Volume 11, Number 2
B. L. RIDLEY
[Federals designated it Stone River.]
The memory of incidents in boyhood is rarely incorrect, because impressions first made are most lasting. I was seventeen when the great battle of Murfreesboro (Stone River) was fought between the Army of the Cumberland (Rosecrans) and the Army of Tennessee (Bragg). It was midway of the war between the States, and it was one of the most hotly contested battles in that great conflict.
Bragg had concentrated his forces at Murfreesboro, after the famous battle of Perryville, and Rosecrans massed his forces in Nashville, thirty-one miles north.
My home was between the two armies, at Old Jefferson, twelve miles from Murfreesboro, on a pike intersecting the Nashville and Murfreesboro pike near Lavergne. The battle ground was six miles from my home, northeast on a road that could flank Murfreesboro or intersect with the Murfreesboro and Lebanon pike and afford a fine route for the left wing of a pursuing army.
The location in the disputed territory gave me a better opportunity for taking in the situation than one who was in the front or rear. I had brothers in Morgan's Cavalry, stationed at Black's shop, the intersection of the Murfreesboro and Lebanon and Jefferson and Milton pikes, and a brother in Bragg's army, and my father's home was, of course, the rendezvous of many on our side. Wharton's Cavalry was near Triune, in front of Ilardee. Wheeler was below Lavergne, while John Morgan was watching approaches from Lebanon at Black's shop. Pegram was on the flank in front of our infantry at Readyville.
Scouting parties, making petty fights and movements, and foraging parties of both sides, made things lively, and an occasional gathering of the young folks between the lines, when "kissing games and chasing the glowing hours with flying feet" lent a lively pastime to some of our soldiers.
It was before the "cradle and grave act" of our Congress enlisting persons eligible for soldiers from sixteen to fifty, and as one of what was known as the "Seed Corn of the South." too young to be called on for service, the limit being eighteen, T would go along with the soldier boys "bearded like the pard, jealous in honor, seeking hubble reputation at the cannon's mouth," and join in the revelry-raids in progress about the State Insane Asylum, dashes on the Chicken road about Nolensville, the Hermitage, around Nashville, Lebanon, Gallatin, and other places.
On December 8, 1862, among the flying ordits, we received the news that Gen. John Morgan had taken his own command and Hanson's Kentucky Brigade and captured 2,000 prisoners at Hartsville. Morgan returned a lion, and my young heart leaped with joy when I went up to Black's shop and saw the 2,000 bluecoats filing by. Every tongue was in his praise, and the Confederate Congress congratulated the brilliant achievement. In the midst of this rejoicing it was secretly whispered that one of Muefreesboro's fair women, Miss Mattie Ready, had captured John Morgan. "The voice of the bridegroom and the bride" was soon to be heard, and from out the exuberance over military glory, on December 14, at the home of the bride's father, Judge Ready, in Murfreesboro, Lieut. Gen. Polk (Bishop Polk) in full uniform, performed the ceremony, and Gens. Bragg, Hardee, Cheatham, and Duke stood by them as best men. Even Col. St. Ledger Grenfel, the Moor, whose rigid enforcement of military discipline was causing a reign of terror among the cavalry, was there. \vreathed in smiles, and, while he was fearful that the marriage might lessen Morgan's usefulness, yet he thought it grand that his chief was honored by such guests. About this time Stevenson's infantry division had been sent off to Baton Rouge, while Rosecrans was reenforcing. Then Forrest had to look after hostile forces in West Tennessee, and, in order to divert Rosecrans, Morgan was started on another raid to Kentucky.
Some of our infantry was sent near the front as supports to cavalry, and dashes and fights became more frequent. On the night of December 28, at a party of young folks at Smyrna Depot, it was said that the Federal army was moving upon us; that McCook's Corps had taken the Nashville-Triune pike, Thomas's the Franklin to the intersection of the Wilson pike, leading to Nolensville, and that Crittendon and Rosecrans were advancing on the pike from Nashville toward Murfreesboro, and had reached Lavergne. The soldiers at the party took leave of their friends and sweethearts. Among them was a lieutenant, F. B. Crosthwait, who went to his command (the Twentieth Tennessee). whilst the "Seed Corn Contingent" returned to their respective homes, awaiting developments.
On December 29 there was heard the rumbling of artillery. Toward Lavergne it was more distinct and gradually came closer and closer, until about nightfall on all of the pikes could be seen time stubborn falling back of the cavalry. At Nolensville, Thomas came in the rear of McCoo, who was at Triune fighting Hardee's front (Bragg's left wing), which also was slowly falling back toward Murfreesboro. At Lavergue, Crittenden's Division broke off at the intersection and took the Jefferson pike and camped that night at Espey's Church, throwing their vanguard to the north side of the bridge, on the west fork of Stone River. There was a calm that night preceding the storm, that even a boy in bewilderment noticed. About daybreak Wheeler's Cavalry from Murfreesboro moved out to strike the Federal rear. Meandering paths were taken to the Sharp Springs ford opposite Espey's church, and in a short time the zip-zip of Minies and the basso interlude of the shells beat upon the air.
