The Taking of Uniontown
Updated: Jun 2, 2019
While Gabriel Netter moved his Federal recruits from Hartford to Owensboro, Colonel Adam Johnson and Robert Martin set their sights on another target, Uniontown, Kentucky. Located on the Ohio River, near the point where the Ohio and Wabash converge, it was directly across from Northern territory. The town was not a large place, but sat along the important waterway, and sat along a location where precious steamers constantly passed to supply Grant's army further south. It was considered important enough for river security that a regiment of Indiana infantry moved there from Evansville.
In the late summer of 1862, nearly 300 men of the 78th Indiana Infantry Regiment, under command of Lieutenant Colonel William Farrow were posted there in response to Johnson’s Newburgh Raid several weeks before. The 78th was not a typical Federal regiment as it was one of the emergency 60 day regiments, and could hardly expect to see any real fighting. These units were hurriedly formed in the aftermath of Newburgh and sent to guard and protect places of importance for the Union war effort along the Ohio River. The 78th, according to the author of the History of Union County, was made up of “...‘very nice people indeed.’ They were farmers, preachers, lawyers and doctors, and made a very civil soldiery in the main, although there were some rough characters among them.”
Previous to commanding the 78th Indiana, Farrow was the lieutenant colonel of the 43rd Indiana Infantry. Farrow had been with that regiment since its inception in 1861, and spent the winter at Camp Calhoun, Kentucky on the Green River. Farrow had helped lead the 43rd at places like New Madrid and Island Number 10, and then was among the first Federal soldiers to occupy Memphis, Tennessee. The 43rd went on duty in Arkansas that summer, where they skirmished frequently with Rebel guerrillas. It appears that Farrow was absent just before the Battle of Helena, and back in Indiana by July 1862 and the raid on Newburgh. The Evansville Daily Journal had high praise for Colonel Farrow. “We are pleased to know that Lieut. Col. Farrow of the 43rd Indiana, has been sent to Kentucky with a battalion of men to assist in ridding that State from the prowling bands of thieves who are robbing and plundering her loyal citizens.
“Col. Farrow is the right man for the duty. His experiences amid the canebrakes of Arkansas, has taught him important lessons in guerrilla warfare which will be of unspeakable advantage to him in his present field of labor. To the gallant Gavin and the dashing and heroic Netter, Col. Farrow will be invaluable.
“His men are as noble a specimen of gallant sons of Indiana as ever marched to the field. We shall follow their movements with the greatest confidence and hope.” In just a few weeks, the Journal would be singing a different tune.
To Colonel Johnson, these 300 men would be easy pickings and he would use similar tactics as before. Rush, surprise, and overwhelm the enemy with superior numbers before they could properly react, surround them if possible, then force their surrender. It had worked at Hopkinsville and Clarksville, and it would work here as well, though with less surprise. Major Frank Owen would later write, “Ever active and enterprising, and like the proverbial Irishmen at a county fair in the ‘old country’ always looking for a fight, they moved northward and charged and blazed away at a regiment of infantry from Hoosierdom at Uniontown, Kentucky.” Of course it, it did not happen quite so simple.
By September, the Indiana men had been in Uniontown for some time. The pickets knew their rotations by this point, and on the afternoon of September 1, 1862, the 78th’s new detail of only six men marched to their post on the Morganfield Road, roughly one half mile from the small town. As the relief was about to take the new positions, the forward scouts of the 10th Kentucky opened fire on the unsuspecting Hoosiers. The exchange of gunfire lasted only a few brief moments, but it was enough to send the Southern horsemen back to the main force and for word to reach Colonel Farrow in Uniontown of the impending attack.
Sergeant Ben Field’s Company E was at the head of the Confederate column moving toward the sounds of the skirmish. “The first thing to greet my eyes was a magnificent horse shot in the breast which came out oat his flank and then through the thick part of his leg. That convinced me a man stood a poor show if one of those minne balls should strike him...Lieut White was in command of our Company to-day. He was at the battle of Shilo and had heard balls whistle before. A few stray balls was heard and he told us to protect ourselves behind trees for if one of those spent balls should hit us they would hurt. I had seen that horse and was thoroughly convinced he was right.”
