Saturday, January 28, 2012

The History of the Prattville Dragoons




Script for audio recording.  Reader:  S. Brent Moore, Commander, Camp 1524 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans


Though the Dragoons were the first company of volunteers to depart Autauga County, they were by no means the only company to go off to war during the period 1861-1865.  In an article in March 1862, the Autauga Citizen stated that Autauga countians could be proud of the fact that 1233 men were “in the field” from their county.  Other companies which followed the Dragoons were the Autauga Rifles, the Autauga Guards, and the Varina Rifles (named most likely after the wife of Jefferson Davis).  Staying home to guard the home front were the Prattville Grays and the Autauga Home Guard, made up of older men and young boys.
The first meeting to organize volunteer military units from Autauga County took place in late 1860, in the Smith residence, which now houses the Prattaugan Museum.  A subsequent meeting, announced in the Autauga Citizen on December 6, 1860, took place in Alida Hall, which was the third floor of the Pratt Gin Factory building, still in existence today, though it is now used only for storage.  The Prattville Dragoons were organized at this meeting.
The name “Prattville Dragoons” was chosen by the members of the unit upon its organization following the meeting in Alida Hall.  The traditional definition of a dragoon is a “heavily armed cavalryman,” especially one armed with a carbine.  The Dragoons originally were armed with a saber and a navy-caliber Colt revolver.  The saber was referred to as a “wrist breaker” because of its heavy weight and long length.  In the summer of 1863, as described later in this recording, the Dragoons’ sabers were replaced with short Enfield rifles, thus making them true “Dragoons” in the strict military sense of the word.
The founder of Prattville, Daniel Pratt, was instrumental in outfitting the Dragoons, donating approximately $17,000 in the money of the time, in horses and equipment.  Mr. Pratt also collaborated with the Ladies Aid Society of Prattville in providing to the Dragoons a handsome black broadcloth uniform trimmed in gold.  In fact, the uniform was so handsome that privates coming home on furlough were often mistaken for and treated as officers.
On April 27, 1861, the original company of Dragoons formed up at the Prattville Male and Female Academy, to depart for Montgomery.  A public ceremony was held to see the men off.  Miss Abbie Holt, representing the young ladies of the community, presented the Dragoons with a “beautiful silk flag,” making her presentation speech in “a neat and tasty manner,” according to The Autauga Citizen of May 2, 1861.  Lieutenant A.Y. Smith “replied in the most appropriate and eloquent terms,” according to the same newspaper.


The next morning the Dragoons set off on their four-year odyssey with a short march to Montgomery, to await transportation to Pensacola, Florida, where they would become part of General Braxton Bragg’s army, then assembling on the Gulf.  During their brief stay in Montgomery, the Dragoons met more concerned citizens who did all they could to make sure the soldiers were well-equipped and supplied to go and defend their homeland.  While camped at the Montgomery Fairgrounds the company held an election for commissioned officers.  Those elected were Captain Jesse J. Cox, who prior to the war had commanded a fashionable river steamer which ran between Mobile and Wetumpka; S. D. Oliver, 1st Lieut.; A. Y. Smith, 2nd Lieutenant; and William Montgomery, 3rd Lieutenant.


On April 30, 1861, the Dragoons left Montgomery on a train bound for Pensacola.  The trip proved to be the precursor of the hardships that the company would face during their travels over the next four years.  On their way to Evergreen, one of the baggage cars ran off the track twice, causing some delay.  The uncomfortable ride from Evergreen to Pensacola was in open cars, where soldiers and baggage all went together.  Making matters worse was the fact that it rained most of the way.  They reached Pensacola at two in the morning, and “after much trouble” got themselves, their horses, and baggage off the train.  On reaching Pensacola, the Dragoons were issued the aforementioned saber and navy-caliber Colt revolver. 
The Dragoons were well regarded by the citizens of Pensacola.  That June the Pensacola Observer reported that “their gentlemanly and material bearing have caused [the Dragoons] to be the object of great attraction at all times here.  With such gallant defenders, the South has little to fear from the invading army….”  One of the highlights of the company’s service at Pensacola was its participation in a grand review of the army which was held on September 2, 1861, before General Braxton Bragg.  In a letter to the editor of the Autauga Citizen which discussed the event, the writer declared, “I understand, from the best authority, that General Bragg . . . personally complimented Capt. Cox for the skill and perfection of the drill of his company, stating that the Dragoons was one of the best and most perfectly drilled companies that he had ever seen.”  However, drill is not combat, and boredom and sickness soon became the worst enemies of the Dragoons at Pensacola, till falling Confederate fortunes in Tennessee caused them to be ordered to Chattanooga in early 1862.


