1863: Ralph M. Butler to “Loved Ones at Home”

The identity of the Confederate soldier named “Ralph” who penned this letter has not been confirmed. His home appears to have been Shelby county, Tennessee, and it is believed that he was originally a member of the 154th Senior Tennessee Infantry Regiment (1st Tennessee Infantry), Capt. J. H. Edmondson’s company. A notation in his muster records indicate that early in 1862, Co. B became a company of sharpshooters in Gen. Preston Smith’s Brigade, and then on 25 February 1863, it was assigned as a part of Co. F, 11th Tennessee Cavalry.

I could not find an image of Ralph but here is one of Pvt. Whitmell Ransom of the 11th Tennessee Cavalry

“Ralph” was not a particularly common name at the time and there was only one by that name in his company—Ralph M. Butler. Ralph was 21 years old when he enlisted for duty in May 1861. Family records are scarce but one indicates he died in 1863. However, I found a Ralph M. Butler in the Memphis City Directory in 1866 and 1867 who was employed as a bookkeeper and later as a salesman for the William Jack China Company. I’m inclined to believe he is the author as his handwriting was actually quite good—suitable for a bookkeeper. Additionally, Ralph’s service record indicates that he was detailed for a time as a hospital steward in 1862 and in the following letter, he states that he had been left behind to care for the wounded. He also mentions having received a letter from “Addie” who was probably his sister (see footnote).

Ralph’s father was Elias C. Butler who married Mary Turley in Davidson county, Tennessee, in 1838. By 1860, Elias has relocated from Tennessee to Batesville, Arkansas, where he was a merchant. Ralph was enumerated there in his father’s household at that time.

The following letter describes Streight’s Raid in Northern Alabama. A summary of that raid, entitled Spring 1863: Forrest Halts Yankee Raiders, was published by the University of Alabama in 2013 which reads:

Map showing the route of Colonel Abel Streight as he made his way towards Rome, Georgia

The spring of 1863 brought Yankees into Alabama once again, but this time, rather than occupying towns, the federal troops were bent on raiding the state and destroying Confederate supply lines. Union troops, led by Gen. Abel D. Streight, began their journey in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in April, where they separated from Gen. William Rosecrans’s army. From there, Streight and his men headed along the Tennessee River toward Alabama. They aimed to cut through northern Alabama on the way to Rome, Georgia, and there blow up the railroads that carried Confederate supplies to Chattanooga.

Unfortunately for the Union army, the expedition was a disaster from the beginning. Streight’s soldiers, who were trained as infantrymen, were given mules to carry them over the mountains of North Alabama. At first, using mules seemed a fine substitute for the lack of horses, but the animals–true to their reputation–did not cooperate and slowed progress. The raiders soon became known as the “Jackass Cavalry.” If temperamental mules did not cause enough difficulties, Streight’s men also had to deal with Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, perhaps the best cavalry commander of the Confederacy, who was already famous for his brilliant fighting in North Alabama and the Tennessee Valley. From the beginning, the Union army’s plan had been to deceive the Confederates into thinking that Streight’s raid was part of a larger raid on the Tennessee Valley. Initially, the federals were successful in their trick, and Forrest headed to Tuscumbia, where Union troops under the command of G. M. Dodge had invaded on April 24. Quickly, however, Forrest figured out that the fighting in Tuscumbia was nothing more than a decoy, and he set off across Alabama in pursuit of Streight. 

On the last day of April, Forrest and his 600 cavalrymen tangled with Streight’s 1,500 soldiers on Sand Mountain. Over the next few days, the Confederates chased Streight’s raiders through the northern part of the state. The Yankee soldiers destroyed Confederate property and captured Gadsden, Alabama, but they were eventually defeated before they reached their destination of Rome, Georgia. On the morning of May 3, 1863, Forrest and his men caught up with the exhausted Union soldiers near the Alabama-Georgia border. Although Forrest arrived with forces only half the size of Streight’s, the Confederate general believed he could trick his foe into surrendering. Knowing that Streight would only be able to glimpse the Confederates through the trees, Forrest ordered his artillery section to march in a circle. To the Yankee commander, it appeared that Forrest’s forces were much larger than they were. Forrest demanded unconditional surrender and insisted that he had “enough [men] to whip you out of your boots.” With that, Streight surrendered his men near Lawrence, Alabama. He and his men were taken to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, and Streight remained there until he escaped in February of 1864. Meanwhile, Forrest was lauded throughout Alabama and other portions of the Deep South for protecting Confederate supply lines from destruction.

