Written By: Peter J. Gossett
Originally appeared in the Trail Tracker, December 2010
County Road 17, in Winston County, begins just south of Delmar from State Highway 13 and travels in an east direction and joins U.S. Highway 278. Little Clear Creek begins just north of the 13/17 intersection, and Meadow Creek begins just south of the intersection. Mount Zion Church is also located on the northern portion of County Road 17. After joining 278, County Road 17 routes southeast, going past the Low Gap area; Sardis Church, known as being one of the oldest churches in the county; and crosses a branch of Splunge Creek. It terminates on County Road 25 (Lynn-Double Springs Highway) about a quarter of a mile from State Highway 5. It is roughly eleven miles long. Today, County Road 17 is in two parts, though there is evidence that before Hwy. 278 was built in the mid-1950s, it was once one road. However, long before numbered roads, this was called the Yankee Trace Road, as it is still known to this today.
The road was named Yankee Trace for one of the routes through northwest Alabama taken by a portion of U.S. General James Harrison Wilson's 13,480 Union cavalrymen in March 1865 on the way to defeating Nathan Bedford Forrest’s outmanned and outgunned forces in the Battle of Selma. It is known as Wilson’s Raid, famous for being commanded by one of the youngest generals in history (hence the nickname “boy-general”), as well as one of the largest cavalry assemblies in history, if not the largest.
“James Harrison Wilson was a complex man. He was a soldier of great energy, determination, and resourcefulness. The young officer was a hard driving commander who, unlike many of his contemporaries in both blue and gray, moved swiftly and decisively into action. Occasionally his precipitate actions caused him trouble, but more often they brought him success. His commanders knew "Harry" Wilson could be depended upon to carry out orders rapidly and forcefully. He was an intelligent man, well versed in military theory and, by the end of the Civil War, a veteran of many facets of military practice as well.”
After being deluged with rain, the raid finally got started on March 22, 1865 in Gravelly Springs, in the northwestern corner of Alabama. At the beginning, there were four divisions: 1st (western) division commanded by Edward Moody McCook with 4,069 men; 2nd (central/main) division commanded by Eli Long with 5,127 men; 4th (eastern) division commanded by Emory Upton with 3,923 men; and the Fourth U.S. Cavalry. McCook’s route traveled from Thorn Hill due south to Eldridge. Long’s route went through Frankfort, Russellville, and Thorn Hill to Blackwater, while Upton’s route went through Chickasaw Landing, Mount Hope, Houston, and Clear Creek Falls. All divisions converged at Jasper on March 27, 1865.
Concerning Upton’s route: “March 24, march resumed; General Alexander moving from Mount Hope, via Houston, toward Clear Creek Falls. General Winslow and train moving, via Kinlock and Hubbard’s Mill, on head waters of Sipsey. The road was exceedingly mountainous and forage scarce. First Brigade made sixteen miles. March 25, march resumed; brigades united and camped at Clear Creek Falls; distance thirty miles. Country almost destitute of forage.”
With this many men and light rations, they were forced to eat from the land. This included the taking of animals and subsistence on the already scarred farms and farmers in Winston County. The Southern Claims Commission files contain information on what was taken from some Winstonians, mostly consisting of the timeframe during Wilson’s Raid from March 24 to March 26, 1865. There were camps at night throughout western Winston County during this time, next to and near the Byler Road, which today parallels Highways 13 and 5. McCook’s division followed the Byler Road, while Long’s division traveled what is now known as the Yankee Trace Road.
“Not many people were encountered on the first five days of march. There were several encounters with Unionists in the hills. Sympathy for secession and the cause of the slave owners had never been great here, and General Croxton reported a number of ‘loyal’ people around Eldridge. At night some Unionists walked into Union camps and shook hands with men they seemed to regard as liberators. Others appeared, and on March 23 five armed rebels came in and surrendered to the Tenth Missouri. The same unit met another deserter three days later. The man surrendered, was sworn into Federal service, and promised to guide his new comrades into Tuscaloosa on a back road free of pickets...”
Many people, including well-known and pre-war prominent citizens, lost all they had and had to move north to find work and food. Besides being able to destroy all the industry supplies and plants in central and south Alabama, Wilson’s raid was similar to Sherman’s “March to the Sea” in that everything in the raiding party’s path was destroyed, crippling and crushing the Confederacy.
