Next Thursday is the anniversary of a little-known action that inspired one of the more striking dioramas at Civil War Tails. “Desperation at Skull Camp Bridge” is a good example of how our dioramas come to be. While reading a biography, we came across a few paragraphs describing a rear-guard action in Tennessee. While the action may not be significant in the course of the Civil War, we could not pass up the diorama idea! Read on to learn just what happened at Skull Camp Bridge.
On June 27, 1863, Confederate Gen. Leonidas Polk evacuated Shelbyville, Tennessee, so the Union army would not cut off his command as the Northern troops surrounded Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s small force of cavalry formed Polk’s rearguard, fighting Union Gen. David Stanley’s cavalry in the streets of Shelbyville through the afternoon to buy time for the wagon trains to escape. Wheeler also fought hard to hold back the Union cavalry because he expected Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command to either join him or cross the Duck River over Skull Camp Bridge.
Forrest and Wheeler had a bit of a history. Less than six months before, at Fort Donelson, Forrest had served under Wheeler and lost approximately half of his command in two futile charges. That night, Forrest had declared that he would never serve under Wheeler again. Instead of ending their friendship and accepting Forrest’s offer to resign, Wheeler made arrangements so that Forrest would not have to serve under him.
Now, Forrest rode to join Polk, but although he heard the firing, he could not catch up with the fight because Stanley’s cavalry pushed Wheeler’s men back so quickly. As the afternoon wore on, Wheeler decided Forrest was not coming and withdrew over Skull Camp Bridge. Just as the Confederates were about to burn the bridge, Maj. Rambaut of Forrest’s staff galloped up and said that Forrest was in sight of Shelbyville and would cross at the bridge.
Wheeler and his second-in-command Will T. Martin took 400 volunteers back across the bridge. They put up a short, hand-to-hand fight with sabers and carbines, and pistol butts as clubs, but the Union cavalry broke through Wheeler’s line and overran the two cannons he had brought with him. A caisson overturned on the bridge, blocking it. Union cavalry now stood between Wheeler’s men and the river.
Some Confederates scattered up and downstream in the growing dusk. Others were captured. Sixty, with Wheeler and Martin in the lead, cut their way through the Union line and leaped at full speed into the river 15-20 feet below.
Despite being startled, the Union soldiers quickly recovered and fired at the bobbing heads in the water. Wheeler, Martin, and about 20 others made it across the river. Forrest, hearing the firing, judged that the way across Skull Camp Bridge was closed, and crossed four miles downstream.