What I Saw at Stone River

By Col. J. B. Dodge

The Thirty-fourth Illinois had received the heaviest blow, being right at the angle in our line, and after pouring three or four destructive volleys in the faces of the foe, was swept out of the way. We accordingly faced to the rear again, and moved deliberately off in search of a new position. McCown had swept on nearly to Overalls creek, when he halted and faced about. We met him in a large corn-field. Cheatham, in the meanwhile, had reformed his columns after getting through the cedars, and was coming up in the rear, firing steadily as he came. Here a number of my men were killed, among other William Roberts, of Leesburg, in this county. He belonged to Company B, was a universal favorite and a splendid soldier. Taking advantage of a depression in the ground that sheltered my men from the enemies' fire, we marched by the flank in the direction of some of our flags that we saw, and about six hundred yards from our first line I found Baldwin's brigade in line along a fence, on one side of the corn-field I have spoken of before, and running at right angles with our first line. I here met Generals Johnson, Sheridan, and Davis. General Johnson informed me that General Kirk was wounded and had left the field, and that I was in command of the brigade. A moment after Col. Dysart, of the Thirty-fourth Illinois, and Major Rose, of the Seventy-seventh Pennsylvania, reported with the remnants of their commands. Col. Housum, of the Seventy-seventh, had been killed just before, and they were at once formed in line on the right of the Thirtieth. Lieut. Colonel Dunn, of the Twenty-ninth Indiana, was ordered to support Captain Simonson's Fifth Indiana battery, who had got a good position and was pouring shot and shell into the enemies' ranks, over the heads of my men. A moment after and amidst a perfect hail storm of artillery, and a thunder gust of musketry, Colonel Read, of the Seventy-ninth Illinois, who had been guarding an ammunition train the night before, reported to me. He had brought his regiment up two miles on the double quick, guided only by the sound of the heaviest firing. I showed him the position that I wanted him to occupy, on the right of the brigade. Read had to cross an open field, a hundred and fifty yards across, to get into position, under a terrific fire, and it was no used to have anyone expose themselves needlessly. I accordingly told the Colonel to dismount and go on foot, to which he objected decidedly. I then peremptorily ordered him to dismount, as it would have been simply murder to have let him try to go on horseback. By this time his regiment had arrived on the ground. Read dismounted and, turning to his command, issued the necessary orders, and in a moment almost he occupied the position assigned him, and his men were dealing destruction to the rebel columns in front. They had before this been brought to a halt, and were doing their best to advance, but as fast as their lines could be formed they were swept away. They could not move forward and something must be done. Both sides were losing terribly; but the enemy were losing three to our one. Our line was behind a heavy rail fence that ran along the top of a slight ridge, and the ground slopped gradually towards his line. His columns were still massed; ours was only a single line. If a shot went over their first line it stood a good chance to strike the next; if a shot went over our line it was harmless. Just then a wounded officer of the Seventy-ninth passed me, and called out that Colonel Read had just been killed. A moment after Lieutenant E. R. Stribley, acting Adjutant of the Thirtieth, reported to me that from part of the line of that regiment a large force of the enemy could be seen massing on our extreme right and rear. I was sitting on my horse, leaning forward so as to hear him, he standing by my side with his hand on my knee. He had just got the words out of his mouth when he fell dead, shot through the heart. I started to go to a position where I could see their movements for myself when my horse fell as if he was dead; but he instantly sprang up, and as I instinctively stuck to him was not dismounted. He was snorting with pain and terror, but was still manageable. He had went probably thirty yards when he gave a spring right up in the air, so high that I had doubts at first whether he would ever come down to the ground again; but he did, and was perfectly frantic, jumping up and sideways, rearing and kicking with all his might. I wanted to get off, but did not know how. It was the last place in the world that a man would take a horse to break him for a lady's riding horse. So I finally, in sailor's phrase, "let go all, above and below," and fell off. I struck the ground with terrific force and was stunned so that it took me a minute or two to ascertain my bearings. My horse had gone flying to the rear, where he was caught by some of the hospital attendants. He was wounded in the