A few days before my visit to Davis Ford, a remote Duck River location near Columbia, Tennessee, where 22,000 Confederates crossed in the late fall of 1864, guide Neal Pulley sent me a telling text: Bring orange. I don’t want to get shot! 😊”
Not a fan of inadvertently becoming the target of a deer hunter, I scour a chain of big-box stores for an orange vest. Bad luck in sporting goods. But in the menswear section, another quarry is cornered: a ghastly orange sweatshirt.
Poorer by $7.87, I throw my purchase in my taped car and suffer buyer’s remorse almost immediately. In a plastic box in the trunk is a neon yellow cycling jacket, the perfect hiking outfit.
This journey seems jinxed before it begins.
Still pissed off, I drive the next morning to Columbia, Civil War country about 50 miles south of downtown Nashville, for an appointment with Pulley, an expert on the obscure Davis Ford and the Battle of Columbia. Fabulous stories linger in the beautiful rolling countryside of a Confederate soldier called “God’s Country”.
a few kilometers from where Pulley and I meet south of town, Union officer turned Confederate cavalry commander Frank Armstrong married President James Polk’s great-niece on April 27, 1863. Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn, a notorious womanizer and married father of five, attended the nuptials at Rally Hill, an 1830s mansion that still stands. Brig too. General Nathan Bedford Forrest, cavalry genius and infamous slave trader. About a downed Napoleon cannon stands the National Confederate Museum in Elm Springs, where the former Klansman’s remains were recently moved from Memphis for reburial.
Months ago at the museum I examined the bed in which Army of Tennessee Commander John Bell Hood slept while Army of Ohio Union Major General John Schofield paraded before his soldiers in the middle of the night at the end of November 1864, one of the most courageous of the war. moves. I’m no expert, but the one-legged, one-armed Hood probably didn’t cower with the Confederate battle flag bedspread on this heirloom.
In the 1920s and 1930s, war relics were abundant here in Maury County, where the ground was trampled, camped and fought over by both armies. An acquaintance – a longtime relic hunter – likes to tell stories of the discovery of dozens of rare Whitworth bullets, Confederate belt plates and thousands of other artifacts from fields, woods and construction sites in the area. In the 1930s and 1940s, Pulley’s father played with Civil War-era Enfield rifles in nearby Giles County, where he grew up. “They used to beat them on rocks,” Pulley says. Squirrels hunted with them, too.
Before leaving for the ford, Pulley explains “The Burn Line”, houses burned down by the Yankees in 1864 to clear a range. Then we drive down the highway in his pickup, turn off onto a rutted road with bomb-shaped craters caused by storms, and park near an old road.
Nervous and sore (damn the arthritis!), I put on the neon jacket while Pulley puts on an orange and yellow vest. Then he hands me a bottle of insecticide.
“What animals are here?” ” I ask.
“Well, skunks. Bobcat too.
Damn, I hate cats.
And so we trudge up the road, about a mile from our destination.
A long time student of the Civil War, Pulley spent his free time researching the Battle of Columbia – a series of skirmishes and fierce fighting from November 24 to 29, 1864 – for a book he planned to write. The Columbia native has multiple ties to the war: one ancestor served under Hood in the 53rd Tennessee while another rode with Forrest. One of them also fought in the US Army – “a red leg, a traitor on my mother’s side,” he half-jokes. According to family lore, Pulley’s great-great-grandmother was accidentally hit in the calf by a US Army bullet while kneading dough in Giles County.
On farmland, in the woods, and near the fords of the Duck River at Columbia, armies fought in the lead up to the brutal Battle of Franklin on November 30. Casualties were light – about 10 for the US Army, about 25 for the Confederates. But no matter how big the battle, a family member or lover somewhere cried when they learned of the death of a loved one.
Eliza Donley, whose son James was a 65th corporal from Illinois, was one of them.
At Columbia on November 26, 1864, Donley’s leg was shattered between the foot and the knee by an artillery shell. “He bore it bravely like a good soldier as he is,” 65th Illinois 1st Sgt. George Heywood wrote a few days later to Eliza. “We were driven from the field and out of 19 men of the company, 7 were wounded and one killed. It left us so small that we couldn’t get them out.
Shortly after his wound, James died, likely at enemy hands as Schofield’s soldiers made their way to Nashville, their ultimate destination. “I asked them about your son and they told me he was no more,” Heywood wrote in another letter to Eliza, nearly a month after her son’s death. “I was surprised and sorry to hear that.”
