Croxton’s Raid: The Lost Brigade
Cadet Guard House at the University of Alabama
Union General James Harrison Wilson began operations in command of the Civil War’s largest cavalry force during the beginning of 1865. From its winter training ground, his force of 13,500 troops departed from Chickasaw, in Lauderdale County, on 22 March 1865. Wilson arrived at the small village of Elyton on 27 March 1865, which was located at present day Birmingham. He used Arlington House, the home of Judge William S. Mudd, as a headquarters. From Arlington House, Wilson directed that a cavalry brigade of 1,500 troops, under the command of Brigadier General John Thomas Croxton, be dispatched to destroy Tuscaloosa’s factories, military school, and mills. This force was comprised of predominately Kentucky, Iowa, and Michigan units. After completing operations in Tuscaloosa, Croxton was to rejoin Wilson’s main force in the vicinity on Centerville. Wilson’s primary objective was the destruction of the Confederate arsenal at Selma.
Croxton departed from Elyton on 30 March 1865 and passed through Jonesboro and Bucksville. Three companies of the Eighth Iowa Cavalry, under the command of Captain William A. Sutherland, were detached to destroy the Confederate Ironworks located at Tannehill. The next day, the Eighth Iowa burned Tannehill’s two main furnaces and support buildings. After the destruction of Tannehill, Sutherland rejoined Croxton’s main force east of Tuscaloosa.
Battle of Trion
The original town of Trion was located at present day Vance. Confederate forces moved into the area from Mississippi, and were under the command of Brigadier General William H. Jackson. The Confederates numbered about 3,500 and consisted of a mixture of cavalry, artillery, and support soldiers. As Croxton neared Trion, he suspected that the main Confederate force under Major General Nathan B. Forrest was nearby. However, Forrest was actually on his way towards Selma with his remaining 3000 troops.
The two forces clashed early on the morning of 1 April 1865 at a point between Mud Creek Road and the Huntsville Road. Confederate Forces under Jackson forcefully attacked Union pickets to the rear of Croxton’s column. A Union company immediately counterattacked into the Confederate line, but was immediately repulsed. In spite of reinforcement of the initial Union position from the 6th Kentucky Cavalry, Croxton was defeated and forced to withdraw ten miles down the Huntsville Road. In the engagement at Trion, Croxton lost two officers and 30 soldiers killed, wounded, or captured. Jackson failed to capitalize on his victory and pursue Croxton, even though he had a larger force. Croxton was still able to continue on towards his main objective at Tuscaloosa.
Union Forces Enter Tuscaloosa
After fording the flooded Black Warrior River in the area of Johnson’s Ferry, Croxton’s force headed south along the Watermelon Road towards Northport. The road from Northport into Tuscaloosa went over an old covered bridge, which was guarded by six members of the Tuscaloosa Home Guard. On the night of 3 April 1865, upon seeing the approaching Union cavalry, the guards removed parts of the bridge’s wooden plank floor. After a minor skirmish in which the Home Guard’s leader, Captain Benjamin Eddins was killed, elements of the Second Michigan Cavalry repaired the bridge and prepared for the arrival of Croxton’s main force.
After entering Tuscaloosa, the Union troops immediately set fire to a hat factory, which was considered a military target since it provided hats for the Confederate Army. Furthermore, the town’s only three cannons, which were to be used by University of Alabama cadets for defense of the town, were discovered hidden in a stable and captured. Federal troops also destroyed and looted several stores and the local Confederate government bank.
Engagement With University of Alabama Corps of Cadets
In response to the Union force which had entered Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama commandant Colonel James T. Murfee called up the 300 strong University Corps of Cadets. The cadets formed in front of the Rotunda, on the site near the present day Gorgas Library. Armed only with outdated Springfield rifles, the cadets were immediately dispatched to engage the Union troops. They met in the area near present day Tuscaloosa City Hall, although contemporary sources conflict on the exact site of the skirmish.
