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Noel Carpenter's book 'A Slight Demonstration: Decatur, October 1864' with Gen. John Bell Hood on the cover.
Courtesy photo
Noel Carpenter's book "A Slight Demonstration: Decatur, October 1864" with Gen. John Bell Hood on the cover.

Book: No battle for the River City
Author documents 1864 Civil War events in Decatur

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com 340-2469

A new book about Civil War events surrounding Decatur in October 1864 dispels stories of a battle for the River City.

What happened here, however, deserves a more significant place in the war's history, the author writes.

Former Decatur resident Noel Carpenter's book challenges historical markers and tourism literature promoting the 1864 events as a battle.

He argues, however, that Gen. John Bell Hood's blunders in not attacking Decatur delayed the Army of Tennessee's movement to Nashville, and ultimately was part of the Confederacy's downfall.

Carpenter spent 12 years researching and writing the book. He died in November 2000, but his daughter has published "A Slight Demonstration: Decatur, October 1864."

"I remember Daddy talking about the war and his research, but I didn't think much about it," Carol Powell of Texas said.

After her mother died in 2004, Powell found the manuscript and decided to publish the book.

"As soon as I started reading the manuscript, I recognized the quality of the work and wanted it to be shared with other history buffs and scholars," the daughter said.

"This book is great because it really tells what happened in Decatur in 1864," historian Robert Parham said.

He owns Parham's Civil War Relics and Memorabilia on Bank Street and is one of the foremost authorities on Civil War activities in the Tennessee Valley.

One of the debates that lingers in Decatur's history is whether there was an all-out battle for the River City or whether there were small skirmishes and demonstrations.

By using official records that generals on both sides wrote and manuscripts and diaries of soldiers who were in Decatur, Carpenter shows there was no major battle for the city.

"The book is well written, keeps your interest and is easy to read and understand," said Parham, who agrees that there was no battle for Decatur.

After losing Atlanta, argues Carpenter, who grew up in the Carpenter House on Line Street northeast, Hood made battlefield blunders with the Army of Tennessee.

One of them was his hesitancy to attack Decatur.

"The hesitant approach to Decatur was out of character for one of the Confederacy's strongest adherents of offensive tactics," Carpenter wrote.

As noted in the book, if Hood had followed Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard's orders after losing Atlanta, there would be no debate about whether there was a battle for Decatur.

Beauregard concocted a plan to take Nashville by crossing the Tennessee River. At a meeting in Gadsden, he expected the crossing to take place at Guntersville.

"Hood neglected to tell him of his change of direction to Decatur," Carpenter wrote.

Beauregard learned about the change Oct. 24.

"He was astounded, but there was nothing he could do about it except to turn and follow with his small staff of eleven officers and men," Carpenter wrote.

Beauregard next saw Hood on Oct. 27 in Decatur. He accosted Hood, telling him he should have made an "all-out" assault on Decatur.

By then, the Union Army was aware of Hood's presence and had prepared to defend the fort.

"There was never a battle for Decatur and the historical records of the generals who were here support that," Parham said.

While headquartered at Gen. Jesse Winston Garth's home in what is now Southwest Decatur near Danville Road, Beauregard decided Oct. 27 to move farther down stream to cross the river.

On the morning of Oct. 29, 1864, Union Brig. Gen. Robert Granger said, "I became satisfied that the enemy's force were withdrawing."

Union leaders watched from on top of the buildings left standing in Decatur as Hood's army marched toward Courtland.

A.P. Mason, an assistant adjutant general with Hood's army, told Confederate commanders in a letter that Hood wanted them to move to Bainbridge and construct a pontoon bridge across the Tennessee River.

Besides the official records, there is other evidence of no battle for Decatur.

Sgt. William O. Sowell, an Athens doctor who joined the Confederate Army in 1861, was part of an advance guard when Hood's men approached Decatur.

Referring to the 35th Alabama Infantry, he wrote: "We waded (the) Flint River and stood picket beyond it until the pontoon (bridge) could be put down for the rest of the troops to cross over, and then we were thrust forward to skirmish with the Yankees."

On the morning of Oct. 26, 1864, the advance guard met a small band of Union troops about three miles from Decatur near what is now Point Mallard.

Sowell said they drew the Union troops "into an ambush we had formed and could have captured them had not half our guns failed to fire from having been rained on so much after being loaded; but we emptied a good many saddles, and they had about the hardest retreat I ever witnessed."

The Confederate men came close to the Union fort, but Sowell said they were "ordered to lie down and wait further orders."

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