After Colombia, Hood aimed to flank Schofield’s army before it reached Spring Hill. With a good chance of wreaking havoc, he couldn’t hang around. So, in late November 1864, he ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge over the Duck River at Davis Ford.
To get there, we navigate through a cornfield, skilfully avoiding groundhog holes. “Careful,” says Pulley, “you can break an ankle in these.” Carefree. I am an expert in marmot avoidance, having walked through Cornfield from David R. Miller to Antietam several times.
We head for a rutted military road on a cliff along the Duck River. The distant sounds of an airplane overhead and the gunshot of a fighter don’t detract from the grandeur of the experience. Long before Hood’s soldiers, the old haul road was used by 18th and 19th century pioneers as well as the Creek Indians.
Then we take a circuitous route to the ford, trudging through brambles and bushes, over fallen branches and poison oak, and through mud and who-knows-what else. “Rattlesnakes here?” ” I ask. “Could be.” said Poulie. Wearing shorts and running shoes, hardly the best hiking outfit, I keep going. “Stupidity” is what is commonly called.
If it weren’t for the three-inch snail stinger, an endangered ray-finned freshwater fish, Davis Ford might not even exist. In the early 1980s, the federal government halted construction of a half-built $100 million dam in Tennessee when the endangered fish was discovered in the Duck River. “It would have all been underwater otherwise,” Pulley said after we finally got to the ford.
Through a maze of trees to our left, about 50 yards across the Duck River, rises the steep North Bank. The water can be three or four feet deep. To the right are huge mounds of dark brown earth and the remains of a cut in the south bank made by Hood’s engineers, unsung heroes of the war. Not another soul is in sight.
Imagine this scene the night of November 28, 1864 and the next morning:
A hundred sappers, miners and diggers set to work. Torches flicker as massive wooden beams are driven into the gravel bed of the river. At 1 a.m., the trusses arrive to land on the silts, a job that continues until dawn. Fifty soldiers dig a trench on the north bank, grueling work carried out “all night long without flinching”, the lieutenant in charge of the operation later recalled.
Towards dawn, thousands of feet rumble and rustle in the distance as the tattered and smelly Army of Tennessee marches down the narrow military road to the ford. Patrick Cleburne, Hood’s fiery Irish-born division commander, chews on the officer in charge of the pontoon operation, irritated that the cut of the south bank is incomplete. “He…abused me shamefully and threatened to have me arrested and court-martialed for my failure,” the lieutenant recalled, “but I was never arrested.”
I wonder about the thousands of Confederates who crossed here shortly after dawn on that freezing day long ago. Among them was Private Sam Watkins, a native of Colombia who was happy to be home. “We never gave up our colors,” he wrote in his classic war memoirs, Co. Aych, on his return home. “Are we worthy to be called the sons of the old earldom of Maury?
By nightfall on November 30 in Franklin, 30 miles to the north, hundreds of Watkins’ comrades who passed through Davis Ford were reported dead. Mathew Andrew Dunn, a 30-year-old sergeant in the 33rd Mississippi, was one of them.
Four months before being riddled with bullets in Franklin, Dunn prepared his wife, Virginia – he affectionately called her “Stumpy” – for horrible possibilities. “Oh my love,” the father of two young children wrote, “if only I could see you and our dear little ones again, what a pleasure it would be. But God only knows if I will have this privilege or not. you were trying to raise them right. Train them while they’re young.
“And if I’m not spared to see you, I hope we meet in a happier world. . .
if I’m killed, I hope I’m ready to go.
Months later a letter of condolence arrived for “Stumpy” in Liberty, Miss.—population of a few hundred.
“Dear friend, though I join you in shedding a tear of sorrow, let us not weep like those who are without hope,” wrote 33rd Mississippi Private John Wilkinson, “for we are assured that our loss is his gain eternal, may his freed Spirit now sing praises to our blessed Savior in paradise above where all is joy and peace.
Dunn’s remains probably rest in McGavock Confederate Cemetery in Franklin.
Perhaps his spirit, however, still hovers somewhere here near the shores of distant Davis Ford.
In 2015, John Banks waded the Potomac River from Maryland to West Virginia at Boteler’s Ford, an epic experience. You can read about it on his popular Civil War blog (john-banks.blogspot.com).