travled down the very roads that he mentions in his writings, Mr. Curtis Dean Burchfield wrote these pages for all of us who's forefathers served with the Honorable 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.

Because of people like Mr. Burchfield and his special efforts has helped yours, mine, and our web-site grow. A Special Thanks to Mr. Dean Burchfield.

Ronald Roy Wallace