Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Rebels and their bridge fall for Yankee-pranky

The Catawba River trestle (from Lossing's Pictorial History of the Civil War). The paneling enclosed the wooden trusswork that strengthened the bridge, and the trains ran on top.
      In the weeks after the Salisbury raid, George Stoneman became so feared in the Carolinas that the Confederates guarding the Catawba River bridge surrendered at the mere mention of his name.
      The rebels didn't realize that Stoneman was actually hundreds of miles away in Tennessee, nor that their enemy was actually a 27-year-old teacher from Bucyrus, Ohio, named Erastus Cratty Moderwell.
      Major Moderwell impersonated General Stoneman so convincingly that he deserves an awardif not the Medal of Honor, then at least the Academy Award for Best Improv in a Rebellion.
      Civil War historian Benson John Lossing described Major Moderwell's raid on the Catawba bridge as "one of the most gallant little exploits of the war." 
     Here's how it went down, according to Capt. Frank Mason's 1871 history of the Twelfth Ohio Cavalry:
     At ten o'clock on the night of the 19th, Major E.C. Moderwell was ordered by Col. Palmer to take two hundred and fifty picked men of the Twelfth Ohio and go quietly on an expedition to destroy the bridge of the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad over the Catawba River. The services of two native guides were secured, and the battalion was ready by midnight. The distance from Lincolnton was eighty miles [actually, about 50 miles], but Moderwell and his battalion traversed it almost without a halt.
     The cavalry brigade of Duke and Vaughan was now in the valley of the Catawba, and at Charlotte, not many miles distant, was President Davis himself, flying from the ruins of his government, under the convoy of Wheeler's cavalry division. Both of these forces it was necessary for Moderwell to avoid. At Dallas, however, early on the morning of the 20th, he ran in upon Vaughan's and Duke's men. A brisk little skirmish ensued, in which Moderwell and his men captured thirty-five prisoners.
     Avoiding a general engagement, they slipped past their enemies, and by constant marching all day and night reached the vicinity of the bridge they were sent to destroy early on the morning of the 21st. Half a mile from the bridge they encountered a picket consisting of a Lieutenant and about thirty men. This they completely surprised and captured without a shot being fired by either party.
     From the prisoners they learned that the bridge was fortified and defended by a force about equal to their own. Seeing the desperate character of the situation, Moderwell determined to try the efficacy of stratagem. A few hasty words with Captain DuBois settled that Moderwell should pass for General Stoneman and DuBois as General Gillem. Their gum overcoats worn over their uniform helped in the deception. Assuming an air of authority, Moderwell said, in presence of his prisoner: ''General Gillem, order Captain Hill to put his battery in position and open fire on the bridge."
     At this the rebel Lieutenant opened his eyes, and said: " I do not think it is necessary, General. The Major commanding will surrender, if you make the demand."
     Accordingly a flag of truce, accompanied by Captain DuBois and the rebel Lieutenant, was sent in. They bore a note something like the following:
Headquarters U. S. Cavalry Corps

To Com'd'g Officer at the Catawba:

Sir: In order to prevent unnecessary shedding of blood. I demand the unconditional surrender of the forces under your command.

Geo. Stoneman, Maj. Gen.

Com'd'g U. S. Forces
     "General Gillem" (portayed by Captain DuBois) represented the futility of attempting to hold the place, the rebel Lieutenant chimed in and stated what a tremendous force he had seen, what he had heard General Stoneman say, &c. The rebel Major stormed and swore, but finally returned the following reply:
To General Stoneman, &c:
Sir: Owing to the cowardly surrender of my picket post, and in consequence of the vastly superior force of your command, I surrender this garrison, with its military stores.
Signed, Major ______ 

Com'd'g, &c.
     In less than ten minutes the garrison, consisting of seven officers and two hundred and twenty-three men, had grounded their arms, and the splendid railroad bridge was at the mercy of the raiders. Sending four of his companies out as pickets, Moderwell with the remaining two set about the work of destruction. The muskets of the garrison were broken in pieces over the railroad iron; and the two pieces of artillery, owing to the lack of harness with which to haul them off, were damaged as much as possible and then thrown into the river.
     The bridge was fired at the north bank, and in less than thirty minutes had burned from end to end. It was a superb structure, eleven hundred feet in length, supported by ten stone piers which towered many feet above the water, and, once destroyed, was beyond the power of the Confederacy to replace.
     While the bridge was burning, a brigade of rebel cavalry under General [Samuel] Ferguson, came up on the north side, and attempted to cross at the only ford near the bridge, but fifty men of Moderwell's detachment posted on the river bank, soon taught them that it would be a very expensive exploit to cross there.
     Rest and feed for his horses being absolutely indispensable, Moderwell held the ford until dark and then took to the pine woods. Midnight found him thirty miles from the bridge, and men and horses being almost exhausted, they chose a strong position and camped for the night. But fast as they had traveled some at least of Ferguson's men had followed, and at daylight, a rebel Lieutenant appeared at the picket with a flag of truce.
     All supposed it was a demand for surrender, and began to prepare for a flight or a fight. The flag of truce, however, brought a request from General Ferguson to General Stoneman to grant a cessation of hostilities. Knowing himself to be outnumbered five to one, Moderwell of course eagerly accepted the offered truce, and in a few minutes the men were once more in saddle and on the way to Dallas, where they arrived that night and there rejoined the brigade. The results of this little exploit were, the destruction of the most important railroad bridge in the Confederacy, the capture of three hundred and twenty-five prisoners, (including stragglers picked up both going and returning) two hundred and fifty small arms, two pieces of artillery, and two hundred horses.
The York County historical marker insists
 the bridge-burning led to a Union retreat. 
     Stoneman's Raid destroyed more than 30 railroad bridges, and the Catawba River trestle was the largest of them all. It spanned 1,150 feet at Nation Ford and provided a vital connection between Charlotte and Columbia, S.C.
     John C. Breckinridge, who had defeated the real Gen. Gillem at the Battle of Bulls Gap five months earlier, was by now Jefferson Davis' secretary of war. He reported on April 21, "our own men have burned the Catawba bridge," presumably to keep it out of Union hands.
     A week later, when Davis and Breckinridge reached Nation Ford, they had to climb down the bank and cross the Catawba by boat as they fled from Charlotte toward Georgia.

But seriously, folks: Meet Major Moderwell

Major Erastus Cratty Moderwell
     One reason that Major Moderwell wanted to avoid a gunfight at the Catawba Bridge was because he carried in his flesh the painful reminders of battle.
     Moderwell (1838-1906) was shot three times in combat, and complications from one of those wounds would kill him 42 years later. He was shot through the stomach in the Battle of Mount Sterling, Ky., in 1864. The bullet shattered a gold pen in his pocket and embedded shards in his body. Decades later, a fragment of the pen emerged from a boil on his neck. A memorial book published in 1912 said another piece lodged in his brain and may have caused dementia.
     Moderwell was a teacher in Elkhorn, Ky., and Fairmont, W.Va., before he enlisted in the very first Union battalion, organized by the abolitionist Cassius M. Clay the day after the fall of Fort Sumter. At the end of Stoneman's Raid, Moderwell's troops were responsible for the capture of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg
     After the war, Major Moderwell became a lawyer and served as an Illinois state senator as well as mayor of Geneseo, Ill. The memorial book described him as "a fine soldier, grand good citizen, and a manly man."

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