THE STORY OF TOM FORD AND BILL DENSON IN THE
27th ALABAMA INFANTRY REGIMENT AND
12TH ALABAMA CAVALRY REGIMENT
Robert W. Ford
While researching my Ford genealogy and history, I discovered that several family members fought for both the North and South during the Civil War. An earlier version of these stories were published in my 1994 book, Dr. John Perley Ford (1794-1869) His life and Times, Ancestors, Descendants and Allied Families 1635-1994. This is one of those stories. Others are elsewhere on this web site.
I am indebted to Nancy Anwyll, Secretary of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table for her encouragement and review of this story. She made numerous constructive editorial suggestions that improved its flow and her knowledge of the war was invaluable. All of our families have interesting stories to tell, if we knew just where to look for them.
The Civil War
This is the story of the Civil War service of two brothers-in-law, Thomas Cellers Ford and William C. Denson. Bill married Tom's sister in Paulding County, Georgia in 1848. Later he moved to Alabama, settling in Morgan County. In early 1860, when he was 20 years old, Tom Ford left his home in Georgia to live with his older sister and her husband in Alabama. There Tom met a young woman, fell in love, and married on August 1, 1860. One year later events changed the lives of Tom and William forever.
Alabama seceded from the Union in early 1861, and the State lost no time in raising troops. Before the war ended in 1865, 21 year-old Tom and a 41 year-old Bill joined the Confederate Army twice. They first served in an Alabama infantry regiment; and then after its capture, they joined an Alabama cavalry regiment.
In 1918 Tom’s nephew, Archie Ford, wrote a letter relating the family’s history. He generally was correct in what he wrote, but he got some facts confused. Here is some of what Archie wrote:
“Uncle Tom had gone to Morgan County, Ala. with his brother-in-law Denson, married Martha McKee on his 22nd birthday August 1, 1860. John, Uncle Tom's oldest child, was born May 5, 1861. Uncle Tom joined Wheelers Calvary and was a scout and courier under Forest thru the war.”
As history shows, Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry did not serve under Joseph Wheeler and his cavalry command. Wheeler served under Forrest for a while after the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and before he received his own cavalry command in November 1862.
Tom and Bill escaped capture in February 1862 with the 27th Alabama Infantry Regiment at Fort Donelson by riding out double with Forrest's command. Bill in early 1863, and then Tom in early 1864, joined the 12th Alabama Cavalry Regiment after Wheeler received his own cavalry command. But…back to our story.
In July of 1861 Tom Ford and Bill Denson joined Company H of Foster’s Regiment of Alabama Volunteers. Captain R. M. Humphrey of Morgan County commanded the company. Local pride prompted most men on both sides of the war to enlist in units representing their communities. Tom and Bill enlisted in Florence, Morgan County, Alabama. Tom gave his residence as Henry County, Georgia, and Bill gave Morgan County, Alabama as his residence.
Other than formations and marching, the men received little by way of combat training. Equipment was in short supply. Some of the men had only their personal shotguns or squirrel guns as weapons. The pay was very small; privates were paid $11.00 per month. On December 24, 1861, Bill Denson was elected 2nd Lieutenant, and his pay increased to $80 a month.
After four months in a camp of instruction, Foster’s Regiment was sent to Florence, Alabama in December, where they were put on a boat and shipped north down the Tennessee River to Fort Henry, Kentucky. This fort was located twelve miles west of Fort Donelson, which was located on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. Paducah, Kentucky was located to the northwest about 20 miles and had been taken by Confederate forces in October.
On December 26 companies of the 27th Alabama Regiment arrived at Fort Henry. A short time later the regiment was moved to a new fort being constructed across the Tennessee River. This new fort was called Fort Heiman that was named for the brigade commander. The men of the regiment soon were put to work constructing Fort Heiman. It was February before the Regiment saw any serious fighting.
Earlier, the regiment had been re-organized from Foster’s Regiment of Alabama Volunteers into the Confederate States of America service as the 27th Alabama Infantry Regiment under the command of former state legislator, Colonel A. A. Hughes. General Lloyd Tilgham commanded both Fort Henry and Fort Donelson.
Many of the 27th Alabama became ill while stationed at Fort Heiman. About 200 of the sick men went to the hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, but the names have not been found. In “Tattered Volunteers,” the history of the 27th Alabama, author Harry Barnard wrote:
“The area in which the regiment encamped was on the slopes of a hillside near the river. The discipline in the unit was lax. The weather was harsh; rain, sleet, and snow muddied the ground. Sicknesses began disabling men. An epidemic of measles struck, and morale declined as food and other supplies became harder to get. The unfinished fort, at this time, had a total of around 1,100 men.”