The Dragoons, along with the rest of Jenkins’s Battalion, to which they belonged, were ordered in Pensacola to dispose of all surplus baggage and board trains for Chattanooga.  This was partly the reason that when they arrived in Chattanooga, they were ill-prepared for the weather there, and suffered greatly as a result.
As the Dragoons were recovering from this ordeal several of its members underwent their “baptism of fire.”  At Corinth, Mississippi, the company suffered its first battle death of the War, Private Robert Roper, who was killed in an encounter there.
Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston began his offensive to get the Union army out of Tennessee on April 3, 1862, when the Army of the Mississippi advanced from Corinth.  The Dragoons were part of this effort by the Army of the Mississippi, and suffered their share of casualties, among which were Privates John Stolonaker and Adam Cloninger.  The next thirty days cost the Dragoons more men to disease and sickness than had been lost in the carnage at Shiloh.  Privates C. P. Riggs, W. T. Goodwin and Britton Boone died after the company had returned to Corinth, and a number of men received discharges because of various disabilities.  During this period the company again saw action against Federal cavalry.  First Sergeant T. J. Ormsby, who the year before had been a candidate for the post of Brigadier-General in the Alabama Militia, was killed in a sharp skirmish against Federal cavalry on May 8th.  During this fight, Privates D. B. Booth and Abraham Henchen also suffered severe wounds which eventually forced their discharge from the service.
Near the end of May 1862, pressure from Federal forces caused General Pierre Beauregard, who had taken over command of the Southern Army after General Johnston’s death at Shiloh, to evacuate Corinth and retreat toward Tupelo, Mississippi.  Upon entering camp at Tupelo the commissioned officers of the Company resigned.  Captain Jesse Cox and Lieutenants S. D. Oliver and Adam Felder left the Dragoons and accepted commissions in other companies, and Lieutenant William Montgomery resigned because of poor health.  A new slate of officers was elected to replace those who had resigned and the company was reorganized.
During the battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the Dragoons were detailed to guard the army’s supply train and to serve as escort for Major General Jones Withers in command of the Second Division of Polk’s Corps.  On January 3, 1863, Bragg made a highly controversial decision to abandon strong positions at Murfreesboro and ordered a retreat back to Tullahoma.  For the next five months Bragg kept his army in camp and made no effort to send it into action.  The Dragoons used this long period of inactivity to reorganize and rearm, receiving new weapons which increased its fighting ability.  The sabers which had restricted the Dragoons to close-in fighting were now replaced as the company’s primary weapon by short Enfield rifles.  Although these rifles were single shot, muzzle-loading weapons, they increased the firepower available to each man and allowed the company to engage the enemy at greater distances.  The company also replenished its depleted ranks that spring, with a large number of recruits from Alabama and Tennessee.
The long months of inactivity at Tullahoma suddenly came to an end in late June 1863 as Federal forces under William Rosecrans began operations against the Confederate Army in an effort to prevent troops from being sent to aid the besieged Southern garrison at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
On June 27, 1863, Martin’s Division, accompanied by General Joseph Wheeler, entered Shelbyville, Tennessee, to obtain supplies and forage for its horses, but were surprised by waiting Federal troops.  Wilbur Mims states, “To make a long story short we were completely stampeded.  Orders were given for everyone to take care of himself.  Those who escaped had thrilling stories to relate.”
On September 15th, the reinforced Confederate Army struck the Federals at Chickamauga Creek, about twelve miles below Chattanooga, and delivered a crushing defeat.  Rosecrans’s badly beaten army was allowed to escape, however, and enter into defensive positions around Chattanooga.  Although the ragged Federals had escaped destruction they were now virtually cut off from help and were in danger of being starved into surrender.  The Prattville Dragoons and the rest of the 3rd Alabama Cavalry were now given a chance to redeem themselves for the debacle at Shelbyville.  On September 30, Bragg ordered Wheeler’s Cavalry to raid the tenuous Federal supply lines in an effort to halt the trickle of supplies that were getting to the enemy bottled up in Chattanooga.  For the next ten days Wheeler’s command struck along the vital supply route between Chattanooga and Bridgeport, Alabama.  The tranquil Sequatchie Valley was transformed into a scene of swirling devastation during the first week of October.  Fifteen hundred Confederate cavalrymen overtook and captured a train made up of thirty-two six-mule wagons, and later in the day rode upon an immense Federal supply train laden with commissary, quartermaster and ordnance stores as well as a large number of sutler wagons.  The people of the valley later reported that some 2,000 wagons and 5,000 mules were destroyed in the area.  Long after the war it was said that when a valley farmer was in need of a wagon or other equipment, he would go to the battlefield and find whatever he wanted in the remains of the great wagon train.  One of the liberated cargoes apparently most heartily enjoyed by the troopers were a number of sutler wagons filled with liquor.
Bragg next decided to expand operations against the Federal Army in Tennessee.  During the first week of November he directed James Longstreet with a force of 15,000 infantry along with Wheeler’s cavalry to lay siege to the Federals holding the city of Knoxville.  The Prattville Dragoons, along with the rest of the 3rd Alabama, served under Wheeler’s command until November 23, 1863, when Braxton Bragg recalled the cavalry leader and a portion of his corps back to Chattanooga.
The decisive battle at Chattanooga dashed Confederate hopes for final victory in Tennessee.  During the month of December, the Dragoons, along with the 3rd Alabama, actively engaged the enemy.  At Mossy Creek, the Dragoons battled Federal Cavalry hand-to-hand, but were forced to retire before advancing enemy infantry supported by artillery.  During this clash John Russell was wounded and captured and Lieutenant Robert Moncrief was wounded by a shell fragment.   Wilbur Mims  lamented that his own horse was a casualty having been shot in the nose.
The active winter campaign took a dreadful toll on the Dragoons.  The troopers had not been paid for six months and their uniforms were worn and ragged.  A number of the men were without shoes and very few had winter overcoats.  Without wagons or tents the company was forced to march and sleep in the snow and rain and to forage for whatever supplies could be found.  The company also lost several men who were captured, including M. S. Wadsworth, A. P. DeBardelaben, A. D. Mims, and E. C. Stuart, who had been wounded in action.
During the early months of 1864, the cavalry forces under General Martin withdrew from East Tennessee and marched through North Carolina on its way to rejoin the rest of Wheeler’s cavalry.  The march buoyed the troop’s spirits and improved the condition of their horses.  As they traveled through the country, the cavalrymen’s thoughts turned away from the war for a while and focused on other important matters.  The young soldiers directed their attention to “young and beautiful ladies and girls,” saying that “the latter appealed most to our admiration.”  The ragged group, however, was unable to meet the ladies as “our toilet was in no condition to accept their hospitality”—in other words, the men considered their appearance and clothing too poor to be in the presence of ladies.


