:Abel Streight's 1863 Raid into Alabama: The Lightning Mule Brigade
About North Georgia
On April_10, 1863 probably few people in Rome Georgia were aware that Union Colonel Abel D. Streight was loading four regiments of infantry, two companies of cavalry, two mountain howitzers, with all their equipment, arms and ammunition, plus over 700 noisy, cranky, foul-smelling mules onto a small flotilla of boats. This Independent Provisional Brigade headed down the Cumberland, then up the Tennessee River to begin a raid that would be the biggest event in Rome since the war began.
Had the Romans known of Streight's departure, it is very doubtful that any of them would have been concerned or even interested. But that veil of disinterest would lift three weeks later at midnight of May_2, 1863 when a bedraggled John Wisdom from Gadsden, Alabama limped into Rome on a borrowed, lame pony to tell an incredible tale. The Yankees were only twenty-five miles or so from Rome, headed in their direction, and they were in force.
The sleepy town came alive; and within an hour, history records, the only one asleep was John Wisdom. A native of Rome but now living in Gadsden, he had seen the Yankees in Gadsden, watched them smash his ferry boat on the Coosa River, and made up his mind that someone had to warn Rome. Eight and a half hours and six mount changes later, he had done just that. He wasn't aware that Forrest was right behind the Yankee brigade, so his news had no comforting words that Confederate help was nearby. The Yankees were upon them and they had to protect themselves. Within hours, barricades were built across the bridges over the Coosa and the Etowah, and on roads entering the town. Old cannons were mounted at the bridges, cannon that were probably more dangerous to Rome than to Streight's men. The militia, untrained as it was, was called together, armed as best they could, and ordered to man every possible defensive position, and reinforcements were requested to be sent by the railroad to Kingston.
About 9:00 AM, Captain Russell of Streight's advance guard approached the town, stopped and took stock of the city approaches. The Romans didn't know that Russell's men were leading a brigade that was asleep on its feet, or in their saddles. For four days, harassed at every turn by Forrest, they had marched and fought, marched and fought, and they, men and mounts, were completely exhausted.
They had almost given Forrest the slip on May 1st as they approached Gadsden. They crossed the Black Creek, just ahead of Forrest, but far enough ahead to torch the only bridge in the neighborhood. Streight thought he would gain a day and get a chance to rest and feed, but luck was with Nathan Bedford Forrest. Luck took the form of a 16 year old girl, Emma Sansom, who, in spite of Yankee bullets, climbed up behind Forrest on his horse, and led him to a cattle ford only she knew about. Within a few hours the Confederate riders had crossed the river and were back pressing on Streight's rear guard. Streight marched all that night, fought a battle at Blount's Plantation, and determined that another night march might save his worn out brigade. But his luck ran out when, in the blackness of the May 2 night, the brigade stumbled into an eerie, burn/slashed, charcoal yard of wagon tracks where even local guides were confused. One company of Yankees were able to destroy a part of the Noble Iron Foundry, but it hardly made up for the time lost following false lead after false trail. At daybreak they finally found a bridge over the Chattooga River, but it was too late, and in a magnificent bluff, Forrest and less than 500 men captured the exhausted Yankee brigade, almost 1,700 men on May_3, 1863.
romesforrest.jpg}Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest now in Romes Myrtle Hill Cemetery
Forrest sent couriers who arrived in Rome about dawn, bringing word that Forrest, the Wizard of the Saddle, was just behind Streight, and Rome would be saved. That turned the wave of terror into a grand celebration, which reached fever pitch when Forrest rode into town escorting the captured Yankee officers.
Well, Mr. Editors, you know the sequil. The Generul bagged 'em and brought 'em on. The planks were put back on the bridge. The river bank infantry countermarched and fired a permiscous volley in token of jewbilee. One of the side-swipin cannon went off on its own hook, and the ball went ded through a house and tore a burro all to flinders. . .
Parties and celebrations went on for several days, but by May 5 General Forrest had been called west, the captured officers and men of the Lightning Mule Brigade had departed toward their uncertain future, and things began to quiet. A big banquet to honor Forrest and his men had been planned for the 6th, but the Confederates were gone by then, Forrest taking with him a gift horse presented by the grateful Romans.
Peace descended once again on Rome, but it was a temporary lull. Union cavalry would be back a year later, capturing the town as Sherman made his way toward Atlanta.
Robert L. Willett is a retired banker who now lives in Cocoa Beach, Florida. His has been a consuming interest in war, having participated in both World War II and the Korean War. He has had articles on the Civil War published in Civil War Times, Illustrated, Naval History, Columbiad and has an article scheduled for publication in America's Civil War in November. His first book, One Day of the Civil War America in Conflict April 10, 1863 was published in 1997 and was recently selected by Barnes & Noble as one of the best books on the Civil War written in the last few years. The Lightning Mule Brigade was published by Guild Press of Indiana in May 1999.
Additional pages of interest: History of the city of Rome, Georgia As a result of this raid the city of Rome built a string of forts on the hills around the city. Fort Norton can still be seen today at the top of Civic Center Hill.