They moved quickly through northwest Alabama to avoid a possible attack on one of the smaller divisions and to forage better. It wasn't until after Jasper that any of Wilson's Corps had any opposition from Forrest, although some sources say there was a "minor skirmish" at Houston.
After Jasper, the main body of the raid moved through Elyton (Birmingham), Selma, Montgomery, Columbus (Georgia), and Macon (Georgia), conquering and succeeding on the raid. They reached Macon on May 13, 1865.
One of the cavalrymen, B.F. McGee of the 72nd Indiana, kept a journal during the war. Following are excerpts during the first few days of the raid, including the northwest Alabama adventure.
March 24th. …It was the middle of the afternoon when we got to Russellville, where we turned straight south, still keeping behind the pontoon train till we went into camp. The country became level and withal very rich, and for the first time in many long months the whole command got some fresh provisions. Evidences of wealth were numerous, and just before sundown we passed Gen. Wilson's headquarters at a big white house, (the rebels called him " Dandy Wilson,") and this was the first we had seen of him since our grand review. We went into camp long after night on Cedar Creek, six miles south of Russellville, making 15 miles for the day. Our division and the balance of the brigade got to camp by noon, but we were so late, and it got so dark, we really did not get into camp at all, but just stopped in a lane as we were marching along, hitched our horses in the fence corners on one side of the road and used the fence on the other side for fires. It had been so long since we had eaten anything fresh that our appetite for chicken and pig was simply marvelous, and it is not surprising that a great many over-did the thing and paid the penalty by a lively tussle with the "Tennessee quick step."
March 25th. On stopping last night we had orders to send out foragers at daylight to get forage for our horses and meat to last us two days, as there was supposed to be some more barren country just ahead of us. This detail consisted of about 20 from each company, (no trouble to get men to go in this detail,) or 200 from the regiment, all under command of Lieut. Clark, Co. I, acting quartermaster for the regiment. We found an abundance of everything we needed for man and beast, and had a lively skirmish with some rebels, capturing a horse and a full rig, including gun and accoutrements, a Johnny and his hat—all but the Johnny. The first division began to move past us just as we started, but the sun was two hours high before it all got past, when we moved right after it, rapidly, and about the middle of the forenoon passed through a little place called Mountain Spring. About the middle of the afternoon we crossed Big Bear Creek, at Allen's Factory. This stream runs north-west and empties into the Tennessee River at Eastport, close to where we started. We moved five miles after crossing Bear Creek and bivouacked near a place called Thornhill, on a little mountain stream that runs south into the Buttahachee River. After leaving the Big Bear Creek our road lay over a mountain ridge and was very good, but the country was uninhabited and entirely too poor for any body to live in. Made 20 miles to-day.
March 26th. Since leaving Russellville we have been on a road leading straight south to Tuscaloosa, and this morning the 1st division kept straight on that road, and we saw no more of it for several days. Our division turned square east, the pontoon and all the other division trains along with us. Our road almost all day lay along the top of a mountain ridge, very sandy and covered with a species of "bitter oak" entirely new to us, chestnut and sassafras, some of the latter two feet in diameter, much the largest we had ever seen; roads most excellent and the trains all keeping well closed up. Our division is now by itself; Upton's away off to the north-east of us, and McCook's to the south-west. Late in the afternoon we came to the edge of the mountainous country or high table-lands, and could look for many miles to the east and south of us, and could see what appeared to be a large water course or huge swamp. Just at this time our brigade got on the wrong road and traveled three or four miles out of the way, and by the time we got back into the road we found the trains, which had kept straight ahead, had got down off the table-lands and the advanced trains had stuck fast in a huge swamp. Minty's brigade was ahead of us, and just at sundown began to try to flounder through it, while the train commenced parking on this side and our brigade massed in column by regiments. A detail of 10 men from each company in the brigade, 400 in all, was made to bridge the swamp. As the swamp was nearly a mile wide, this was no small job. This was the Sipsey's fork of the Black Warrior. The men went to work earnestly and cheerfully, while the rest of us fooled around till 9 o'clock at night, and then got orders to feed and get supper, and by the time this was over the bridge was completed and our regiment began to cross. We assure you this was a fearful job, full of danger and startling incidents; yet 17 years afterwards it makes us shiver to think of it. The night was very dark and the swamp