Wheeler's critics mainly accuse him of being a loose disciplinarian whose judgement in both operational and tactical matters was sometimes less than sound. Even Wheeler's sympathetic biographer, J.P. Dyer, admitted that the cavalry commander was not suited to independent command. Yet he glosses over much of what happened during his treatment of the following episode, choosing instead to quote extensively from another Wheeler partisan, William Carey Dodson.
This most serious of lapses in Wheeler's judgement came in late December 1863, while operating his cavalry in East Tennessee, his HQ at Tunnel Hill. The Confederates had gotten word that a wagon train from Chattanooga, laden with supplies, would be crossing the Hiawassee River at Charleston, Tennessee, bound for Knoxville and Burnside's army. Wheeler shone best when operating close to the main army, rarely achieving the kind of spectacular results Nathan Bedford Forrest did while raiding behind enemy lines. The truth is, Wheeler was simply not good as an independent raider. The one great exception to this was his recent raid into the Sequatchie Valley in October 1863.
Since spending a few weeks in Lawrence County, Alabama, to recuperate from the raid, Wheeler had rejoined Bragg's army, only to do more hard fighting in East Tennessee. The constant skirmishing throughout November and December had worn Wheeler's troopers down, while the general had been wounded in the foot. The command was badly in need of a rest.
That was not to be. Commander of the Army of Tennessee, General Braxton Bragg, ordered Wheeler to pursue and cut off the wagon train, and the best place to accomplish that would be before it could cross the bridge at Charleston. If Wheeler could overtake the supply train in force before it reached Charleston, he would have it in the bag. His force consisted of Kelly's division of two brigades and a four-gun battery. They set out at dawn on the 27th, Wade's brigade in the lead, followed by Grigsby's, commanded by Colonel Griffith. A day's march in a torrential rainstorm found them at Cleveland, where they demanded the surrender of the Federal courier station, the 3rd Confederate Cavalry skirmishing with the defenders. This demonstration was designed to deceive the Federals as to Wheeler's intentions, but the garrison held, further delaying the Confederates. By the time Wheeler caught up with the wagons, sometime before 10am on the 28th, the bulk of them had already crossed the bridge. Both Northern and Southern newspapers, informed by Federal dispatches, reported that the feisty little cavalry commander had actually captured the train, but more likely, he simply overtook the last of the wagons before they could cross. John W. DuBose wrote that some of the wagons were captured, along with 20 guards, but were recaptured by the Federals.
Mud and rain having slowed the march to the bridge, along with the delay at Cleveland, Wheeler decided his artillery would be of no use under these conditions and left them limbered up and out of action. In all, he had about 1200 men, while the wagon train was believed to number about 150, weighed down with food, clothing and ammunition. Wheeler would have done well to let the prize go and turn his column around. What he didn't know was that there were some 5,000 infantry, under General Philip Sheridan, Granger's Corps, encamped on the opposite side. To attack across the bridge and into that kind of a reception would have been suicide, if the Federals came in from behind. The following account, confusing as it is, leads this writer to conclude that Wheeler placed his lines on the south bank of the river, either expecting not to be bothered, or confident he could hold off an attack. A look at current maps makes this account otherwise difficult to understand, unless the writer means "generally north," rather than "due north," taking into consideration that the river bend at Charleston bulges in a southeasterly direction.
These dispositions* were described by an actual eyewitness with the 1st Kentucky Battalion, a correspondent to the Memphis Appeal [Atlanta], as follows. Colonel [William B.] Wade's brigade [Kelly's Division] was dismounted and posted on the right "...on the crest of a hill overlooking the town; the first, second and ninth Kentucky regiments held the centre, and were posted in a dense cedar brake on the slope of the hill and immediately upon the right of the railroad; the first Kentucky Battalion, Captain Kirkpatrick commanding, held the left of the line, on the north side of the railroad, with the advance line of skirmishers under the immediate charge of Captain J.A. Cooper, of Company D, and about six hundred yards from the right of the enemy's line; the second Kentucky Battalion, Capt Dortch was ordered, early in the day, to remain with the artillery, which it did, consequently did not participate in the affair. Before our lines was fairly established skirmishing had begun, and being kept up for more than an hour, principally at long range, resulted in but little loss to either side. The delay on the part of General Wheeler gave the enemy full time for preparation and ample opportunity to recross troops over the river from Calhoun, thus increasing his force to several thousand infantry and cavalry. The appearance of several regiments of infantry on both sides of the railroad showed but too plainly their intention to charge our position. We could distinctly, on the left of our line, hear the commands given by the enemy commander positioned across the railroad...[F]or a short time our lines remained firm, but when the Yankees raised the yell and charged, they broke and scattered in the wildest confusion..."