Fort Heiman was not finished before Union forces moved to engage them in battle. Union General Ulysses S. Grant moved his forces up (south) the Tennessee River by boat from Cairo, Illinois. Grant had 15,000 troops, seven gunboats, and 50 cannons, while the Confederates had only 3,200 men at Fort Henry with 11 cannons. During the night of February 4, 1862, Fort Heiman was evacuated; and by the next morning, the 27th Alabama Regiment had crossed the Tennessee River and had marched to Fort Henry.
Heavy and continuous bombardment by the Union gunboats began the morning of February 6. During the ensuing battle, General Tilgham was captured when Fort Henry was evacuated. The regiment with Colonel Heiman's Brigade escaped east to Fort Donelson twelve miles away in Tennessee on the Cumberland River. In their haste to leave, they left their artillery, their blankets, baggage, and much of their clothing. They did not want anything to slow them down.
Grant began rushing his forces to Fort Donelson, which sat on uneven terrain on a bluff 100 feet above the Cumberland River. Grant unloaded his infantry and marched them to the south of the fort. He placed his gunboats to the northeast of the fort where naval artillery was able to bombard the Confederate fort. The battle for Fort Donelson began February 13, 1862 with an assault on the trenches. The 27th Alabama Regiment was in the middle of the Confederate defensive line. Union infantry supported by artillery made two assaults against the 27th Alabama. After two hours the Federals were repulsed.
Heavy Confederate and Union fire set dry leaves aflame. Many wounded Union soldiers were burned alive. In all, the Alabama men were in the trenches for four cold days and freezing nights. They did some serious fighting from these trenches for three days. They received no regular rations and had only one skimpy hot meal a day. Feet and hands became frost bitten. The men were exhausted, and some slept standing in place.
After three hard days of fighting, surrender was the only option left to Fort Donelson. This is where Grant became known as “Unconditional Surrender Grant,” and the fort’s surrender was set for Saturday, February 15, 1862.
Once it was learned the fort would be surrendered, many of its defenders began to leave. Some left individually, and a few complete units escaped to the southeast. Some of the infantry soldiers rode double with the cavalrymen of Colonel (later General) Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Colonel Forrest was a very determined man, and he resolved that he and his men would not be captured. Forrest planned and executed a breakout along the road south from the fort under the cover of darkness the night before the surrender. He saved his entire unit and led them to Nashville. Most of his men rode double when they left taking infantry soldiers with them. Two of Forrest’s regiments were made up of Georgia men with whom Tom could have made arrangements to share their horses, thus letting Tom and Bill ride out with Forrest's unit.
Of the 700 or so men in the 27th Alabama Infantry Regiment, about 350 men of the regiment were captured at the battle of Fort Donelson. Of the remaining number about 200 were in the hospital at Nashville, Tennessee, and a large part of the regiment had been returned earlier to Florence because of a measles epidemic.
It is not known how many rode out with Forrest or who they were, but Tom and Bill were apparently among them. That was the basis for the statement in the 1918 letter by Archie Ford referred to above because no other information or family tradition says differently. The names of all captured Confederate prisoners are known. Lieutenant William C. Denson and Private Thomas C. Ford are not among them.
The men of the 27th Alabama who escaped from Fort Donelson went from Nashville to Corinth, Mississippi. They and the men from the Nashville hospital were assigned to the 33rd Mississippi Infantry Regiment until the regiment was reorganized in the fall after the captured men from the 27th Alabama were paroled and returned. The 33rd Mississippi Regiment was sent to Port Hudson, Louisiana.
The captured enlisted men had expected to be paroled immediately, but Grant disappointed them. Most of those captured were eventually exchanged and paroled after seven months, but first they were sent north as prisoners-of-war. Until they were exchanged, field grade officers were sent to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, and company grade officers were sent to Johnson's Island in Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio.
The captured enlisted men were started down the Cumberland River onboard the boat “White Cloud” and were sent to Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, February 23, 1862, where they stayed until exchanged in August 1862. A few agreed not to serve the Confederacy and were released. About 50 died in camp.
Those captives that remained left Camp Douglas aboard a train September 2 and arrived in Cairo, Illinois. They then sailed down the Mississippi River arriving in Memphis, Tennessee, September 10. Their river journey then took them to Vicksburg, where they went to Jackson, Mississippi. In October of 1862 they landed at Port Hudson, Louisiana.
The 27th Alabama Regiment was reorganized under the Confederate Conscript Act. The original field grade officers were re-elected, but most of the company grade officers were new because the original ones had died in prison or escaped to join other units.
