COLLAPSE OF THE UNION RIGHT
Morning came. The darkness melted into a cold, gray mist that
dampened the air and depressed the senses. At 5:00 A.M., Johnson's
division was quietly awakened, and 6,200 drowsy, shivering infantrymen
rose from the frozen ground to build their breakfast fires. Huddled in
small groups, the men sipped coffee and discussed the chances of battle
being joined before the day's end. Officers handled their units as
though they were a reserve posted safely in the rear, rather than a
dangerously exposed army flank resting within 700 yards of the enemy. As
the minutes passed and the silence remained unbroken, the sense of peril
actually diminished. Unable to find water during the night, the
commander of Battery E, 1st Ohio, released half his horses 500 yards to the
rear at daylight to a recently discovered stream. At his campsite,
McCook enjoyed a leisurely shave.
Out on the picket lime all was quiet.
Perched atop split-rail fences or reclining against cedars, the
sentinels gazed absently into the twilight. And then, at 6:22 A.M., they
Out on the picket line all was quiet. Perched atop split-rail fences
or reclining against cedars, the sentinels gazed absently into the
twilight. And then, at 6:22 A.M., they saw it.
Emerging from the gray fog was a wall of butternut: 4,400 men of
McCown's division arrayed in a long double line with the division of Pat
Cleburne trailing 500 yards to the rear.
Rising at the first hint of dawn, they had formed ranks quietly and
without breakfast. A nervous tension gripped the men. Two days of
inactivity, of lying still in the cold and dampness, had taxed their
patience to the limit. Any movement was welcome.
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THE CONFEDERATE ATTACK BEGINS THE BATTLE OF STONES RIVER|
At dawn on December 31, 1862, Hardee's Corps of Confederates surprised the Union
right at breakfast and drove McCook's troops back nearly a mile by 8
A.M. Rosecrans canceled the planned Union attack on the Confederate
right and sent reinforcements to shore up McCook when news of the setback
On they came with deliberate steps. Brigadier General James Rains's
brigade occupied the left, the dismounted Texas cavalrymen of M. D.
Ector held the center, and Evander McNair's Arkansans were on the right.
A spattering of musketry finally rattled from the dazed Union picket
line, startling Willich and Johnson, who had been talking at division
headquarters, but drawing no response from the advancing Confederate
wave, now within 200 yards of Kirk's lines. After frantically calling
back his horses, Edgarton opened on Ector with a salvo of canister. With
that the Texan ordered his men forward at the double quick, and the
Union picket line disintegrated.
Five minutes later, Kirk's line crumbled. Kirk fell, struck in the
thigh by a minie ball. Brigade command passed to Colonel Joseph Dodge,
but the honor was empty. McNair slammed into his left regiments, Ector
gained his rear, and Dodge ordered a retreat.
With Dodge swept from the field, McCown turned his attention to
Willich's troops, who were no more ready for battle than Kirk's had
been. Although the Confederates were closing on them from the southeast,
four of Willich's five regiments fronted to the west, leaving their
flanks exposed to an oblique attack. It was the collapse of Kirk,
however, that made the defeat of Willich inevitable. Willich may have
been able to offer respectable challenge to McCown's Rebels had it not
been for the refugees from Kirk's shattered regiments streaming through
his lines and obscuring the fields of fire of his infantry.
McCown now had the field, along with eight guns and some 1,000
prisoners. His men continued on after the rapidly scattering remnants of
Johnson's division. There was little organization to the Federal
retreat and no unified command. Regimentsor more often bits of
regimentsmade brief stands behind fences or farmhouses.
BRIGADIER GENERAL AUGUST WILLICH (USAMHI)|
BRIGADIER GENERAL EDWARD N. KIRK (LC)|
As McCown's Southerners drove the survivors of Kirk's and Willich's
brigades, the Confederate offensive showed its first sign of unraveling.
Although Rosecrans would later censure these units for inclining "too
far to the west" in their retreat, the route the fleeing Federals
spontaneously chose assisted the Union defense by throwing McCown's brigades
off course and slowing Cleburne, who unexpectedly found himself in the
front line. Unable to see through the mist, Cleburne and his brigade
commanders assumed the firing to their front meant that McCown was in
contact ahead of their division; that is, until men began dropping in
the front ranks.
Cleburne had struck Davis's division although at that moment he knew
only that "I was, in reality, the foremost line on this part of the
field, and that McCown's line had unaccountably disappeared from my
front." Cleburne shook out his skirmishers and elected to continue the
right wheel called for in Bragg's plan of battle.
MAJOR GENERAL PATRICK R. CLEBURNE (LC)|
Like Cleburne, Davis found himself in an unexpected position. In
command of what had become the right-flank division of the army, he used
the delay between McCown's attack on Johnson and the appearance of
Cleburne to withdraw Colonel Philip Post's brigade, which had begun the
action on Kirk's left, to a more defensible position facing south toward
the Franklin road a half mile away. Colonel Philemon Baldwin's reserve
brigade of Johnson's division rested 400 yards to Post's right rear.
Bits and pieces of the shattered brigade of Kirk and Willich paused to
extend Baldwin's line.
Scarcely had Post taken position when Bushrod Johnson's brigade
emerged from the woods on either side of Gresham Lane, and the two lines
disappeared in gunsmoke.
