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Civil War Series

The Battle of Stones River

   

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 saw it.

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.


(click on image for a PDF version)
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 reached him.

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. Regiments—or more often bits of regiments—made 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 right rear.

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 resist.

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.

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