The cadets formed a defensive line in the street, which was perhaps in the area of Greensboro Avenue. After sending forward a group of pickets, the young cadets encountered Croxton’s Sixth Kentucky Cavalry. After bravely firing the initial volley, the University cadets were immediately met by fierce counter fire and forced to withdraw back to the University of Alabama campus. Here they gathered what supplies they could, and left Tuscaloosa by way of the Huntsville Road and headed south. They eventually arrived at Marion on 8 March 1865 and were disbanded.
Burning of the University of Alabama
By the early morning of 4 April, the main portion of Croxton’s force had entered Tuscaloosa. Union forces under Colonel Johnston arrived at the University of Alabama with orders from Croxton to destroy all public buildings. This included the Rotunda, which housed the main library. The other university buildings included the Observatory, Washington Hall, Franklin Hall, Jefferson Hall, a guard house (called the Round House), dormitories, powder magazine, the President’s Mansion, and Steward Hall (now the Gorgas House).
In spite of the pleading of the university’s faculty not to destroy the library, Croxton confirmed his order to destroy all public buildings. Additionally, a platoon of Union troops went into the Alabama Insane Hospital (now called Bryce Hospital), but left the building undisturbed. Another platoon of Union troops began to sack the President’s Mansion, but stopped because of the pleading of the university president’s wife. However, the Rotunda and other main buildings were burned to the ground. The only buildings to survive the massive fire were the President’s Mansion, Gorgas House, Observatory, and Round House. The most tragic loss was the destruction of a large portion of the university’s library holdings.
Along with the destruction of the University of Alabama, Croxton destroyed Tuscaloosa’s iron foundry, which had been used for small caliber cannon production. Union forces also destroyed a nitre works and cotton mill.
Croxton’s Initial Search For Wilson
After leaving Tuscaloosa by way of Northport on the morning of 5 April 1865, Croxton set out to rejoin Wilson’s main force. However, he had not been in contact with Wilson for over a week. It was during this period that Wilson’s troops began referring to themselves as the “Lost Brigade”. Not knowing which way to go, Croxton headed west along the Columbus Road.
Battle of King’s Store
A Union Cavalry detachment, under Captain Sutherland, left Croxton's main group on a reconnaissance mission in the area of present day Coker, Alabama. After burning the courthouse at Carrollton, Sutherland’s troops came into direct contact with a small Confederate force under Brigadier General Wirt Smith at King’s Store. The Battle of King’s Store was a very small affair by Civil War standards. The Confederate cavalry force had been in pursuit since Carrollton, and the Union lost one killed and one taken prisoner in the skirmish. After the engagement, Sutherland was unable to rejoin Croxton, and was forced to take his cavalry over 100 miles to join Union forces in Decatur.
Battle of Romulus
By this time, Croxton was aware of the presence of Smith’s main force of 3,000 cavalry. He burned a large Confederate warehouse at Lanier’s Mill, and confiscated needed supplies. With no contact from Sutherland, Croxton was still completely unable to determine the location of Wilson, and turned back towards Northport. On 6 April 1865, near the village of Romulus, Confederate Cavalry under the command of Wirt Adams attacked the Union rear guard from the Sixth Kentucky Cavalry. After some initial losses, Croxton sent in reinforcements from the Second Michigan. The Battle of Romulus extended for almost thirty miles towards Northport. By the afternoon, both sides had fought though thick woods and sometimes intense rain. Croxton lost two officers and 32 soldiers in the engagement, and entered the safety of Northport.
Munford Station Skirmish
After leaving Northport with no word of Wilson’s location, Croxton led his force east across Alabama. While traveling south of Elyton, Croxton learned of Wilson’s victory at Selma and the Union arrival in Montgomery. By 21 April 1865, he had arrived in the area around Talladega. Croxton came across a remaining Confederate unit at Munford Station, but easily won a very short engagement. After the action an artillery piece and a number of prisoners were captured. This battle is of some significance because it occurred well after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. After destroying the Oxford Iron Furnace, Croxton rejoined Wilson at Macon, Georgia on 1 May 1865.
The Alabama Confederate Reader by Malcolm C. McMillan
The Yankee Invasion of West Alabama: March-April 1865 by William S. Hoole and Elizabeth H. MacArthur
Copyright (c) 2001 Frederick Bush