The Ride of John Henry Wisdom to Save Rome, Georgia
Since there were few large plantations in the region that would become Etowah County,
many settlers took no side with either the Confederacy or the Union, wanting no
part of the war in general. The people were however, raided and pillaged during
the Civil War, victims of raiding parties by both sides.
On April 10, 1863, probably few people in Rome Georgia were aware that Union Colonel Abel D. Streight was leading four regiments of infantry, two companies of cavalry, two mountain howitzers, with all their equipment, arms and ammunition, plus over 700 noisy, cranky, foul-smelling mules onto a small flotilla of boats. This Independent Provisional Brigade headed down the Cumberland, then up the Tennessee River to begin a raid that would be the biggest event in Rome since the war began.
Had the Romans known of Streight's departure, it is very doubtful that any of them would have been concerned or even interested. But that veil of disinterest would lift three weeks later at midnight of May 2, when a bedraggled John Henry Wisdom from Gadsden, Alabama limped into Rome on a borrowed, lame pony to tell an incredible tale. He'd ridden the sixty-seven miles from Gadsden to Rome, Georgia, to warn everyone that Colonel A.D. Streight'sYankees were only twenty-five miles or so from Rome, headed in their direction, and they were in force. Streight's plan was to burn and sack Rome, a Confederate stronghold with an iron works and supply depot.
Through the efforts of Mr. Wisdom, the Paul Revere of the Confederacy, the sleepy town came alive; and within an hour, history records, the only one asleep was John Wisdom. A native of Rome but now living in Gadsden, he had seen the Yankees in Gadsden, watched them smash his ferry boat on the Coosa River, and made up his mind that someone had to warn Rome. Eight and a half hours and six mount changes later, he had done just that. He wasn't aware that Forrest was right behind the Yankee brigade, so his news had no comforting words that Confederate help was nearby. The Yankees were upon them and they had to protect themselves. Within hours, barricades were built across the bridges over the Coosa and the Etowah, and on roads entering the town.
The bridge over the Oostanaula river was fortified and made ready for burning as a last resort. Old cannons were mounted at the bridges, cannon that were probably more dangerous to Rome than to Streight's men. The militia, untrained as it was, was called together, armed as best they could, and ordered to man every possible defensive position, and reinforcements were requested to be sent by the railroad to Kingston.
About 9:00 AM, Captain Russell of Streight's advance guard approached the town, stopped and took stock of the city approaches. The Romans didn't know that Russell's men were leading a brigade that was asleep on its feet, or in their saddles. For four days, harassed at every turn by Forrest, they had marched and fought, marched and fought, and they, men and mounts, were completely exhausted.
They had almost given Forrest the slip on May 1st as they approached Gadsden. They crossed the Black Creek, just ahead of Forrest, but far enough ahead to torch the only bridge in the neighborhood. Streight thought he would gain a day and get a chance to rest and feed, but luck was with Nathan Bedford Forrest. Luck took the form of a 16 year old girl, Emma Sansom, who, in spite of Yankee bullets, climbed up behind Forrest on his horse, and led him to a cattle ford only she knew about. Within a few hours the Confederate riders had crossed the river and were back pressing on Streight's rear guard. Streight marched all that night, fought a battle at Blount's Plantation, and determined that another night march might save his worn out brigade. But his luck ran out when, in the blackness of the May 2 night, the brigade stumbled into an eerie, burn-slashed, charcoal yard of wagon tracks where even local guides were confused. One company of Yankees was able to destroy part of the Noble Iron Foundry, but it hardly made up for the time lost following false lead after false trail. At daybreak they finally found a bridge over the Chattanooga River, but it was too late. In a magnificent bluff, Forrest and his 425 men captured the exhausted, 1,500 man Yankee brigade on May 3, 1863.
Forrest had sent couriers who arrived in Rome about dawn, bringing word that Forrest, the Wizard of the Saddle, was just behind Streight, and Rome would be saved. That turned the wave of terror into a grand celebration, which reached fever pitch when Forrest rode into town escorting the captured Yankee officers.
Parties and celebrations went on for several days, but by May 5 General Forrest had been called west, the captured officers and men of the Lightning Mule Brigade had departed toward their uncertain future, and things began to quiet. A big banquet to honor Forrest and his men had been planned for the 6th, but the Confederates were gone by then, Forrest taking with him a gift horse presented by the grateful Romans.
Peace descended once again on Rome, but it was a temporary lull. Union cavalry would be back a year later, capturing the town as Sherman made his way toward Atlanta.