December 17, 2011

Nearly the First Battle: The Battle of Rowlett's Station

Location: Munfordville, KY, USA
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the first battle of the central wing of the Union army in Kentucky. It was the first battle in the neighborhood of the 79th Pennsylvania, and was a small engagement known as the Battle of Rowlett's Station.  Only one Union regiment, the 32nd Indiana comprised of many German immigrants, fought in the battle, but the 79th Pennsylvania and the rest of Negley's Brigade and McCook's Division were only a couple miles away and marched at the double quick towards the battlefield, only to arrive after the battle's conclusion.  The experience of watching thousands of Union soldiers ready for battle converge with urgency on the battlefield made quite an impression on the Lancaster County Regiment.

Green River bridge, near Munfordville, with one span destroyed by Confederates (HW 1/04/1862)

Strategically, the battle resulted from the Union army pushing the frontier of its advance down the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, specifically to the town of Munfordville with its impressive railroad bridge over the Green River <See Map>.  The Confederates had destroyed one section of the bridge on their retreat, but its repair was under way as the Union army built up its presence around Munfordville so a force of Confederate infantry, artillery, and cavalry--including Texas cavalrymen known as the "Texas Rangers"--was dispatched to attack the Indiana companies scattered in picket and skirmish lines on the hills south of the Green River bridge.

Battle of Rowlett's Station with a company of the 32nd Indiana formed in a square to resist an attack by Col. Terry's Texas Rangers (HW 01/11/1862)

Soon after the first shots were fired, the well-drilled 32nd Indiana regrouped and utilized its reserve companies to defend repeated attacks and killed the Texas Rangers' Colonel  B. F. Terry.  The 32nd Indiana lost ten men and one officer--Lieut. Max Sachs, whom the 79th Pa's Wilberforce Nevin had come to know--and the Both sides withdrew from the field, but the Green River bridge was safe, and a sorely needed victory could be claimed by the North.  Additionally, the idea that a bunch of German immigrants could defeat the fiercest rebel cavalrymen set the right tone for the many immigrants in the Army of the Ohio. 

The 79th Pennsylvania was actually on the road on December 17, 1861, marching about eight miles from Bacon Creek Station to Munfordville.  As soon as they arrived to set up camp, the alarm beat and the regiment double-quicked toward the Green River, but the battle had concluded before they reached the river.  Over the next few weeks while encamped nearby and performing picket duty in the area, almost all sources remark on the graves of the men of the 32nd Indiana who died, which were marked and decorated with evergreen wreaths. 

Here's the diary entry of Lieut. John H. Druckenmiller of Company B for December 17, 1861:
Struck tents at 8 a.m. and formed line. Marched to Munfordville in three hours, a distance of ten miles. Were just pitching our tents when we heard the booming of cannon. The word fall in was given and was promptly obeyed by the boys. We formed line in double quick time & started for the scene of action, which was on the other side of the River. The fight lasted about forty five minutes. The attack was made by about seven or eight hundred Cavalry supporting a Battery. Our men all infantry but three companies were thrown across the river as a picket and were attacked suddenly. The rest of the forces were on this side & of course could not cross untill they received orders to that effect. Consequently we did not get over. We formed line of Battle on the hill & remained there a short time when the order to countermarch was given. Our loss was ten killed and thirteen wounded. Two of the killed were Lieutenants. The Rebel loss is estimated at about seventy five or a hundred killed. The number of wounded is not known. Went out on picket duty with Capt. Klein and one hundred men from our Regiment. Went about five miles from camp up the River on this side. Arrested one man who attempted to cross our line. Night was cold but clear, almost as light as day.
Lieut. Wilberforce Nevin of Company G, also included an account of the day's excitement in a letter that was extracted in the December 28, 1861, Daily Evening Express: (alternate link)

Sources and Links:


  1. Thanks for an interesting article about the Battle of Mumsfordsville (Munfordville) and I wanted to alert readers to a bit of revisionist history that might be taking place. I found this article while looking for a Texas diary that might describe their loss at Mumfordsville. The NPS proclaims neither side the winner. Some Web accounts proclaim it a Confederate victory. It was not. The Union retained the battlefield, pontoon bridge continued to operate, and Terry's corpse was removed by Confederates only under a flag of truce. A year after the battle, the German immigrants inscribed a large stone to their fallen, and placed on the hill over the men's emains. The remains and stone were removed in 1867 to the Louisville National Cemetery. The stone was moved from the cemetery to a museum in 2008 and a replacement stone put its place in the Louisville National cemetery. As far as I can tell, there is no stone in Mumfordsville to mark where the original stone was placed, and in 2008 Kentucky allowed a private group from Texas to erect a memorial to Terry's Rangers in that spot. The stone should read 'On this spot, the Texas cavalry made a foolish mistake, got 70 of their men killed, and accomplished little.

    1. Thank you for the comment. The 32nd Indiana grave monument is definitely on my list of things to see when I (finally) get around to doing a Civil War tour of Kentucky and Tennessee. Apparently, the original is now at the Frazier International History Museum in Louisville:

      Regrading the battle, I think the battle's main impact was to show that German immigrants could outfight--in terms of courage and smarts--the best Confederate cavalrymen. I can sort of see how you call it a drew since both sides left the battlefield at some point, although it would soon after be reoccupied by Union forces. It's hard to see it as a Confederate victory, though. Perhaps they were confusing it with the September 1862 battle near there?

    2. This link provides a short film clip about the 32nd Indiana Monument courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
      One of the often overlooked elements of this battle is that of being one of the few times during the Civil War that infantry, caught in the open by overwhelming cavalry, successfully defended themselves from repeated assaults.