Dug Hill, Tennessee is a quiet and peaceful community located about nine miles northeast of Sparta in rural section of White County. On 22 February 1864, its tranquility was shattered when a group of Confederate soldiers ambushed a group of Federal soldiers, killing - without mercy - all that were captured. This skirmish was called the Battle of Dug Hill (also known as the Battle of the Calfkiller).
Just prior to the Civil War, while other southern states were seceding from the Union, Tennessee initially voted to remain faithful. With attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and Lincoln's subsequent call for 75,000 volunteers to quash the rebellion, a second vote in Tennessee yielded a different result. West Tennessee was strongly for secession, while East Tennessee was strongly in favor of remaining in the Union. After Middle Tennessee cast the deciding vote in favor of secession, Tennessee formally withdrew from the Union on 8 June 1861.
At the beginning of the war, the Confederacy controlled the Middle Tennessee region. With the fall of Nashville in February 1862, Middle Tennessee fell under Union control and was occupied by Union troops commanded by Colonel Ulysses S. Grant. President Lincoln appointed Andrew Johnson , an East Tennessean from Greeneville, as the Military Governor.
By the end of 1863, the war had not come to a quick and decisive conclusion, as most had predicted, but rather it had dragged on for over two and a half years. Both sides had grown weary of the ongoing conflict. The citizens living in the embattled areas, particularly Middle Tennessee, found daily living a constant struggle. Regardless which side of the war they aligned themselves, they were continually harassed by bands of guerrillas and bushwhackers. Robbery and murder were the norm rather than the exception.
Various appeals were made to Military Governor Andrew Johnson urging him to take action. On 6 January 1864 while stationed in Nashville, Lt. Colonel Andrew J. Cropsey of the 129th Illinois Infantry wrote to Johnson:
"And [officers of the Tenn Union Guards] were so urgent in this that I make this written statement in addition to what I told you verbaly - Much of the information was obtained from those officers in which they were confirmed by citizens -- The country along the river is pretty much cleared of guerillas except Jackson County, but this County or rather that part of it on the South side of the river, is the headquarters of Hamilton, Hughes, Ferguson and other guerilla leaders, who by their robberies and murders, which are large and numerous, keep that region in perfect terror, and occasionally make robbing raids into distant parts of the Country especially up into Kentucky."
He suggested that Major Abram E. Garrett
Citizens concerned for their families' safety implored Johnson to protect them. On 15 January 1864, John Bowen, a Minister in Gordonsville wrote
"Permit me to call your special attention to that large district of county lying east of the Caney Fork river, and west of the Cumberland mountains; towns of Mcminnville & Sparta, including the counties of Jackson, Overton, Putnam and parts of Smith, White and Fentress in Tennessee, and Clinton, & Wayne in Kentucky. ... It has been held by rebel bands during the rebelion, and is still so held, and has furnished large supplies to the rebel armies. ... The well know rebel chief Hamilton still holds undisputed possession there, but it is believed with greatly reduced forces and means of defense."
He suggested that Colonel Alvan C. Gillem
Finally, on 24 January, Major General Ulysses S. Grant wrote to the Governor:
"Can Stokes Cavalry be sent Immediately to clear out the country between Carthage & Sparta of guerillas[?] The work is Important & nearly all the cavalry of this department is now in distant service[.]"
Governor Johnson chose the 5th Tennessee Cavalry, commanded by Colonel William B. Stokes
On 18 February 1864, Stokes arrived in Sparta with companies A, B, G, I, and L. He quartered his troops in the abandoned houses in the area. The soldiers barricaded the streets around the town and fortified the artillery. In the upper story of a building on the northeast corner of the square, Stokes set up his headquarters.
By late 1863, many Confederate soldiers found themselves cut off from their commands when more of the Union army began patrolling the region. Colonel John M. Hughes, 25th Tennessee Infantry, had been on detached duty conscripting eligible men and rounding up deserters when he realized that he and his men were unable to return to their command. Also operating in the area, both independently and joining forces, were
- Captain Willis Scott Bledsoe - Company F, 4th Murray's Tennessee Cavalry.
- Captain George W. Carter - Company A, 4th Murray's Tennessee Cavalry & Company A, 13th Gore's Tennessee Cavalry.
- Colonel Oliver P. Hamilton - Shaw's Battalion Cavalry.
- Champ Ferguson - a self-proclaimed Captain of a group of Partisan Rangers.
Another notable Confederate mountain fighter was John Gatewood, who was considered by most who knew him to be a reckless, daredevil. Barely eighteen years of age, Gatewood stood 6' tall and weighed almost 200 pounds. His bright red locks of hair hung well below his shoulders. He routinely sported wide-brimmed felt hat that he tilted back on his forehead. He was well-known throughout the region as quite a "remarkable fellow."