The Confederates moved forward toward the enemy, not yet knowing if they would stand and fight. Johnson would later write that his regiment found the Union forces in line of battle, ready to meet his oncoming force. Johnson deployed his own men in response, and placed the captured 4 pounder from Clarksville, the “Clarksville Belle,” under the command of Lieutenant Cromwell on the right of the main line. His instructions were to keep the gun trained upon the Federal front. Johnson then sent Martin to flank on the right while he himself advanced with the center.
The 78th drew itself up in a line of battle in a cornfield, facing the oncoming Confederates, with a small force of their skirmishers out front. The cornfield bordered a large wooded thicket, which concealed much of the enemy’s movement until they entered the field opposite the 78th. With the severe drought in the area, the cornfield would not have hidden the 78th from the Confederates during the attack.
Union Private Ransom Hawley volunteered for the skirmish line meeting Johnson’s advance ahead of the main Union line. Here he could see the entire assault unfolding. “A little squad of cavalry on our right then in front of us some 700 men and boys on foot armed with shot guns or anything they could pick up.” In another letter he says, “With four others from Co A I was on the skirmish line. Saw the little hand full of cavalry go galloping down the river; saw the 500 or more non de script infantry marching at us two lines deep.” Hawley also wrote, “Johnson’s infantry stretched from the Morganfield road (running north to the [?] river road running east.)” The “infantry” that Hawley describes must have been Johnson’s men moving forward in a dismounted manner.
For Benjamin Field, the emotions of entering his first fight were high. “Well orders came to forwardmarch double quick. I frankly acknowledge I was scared and would of been glad if the order had been to go the other way. Lieut White gave the order and we started but not a double quick.”
The Confederates must have also not had a clear line of site of the cornfield where Hawley and the 78th were in line. Field also wrote of the advance, “We could not see 50 yards in front of us for the foliage on the trees but before we reached the foot of that hill and I could see what was going on my fear left me.” At this moment, Field wrote that the dismounted horsemen were ordered to hold their fire unless they had a clear shot of the enemy. Obviously, the cause for such an order was due to the fact that ammunition continued to run low, even after capturing supplies at Hopkinsville and Clarksville. This appears to be one of the major problems constantly plaguing Johnson’s regiment during this campaign, which resulted in the constant need to raid the supplies and weapons of these scattered detachments.
The fight in the cornfield lasted perhaps only a few minutes, though Hawley would later say that the 78th, “...gave him a good sharp fight.” With numbers, mobility, and a piece of artillery, the Rangers were able to make quick work of the Indiana soldiers. Field says he only had two opportunities to shoot before the retreat commenced. It is not clear if an officer ordered the 78th back to Uniontown or if the soldiers fled on their own.
Within the cornfield, 78th Captain Tilghman A. Howard led Company C and the 48 privates under his command. At approximately 2:00, the first shots from the Confederate muskets and shotguns began hissing in their direction. Before much could even be done to stymie the Confederate onslaught, the 22-year-old Captain was struck in the chest by a musket ball, as was later told by his 1st Lieutenant Jonathan Nichols. The wound proved to be mortal, and he would die six hours later at 7:00, the only Federal soldier designated “killed’ at Uniontown.
As the 78th fell back to Uniontown, they continued to trade shots with the Confederates through Water, Second, and Third Streets. The Federals kept up this fire until some men gained the house of a Mr. Williams with the intention of making some sort of defense. Field says they Federals took refuge in an old tobacco factory. After one shot from the Southern gun, the men in the house surrendered along with the rest of the Union force. “...our artillery was brought up and made noise enough to scare old regulars to death much less raw recruits as there were. Our ordinance for our cannon was blasting powder and a shot bag of minnie balls so whenever it was turned loose hardly a plank on that factory escaped receiving a ball. We soon dislodged them and they attempted to escape up the river. I saw one man in a garden of high weeds…”
Private William H. Allen of Company A of the 78th wrote to the Evansville Daily Journal, “Our little command of 146 men...was attacked by 800 mounted guerrillas under Col. Johnson...at 1 o’clock P.M. We fought them an hour when we were surrounded and forced to surrender.” Of course, Allen’s numbers are quite different than other sources, but he does give the readers the correct time of day and the approximate number of Confederates.