It was my first sight of a battle. It sounded like the breaking of millions of sticks, and the cannons boomed like a trip hammer sounds over a stubborn piece of heated iron. Then followed the woo-oo-oo-ing of the solid shot, the whizzing, whining howl of a shell as with a shuck tied to it. Wheeler bad engaged them for a while with a brigade, and continued to the rear toward Lavergue, where he struck the wagon train, and must have destroyed much.
One of the diverting incidents of the Espey's Church battle was the conduct of a neighbor physician. He was of a nervous turn, but, like Weelam McClure in "Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush," he was highly respected as the doctor of the glen. When the shells crashed through his house he broke through the woods, urging his wife to follow. She said "Hold on; let me get my baby." The Doctor said, "Let the baby go," and off he ran to get away from danger.
In a short time after the fight this flanking column was all marching via Smyrna Depot, called back to the Murfreesboro pike, and then the rattling and rumbling of firearms everywhere all day and at rapid intervals was kept up at Stone River and in the rear. The flank movement via the Jefferson pike having been withdrawn, when perhaps they found that the bridges above and below Jefferson in the fork of the junction of the river had been burned, it left us high and dry from the invader, and their "round up" made the west fork of Stone River their line of defense. And so it was that Rosecrans had concentrated his army near Murfreesboro.
From a memoranda issued by Gen. Bragg for general and staff officers the line of battle of the Army of Tennessee was formed for the coming onslaught:
"1. The line of battle will be in front of Murfreesboro, half of the army (left wing) in front of Stone River, right wing in rear of the river.
"2. Polk's Corps will form left wing, Hardee's Corps right wing.
"3. Withers's Division will form first line in Polk's Corps, Cheatham's the second line. Breckinridge's Division forms first line, Hardee's Corps; Cleburne's Division, second line, Hardee's Corps.
"4. McGowen's Division to form reserve opposite center on high ground, in the rear of Cheatham's present quarters.
"5. Jackson's Brigade reserve to the right flank, to report to Lient. Gen. Hardee.
"6. Two lines to be formed from 800 to 1,000 yards apart, according to ground.
"7. Chiefs of artillery to pay especial attention to posting of batteries and supervise their work, seeing that they do not causelessly waste their ammunition.
"8. Cavalry to fall back gradually before the enemy, reporting by couriers every hour when near our lines. Wheeler will move to the right and Wharton to the left to cover and protect our flanks and report movements of the enemy. Pegram to fall to the rear and report to commanding general as a reserve.
"9. To-night if the enemy has gained his position in our front ready for action, Wheeler and Wharton, with their whole commands, will make a night march to the right and left, turn the enemy's flank, gain his rear, and vigorously assault his trains and rear guard, blocking the roads and impeding his movements in every way, holding themselves ready to assail his retreating forces.
"10. All quartermasters, commissaries, and ordnance officers will remain at their proper posts, discharging their duties. Supplies and baggage should be ready, packed for a move forward or backward, as the results of the day may require, and the trains should be in position out of danger, teamsters all present, and quartermasters in charge.
Should we be compelled to retire, Polk's Corps will move on Shelbyville, and Hardee on Manchester pike. Trains in front, cavalry in the rear.
And so was Bragg's disposition of his army.
Our cavalry was so persistent that it took Rosecrans four days to move twenty miles to confront Bragg. Rosecrans was all day Tuesday, the 30th, locating his artillery and extending his right so as to flank BraggÆs right from the McFadden Ford. When nightfall came McCook commanded Rosecrans's right, Thomas the center, and Crittenden the left.
Gen. Rosecrans reported: "My plan of battle was to open on the right and engage the enemy sufficiently to hold him firmly and to cross with my left (at McFadden's Ford), consisting of three divisions, to oppose which they had only two divisions. But the enemy attacked the whole front of our right wing, massing his forces on its right flank, which was partially surprised, thrown into confusion, and driven back."
Gen. Bragg says that it became apparent that the object was to flank on his right, and be determined to assail him on our left Wednesday, the 31st. For this purpose he moved Cleburne's Division, Hardee's Corps, from the second line on the right to the left, having previously moved McCown to the first line on Triune road left, and Gen. Hardee was ordered to that point and assigned to the command of that and McCown's Division.
