Success Not Often Discussed, Rousseau’s Cavalry Raid July, 1864
by Gordon Thorsby
We hear of the Union raids of Grierson, Dahlgren and Stoneman. We don’t hear much about Rousseau. If you happen to be traveling through eastern Alabama you may run into a marker referring to in instance that tore through the heart of Alabama in 1864. That was Rousseau’s Cavalry Raid of 1864.
Maj. Gen. Lovell Harrison Rousseau commanded the District of Tennessee when he received orders from Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman on June 30, to mount an expedition of destruction through Alabama cutting supplies to the Army of Tennessee as that Army backed up to Atlanta. Sherman’s order was a modification of a plan that Rousseau developed and the intent was clear. It was to destroy the Montgomery & West Point Railroad and do “all the mischief possible” along the way. The cavalrymen were to ruin every scrap of government supplies or materials that could be used to aid the Confederate defenses at Atlanta and then meet Sherman in Georgia.
“No infantry or position should be attached, and the party should avoid all fighting possible, bearing in mind, for their own safety, that Pensacola, Rome, and Etowah, and my army, are all in our hands… If compelled to make Pensacola..”
Underneath the surface of this order was the beginning for making war on the people of the South known as "rifle, ransack and burn."
Rousseau was not a cavalryman. He was more known for his tough fighting at Shiloh and Stone’s River in 1862 but Sherman wanted dependability the job would get done. The force Rousseau selected included the 5th Iowa, 8th Indiana, 9th Ohio, 2nd Kentucky and 4th Tennessee (Union) cavalry regiments. A section of Parrott rifles under 1st Lt. Leonard Wightman, 28 of Fenton, MI, Battery E 1st Michigan Light Artillery accompanied the two brigades and the two brigades were led by Cols. Harrison and Hamilton. The column left Decatur at noon on July 10 totaling 2700 troopers and a pack train and his plan was to move fast.
Pursuing Rousseau was the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana of Lt. Gen. Stephen E. Lee with limited resources and more troubles than he could handle. Forrest was fighting an invading force in Mississippi and the Army of Tennessee had absorbed most other available forces. In addition, Johnston was about to replaced by John Bell Hood. Roddy’s cavalry might have been the antidote to Rousseau but his cavalry was sent to Forrest. There were two brigades of infantry at Blue Mountain under Brig. Gen James Clanton, and that included reserves. Local slaves in the Auburn/Opelika provided Rousseau information that opposition was weak.
They departed on 10 July moving first through Blountville, and across Sand Mountain. On the 13th, The raiders tangled with Clanton's guerillas at Ten Islands Ford and after an hour's fight brushed them aside. The discovery of the raid required Rousseau to separate 300 sick and unfit troopers to move back to Union lines while he continued on south with his reduced force of 2400. They destroyed the Janney Furnace Ironworks and at Talladega the horsemen wrecked the depot, factories, railroad cars and provisions destined for Atlanta. By the 16th, they began ripping the Montgomery and Westpoint Railroad along with Telegraph wires.
On the 18th, Rousseau split his forces into four groups to cover more ground, where they proceeded to wreck more track in different areas that included Tuskegee and Auburn. Alabama Governor Thomas Watts gathered a motley force of 300 soldiers from various places but it was also easily brushed aside by Rousseau’s troopers with their Spencer Carbines. The raiders took food, horses, and personal belongings from the countryside but did little more because time was not in their favor. To the populace, the path of destruction was terror in the ugliest form.
Enormous amounts of cotton, provisions, and military equipment went up in smoke and the goal, the Montgomery and West Point Railroad was rendered inoperable for almost a month. Rousseau claimed destruction of 30 miles of track, stations, depots, trestle bridges, and other rail stock. At Opelika, they burned or destroyed 42,000 pounds of bacon, flour and sugar.
Rousseau's raid cost only 12 killed, 30 wounded, and 1 piece of artillery. The actual track and supplies destroyed by his raiders was incalculable. Destruction was not permanent as hoped. It was repaired by rebel engineers by robbing rail from out of use roads across the state. In the aftermath, the raid revealed that the South was a shell. The Georgia interior would likely be the same when he marched toward Savannah.
On the day, July 22 while Rousseau was arriving in Marietta, his mission complete, the First Battle of Atlanta was being fought. On August 1, Gen. Bragg ordered "Roddey's cavalry back to Alabama. When Beauregard requested Roddey's Cavalry to the Carolinas in 1865, it was Pres. Davis who remarked that every time Roddy was moved “severe calamity to Alabama followed.” It was true for Wilson would raid in April.
When Wlson’s raid took place in April, 1865, it was actually the North’s second visit to the area. Rousseau ‘s raid was the first.
Note: Harrison and Hamilton went on to be breveted Brigadier Generals in 1865.
Evans, David. Sherman's Horsemen: Union Cavalry Operations in the Atlanta Campaign. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. ppg. 122-126.
Decision in the West, by Castel, Albert, University Press of Kansas., 1992, P348.
Fretwell, Mark E. "Rousseau's Alabama Raid." Alabama Historical Quarterly 18 (Winter 1956): 526-51.
Leach, Robert B. "The Role of Union Cavalry During the Atlanta Campaign." M.A. thesis, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 1980.