yesterday's tennessee

Yesterday's Tennessee

Elias Thrasher and The Buttermilk Rangers

from the B. R. Jennings collection

About eighteen months after the battle at Shiloh, it became evident to the Union commanders that a garrison was needed in the Hardin-Wayne county area as a reaction force to deal with the ever present menace of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry command. To that end, on October 2, 1863, a new regiment was organized under the designation the 2nd Tennessee Mounted Infantry, composed of ten companies. The unit was raised from men in Hardin, Wayne, Decatur, and Perry counties, and it was initially stationed at Clifton, Tennessee.

Judge John A. Pitts, of Savannah, is quoted as saying that the troubles of Hardin County didn't begin until the regiment was stationed at Clifton. According to Pitts, "Our corncribs and smokehouses were emptied; every ear of corn, bundle of fodder, or oats or wisp of hay, and ever ham, side or shoulder of bacon, pound of lard-everything eatable was taken." Wade Pruitt, in his book The Bugger Saga, agrees with the decision to place a regiment in Clifton, but argues that, and rightly so, a regiment from Ohio or Michigan would have been more effective. Says Pruitt, hometown boys "know too well the lay of the land and instead of soldering, they settle down to foraging and engagin in every kind of black market activity imaginable."

The leaders of the regiment, contrary to this depiction, seem to have been honorable men. John Murphy, the twenty-five year old commanding officer, emerges from the sketchy record as a well-meaning but possibly inept officer. He originally served as a major in the 5th Tennessee Cavalry, but was transferred to take command of the newly-formed regiment at Clifton. Little is known of Owen Haney, Murphy's second-in-command, but it must be assumed that his ability to control the men was as shaky as his commander's.

For the bulk of their service, the regiment was in garrison at Clifton. There were a few bonafide engagements with the enemy. In March 1864, Murphy sent two companies to join a force which was attempting to run down Forrest. A sharp skirmish occurred at Clifton in late August and early September, followed by a two day battle with Colonel Jake Biffle, beginning at Buffalo and culminating in Centerville at the courthouse. Biffle succeeded in removing them from the courthouse, and Colonel Murphy conducted a retreat back to Nashville. While in Nashville, companies A and B were mustered out of service, their enlistments having expired. Later, the regiment was moved to Gallatin for picket duty.

From the official record, it seems that the regiment accomplished little and that most of the men lived a pretty quiet camp life. However, there were some other, unofficial actions in which the soldiers engaged. As noted by Pitts, the men were masters at the art of foraging and thievery. Several times, the companies were sent out to chase Confederate guerilla Burt Hays. While these seem innocent enough duties, there is evidence that they took advantage of their scouting missions to commit crimes just as great as any ascribed to Burt Hays and his unit. Among their heinous crimes were said to be murder and rape.

It appears from a careful examination of the records that two or three companies of the regiment were responsible for most of the indignities attested to by Judge Pitts. But, by far, the worst deeds were laid at the feet of Lieutenant Elias Thrasher and Company B. Thrasher had been engaged in some questionable activities prior to the organization of the regiment around Florence. However, after he became a commissioned officer, it seems he kept his illegal activities up, and continued them even after his company was mustered out.

A letter from Colonel Rowlett, of the 7th Illinois, written in April 1864 indicated Murphy's consternation with Thrasher's activities.

"Received communication from Major Murphy complaining that Thrasher with his men are committing many depredations, and asking that Thrasher be ordered to report to him. Citizens make frequent complaints of the depredations committed by Thrasher's men."

This letter was written while Thrasher was still an active officer in Company B. It is on this point precisely that the accusation of Murphy's ineptness is based. That a commanding officer would write to his superior asking that a subordinate be compelled to report to him seems inconceivable, unless that commanding officer had lost all control over that subordinate. A mere cursory reading of this letter indicates that Thrasher, while a member of the United States army, apparently was operating as an independent.

In response to this situation, General Grenville M. Dodge, of the 16th Army Corps, commented on Thrasher in two separate letters.

