Indian Creek Engagement, A Vintage Vignette

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Indian Creek Engagement
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
December 22, 2010

On December 23, 1864, just over 146 years ago, one of two significant engagements of the Civil War occurred along Indian Creek near Madison. The creek was shown on some maps then as Hurricane Creek or Price's Fork or Six Mile Creek, due to its location about six miles from old Huntsville. One of the Confederates involved in the December 1864 conflict was Captain James Bennington Irvine. He was in Company F, 4th Alabama Cavalry, CSA. Irvine wrote his war memoirs while imprisoned by the Union after being wounded in the fight. On pages 43-52 of his account he described the event in great detail.

Colonel John Burtwell and 150 men of the 4th Alabama Cavalry encamped along Indian Creek near the railroad bridge on December 20. Colonel Burtwell had fence rails burned on the railroad bridge on December 22, realizing that the Union forces could reach the Confederate position from Huntsville by horse and by rail within 15 minutes. The rebels could hear heavy cannonading at Decatur to their rear and numerous whistles in Huntsville at the railroad depot. They knew that a large Union cavalry force had occupied Huntsville in the last few days and was being reinforced with infantry. They were awaiting Confederate reinforcements that were overdue for unknown reasons, and all scouts that they sent out to either east or west had failed to return. The men were all exhausted from continuous duty guarding many roads, and spirits were low as the weather was extremely cold.

During the night of December 23, according to Union and Irvine's reports, a Negro man left the Confederate camp and reported to the Union forces in Huntsville that the rebels were about to attack. Union Colonel Prosser thought that there was a brigade of rebel forces gathered at the creek, so he decided to initiate a surprise attack. He ordered 300 men of his own cavalry to prepare to move out at 3 o'clock in the morning. The Union force arrived at Indian Creek “six miles west of Huntsville” at dawn on the 23rd. As described in the Union accounts, the morning was excessively cold and piercing, while the roads were frozen hard. Even the creek itself was frozen, as was the boggy ground around it. Moving at a fast trot, Colonel Prosser turned to George House, the Union bugler, and commanded him to blow the charge. Simultaneously, he spurred his horse forward. However, the bugle did not sound, so Col. Prosser turned around on his horse and swore at George for not blowing the charge, demanding to know why not. House had the bugle to his lips, and replied from the side of his mouth as best he could that he would blow it as soon as his lips thawed out the metal. It had frozen to his lips, preventing him from blowing.

The ford of the creek where the charge occurred was narrow, allowing only four abreast to cross, according to Union documents. On the west side of the creek, there was a level plateau which was half circled by a ridge containing the rebel position. From Irvine's Confederate account, he and Colonel Burtwell had arisen before the attack. They rode down the hill to the soldiers' camp while everything was still quiet. Further he stated, “We then rode to the bridge, which was about a quarter mile off, and saw that it was thoroughly destroyed.” They had just returned to the camp when they heard firing about a mile or two away in the direction of Huntsville. Irvine said that he then rode to the “Y” in the creek, where the point of the attack occurred. The only place of such a split near the railroad bridge across the creek is along Old Madison Pike today. That pike is the old road from Huntsville to Madison Station. From these details and others given in the various reports, it can be deduced that the conflict occurred along the creek at the current location of Madison Academy along Slaughter Road. The engagement was a complete rout of the rebels, leaving very few killed, many wounded, and about 60 captured.

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