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Civil War Series

The Battle of Stones River

   

THE RIGHT REDEEMED

The muffled, faraway rattle of gunfire greeted the men of the left wing as they prepared to wade Stones River. At first, no one attached any importance to the clatter: after all, McCook had been fighting his way into position since the day before, and the plan of battle called for him to receive the attack of the enemy. Confident that McCook could contain the Rebels, Crittenden told Van Cleve to begin crossing his division as ordered at 7:00 A.M. Samuel Beatty forded his brigade without incident and deployed on the east bank. Colonel Samuel Price followed. But as Colonel James Fyffe waited his turn and Brigadier General Milo Hascall herded his regiments into column, the firing drew nearer and heavier. The crossing continued, but now "the most terrible state of suspense pervaded the entire left, as it became more and more evident that the right was being driven rapidly back on us," said Hascall.

LITHOGRAPH DEPICTS GENERAL ROSECRANS DIRECTING BATTLE AGAINST A CONFEDERATE CHARGE. (LC)

Confirmation of the disaster on the right threw Rosecrans into one of his famed fits of nervous hyperactivity. He would remain this way until dusk, and from his agitation came a flood of orders; far too many, thought Sheridan, for troops struggling to survive to obey. Rosecrans directed brigades, regiments, companies—any body of men he could admonish into his ragtag line. Sometimes his orders countermanded the efforts of subordinates trying to piece together their units. Rosecrans's frenzy overcame his better judgment. He rode repeatedly to the muzzles of his front-line units and often beyond. But whatever the wisdom of a commanding general exposing himself to direct brigades and regiments, it must be conceded that, at a moment of supreme crisis, Rosecrans's presence helped restore the morale of the soldiers who saw him.

Fortunately for the army, Rosecrans issued several timely commands before succumbing to his anxiety, orders second only to Sheridan's stand in their impact on the outcome of the battle.

Thomas received the first order. Through him, Rosecrans directed Rousseau's three brigades, then bivouacked midway between army headquarters and the Round Forest, into the cedars to sustain Sheridan's exposed right. Next, he commanded Crittenden to suspend Van Cleve's crossing and deploy Price behind McFadden's Ford while holding Fyffe and Sam Beatty in reserve along the railroad.

BRIGADIER GENERAL HORATIO VAN CLEVE (USAMHI)

No sooner had Rosecrans issued these instructions than a rabble of dazed infantry stumbled from the timber west of the turnpike. With the collapse of McCook now painfully apparent, Rosecrans abandoned hope of retaining a reserve and instead mustered every available unit to piece together a new front. Van Cleve's wet and shivering infantry, tramping toward the railroad, suddenly found themselves running into the cedars to extend Rousseau's right, and Hascall's idle brigade received orders to march up the turnpike as far as army headquarters, then turn to the southwest and press forward with Van Cleve. The ever-present Rosecrans issued Harker similar instructions in person.

Beatty, Fyffe, and Harker swung north through a growing throng of wagons and demoralized troops. Despite the congestion, they eventually reached their destination. Not so Hascall. Starting last, his men found the way blocked after moving just 200 yards. Unable to continue, Hascall placed his brigade in reserve behind the Round Forest—a wise decision, as his command would prove indispensable in repelling a series of afternoon assaults against the wooded salient.

Rosecrans's next decision was his best of the day. Aware that his patchwork line could not hold indefinitely and that a Confederate drive against the turnpike itself was likely, he placed St. Clair Morton's Pioneer Brigade and Stokes's Chicago Board of Trade Battery on a commanding rise near army headquarters. From there, the Chicagoans could train their cannon on any Rebels trying to cross the 800 yards of open ground between the eastern edge of the cedars and the turnpike.

BRIGADIER GENERAL ALEXANDER STEWART (USAMHI)

Meanwhile, to the west, Rousseau's division joined Sheridan's right in good order at 9:30 A.M. Skirmishers disappeared into the cedars, fallen trees became breastworks, and blue forms scrambled for cover as the Confederates, only a few hundred yards away, closed rapidly.

The Rebels were showing signs of life on Sheridan's front as well. His first attack having accomplished nothing, Patton Anderson called upon Brigadier General Alexander Stewart to detach two regiments to support a second run at the Yankees. Stewart refused. An officer of rare promise, Stewart had no intention of repeating Anderson's mistake of throwing in his regiments singly; after conferring with Withers, he chose to throw his entire brigade simultaneously against the Federals.

Stewart's thoughtful decision spelled the end of Sheridan's stronghold. Within minutes of his assault Roberts was dead and Captain Houghtalling was severely wounded.

MAJOR GENERAL LOVELL H. ROUSSEAU (USAMHI)

The Federals may have overcome the loss of officers, but they could not fight without cartridges. "There was no sign of faltering with the men," Sheridan later boasted, "the only cry being for more ammunition, which unfortunately could not be supplied." And as it could not be supplied, Sheridan prepared to retire.