neck when he fell, and afterwards struck by a ball in the breast that passed between his forelegs under the skin, and came out six or eight inches back of where it went in. I instantly ran back to Simonson's battery and called his attention to the attack that was about to be made on my right, and as we turned in that direction, there they came. The sun was shining brightly. A heavy column of the enemy were coming over a ridge, perhaps eighty rods from our right, and sweeping far around in our rear. Captain Simonson and Lieutenant Morrison were helping to work the guns. Twenty enlisted men and Lieutenant Rankin, all of this battery, laid on the ground around the guns, either killed or wounded. The ground in rear of them was thickly strewed with dead horses; but Simonson and Morrison were as cool apparently as if they were simply target firing. Simonson promptly wheeled two guns to the right and landed a number of shells in the lines of the advancing foe. They now charged, and I was compelled to withdraw my men in order to save them from certain capture. In going across the field to our rear the flanking column of the enemy had got so far advanced that they captured a number of my command, they being unable to get out of the way. Simonson was compelled to leave two of his guns, on account of not having horses enough to pull them away, so many had been killed. There was a piece of woods thickly covered with timber in our rear, a short distance. Just after I got into the wood, James H. Cisney, of Company B of my regiment, since Sheriff of this county, who had been detailed for duty in Edgarton's battery, came along riding an old dun-colored horse. I was utterly exhausted and was used up, and could hardly manage to get along. Cisney furnished me with his horse, and I rode along with Simonson, looking for a position to form a new line. We were riding close together, when we came to an ash tree about eight inches through, he going on one side of it and I on the other, when a rebel artillery shot struck the tree about six feet from the ground, cutting it square off and causing it to fall wonderfully quick. As it did so the trunk fell across the neck of the old dun horse, and he laid down suddenly! I turned a summersault as I went off and, when I looked around the old horse was lying there with a wonderfully resigned expression. I gave him up and went on the best I could. Two hours after I saw the old horse on the Nashville pike, standing there with the same resigned expression, and bullets whizzing around him as thick as flies in a summer day. Even in the midst of the death and destruction going on all around it was laughable. How he got from under that tree is more than I know. We kept on through the woods, then across a corn-field, where we sank in the mud nearly to our knees at every step, to the Wilkinson pike within a few rods of where we left yesterday the enemy following us closely and keeping up a continual fire, both of artillery and musketry. Still we see no organized troops to assist us; but all before us the woods, as far as we can see, are swarming with troops in broken detachments and squads, sometimes a company, occasionally the wreck of a regiment drifts by. Through it all you see no panic, no disposition to get to the rear for the purpose of getting out of a fight, but a look of determination even a stolid appearance of indifference to danger that bodes no good to the hordes that are pouring along in our rear that should be our front, close on our left flank, and from the firing on our right, have swept down nearly to the Nashville pike, far in our advance. After crossing the Wilkinson pike and a narrow field, we come to another piece of woods, and here I concluded to see what we could do. I accordingly halted my line that had kept in good order and fallen back deliberately, faced about and prepared to meet the enemy once more. They were not yet in sight. Just then there came flying up the pike a confused and broken mass of troops that showed signs of panic, and poured along on our track after we left the pike. I undertook, with my regimental commanders, to make them form in our line. We could halt them, get them into line, and the minute they got a chance would fly for the rear again. It was terribly provoking. All at once my attention was attracted by some one swearing at a rate that would have made an army mule driver blush. I glanced around and saw an officer, a warm friend of mine and a brave man, trying to drive back a squad of these fellows that he had halted. The officer was a very religious man a minister of the gospel and I was thunderstruck. He caught my eye, and it brought him to his senses, as he instantly changed his tone, and in a moment got his squad back and they fought well. A short time afterwards he said to me:
"Was I swearing at those fellows?"
I told him "that a great deal milder language than he was using would be considered terrible profanity by his congregation at home."

