The Green River and its bridges, fords, and ferries continued to be a point of contact between forces of the blue and gray early in the war in Kentucky. According to a dispatch of General T.C. Hindman of the Confederate Army a brief skirmish took place at Brownsville, presumably near the ferry crossing. The after-action report of this engagement and the date of the skirmish are not preserved for history but Hindman, in a missive to headquarters, does indicate that the engagement took place between a detachment of Major Phifer’s cavalry battalion, under Captain Chrisman, and an unknown Union force. This probably transpired in early November of 1861.
On the 18th day of November, 1861 another expedition in the direction of Brownsville was launched by the Confederates to obtain spirits for medicinal purposes. A Lieutenant Murphy of the 1st Arkansas Battalion, with six men of Major Phifer’s cavalry battalion, first set out on this expedition, but did not return as expected. Assuming that the men were captured or cut off by the enemy, Brigadier General T.C. Hindman determined take a sizeable force in the direction of Brownsville in order to destroy the Federal encampment which guarded the ferry. This he did on the 20th day of November, 1861. The Federal encampment was located near the northern banks of the Green River opposite the town. Hindman chose Captain Chrisman, Captain McNeill, and 1st Lt. Orlin from his command to accompany him. Additionally, he was accompanied by 50 of Phifer’s mounted troopers and one gun of Swett’s battery.
After coming to within a mile of the town Captain McNeil was detached by General Hindman with 25 troopers to proceed to a knob south of and overhanging the place. This was to cut off any Federal retreat by river. Upon observing Brownsville, no Federal presence appeared in the town. However there was a Federal presence on the opposite side of the Green River from the town. Fifty Union troopers were seen in a road near the river. These troopers apparently received advance warning of the arrival of the rebels and were preparing for the potential fray. One hundred yards further down this road was a squad of about 15 dismounted troopers posted near a small log cabin situated in a field. Even further down on the Leitchfield Road was another party of about 50 mounted Federal troopers partly concealed behind timber. The Federals were a detachment of unmustered volunteers of the Third Kentucky Cavalry. The main body of that regiment was then in Leitchfield still organizing. The Ferry guard were armed with minie muskets and common hunting rifles.
Hindman directed his men to proceed to the public square in Brownsville and begin firing. First, a volley was fired upon the mounted Yankees stationed in the woods. These troopers immediately scattered deeper into the woods. The second volley was directed at the Federal squad near the cabin. This volley quickly dispersed the squad and several more Federals fled out of the cabin. Thereafter another volley was leveled upon the cabin and artillery case shot was fired into the cabin as well.
Captain McNeill’s contingent of rebels then entered the towns with one Union picket as their prisoner. His men soon captured a second picket in the town. The artillery piece was then moved to a point closer to the river, and fired at the enemy. A general skirmish then followed with the dismounted Federals taking cover behind trees, logs, fences and whatever. The remainder of Hindman’s men then dismounted to give support in the skirmish. Hindman moved them closer to the river and firing between the two sides continued for about 15 minutes. At that point the Federals ceased their fire, save for an occasional shot, and withdrew into the woods. The retreating Federals were yet fired upon by the artillery crew of the rebels, even though by now the Federals were in a rapid retreat.
The rebels succeeded in acquiring needed medical supplies on this expedition. They were taken from a merchant named P. H. Solman–a local Unionist who had assisted the Federals.
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