From across the field northwest of the Harding house, Maney and Manigault watched the bluecoats fade into the timber north of the Wilkinson Pike and moved cautiously forward. By the time they reached the pike, the fighting was over. Meddling again in the affairs of Sheridan, McCook had reappeared long enough to order Greusel to break contact and fall back to the Nashville Turnpike. Greusel's ill-timed withdrawal—made without Sheridan's knowledge—allowed Lucius Polk to overrun and capture all six guns of Houghtalling's battery and two of Bush's. After covering the retreat of Roberts's brigade and the remainder of the division artillery, Schaefer broke contact at 10:45 A.M. and turned northward.

With Sheridan at last defeated, Hardee turned his attention to the Nashville Turnpike and the Union rear, blocked only by Rousseau's now isolated division. The task of removing Rousseau fell to McCown, whose units were resting near the Gresham house. As Rains's brigade had suffered the fewest casualties, McCown moved it from the division left to the right with orders to take Rousseau from in front while Ector and Harper drove past Rousseau's right flank toward the turnpike.

McCown's plan for gaining the Union rear, simple in design and seemingly foolproof, failed to allow for the generalship of Rousseau, a citizen soldier of the first degree. Even before the blow fell, Rousseau realized that he could not hope to hold out alone. As the scattered popping of rifle fire announced the approach of Rains's skirmishers, he rode off in search of a fall-back position. Encountering Battery A, 1st Michigan Artillery, as it struggled over limestone outcrops behind Benjamin Scribner's brigade, Rousseau told Lieutenant George Van Pelt to turn the limbers around and find firing positions near the turnpike. Lieutenant Alfred Pirtle, Rousseau's ordnance officer, helped Rousseau place the guns.

Rousseau returned to the front to find his line already engaged. Nonetheless, he was able to extricate Oliver Shepherd's Regular Brigade and Scribner's command and deploy them along high ground beside the turnpike, near Van Pelt's battery, which was joined by Lieutenant Francis Guenther's Battery H, 5th United States Artillery. Unfortunately, Rousseau apparently neglected to pass the word to his third brigade, and John Beatty remained in the cedars, nearly surrounded by the better part of a Confederate division without knowing he fought alone. Beatty had last seen his division commander at 9:00, when Rousseau enjoined him to hold his line "until hell freezes over."

ILLUSTRATION BY A. E. MATHEWS OF GENERAL SAMUEL BEATTY'S BRIGAGE ADVANCING TO SUSTAIN THE UNION RIGHT. (LC)

BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES E. RAINS (BL)

Lucius Polk ran into Beatty first, and the Ohioan repulsed him. A lull followed, and Beatty, who had noted the absence of firing from beyond his flanks during the fight, sent staff officers to search for the rest of the division. They all returned to report no one left on the field but their own brigade and Rebels. "I conclude that the contingency to which General Rousseau referred—that is to say, that hell has frozen over and about face my brigade and march to the rear."

He was right. Polk chose precisely the moment of Beatty's withdrawal to renew his assault. Vaughan's brigade, ordered to his support by Cheatham, joined Polk on his right. And Wood may have fallen in on his left, though reports are unclear on this point. In any case, the pressure was enough to panic the Federals, and despite Beatty's efforts at rallying them for a final stand at the edge of the cedar brake, they swept into and through the cotton field toward the turnpike.

Hardee now had cleared all Federal forces from the thicket north of the Wilkinson Pike. Only two regiments of Colonel William Grose's brigade stood between Rains and the turnpike. Rains charged the midwesterners, driving them pell-mell through the timber.

MAJOR GENERAL DAVID STANLEY (USAMHI)

Grose's winded infantrymen cleared Rousseau's batteries and collapsed. For a moment there was silence, then Rains's hollering and leaping Rebels spilled out of the woods. At that instant the batteries roared into action, and the cotton field was blanketed in smoke. Rains had stumbled into a hornet's nest. Van Pelt, Guenther, and a third battery under Captain Charles Parsons joined in decimating the exposed Confederates. Their infantry supports contributed volleys. Rains fell with a bullet through his heart. His men held on ten minutes until—hungry exhausted, and leaderless—they melted away.

As the survivors stumbled rearward, they encountered the equally tired men of Cleburne's division and learned why they had charged the turnpike alone. After rolling up Beatty, Cleburne had discovered a large body of Yankees beyond his right. Rather than expose his jaded infantry to a flanking fire that might break them, Cleburne pulled Johnson and Polk out of the cedars. After giving Johnson time to regroup, Cleburne ordered him to make contact with Liddell, who by then had drifted a mile to the northwest. Johnson found Liddell south of the Widow Burris house. Liddell yielded him the front. Vaughan, still under orders to support Cleburne, and Polk fell in on Johnson's right. Liddell rejoined Johnson's left, and Cleburne again sent his command forward, this time toward the Widow Burris house and the Nashville Turnpike beyond. Wood stayed in the rear to guard the corps ordnance train.

