Coffeeville, Mississippi, December 5, 1862
by Gordon Thorsby
After the victories of Shiloh, Corinth and Iuka, Mississippi, Ulysses Grant saw that the Confederacy was open for moving on Vicksburg. In December,1862, Grant made that move.
On December 5th,1862 advance cavalry units consisting of the 3rd Mich., 4th and 6th Ill., 7th Kansas, and 5th Ohio served as a screen and approached the small town of Coffeeville, Mississippi from Memphis when the trees came alive with gunfire. Confederate forces under Maj General Mansfield Lovell had tired of falling back. Repeated skirmishing followed by retreat was a trend that had to stop.
Other than the skirmish line in front, Federal cavalry was strung out sliding its way down the muddy road from Memphis. The skirmish line of the 4th Ill and the 7th KS on the east side of the road and the 3rd Michigan under Mizner and the 2nd Iowa under Hatch on the west side.
“One piece of our artillery moving cautiously forward and now and then throwing shell beyond our skirmishers" along with the line of troopers was their method. On the Confederate side, Lovell posted three brigades in the woods on ridge north with four smoothbores of Bouanchaud's Artillery. When the Union skirmish line was within 50 yards of the Confederate position, Bouanchaud let loose with canister into the Federals and infantry followed up with volleys of fire. The dismounted troopers pulled back. Private Harrison Carson wrote on December 13th, “one man from Burns (Michigan) [was] shot twenty-four times."
Over on the right, Col. Mizner ordered Company B to dismount and advance as skirmishers and they advanced under continuous carbine fire from opposing infantry skirmishers. For two ordinary soldiers in the 3rd Michigan Cavalry, December 5th was no ordinary day. Ivor Roberts and William Cole of Company B were in the skirmish line when the heavy fire broke out. They were just two young farm boys from a company from towns like Flushing and Owosso and both farming communities. Nobody reported exactly what happened. Heavy skirmishing was already in progress on the right and the 3rd Michigan line became confused. It was day that would be marked by confusion.
In the center of the action, firing continued as the Union line fell back from withering fire. Seeing the weakness, the Confederate line surged forward. A series of advances followed, the Union cavalry resisting and falling back with each advance. That withdrawal continued for three miles until it made contact at 4 P.M. with the head of Grant's column and where brigades of Union infantry and artillery waited. Fighting halted at dark and the Confederates returned to its original line.
The Memphis Daily Appeal reported the Confederate side of the fight:
"Compelled to turn at bay by the slowness with which the trains were moved, parts of General Tilghman’s and Rust’s divisions formed in the line of battle on the hills three quarters of a mile north of Coffeeville, and with the cavalry and six pieces of artillery in the center, quietly awaited the onset of the enemy, who were slowly driving in a small party of our sharpshooters, which had been bravely skirmishing with him for more than an hour from one to two miles in front."
Fletcher Pomeroy, of Company D, 7th Kansas Cavalry, explained it more succinctly:
"At the Battle of Coffeeville the bullets rained about me like hail, cutting the twigs and bark from the trees on every hand."
What of Roberts and Cole? William and Ivor did not answer in the next morning. When Union infantry pushed forward to where the action had occurred, they found William but not Ivor. William was dead on the field and was hastily buried. In a letter home to his wife, Carson wrote, ”young Ivor Roberts from Antrim was shot dead Friday night. A ball went through his head. Try and let them know it, he was son of Esq. Roberts. His body was not gotten” (referring to Robert's parents.)
Shallow graves were dug by “Negroes” for Union dead, forced by Confederate soldiers to perform the work. After the war, the two young men were re-interred at Corinth National Cemetery. William is identified and Ivor is one of the unknowns if his remains were found. Of Third Michigan Cavalry losses, there were reported two killed, (according to Carson there were eight). Ivor Roberts, 23 and William A. Cole, 19 were two. They were neighbors. (Note: Carson also wrote in his letter of12/7/62,) “Alex Wort was shot; he is the Alex Wort from the Ridge.” There is no record of an Alex Wort. Simply put Ivor Roberts and William Cole, once alive, sons or husbands were no more.
Grant's Invasion of Mississippi toward Vicksburg came to an immediate halt.
Note: This is a substantial revision of the action posted on 8/25/2021, New information.]
-Official records of the War of the Rebellion, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
-The Essential Guide to the Battle of Coffeeville, Mississippi, Sides, Don, 2015.
Flushing Historical Museum, Flushing, MI
-Montrose History Museum, Montrose, MI.
-Letters of Harrison Henry Carson, edited by Len Thomas, 2012.
-“A Loss for Someone”, Facebook post G Thorsby published 8/25/21.
-Image: No known photo of either Roberts or Cole. The photo is of Pvt. Joe Robson, Co. E, 3rd Michigan Cavalry.