Read an Excerpt
"We fell upon the camp like a small avalanche"
The first traces of dawn colored the eastern sky at 5:20 a.m. on Friday, March 10, 1865. Hampton and his Southern horse soldiers stood poised for the attack. [Diary of William W. Gordon, entry for March 10, 1865, Gordon Family Papers, Southern Historical Collections, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.]
The rain had stopped, but the cold thick fog that concealed them from any stirring Federals also made things difficult for the Confederates. [Wells, Hampton and His Cavalry in '64.]
"After some minutes a portion of the division which was to lead in the attack moved down the road on a slow walk in the direction of the Federal camp and halted just outside it," recalled Edward L. Wells, 4th South Carolina Cavalry, Law's Brigade. "Here a few words were addressed to the men by [Hampton] in his quiet, clear, incisive voice, he looking, every inch of him, the beau idea of cavalier." [Wells, "A Morning Call on Kilpatrick".]
While Wheeler's men were forming for the assault the general dashed off to find Hampton. When he found the South Carolinian chatting with Butler along the Morganton Road, Wheeler reined in and saluted. "With your permission I will dismount my men, making the capture of the entire camp sure," Wheeler proclaimed.
Hampton responded quietly. "General Wheeler, as a cavalryman I prefer making this capture mounted."
The diminutive Georgian saluted again and replied, "General Hampton, all is ready for action; have your headquarters bugler blow the charge." [Jones, "Report by Joseph A. Jones".]
Wheeler wheeled his horse and dashed off to rejoin his command, which was anxiously awaiting his orders to attack.
Hampton decided to ride into the action at the head of Gib Wright's Brigade, while Law's South Carolina brigade remained north of the Morganton Road waiting to reinforce Wright's attack and provide a gathering place for any prisoners of war taken in the charge. Hampton's chief scout, Hugh H. Scott, joined Butler. "Scott, you have been trying for some time to get stripes on your collar," said the general. "Now if you will bring Kilpatrick out and deliver him to me, I will promote you on the battlefield." Fired by the promise of immediate promotion, Scott dashed to his position with Captain Bostick's squadron at the head of Wright's Brigade, where he focused his attention on the fog-shrouded Monroe house. [Scott, "Fighting Kilpatrick's Escape".]
The Yankees in the house, reported a Confederate long after the war, "were buried in the profound slumber of supposed security." [Wells, "A Morning Call on Kilpatrick".]
After leaving Hampton and Butler, Wheeler galloped back to his command waiting on the reverse side of the ridge along Nicholson Creek. Humes's Division was formed in line of battle on the far right, with Harrison's Texas Brigade in front holding the extreme right. Wheeler, along with his headquarters escort and Shannon's Scouts, would lead Allen's Division in the center. Dibrell's Division, which was just arriving on the field, would remain in reserve to reinforce the initial attacks if necessary. It had been an exceedingly long night, but everything was finally ready. Silence fell over the two contingents of Confederate horsemen as they anxiously awaited the order to charge.
Hampton fell in at the head of Butler's command. "Follow me, men," cried Hampton, his voice ringing out clearly for all to hear. "Charge!" Butler dashed to the head of his waiting horsemen. "Troops from Virginia! Follow me! Forward, march!" he cried, followed almost immediately by a single word:
"At daylight, we were ordered to mount and march," recalled a member of the Cobb Legion Cavalry of Wright's brigade. "We were marching by fours (the writer was in the first fours). We galloped by Kilpatrick's reserve pickets without the firing of a gun and charged right into their camps just as they were on the eve of rising." [S. W. Bailey, "Gen. Wade Hampton's Charge into Kilpatrick's Camp in 1865," Atlanta Journal, March 8, 1902.]
Butler's horsemen eagerly put spurs to their mounts and surged forward. "In a moment the cavalrymen were dashing with a magnificent Confederate yell through Kilpatrick's camp." Hampton was the first to enter Kilpatrick's camp, fighting "as though a private." [Calhoun, Liberty Dethroned; Wells, Hampton and His Cavalry in '64]
One of the legion's officers recalled that "we fell upon the camp like a small avalanche." [Wiley C. Howard, Sketch of the Cobb Legion Cavalry and Some Incidents and Scenes Remembered (Atlanta, Ga.: privately published, 1901).]
The surprise was overwhelmingly successful. "Our brigade swept out everything clean," recalled Col. J. Fred Waring, the commander of the Jeff Davis Legion Cavalry of Wright's Brigade.[Waring diary, entry for March 10, 1865.]
"Great numbers of the men were sabered while rising from their blankets," recalled the historian of the 5th Ohio Cavalry. [Reid, Ohio in the War.]
Only a few guards and cooks were milling about when the Confederates struck. Everyone else was still sleeping or resting in their tents. "The troopers, thus rudely awakened, rubbed their eyes and peered out from under the canvas flies in droll bewilderment at the row," [Wells, "A Morning Call on Kilpatrick"] a member of the 4th South Carolina Cavalry later wrote. "If all the foul fiends from the nether world had accompanied [the Confederate horsemen] the Federals could not have been more surprised or demoralized. The camp-guards, if there were any awake, had no time to give warning, and the men under the tent-flies were literally ridden over; or, as they sprang out half-asleep, were sabered or ridden down before they knew what was doing." [Wells, Hampton and His Cavalry in '64.]
Unfortunately for the Confederates, Butler's charge rapidly lost momentum. "On our right we failed to rout the enemy entirely on account of a ravine where Wheeler's men were to enter," noted a Georgian of the Cobb Legion. "Their horses would mire, hence only a few of them could enter and they were killed." [Bailey, "Gen. Wade Hampton's Charge."]