Robert Turner-The only Confederate soldier killed in Gadsden

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The Vagabond ran across some papers earlier this week that Hazel Oliver wrote years ago for the Etowah Historical Society. The papers were about Robert Turner, who was killed in action at the Black Creek incident. Tur-ner is buried along with Emma Sansom’s father and daughter and a black family member.

For many years up until recently, it was unsure of which Robert Turner was buried at the location. We now have identified him as the Robert P. Turner that served with Company A, 4 (McLemore) Tennessee Calvary. 

Hazel Oliver writes: 

“April had been cool, and the last three days of the month rain had fallen steadily. Every small branch was running full, and Black Creek roared down from Lookout Mountain to fill its deep channel from bank to bank from where it left the mountain gorge to where it found its way into the Coosa [River] several miles away.

“General Braxton Bragg, though he had not been beaten from the field of Stone’s River, still could not say that the tide of battle had been in his favor. Both he and [U.S. General William] Rosecrans had been at a standstill since the first of the year. 

“Bragg still covered the way to Chattanooga, which natural stronghold Rosecrans felt he must have and well the Yankee general knew how vital to his interests was the destruction or capture of the two railroad lines that led from that place- – one northeast to Knoxville and the other, more importantly, by way of Dalton and Rome to Atlanta. To be able to cut the latter line at Rome would cripple the Confederate mainline of supply and likely cause Bragg to withdraw from southern Tennessee. 

“Among Rosecran’s su-bordinates was a man of uncommon courage and activity, Col. A.D. Streight of Indiana. It was Col. Streight who brought to the attention of Brigadier. General James A. Garfield (later President of the United States) a plan that they all felt sure could not fail. This plan was that with a picked body of men, Streight would circle down into Alabama, crossing rugged Sand Mountain by way of the little village of Gadsden to Rome, Ga., to cut the railroad which was Bragg’s supply line and to capture vast stores of food, medicine and ammunition which the Confederates had stored.

“Only men of pluck and endurance were to be selected for the undertaking, for Streight realized the possible hazards he was to run as he led his men into enemy territory. In Nashville, Streight outfitted his forces of about 2,000 officers and men, with the best to be bought in needed clothing, guns and other equipment. 

“Weeks were spent in preparation. They bought hundreds of mules to add to their mounts, being told that these animals were better suited to the rocky terrain over which they would pass when they reached the mountainous country.

“This, history teaches us, proved to be a mistake. 

“Besides his own command, Col. Streight selected two companies which were called their Alabama Cavalry – men who had objected to secession and the Confederacy – some of them from that very moun-tainous section they must cross and therefore thought to be of value to the undertaking.

“Under the protection of gunboats down the Cumberland River from Nashville, by boat into the Ohio and then into the Tennessee and down this river to a point on the Alabama-Mississippi line, there to disembark and proceed on the planned route to Rome.

“At Springhill on April 23, Forrest had received orders to make a forced march to Decatur, as word of the Federal raid had reached the very people whom Streight had hoped to evade. So it came about as Streight filed out of Moulton, 16 miles away to the north at the head of a determined lot of fighters Forrest was bearing down upon him.

“When Streight, in the darkness of night of April, rode out of Moulton and at the same hour Forrest’s cavalcade rode out of Courtland in the cold drizzle of rain that was making the roads more and more difficult, ‘there began a race and running fight between two bodies of cavalry which, in the brilliant tactics of retreat and stubbornness of defense on one side, and the desperate bravery of the attack and the relentlessness in pursuit upon the other had no analogue in military history.’

“Of Forrest and his men, Lord Walsely would one day write, ‘They were reckless men, who looked to him as master, their leader, and over whom he had obtained the most complete control. He possessed that rare tact- – unlearnable from books – which enabled him, not only effectively to control these fiery, turbulent spirits, but to attach them to him personally with hooks of steel.’

“From their maps, both leaders knew where they would cross Black Creek and note had been made of its steep banks and muddy bottom, and of the one bridge that spanned its usually sluggish flow. Forrest’s advance guard had skirmished with the raiders at Will’s Creek. Here, Sand Mountain was behind them and Lookout [Mountain] rose steeply to their left as they approached its southern point. 

“It is not the purpose of this story to tell of those nearly four days of running fights across Sand Mountain but to set down here so that all who are interested may read and know that among Forrest’s men was one Robert Turner, who died from enemy fire at the now famous crossing of Black Creek in Gadsden. That Streight did not reach his objective at Rome is now a part of our southern history, as is the part played by our own he-roine, Emma Sansom.

“There is little to be known about Robert Turner. Forrest said of him, ‘He was one of my best men,’ and this brief statement from his commander must ever remain all that we know of him as a soldier. But we do know where he was buried, and that now, thanks to the students of a school named in honor of Emma Sansom, there is a marker to tell where he fell.

“To Mary Blair, 11 years old at the time, we are indebted for most of the story of Robert Turner’s burial and for the certain knowledge that he lies close to the grave of Micajah Sansom in a plot which was once a part of the old Sansom farm and now a part of Gadsden. Here where the wide valley lay green in summer, glorious hued in autumn, gray and brown in winter, always quiet and peaceful amid the encompassing mountains. “The coming of Streight, his pursuit and capture by Forrest would long be the chief topic of conversation, and future years would find the tale still told over and over again of that eventful morning when fields and woodland and swamps, plowed earth and fragrant fruit trees lay warm in the May sun.

“Sunset of this day saw a new grave in the Sansom burial plot. The Blair blacks, who were skilled in this work, had made the coffin and placed upon the body of Robert Turner the linen underwear that had belonged to Mr. Blair and cleaned as best they could the blood-stained uniform.

“The Clayton family, whose descendants still live in Gadsden, assisted in the preparation and in the burial. The body was laid for a few hours in the sitting room of the Sansom home and was carried from there down the Tuscaloosa Road to the little graveyard which was in sight of the house.

“Mary Blair remembered that a Mr. Hughes from the village of Gadsden rode his horse across the ford where Forrest had crossed and attended the burial. Mary Blair could not remember the given name of Mr. Hughes, so we do not know just which one he was. We are fortunate to have this much information about Robert Turner, but regret that we do not have more.” 

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