TUSCUMBIA-In the fall of 1863, the largest engagement in Northwest Alabama during the Civil War was fought at Little Bear Creek, about three miles west of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Nearly 12,000 Union and Confederate troops were involved.
The Union Army was in the process of rebuilding the damaged Memphis & Charleston Railroad eastward from Corinth, Mississippi, with the intention of carrying supplies and soldiers by rail to Tuscumbia and then to Decatur to cross the Tennessee River and advance to Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge, Tennessee. The 15th U.S. Army Corp (with supply bases at Corinth and Iuka, Mississippi) was assigned to Gen. William T. Sherman and commanded by U.S. Maj. Gen. Frank P. Blair with divisions under Brigadier Generals Peter J. Osterhause and Morgan L. Smith. Union troops totaled about 8,000 men.
Confederate forces which were assembled to check the Union advance were led by Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, who commanded the cavalry in the Department of Mississippi, Alabama, West Tennessee and East Louisiana. His subordinate commanders were Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Ferguson and Brigadier Gen. Phillip D. Roddey. Both commanded cavalry regiments, battalions and artillery sections, including the following: Forrest’s Alabama Cavalry Regiment commanded by Lt. Col. Jeffrey E. Forrest (later the 11th Ala. Cavalry), Ross’s Cavalry Brigade, 56th Ala. Cavalry Battalion, Saunders Cavalry Battalion, 53rd Ala. Cavalry, 4th Ala. Cavalry (Gen. P.D. Roddey), Julian’s Ala. Cavalry Battalion (Capt. William R. Julian), Baxter’s Cavalry Battalion, Owens’ Arkansas Battery (howitzers and rifles) and Ferrell’s Georgia Battery (smooth bores). Their combined forces totaled approximately 3,500-4,000 soldiers.
Union Gen. F.B. Blair made his headquarters at the home of a Mr. Hanson (who had two sons serving under Blair’s command) Hanson’s home was located on high ground visible today on the north side of U.S. Hwy. 72, near Locust Shores. “Old timers” sometimes still reference it as “Headquarters Hill”. Blair’s forces encountered the Confederate Cavalry at about 8:30 a.m. on Monday, October 26th near Barton Station, with sharp skirmishing (artillery volleys) at the Barton Cemetery and at the Mt. Zion Church at approximately 9:00 a.m. Near noon they were met by a line of Confederates at Cane Creek with skirmishing lasting about two hours. CSA Troops withdrew and re-formed their lines east of Little Bear Creek.
The Yankees deployed their brigades and regiments about one mile west of Little Bear Creek around 3:15 p.m. The Confederates had formidable lines entrenched to the East. Confederate fire from Owens’ Arkansas Battery and Ferrell’s Georgia Battery was returned by the 4th Ohio and the 1st Missouri Artillery. As furious charges and counter charges took place at the creek and amid clouds of smoke from the battle, Col. Jeffrey E. Forrest, commander of Forrest’s Alabama Cavalry Regiment, was wounded in both thighs. He was removed from the battlefield and carried to the home of Capt. John Anthony Steele (a staff officer under Forrest and later a member of the Alabama Legislature) on Main Street in Tuscumbia. Some Union reports erroneously stated that he was mortally wounded.
On the morning of October 27th, the Union commander renewed his assault on the Confederates. A combined charge of artillery, infantry, and cavalry was made at the upper ford about one mile south of the Memphis & Charleston RR. Intense fighting ensued.
The Union advance broke through on the right flank at this juncture. Gen. Lee’s forces then withdrew through Tuscumbia and beyond to Leighton. The Yankees occupied Tuscumbia and made headquarters at the Old Franklin House Hotel (formerly at the corner of 5th and Water Streets).
Although the Confederates withdrew from Tuscumbia, their mission was not entirely a failure, regardless of the victory reported by the press. The Federal Army left Tuscumbia the next day, leaving the M&C RR incomplete, proceeding to the mouth of Big Bear Creek at Chickasaw (Riverton), Alabama, where they crossed the Tennessee River and proceeded to Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge by safer routes north of the River, through Florence and Huntsville. Gen. Lee’s scouts captured a medical supply wagon with valuable supplies and took several Union prisoners.
On October 26, 2013, one day prior to the 150th anniversary of the battle at Little Bear Creek, the annual “History and Haunts” Trolley Tour will visit the site. Civil War re-enactors with the local Sons of Confederate Veterans will provide living history demonstrations. Trolleys depart at 4:00 and 6:30 p.m. from Cold Water Books, downtown Tuscumbia. Tickets are $10.00. The tour will also visit Tuscumbia Railway Depot and other sites said to be “haunted”, including the office of the Colbert County Reporter and the Winston Home at Deshler High School. For more information about the Civil War history of the area and or the Trolley Tour, contact Colbert County Tourism at 256-383-0783 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.colbertcountytourism.org.
Source cited: Files and writings of local historian Lanny Perry