Most of the Civil War battles occurred outside of present day DeKalb County. Although there were no major battles in this county during the Civil War, there were a number of skirmishes, or small battles. Unfortunately, however, there are few written accounts of these encounters between detachments of Union and Confederate troops. And most of these versions are based upon tales which were passed along by word of mouth for many years, becoming colorful legends which perhaps reflected to some extent the sentiments of the south.
During the centennial of this war, in 1961, J. A. (Jim) Johnson, of Fort Payne wrote an article for the Times Journal entitled “Two Civil War Scrapes in DeKalb” about stories which had been told to him by Henry Small, of Copeland’s Bridge, and a Mr. Lively of Fort Payne. Most of these accounts are probably fairly accurate, except for the part about a Captain May. Based upon the facts, as presented in Johnson’s article, the two following stories describe two local war skirmishes.
Late in 1863, a group of Union soldiers was foraging for food and supplies in DeKalb County and causing fear and alarm about the countryside. A detachment of General Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, sent to engage them, stopped at Copeland’s Bridge to eat some lunch at the Small house, located on a hill near Wills Creek. They were unaware that the Federal troops they were looking for were camped at the springs by the old Copeland Bridge Church and had seen them pass by.
The Union troops led their horses slowly through the woods north of the house, intending to capture their pursuers. However, a young boy who was squirrel hunting spotted the blue uniforms and ran to the opposite side of the Small home to notify the Confederates that Yankees were coming. The southern soldiers scurried around hiding their horses and grabbing their guns in preparation for the enemy. When they emerged from the trees, guns in hand, they were greeted with gunfire and several fell to the ground wounded. The others carried their wounded comrades and retreated to their horses, riding awway as fast as their mounts would go.
The other skirmish occurred in 1864, when a detachment of Union soldiers under a Captain May were camped at the springs south of Fort Payne, where the water works were later located. With their unsaddled horses tied to nearby trees, they were seated around a campfire eating when a Confederate scouting party, investigating the source of smoke, sighted them. With a Rebel yell, the southerners charged in swift attack, scattering the startled enemy forces in different directions. Left behind were the wounded, the horses, and part of the arms –– in addition to the hot food. Some Federal soldiers made their way northward through the valley and some crossed Lookout Mountain. It was Lively’s understanding that two of them, Captain May and another, had hidden out in what was then known as Little River Gulf until the end of the war.
It was the son of one of the Confederate soldiers who told Johnson about this second skirmish. According to Lively, his father had explained why his group did not pursue the Union men as they fled on foot to hide in the timbers of Lookout Mountain. The Rebels were simply too hungry, he said, to leave the food the Yankees had cooked.
One of the most memorable battles close to DeKalb County was between the Union forces of Colonel Abel D. Streight and the Confederate forces under General Bedford Forrest. This battle was close to DeKalb County in Cedar Bluff, Alabama. Col. Streight was tasked to cross the state of Alabama and cut the Western and Atlantic Railroad in north Georgia between Atlanta and Chattanooga. It was decided that the men should be mounted due to the distance to be traveled. It was also decided that mules could best handle the rough terrain in north Alabama, leading to Col. Streight’s “Mule Brigade’. They crossed Sand Mountain at Day’s Gap, continued through Blountsville, Gadsden and Gaylesville to Rome, Georgia. Col. Streight was harried the entire way by Gen. Forrest’s forces.
The Union forces were close to escaping Gen. Forrest on May 1st as they approached Gadsden. Gen. Forrest luckily had the help of a local teenage girl, Emma Sansom, who, braving enemy bullets, climbed behind Gen. Forrest on his horse and led the Confederate forces to a cattle ford across Black Creek that only she knew about. She became a Confederate legend whose statue still stands in Gadsden, Alabama.
Streight marched his men all night and fought a battle at Blount's Plantation. One company of his troops destroyed part of the Noble Iron Foundry and at daybreak, finally found a bridge across the Chattooga River. Here Streight’s luck ran out and General Forrest, using a magnificent bluff, captured Streight’s Union forces of almost 1,700 men with a force of only 500 Confederate soldiers on May 3, 1863 outside Cedar Bluff, Alabama.