itself just like all other swamps on the low lands of the South, a vast sea of mud, growing full of trees, vines and thick underbrush, with a large quantity of water sluggishly making its way through ; a paradise for miasma, bullfrogs, serpents, and alligators. We got across without serious mishaps, went a mile and a half and came to another swamp just like the one we had crossed. This was Warrior creek. Here we were compelled to go into camp. It was just midnight, and before the column turned off the road to go into camp another detail of 10 men from each company in the brigade was made to bridge this swamp. It was our fortune to be in command of the detail from Company I, while the whole detail was under the command of Major Kilborn, of our regiment, who before this had been in command of a company of pioneers, and had abundant experience in this sort of work. We pitched into the swamp, which was full three-fourths of a mile wide, and the water in many places three feet deep. There is many a slip between cup and lip, and so there was many a slip from tussock and root that night, and we doubt if there was a man of the whole 400 who did not go under, many of them several times. But the many tricks we played on each other and the many ridiculous incidents constantly occurring, kept us in good humor, and by 2 o'clock in the morning we had our bridge done. You may be a little curious to know how we could build so long a bridge in so short a time. There was not much water except in a few places, and we just cut poles 10 feet long, laid them side by side and piled fine brush on them to keep the horses' feet from going through, and laid long poles on the ends of the brush to hold it down, leaving a way six feet wide in the middle for the horses to pass. Where the water was sufficiently deep to float our poles we had to cut down long trees and lay them lengthwise of the road and then lay our poles on top of them. There was one place like this just at the further side of the swamp, 75 yards wide. Here most of the water in the swamp seemed to be running and was deep, and had we been obliged to cut poles it would have taken us till daylight to build it; but just across the swamp was a well fenced plantation, and we went for the rails. By each taking two or three rails we could carry a thousand rails at a load, and we should guess we put near 10,000 rails into that swamp. When we got back across the swamp another trouble met us—where was our camp? After we left the command it had turned out of the road into the dense woods. The men had eaten their suppers, and as there was no occasion for building fires, had just tumbled off of their horses and gone to sleep. Had the pack mules been hungry their braying would have guided us with unerring certainty; but they had been fed, were very tired and were now sleeping the sleep of the innocent. Every thing save the hooting of the owls and the whistle of the whippoorwills was still as the grave. Even the frogs had gone to sleep. If we had our blankets we could lie down anywhere and go to sleep; but wet and cold as we were, we needed our blankets, and must find camp. After stumbling around through the dense woods for near an hour we ran upon it, and never before or afterwards did we see the whole camp, man and beast, so sound asleep. We had made 25 miles for the day. Dr. Cole says of the 26th: "Moved out early this morning and traveled hard all day; did not get into camp till late at night. Crossed one branch of Black Warrior. The fording was difficult and dangerous. The pontoon train moves with great difficulty."
March 27th. Bugle blowed this morning at 4 o'clock, and the bridge-builders got very little sleep. We moved this morning at sunup, and immediately plunged into the swamp, and found that notwithstanding the darkness of last night, and the many disadvantages under which we had labored, we had made a tolerably passable bridge, and we got across the swamp without much difficulty. Here we found Minty's brigade just eating breakfast; the last of it managed to get through the swamp about midnight. After waiting an hour for Minty's brigade to move and our own to get across the swamp, we moved on south over a low, sandy ridge of table-land, for 12 miles, and the roads just splendid, except that they were the crookedest things in the world. This ridge was entirely uninhabited, and we did not pass a house. This had one day been a dense forest, but about two years before this a most fearful tornado had swept over and felled nearly every tree. It would be impossible to compute the vast destruction of timber. About every hundred yards we had to turn out of the road to pass around the butt or top of a fallen tree, thus doubling the distance. About noon we came to a stream of considerable size called Lost Creek, and like most of the streams of the South it was lined on either side by fearful swamps. Here we found Minty's brigade massed in column, and we rested an hour and started on, but soon after starting we struck a road running straight east to Jasper, and about the time our brigade got to it the head of the 1st Division came in from the west and cut us off, thus cutting our division in two. This was another blunder, and shows that smart men will sometimes do some very foolish things. We