Stokes had "raised the black flag" as far as the guerrillas were concerned. He sent word that "no quarter would be given to any man." Their response to the threat was that it suited them just fine. They, in turn, would not give his regiment quarter either. Therefore, the stage was set for the upcoming battle.
Monday, 22 February 1864 - The Battle of Dug Hill
On Monday afternoon, 22 February 1864, a celebration was being held in Sparta. Colonel Stokes was the principle speaker. Fearing that a surprise attack might interrupt the proceedings, Stokes dispatched a detail of about 80-110 men, under the command of Captain James T. Exum
When word reached the nearby Confederates that a party of Union soldiers were traveling through the area, Colonel Hughes, Captain Bledsoe, and Ferguson quickly assembled a force of about 40 or more men and headed to Dug Hill. They divided their forces into two squads and positioned them up on the cliffs and behind nearby bushes. They waited patiently for the Union cavalry to arrive.
As the 5th Tennessee Cavalry traveled down the road, the Advance Guard, consisting of Private John W. Clark and two companions, were riding ahead of the column of soldiers. Clark had enlisted with the 1st Tennessee Mounted Infantry; but on this day, he was riding with the 5th Tennessee Cavalry.
As they were riding along, Clark noticed fresh horses tracks in the road. When he looked up the road, he spotted two Confederate soldiers mounted on fine horse. Their guns rested across their saddles.
Clark yelled "Boys, yonder stand two Confederates. Suppose we get them!"
With that, Clark raised his "old navy" and began shooting. The Rebels turned their horses and galloped towards the trap. One soldier, later identified as Wiley Steakley (serving with the 1st Confederate Cavalry, Company D) shot at the Federals, retreated towards the trap, shot again, and then retreated further.
Clark sounded the double-quick charge with his bugle, and the cavalry gave chase.
When the Federals entered the narrow pass, the Confederates came out of hiding and closed off both ends of escape. Finding themselves surrounded, the Federals quickly realized that they were trapped.
Captain Exum attempted to surrender, but he soon discovered that there would be "no quarter" showed to his men. Seeing that death awaited all, he ordered his men to bust through the ranks of the Confederates. It was every man for himself!
The Confederates fired deafening volleys of rounds down on the surrounded soldiers. Bullets were coming from three different directions. Yankee soldiers pitched headlong from their saddles. Private James H. Fuson was shot through the forehead and died instantly. Private Shelton Harris was shot through the right side, killing him instantly. Riderless horses stampeded in different directions.
Pandemonium ensued. The Federal soldiers shot back but wounded no one. More soldiers fell from their horses, instantly killed. Among these were Sergeant James A. Finley, Private John F. Oaks and Private Riley M. Richardson. Two unnamed soldiers, who were seriously wounded, made it to Ben Clouse's house before collapsing and succumbing to their wounds.
In a desperate attempt to save themselves, several soldiers directly sought out Colonel Hughes and surrendered personally to him. They felt that since he was a "regular" soldier, he would treat them as prisoners of war. However, Hughes passed them to the back of the line where Ferguson was waiting. Ferguson shot some of them in cold blood. Others had their throats cut from ear to ear.
When the shooting began, Private Russell Gann found an opening and ran his horse down a steep embankment. As his horse reached the bottom, Gann fell off and hit the ground. He spied a hollow log and quickly scrambled inside. Several Confederates were in pursuit searched all around the log but failed to look inside. Gann remained hidden inside the log until dusk. Then he made his way back to Sparta.
Private James Mahan was fortunate enough to escape the first volley of rounds by charging down the valley towards Sparta. Being mounted on a particularly good horse, he passed several other Federal soldiers mounted on lesser steeds. These unfortunate souls were soon overtaken by the Confederates and killed. One guerrilla, also mounted on a good horse, relentlessly pursued Mahan. At any moment, Mahan fully expected to be shot in the back. As his pursuer neared, Mahan looked back and saw him brandishing a large knife. Mahan suddenly turned his horse, drew his saber, and split his pursuer's head open.
Another group of six Federal soldiers, trying to make their way back to Sparta, became lost in the woods. Suddenly, they were confronted by John Gatewood, who was holding a pistol in both hands. Even though the Federal soldiers were armed, they immediately surrendered to Gatewood. They erroneously assumed that Gateway had re-enforcements nearby. Once they realized that he was alone, two of them turned and ran. Fearing that the others would follow in their footsteps, Gatewood started shooting the remaining men. Captain Carter rode up on the scene and commanded "Hold on John! Don't waste your ammunition, as we have to fight for what we get!" With that, Carter picked up some heavy stones, and he and Gatewood killed the remaining soldiers by bashing in their heads.
Some men were fortunate enough to be able to escape into the woods. With the Calfkiller River ahead of them, 3-4 men escaped by swimming across the river. Others ditched their uniforms and stole civilian clothes to hide their association with the Federal Army. Those lucky enough to escape the ambush slowly worked their way back to Sparta.
