yesterday's tennessee

Yesterday's Tennessee

Another View of the Buttermilk Rangers

by William Morris

from the B. R. Jennings collection

I remember that Bugar Saga did much to slam John Murphy, the first Commanding Officer of the regiment. I was struck with the thought that no one could possibly be as the book described and still be allowed to command a regiment. Certainly the author did not bother to find out anything of the man. What I found proved kind of surprising to me.

John Murphy was born in Abbeyfeld Ireland and came come to America with his family settling in Dubuque, Iowa. In 1855 Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, was instrumental in establishing the 1st United States Cavalry Regiment. Murphy, like many young Irishmen, opted to enlist. The regiment was sent west and saw service on the plains. During this time Murphy no doubt served under, along side or had the opportunity to observe such figures the Edwin Sumner, Joseph E. Johnson, George McClellan, Samuel Sturgis, and J.E.B. Stuart to name but a very few. The regiment was the home to a large number of men later to become very effective field and general officers during the American Civil War.

By the opening of the war, Murphy had risen in rank to Corporal, Acting Regimental Sergeant Major, and Acting Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant. His regiment had been re-designed the 4th United States Cavalry. He had arrived on the field of Shiloh shortly after the battle with General Buell's Army of the Ohio. I strongly suspect be became friends with Tennessean Captain A.C. Gillam (regular army) who, as I recall, was posted as a key supply officer in the Army of the Ohio. Within a few short weeks after Shiloh, Gillem found himself promoted to Colonel of Volunteers and in command of what became the 10th Tennessee Infantry, US Volunteers. The 10th was posted at Nashville as part of Tennessee Military Governor Andrew Johnson's "Governor's Guard." Gillem was afterwards promoted to Brigadier General and Adjutant General of Tennessee.

Tennessee was then attempting to organize other regiments of union troops. Steps were taken to create the 1st Middle (later known as the 5th) Tennessee Cavalry which was to have been commanded by Tennessee politician William Stokes. Someone of high authority saw to it that Murphy was commissioned a 1st Lieutenant of Volunteers and Adjutant for this new cavalry regiment, then assigned to the Governor's Guard. Murphy almost immediately ran headlong into the undisciplined Tennessee volunteers and their newly commissioned officers. From my readings, I gather that he was virtually running the regiment for Stokes and the new Tennessee officers did not like the situation at all. In a short time, Murphy was commissioned Major of the 5th Cavalry and lead it in many many actions in upper Middle Tennessee (including the Battle of Stones River).

By mid-1863 Murphy was suffering from illness and was considering leaving the Army. A letter to that end reflects it was written by a very tired and demoralized hand. In short, he wanted out. While his discharge was at hand, again, some unknown individual intervened and Murphy found himself ordered to Nashville and placed in command of the Tennessee Union Guard (kind of like a modern day National Guard) then posted at the Tennessee Barracks. It was these men that the first Tennessee Mounted Infantry Regiments were organized around.

Among the troops then in the Union Guard were a little over 200 men from Wayne and Hardin Counties then under the command of Captain Thomas J. Cypert. These men were to receive some training and equipment then sent back to Wayne County to attempt to recruit a local regiment. Perhaps because Cypert had been called on the carpet for not being able to control his men, Murphy was assigned to command the post Cypert's men were to be stationed at Wayne County during their recruiting activity. My gut feeling is that this move kept Cypert in a prominent position but he still had to report to Murphy. Murphy continued to assist in the formation of the regiment at Clifton and lead detachments on many patrols. He also seems to have cooperated with other regiments and brigades as they passed through the area. Eventually, as the regiment increased in size to battalion level, Company officers (less Lt. Thrasher) petitioned the Tennessee Adjutant General to assign Murphy to command the Regiment. Murphy was later commissioned as a Lt. Colonel then, when the regiment reached ten companies, to Colonel. As Colonel, Murphy directed his regiment to meet a variety of objectives and they were in frequent contact with Confederate Cavalry forces and did battle with the irregulars and bandits.