"The man Thrasher you speak of I know nothing about. He is not in my command, nor ever has been. You better inform Major Murphy. He must belong to the State troops. Any of his men committing unauthorized depredations will be arrested if they come within your jurisdiction."

Obviously, Dodge was not even aware that Thrasher was assigned to Major Murphy=s own unit. The second letter by General Dodge, to his higher headquarters, is much more terse and to the point. AThe man Thrasher Colonel Rowlett complains of is not in my command and I do not know who he is.@

Wade Pruitt gives a list of the men generally considered as part of Thrasher's gang. Among them were Paul Kiddy 25, Bill Bridges 35, and Bill Carter 29, all of Company B.

Captain Lot Abraham, of the 4th Iowa Cavalry, was dispatched in March 1865 to bring in Thrasher and his men. Part of his report reads as follows:

"Several citizens told me they believed most of the robbing had been done by men who were with Lieutenant Thrasher, or men from about Clifton. They all say Thrasher is an honorable man, but blame him for having such men with him. Tom and Bishop Clark, Tom Dennis, Paul Ketty [sic], Bill Bridges, and Pete Grimes are the names of some of his party."

Evidently, Abraham was not successful as the next month, General R.W. Johnson sent General W.D. Whipple the following report:

"On Sunday, the 9th instant, three soldiers Brewer, Stutts, and Kiddy by name with two Confederates, who would not show themselves and cannot therefore be identified, belonging to a company of the Second Tennessee Mounted Infantry which is stationed at Clifton, came to the house of Mr. William Johnson, living on Sugar Creek, some eighteen or twenty miles of this place, and demanded of his wife, he not being at home, $12,000. She told them she had no money, when they hung her and her daughter several times, completing their diabolical work by each of them outraging the person of Mrs. Johnson. . . . [T]hey went to Dr. James McDougal's, at Wayland Springs; the doctor being absent, they demanded money of Mrs. McDougal, who gave them all she had and they then left, and are supposed to have gone back to Clifton. The full names of these outlaws as given me are Thomas Brewer, Wall Stutts, and Thomas Kiddy."

Later Captain Risden D. Deford, a resident of Hardin County after the way, was sent in to clear the Thrasher bunch out. By the time the extortion described above had taken place, most of these men were no longer officially members of the 2nd Tennessee. It was Deford who hung the name "buttermilk rangers" on this unit. Wade Pruitt quoted him as saying that "they were composed of clabber coppers and chicken thieves, their most formidable raids being against spring houses and chicken coops."

There were some good, decent men in Company B and the other companies of the 2nd. John G. Harrison, of Savannah, was a corporal. William Franks, the 22 year old son of Margaret Franks, was captured near Clifton in May 1864. Riley Patterson, an Olive Hill resident and after the war a prominent man in the Republican party served. His neighbor and friend, William T. Shutt, was a private in the company.

The entire regiment was plagued by the guerilla operations of Burt Hays, and several men died at outlaw's hands. Richard Lee, of Company D, was killed by guerillas in Hardin County on May 27, 1864. Stephen and Daniel Blackburn suffered the same fate on March 28, 1865.

A number of other good Hardin County names appear on the rolls of the 2nd Tennessee. James W. Welch was first sergeant of Company D. William R. Pickens, Joseph V. Crotts, James Crotts, Henry C. Franks and Jefferson Franks were all members of Company D. Green Franks served in Company I. Giles Holt was a private in Company A. Elisha B. Alexander was a private in Company C.

While the regiment probably deserved all that was said about it, they were able to put pressure on some of the guerillas that were operating in the Hardin County area. Many members of this maligned unit served with distinction and honor. Some lost their lives. It was mere chance that they were able to fight the war in their own backyards.

top · home · yesterday's · families · schools · links · what's new · memorial · about

This site was created by David Donahue and Brenda Kirk Fiddler.
This site is currently maintained by Jerry L. Butler
Copyright © 2004 - 2010, All rights reserved