want to remark here that any two different commands undertaking to move on the same narrow road through the woods, in the same direction and at the same time, are bound to get into difficulty, and in this case it came very near resulting in a fight. The right of way certainly belonged to us, as more than half of our division was in the road before the 1st Division came up and cut it off. We tried for a long time to get to our places in the division, and were getting just about mad enough to clean the cavalry out, and there certainly would have been a fight, for McCook of the 1st out-ranked Long of the 2d Division, and it looked to us that McCook, in a very arbitrary and insulting manner, was trying to crowd us out of the road just to show his authority, and we felt bound to resent the insult, as we felt quite sure if the Johnnies had been in force in front we could have had the road without any trouble. Just then we got orders from Gen. Wilson to halt and wait till the whole train had pulled past us and then to come in behind it. This was shortly after noon, and it took the 1st Division an hour to file past us; then came the division trains, all of them, and then the pontoon train. While we were waiting for the trains to pass we sent out foragers. About the middle of the afternoon it began to rain and rained for three or four days without stopping. This struck us in just the worst time possible. Had it rained on us while in the mountains it would not have been so bad, but to commence just as we had fairly got into the swamps made fearful nasty work. It was getting dark when the rear of the train passed us and we pulled in after it. We had not gone far till we came to a large stream with steep and high banks, which had been piled full of rails, and might have been fair crossing at noon, but the rain had swollen the stream till the rails were all floating, and had there not been considerable timber just below the crossing they would have floated off. Our brigade had to cross this stream on the floating rails, which was about as difficult business as we ever did. We were now going down Lost Creek, and had not gone a mile until we found the whole train hopelessly stuck in the swamp. It seemed that every team had stuck fast in the mud at once. We dallied along till after 10 o'clock in a vain attempt to close up the train, and then went into camp not more than two miles from where we struck the Jasper road. We had made but 15 miles for the day, and it was now dark as Egypt and raining in torrents. It was midnight before we got to lie down, which we thought a little rough on the poor soldiers, especially those that built bridges the night before. Sergeant Stewart, Company A, says of the foragers who were sent out after noon: "Owing to a scarcity of forage the party got so far away from the road they got lost in the darkness and lay out all night."
March 28th. Bugle call this morning at 4 o'clock, as usual. We moved out just as it was getting light. Still raining hard. For six miles we had a fearful time passing the train. Every wagon was stuck in the mud, and it looked as though they might stay there till next August. Our regiment was in the advance, and just as we got past the trains we met Gen. Long coming back to see about the train. We have intimated before that Gen. Wilson, from the start, held our division responsible for the train. We have also stated that the train had started from the landing with five days' rations of hard-tack for the command, and that we also started with five days' rations in our haversacks. These would have been out on the 26th, but when we passed through Russellville and the rich country on Big Bear Creek we filled up till we still had plenty of rations. Gen. Long ordered us to send back details and draw the five days' rations of crackers out of the wagons, and thus, by shifting the loads, so lighten them that the teams might possibly be able to pull them out of the swamp. This we did and moved on to Jasper, county seat of Walker county. We had heard of this place for several days and expected to find a smart little village, at least, but were never so disappointed in our lives, as it was the poorest excuse for a town we ever did see. It once had a log jail and was surrounded by a half dozen log cabins, but a short time before this the jail had been burned down by Union citizens, which left the cabins alone in their glory. Dr. Cole says: "The woods through which we have passed to-day are horrible in the extreme, and the country poor beyond conjecture. It has been raining hard for the last 12 hours." When we got to Jasper we found the 1st division in camp south-west of the town, and the 4th division had just come in from the north, by way of Mount Hope, Cedar Falls, &c., and the whole command was together once more…
Jones, James Pickett. Yankee Blitzkrieg: Wilson's Raid Through Alabama and Georgia. University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 1976.
McGee, Benjamin F. History of the 72d Indiana Volunteer Infantry of the Mounted Lightening Brigade.
Dodd, Donald B. and Wynelle S. Dodd. Winston: An Antebellum and Civil War History of a Hill County of North Alabama. Part of "Annals of Northwest Alabama" Vol. 4, compiled by Carl Elliott (1972). Oxmoor Press, Birmingham, AL, 1972.