Tom Ford rejoined the regiment but was discharged at Port Hudson, Louisiana, due to illness. Tom had contracted typhoid fever. Tom's Certificate of Disability for Discharge dated November 28, 1862, says he was 23 years of age, five feet six inches tall, had light complexion, dark eyes, and dark hair. He went home to his family in Alabama.
Nothing additional is known about Bill Denson until 1863. He may have gone home to be with his family until he enlisted as a private in Wheeler's Cavalry, February 28, 1863, when he is shown on the company muster rolls.
While Tom was at home recuperating from his sickness, his third son was born. He remained at home until General William T. Sherman invaded north Georgia in the spring of 1864. When that happened, Tom volunteered a second time on May 1, 1864, to fight Sherman's invasion. He joined Bill Denson in Company G, 12th Alabama Cavalry. This unit was with General Wheeler's Cavalry division, Army of Tennessee, not General Forrest's Cavalry as written in Archie Ford's letter of 1918.
Tom Ford and Bill Denson spent the rest of the war fighting General Sherman's forces. Tom was a scout and courier. Bill Denson was a private horse soldier. Wheeler’s Cavalry skirmished with Sherman’s troops at Cass Station and Cassville, May 24, 1864. While they fought at New Hope Church on May 25, we have no evidence Tom had time to stop and visit his father and brother who lived only 12 miles away.
The days of thundering horsemen charging into battle swinging their sabers were gone. Instead Wheeler raided Sherman’s rear guard, took supplies, and destroyed Federal wagon trains for the next month as Sherman moved relentlessly toward Atlanta. Wheeler's cavalry harassed Union forces on May 27 at the battle of Pickett's Mill and the next day at the Battle of Dallas.
Union Cavalry in the Atlanta Campaign did the less glorious but necessary tasks of providing reconnaissance and wagon train security for their armies. Both Army commanders also used their troopers for quick raids to the enemy’s rear areas to disrupt the flow of vital supplies. The cavalry’s chief asset was speed.
The battle of Atlanta started July 22, 1864 and ended when the Confederates under General John Bell Hood evacuated Atlanta on September 2. From August 10 to September 9 Wheeler’s Cavalry raided Union forces in North Georgia and East Tennessee.
The family has a very interesting tradition about the service of Thomas Cellers Ford during this period. Two great grandchildren of Tom remember a grandson to Thomas Cellers Ford telling them the story of how Tom’s unit captured the son of a former governor of Illinois, Joseph Ford, who Tom thought was the brother of his father, Perley Ford.
At this stage of the war, the Confederate cavalry had no way to take care of prisoners or transport them to prisoner-of-war camps, so they had to kill them instead. Tom helped his cousin to escape because he thought the captured man was kin, and because the Confederates were killing prisoners.
Archie’s 1918 letter also had something to say about this event:
“Joseph went west and was Governor of Illinois during the Mormon Riots. Uncle Tom captured one of his boys during the war.”
There is no question that Thomas Ford captured a Union soldier whom he believed was related to him and helped him to escape. However, Perley Ford’s brother, Joseph, went to Illinois from Madison County, New York for only a short time before settling in Minnesota and founding the town of Mazeppa, in May 1855. He was never governor of either state.
Devillo Ford, the youngest son of Joseph Ford, did serve in the 3rd Minnesota Infantry Regiment that was captured by General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry. The entire regiment was captured at Murfreesboro, Tennessee on July 13, 1862, but Devillo had died in a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee two months earlier on May 1, 1862. He could not have been the one captured by Tom's cavalry unit in northern Georgia in 1864.
It is possible that another son of Joseph Ford, Jr., Lieutenant Orville Ford, may have served in the captured Minnesota regiment, but no proof has been found nor has a record of his service been found prior to his re-enlistment as a sergeant in 1864. If Lieutenant Ford was the one captured, Tom most likely would have discovered that he was from Minnesota, not Illinois, and that his father was not a governor.
The Illinois governor was Thomas Ford of the Maryland Fords. He was born in Ironton, Pennsylvania in 1805 and died in 1850. He was an attorney who was elected in 1842, the first Democrat governor of Illinois. He was a progressive governor who installed the first statewide tax to build roads and a statewide school system.
Governor Ford became a pathetic figure in Illinois history. When citizens of Carthage, Illinois attacked the Mormons and killed their leader, Joseph Smith, Governor Ford called out the state militia to defend the Mormons. His actions were so unpopular that he was defeated for re-election in 1846.
He was unable to make a living as a lawyer after he lost his re-election. Even though he wrote the first definitive history of the State of Illinois, he had to depend on the charity of others until he died in 1850. His wife died soon thereafter, leaving five orphans, two boys and three girls.
