20 March 2018 by Published in: Confederate Cavalry No comments yet

Dr. John Wyeth, who documented the exploits of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry in the latter portion of the Civil War, started out as a private in the 4th Alabama Cavalry of Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s corps. Wyeth was present at the June 27, 1863 Battle of Shelbyville, Tennessee, during the Tullahoma Campaign. Shelbyville was an overwhelming Union victory, where Col. Robert H. G. Minty’s single brigade, augmented by two additional regiments, shattered Wheeler’s command, routed it, and sent Wheeler himself flying headlong into the deep, rushing waters of the Duck River to escape capture.

Pvt. John A. Wyeth, 4th Alabama Cavalry.

Writing in 1898, Wyeth left this vivid description of the mounted fighting at Shelbyville. It’s too good of a description not to share:

A cavalry fight well sustained on both sides is lively enough when one takes part in it, but it seems exceedingly tame on paper. This one did not lack in spirit. About a score of such “scraps,” some of which, of larger growth, have passed to place on the bloodiest pages of history, the writer does not recall a contest which, for downright pluck in giving and taking hard and heavy knocks through several hours, surpasses this Shelbyville “affair.” The carbines and rifles were flashing and banging away, at times in scattering shots, when the game was at a long range, and then when a charge came on, and the work grew hot, the spiteful, sharp explosions swelled into a crackling roar, like that of a canebrake on fire, when in a single minute hundreds of the boilerlike joints have burst asunder. Add to all of this the whizzing, angry whir of countless leaden missiles which split the air about you; the hoarse unnatural shouts of command–for in battle all sounds of the human voice seem out of pitch and tone; the wild, defiant yells and the answering huzzahs of the opposing lines; the plunging and rearing of the frightened horses; the the charges here and there of companies or squadrons, or more than these which seem to be shot from the main body, as flames shoot out of a house on fire; here and there the sharp, quick cry from some unfortunate trooper who did not hear one leaden messenger–for only those are heard which have passed by; the heavy, soggy striking of the helpless body against the ground; the scurrying runaway of the frightened horse, as often into danger as out of it, whose empty saddle tells the foe that there is one less rifle to fear–all these sights and sounds go to make up the confusing medley of a battlefield. And then there was the artillery, not thundering away–for artillery never thunders when one is near it. Two or three miles away the reverberations of the atmosphere convey to the ear the sound of distant thunder, but when, on the field, one faces or stands behind the battery which is engaged, the noise seems more like the sudden throb or impulse of some huge pump than the prolonged muffled sounds which are akin to thunder. So, for nearly three hours, passed this little fight.

That vivid description could have been of any cavalry battle, not just Shelbyville–it would be just as applicable to the Battle of Brandy Station, as just one example. It’s one of the finest descriptions of mounted combat I’ve yet found.

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