Baptism of Fire at Rowlett’s Station, KentuckyBy Mike Peake
Just after the first week of December 1861, the citizens of Hart County, Kentucky witnessed Union troops of General Don Carlos Buell’s newly organized Army of the Ohio move to occupy the Green River town of Munfordville to face the army of the Confederate Western Department under Albert Sidney Johnston. Within days of the move, elements of the armies clashed in battle on December 17 south of Green River near the whistle stop of Rowlett’s Station. The Union troops engaged were four companies of Colonel August Willich’s 1st German, 32nd Regiment Indiana Volunteer Infantry posted south of the river to guard work parties tasked with repairing the damaged Louisville & Nashville Railroad Bridge spanning the Green River. Rebel sappers had blown down the southern pier along with approximately 100 feet of track over the ninety-foot high expanse.
Confederate Brigadier General Thomas C. Hindman led a force consisting of Texas cavalry supported by Arkansas infantry and Mississippi artillery to destroy the railroad south from Woodsonville, a small village just across the river from Munfordville. Blocking Hindman’s way were two companies of the Indiana Germans. A patrol from Captain Jacob Glass’s Company B engaged Confederate skirmishers a mile forward and on the right of the Union position near Rowletts Station. Quickly advancing the remainder of the company to support his patrol, Glass directed the men to fire a volley at the party of enemy infantry causing them to immediately withdraw. He prudently retreated upon the sudden arrival of large Confederate infantry and cavalry forces. A company of Colonel Benjamin F. Terry’s 8th Texas Cavalry, better known as Terry’s Texas Rangers, responded by wildly charging the Yankee positions with reckless abandon. The ensuing battle wrestled back in forth with each side throwing more men into the fray until the disciplined concentrated fire of the Union formations overwhelmed the charging horsemen.
The Battle of Rowletts Station had spent its fury on those who participated. The Union controlled the field with the casualties of both sides scattered over a wide expanse making recovery and accountability difficult. Compared with the terrible engagements soon to follow in the Western Theater, this "battle," like so many other brief clashes, would quickly become forgotten. Despite the importance of this fight that history now notes as "indecisive," it was rapidly overshadowed by the important Union victories in the region at Mill Springs, Kentucky and Forts Henry and Donelson guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in Western Tennessee. The shocking losses of Shiloh would blot out the casualties of Rowlett’s Station, perhaps even in the minds of those who fought. The cost was high for both adversaries and predicted the losses to come in the later conflicts.
General Buell later reported the Rebels suffered 33 dead and at least 50 wounded. Counted among those dead lay Kentucky-born Colonel Benjamin F. Terry, killed just west of the railroad while leading a charge against the Union right. General Hindman, admitting to the loss of Terry, proclaimed a stunning victory with minimal losses, but resulting in as many as 75 Yankee dead.
Colonel Willich reported his losses as one officer and ten men killed in action, 22 wounded and five missing. A number of the wounded were critical, and there was little hope of their survival. The final tally would prove to be 46 men, including thirteen dead and three captured. A number of those wounded were permanently disabled.
The action itself would become notable as one of the few clashes during the war in which infantry, caught in the open, effectively defended itself against repeated and seemingly overwhelming cavalry assaults. It is certain that had a regiment of less fortitude and discipline been posted on the south side of Green River, the Confederate presence would have been far more devastating to the Union cause on that front. General Buell had ordered the move on Munfordville with much trepidation, even issuing an order of recall at one point to 2nd Division Commander General Alexander McDowell McCook. A defeat at that point would certainly have had negative effects on Buell’s actions in the region.
While still stationed at Munfordville, Kentucky in January 1862, August Bloedner, a private of Company F and a survivor of the action at Rowlett’s Station, acquired a porous block of local outcrop limestone and sculptured a beautiful monument to honor those comrades killed in action while defending the bridge that was placed among the graves situated on a hill in sight of the bridge just to the north of the river and a little east of the L&N Railroad. By December 1862 construction of a lunette at the site would enclose the cemetery within the walls of Fort Willich.
Bloedner must have possessed considerable talent in his craft to have produced such a heartfelt personal monument to his lost comrades. Near the top, carved in relief, he placed an eagle, wings spread full, clutching a brace of cannon. Two stacks of cannonballs were paired below the artillery with unfurled American flags flanking each side. An olive sprig and an oak branch bordered the recess at each end. Just below this frieze the stone was worked to form the tablet on which, in German, he engraved an account of the battle and the names of the dead. The German inscription is translated as:
"Here rest the first martyrs of the Thirty-second, the first German regiment of Indiana. They were fighting nobly in defense of the free Constitution of the United States of America. They fell on the 17th day of December, 1861, in the battle at Rowlett’s Station, in which one regiment of Texas Rangers, two regiments of infantry, and six pieces of rebel artillery, in all over three thousand men, were defeated by five hundred German soldiers."
During the summer of 1867 the monument, along with fourteen sets of remains belonging to the 32nd, was removed from Fort Willich to set astride the border of Sections B and C in the new National Cemetery within the confines of Cave Hill Cemetery at Louisville, Kentucky. The stone now rests on a memorial base with an inscribed commemoration in English that states:
"In memory of the First Victims of the 32. Reg. Indiana Vol. Who fell at the Battle of Rowlettd Station Dec. 17, 1861." Research indicates that this monument is the oldest surviving Civil War monument in the Nation.
Samuel W. Thomas, Cave Hill Cemetery, A Pictorial Guide and Its History, Cave Hill Cemetery Company (Louisville, Kentucky 1985), page 18. The name Adolph Bloettner does not appear on any company rosters or Indiana census records. August Blodner (Bloedner) of Cincinnati who transferred into Co. ‘F’ from Co. ‘I’ Jan. 18, 1862 while the regiment was still at Munfordville has been verified as being the sculptor.
Roll of Honor, Vol. XXVI-XXVII, "General Order #33, 8-13-1868". Records the removal of 21 sets of remains from Ft. Willich for burial at Cave Hill Cemetery, Sec. D, Graves #1 through #12 in June and July 1867.
Thomas B. Van Horne, History of the Army of the Cumberland (1988 Reprint) Broadfoot Publishing. Vol. I, page 66.
War of the Rebellion. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies U. S. War Department, Government Printing Office, Vol. Vol. VII, Chap. XVIL pages 14-21. Includes Confederate Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman’s conflicting report.