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Yankees Tricked at Athens
Gen. Forrest's ruse scared Union force into surrendering

Fifth of a series.

By Holly Hollman
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2445

ATHENS — Confederate Pvt. Sam Campbell of the 19th Alabama Infantry Regiment stands on Coleman Hill and peers through underbrush and tree-lined roadways.

Re-enactor Sam Campbell compares a drawing of Fort Henderson in Athens to the landscape today. Only one section of the Union fort remains.
DAILY Photo by Dan Henry
Re-enactor Sam Campbell compares a drawing of Fort Henderson in Athens to the landscape today. Only one section of the Union fort remains.
As he regales listeners with tales of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest's Athens raid, they can hear the shuffle of soldiers marching and the neighs of approaching horses.

Campbell is a re-enactor and professor of management at Athens State University.

Today, Coleman Hill is the site of Limestone County's all-black Trinity High School, which closed during integration in 1970.

In 1864, Coleman Hill was a strategic site the Union army occupied called Fort Henderson, the fort's perimeter being dirt piled 16 feet high around the hill.

The goal was to protect the Tennessee and Alabama Central Railroad that ran through Athens, part of Gen. Tecumseh Sherman's supply line as he marched his army across Georgia.

With Campbell's knowledge, diaries and the book "Historic Limestone County, Alabama" by the late Robert Dunnavant Jr., one can imagine the events of more than a century past.

It's Friday, Sept. 23, 1864, and Forrest is marching 4,500 men up Brownsferry Street and the Florence-Muscle Shoals Road, now U.S. 72. Flankers in adjacent fields march near the main columns.

Atlanta fell to Sherman on Sept. 2, but Forrest hopes to harass forts along Sherman's supply line and drive the Yankees from Atlanta.

His gray-clad, ragtag soldiers converge on Athens, a town that has mostly been under Union occupation. In 1862, Union soldiers plundered the town that in 1861 denounced secession. It remains a town with mixed loyalties.

Around Athens and inside Fort Henderson, a bastion fort with five points, are about 900 Union soldiers, mostly ex-slaves from the area.

March to Athens

During the march to Athens, Forrest sends his 14th and 20th Tennessee Cavalry, with his brother, Jesse, to McDonald's Station, a cotton stop on what is now U.S. 31 north of Calhoun Community College. Forrest orders them to cut the railroad and telegraph lines.

Forrest continues approaching Fort Henderson from the southwest, and sends Col. C.R. Barteau and the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry north of the female seminary, now Athens State University.

Inside the fort, Union Col. Wallace Campbell hears about fighting at McDonald's Station near Tanner. He thinks the Confederate force is Brig. Gen. P.D. Roddey, of Moulton, a man the Union fears almost as much as Forrest. Both can strike fast and slip away. He doesn't know the cavalry is Forrest's brother's smaller unit.

Campbell takes 100 men from the 110th Colored Infantry by train to the skirmish. His men run off Confederate cavalry tearing up the tracks. As the train travels backward to Athens, Campbell finds more Confederate cavalry burning the tracks to the north. The train forces its way through. The incident takes an hour.

Meanwhile at 4 p.m., Forrest is moving closer to the fort, his soldiers like a gray mist covering the countryside. In town, the Union army captures a Confederate physician named Dr. Latham, who boasts Forrest is coming with 10,000 to 12,000 men. Perhaps Forrest wanted the Yankees to capture Dr. Latham, so he could plant the seed that his force is more than double his actual number.

A Union relief force from Decatur Junction, where the Memphis and Charleston Railroad intersects with the Tennessee and Alabama Central Railroad, moves toward Athens on Friday afternoon, anticipating a fight.

On Friday night, Forrest arrives in Athens. He places eight cannons around the fort. In town, east of the fort, sporadic fighting breaks out, along with cordial greetings between Confederate and Union soldiers who bump into each other in the dark. Some Union soldiers who cannot get to the fort burn goods they think the Confederates might want.

Near the courthouse, 2nd Lt. John Wesley Andes of the 2nd U.S. Tennessee Cavalry gets an opportunity to accomplish something the entire Union Army has wanted to do throughout the war: capture Forrest.

Andes sees Forrest's escort at the Maclin home about 7 or 8 p.m. Forrest is eating dinner with the family. Because it is dark, Andes identifies himself to Confederates outside the home as a member of the 2nd Tennessee. The Rebels think he means the 2nd Tennessee, Confederate cavalry, and do not stop him. Andes orders his men to surround Forrest's escort.


Andes hesitates. He, too, heard rumors that Forrest may have more than 10,000 men and decides not to risk a fight.

He finds his commander, Col. William F. Prosser, but remains silent about Forrest's dinner. Prosser argues with Campbell, saying the entire army should sneak out of Athens before Saturday morning. Campbell refuses. Prosser, with the help of a black guide, leads his troops past the Rebels and back to Decatur Junction.

At midnight, rain pelts the anxious armies in town. The Confederates' paper cartridges get wet, and Forrest issues dry ones about 3 a.m.

Mary Fielding, 29, who is living at the Maclin home, peers out a window before 7 a.m. on Saturday and writes in her diary that one of Forrest's brigades "seemed to go in all directions; marching, counter-marching, going first one way and then another."

Forrest's antics have a purpose. He wants Campbell to think he has a massive force.

Yankees in town?

"Are there any Yankees in town this morning?" Confederate soldiers ask as they ride into Athens past Roswell Hine's home toward the courthouse. By now, the majority of Union soldiers are inside Fort Henderson.

At first light, Forrest orders an artillery barrage. Campbell, who has two cannon, notes that none of the Confederate shells miss the fort.

About 10 a.m., Forrest sends Maj. J.P. Strange under a flag of truce to demand surrender. Campbell assembles a council of war, which reviews Forrest's terms: white officers will go to prison camps and the Negroes to their masters. The council refuses surrender.

Buying time

Forrest proceeds with an artillery barrage. At 10:30 a.m., he sends Strange again to demand surrender. Campbell wants to buy time so relief forces from Decatur or Pulaski, Tenn., can arrive. Forrest knows his troops are fighting relief troops from Decatur. Forrest plans to trick Campbell before relief forces arrive and asks Campbell to review his Confederate force.

Riding with Forrest, Campbell counts 24 cannon, not eight. After Campbell counts a cannon and rides on, Forrest's men move it to a new location. Forrest also has campfires lit throughout the countryside to make Campbell think his force is more than 4,500.

During Campbell's review, a Col. James Wheeler, no relation to Gen. Joe Wheeler, rides up to Forrest and Campbell.

"Gen. Forrest . . . saluted him as Gen. Wheeler, and asked how many men he had," writes Ruffin Coleman, a witness to the surrender. "Col. Wheeler caught on instantly, and in a clear, ringing voice answered, '7,000.' "

'Jig is up'

Campbell thinks Gen. Wheeler of Lawrence County has his entire cavalry on site. Campbell relates this information to the war council, which still doesn't want to surrender. Campbell tells them, "The jig is up," and orders the flag lowered in surrender. Forrest captures 500 horses and 973 men. He burns the fort and marches his men toward his next objective, the Union fort in Elkmont at Sulphur Creek Trestle.

Today, only one of Fort Henderson's five points remains. Workers bulldozed the earthwork during construction of Trinity High School. Progress can change this landscape but can't bury the past completely.

Ruffin Coleman, the citizen who watched Campbell's surrender, wrote in 1907, "It was the most dramatic incident I ever witnessed. I shall never, never forget it. I remember it as vividly as if it were only yesterday."

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