After the Confederate retreat from Perryville, Kentucky, Confederate General Braxton Bragg withdrew from the Bluegrass State toward Middle Tennessee. Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan and his Kentucky cavalry, after raiding Union supply lines in their native state, were called to Tennessee shortly afterwards and ordered to harass Union communications around Nashville, and also to protect the fords of the upper Cumberland River. Hartsville, a small town near such a ford, was manned by the 39th Brigade of the Army of the Cumberland, about 2,400 troops under the command of U.S. Colonel Absalom B. Moore. Another Union force of about 6,000 men, under Gen. John Marshall Harlan, was stationed six miles to the east at Castalian Springs. Morgan decided to capture the garrison at Hartsville and escape before Harlan’s troops could reinforce Moore’s, and he secured Bragg’s permission to take his cavalry brigade, along with infantry and artillery units, to Hartsville.
Morgan, along with four cavalry regiments under Lt. Col. Basil Duke, the 2nd and 9th Kentucky and 18th Tennessee infantry regiments, a battalion of Texas Rangers, and an eight-piece Kentucky artillery unit, began marching from Baird’s Mills, about eight miles south of Lebanon, on December 6, 1862. Morgan pushed his men almost forty miles over frozen ground, reaching the Cumberland during the night. While the infantry crossed at Puryear’s Ferry, the cavalry attempted to cross the flooded river a few miles downstream. Out of about 2,100 troops, only about 1,300 managed to cross the river in time to engage the Union line. One cavalry and two infantry regiments, as well as the artillery, were left south of the river with orders to guard the approaches to Hartsville from Hanson’s reinforcements. About a mile and a half south of town, Morgan’s men captured the vedettes without a shot, supposedly because the Confederates were wearing blue uniforms. The pickets, however, gave the alarm, and by the time the Confederates reached the bluff south of Hartsville on the morning of December 7, the Union regiments were already in battle formation.
The 108th Ohio infantry and the 13th Indiana battery lined up on the right, with the 104th Illinois in the middle, and the 106th Ohio infantry on the left, supported by the 2nd Indiana and one company of the 11th Kentucky cavalry. On the Confederate line, the cavalry, dismounted, formed on the left with the infantry on the right and the artillery firing in support from the south side of the river. Even though the Confederates had to cross a ravine and climb the bluff to the Union position, they pressed the attack on both ends of the line while driving the Union regiments back. The 106th Ohio apparently broke and fled past the Union right flank, causing the 108th Ohio to break as well and the flank to fold back on itself. The 104th Illinois held its ground the longest, sustaining heavy casualties, until it was informed that Colonel Moore had surrendered all the troops at his command.
The Confederates, reinforced by the regiments that finally crossed the river, surrounded and captured approximately 1,800-2,000 Federals with a loss of only 149 of their own men. They also loaded up captured stores and clothes onto sixteen wagons and pressed southward across the river. A few of the wagons were abandoned when General Harlan and a force of about 5,000 Federals arrived, but the cavalry was successful in its rearguard action, and Morgan’s force re-crossed the Cumberland intact. The entire action at Hartsville lasted only about one hour and fifteen minutes.
Colonel Moore resigned before he could be dismissed from duty for his failure to hold his green troops in line before Duke’s veteran Kentuckians. John Hunt Morgan, on the other hand, was promoted to brigadier general. The raid on Hartsville is the only example which demonstrates Morgan’s ability to combine cavalry, infantry, and artillery in a unified attack. The success of Morgan’s cavalry tactics in Middle Tennessee–as well as those of Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Lt. Gen. Joseph Wheeler–also reinforced Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans’s request for a sufficient Union cavalry force to counteract these threats. Though the surprise of Morgan’s attack certainly unnerved and baffled Union officers, the Battle of Hartsville itself did little to disrupt Union supply and communication lines. Later that December, Morgan rode into Kentucky a third time to disrupt yet again the Union supplies and communications out of Louisville, while the Army of the Cumberland defeated Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Stones River.
James A. Ramage, Rebel Raider: The Life of John Hunt Morgan (1986); Gary R. Matthews, Basil Wilson Duke, CSA: The Right Man in the Right Place (2005)