Skirmish at Geiger Lake
Updated: Jan 5, 2019
If you would like to read the events that happened immediately before the Skirmish at Geiger Lake, click here!
After dispersing his command into small squads throughout the countryside, Adam Johnson, Bob Martin, and a few others encamped at Geiger’s Lake, southwest of Uniontown in Union County, Kentucky. The location for the camp was a short distance from the Ohio River where it bowls southward toward the Mississippi, and the few men with Johnson were inside of that bowl, a seemingly easy place to be trapped. Why he chose this location compared to others is unknown.
Johnson later wrote that he kept about 60 men with him while other sources say near 100, and that some of those men were sick. In camp, he also had much of the recently captured supplies and equipment from Uniontown. Here, the Confederates believed themselves to be safe from any Federal force that might be looking for them, like Foster’s in Henderson. Johnson could not have been more wrong.
Colonel James Shackelford, commander of the 8th Kentucky Cavalry, was with a force of three companies of his regiment and moved to the south of Geiger’s Lake at Caseyville on the Ohio River. He and his men left Henderson on a “guerrilla hunt,” even while the regiment was still being recruited. Shackelford and Foster marched out from Henderson but split their forces near Morganfield. Foster took his column southeast towards Slaughters, where many of Johnson’s dispersed squads would surely be taking refuge. Shackelford moved southwest to Caseyville on the Ohio River.
On September 3rd, the small, partly sick party of the Breckinridge Guards had only been encamped for a few hours when word reached them that Shackelford was heading their way with the intention of attacking the camp. Johnson knew he was outnumbered, but perhaps not outgunned. He still had several of the stands of Enfields from Uniontown, plus the small artillery piece. He also had Bob Martin.
Johnson placed Martin with more than 50 men on the main road to the camp to ambush the Federals, while Johnson stayed with a small squad of less than 20 in the camp. These men were mostly sick and stayed back to help defend the camp as a last resort. Unfortunately, for Johnson, Shackelford advanced by another road and the ominous shot of a lonely picket was all that gave warning to Johnson and his invalids. They quickly mounted and carried every new weapon they could manage and rode to the opposite side of the lake where they hid in the undergrowth and foliage, or as the Evansville Daily Journal wrote, “left their camp and took to the brush.”
Shackelford and his men rode into the empty bivouac where they found some of the recently captured equipment and weapons. Believing the Confederates had completely abandoned the camp, the men began to take stock of their prize. “He found in the camp a large pile of guns, and considerable other stores.” A Federal officer with Shackelford reported that they burned the camp shortly after capturing it. While Shackelford pondered what could have happened to the Rebels and where they might have fled to, Johnson and his small squad opened fire from the other side of the lake with “…a heavy volley…poured upon them from the brush, killing one man and wounding ten or eleven others.”. The Union cavalry quickly retreated and regrouped with Colonel Shackelford who ordered his men to dismount and return fire.
Martin heard the shooting back at camp and immediately rode that direction. The former scout in Martin evidently had not left him. He rode alone to gain the information he needed, which was the number and location of the enemy. He hid his men in some tall weeds with the cannon, and advanced alone into a field. He hoped to draw the attention and fire of the Federals in order to relieve some of the pressure on Johnson. Johnson later wrote that he, “boldly took his way down this roadway as if her were out on a pleasure ride instead of for the purpose of attracting toward himself the fire of the Federal guns.” His plan worked. A body of Union cavalry were moving his way and Martin galloped toward them as if leading a hundred men. In this brave, if nearly foolish act, Martin had his hat shot off his head along with a number of new holes in his clothing. His horse was even wounded, and somehow he managed to laugh and shake his fist at the enemy as he rode back into the weeds where the rest of his men awaited.
As the enemy advanced, Martin ordered his men to open fire at about 100 yards with their weapons and the “Clarksville Belle.” The firing at this close distance sent the Union cavalry back where they regrouped. During the next attempt at driving Johnson away, a young boy rode one of the two mules that pulled the gun, which had now become terribly excited with fear at the noise of the skirmish. The mules pulled the limber box out into the field in full view of both sides and back into the weeds again at different locations. This unintended ruse happened a few times to the point where the Union troopers believed Martin to have several pieces of artillery and a much larger force than they anticipated, causing their attack to dwindle.
It was during this firing that Colonel Shackelford took a piece of shot from the Confederate cannon in his foot. It could have been from one of the sacks of minie balls the Rebels were firing or one of the cut bars of lead the Rangers used as improvised cannon shot. This same shot killed his horse as well. With this painful wound, his horse dead, ammunition low, and the enemy fire coming from two sides, Shackelford ordered the retreat of his cavalry back to Caseyville, but not after he had given Johnson the biggest scare of the campaign.
This small, but important skirmish resulted in few casualties. Colonel Shackelford’s wound, though not life threatening, kept him and his aggressive nature out of the saddle for weeks. The anonymous citizen from Uniontown seems to have erroneously reported that the Federals lost nearly “thirty killed and wounded, and were still bringing them in.” The Federals appear to have only lost one man killed and several wounded with Johnson losing about the same.
The summer campaign of the Rangers could have ended that day, had it not been for a little bit of luck and a little bit of daring on the part of Robert Martin. It was obvious that Geiger’s Lake was no safe haven after Shackelford’s attack. The Federal cavalry moved back to Henderson, where Shackelford would recuperate. Private Thomas Speed remembered later, “He had come up with them at a place in Union County, I think – called Geigers lake. He attacked them, and scattered them, but was himself badly wounded in his right foot. I remained in Henderson until he was brought there. His wound was though severe only prevented his taking immediate command.” With the 8th Kentucky Cavalry being spread in various locations across western Kentucky, Major James Holloway then took over temporary command of the Henderson battalion of the regiment.
In the days following Geiger’s Lake, the Rangers were to rendezvous and concentrate again in western Kentucky. The summer campaign had so far been nearly flawless. Numerous towns and garrisons fell to the Rangers, often without a shot fired. His men had only suffered the lightest of casualties, and the ranks were beginning to swell with young Southern men eager to fight. With events going in such a positive manner, Johnson decided that the time had come for him to travel to the Confederate capital of Richmond and obtain commissions for his officers and turn in his muster rolls. Johnson claimed the Union authorities had refused to recognize his men as Confederate soldiers, and consequently did not treat them as prisoners of war when captured. With Johnson traveling to Richmond, the 22 year old Robert Martin was now in command. In the coming weeks he would try to replicate the success the Breckinridge Guards had enjoyed over the summer.