Governor Ford’s two sons fought for the Union. They were Thomas and Sevelle Ford, who was also known as Charles. He lost an arm during the war. A Charles Ford from Illinois was captured in December 1864 by Confederate elements of Wheeler's cavalry fighting General Sherman's “March to the Sea.” However, the unnamed Union soldier who did escape reported his Confederate captors killed Charles Ford. Three Union men were captured together. When the Confederates began shooting them, one survived by jumping into a creek and escaped with a wound in the arm. He lived to tell the tale, but he said Charles Ford was one of those killed. This story is in the Official Records of the Civil War. I like to think that Charles lied about his being killed and went to Kansas to escape the war. Unable to find work, he apparently became the leader of an outlaw band.
Both Thomas and Charles went to Kansas. "One Arm" Charles was a bartender and an outlaw chieftain whose gang raided in both Okalahoma and Kansas stealing cattle. Kansas Regulators hanged both Thomas and Charles Ford, sons of the Governor of Illinois, as outlaws in Kansas in 1872, according to newspapers accounts at the time. Tom was riding in a buggy with a gang member when the Regulators, who hung them both, caught him.
“One Arm” Charley Ford was put on trial for stealing cattle, but won an acquittal because of a good attorney and the lack of witnesses. Despite his acquittal, the Regulators took him from the bar where he was bartending after his trial and strung him up.
In 1912 a sister made an investigation of what happened to her brothers. She printed an account in a historical\genealogy magazine in Illinois in which she said Thomas and Charles Ford were not outlaws and were hung by regulators by mistake. Since Thomas Ford and “One Arm” Charley Ford were hung at different times, and there was proof of cattle stealing in Oklahoma and Kansas according to the newspapers, the 1912 article by the sister is misleading. However, it understandable that the daughter of a former governor wanted to put the best face on the story of what happened to her brothers.
There is no doubt that Thomas Cellers Ford captured someone who he thought was the son of the governor of Illinois and the son of the brother of his father. There is no doubt that Tom told his family he helped the Union soldier escape, because the Confederates were taking no prisoners at that point in the war in Georgia. Nothing has been found in Union or Confederate records to disprove this claim. The family tradition seems to be based in fact.
After Sherman's army burned Atlanta, it began its “March to the Sea” where the army cut, burned and destroyed a one hundred-mile-wide-swath from Atlanta to Savannah. Sherman then led his army north to Columbia, South Carolina, and then to Goldsboro and Raleigh in North Carolina. All through Sherman's advance, Wheeler harassed and raided Sherman from Atlanta through North Carolina.
Sherman had given orders to his cavalry commander, General Hugh Judson “Kill Cavalry” Kilpatrick to keep Wheeler off his wagon trains, but not to bring on a general engagement with Confederates. Wheeler decided to set a trap for Kilpatrick near Aiken, South Carolina on February 11, 1865.
Wheeler hid most of his troops in and around the town, and then he attacked Kilpatrick’s cavalry and the 14th Infantry Corp. Wheeler withdrew toward Aiken, drawing in the Union forces. Wheeler had put his three Alabama cavalry regiments (1st, 3rd, 12th) to the south of the town to “close the door” once Kilpatrick was within the trap. All were instructed not to fire a shot until Wheeler gave the signal. However, an unknown member of one of the Alabama units fired a shot before all of Kilpatrick’s men and the 14th Corp were within the trap.
Wheeler then led his men in a charge once the premature alarm was given. In the ensuing battle the Union forces were unable to rally when their lines were broken. Confederate losses were fifty killed or wounded. Union losses were several hundred, including two staff officers of Kilpatrick and ninety privates captured.
Despite the success of Wheeler and his horsemen, General Wade Hampton was brought back from Virginia to his home state of South Carolina to command the cavalry. Wheeler suffered in silence; but his men did not like it, and many said so. Discipline began to break down. Except for the three Alabama regiments, most of the officers in the command signed a resolution in support of Wheeler.
Because the Confederate infantry had been withdrawn from Columbia, Wheeler was the only defender of the capital of South Carolina when Sherman's army approached. Wheeler fought on February 15 at Saluda River, then at Broad River Bridge. Columbia fell on February 17, 1865. Hard fighting kept the Union forces back until late in the day.
Wheeler skirmished on the 18th and then moved to Chesterville while again skirmishing with the advancing Union forces. On March 1, 1865 they fought at Wilson’s Store and passed through Monroe, North Carolina. They fought at Hornsbore, where they captured 70 prisoners. The Confederates plundered the Union camp and got some food for the best meal in days. On the 5th they swam a swollen river torrent and attacked a party of Union scouts, killing or capturing 35 before marching toward Fayetteville, North Carolina.
