“If you persist in defense, you must take the consequences”: The battle of the Sevenths at Union City

Mention the 7th Tennessee Cavalry and you must provide a qualifier – “Union” or “Confederate.” While this is not unique to that particular regiment, with several numbered Tennessee union regiments of infantry and cavalry on the records, what does set those “Sevenths” apart from the others is what happened on March 24, 1864.  On that date, the two “Sevenths” faced one another at Union City, Tennessee.

The Confederate 7th was part of Major-General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command and was among the regiments raiding through west Tennessee and Kentucky.  The raid was officially labeled “Forrest’s Expedition into West Tennessee and Kentucky.”  One of the obstacles in their way was a garrison in Union City, composed primarily of the Federal 7th Tennessee  Cavalry, under the command of Colonel Isaac R. Hawkins.  One of his subordinates Captain Thomas P. Gray, commanding Company C of the regiment, later filed this record of the action:

On the 23d of March it was generally understood at the said post that at least a portion of the rebel General Forrest’s command were advancing on us. About 8 p.m. of that day the advance of the enemy were seen and fired upon, near Jacksonville, 6 miles from Union City, by a small scouting party sent in that direction from our post. This party reported the facts immediately to Colonel Hawkins, of the Seventh Tennessee Cavalry, who was commander of the post. The picket guard was then doubled, and two or three companies were ordered to keep their horses saddled during the night.

I was notified at 4.30 a.m. of the 24th of March to order my horses saddled. About 5 o’clock firing commenced all around the line of pickets. The main part of Company B, Captain Martin, were abreast, and a part of Company I, also, I think. The remaining force, about 500 strong, were distributed around at the breastworks. The pickets were driven in, with a loss of 2 killed and several wounded. About 5.30 a.m. a cavalry charge was made from the south side. It was repulsed with but little difficulty. The same was immediately dismounted and charged again, this time coming within 20 or 30 yards of the breast-works. They were repulsed again, and with considerable loss this time. Immediately following this another charge was made in front from the northwest, and again repulsed. Immediately following this, the fourth charge, and last, was made from the northeast, which charge confronted my company, and were repulsed again with loss. This charge was made at about 8 a.m. About this time the colonel came to this part of the works. I remarked to him that it was my opinion the rebels were defeated in their first programme; that they would either leave the field or assemble and make a consolidated charge. Our troops were in fine spirits. Sharpshooting lasted till 9.30 a.m., when an escort, with a flag of truce, approached my position. I sent notification to Colonel Hawkins of the approaching truce flag, and then advanced in person and halted the truce escort 200 yards from the defenses. Then Colonel Hawkins came; a document was handed him, the contents of which I know not. At this time the rebel troops were in full view, in the logs and stumps. The truce escort retired, and in twenty minutes after again came. I again halted them on the same ground as before, and remained with them during this interview. This time an order was handed to Colonel Hawkins, which I read. As near as I can remember, it read as follows:

Headquarters C. S. Forces,
In the Field, March 24, 1864.
Commanding Officer U.S. Forces at Union City, Tenn.:
Sir: I have your garrison completely surrounded, and demand an unconditional surrender of your forces. If you comply with the demand you are promised the treatment due to prisoners of war, according to usages in civilized warfare. If you persist in defense, you must take the consequences. By order of Maj. Gen. N. B. Forrest.

Then followed a council of our officers, in which a large majority violently opposed any capitulation whatever with the enemy. Notwithstanding this, the colonel made a surrender at 11 a.m., which, to the best of my knowledge and belief, was unconditional. No artillery was seen or used. The surrendered troops were very indignant on hearing of the surrender. Only 1 man had been killed, and 2 or 3 wounded inside of the works. It was generally believed to be a rebel defeat. Our troops, after grounding arms, were marched away on foot. The rebel troops were commanded by Colonel [William L.] Duckworth, and as nearly as I could estimate them there were 800. A list of prisoners was made on the 26th, at Trenton, which numbered 481, including 10 of Hardy’s men and a few of the Twenty-fourth Missouri Infantry, who were doing provost duty.

Gray and many others later made their escapes, in small groups it would seem. Consider the wording, though admittedly a rough recollection, of the surrender demand. But, particularly the words incorporated into the title of this post.

Now consider this passage from the regimental history of the Confederate 7th:

[Colonel Duckworth] then wrote a demand for immediate and unconditional surrender of the post, to which he signed the name of N.B. Forrest, major-general commanding, and sent it under a flag of truce commanded by Lieut. H.J. Livingston. To this Col. J.H. Hawkins [sic], Federal commander, replied, begging time and saying that in the meantime he wished to see Gen. Forrest.  This concerned us, for Forrest could not be produced. The colonel wrote another dispatch saying: ‘I am not in the habit of meeting officers inferior to myself in rank under a flag of truce, but I will send Col. Duckworth who is your equal in rank, and who is authorized to arrange terms and conditions with you under instructions. N.B. Forrest major-general commanding.’

Forrest himself was not at Union City, but rather leading a column towards Paducah, Kentucky.

There’s a lot of interesting aspects to the skirmish at Union City.  There is the story of a unionist regiment (called out by Forrest as “renegade”), fighting, as fate had it, a Confederate unit with the same numerical designation.  The shrinking and surrender of Hawkins, of course, needs careful examination in light of tactical settings. And there

But considering this action in the scope of a broad, month long, campaign by Forrest’s cavalry which included the more famous action at Fort Pillow, that surrender demand should take added significance.  Forrest and the officers in his command often made bluffs, such as that at Union City, to achieve their aims short of force of arms.  And the ease by which this deception was offered at Union City reinforces the “folklore” here.  The “surrender demand” bluff was a standard practice among Forrest’s command.

Be it the poker table or the battlefield, if you lead with the bluff, sooner or later someone is going to call it.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 32, Part I, Serial 57, pages 544-5;  J.P. Young, The Seventh Tennessee Cavalry (Confederate): A History, Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Bookshop, 1976, page 85.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on ““If you persist in defense, you must take the consequences”: The battle of the Sevenths at Union City

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