What I Saw at Stone River

By Col. J. B. Dodge

I am just beginning to comprehend the terrible losses we sustained yesterday. In the excitement of battle you have no time to deplore the loss of a friend. Your best friend may be killed by your side, and you pay no more attention to it than if his existence was a matter of the most utter indifference to you. It is afterward that you miss them. Yesterday, of my warm personal friends that I know of now, General J. W. Sill, commanding a brigade in Sheridan's division, was instantly killed while making a gallant charge. General Kirk was mortally wounded; General Willich was captured, and it is supposed mortally wounded; Major Carpenter, of the Ninth Regulars, was literally shot to pieces, receiving six wounds at the same instance, either one of which, the surgeons say, would have been mortal; Captain Bell, of the Fifteenth Regulars, dead, and Capt. Tork, of the same regiment, mortally wounded; Colonel Housum, of the Seventy-seventh Pennsylvania, killed instantly while making a charge with his regiment; Colonel Miller, Thirty-sixth Illinois, wounded and a prisoner; Colonel Read, Seventy-ninth Illinois, killed while cheering on his noble regiment in a desperate fight; but enough, it is awful to contemplate. Will those who are the cause of this terrible war ever be punished as they deserve? I fear that eternity will be too short for them to receive their full deserts.

About nine o'clock this morning a rebel battery opened fire on front of my line, at a distance of about 800 yards, firing with great rapidity and precision. Marshall's Battery, G, First Ohio Artillery, came up on the run, wheeling into position in my line, and replied with such effect that an ammunition chest was exploded and a gun dismounted in the rebel battery in a very short time, when it was withdrawn, and the whistling of bullets from the rebel skirmish line and the monotonous rattle of musketry was again resumed. It was not rapid or very much of it, simply picket firing, once and awhile a man wounded, but it amounts to nothing.

About noon the rebel sharpshooters have taken possession of some houses about 300 yards in front of the first brigade of our division, and have climbed up in some trees, about the same distance in front of my line have become very troublesome. They were splendid shots, and made it very disagreeable in rear of our works, compelling all to keep behind cover, the least exposure was followed by a shot. The Fifth Kentucky Regiment, of Baldwin's brigade, under Lieut. Colonel Berry, and the Thirtieth Indiana, Lieut. Colonel Hurd, were ordered to clean them out, which was executed in fine style. The commands leaped over our works and rushed towards the enemy on the run under a very heavy fire. Berry took the houses at the point of the bayonet, set them on fire and fell back, leaving five dead rebels on the ground. Hurd forced the rebels back until his men got under the trees in which the sharpshooters were concealed, when his men deliberately shot them. One of them fell out of the top of a large oak tree, probably eighty feet high, across a rail fence that run under the tree, on his side, with such force that it literally broke him in two. Hurd then fell back to our line. Our loss was one man wounded. That put an end to sharpshooting in our front.

This afternoon the enemy are very busy moving round, evidently trying to find some point in our line which they can attack with impunity; getting up a pretty lively little fight once in a while, when they will fall back to make their appearance at some other point. Whenever they do attack earnestly there will be hot work. About three o'clock in the afternoon, a rebel brigade that had moved up unobserved to within about three hundred yards of General Sheridan's line, a short distance to my right, rose up and giving a yell charge, or attempted to, on Sheridan's entrenchments. If they expected to surprise anybody or gain anything, they were terribly mistaken. Nearly one-half of them were killed or wounded, and between eighty and ninety captured. There was nothing further of importance happened to-day. The question of rations is what is troubling us now more than anything else. While my command is not suffering as yet, others are. Soldiers in order to stand the fatigue and excitement of battle must be well fed.

This evening Colonel Walker, commanding a brigade next on my left, told me that he had nothing but fresh beef to eat. His cook had told him that he had got some somewhere. I thought it strange that he should have the beef, but told him that as I had nothing but "hard tack" and coffee we might mess together for once, a proposition which he promptly accepted. As his quarters were more comfortable than mine, I sent over the bread and coffee and followed them in a few moments. The savory smell that was arising from four or five great big, fine-looking round steaks that were broiling on a bed of coals, was simply delicious, and in a few moments the cook handed each of us one of them on a large cedar ship that served as a plate, a piece of hard bread, and a tin cup full of coffee, and we had a glorious feast. About the time that each of us had disposed of the second steak, we began to wonder where the cattle had come from that furnished the beef. After a good deal of coaxing and a promise of immunity from harm, the cook acknowledged that he had cut it out of the ham of a dead horse that had been killed the day before: but it was good any way, and we had had a splendid supper. The night is clear and cold; but the men are not uncomfortable, although all are getting anxious to have this state of suspense ended. I hope to-morrow will end it, and now to sleep.

