Editor’s Note

This is the fifth in a 10-part series that began on July 2 and takes a closer look at Richland County’s eight Medal of Honor winners. Coming Friday: Smith Larimer earned his medal on April 8, 1865, at Sailor’s Creek, Va., the final major battle of the Civil War.

This series is supported by Mansfield Cemetery Association.

MANSFIELD — 1st Lt. Joseph Hedges could sense the Confederate army of Gen. John Bell Hood was gasping and dying along the banks of the West Harpeth River in southern Tennessee.

It was Dec. 17, 1864.  Hood’s Army of Tennessee, reeling from losses in Nashville and Franklin, Tenn., was desperately trying to escape to the south in a retreating fight for survival.

The 28-year-old Hedges, born June 12, 1836, in Mansfield, helped to ensure that escape was as painful as possible, becoming the first member of the storied U.S. 4th Cavalry to win a Congressional Medal of Honor in the Battle of West Harpeth.

Hedges also became the fourth soldier from Richland County to earn the nation’s highest military award for valor.

Here is how it unfolded:

Pressed by Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to attack Hood or be replaced, Gen. George Thomas was eager to finish off Hood’s army and present it to President Lincoln for Christmas.

Thomas attacked Hood’s army of 40,000 at Nashville on Dec. 15-16 in one of the most violent battles of the four-year war.  In two days his troops crushed the Rebel army.

His infantry, including two brigades of Black troopes, smashed into Hood’s troops while the Union cavalry, dismounted with its fast-firing Spencers, curled around and behind the Confederate left.

Almost a century later, historian Bruce Catton summed up the battle in two words: “Everything worked.”

(Click above to listen to today’s accompanying podcast. You may also listen to the first four episodes of this podcast series.)

As Hood reeled backward, Thomas pressed Gen. James Wilson’s federal cavalry corps, which included the 4th Cavalry Regiment, to continue the assault.

As a counter, the 33-year-old Hood ordered one of his commanders, Gen. Stephen Lee (whose unit had been spared the worst of the bloodletting at Nashville), to take about 2,500 infantry soldiers and a small cavalry unit to fight a rear-guard action.

Hood hoped to buy enough time for the rest of his arm to escape south into Alabama.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 17, Wilson’s forces met the Confederate forces at the Hollow Tree Gap and a ferocious battle ensued that left more than 300 killed or wounded.

Lee’s forces then withdrew, hoping to scramble across the Harpeth River where the bulk of Hood’s army had earlier crossed.

Undaunted, Wilson gathered his scattered horsemen and moved in again.

In what was perhaps one of the largest cavalry charges on American soil, about 6,000 federal troopers charged across what is now known as Harlinsdale, a city park in Franklin.

A small contingent of Confederate cavalry appeared and again tried to blunt the attack, hoping to allow the remaining members of the rear guard to cross the river.

Battle of West Harpeth

Near Winstead Hill, Lee was wounded and Gen. Carter Stevenson, a veteran of the Vicksburg and Atlanta campaigns (as well as the Mexican Wars when he fought for the U.S. Army), assumed command.

Continuing the retreat, Stevenson’s exhausted infantry was trapped with its back to the West Harpeth River near today’s Independence High School, after a running battle along the six miles from Winstead Hill.

In savage hand-to-hand fighting the Confederate infantry formed into a “hollow square,” a formation often of last resort when infantry is faced with overwhelming cavalry. 

In the darkness, it became hard to tell friend from foe. Many Confederate soldiers had donned Yankee blue coats to cover their own shortages. 

Joseph Hedges

Near the end, an element of the 4th Cavalry, led by Hedges, made a final, furious charge that earned the Richland County native his medal.

According to the Medal of Honor citation:

“At the head of his regiment, (Hedges) charged a field (artillery) battery with strong infantry supports. (Hedges) broke the enemy’s lines and, along with other mounted troops, captured three guns and many prisoners.”

Though Wilson’s troopers called it a day after a battle that covered 16 miles, the fight ultimately continued all the way to the Alabama border.

The remnants of the Army of Tennessee crossed the Tennessee River on Dec. 29 and the federals ended the pursuit. Hood’s army was in tatters.

The Battle of West Harpeth was described as a “desperate and close fight” that resulted in nearly 600 soldiers killed or wounded in Williamson County.

The 4th Cavalry’s war was not yet over. It drove through Alabama and captured a supply depot at Selma, defeating Confederate cavalry led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Wilson’s forces then turned east to link up with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, taking Montgomery, Ala., and Columbus, Ga., before arriving in Macon, Ga., where word came of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender in Virginia.

The 4th remained in Macon as an occupying force and later assisted in capturing fugitive Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Hedges, who advanced to the rank of major, received his Medal of Honor on April 5, 1898.

He died on Aug. 12, 1910, and was buried in Mansfield Cemetery.

(Coming Friday: Richland County native Smith Larimer helped to bring an end to the Civil War by helping the Union win the final major battle of the horrible war.)

Previously in this series:

City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when...

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