Following the Battle of Stone’s River, at the end of 1862, Union forces under General William Rosecrans went into winter quarters at Murfreesboro, and Confederate forces, under General Braxton Bragg, headquartered at Tullahoma in Middle Tennessee. The two forces were separated by a series of ridgelines, hills, and valleys, and the way through those geographic obstacles was through wide divergences known as gaps.
Hoover’s Gap is located approximately twenty-six miles southeast of Murfreesboro, just off today’s Interstate 24. In 1863, it was one of several routes through the ridges and hills that made up the fertile valleys of Middle Tennessee, whose strategic importance to the Confederacy was pivotal. By controlling Middle Tennessee, the approaches to Chattanooga–a key transportation center for the Confederacy–were protected. Additionally, for the hard-pressed Southern armies, Middle Tennessee was a vital area for forage and supplies.
Neither the Union nor Confederate commanders showed an inclination for engagement although they were less than twenty miles apart. As summer 1863 approached, Grant’s successes near Vicksburg were becoming significant. Washington, fearing that Bragg would detach a large portion of his army to help break the Vicksburg siege, strongly urged Rosecrans to initiate a campaign against Bragg in Middle Tennessee.
Bragg had established a fortified line running from Shelbyville to Wartrace along the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. Rosecrans planned to attack Bragg by feinting against Shelbyville on the left while using three corps to collapse Bragg’s right, which was lightly defended by units of Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry.
On the morning of June 24, 1863, in a drizzling rain, Colonel John T. Wilder, at the head of the “Lighting Brigade” of mounted infantry and armed with Spencer rifles, moved into the four-mile-long valley of Hoover’s Gap and opened the Tullahoma Campaign. The First [Third] Kentucky Confederate Cavalry was the lone cavalry regiment left to hold the gap until infantry could be brought up in support.
The overpowering Union force quickly pushed the defenders out of the gap. The Southern infantry support was four miles away, and with no help, the undermanned and out-gunned cavalry was routed from Hoover’s Gap. In rapid advancement, Wilder reported that the defenders did not have time to deploy into their works and lost their battle flag (a strand of embroidered silk colors presented to the regiment by the sister of General Ben Helms, their original commander) before being forced through the south end of the gap. With the firepower of the Spencer rifles and an excellent artillery battery, under command of Captain Eli Lilly, Wilder prepared for the counter attack that was sure to come.
Word of the attack was slow in reaching Major General A. P. Stewart, division commander of Hardee’s Corps, assigned to Bragg’s right. The closest infantry to the gap was under the command of Confederate General William Bate. In his report, Bate noted that it was not until 2:00 p.m. on the afternoon of June 24 that he received orders from General Stewart to send a regiment, and then some second regiments, with artillery, up to Hoover’s Gap. On his way to Hoover’s Gap, Bate met up with Colonel J. R. Butler of the First (Third) Kentucky Cavalry, where he learned that three regiments of enemy cavalry had already passed through the gap and were near his rear elements.
General Bushrod Johnson, another of Stewart’s commanders, reported that at about 1:00 p.m., “Two boys muddied with hard riding, appeared at my headquarters at Fairfield, and reported the enemy advancing from Hoover’s Gap.” As Johnson ordered his brigade to arms, he was ordered to remain in position but prepare to move at a moment’s notice.
Bate, not knowing the exact positions of Union troops, was forced to detach several of his regiments to protect approaching routes, leaving him shorthanded for the counterattack that he was planning. With the remainder of his brigade, he planned to attack Wilder at the south end of Hoover’s Gap. Wilder was prepared to hold the southern approaches to the gap until reinforcements arrived from Fourteenth Corps.
Bate hit Wilder head on, only to be repulsed by the rapid firing Spencers. After regrouping, Bate tried attacking the flanks–with no success. After three different attempts and with one-quarter of his men down, Bate pulled back. Wilder suffered 61 casualties to Bate’s 146. By 4:00 p.m., Stewart had his division ready to march to support Bate, but by then the Union Fourteenth Corps was in Hoover’s Gap, and the battle was over.
War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880-1901), ser. 1, vol. 23: 1, 458, 602-3, 611; Thomas L. Connelly, Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865 (1971); Steven E. Woodworth, Six Armies In Tennessee (1998); Stephen Z. Starr, The Union Cavalry in the Civil War, vol. 3: The War in the West 1861-1865 (1985)