The movement was made on the evening of December 30, and before seven o'clock the next morning, the anticipated time for Rosecrans to begin his flank movement on his left. The result of this was the entire rout of the Federal right wing, and it would have been of Rosecrans's army had it been vigorously followed up. To show that this was so, those of us in the rear picked up stragglers fleeing in every direction. A number of tts near Old Jefferson got over 200 during the battle and marched them to our pickets at Black's shop, four miles on the Lebanon pike crossing, and turned them over as prisoners. They came down the west side of the river in squads, and when we would halloo "Halt," up would go a white handkerchief.
The flush of Wednesday's battle, together with the information from these stragglers that we had run them back north of the pike and corralled the whole Federal army from the turnpike north at what is now the cemetery to the McFadden ford, coupled with Wheeler's and Wharton's burning 800 wagons from Overall Creek to the asylum, led all to believe that the retreat of Rosecrans was inevitable and the destruction of his army certain.
Among these stragglers that the "Seed Corn Contingent" were picking up appeared a lieutenant colonel with his eagles and epautlets. He was on a good horse and had a pair of fine Holsters. Two of us, anxious for big game, commanded him to surrender, but that fellow went for his navies, and, fearing that our little six-shooters were too small, we "absquatulated," and after picking up a few more boys, followed on, and took him in seven miles this side of Lebanon. He said that he was not going to let two boys with pocket pistols capture him. That colonel was six miles from the battlefield, and a Federal officer told me after the war that he was cashiered for cowardice.
Notwithstanding the apparent confusion in the enemies' rear on Thursday, the roaming of artillery continued at Murfreesboro, and about three o'clock on Friday the firing of artillery and small arms was more terrific than usual. A fearful battle was evidently in progress. It turned out to be Breckinridge's fatal charge, where he is said to have been repulsed with a loss of 1,500 killed and wounded. It is the history of that event that he was driving one or two lines into the river at McFadden's Ford, when fifty-two pieces of artillery opened up and almost decimated his ranks. On that Friday my dear mother made her way to Murfreesboro through the Confederate pickets to look after husband and sons, and reached there, after passing through long lines of cavalry mounted arid ready for the conflict.
I quote from a letter she wrote of this trip: "On entering town what a sight met my eyes! Prisoners entering every street, ambulances bringing in the wounded, every place crowded with the dying, the Federal general, Sill, lying dead in the courthouse-killed Wednesday-Frank Crosthwait's (Twentieth Tennessee) lifeless corpse stretched on a counter. He had been visiting my house, and was killed on Wednesday. The churches were full of wounded, where the doctors were amputating legs and arms. I found my own safe, and, being informed that another battle was expected to begin, I set off on my way home, and passed through our cavalry all drawn up in line. I had only gone a mile when the first cannon boomed. but I was safe. I think of that trip now with wonder that I had no fear, but my anxiety was so intense it seemed at the time that it was no more than a visit."
In all these days, from the 26th to the 29th, Wheeler, Wharton, and Pegram seemed busy, and then from the 30th to the 4th of January they made three rounds of the Federal army, and rushed back to Murfreesboro at times to protect the flanks. The movement was wonderful, and it was there that Gen. Wheeler properly won the sobriquet of "Fighting Joe."
Undoubtedly up to the time that Breckinridge made his fatal charge the Confederates had the battle, and the Federal commander was expecting to retreat. It is said, whether true or not, that in the Federal conference after the rout of December 31 the commander was bewildered.
The papers captured on the field out of McCook's headquarters wagon placed the Federal army there between sixty and seventy thousand. And with Bragg's force of 30,000 effectives, beside 5,000 cavalry, undoubtedly his battle as aggressor in an open fight was one of the most masterful efforts of tlmc Army of Tennessee. Bragg outgeneraled his adversary in the outset, and on Wednesday evening, had he thrown BreckinridgeÆs division-although heavily drawn from-against Crittenden at McFadden's Ford, as he says he ordered, the fruits of the victory of Hardee and Polk on Wednesday would have been realized.
There were incidents in that b~ittle that made wonderful impressions on me. For eight long hours MeCown, Cleburne, and Withers and Cheatham's Divisions were mowing down line after line of McCook and Thomas, and even parts of Crittenden's until they were driven from the Triune road across he Wilkerson to the Nashville pike, two and one-half miles back, until the enemy was formed into a north and south instead of the former east and west line.
The backward run of the enemy's right and center became a whirlpool of disorder until the railroad embankment was their only salvation. Men, although mortally wounded, continued the pursuit until they fell fainting from loss of blood. Col. Locke, of a Texas regiment, they say, slapped his hands over the wound in his breast to stop the blood, and hallooed, "Charge em, boys: and followed on until he fell. Maj. Douglas, of artillery fame, captured a battery from the enemy. In the twinkling of an eye, and with grape and shrapnel, at the critical moment he cut swaths in the lines of blue, appalling and stampeding them. They also say that Sergt. A. Sims, flag bearer of the Tenth Texas, seeing in one of the charges a Federal flag bearer with his flag waving his regiment forward, sprang at him and seized it, and while struggling both fell dead while waving their banners. It is said that Lieut. Fred James, volunteer on Cheatham's staff, a lawyer from Murfreesboro, was killed near his mother's farm in the battle. The Allen boys, Orville Ewing, Nat Gooch, J. B. Johns, Col. Don McGregor (First Arkansas, who formerly lived here) were wounded or killed, and the death knell throughout the army was awful.
