Ride of John Henry Wisdom to Save Rome, Georgia
there were few large plantations in the region that would become Etowah County,
many settlers took no side with either the Confederacy or the Union, wanting no
part of the war in general. The people were however, raided and pillaged during
the Civil War, victims of raiding parties by both sides.
On April 10, 1863,
probably few people in Rome Georgia were aware that Union Colonel Abel D.
Streight was leading four regiments of infantry, two companies of cavalry, two
mountain howitzers, with all their equipment, arms and ammunition, plus over 700
noisy, cranky, foul-smelling mules onto a small flotilla of boats. This
Independent Provisional Brigade headed down the Cumberland, then up the
Tennessee River to begin a raid that would be the biggest event in Rome since
the war began.
the Romans known of Streight's departure, it is very doubtful that any of them
would have been concerned or even interested. But that veil of disinterest would
lift three weeks later at midnight of May 2, when a bedraggled John Henry Wisdom from
Gadsden, Alabama limped into Rome on a borrowed, lame pony to tell an incredible
tale. He'd ridden
the sixty-seven miles from Gadsden to Rome, Georgia, to warn everyone that
Colonel A.D. Streight's
Yankees were only twenty-five miles or so from Rome, headed in their
direction, and they were in force. Streight's plan was to
burn and sack Rome, a
Confederate stronghold with an iron works and supply depot.
Through the efforts of Mr.
Wisdom, the Paul Revere of the Confederacy, the sleepy town came
alive; and within an hour, history records, the only one asleep was John Wisdom.
A native of Rome but now living in Gadsden, he had seen the Yankees in Gadsden,
watched them smash his ferry boat on the Coosa River, and made up his mind that
someone had to warn Rome. Eight and a half hours and six mount changes later, he
had done just that. He wasn't aware that Forrest was right behind the Yankee
brigade, so his news had no comforting words that Confederate help was nearby.
The Yankees were upon them and they had to protect themselves. Within hours,
barricades were built across the bridges over the Coosa and the Etowah, and on
roads entering the town.
The bridge over the
Oostanaula river was fortified and made ready for
burning as a last resort.
Old cannons were mounted at the bridges, cannon that
were probably more dangerous to Rome than to Streight's men. The militia,
untrained as it was, was called together, armed as best they could, and ordered
to man every possible defensive position, and reinforcements were requested to
be sent by the railroad to Kingston.
About 9:00 AM, Captain
Russell of Streight's advance guard approached the town, stopped and took stock
of the city approaches. The Romans didn't know that Russell's men were leading a
brigade that was asleep on its feet, or in their saddles. For four days,
harassed at every turn by Forrest, they had marched and fought, marched and
fought, and they, men and mounts, were completely exhausted.
They had almost given
Forrest the slip on May 1st as they approached Gadsden. They crossed the Black
Creek, just ahead of Forrest, but far enough ahead to torch the only bridge in
the neighborhood. Streight thought he would gain a day and get a chance to rest
and feed, but luck was with Nathan Bedford Forrest. Luck took the form of a 16
year old girl, Emma Sansom, who, in spite of Yankee bullets, climbed up behind
Forrest on his horse, and led him to a cattle ford only she knew about. Within a
few hours the Confederate riders had crossed the river and were back pressing on
Streight's rear guard. Streight marched all that night, fought a battle at
Blount's Plantation, and determined that another night march might save his worn
out brigade. But his luck ran out when, in the blackness of the May 2 night, the
brigade stumbled into an eerie, burn-slashed, charcoal yard of wagon tracks
where even local guides were confused. One company of Yankees was able to
destroy part of the Noble Iron Foundry, but it hardly made up for the time
lost following false lead after false trail. At daybreak they finally found a
bridge over the Chattanooga River, but it was too late. In a magnificent
bluff, Forrest and his 425 men captured the exhausted, 1,500 man Yankee brigade on May 3, 1863.
Forrest had sent couriers who
arrived in Rome about dawn, bringing word that Forrest, the Wizard of the
Saddle, was just behind Streight, and Rome would be saved. That turned the wave
of terror into a grand celebration, which reached fever pitch when Forrest rode
into town escorting the captured Yankee officers.
Parties and celebrations
went on for several days, but by May 5 General Forrest had been called west, the
captured officers and men of the Lightning Mule Brigade had departed toward
their uncertain future, and things began to quiet. A big banquet to honor
Forrest and his men had been planned for the 6th, but the Confederates were gone
by then, Forrest taking with him a gift horse presented by the grateful Romans.
Peace descended once again
on Rome, but it was a temporary lull. Union cavalry would be back a year later,
capturing the town as Sherman made his way toward Atlanta.