January 2. Before day light all were up, and the men stood with their arms in their hands behind the breastworks until after sunrise, ready for anything that might occur. About eight o'clock the rebel artillery opened, commencing at our center and extending around to our front, which was answered promptly on our side and so effectually that they withdrew after a fight lasting about half an hour. At times it was terrific. Bragg means business now, and will get up a fight that will county before night. Artillery fighting is very exciting, but is not so destructive as musketry, unless it is directed at masses of troops, then it is awful. It is only demoralizing, as a general thing, to the party attacked, and ceases to be that when an army is situated like ours and composed of similar material. At the same time the fight above spoken of was going on, the enemy opened a very heavy artillery fire from the opposite side of Stone River, which was promptly replied to and thus nearly all of our artillery was engaged. It terminated in the same way with the attack on our side. Their infantry now made a dash at our front, struck Walker's line and was sent flying to their rear. They are extremely active and evidently trying to find a weak point.

This morning a couple of brigades crossed Stone River at a ford, and they have been constantly engaged since then in working their way to a position, the enemy stubbornly contesting every inch of ground. It is now nearly eleven o'clock, and the firing over there has increased to the magnitude of a severe fight. Another brigade has just gone over and the fight is getting hotter and hotter, and so it goes on. The enemy has withdrawn almost entirely from our front, and I will go up on a knoll in rear of my line where I can see over there. After a long time, as it seems to us standing here, as some one of the party says, "like boys at the theater waiting for the curtain to be raised," we catch sight of the enemy. He advanced in masses of regimental front, three ranks or six men deep, marching in close order for his column of attack; then another column of the same weight about 100 yards in rear as a support, with another similar column about the same distance in the rear of that as a reserve. It was a magnificent display of martial pageantry as they came marching out from behind a piece of woods where they had formed their column, with flags flying, their polished guns and accouterments reflecting the rays of the sun as it glanced upon them. They moved on, marching splendidly; but they were marching to their death! More of our troops were sent across the river. Still no firing of any consequence is heard from over there; but presently the head of their column came up to and passed over the line that had been engaged with our troops up to that time. Meantime our bank of the river is lined with troops, all ready to "go in" when the command is given. Now their artillery opens with terrific energy. They have got within a hundred yards of our line, when a stream of fire pours out from it and is followed up so rapidly that it seems to be a wall of flame. The head of that proud column is shattered; they reel a moment only, the ranks are closed up and they press on. In the meanwhile a part of their reserve moved out rapidly and, passing the other two lines, came down upon the flank and rear of our troops with tremendous force, and obliged them to fall back. Our artillery which, up to this time, had been comparatively idle was now thrown into the scale. There were fifty-eight guns in one line in our center, a number of others farther to the left and near the river bank, and at least one battery on the other side of the river. These all opened at once full upon the fated rebel column. The earth trembles as with the shock of an earthquake the very atmosphere is tremulous. Nothing can be heard above the "cannon's deadly roar."

The enemy halts his columns and they reel like drunken men. Great gaps, through which a wagon might be driven, are cut through those masses of living, breathing men, their efforts to stem the tide of battle are worthy of a better cause. There are"Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them,Cannon in front of them."

Our infantry in the meanwhile has reformed and been reinforced, and are pouring a terrific fire of musketry into their bleeding ranks they would be more than human to endure much longer. They broke and fled, bitterly and relentlessly followed up until they gained their line of works, when our troops were withdrawn. The battle had lasted just forty minutes. The field was a terrible sight. Over two thousand dead and wounded men lay stretched on less than ten acres of ground, in many places piled on top of each other three and four deep; but it is too terrible to describe. No pen can describe the mortal anguish depicted on some of these faces, the terrible ferocity on others and, as strange as it may seem, the calm, even pleasant look upon others. I saw a fair-complexioned, curly-headed youth of not more than seventeen, lying as he had fallen, with a smile on his face as if he was dreaming of home. Some mother's heart will be torn with anguish when she hears of his death. Our loss was comparatively light.

