History Repeating Itself, without the “Condemned”

By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2024, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in April 2024.

George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana’s use of the word “condemned” makes it seem like a repetition of the past is undesirable and is something to be avoided. But some things in the past are worth repeating, and one such thing happened in a small, little-known Civil War battle. Something which happened in that battle was, in a sense, repeated in a much more widely known incident that occurred in World War II.

Anthony McAuliffe

In December 1944, a powerful German attack created a bulge into the Allied lines and led to the fierce battle which derives its name from that bulge. As a result of this German penetration, a U.S. force that included the 101st Airborne Division became surrounded by German forces in Bastogne, Belgium. The Germans sent a group of four emissaries under a flag of truce with a message asking the Americans to surrender. Low on food, ammunition, and medical supplies, the situation for the Americans seemed hopeless. In spite of this, General Anthony McAuliffe, the acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division, sent a one-word response to the Germans: “NUTS!” This audacious reply has become legendary. It is doubtful that McAuliffe knew, but he was, in a way, repeating something that an obscure Union officer did in a small battle in 1863.

Orlando Moore

The Union officer in question is Colonel Orlando Moore. Moore is mentioned in an article about Pauline Cushman that can be found on this website. As described in the article, Cushman served as a spy for the Union army, and Moore is the person who recruited Cushman into espionage. Pennsylvania-born, Moore moved as a boy with his family to Schoolcraft, Michigan, which is due south of Kalamazoo and due west of Vicksburg. (But not that Vicksburg; Schoolcraft is due west of Vicksburg, Michigan.) Prior to the Civil War, Moore, who was an accomplished musician, was in the regular army. He remained loyal to the Union and was commissioned as commander of the 25th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment on August 18, 1862. The 25th Michigan was sent to Louisville, Kentucky in late September 1862 as part of the Union’s occupation force, and Moore served in that city as the provost marshal. Because of his firmness, Moore was unpopular among the city’s residents, who pressured the authorities to remove Moore.

John Hunt Morgan

In June 1863 Moore was dispatched with five companies of the 25th Michigan to oppose Confederate raiders, in particular John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry. At this time Morgan was beginning the raid that eventually brought his unit north of the Ohio River and into southern Ohio. Moore received word that Morgan was moving northward through Kentucky, and Moore wanted to position his small force of about 200 to block Morgan’s much larger force of about 2,500. Not only was Morgan’s force larger, Morgan also had a battery of artillery, while Moore had no artillery.

On July 2, 1863, Moore learned that Morgan was moving toward a bridge that crossed over the Green River at a bend in the river known as Tebbs Bend. In order to block Morgan’s advance, Moore occupied a position along the road to that bridge. To compensate for his smaller force, Moore astutely selected a position in the narrow peninsula at Tebbs Bend such that bluffs on either side protected Moore’s flanks. Moore had his troops prepare a defensive position that consisted of a strong line of earthworks in front of which was a rifle pit, and in front of the rifle pit was abatis that Moore’s troops prepared in anticipation of Morgan’s arrival. Morgan’s force appeared on the morning of July 4, and when Morgan encountered Moore’s strong position, he deployed artillery and shelled the Union force. Despite the strong enemy position, Morgan expected an easy victory in what became the first battle of Morgan’s Raid of 1863.

A map showing troop positions and landmarks of the Battle of Tebbs Bend

After several shots were fired, Morgan sent forward a party of officers under a flag of truce with a note from Morgan directed to “the officer commanding the Federal Forces at Stockade near Green River Bridge, Ky.” Moore went forward himself to meet with the Confederate officers, who gave Moore the note. Morgan’s note demanded “an immediate and unconditional surrender of the entire force under your command.” Moore read the note and, despite being greatly outnumbered, he said to the Confederate officers, “Present my compliments to General Morgan, and say to him that, this being the fourth day of July, I cannot entertain his proposition.” With this defiant reply, Moore rebuffed the Confederate emissaries as assuredly as McAuliffe did to the Germans, although Moore’s reply was not as succinct as McAuliffe’s, but it was certainly more eloquent. Coming as they did in adverse military situations, both of the refusals to surrender were a thumb in the eye of the enemy.

