On the 23rd of November 1863, the 91st heads east via a circuitous route to start an operation in Virginia at Cumberland Gap. They probably are curious about the trip and weren't told the purpose. They also likely weren't aware of a Cumberland Gap battle in June 17th and 18th of the previous year- 1862. The 33rd Indiana Regiment was in the Union force then under the Union Seventh Division Commander George W. Morgan. The Union forces were only able to slow the rebels from going through the pass. In turn this prevented the combination of two rebel armies and Gen. Bragg later wrote it saved Louisville. The gap is the best way west from the Carolinas and Virginia. It was important to pioneering and now militarily.
The 91st went round about. First to Louisville by rail, a distance of 142 miles, according to Pvt. Holder's diary. They left at 7 PM and arrived the next day. One can imagine the noises and bumps and smells and temperature changes through the days and nights that they had to endure. But this was Sunday school compared to the terror that lay ahead. They spent a month traveling to Knoxville Tennessee where they "camped in a Seder Grove in Wane County". Two days before Christmas they observed "600 rebel prisoners passed Point Isabel." From January 3rd to January 12th of 1864, they marched 48 miles. The 11th they marched 16 miles on one day. Later they would be very glad for the exercise that got them into shape. They had names for the overnight camps, we don't know if they were permanent or if the 91st was setting them up as they went. Many of the roads were bad. The weather cold but on the long day of the 11th was warmer - perhaps the reason for the longer march.
On January 12th they camped on a hillside and joined with the 50th Ohio Regiment and the 6th Michigan Battery (artillerymen) together under the command of General Gared. This is the first time they are moving in a group under the direct command of a General Officer. We will read directly from Pvt. Holder's diary at this point, with the exact spelling he used.
"13th- Comenst to clime the mountaion, marched 6 miles and campt on top of the first bend of Cumberland Mountains, received a letter from Carley, rodes offul. 14th- Marched 10 miles rodes worse, over the mountains, through Scot County Tennessee. 15th- Marched 10 miles over the mountains and campt at the foot of one, rodes worse. 16th- Marched 2 miles through Jacksburg, rodes better, campt on hill, rashions scarce, out of sugar and coffee, weather warmer. 19th- Left camp at 8 o'clock for Cumberland Gap, marched 12 miles and campt at Fincasel. 20th- Marched 15 miles, rodes bad weather mild. 21st- marched 16 miles and campt at Cumberland Gap, weather fine." He continues, as one can only imagine every soldier (including Pvt Williams) saying the same thing to himself, " From the 19th to the 22nd was the hardest of my life so far as ficol (physical?) strength is conserned, I taken cold on the 17th of January, and had a bad cough, and it made me week." "January 24th-reinforced to Taswell "(referring to Tazewell Tennessee just south of the Cumberland Gap on Route 25E). "I was left sick, from the Gap to Taswell is 12 miles toward Knoxville. Regiment (91st) marched out as advance guards. January 27th- All quite, weather fine, rashions scarce, quite excitement, pickets drove in. 29th-Fireing on pickets, 2 men captured aut a house. 30th- All quite rashions scarce, porched corn is the order of the day, it is raining today. 31st- a great deal of excitement, weather fine, Rashions quite scarce. Feb 1st- All quite, rashions scarce, I went out and bout a few dried apples. 3rd- All quite, rashions scarce, drawn 3 ears of corn, Weather cold. 4th- Detailed to guard a mans house by the name of James Lay at the Gap in Claborn County Tennessee, this man is comenly called by the name of James Agga." Holden skips to the 17th and we assume he did and saw nothing out of the ordinary in the 2 weeks. "Feb 17th- Went to the mill with Agga as a guard, all quite. He skips again- this time 5 days. "Feb 22nd- Quite excitement in camp, fighting all around south of Cumberland Gap."