By May of 1864, the Dragoons, as part of General Martin’s cavalry, had arrived at Dalton to rejoin Wheeler and the Army of Tennessee now commanded by Joseph E. Johnston, who had replaced General Braxton Bragg.  The cavalry had arrived in time to take part in a series of movements by the Confederate Army that were aimed at impeding William T. Sherman’s advancing forces.
At the Battle of Decatur, Georgia, part of Sherman’s advance on Atlanta, the 3rd Alabama suffered heavy casualties in action against Federal Cavalry and returned with the rest of the Confederate force into the defense line around Atlanta.
Siege warfare was hard on all soldiers but was especially hard on the cavalrymen who were accustomed to constant movement.  Wilbur Mims remembered the hardship, particularly the lack of fresh rations.  “Being entrenched in the city was a tedious experience with our regiment.  No fresh buttermilk, no fresh pork, no hot cornbread or biscuits.”  The Dragoons, however, were soon released from the drudgery of life in the trenches.  During the last week of July, they were ordered to pursue two Union cavalry columns.  The Dragoons were especially happy to be free of the trenches and entered the pursuit with great excitement.  Wilbur Mims expressed the company’s sentiments when he declared: “We entered into this chase like schoolboys in a game of baseball.”  Throughout the remainder of 1864 and into 1865 the Prattville Dragoons were engaged in almost constant skirmishes against Federal forces in Georgia and on into South Carolina. 
In February 1865, the Captain of the Dragoons, James M. Hill, resigned his commission due to ill health.  His replacement as Captain was First Lieutenant Wilbur F. Mims, who later chronicled the company’s service in the pamphlet which we are quoting so often in this recording.  Second Lieutenant R. M. Moncrief  was commissioned 1st Lieutenant; Wilbur Mims’s brother, Shadrach, became 2nd Lieutenant and J. N. Thompson was commissioned 3rd Lieutenant.
As the final bitter months of the war unfolded, the Dragoons along with the 3rd Alabama and Wheeler’s Cavalry rode into the Carolinas in an attempt to hinder Sherman’s unstoppable advance.  An adversary which the southern horsemen had fought constantly since leaving Georgia was the Federal Cavalry under the command of  Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, a daring and controversial leader. Before daylight on March 9, 1865, Wheeler’s troops moved on Kilpatrick’s camp.  General Kilpatrick was reported to be quartered in a small farmhouse located in an open field fronted by a large boggy marsh and it was hoped that the flamboyant cavalryman could be captured in the surprise attack.  The plan, however, went awry, due to the attacking Confederates being slowed and stopped by the boggy marsh.  Captain Mims states:  “We discovered that General Kilpatrick had escaped in his night attire.  After capturing several hundred prisoners and a few wagons we retired in the direction of Fayetteville….”  Another officer from the 3rd Alabama, Samuel W. Pegues, who was able to get through the marsh reported that when the group made their way into Kilpatrick’s quarters, “a beautiful young Irish woman, in scanty night dress, threw herself into the opening, piteously pleading for protection.”  The story was later told that the dashing Kilpatrick had brought the woman from Savannah along on the march, riding in a coach that had been taken from a rice plantation in South Carolina.  Because of the embarrassing condition in which the noted Federal Cavalry leader was forced to flee, the action became known to the Confederates involved as the “Battle for Kilpatrick’s Pants.”