Back in Sparta while his men were fighting for their lives, Colonel Stokes had just arrived at a local church to address the citizens of Sparta. He had just spread his speech across the podium and cleared his throat to begin speaking when a noise at the door caught his attention. One of his men, without boots, hat or coat and looking wild-eyed and frantic, dashed up to the podium and stammered "Colonel, the damn rebels have attacked the regiment and killed them all. I am the only one left to tell the tale." Without uttering a word, Stokes gathered up his papers and headed to his headquarters. Slowly, one by one other bedraggled soldiers staggered in with claims that he was the only one left. When the last man straggled in around midnight and exclaimed that he was the only survivor, Stokes irritably exclaimed "And a blamed pity they did not get you."
Federal soldiers involved in the ambush and known to have returned safely to Sparta later that night were
- Captain James T. Exum - Company I
- Captain Ezekiel W. Bass - Company K
- Lieutenant Enoch H. Stone - Company I
- Sergeant William R. Lewis - Company K
- Sergeant James H. Overall - Company K
- Corporal Thomas J. Mears - Company K
- Private Russell Gann - Company I
- Private Wesley Clay Jennings - Company K
- Private Joseph B. Lemmons - Company K
- Private James Mahan - Company A
Tuesday, 23 February 1864
The next day, Privates William Countiss, Elijah Crabtree, Patrick Thurman, and Thomas Wilcher were posted outside the barricades at Sparta on picket duty. Suddenly, they spotted six men dressed in Federal uniforms running towards them and frantically calling for protection. As soon as these "Federals" got close, they drew their weapons and rushed the guards. Countiss, Crabtree, Thurman and Wilcher, caught off guard, immediately surrendered. The Confederates shot all four men. Thurman, who was shot through the forehead, lingered until about midnight before succumbing to death. Countiss, Crabtree, and Wilcher died immediately
The grim task of retrieving the bodies of the slain men for a proper burial fell to Captain Joseph H. Blackburn. He traveled to Mrs. Lucinda (Glenn) Sims' home and her neighbors' homes to confiscate horses and wagons to retrieve the bodies. The bodies of the unfortunate men were brought to back and laid out side by side on the floor of an old store. Their fellow soldiers assembled around their mangle forms and swore an oath to avenge their murder. Newspaper reports indicated that nearly every one of them were shot in the head. The bodies of the soldiers were carried back home for burial by family and friends.
The total number of participants and casualties in the Battle of Dug Hill vary depending upon which report is consulted. Some reports say that Hughes had 40-60 men, others report 200 or more. The number of participants on the Federal side vary from 60 - 100. The most commonly reported statistic for the number of casualties is 41 killed, of which 38 were shot and three were stoned to death. The most accurate report would be the 10 March 1864 issue of The Nashville Daily Union which reports that 21 soldiers were killed on the 22 February and four soldiers killed while on picket duty the next day. This statistic is supported by the Compiled Military Service Records for the 5th Tennessee Cavalry.
Federal Soldiers killed on 22 February 1864 were
- Private James Baugh - age 18 - Company K
- Private David A. Farmer - age 19 - Company K
- Sergeant James Americus Finley - age 21 - Company I
- Private James H. Fuson - age 24 - Company L
- Private David Granstaff - age 27 - Company K
- Private James D. Hale - age 40 - Company K
- Private Shelton Harris - age 21 - Company I
- Private Corporal Berryman Holder - age 37 - Company I
- Private Jonathan Jones - age 19 - Company K
- Private James K. P. Lee - age 18 - Company L
- Private John McGee - age 18 - Company I
- Private John Foster Oaks - age 27 - Company I
- Private Thomas Y. Pistole - age 20 - Company K
- Private Perry Puckett - age 18 - Company I
- Private John Goslin Richardson - age 29 - Company I
- Private Riley M. Richardson - age 26 - Company I
- Private Alexander Stanley - age 19 - Company K
- Private George C. Turney - age 20 - Company K
- Private William R. Vance - age 25 - Company I
- Private Adam D. Vandergriff - age 21 - Company I
- Private Lindsey P. Vickers - age 44 - Company I
Federal soldiers killed on 23 February 1864 while on picket duty were
- Private William Countiss - age 18 - Company G
- Private Elijah Crabtree - age 29 - Company G
- Private Patrick Thurman - age 18 - Company G
- Private Thomas Wilcher - age 21 - Company C
For years after the war ended, citizens found skeletons in the nearby wood. Whether the dead were killed during the Battle of Dug Hill or other circumstances will never be known.
The debacle was widely reported in Tennessee newspapers. Because of this battle, Colonel Stokes earned the unflattering nickname of "The Hero of the Calf Killer."