Before the fighting and action was completely over, some men of the 78th had managed to slip the closing noose. Field gives quite the story on what happened as he and some other Confederates tried to stop the Union soldiers from escaping. “About this time Col Johnson ordered us to cut off their retreat up the river. At this time I was on the extreme right with only three men between me and the end of our line. Immediately in front was a pond but a little to our right was a road with 2 gum trees on either side. The first man ran to the first tree the second followed. First one went to the second tree just as the 3rd man reached the road and immediately in my front a ball pierced his breast and with a groan he was dead. We three ran about a square right toward the enemy before we could go in the direction we wanted. The ladies perfectly oblivious to danger were out in their yards cheering us on.
“We finally after running about two squares up intersepted them and as they would attempt to crass the street we would shoot and hollow. We succeeded in cutting on fellow down and whenever he would gather himself up and leap we would shoot and hollow. The Colonel had to come to us and tell us they had surrendered.”
Johnson relates that he found Colonel Farrow in his headquarters, “much excited, as he had been told that he need expect no quarter, for the rebels were only a band of guerrillas intent upon butchery.” According to Johnson, Farrow had told his men they would be slaughtered if they fell into the hands of the Rangers. Others claim they never witnessed Farrow being present during the fight, and that he was nowhere to be found until surrendering to Johnson. After the surrender had taken place, another man reported that Farrow was “...sitting in his tent flanked by a demijohn of whisky and a Rebel friend.”
The Daily Journal eviscerated Farrow for this alleged behavior, especially so soon after the perceived cowardly surrender at Clarksville days before by Colonel Mason. “We hope the government will investigate the conduct of...Colonel Farrow.., and if they have acted as pusillanimously as is represented, that they will be severely dealt with.”
Colonel Farrow’s conduct was defended by others, which the Daily Journal printed. One defender wrote, “Mr. Cowgill says, also, that after he was wounded, Colonel Farrow said to him not to leave the field if possible, and that if he could not stand, to sit down and fire away. It should be noted that Col. Farrow could not be seen by all his men through all the engagement. Few commanders can-especially in a fight that is sprung by a clandestine attack...It is intimated that Mr. Farrow was drinking. Mr. Farrow may occasionally drink, but he is not known as a drinking man; and though I have known him for years, I have never heard of his being drunk...I am not to apologize for even my friend if he has been grossly recreant of important trusts confided to him; when it appears that he did his duty fully, promptly and gallantly, then I feel it to be my duty to place his conduct in a just, and proper light, that the gallant and brave may not go unrequited of the honor due and really to be accorded by all patriotic citizens.”
Over 60 years after the battle, Ransom Hawley defended Colonel Farrow. “I saw Col Farrow on the battle ground. He was detailed from the 41st Ind where he had done good service—his being the first field officer to enter Memphis and he gave the command to cut down the flag pole; the Green Castle boys caught the flag and held it until a short time ago.” Colonel Farrow’s exact behavior during the battle may never be fully known.
The Rangers did not do what some Federals feared, and instead paroled and released them to passing steamers, the Mattie Cook and Sallie List, and sent them toward Evansville. Hawley says that not all of the Federals at Uniontown were captured. “He did not have enough cavalry men to intercept our men who escaped up the river and were picked up next day by a steamboat.” In another letter, “Two strong squads escaped up above the town; and were picked up by the steam boat next day.”
The captured weapons and equipment were loaded into wagons and moved to Geiger’s Lake, at least 150 stands of “fine arms.” The 78th Indiana appears to have possessed Enfield rifles as Ransom Hawley indicated in his letters that his regiment was armed with the British made muskets. Understandably, some of Johnson’s men may have helped themselves to these new arms and thrown away their ineffective shotguns. Benjamin Field recorded that there were 350 stands of arms taken, but he may have been in error on the exact number.
