Mixing it up with Sherman at Collierville, Tennessee, 1863.
by Gordon Thorsby
(courtesy of Library of Congress)
Battles of the Civil War spanned across America in towns that had little impact and were rarely heard from. Two of these battles took place in the small town of Collierville, Tennessee just prior to Grant’s Chattanooga Campaign. The largest of the two took place on October 11,1863 and it included an accidental encounter when Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman dropped in.
Collierville was and is located just east of Memphis about 13 miles and at the time, Memphis was an important hub for men and supplies for the North. While Bragg and the Army of Tennessee besieged Chattanooga, Confederate cavalry swung west around the trapped Union army and raided into the state at will. On Oct. 11, Confederate Brigadier General James R. Chalmers (below) advanced north from Oxford, MS with intent to cut the telegraph, and burn bridges. If he could do more, it would add to success to create havoc on Northern supply lines.
His Cavalry division of 3,100 troopers consisted of a number of regular and irregular cavalry. Many had ridden with Nathan Bedford Forrest while a couple of regiments were new, but even the new regiments of riders were experienced and tough. There was the 7th Tennessee, also known as Duckworth's Cavalry. Other Volunteer State regiments included the 12th, 13th and a newly formed 14th. Tennessee Cavalry. From Mississippi came the 12th, the 1st Partisan Rangers, the 18th Mississippi Battalion, and the reformed 3rd MS Cavalry. Chalmers also had the 2nd Missouri, (CS) and a battery of artillery that brought with it four Williams Guns. These guns were indeed unique. Only 43 were ever made and it was classified as a 1lb. cannon. The inside tube diameter was 1.75 inches compared to 4.75 inches for a Napoleon twelve pounder and a gun barrel 48" long compared to a Napoleon at 53" or a Parrott at 74". It was a breech-loader and it could rapid-fire.
Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers (courtesy of LOC)
Facing the Southern cavalry was Col De Witt Clinton Anthoiny and 250 men of the 66th Indiana in the defenses and a nearby large Union cavalry detail of the 7th Illinois cavalry. The defenses were of a stockade with 8-foot-high walls and a line of rifle-pits. Lightly garrisoned, the defenses were still formidable.
Just before noon, Chalmers entered the town when who should arrive none other than Maj. Gen. Willam Tecumseh Sherman aboard his train with 260 men of the 13th U.S. Infantry. The 13th U.S. Infantry was no ordinary regiment. They were a tough group. It earned the nickname, ”First at Vicksburg,” because it was the only unit to be able to plant the colors on the parapets of the Vicksburg defenses. The battle-hardened veterans participated in some of the roughest battles of that campaign. Sherman ordered the train to stop, and his men evacuated the cars and immediately went into action. Sherman also telegraphed for reinforcements while the 13th U.S. set fire to outlying buildings that could be used as sharpshooting nests.
As pressure mounted, the Union defenders withdrew into the breastworks of the fort. McGuirk's 7th TN routed the 7th Illinois Cavalry, captured 150 prisoners and 5 stands of colors, and destroyed almost 50 wagons loads of supplies. Chalmers, finding Sherman was within, demanded his surrender and that of the overwhelmed Yankees but Sherman wouldn’t have it. Fortunately, from nine miles away, the 90th IL, 100th Indiana and three artillery guns were double-quicking it to Collierville. A four-hour fight ensued and the delay was long enough for the reinforcements to arrive and for Chalmers to withdraw. Sherman’s loss was his horse and some personal papers.
Collierville Battlefield Marker
Chalmers did not give up and three weeks later on November 3, he attacked the town again with the railroad supplying Sherman's army on the way to Chattanooga. This time, he and his cavalry division were facing eight companies of the 7th Illinois Cavalry Regiment and two howitzers. Union Col. Edward Hatch, at Germantown, TN, only five miles away, received notice from scouts of the advancing Chalmers and hustled the 6th Illinois Cavalry and 2nd Iowa Cavalry Regiments. off to Collierville. When Chalmers got to Collierville and began his attack, Colonel Hatch was quick to arrive. The Confederates launched an attack with only part of Col. William F. Slemon's brigade under the intelligence that it was lightly defended. The Union 2nd Iowa Cavalry entering the town opened fire with their Colt Revolving rifles and repulsed the attack. Hatch rolled in shortly thereafter and attacked Chalmers on both flanks, surprising him with the unexpected appearance of more Federal cavalry. Chalmers concluding that he was outnumbered, called off the fight and returned to Mississippi. For the Union depot, all was saved at Collierville.
After the Civil War, Collierville was wrecked. Only three structures were left standing, but the town rebuilt itself to its prewar size by the 1870’s. Federal losses were 110 killed, wounded or missing. Confederate losses were 51 killed or wounded.
The Union dead from the fights were buried in what is today a parking lot of the old Baptist church in town. The remains were reinterred in the Memphis National Cemetery.
Note: Information of the Williams Cannon is from Wikipedia.
Col. DeWitt Clinton Anthony, (later Brig. General)
National Park Service, Collierville Battlefield.
The Impulse of Victory, by Powell, David A. By Southern Illinois Press, 2020, P66.
NPS Data on regimental information.