This confusion was caused when a detachment of the 4th Ohio Cavalry, under Colonel Eli Long, about 150 in number, charged in at a full gallop. It was shortly after this that Lieutenant Marcellus Pointer, of Holly Springs, Mississippi, was captured. Wheeler sent his young aide forward to order a body of men he believed were Confederates not to gallop their horses, but to walk them instead. As it turned out, these were the very Ohioans who were now charging into Wheeler's line. Dismounted Confederate skirmishers broke and ran, causing their horse-holders to skedaddle, leaving the routed men no escape. About 150 of these dismounted troopers were taken prisoner in the melee. Pointer rode right into this stampede, unable to stop it. Meanwhile, Colonel Long had his entire regiment, some 1200 strong, supported by the 20th Missouri Mounted Infantry, charging into Wheeler's left. Wade's Brigade charged them in an effort to stem the tide, but were repulsed.
|Modern map of Charleston, Tennessee|
Wheeler was now engaged both front and rear, with his whole command in danger of being routed. Sheridan's infantry had gone on the offensive, attacking the south side of the bridge in support of Colonel Long. Charging down on the unsuspecting Lieutenant Pointer came two Yankees, well out in front of the rest, demanding his surrender. Pointer, who had desperately attempted to rally Wheeler's fleeing troopers to no avail, now found himself about to be killed or captured. One foe pointed a pistol in his face, while the other held a saber high over his head, as if to slice it off at the neck. However, Pointer was a veteran combatant, having come to Wheeler's staff from a year's service in the 9th Mississippi Infantry, which had deployed to Pensacola even before Fort Sumter was fired on. The young lieutenant, who had earned his spurs at Perryville, along with a serious wound, had recently shot his way out of a trap at Maryville in November, a stunned Wheeler following close behind. Wheeler would ever say of Lieutenant Pointer that he was absolutely fearless.
Seeing Pointer about to be taken, Wheeler and the rest of his staff, with supports, rode hell-bent on stopping the Federal cavalry from doing any more damage. It was all Pointer needed. When his captors demanded he turn over his weapons, he agreed, raised a pistol, then shot the man brandishing the saber. Simultaneously, the man pointing a pistol returned fire, the bullet penetrating Pointer's overcoat. Pointer then made his escape, shot through the body, allowing Generals Wheeler and Kelly to make their escape as well. The fleeing Confederate officers quickly rode into some nearby woods, amid a hail of bullets and cries for them to halt. Wheeler was described by an eyewitness as fighting something of a delaying action as he retreated, perhaps to give cover fire to Pointer and Kelly.
A looming disaster was averted when Grigsby's Brigade, commanded by Colonel Jacob W. Griffith, father of D.W. Griffith, the silent film director, charged out and broke the Ohioans, scattering them. Griffith, who had been wounded in the backside during the Sequatchie Valley Raid, could not sit his horse. Doing something his son should later have immortalized in film, the colonel commandeered the buggy of a citizen and led the charge thus. Other episodes of personal bravery, aside from Pointer's, were noted on the field that day. Like so many outlaws in a James Gang raid gone bad, as Hollywood would film it, men rode into the melee to pick up fallen comrades and hoist them onto the backs of their horses, bringing them to safety.
By sunset, Wheeler's weary, muddy, rain-soaked troopers, led by Colonel Griffith, were making their way back to Tunnel Hill, eventually to be joined by Wheeler, Kelly and Pointer. They had nothing to show for the raid, which the "embedded" reporter from Atlanta described in some detail. His article, highly critical of Wheeler, was copied by the Richmond papers, while an eyewitness gave a glowing account of Pointer's escapade, which he sent to the Atlanta papers under the pen name "Vidi," translated "I saw."
The bulk of Wheeler's command did not participate in the fight at Charleston, which received very little if any, write-up in official reports. They were instead with General Martin, who fought a sharp engagement on the 29th with Federal infantry and cavalry. More information can be found about that action, known as Mossy Creek, than about the Charleston raid. In all, Wheeler's men covered 75 miles in a driving rain, were unable to deploy their artillery, while much of their ammunition was rain-soaked and useless. The Atlanta journalist sharply criticized Wheeler's decision to stand and fight at the Hiawassee bridge as evincing "the least military skill and judgement." While Wheeler's troopers had performed brilliantly in the Sequatchie Valley, Bragg's giving them no time to recuperate from the subsequent campaigning in East Tennessee was a major factor in their being routed, to say nothing of their commander's poor judgement.
Pointer's wound was apparently serious enough to get him a thirty-day leave. He would not be heard from again until again until April 1864.
Confederate Order of Battle: (as reported by J.F. A. to the Memphis Appeal )
Grigsby's Brigade ( commanded by Col. Griffith)
1st Ky Cav
2nd Ky Cav
9th Ky Cav
1st Ky Bn (Kirkpatrick)
2nd Ky Bn
4th Ala Cav
Huwald's Battery, 4 12 lb mountain howitzers
* Whether J.F.A. was a reporter or a member of the 1st Ky Bttn is not known. Also, research has failed to discover a Union order of battle for this action. From 5000-7000 men of Granger's Corps were in support of the wagon train, both en route and at Charleston. Detachments of the 59th Ohio Inf participated.
Col. Long's 4th Ohio Cav and the 20th Mo Mounted Infantry bore the brunt of the fight.