By John P. Rankin, Madison historian
MADISON – There were only two battles of any size fought in Madison County during the Civil War. They were both fought in and around the town of Madison, about seven months apart. Madison’s location along the railroad halfway between Huntsville and Decatur was one of the primary reasons for its strategic importance at the time. The outcomes of both local Civil War engagements were affected by weather extremes.
Artillery and rifles were the weapons of the day for the conflict that occurred on May 17, 1864, in a driving rain that obscured vision and minimized likelihood of audible detection of forces approaching for the surprise attack. The engagement began shortly after dawn with Confederate fire upon the occupying Union forces around the railroad depot in Madison.
The Confederate attack began after the Southern troops had crossed the river at Triana during the night, taken out the Union sentries, and surrounded the town on all sides. The Rebels also had brought along four small cannons or howitzers, but some reports indicate that one of the big guns was not usable.
The alarm was reportedly first sounded for the Union troops in the town when one of their foraging parties encountered Confederates north of the historic district around 8 a.m. However, the town was already surrounded, so the Union troops fought from behind bales of cotton piled around the train depot and from a small barricaded “fortress” in one of shops on the south side of Main Street.
After receiving incoming cannon fire at the depot loading dock, the Union commander realized that their position was untenable, so they focused a counterattack along the railroad to break out toward Huntsville, where the main Union forces were quartered. The engagement continued eastward along the tracks to the Indian Creek railroad bridge. The stone support columns are still in place just beyond the southeastern corner of today’s Madison Academy campus.
The modern rails do not actually rest upon the old stone columns now. It was at the eastern end of this bridge that the Union troops regrouped and held their position across the creek until later in the day when reinforcements arrived by train from Huntsville. Meanwhile, before retreating the Rebel force set fire to the depot and to the cotton bales that the Union had confiscated.
By the time the Union counterattack from the railroad bridge at Indian Creek commenced, the Rebel troops had looted the tents, armaments, and other supplies that the escaping Union forces had hastily abandoned in the town. Before the end of the day, the Confederates had gone back across the river at Triana with some captives and their plunder. A Confederate history report written in 1890 at one point stated that 80 Union prisoners were taken. In another place the number was given as 130 prisoners, while stating that the Federal Garrison numbered 400 men. Patterson was stated as losing only 7 killed and wounded.
The many accounts of the “affair” include numerous variations of the details, as written by defensive Union commanders and later by sparse Confederate memories. However, all agree that it was raining so hard that the combatants could barely see their opposition.
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