He assured me on his word and honor that he was not aware of it; that something in my look surprise, I suppose drew his attention to it.I promised that I would not tell the joke on him (the men he was swearing at did not know him), and I have no doubt the "recording angel dropped a tear" upon the record of this oaths "and blotted it out forever."

In a moment the enemy came in sight, his solid columns moving in splendid style. We waited until they came to the fence along the pike, and then gave them three or four volleys which they returned with interest, and we received a galling fire from a force of rebel cavalry that were on our right and rear, and again we were forced back, keeping just in the edge of the woods so as to have what protection we could from the large force of rebel cavalry that was on our flank, and between us and Overalls creek. After marching quite a distance this way, we came to a strip of timber that was quite open, and here they concluded to make a charge on us. They were in some fields, on a strip of slightly elevated ground, that was covered with grass, and had room and ground suitable to move on as they wanted to, and accordingly formed a heavy line and came towards us. When I first saw them coming they were moving in a close compact line, extending as far as I could see in our rear and some little distance in our front, charging at a sweeping trot. It looked gloomy; but I formed my line promptly, facing them, and we stood there awaiting their onset with fixed bayonets. They were now within seventy-five yards, when they sounded the charge. At about fifty yards distance my line gave them a well directed volley, which, in connection with a rail fence that they had to cross (it had previously been thrown down but the rails impeded them somewhat), when a roaring noise was heard off in the direction of our front. In a moment a division of our cavalry came sweeping up on a full charge on the rebel flank and rear. It was a glorious sight, as with their sabres drawn and their horses at their fastest speed, they came down on the foe. They used no weapons but their sabres, and in a moment the enemy were wavering and struggling to change their front; but it was no use, they were literally ridden down and cut to pieces. They could not stand it and gave way in confusion, our cavalry showering blows upon them until they took refuge behind their infantry columns. By this time the enemies' infantry was crowding us again, and we moved on out of the woods across a field into a strip of cedar woods running along the Nashville pike, which, at this point, ran nearly parallel with, and but a short distance from, the Nashville and Chattanooga railroad. While in this field Baldwin's brigade was with mine and the Fifth Kentucky regiment, or "Louisville Legion," belonging to it under command of Lieut. Col. Berry, who was severely wounded, but still in command, was dragging a piece of artillery that they had found deserted, the horses all being killed. Two captains were acting as wheel-horses, and the men pulling at the ropes they had attached. We here found the fourteenth corps under command of General Thomas, and on the right of his troops in the edge of the cedars, there was a piece of rough, rocky, open ground in our front that sloped gradually towards the enemy, who was now coming in dense masses out of the woods we had just left. Simonson had got his four guns into a good position on a knoll on the left of my line, and opened a terrific fire of grape and canister that tore great gaps through the rebel ranks, which were promptly closed up as they came surging along. My men were out of ammunition, and while our line was being formed two men from each regiment, under charge of an officer, were sent to get a supply from the ammunition train, which I was informed was a short distance in our rear and to our right. They had not returned.

General Rosecrans and General Johnson rode up just as the line was formed, and I informed them of my situation. Rosecrans' answer was:
"Give them your last round, and then give them the bayonet! They must be stopped right here!"

One of the detail sent after ammunition came up to me and reported that six of his comrades had been captured before they could reach the train. Here was a terrible situation apparently, for I supposed from that, that the enemy had gained our rear and captured the train, and I knew from the amount of firing that I had heard that other troops must be in the same situation mine was.

The enemy had reached the broken rocky ground in front which checked their speed, and was about fifty yards from our front. Simonson was still pouring his artillery fire into them, although he was suffering severely from their fire. The command to fire was given, and my line fired deliberately, and from its effect almost every shot must have told. Their line halted and reeled, and returned a volley which fortunately went whistling over our heads, and the command was given to charge bayonets! Every man sprung forward at once, determined to die there apparently, rather than go any farther. The enemy could not stand it, and in a moment were flying back to the woods, and we had the exquisite pleasure of seeing their backs they had been looking at ours long enough, and I doubt very much if the sight afforded them as exquisite pleasure as it did us. I was now relieved by General Van Cleve, of the twenty-first corps, whose division was formed in line along where my line had been, and I marched the weary, torn and battered, but not whipped, remnant of my brigade to the railroad, with orders to remain in reserve and be ready to march at a moment's notice. Van Cleve had just got into position when the enemy furiously attacked him with a very heavy fire, but it was of no avail, as the tide of battle had turned.

