Adam B. Gorgas, Colonel, 13th Illinois Infantry at Madison Station, Alabama, May 17, 1864, A Vintage Vignette

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Adam B. Gorgas, Colonel, 13th Illinois Infantry at Madison Station, Alabama, May 17, 1864
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
July 16, 2011

Colonel Adam B. Gorgas of the 13th Illinois Infantry lived in Madison for a short time during the Civil War. He had the distinction of being in command of the occupying Union forces that were attacked in the town by Confederate troops on May 17, 1864. The following is his report of that event as found in the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion”.

(From) “HEADQUARTERS, THIRTEENTH ILLINOIS INFANTRY, May 17, 1864, noon. (To) Lieutenant C. L. White, Acting Assistant Adjutant General, Third Division, 15th Army Corps.”

“LIEUTENANT: We were attacked at 8 o'clock by a cavalry force, under (Confederate Colonel Josiah) Patterson, numbering about 1,000, with four pieces of artillery. We were obliged to fall back, after a severe fight; and, being completely surrounded, we cut our way through their lines, and fell back to the (Indian Creek railroad) bridge and water-tank, about three miles east. We formed and returned to this place, and, after skirmishing, drove them from the town. They captured several of our men, what number we are not now able to say. Our camp and garrison equipage, together with all the regimental and company papers, are either destroyed or carried off. The depot buildings are burned, together with about 50 bales of cotton. The railroad is all right; telegraph lines cut. We are left here without rations, and but little ammunition. Our transportation is all gone. They retreated in the way of Triana. We have sent a small squad of mounted men to find out where they have gone. Rebel prisoners captured say the force crossed the river last night between Triana and Whitesburg. I am, very respectfully, yours, etc., A. B. Gorgas, Colonel, Commanding.”

On May 18 Union General John Smith, stationed in Huntsville, sent his own report of the engagement. He stated that the rebel force was estimated to be 1,000 to 3,000 men and added a report from one of the 13th Illinois soldiers that “the first that was known of the presence of the enemy they were firing into their camp.” As an addendum to his report Smith appended a sentence to say “Since writing the above, Colonel Gorgas' official report has been received, which is herewith enclosed, and from all the information obtained I am led to believe that he was culpably negligent.”

Probably in response to such blame, Gorgas then wrote a more lengthy report on May 19. In this second report, Gorgas stated that “The attack was made at 8:30 a.m. on the Triana road, on which two of their field pieces were placed in position, the remaining two pieces having crossed the railroad, together with a portion of the enemy's command. They, however, did not get into position, as the attack was precipitated by the enemy's being discovered by a forage train, which was just starting out. As soon as discovered the enemy opened fire from their two pieces on the Triana road, having previously sent detachments to each one of my picket posts, five in number, guided by some citizens who seemed to know the exact locality of each, encircling them and capturing them entire.”

After blaming the surprise upon “some citizens” who showed the rebel force the location of pickets, Gorgas noted that his troops were outnumbered by “nearly four to one” and that they had no artillery themselves to counter the “rapid fire” of howitzers from the Confederates. Accordingly, he concluded that the stockade behind the depot was “rendered untenable” and ordered the retreat in a driving rain through the thick timber along the railroad. This time Gorgas acknowledged that his force was reinforced by other Union units from Huntsville for the counterattack around noon. He further admitted that when they countered, only the rebel rear guard was still in the town, as the main unit had already departed “after burning the depot and about 70 bales of cotton” versus the 50 bales previously reported. History shows no demotion occurred for Gorgas, which spoke well of this former bookkeeper from Dixon, Illinois, who saw significant action at Vicksburg and eight other locations before Madison.

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