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
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, companiesany 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
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 Foresta 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
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
withdrawalmade without Sheridan's knowledgeallowed 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 referredthat is to say, that
hell has frozen over and about face my brigade and march to the
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
untilhungry exhausted, and leaderlessthey 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 trueBragg 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.