One action mentioned in Bugar Saga was the fight involving Murphy leading an undersized mounted battalion with two mountain howitzers from his post at Section 54, Nashville and Northwestern Railroad south. During this action the men successfully assaulted and routed cavalry forces at Lobelville and Beardstown. After these actions, Murphy found his forces were low on ammunition and began leading them back towards the railroad.

I found a Confederate description of the action which pretty well matches up with Murphy's report. In the Confederate version, the Confederate's believed they had been assaulted by the much hated 6th Tennessee Cavalry USV. The Confederates began putting together a force of as many regular and irregular Confederates that they could lay their hands on believing they could engage the 6th TN. They eventually outnumbered the Unionist by at least two to one (if not more).

The Confederate's found Murphy's force in an area southwest of Centerville. After attacking the rear of the Union column, the Confederates indicated the Unionist formed in line of battle and fired their howitzer. The Confederates started to form to meet an expected attack but the Union quickly withdrew with a slight lead provided by the Confederates pursuit being stalled while they moved back into a column. Murphy lead his men, using local trails and no doubt the speed offered by fear, avoiding being cut off from his avenue of escape. They rode into Centerville, taking refuge in the court house building, which had earlier been loopholed during a previous occupation. There Murphy rested his mounts and prepared for his next move. During this time the Confederates arrived and began to surround the town. Murphy, deciding to move before the Confederates got much stronger. He lead his men out of Centerville and across a ford into an unexpected severe crossfire. There, they suffered the greatest loss of any action the regiment was involved in. Several men were killed and wounded with many scattering. Of the scattered men, a few were subsequently captured and sent south.

A few weeks later, General John Bell Hood's forces invaded Tennessee and Murphy's regiment fell in with a column of Union forces during a forced winter march north to Clarksville, across the Cumberland River and then to Edgefield across from Nashville. Contemporary reports of Nashville before the battle reflect that the area had been hit with a tremendous ice storm that halted any effective military action between the Confederate and Union armies. General George Thomas was to be relieved by the Federal Command with some questioning his loyalty. Apparently no one then understood the weather situation which made it near impossible for any large troop movements

It was at this time Murphy was ordered to move his regiment from Edgefield to Gallitan to watch the army flank in case Hood decided to bypass the Nashville strongpoint and enter into Kentucky. Murphy did dispatch his dismounted men to Gallitan by train however the Gallitan Post commander complained that the mounted men of the 2nd never arrived. I suppose that if the forces around Nashville were affected by the ice, then Murphy's mounted men at Edgefield were similarly stalled in position. There exists evidence that indicates the mounted element of the 2nd did participate in the Battle of Nashville. I have yet to find anything that reflects that Murphy was ever reprimanded for an apparent disobedience of orders. After the Battle however, the entire 2nd was posted at Gallitan.

In January, Murphy's term of enlistment was up as was several men of the regiment. Murphy was discharged and those eligible began to be discharged by company. Murphy however stayed at Gallitin when the remaining portion of his old command was ordered back to Clifton, under command of fellow Irishman Lt. Col. Owen Haney.

Murphy had petitioned for a commission in his old regular regiment. I think one must understand that this move was fighting against many obstacles. The regular army officer corps was composed of a great many academy graduates. Murphy was Irish during a time when the Irish suffered from great social prejudice. He apparently started a string pulling campaign through Tennessee government officials and eventually landed a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th United States Cavalry. He made his way west and reported for service with the regiment in Texas. In a short time Murphy was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and Regimental Quartermaster. He also became the post commander at Fort Mason, Texas and engaged in a renovation of that facility.

Unfortunately for Murphy the army was engaged in downsizing at the time. The war was over and there was no need of upstart Irishmen in the officer corps. It is my opinion that senior officers began a nitpicking campaign against Murphy that eventually lead to charges being made against him. Although he managed to be acquitted of most charges, he was penalized by being assigned a later promotional date. A few months later it was Murphy's misfortune to attend mess while intoxicated and again was charged with several offense. This time, again my opinion, his future was written in stone and he chose to resign from service. He died a few months afterwards.

Well I see my rambling alarm went off again. I am sorry if I have written to much. If I have not burned you out yet, please feel free to drop me a line.

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