Twice afterwards that day they assaulted that part of our line; but they were each time repulsed, with heavy losses on each side. My brigade that morning had numbered 1,800 men. In three hours it had lost 815 in killed and wounded. About three o'clock in the afternoon the enemy had attempted to get in our rear and attack our trains, and I was ordered to go and protect them. He fell back on our approach, and we had no more active fighting that day; but all around us the battle raged fearfully. Our line that had extended in as near a straight line as the ground would permit, nearly or quite three miles, by the driving back of the right and part of the center, had assumed nearly the shape of a horseshoe. The left of our army rested on the bank of Stone River, a rapid stream, with rocky, precipitous banks, now swollen by the recent rains so that it is about one hundred yards across, running at this point nearly parallel with the railroad, and our lines ran on the crest of a slight elevation across the turn pike and railroad a short distance, when it curved back still following the ridge to its termination, then along the edge of a piece of cedar woods, perhaps half a mile, where it is drawn back so as to cross the pike and reach the railroad again. In front of the extreme left a small strip of light oak woods, then towards the right a large field, or fields, with no fences or any other obstruction in the way, to the Wilkinson pike, the ground a long smooth slope, then a long, narrow strip of open ground that is rocky and rough, and then a number of large open fields running back a mile or more, and is but slightly rolling. Opposite the narrow strip of open ground is a large body of heavily timbered land, that we have passed through on our way to our present position. The ridge on our left and center fairly bristle with artillery, and it is hotly engaged dealing destruction in the rebel ranks whenever they show themselves. In the meanwhile the enemy is not idle. Masses of troops may be seen moving around, evidently preparing for another and more desperate attack. Their artillery answers ours shot for shot. From two or three points within our lines a fair view of nearly the whole scene could be gained. I was one of them. Long deep lines of soldiers in blue uniforms, in dense masses, lay scattered over the ground awaiting the command to attack or repulse our foes.

The battle stained and tattered flags that float proudly in the breeze mark where each regiment lies. In front of these lines is another marked with wreaths of smoke, and from which comes continually the roar of musketry, sometimes a part of it will surge forward with a cheer as the foe give way before them. A moment later in another place it will be forced back, and then will come borne on the wind that piercing yell of the rebels that always sounds to me more like a scream of anger and hate than a cheer. Taking it on the whole we were gaining on them. About three o'clock the firing gradually ceased, until only an occasional artillery shot can be heard. All know that it is only the calm that precedes the storm. None can tell where the blow will fall; but all are ready. Suddenly, about four o'clock, the columns of the enemy pour out upon the plain in front of our left centre in countless multitudes, firm, compact, and it seems almost irresistable in strength. They resemble a mass of dense grey fog rolling along the surface of the ground. Not a sound is heard for a moment, all are awaiting the blow that is to come. A moment more and they strike the front of Palmer's and Woods' divisions. In an instant those dense masses of blue that have been lying there on the ground, are on their feet pouring volley after volley into the faces of the enemy, which is returned with terrible effect. The brazen throats of a hundred cannon sent forth their messengers of death. The earth trembles with the shock. The smoke of battle obscures the sun, and it seems as if nature was mourning at the horrible carnage that is going on. Whole companies fall dead at a discharge but their places are promptly filled. Solid shot and shells and grape and canister go tearing through those dense bleeding columns, leaving terrific gaps, but they are as promptly closed up as they would be on the drill ground. The attention of both armies is entirely occupied with this struggle, and there is no other fighting going on along the lines. A steady stream of lurid fire leaps from the front of contending columns, carrying death and destruction with it. Riderless horses come dashing out of the smoke, wild with terror as they fly across the field trying to find a place of safety; others that are wounded neigh and groan, and sometimes fairly shriek with pain as they struggle around dragging their mangled legs or torn bodies. Just a little ways over yonder is a battery with sixty dead and wounded horses lying close by it. Wounded men by the hundred are crawling their weary way back to the rear.

Here comes flying an artillery caisson after more ammunition, and just yonder a disabled piece of artillery is being rapidly pulled back out of the way, and still this terrible battle continues. It is now half an hour since it commenced. Flesh and blood cannot stand it much longer. All at once another column advances out of the woods a little farther to the right, and attempt to charge on us. They make a mistake in the direction and receive a terrific volley in their flank, which sends them reeling back into cover again and the fight is over. The enemy is whipped for this day. They make two more slight attacks before dark, and then exhausted with fatigue and suffering from hunger, after rejoining my division I tried to get some rest.