On April 12, 1865, following a sharp skirmish, the Dragoon’s old adversary, Judson Kilpatrick, sent a message to General Wheeler informing him of the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and requesting that he cease all action against Federal forces.  Wilbur Mims later recalled:  “This report had a tendency to depress our patriotic spirits, for none of us, after going through a four years’ war, wanted to take any risk of being killed under these conditions.”  Later that day Colonel Josiah Robins formed the company for a charge and ordered it to attack as soon as the enemy came into sight.  Within a short time the ubiquitous Federal cavalry appeared on the field.  As the Dragoons prepared to give battle, word was suddenly received ordering them not to attack but to retire.  With this incident the War, for the most part, ended for the Prattville Dragoons.
On April 14, near Morrisville, North Carolina, the Dragoons received official word reporting the surrender of Lee’s Army in Virginia.  Upon receipt of this message the company was ordered into camp to await the issue of paroles from the Federal Army.  While awaiting their paroles the Dragoons were visited by General Wheeler who delivered a “last, sad farewell” to the men of the Company.  The cavalrymen remained in camp for about two days waiting for the arrival of Federal officers to issue paroles to them.  After the second day, however, not a single Federal officer had appeared, so the men “mounted our jaded horses for the 600-mile ride to our homes where we arrived about the middle of May 1865.”
Thus ended the war service of the Prattville Dragoons.  As the years following the conflict rolled by, the ranks of the Dragoons began to thin at a rate they had never experienced in combat.  By 1911, the 50th anniversary of the Company’s first enlistment, only about 14 of the approximately 135 men who had served during the War remained.  On April 26, 1916, Prattville’s Merrill E. Pratt Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy honored the memory of the cavalrymen by dedicating a stone monument at the site of the Prattville Academy, where the company had received their silk flag 55 years before.  This monument still stands as a silent reminder of the service and sacrifice which the men of the Prattville Dragoons gave for their cause during the four years of tragic war.  If you purchased this tape, you have made a donation toward the preservation of that modest yet important monument.


The narrator of this recording was Stephen Brent Moore, Commander of the Prattville Dragoons Camp 1524 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. 
Material for this recording was taken from a typescript entitled From Pensacola To Bentonville:  The War History of the Prattville Dragoons, 1985, by Michael M. Bailey, which in turn takes much of its material from the pamphlet War History of the Prattville Dragoons, by Capt. Wilbur F. Mims, last commander of the Dragoons.  This pamphlet is available at the Prattaugan Museum, 102 East Main Street, Prattville, Alabama. Another good source of information on this period is Chapter Six of Autauga County:  The First One Hundred Years, by Daniel S. Gray, published in 1972.  This book is also available at the Prattaugan Museum.

1 comment:

  1. This is very powerful! May I purchase a copy of each of these war histories please? May I use the image and history of your Company Flag and may I have permission to use these items in my book in progress please sir? It is tentatively titled These Men Rode With Fightin' Joe which is a war history of the 3rd Alabama Cavalry Regiment, their men, their leaders, their battles and skirmishes, and their personal accounts of the War Between the States 1861-65. Thanks and God bless you all!