The troops that had convinced Cleburne to change course belonged to Colonel Timothy Stanley. For twenty minutes following Sheridan's departure, Stanley's front was quiet. Then Stewart and Anderson, supported by a barrage from four batteries, slammed into his line. The only instance of effective artillery support provided Rebel infantry during the battle, it shattered Stanley's brigade. Flanked simultaneously by Manigault and Maney, Stanley's command dissolved.

The defeat of Stanley brought the battle to Colonel John Miller, commander of the second of Negley's two brigades. Having just heard Negley's plea to "hold my position to the last extremity," Miller scrambled to realign his brigade to face the enemy. Unfortunately, they struck before he could move. Stewart lapped Miller"s right while Anderson maintained pressure in front. Miller's men held on until their ammunition began to run out. Miller let them fall back. With Stanley gone and Stewart now behind him, retreat was inevitable.

It was noon. Six hours earlier a double line of blue had extended from Stones River to the Franklin road. Now only a tangled remnant remained to receive the eleven butternut brigades approaching the Nashville Turnpike. Should any of them sever that vital artery, it might cost Rosecrans the battle and, conceivably, much of his army.

Rains had lunged at the turnpike alone and met with disaster. Undaunted, Ector was about to repeat that error. His failure to support Rains had doomed that attack; now Harper's inability to keep pace with Ector was to have the same result. McCown either was unaware that the two brigades had separated or was unable to reunite them, and Ector's men stepped out of the cedars alone. They could not have struck a better-prepared segment of the Union line had Rosecrans guided them in himself. The units facing Ector were virtually the only fresh troops left to Rosecrans. Directly opposite the Texans lay Morton's Pioneers, Stokes's Battery, and Battery B, Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania Light Artillery. And in a cedar glade beyond Ector's left, Sam Beatty's as yet uncommitted brigade paused to enfilade the Rebel flank.

A. E. MATHEWS LITHOGRAPH OF THE FIGHTING OF PALMER'S AND ROUSSEAU'S DIVISIONS. (LC)

Ector's Texans lasted a bit longer in the cotton field than had Rains's men, but their gallantry got them only more dead and wounded.

Ector fell back, and Sam Beatty resumed his march. He was joined on his right by Fyffe, who took position near the Asbury Church at 1:00 P.M. Harker arrived a few minutes later to extend the line northward to the Widow Burris house. There Van Cleve halted them. Minutes later, Cleburne's division poured forth from the woods to their front. "We received such a Southern greeting as we had never before experienced, not even in the bloody forest of Shiloh," remembered a member of Fyffe's staff. Cleburne's line engulfed Van Cleve and Harker, and the fight was short.

Rosecrans was at the timber's edge near the turnpike, redeploying Van Cleve's and Harker's regiments as they spilled over the field. At that moment, Colonel Luther Bradley appeared with a fragment of Roberts's brigade in search of ammunition after their long ordeal in the cedars that morning. Rosecrans diverted him into their line; to Bradley's protest that he needed cartridges, Rosecrans replied that it was a desperate moment and they must go forward, with or without ammunition.

The situation at 3:00 P.M. appeared desperate indeed. As the sun sank beneath the horizon and the chill of a winter's eve set in, Cleburne's seemingly invincible veterans drove toward the Nashville Turnpike and the Union rear. Cleburne's lieutenants were confident of success. So certain was Liddell of the outcome that he paused at the Widow Burris house to chat with Union surgeons. Suddenly, recalled Liddell, the unbelievable happened: "While this was occurring, which was in an incredibly short space of time, I discovered our lines breaking rapidly to the rear, not knowing what was the cause of this sudden movement." Bushrod Johnson too was dumfounded: "At the moment in which I felt the utmost confidence in the success of our arms I was almost run over by our retreating troops."

A DIORAMA SCENE AT STONES RIVER NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD SHOWS CONFEDERATE CHARGE. (NPS)

What had gone wrong? Why did Cleburne's division crack just as it reached its final objective? Cleburn himself offered the best explanation: Simple exhaustion and not Yankee bullets had turned the tide.

What had gone wrong? Why did Cleburne's division crack just as it reached its final objective? Cleburne himself offered the best explanation: Simple exhaustion and not Yankee bullets had turned the tide. Afterward, Hardee would complain of the absence of reinforcements at this, the crucial moment of the battle. The time Cleburne expended in breaking off the pursuit of Rousseau and regrouping prior to attack Harker and Van Cleve had been excessive but, without fresh units to replace him, unavoidable, reasoned Hardee. It was this delay, he believed, that allowed Rosecrans to patch together a final defensive line near the turnpike.

Hardee's criticism is justified. To several requests for reinforcements, Bragg responded that none were available. By 3:00 P.M. this was true—Bragg had committed them in a reckless attempt to break the Union salient that had developed around a small copse along the railroad. For four hours this little wood obsessed Bragg, and his obsession cost him the battle.

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