I neglected to say before that the officers of General Kirk's staff had reported to me after he was removed from the field. Our line and the rebel line were about 700 yards apart and, of course, we nor they could have no fires, as the glimmer of a light would draw a dozen bullets in a minute. There was an amusing thing took place in connection with this. Some regimental cooks belonging to one of our regiments concluded, notwithstanding it was against orders, to build a fire and made some coffee in some camp kettles (large sheet iron buckets holding three or four gallons each). They accordingly selected a spot where they would escape observation as much as possible, and got up some kind of a screen between their fire and the front, filled up their kettles with water, and they were getting along finely. Just as their water got to boiling they got careless, I suppose, and the rebels caught sight of them. In an instant a shell was landed exactly in the fire and exploded, throwing the hot water and fire, badly mixed with cast iron, all around them, fortunately not wounding any of them, but scalding one or two pretty severely and frightening the rest out of their boots almost. They done without coffee that night. The night was dark and very cold, and it seemed as though we would perish. I had lost my overcoat and blanket; had not a mouthful to eat since the night before and was almost sick.

Thomas Troosney, a dare devil Irishman and a private soldier in Company A of my regiment, who was detailed in the pioneer corps, happened to come by where I was. I knew him in the dark by his voice, as he was talking with some one about some friends of his that had been killed. I called him to me and told him that I would give him five dollars if he would get me a soldier's overcoat or blanket. He said he would do it, and started off at once. He returned in a short time with both, an overcoat and blanket, and handed them to me. I asked him where he had got them, and he said that he had went out to the picket line, crawled outside, and between our line and the rebels' had got them off of a dead soldier, and had then crawled back. I gave him the five dollars, well satisfied that he had earned them, and I have not the least doubt in the world but he told the exact truth.

Captain Edsall, in the meanwhile, had discovered a camp stove that fell out of a wagon that had been overturned near by, and a few pieces of hard bread. We built a fire in [the] stove which, of course, showed no light and eat the bread, rolled ourselves in our blankets and with our feet to the stove, formed a complete circle around it, went to sleep.

January 1, 1863. A gloomy New Years morning. I was waked up about midnight by some one stepping on me in the darkness and I found that a rain was falling that froze as it fell, adding to the disagreeableness of our situation. I pulled my head under my blanket and went to sleep again. About four o'clock we got up, had the regiments called up and formed in line, with orders to stand to their arms ready to move if we should be attacked, and they stood there until after day light. It had stopped raining, but was very cold. Just after we had got the line formed, some one rode up on a horse and inquired for me. I answered and felt my way up to him, it was so dark that no one could see anything and asked what he wanted, expecting an order to move my command, somewhere probably on the enemy. The answer I received was "take that and see how you like it!" in the pleasant tones of my old friend Martin, surgeon of the Forty-fourth Indiana, and a canteen came jingling about my ears. I eagerly grasped it, made a long, but not very critical examination of its contents, and pronounced it good. If any one labors under the impression that the Major rode a mile and a half through the darkness, inquiring after me at almost every step as he necessarily had to in order to bring me a drink of water, they are mistaken. It was not water at all; but it did me a great deal of good, everything looked more cheerful around headquarters to all of us when he left. He had been at work all night dressing wounds in a hospital, but would not take the rest he needed so much until he had looked after his friends.

Just after daylight the entire line of our army was reformed, running generally on the same ground described yesterday, and breast works were speedily thrown up, the soldiers working with a will. By nine o'clock our position was almost impregnable, and a stern determination was visible in the faces of all to either whip the enemy or die right here. Our corps occupied the right of the enemy. General Jeff. C. Davis' division being on the extreme right; General Sheridan's next to the left, and ours, General Johnson's next, my brigade being on the left of the division. We fortunately found nearly a wagon load of hard bread that had been abandoned yesterday, which was at once put in charge of the Commissary and rations of it issued sparingly, as it was impossible to tell how long it will be before our supply trains can get through to us.

Northern Indianian Thursday Mar. 11, 1875 front page

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