Capt. Semple, of Semple's Battery, located on the left, saw a fine-looking officer dashing up the pike in the direction of the center. He thought him a general, and asked one of his gunners to pick him off. The gunner loaded a solid shot, took careful aim with his cannon, and at her belch the officer fell down dead from his horse. It turned out to be the adjutant general of the Federal army, Col. Garesche, reported "killed by a solid shot."
In the meantime the "Seed Corn Contingent" were picking up stragglers, in a hard rain, and delivered them to our pickets at Black's shop. As the blue lines rose and fell the Federal general Sill (we heard) was killed, and our Gen. Rains was pierced through the heart. The fearful destruction of color bearers, some regiments losing six to eight, will give an idea of the fierceness of the struggle. Two Federal brigadiers were captured; Gens. Wood and Vancleve were wounded. The seven days' fight around Murfreesboro recalls that of the name around Richmond. It has been forty years ago, but the memory is as vivid as if it were yesterday.
But after Wednesday the aggressive work stopped. Cleburne said that the enemy was intrenched, and while he could defend, yet it was unsafe to pursue again with worn-out troops. So Thursday came, and every moment's delay was death to the ultimate success of Southern arms. The suspense made us restless about the result. Wagons and bodies of troops were moving back toward Nashville, and stragglers from the Federal lines did not diminish. But the charge of Breckinridge came on the 2d, causing that awful slaughter. It fell upon us like a thunderbolt. Our neighbors and relatives and friends were there. The gallant Hanson, of Kentucky, was killed. Col. Palmer of our town. was wounded, and our dead and dying lay before fifty pieces of the enemy's guns, massed by Mendelhall, Crittenden's chief of artillery, at McFadden's Ford.
It was a sudden shock to the flushed spirits of the Army of Tennessee. Friday night in the lull my father, who had been watching the battle, returned to its and said that our army would retire. And thus ended the great battle. Polk withdrew on the Shelbyville pike and Hardee on the Manchester pike.
We boys went through the form of paroling our prisoners. After the war we received a letter from one of those Yanks, wanting a certificate of parole, having mislaid the one we gave him. They were accusing him up North of desertion in a race for the Legislature. But we could not help him, as we were not empowered to issue paroles.
And now, when summing up the battle of Murfreesboro (Stone River), we assert that for fierceness and the display of military skill it was not surpassed.
In the official reports Union and Confederate armies (Volume XIV., Series I., page 1,097), the list of ordnance and other articles captured and of men wounded and taken prisoners by Gen. Bragg's army at Murfreesboro are as follows: Artillery, 40 pieces; muskets, 6,000; wagons, 800; mules, 4,000; killed, 5,000; wounded, 16,000; prisoners, 6,103. This report, though, does not agree with the returns of casualties in the Union forces, which places the aggregate of losses in killed, wounded, and missing at 13,249. The returns of casualties in Confederate forces killed, wounded, and missing, 9,865. Of these, 7,706 were killed and wounded, and only 888 missing, showing a game fight on the part of our army from start to finish. (See Series I, Vol. 20, page 681, Rebellion Records.)
The battle was never a victory to Rosecrans. His overwhelming numbers in pursuit were defenders in the conflict.
It was a victory to Southern arms, for the lion dared not pursue us. We retired at will, and retained the larger part of Tennessee for ten months, that we had been forced before to give up, affording supplies to our people. Our outpost retired back only twelve to fifteen miles.
On the night of January 3, 1863, after burying valuables for loved ones and saying good-by, those of Jeff Davis's "Seed Corn" that had been so active at Old Jefferson during the battle, retired with the grand old Army of Tennessee to pick their flints and come again.
The result of the battle with some tended to impair Gen. Bragg's usefulness, for all felt sure that the battle was won. Bragg's conception of it was grand, his execution praiseworthy, and he had ordered the right to advance on Wednesday and complete the rout, and but for the unfortunate information to Breckenridge that enemy was flanking, the order would have been carried out. That was the turning point in the battle, and no commander could foresee it. Information as to increased reenforcements to his army induced Bragg's generals to advise retreat.
Bragg's conception of every battle displayed generalship. The more the passions subside, and reason sits enthroned upon the heart, the more history will take the part of the private soldier and do Gen. Bragg's memory justice, and the world will commend the Confederate government for retaining him among her faithful generals.
It was not Northern generalship that brought mishaps in some of our battles, nor a want of Southern skill that caused the overthrow of the Confederacy-it was God.