The Importance of Tuscumbia AL and a Constant Disappointment
by Gordon Thorsby
There were strategic cities throughout the South that were conduits for army campaigns and army concentrations. There was Petersburg, Atlanta, Vicksburg, Nashville, Winchester, VA, Charleston, Memphis, and there was Tuscumbia. The name of Tuscumbia, AL regularly popped up for campaigns and supply junctions by both sides in the Western Theater.
It was through this river and rail junction that at least two major campaigns and one well known raid began. Its importance by both sides guaranteed that the town changed hands countless times and interestingly, almost every major effort from Tuscumbia seemed to end in failure. Why was Tuscumbia important?
Tuscumbia is in northwest Alabama on the Tennessee River and west of Decatur. Florence is on the north shore of the river and Tuscumbia is on the south side. Tuscumbia had been important because the railroad through it was the first rail line west of the Alleghenies. At the time of the Civil War, it was important because the rail line transferred supplies from the trans-Mississippi ending at Corinth to the east and eventually for Confederacies armies. It was something the South needed to possess and something the North needed to take. The rail line was helpful for Southern armies when advancing into Tennessee and Kentucky because of its northern locale.
In April 1862, the residents of Florence and Tuscumbia knew a battle raged somewhere along the Tennessee River (at Shiloh) as they could hear thundering artillery somewhere in the distance. When wagonloads of wounded began rumbling through the town, it confirmed the war was visiting Tuscumbia. Within a week of Shiloh, regular scouting parties of Union and Confederate cavalry began raiding through the area and they skirmished regularly.
A Union effort in 862 was to take and hold northern Alabama. Throughout April, Union and Confederate troops competed as to who could tear up the Memphis and Charleston Railroad bridge first and Confederate Cavalry won. The Navy also wanted Tuscumbia and Florence because it was a choke point for river craft supplying Union troops.
In the late Spring of 1862, Tuscumbia became the objective of an incursion into Alabama when three Federal gun boats docked at the city. In June, Gen. Don Carlos Buell, brought the entire Union 30,000-man IX Corps to Florence and Tuscumbia. With Forts Donelson and Henry taken, Tuscumbia/ Florence was the strategic junction but success in holding Tuscumbia did not occur.
In September, Buell was forced to abandon Tuscumbia when Confederate Gens. Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith struck north into Kentucky. With Tuscumbia open, guerillas went back into Tuscumbia after the Union departure destroying Union stores and random pilfering. Suffering degradations of civilians by guerillas was as bad as did Union cavalry and the solution was Confederate Col. Philip Roddey who organized a regiment of the 4th Alabama Cavalry. Some hangings of the marauders brought the problem to a quick conclusion for the time. Something more formal had to be done to hold Florence and Tuscumbia by Southern authorities.
During the winter, the defenses at Tuscumbia were bulked up with two earthen fortifications built along the river west of Tuscumbia and along the Memphis and Charleston rail line. Col. Daniel Ruggles, well acquainted with artillery, built gun emplacements to prevent Union rivercraft use of the Tennessee River. The forts enable defending against infantry attacks and capable of damaging navy gunboats.
In April 1863, a multi-prong approach for the Vicksburg Campaign required a mounted raid through northern Alabama as a distraction. On April 26, 1863, Col. Abel Streight took a force of 1700 mounted infantry and the renown mule-brigade leaving Tuscumbia and marched southeast to cooperate with Grierson’s Raid in Louisiana and Grant’s moves across the Mississippi. Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest's brigade annihilated the mule brigade with a force less than 1/3 the size. Streight’s venture was a disaster but great a success for Forrest.
The need to supply the besieged Union Army at Chattanooga resulted in the effort by Sherman to rebuild the damaged Memphis & Charleston Railroad eastward from Corinth and through Tuscumbia and ultimately to Chattanooga. Confederate Gen. Stephen D Lee (right) went to stop the effort. Using 4000 infantry, cavalry and artillery, he tried but could not hold off a 12,000 Union XV Corps at the Battle of Tuscumbia on October 26 and 27, 1863. Though Lee lost tactically, Sherman abandoned the effort and came another disappointment.
In the fall of 1864, Tuscumbia became the supply depot for Army of Tennessee. Tuscumbia was the place where the Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood promised that the victorious Tennessee Campaign would attack north and break a chain of reverses for the South. Troops gathered on both banks and prepared to bring victory again. Unfortunately, after Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville the entire Confederacy was to be gravely disappointed.
For Cause and Country, by Jacobsen, Eric A. And Rupp, Richard A., O’Moore Publishing, 2008, pp44-45,415.