June 4, 2012

The Battle of Sweeden's Cove, June 4, 1862

Location: 7615 Sweetens Cove Rd, South Pittsburg, TN 37380, USA
Map of Sweeden's Cove
Detail of Map by N. Michler, 1862 (Library of Congress)

The 79th Pennsylvania's very first engagement--on June 4, 1862, at Sweeden's Cove near Jasper, Tennessee--also happened to be perhaps its most tactically interesting and superbly executed mission of the entire war.  On May 28, the 79th Pennsylvania and other infantry, cavalry, and artillery under the command of General Negley left camp with twelve days' rations to march south again in the direction of Pulaski, Tennessee.  Instead of continuing south to Rogersville, as they had a couple weeks early, they veered east to march over mountainous roads to Fayetteville, Winchester, and ultimately the all-important city of Chattanooga approximately 90 miles east of Pulaski. Although I haven't seen it stated explicitly, I surmise the goal of this mission, which would have been planned by Negley and his superior General Mitchel, to feint towards Chattanooga to draw Confederate resources there and also encourage Unionist sentiment. 

The men of the Lancaster County Regiment enjoyed the first opportunity for real mountain marching, and soldier-correspondent Corp. Elias H. Witmer (bio) described the march on May 30 between Pulaski and Fayetteville:
The day is warm, the hills become steeper, the roads rougher, the poorly fed and worse cared for cavalry horses pant and fall to the ground, the artillery horses have become powerless, but the 79th is full of life--they laugh at their mounted fellow soldiers--the artillery call us the bull-dog regiment--the cavalry say we are the 1st Pennsylvania foot cavarly; we take it as a compliment, it gives us new life, and we push forward as fast as though the enemy, with 50,000 men, were on our heels.  We waded streams, crossed a small creek forty-one times, arrived at our place of bivouac, took a bathe, eat supper, made out bed, squatted, "good night," and were sound asleep. 
Confederate Col. John Adams
Over the next few days, they continued marching east through a fertile valley and then through more mountains, reaching the peak of that section of the Cumberland Mountains on June 4.  Somewhere along the way, they discovered that Confederate cavalry, which Witmer plausibly estimates at 600-800, was encamped in the valley (Sweeden's Cove) that they were about to enter from the backdoor and descend.  The Confederate cavalry was a brigade under the command of Col. John Adams that had move out of Chattanooga and crossed the Tennessee River on May 29 and 30 under the orders of Gen. Beauregard. [OR Chap XXII, pp. 895-896]

After already having marched twenty miles that day, General Negley and acting brigade commander Col. Henry A. Hambright (bio) of the 79th Pennsylvania prepared to attack the rebels at the foot of the mountain.

Although it's not clear the specific roles of Hambright and Negley, they positioned two sections (four guns) of artillery just off the wood line and prepared their two regiments of cavalry out of sight.  Companies A, D, and F of the 79th Pennsylvania moved out of the woods and engaged the Confederates as skirmishers, soliciting the intended response of the cavalry being drawn up in a battle line. 

Satellite View of Sweeden's Cove near Jasper, Tennessee (Google Maps)
Union forces attacked from west to east (left to right on the map).

As soon as Adams' men were ready to charge, Hambright's artillery opened fire, initiating a panicked retreat by the Rebel horsemen.  One of the 79th Pennsylvania's skirmishers, Pvt. James Fields, wrote, "the moment [the Confederate cavalry] began the work [of attacking] we let drive and showered them in earnest from our cannon, which made them look two ways for Sunday." [7/5/1862 Weekly Mariettian]

It was then the Union cavalry's turn, and the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry and 5th Kentucky Cavalry chased the routed Rebels for five miles.  Fields continued,
as the shot came thick and fast amongst them, they began to think about getting out of reach, and then our cavalry came rushing from the bushes and on them--and such getting away you never saw--they ran as if the devil was after them, dropping canteens, swords, sabres, guns, pistols, haversacks, overcoats... 
Sgt. William T. Clark (bio) recorded in his diary that the people in the nearby town of Jasper "told us the rebels didn't run, they flew."  The victory was decisive, and the pathway to continue the expedition to Chattanooga was now open.  

Besides captured ammunition and commissary wagons, the Confederates lost 20 killed, another 20 wounded, and 12 captured.  Clark mentioned on the next day that "Our cavalry found 20 bodies of the rebels that were killed yesterday," which must be those now buried in Bean-Roulston Cemetery in a mass grave.  Union losses were two killled and seven wounded, mostly among the 5th Kentucky, I believe.  The 79th Pennsylvania suffered no losses. 

From the June twenty-something (my notes were corrupted), 1862, Daily Evening Express, we have Corp. Elias Witmer's letter describing the engagement which contains Col. Hambright's report: (alternate link)


  1. Excellent. I'm glad it you found it helpful and interesting. I've never been to that part of Tennessee but hope to make a trip in the not-too-distant future.

  2. Thank you again for taking the time to research and post this. It is an amazing posting. The eye witness account and Col HAmbrghts report are simply incredible. Golly those were tough men. The Union armies in the West won that war. I am actually going today to Atlanta from Nashville and intend to stop off at Sweetens Cove.
    A favor please- I inadvertently added my email address to the first posting. I probably shouldn't have done that, with spammers always trolling the net. If you could delete my email from the posting I would appreciate it.

  3. (Comment from above with email address deleted...)

    This is absolutely fantastic. I once stumbled accidentally upon the cemetery at Sweetens Cove and was so moved by the Confederate section of soldiers killed at the Battle of Sweetens Cove, I could never find any info about the battle until seeing this online. THANK YOU Vince for taking the time to post this. Jason Ringenberg Dickson Tennessee

  4. Thank you for posting this! Many of us have searched for Confederate ancestor graves with no luck. I have two who lie in unmarked and unknown graves. Hopefully your post will help someone find their lost soldier. ~jw

  5. this is great information and I reread it often. I am from Sweetens Cove and we are attempting to work on the old schoolhouse that is still standing and try to restore the structure and preserve the history. The Primitive Baptist Church is across the street and would love to use both historical buildings as venues for weddings, community events, etc. Would love to also be able to use the articles found in Lancaster at War as a display for our building.