John Barter, captain of the steamboat, Exchange, stated to the Evansville Daily Journal that the Confederates came to his boat to burn it and the items on board. He talked them out of burning the steamer, saying that it was not government property but privately owned. The Confederates let the boat be, but burned the 138 bales of cotton that were on board. Barter also commented that the Rangers were “mostly armed with Enfield rifles taken from our forces formerly.”
Barter also gives an account of the Federal casualties as he heard them related by Johnson, which were one killed and 20 wounded. The one killed was Captain Tighlman A. Howard, commander of Company C. Barter added that the Confederates did not give an account of their casualties to him. Field says his side lost “1 killed and 3 wounded.” The History of Union County, Kentucky states that two more men of the 78th died in route to Evansville after the Rebels paroled the prisoners and sent them away, and that seven Confederates were wounded and one man, Brown, was killed. Additionally several of the wounded Federals being treated in Uniontown were suffering from head and facial wounds due to buckshot that did not penetrate the bone of the skull. Hawley was also one of the Union wounded, shot in the leg. While laid up on a cot, Hawley recalled a “Texas Ranger” placing the butt of his shotgun on the bed and recalling the daring victories of the previous weeks.
Private Hawley wrote an acquaintance after reading Johnson’s book over 50 years later, “Johnson left that night he says he had sixty a number of men sick; posibly some of them had lead poison from our Enfield rifles. The citizens told us the next day Johnson hauled his dead and wounded away by wagon loads. He says nothing about his causalities.“
The next day, the Evansville Daily Journal ran a story that 1,100 Rebels had sacked Uniontown and in so doing massacred a handful of citizens and Union soldiers. They also reported that it was John Hunt Morgan who led the attack. Over the course of the next few days, the paper would get more of the details of the action and more correct information. The paper likewise called for action against the Rebels, as they still had not been defeated since the Newburgh Raid in July. “Our city presented a war like appearance yesterday, and the streets gleamed with bayonets.
“Our people are getting aroused, and have determined to meet the traitors and guerrillas on the border, and mete out to them such punishment as their cowardly outrages deserve.” It also printed quite a dare and taunt to Johnson and his men on September 3rd:
“Johnson, we believe, prides himself on his chivalry, but he is always careful not to make an attack when there is a force any ways near equal to his to meet him.
“Robbing hospitals or disabled steamers is his forte. Johnson sent his compliments to the editors of the Evansville Journal and the Cincinnati Commercial, and says he is now in command of the post at Uniontown, and expects to remain there until the U.S. send a force there sufficient to drive him way.
“Why don’t you bring us the word yourself, Adam! We promise you a warm reception and a gay time of it if you will visit Evansville. Why don’t you hunt up Col’s Foster and Shackelford? You ain’t afraid are you? We fear Johnson is a humbug and a cheat, as he had scarce made the promise to stay at Uniontown when he skedaddled.”
Over course, Johnson was not foolish enough to attack such a strong force. He admitted that many of his horses were in no shape to continue an active campaign to capture Henderson, which he wanted. Further, he realized that the news of Uniontown’s capture would quickly move to Henderson where Lt. Col. Foster’s infantry and Colonel Shackelford’s cavalry were posted. They would most definitely act with their large force to try to capture Johnson’s tired men, and they were probably already on their way toward Uniontown.
Johnson did what partisans often do, disappear and blend in with the population. This should not have been too difficult for his men as, “Johnson and his surgeon were the only men who wore anything like uniforms,” and, “None of his men were uniformed…” according to Hawley. Benjamin Field says the recently captured arms and “camp equipage were loaded on wagons and sent away I recon to Gigers lake as that was our great retreat.” Johnson did move most of the newly captured supplies to Geiger lake, just south of Uniontown, where he and some of his officers and men would camp while the majority of the command would scatter throughout the country and rendezvous at a later time. Field was with a squad of 19 men and ordered to report to White Sulphur Springs on the 5th of September where the regiment would congregate once again.
“There have been too many of these parties gobbled up by the guerrillas through the pusillanimity of their commanding officers. It is time they should end.” Little did the Daily Journal know, their wish would come true in less than three weeks time.
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