After that he talks like nothing much is happening and on the 26th says that "rebels gone back". What he doesn't know is that during the time he and Company B have spent at the Gap, Company A has camped at Gibson's Mill and Wyerman's Mill on the main road through the Cumberland Gap. They are between the Gap and a large force of rebel cavalry. There is no clear Union report on what happened to Company A and the others camped with them. But four Confederate reports make it clear the Posey County boys nearly met their maker on the 22nd and 23rd. It wasn't the first time that fighting involved this crucial gateway to the west and also a gateway between union and rebel forces. The gateway that, in about 1755, Pvt. William's mother's grandfather, John Martin Sr., likely past on the way with Major Washington to fight the French and Indians in the Ohio River Valley. Later, in the early 1800s, Daniel Boone and some of William Williams other ancestors including his grandfathers Elkanah Williams and Revolutionary War soldier John Martin (the junior) made their way west to new opportunity, and to new dangers. So what happened to Pvt. Williams and Company A at the Gap? Company A and others camped at Wyerman's Mill and Gibson's Mill on the east-west gap road between the Gap to the west and the picket guards put out to detect rebels coming from the east in the direction of Roanoke Virginia. The road is now called the Route of the Wilderness Road. The others with them included the 2nd Regiment Mounted Infantry from Knoxville Kentucky (actually 2nd North Carolina Mounted Infantry) attached at the time to Willcox's Division of the 9th Army Corps, Department of the Ohio. Their service listing in Dyers Compendium includes Gibson's and Wyerman's Mill, February 22, 1864 after which they stayed at the Gap to the end of the war. Another Union cavalry group in the area at Wyerman's Mill was the 1st Battalion 11th Tennessee Cavalry, under Lt. Col. Davis.
What the Hoosiers and Kentuckians didn't know or expect is that the rebel cavalry had encircled their encampments under cover of night. It must have been the one of the stealthiest advances imaginable. They may have put special covers on their horse's hooves. There was only the sound of the many creeks in the area draining into Indian creek and falling over the natural and man made waterfalls. The latter driving the grain mills serving the area. The creeks and branches drained the long Poor Valley Ridge the now bounds the Cumberland Gap National Park on the Virginia Kentucky border. At dawn the rebels attacked on the 22nd while Hoosiers and Kentuckians slept. Slept in one of the most idyllic scenes on earth, with the soothing sounds of a creek flowing over a small dam to give the Posey County boys some rest. The thick growth of lush trees now thinned by winter, the background of tall mountains in ridge after ridge framing the beautiful long valley made famous by Daniel Boone. The cool crisp mountain air at the higher elevation that Hoosiers are just getting used to. At dawn the scene exploded with the cacophony of hoof beats, bushes being crushed, rebel yells, screams of fright, grunts of men and animals, shots and the sounds of men being wounded and dying. Company A knew there could be trouble but there was supposed to be a early warning from the picket guards. And time to prepare. Don't these rebs fight fair? This is nothing like the other skirmishes and fights of the 91st in the previous year.
There must have been no time for orders. History books called it a "sharp fight" with 1200 rebels, many on horseback, in that attack on the 22nd. No time to get properly dressed. Maybe no time to reach horses or weapons, let alone ball and powder. The smart and lucky ones ran down the stream and made their way frantically up steep embankments that the rebel horses could not follow. Private William Williams was one of those lucky ones. All of the soldiers of the 91st at some point realized the months of grueling marches over "bad rodes (sic)" was now paying off. They were in better training than an Olympic track and field athlete and a good thing. You see William was still a bachelor and Andrew Jackson Williams had not been conceived, let alone born.
The impact on Williams and Darnell families is unimaginable. Not to take away from the gravity of the situation, but if there were stopwatches and distance markers available that morning, many Olympic records for 100 meter and 400 meter dash, high hurdles and high jump would have been broken. These guys were in shape and they were scared out of their minds. But they got away and the Cumberland Gap was held in Union hands to the end of the war. Company A was commanded at that date by Captain Kenneth Wise of Greencastle. That is between Indianapolis and Terra Haute. He had been commissioned only five months before and he resigned a month after the battle of the 22nd. It would be interesting to hear his story. The confederate General Grumble Jones who planned the trap was very disappointed, to say the least, with the news that almost all the 91st Company A men and 2nd Regiment Mounted Infantry got away. Meanwhile further south of the Gap, Pvt. Holder of Company B wrote, "Quite excitement in camp, fighting all around south of Cumberland Gap…." Little did he know how much his compatriots were in danger.
Two days later on the 24th of February General Jones had some better rebel luck. According to TNGenWeb Project: "On February 24th, the 1st Battalion of the 11th Tennessee Cavalry under Lt. Col. Reuben A. Davis (mustered only a half year previous) was surrounded and captured by Confederate forces under Brigadier General William E. "Grumble" Jones, at Wyerman's Mills, five miles east of Cumberland Gap." Note that this is in the same area as maps now show Gibson's Station. Harold and Beryl Williams (Harold is great grandson of Pvt. William Williams) toured and researched the area in a recent summer and made video for the family. Even the locals didn't know the old Gibson's Mill was still standing. Video of the area is much like a "relaxation video" with flowing water sounds and lush greenery and mountain backdrops belying the terror experienced there. The Tennessee GenWeb Project history goes on to say, "General Garrard (Davis C.O.) reported that Lt. Col. Davis was severely wounded and captured, and that only four officer and 60 men escaped. He further stated that on account of never having been able to obtain a correct report from that command it is very difficult to arrive at exact numbers so as to represent the loss of the 11th Tennessee Cavalry proper. Confederate reports gave the number captured as 256, some of whom belonged to a detachment of infantry which was with the cavalry in the engagement.
