Saturday, December 10, 2022

How obsessed dude earned MOH in obscure Tennessee battle

Modern bridge at Richland Creek on John Bell Hood's December 1864 retreat route.

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Unlike hallowed ground on the Army of Tennessee's retreat route near Franklin, Tenn., little has changed since the war at battlegrounds south of Columbia. No historical plaque marks the Richland Creek battlefield, all privately owned. This wasn’t an epic battle, after all. 

On Dec. 24, 1864, roughly 6,000 Yankees fought 3,000 ragged Rebels. But it was a brutal, and often hand-to-hand, fight near the Pulaski Pike. Eager to bag Hood’s army, the U.S. cavalry pressed hard. 

Richland Creek battle map from Mark Zimmerman's excellent 
Mud, Blood & Cold Steel: The Retreat from Nashville December 1864
“Those fellas,” Rebel cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest said of the Yankees, “are wrathy today.” 

On a ridge near Richland Creek, near where I parked, Confederates placed two cannons — they called ‘em “Bull Pups” — to stem the blue tide. Behind my friend Jack and I stretches flat, open ground that meets another ridge about a half mile distant. The creek is roughly 15 yards wide.

Underneath the modern bridge, we find no evidence of its wartime cousin or any other evidence of 1864 nearby. On a walk across it, Jack reads aloud an account of the battle from a book while I look over his shoulder. Passersby speeding on modern Route 31 must wonder: Why are those old dudes reading a book on a bridge in 27-degree weather? 

At Richland Creek, an artillery shell burst cost Gen. Tyree Bell, one of Forrest’s top lieutenants, his right eye. He refused to relinquish his command until “The Wizard” ordered him to retire. 

Bell was one tough SOB. At Shiloh more than two years earlier, he had suffered three broken ribs and three horses killed under him.

Somewhere out here Harrison Collins of the 1st Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.) earned a Medal of Honor by capturing a flag, the object of his strange obsession for weeks. 

Left: Nathan Bedford Forrest called the pursuing 
U.S. cavalry "wrathy." Confederate Gen. Tyree Bell
lost his right eye at Richland Creek.
As the Union Army fell back toward Nashville in the aftermath of the Battle of Franklin, the 28-year-old corporal had spotted the enemy flag everywhere, like that helicopter in a scene with Ray Liotta’s Mafia character in Goodfellas.

“I shot at it every time I got a chance, sometimes under embarrassing circumstances,” Collins said. “It got to be so provoking that I made up my mind if we ever got a chance, I’d pay those rebels for flaunting that there flag in our faces.”

Near Richland Creek, where the Rebels made a stand, Collins spotted the flag again and saw an opportunity for glory. No matter the circumstances, capturing an enemy’s flag merited acclaim, sometimes even a Congressional Medal of Honor. 

As the Union cavalry charged, a Rebel officer ordered his men to dismount and fight on foot.

“Our party halted here, but I forgot everything but the prize, and riding through the dismounted enemy, overtook the color-bearer and demanded the flag,” Collins said. “He threw it on the ground. I dismounted and picked it up.”

Read more stories like this in my book, A Civil War Road Trip Of A Lifetime, coming late-spring 2023.
After a one- or two-hour fight, the U.S. Army forced Hood’s rearguard to flee toward Pulaski.

“The fire was the heaviest ever encountered,” recalled a Rebel soldier.

Now I’m usually skeptical of those “hail of fire,” “storm of lead,” “greatest cannonade of all time” recollections of Civil War soldiers from even the smallest fights. But if you were frozen, exhausted, frazzled, hungry, scared, and shoeless — like these retreating Rebels — you might think the same thing.

In the aftermath of the battle, soldiers found battered trees, plowed-up earth, and a few dead and wounded across a frozen landscape. 

Now we see water-sodden fields, a few cows, and speeding cars on ground where Harrison Collin became a instant hero.

Looking northeast on the battlefield. Union cavalry advanced toward camera.

Looking east from the Modern bridge over Richland Creek

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  1. Anonymous9:12 AM

    Great story; I love these stories on out-of-the-way battlefields.

  2. Anonymous8:47 PM

    Excellent, as usual John. Rob FNQ,Au