Readers are also referred to a newspaper account of Forrest’s “Exploit in Georgia” published in the Daily Dispatch on 13 May 1863, and an article entitled Streight’s Raid by Keith S. Hebert of the University of West Georgia.

[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Cody Cummings and was transcribed and published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]


Danville, Alabama
May 23, 1863

“Loved Ones at Home”

I wrote you a letter on the 1st of April at Spring Hill, Tennessee, which I sent by hand to within a short distance of Memphis to be forwarded the first opportunity. I again have the same opportunity of sending you a few lines by a friend who will endeavor to reach the home of his father who lives near Horn Lake. His name is Mr. Morrison. You can write me a letter immediately (and I want a long one) and send it out to his house and it will reach me by the same means that I send this.

“As we are an erratic set in the erratic branch of the service & under an erratic General (Maj. Gen. Forrest), you may not be surprised to hear of us being any and everywhere at once…”

— Ralph M. Butler, 11th Tennessee Cavalry, May 1863

You may be somewhat surprised to hear from me at this point, but as we are an erratic set in the erratic branch of the service & under an erratic General (Maj. Gen. Forrest), you may not be surprised to hear of us being any and everywhere at once as our means of locomotion is very good. I set forth in my last letter everything concerning our transfer from infantry to cavalry.

We have been stationed on the extreme left of Bragg’s Army which rests at Columbia for past several months, ever since the battle of Murfreesboro. We were ordered down into North Alabama by Bragg on the 1st of May to hold in check an advancing column of the enemy under General Dodge five thousand strong. We met him with our Brigade—numbers about two thousand—and repulsed them and drove them back to the Tennessee river; in the interim a brigade of the Yankee cavalry under Col. [Abel Delos] Streight was making a flank movement going around us & over the mountains of North Alabama & evidently making for the “interior” of the Confederacy. We started in pursuit of them, they having nearly 100 miles the start, on the 5th day of the chase, we came up with & engaged them at Day’s Gap of Sand Mountain in North Alabama. 1 We had a brisk fight of about two hours & the enemy again retreated, we following in close pursuit & kept up the race for several days, skirmishing hourly with them, until they entered Georgia & reached within twenty miles of Rome.

Finally we overtook them & General Forrest demanded an unconditional surrender which they finally agreed to in surrendering 300 to less than 450—our boys having to fall out all along the way on account of their horses being tired out. Their mission, they confessed, was to penetrate to the heart of our country, destroy the vast amount of stores at Rome, Atlanta, & Chattanooga. Forrest is the acknowledged “Cavalry Lion” of the service & has just been promoted. Capt. Forrest was seriously wounded—also two others of our company, and I was left here with them. The command has gone back to our old place Columbia, Tennessee, where in the future you will address your letters until further orders.

I am in excellent health & believe the cavalry service is much more healthy that infantry and I am sure it is by far the safest. An average cavalry fight would be considered nothing more than a skirmish in infantry, but the cavalry are always fighting and in the saddle on “scouts.” The service is much harder than infantry and the duties more numerous.

Have you heard anything from brother recently? I received a letter from Addie 2 & U____ dated 2nd March. Have heard nothing since.

I have not heard from Jas. McCrea for some time. The last I heard was he was still with Maj. Young [?] in Alabama. “Wash” was with them & well.

Heard anything from the servants? Did they leave voluntarily and when?

I would like to fill up the balance of the paper with something but do not know what to write about & the person by whom I send this is urging me to hurry so I close by sending my love to you all & with the request that you all write me by my friend as here before directed. Write every opportunity. — Ralph

Address your letters care of Col. [ ] Edmondson, General Forrest’s Division, Columbia, Tennessee

1 The Battle of Day’s Gap took place in Cullman County near Sand Mountain. During this fight, Streight’s men thwarted Forrest’s attempt to surround him from the rear with a series of charges led by the 73rd Illinois and 51st Indiana. Undeterred, a few hours later Forrest resumed the attack upon Streight, whose men dismounted and occupied a ridge along Hog Mountain in preparation for what they incorrectly believed was a larger force. Again Streight’s men repulsed several assaults and then resumed the march at an accelerated pace.”

2 Ralph Butler had a sister named Margaret Adelaide (“Addie”) Butler (1839-1913) who married Samuel Jack (1835-1926). The couple were married in 1864 and lived in Memphis after the war.

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