At 9:00 o’clock at night Wheeler came upon Kilpatrick's sleeping camp. Just before daylight they charged the bivouac, trampling under foot the astonished Union troops. Kilpatrick’s artillery and wagons were captured and heavily damaged. When Wheeler did not receive the promised support from Hampton, he withdrew. Tom Ford was one of the couriers sent to General Hampton to ask for assistance that never came. One of Wheeler’s generals, two colonels, and a major were badly wounded. An Alabama unit lost its commander, and two other generals had horses killed under them. Wheeler was forced across the Cape Fear River.
On March 11, Wheeler lost General Anderson to wounds near Fayetteville, North Carolina. On the 13th, Wheeler rushed to the aid of General Hardee who was heavily engaged. Wheeler’s men checked the advance of Union General Slocum’s Federals. On March 16, the Confederate Army engaged superior Union forces near Averasboro, North Carolina. Wheeler covered the retreat. They then fought in the battle of Bentonville, the last large battle of the Civil War.
Before daylight of the 21st, Wheeler's men had constructed 1,200 yards of breastworks, behind which they fought dismounted and repulsed an attack. The Confederate line to Wheeler's left gave way, and the Federals poured through like an avalanche. Wheeler sent the Alabama brigade to attack the Federal left flank while the Texas Rangers galloped across an open field obliquely through the Federals line. The Union men were driven back. During that night the Confederate Army withdrew toward Smithville. Wheeler covered the retreat. But when the Federals discovered this, they attacked Wheeler, causing Wheeler to bring up his entire force and engage in heavy fighting against infantry.
The next day, March 23, 1865, Wheeler marched through Smithfield and positioned his forces between the Confederate Army of General Johnston and the Union forces of General Sherman. Daily they engaged Federal pickets, scouting parties and foraging details. But the Battle of Bentonville on the 22nd was the last time infantry regiments fired on Wheeler, even though Wheeler’s cavalry continued fighting almost daily until the end of the war in April.
On April 10, Sherman began pushing the Confederate Army back with Wheeler’s cavalry attempting to check each advance, fighting every day. On April 12, they fought Kilpatrick’s cavalry driving them back in disorder for ten miles.
On the 15th of April, they were near Chapel Hill when they learned of Lee’s surrender in Virginia. This was the same day Lincoln was shot by Booth, but Johnston's army did not hear of it until later. On the 17th Johnston and Sherman met to discuss surrender of Confederate forces. The agreement was signed the next day. On April 29, Wheeler gave his farewell address to his cavalry; but the 12th Alabama Cavalry Regiment was not in North Carolina to hear it.
The night before the Army of Tennessee was to surrender to Union forces on April 25, 1865, the 12th Alabama Cavalry of about 125 men and officers voted not to surrender. They disbanded that night and left for home. Tom Ford and Bill Denson headed to Eva, Alabama. After returning, Tom turned himself over to federal authorities on May 27,1865, and was paroled in Decatur, Alabama.
Bill never submitted himself and was never paroled. He became active in both Alabama and Mississippi in the Southern resistance movement, one of whose leaders for a brief time was Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Prior to the end of the war, in December 1864, George Ford, brother of Tom, sold his farm for $2,500 in Confederate money to finance his father’s trip back to Virginia and Indiana in an attempt to secure the release of the two captured Ford boys who had served in the 18th Georgia Infantry Regiment. (See their story elsewhere on this web site.) The Ford family moved to Eva, Alabama after 1865.
Both Thomas Cellers Ford and George Washington Ford became ordained Southern Baptist preachers and moved to Mississippi then to Arkansas, ending up in Oklahoma.
Tom filed for a Confederate service pension in Arkansas May 25, 1911, and stated that he served in the 27th Alabama Infantry under Colonel Hughes in 1861. The two affidavits filed by friends with the application said he served in the 12th Alabama Cavalry from 1862 to 1865, but he actually served 1864 and 1865 to the war’s end. Tom was granted a pension of $75 a year. In 1912, it was increased to $100.
Ton attended the 1912 Confederate Reunion in Arkansas with his brother, David D. Ford who had served in the 18th Georgia Infantry Regiment and had been captured at Second Cold Harbor.
Tom died September 21, 1919 in Dustin, Oklahoma. George died in Konawa, Oklahoma in 1912. George had served only in the Georgia Home Guard for Paulding County, Georgia.
William Denson moved to Mississippi in the early 1870s to land he had seen during the war. He farmed near New Site, Mississippi, and on January 10, 1906, Bill died there.