While Johnson struggled to dislodge Post, Cleburne's left brigade
under St. John Liddell, advancing northward beyond Johnson's left, found
itself in an equally brutal contest with Baldwin. Here Liddell was
joined by McNair, who had halted in the open fields east of Overall
Creek after losing sight of Rains and Ector, only to find his flank
balanced precariously between Baldwin to his right front and Post to his
Crouched behind a split-rail fence, Baldwin's men watched the Rebel
line approach. "The men were good-sized, healthy, and well clothed,"
remembered a Yankee, "but without any attempt at uniformity in color or
cut." At 150 yards, Baldwin's artillery and the 1st Ohio Infantry opened
fire, and Liddell's left recoiled. At 100 yards the 6th Indiana released
its volley, and Liddell's right ground to a halt. The Arkansans fell to
the ground and traded volleys with their Yankee tormentors. Their
plight was desperate. Liddell had struck the Union line unsupported,
McNair having lagged behind on the left.
PAINTING BY CIVIL WAR ERA ARTIST WILLIAM TRAVIS ON THE FIRST DAY AT
STONES RIVER. PART OF THE UNION RIGHT FLEES BEFORE MCCOWN'S AND
CLEBURNE'S DIVISION. (SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)|
COLONEL WILLIAM CARLIN (USAMHI)|
As Liddell's regiments wavered, McNair belatedly charged the
patchwork lines of Kirk and Willich. McNair's men ran the 300 yards to
the Federal positions, slamming into and knocking down intervening
fences without missing a stride. The defenders scattered long before
McNair's men reached their ragged line. That they did not give a better
account of themselves is hardly surprising in view of the thrashing
they had received an hour earlier; the men simply had lost the will to
Rather than pursue them, McNair halted and changed front to slash at
the exposed right flank of the 1st Ohio. It collapsed, emboldening
Liddell's Arkansans, who renewed their attack against Baldwin's front
and finally drove the Federals into the timber.
Meanwhile, on the east side of Gresham Lane, Cleburne's remaining
brigades encountered opposition as determined as that which Liddell and
Johnson faced. Moving their brigades smartly into the cedar glade
opposite the Widow Smith house, S. A. M. Wood and Lucius Polk were
confident that McCown had swept the area clean. They were wrong. Lying
undetected behind outcrops and among cedars so dense that company
commanders could not see the length of their lines was the 101st Ohio of
Colonel William Carlin's brigade. The Ohioans waited until Wood's
Confederates were just a few yards away before opening fire. The stunned
Confederates recoiled instinctively.
Polk received an equally warm welcome on entering the cedars. He
had advanced only 700 yards when the colonel of the 5th Tennessee sent
word that the brigade right was engaged. Polk quickly issued orders
bringing his remaining regiments across the Franklin road and into a
right wheel against Carlin's right flank.
But Carlin had foreseen Polk's turning movement. Like Post moments
earlier, Carlin seized the opportunity presented by the brief confusion
in the Rebel ranks to withdraw his units to more tenable positions.
Advancing a second time, Polk and Wood struck Carlin's line together.
The ten year veteran of the regular army began to despair. A heavy
silence beyond his right told him Post had quit the field. Rather than
see his brigade enveloped and destroyed piecemeal, Carlin decided to
withdraw by the left flank. But before he could relay the order he was
unhorsed, then struck by a Rebel bullet, and the retreat he had hoped to
direct began spontaneously.
As they surged forward in pursuit, some among the victorious
Confederates found it impossible to contain their enthusiasm. None was
more ecstatic than young William Matthews, a colorbearer in the 1st
Arkansas for whom Stones River was his first battle. "Boys, this is
fun," he yelled as the Arkansans chased the fleeing Federals. "Stripes,
don't be so quick," advised a veteran, "this is not over; you may get a
ninety-day furlough yet."
Twenty minutes latter, Matthew's exuberance turned to agony as a
bullet shattered his arm.
Five Union brigades were in full retreat, and the battle was hardly
an hour old. Confusion and panic gripped the men, paralyzing what few
efforts were made to resist the Confederate attack west of Gresham Lane.
There was no sign of McCook, nor of Johnson, nor of any leadership
above the brigade level.
TRAVIS PAINTING OF MAJOR GENERAL ALEXANDER MCCOOK (CENTER) TRYING TO
RALLY HIS CORPS. (SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)|
Near the Gresham house, Post and Carlin struggled to piece together
their shattered commands for a final stand. Despite their pleas, only a
corporal's guard rallied around the colors. East of Gresham Lane, Polk
and Wood rolled over the plowed fields of corn and cotton for a rematch
with Carlin. A severe and unexpected enfilading fire from two artillery
batteries belonging to the division of Phil Sheridan and posted on a
knoll to Wood's right caused him to halt. Polk, who escaped the
shelling, pushed on, his left covered by Bushrod Johnson.
It was the broken ground, more than this last heave of Yankee
resistance, that threatened to disrupt Cleburne's assault. After
disposing of Baldwin, Liddell's Arkansans got lost in the cedar glades
near the pike, veering away from the rest of Cleburne's division toward
the northwest. Like the earlier detours of Rains and Ector, the drifting
of Liddell's brigade demonstrated how quickly the Confederate attack
unraveled amid the patchwork of murky forests, overgrown fields, and
split-rail fences that checkered the battlefield. While Liddell was
losing his way, McCown was at last reuniting his division. Separated
from the remainder of the division and finding both his men and
ammunition nearly spent, McNair had halted along the pike. While his men
refilled their cartridge boxes, McNair, troubled by a persistent illness,
yielded brigade command to Colonel R. W. Harper. As he rode away,
the brigade of Rains and Ector chanced upon his Arkansans. Surprised to
find themselves reunited with Harper, they too stopped to draw
ammunition and send their prisoners to the rear. Delighted to have his
three brigades together again, McCown was content to await orders.