With his surrender demand rejected, Morgan intensified his efforts to dislodge Moore’s force. However, from their strong position the Union soldiers were able to shoot quite a few of the men in the Confederate gun crews. This neutralized Morgan’s artillery advantage, because the guns were withdrawn after so many in the gun crews were shot. Unable to blast the Union force from its position, the Confederates attempted to assault the enemy, even though the assaults were through open ground and abatis in a narrow area that negated the Confederates’ superiority in numbers.

A map of the Battle of Tebbs Bend showing the location of the forward works of the Union army (number 7) and the location of the Confederate artillery (number 9)
The fighting took place in the area marked by the dashed line.

Eight assaults by dismounted cavalry were made on Moore’s position, and each one was bloodily repulsed. A seemingly taunting observation about the repeated attacks is in an account of the battle by Lieutenant Benjamin Travis of the 25th Michigan, who wrote dryly, “Each charge was made with less vim,” which reflects the diminishing enthusiasm of the Confederate attackers after they saw the outcome of previous assaults. Finally, after four hours of fighting, Morgan was the one who threw in the towel. Realizing the futility of continuing the fight, Morgan sent forward another party under a flag of truce. But this time it was not to demand surrender; it was to ask for a pause in hostilities to allow the Confederates to remove their dead and wounded.

Morgan lost 36 killed and 45 wounded, including at least 20 experienced, capable officers. Moore lost far fewer, 6 killed and 24 wounded. Thus, not only did Moore give Morgan a thumb in the eye, Moore also gave Morgan a bloody nose, as well as a bad omen for the raid that eventually ended disastrously in the Buckeye State. Counting only those actually engaged in the Battle of Tebbs Bend, Moore defeated a force that outnumbered him by four to five times. Moreover, that much larger force was under the command of one of the most heralded Confederate cavalry commanders (who clearly underestimated the enemy on this day). Following his defeat, Morgan withdrew and went around Moore’s force to continue his movement to the Ohio River. That Morgan’s cavalry force was able to ford the Green River indicates that Morgan need not have engaged Moore in a useless and unnecessary fight that cost Morgan many men. (A detailed account of the battle, including maps, is available online.)

As for Moore, he and his troops were lauded for their victory on July 4, 1863, although the Union victory at the relatively small Battle of Tebbs Bend was certainly far overshadowed by the much larger and more significant Union victory on that same day at Vicksburg (Vicksburg, Mississippi, not Vicksburg, Michigan). Just as the Battle of Vicksburg overshadows the Battle of Tebbs Bend, the inspiring incident at Bastogne in which Anthony McAuliffe played the leading role is far more widely known than the stirring incident at Tebbs Bend involving Orlando Moore. Likewise, McAuliffe’s cutting response to the German demand for surrender is well-known, while Moore’s sardonic reply is not. This is unfortunate, since Moore deserves more widespread renown for his sharp retort, particularly because Moore’s remark came on Independence Day and Moore was quick-witted enough to make that fact the centerpiece of his reply. Widely known or not, Moore’s defiant reply to the surrender demand is a historic incident that was repeated by McAuliffe at Bastogne. This makes clear that sometimes a repetition of the past is a good thing and can happen without anyone being condemned.

Related link:
A Civil War Actress’ Most Daring Role

Sources (Click on the book title below to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

A number of sources were used for this article. The most useful sources are as follows.

The Battle of Tebbs Bend, July 4, 1863 by Joe Brent, Tebbs Bend-Green River Bridge Battlefield Association

The Story of the 25th Michigan by Benjamin F. Travis (1897)

“Orlandos” in Civil War Michigan, part 2 by Matthew Hackett, Troy Historic Village

The Story of the NUTS! Reply by Kenneth J. McAuliffe Jr., U.S. Army

Aw, Nuts! by Paul O’Brian, National Mall and Memorial Parks