This week I had the distinct pleasure to chat a few minutes with Historian Dale Welch and he shared with me a booklet he’s put together and entitled Shadows of Gray. It contains 12 articles about brave Confederates who hailed from the Cumberland Plateau. Today I’d like to share one article with you about the only major skirmish fought in Putnam County.
Even with the blacktop and traffic, the Calfkiller Valley between Monterey and Sparta is more peaceful today than it was 150 years ago, on February 22, 1864. A skirmish or battle took place that day in Putnam County, near the White County line. While families who lived along the Calfkiller River were harassed, robbed and killed by both Union and Confederate forces, along with thieves and bushwhackers, what became known as the “Battle of Dug Hill” was the only major skirmish in Putnam County. The modern Calfkiller Highway bypasses the site of the actual battle, but the story lives on.
Different Union commands would establish a base during the Civil War, at Sparta. Sometimes, it would be Col. Garrett and other time Col. William B. Stokes. During the winter of 1864, Col. Stokes and his 5th Tennessee Cavalry US, was in charge. HE sent out word across the area that he was “raising the black flag,” giving the Rebels “no quarter” – meaning he would take no prisoners, but kill every last one of the bushwhackers.
Confederate forces roaming in the valley were not your “everyday” bushwhackers. Some of them were regular officers and soldiers who had been cut off from their command, li8ke Confederate Colonel John M. Hughes, of the 25th Tennessee Infantry, Captain George Carter, of Co. A, 8th Tennessee Cavalry, Capt. W. Scott Bledsoe, of the 25th Tennessee Infantry, Captain Champ Ferguson and his Independent Scouts, along with several more, including several Texas Rangers, all about 40 or so men together. They heard of Col. Stokes’ black flag and it was alright with them. They would give “no quarter” back to the Yankees.
The Confederates had also heard that Col. Stokes had planned to send out a force from Sparta up the Kentucky Stock Road to Cookeville and come back through Dry Valley. The Yankees were commanded by Captain E.W. Bass, who had been a resident of nearby Liberty before the war. But, Col. Stokes was not with them. He was giving a speech to the citizens of Sparta that day. He liked giving speeches. He had been a U.S. congressman before the war (and also, elected after the war) representing middle Tennessee districts.
Rebel forces began making plans of their own to meet the threat. The rebel “bushwhackers” decided to meet the Yankee force along the road from Dry Valley through the Dug Hill. There were large boulders, cedar and laurel trees through a stretch of road.
In the afternoon of Feb. 22, the Yankees headed through the Dry Valley, when they were startled by a shot that rang out. They looked up and saw a couple of riders racing away. Just as the Rebel “bushwhackers” had planned, the Yankees gave chase and were soon in the middle of an ambush.
As the volley rained down upon them, Yankees began tumbling off their saddles. They scattered everywhere in the onslaught. The Rebels were in pursuit on foot behind them down the road and up the mountain.
John P. Gatewood, an 18-year-old, who was six-feet tall, with long curly red hair, was a member of Champ Ferguson’s Scouts. He had been a member of a regular Confederate unit, but the Fentress County native had returned to the area. Gatewood, with pistols in both hands, chased 5 Yankees up the hill. They surrendered when he ordered them to stop, because they didn’t think he was alone. When they saw that it was just him, two of them broke away. Gatewood began shooting them, when Capt. George Carter came running up and hollered, “Hold on, John! Don’t waste your ammunition, as we have to fight for what we get.” Carter took stones and bashed the [remaining] three soldier’s heads, giving them “no quarter,” just as it had been threatened upon them. Gatewood left his mentor, Champ Ferguson soon after the battle and formed his own company in south-east Tennessee.
It was estimated that only one-third of the Yankee force escaped. When Stokes’ wagons picked up their dead the next day, they recovered 41 bodies. All had been shot in the head, except three. Their heads had been bashed in with stones. The recovered bodies were laid in an old store in Sparta and then buried.
Several Yankee soldiers made it back to Sparta the next day. Capt. Bass made it back the next day bare headed. He had lost his fine plumed hat in his escape. Russell Gann made it back after he had hid in a hollow log all night until the coast was clear. Some Yankees had pulled women’s dresses off of clothes lines along the way to disguise themselves. Others were never recovered. Some skeletons were found the next winter. One Calfkiller resident said that a young rebel came up and asked for water and told him he had killed a Yankee up in the woods above the house. The man checked the next day and found a body half-eaten by dogs.
A little while later, Yankee Col. Blackburn challenged Col. Hughes to meet him and 75 picked me in a fight in a field near Yankeetown. The Rebels shows up, with around 50 men. The battle wound up in hand-to-hand combat before the Yankees sounded retreat.
Before the war was over, in the spring of 1865, there were many more sorrows heaped upon the people of the Upper Cumberland.