COLUMBIA, S.C. – They were stationed permanently behind enemy lines, where they gathered intelligence, identified targets of opportunity, and engaged in guerrilla warfare. Union soldiers dubbed them the “Iron Scouts.” To author Michael Thomas, they were “Confederate Special Forces.”
Thomas, who has written a book about the special unit created by South Carolinian Wade Hampton, will tell about it on Friday, April 26, at noon at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. The free lecture, part of the museum’s Lunch and Learn series, is open to the public.
Thomas’ book, Wade Hampton's Iron Scouts: Confederate Special Forces, is the first ever written on the little-known cavalry unit, which was “born in secrecy, served in secrecy, and their story remained untold until this book came out,” said Thomas.
Previously, the closest they had come to fame was their involvement in the Great Beefsteak Raid in September 1864. They located a herd of Union Army cattle during the siege of Petersburg, about five miles behind Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters. They reported to Hampton, who sent a force to grab the herd and bring it back to Confederate territory. Hampton’s men brought back every one of the nearly 2,500 head.
Abraham Lincoln himself said it was "the slickest piece of cattle-stealing" he ever heard of.
But that was just one episode in the story of the “Iron Scouts,” given that name by their adversaries because they seemed invulnerable to Union bullets. There were even encounters in which the Yankees actually had the advantage of surprise, but when the shooting was over, “the only bodies lying on the ground wore blue uniforms,” said Thomas.
Hampton put the unit together in 1862, in response to something that happened at the outset of the battle of Fredericksburg. It was a bad time for Confederate cavalry. “Barely one man in four had a serviceable horse,” said Thomas. That meant no one was scouting to keep Robert E. Lee advised of enemy movements. As a result, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside was in the third day of march on Fredericksburg before Lee learned of it.
Lee and his cavalry chief, J.E.B. Stuart, resolved that this could never be allowed to happen again. “Someone, we don’t know who, decided to place this platoon behind enemy lines,” said Thomas. That’s where they mostly stayed for the rest of the war. Their primary mission was to provide early warning, but they took on much more than that.
One officer described the unit this way: “When a man was appointed as a scout, it meant he was cool and courageous at all times; no ordinary man could fill the position.” Over the course of the war, only 72 men were known to have served in the unit. More than 50 of those were from South Carolina.
Commanded by a sergeant, they averaged about 20 men in the field at any one time. Yet they readily picked fights with larger units and won. At one point, a mere 15 of them routed a regiment, says Thomas. Other times, when they located targets of opportunity a little too big for them to tackle, they would send a rider on a fast horse to Hampton asking for 50 or 60 mounted men to give them the firepower they needed.
Michael Thomas is a lifelong student of Southern history. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from The Citadel and is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. He retired from a career in international trade in 2008 and lives in Goose Creek, S.C. His book about the “Iron Scouts,” his first, was published last year.
About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum
Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to https://crr.sc.gov/.