Lt. Col. Davis later escaped, and returned to Cumberland Gap on March 14th.On March 15th General Garrard listed the 11th Tennessee Cavalry 252 men for duty, no horses, are without discipline, and with their present organization of but little value ….only two mounted men in entire command at Cumberland Gap." Seven months later 20 men of the 11th Cavalry happened to be in Johnsonville in middle Tennessee. They were among the Union troops that engaged Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest in his attack at Johnsonville that month. In late March of the next year, 1865, the 11th was merged with the 9th Tennessee cavalry.
Under General William Edmundson "Grumble" Jones Brigade there was several groups including cavalry. We know that one of the groups was part of the 8th Virginia Cavalry who list that they were in the engagement at Gibson's and Wyerman's Mills in Virginia on February 22nd, 1864. But how did Company A of the 91st Indiana fare? We don't know exactly but there is a list of the men and how they fared that was checked. It shows John Barker (killed on the 22nd), William Cavins (died 6 days later) and Andrew Teal (died one day later). Barker and Cavins both were from West Franklin and must have been good friends of Pvt. William Williams. They mustered in at the same time and went everywhere he went. They weren't the first to die in Co. A. but were the first killed by the rebels. Teal mustered in June 8 1863 so he missed much of the guard duty in Kentucky. Likely he was from Posey County and either West Franklin or New Harmony.
Certainly the war was never the same after the 22nd for William. Three friends gone and many wounded. And 256 compatriots captured-everyone knowing that meant Andersonville Prison in South Georgia, and either starvation or death by horrible illnesses. Now it is not just the weather, shortages, loneliness and doing disagreeable things. The war has a face of death, pain, crippling and ruination of families. It surely was a lesson to all concerned. Maybe it is why he survived the rest of the war. The company also had lost 5 enlisted men of illness or accident before Cumberland Gap, strangely none from West Franklin even though the law of averages says there should have been several. At the risk of jumping ahead, there were over 196,000 Hoosiers in the war. A total of 7,243 were killed or mortally wounded and 17,500 perished of disease or accidents throughout the whole war. It is a safe bet that William had news of how the Indiana toll was mounting and how dangerous this occupation had become.
On March 4th Pvt Holder of the 91st writes, "Strong expectations of a fight at the gap." On March 6, "I went on top of Cumberland Mountian, all I could see was mountains all around." On March 8th , "received letter that give me the amount of my tax, which was $18.12 for the year 1863." He had earned about $175 that year so the rate is about 10%. In early March it was warm and either rainy or "purty". Mid March cold and snowy. Late March the "all quite" report turns to "skirmishes with rebels… killing some and pushing the rest back" on many of the days up to May 4th . On May 3rd Holder is in a group that "marched to near Taswell, went to a meeting to hear a Negro preacher and he done first rate." On May 7th they gave a "fine saddle to a young lady for being kind to a wounded soldier ". Likely a soldier from the 91st. On May 10th good news comes from Richmond. Petersburg has been captured by the Union. On May 17th the 91st left the Gap and marched to Knoxville getting there on the 20th. They probably didn't know it was out of the frying pan and into the fire. They were heading to Georgia to help Gen. Sherman carry out Gen. Grant's master plan of splitting the south by a massive thrust down to Atlanta.
Their new commander, Gen. Sherman, spent May 20, 21 and 22 sitting next to a window downtown Kingston, reading and writing dispatches and letters. He reads that people are fleeing the cities to the south fearing his army's presence. He writes letters to his wife and is very upbeat. Proud to spare his troops death from a trap Johnston had set for them at Chattanooga. He outlines he will force the rebels behind the Chattahoochee above Atlanta, disturb the peace of central Georgia and prevent rebels from leaving and helping Lee. He spells out he will go due south to Dallas Georgia and thence to Marietta and thence to the Chattahoochee Bridge. He will avoid the high hills and main roads. He said he knows there will be a terrible battle somewhere along the way. We wonder if Pvt. Williams has any idea of what is planned. It certainly hasn't come down from headquarters but the men hear news and they conjecture. But Sherman also writes of concerns about his Western Atlantic railroad supply line and how vulnerable it will become to Johnston's cavalry. Sherman spent some time earlier in his career traveling in Georgia. His maps were very poor quality but he knew what he was getting into.