As soon as the enemy broke I returned to my command, not more than sixty rods distant, and found that he was making an attack in the center and along the front of our right, in order to create a diversion in favor of his right, but it was a feeble affair and was easily repulsed. The fight is pretty well taken out of him. About nine o'clock at night I was ordered to take 800 men of my command, deploy them as skirmishers, and advance to the front to the Franklin road if possible, two or three miles distant, or until I struck the enemy in force. There was not a man in my command but knew that it was not more than 100 rods to a line of heavy breast-works in the woods in our front, for we have seen them in the day time and since dark have heard them distinctly moving in artillery and troops; but "orders is orders" and we can stir the up any way. The night was intensely dark, a cold, steady rain was falling, and much of the ground we must pass over was rough and rocky, bad enough in the day time, a hundred times worse in the night. The men were ordered out and I explained to them just what we had to do and how it was to be done. I do not think there was a "skulker" among them. The regiments were then marched out to the skirmish line without noise and deployed as skirmishers, taking short intervals of about two feet only, making really a thin line, and started. We crossed the rocky ground spoken of, then a narrow strip of grass land and then a cotton field. We went cautiously nearly across this, and noticed that the sound of artillery moving, of men chopping, and the noise of many men working that we had heard so plainly while on the picket line had ceased. The line now was, I think, about forty or fifty feet from the fence running between the cotton field and woods on the opposite side, when I heard distinctly the regular tramp of a large number of soldiers marching right along the fence, giving a signal that the command had been notified of my line halted, the troops in front of us halted at the fence. Commands were given to them in a low tone of voice, but not so low, but we could hear them. I gave the command to fire and both lines fired at the same instant. A soldier that I overheard talking with another that night estimated the number of guns fired at us to be "just an even million," and refused to fall one. I think he was a little excited; but there was evidently there and close by a very large force, and I concluded that as from my standpoint any Federal troops that reached the Franklin road that night, on that route, would reach our lines again via Andersonville or Richmond I gave the order to retreat, which was promptly executed! As an illustration of how thick the bullets flew on my way back, I came to a rail fence, put my left hand on the top rail and it was struck by a bullet under my hand which knocked the splinters out from under it. I took that hand away and put my right hand on the rail, the same thing occurred with it. I then rolled over the rail fence in some way, and made good time back to our breastworks. The strangest thing about it was that I had only four men wounded, and one of them belonged to the First Ohio Regiment, and had volunteered for the fun of the thing.

January 3. Got up this morning completely soaked through, a heavy rain was falling and it was miserably cold. The men were shivering around their little fires that they are compelled to keep carefully screened from the sight of the enemy. Moving around among them to see how they were feeling, I was frequently amused at their jokes they were getting off on each other. The invariable them was what they would have to eat when they get up in "God's country," as they call home. Alas! many of them will never see it. At five o'clock they were formed in line in rear of the works and stood there for two dreary hours. It seemed as if day-light never would come. At last it did, and with it no attack from the enemy, but a miserable patter and whiz of rebel bullets from their skirmish line, which is just about as annoying as it would be to have to sit or stand all day within a few feet of a hornet's nest. They might sting you and might not; but they become a positive nuisance when you have only one cup full of coffee that you have set down to cool, and they knock your cup to pieces. I could see that "Johnny" tied up by the thumbs!

Along about noon the monotony was varied by one or two lively little skirmishes, and another clearing of our front from sharpshooters that had become troublesome. After that was over I went to the center, a short distance, and they were being seriously annoyed by some sharpshooters that were posted in a large brick house, some eight hundred yards in their front on the turnpike, known as "Cowan's house." The house was also used as a cover for a battery, the guns of which would be run out from behind it, a few rounds fired, and the guns run back. All at once twelve or fifteen of our guns opened on it with shells. There was a lively scattering of rebels from that vicinity, and in fifteen minutes the house was among the things that were.

The rain has ceased falling, but the ground is so saturated with water that it is impossible to move artillery or cavalry off of the roads, and they are almost impassible. Just after dark Colonel John Beatty, with his brigade, went out in front of the center to dislodge the enemy from a strip of oak woods which they were holding in his front, and were annoying him a good deal. The 88th Indiana, commanded by Colonel Geo. Humphreys, was in his command. The rebels were routed at the point of the bayonet. Colonel Humphreys was wounded in the hand by a bayonet thrust and that was the last fighting done at Stone River. Early in the evening the rain commenced pouring down again, and in the cold and rain the enemy, like the Arab, "Folded his tents in the darkness, And silently stole away." The battle is won; but at a terrible cost of life and an immense amount of suffering.

January 4. A cold, damp, raw morning. The rain has ceased and the ground is covered with ice. The enemy has entirely withdrawn and, as this is Sunday, it is impossible to follow them up owning to the condition of the roads, the want of rations, and the fact that we have lost so many horses that we could move but a small portion of our artillery, and we have one day of rest, such as we can get lying around in the mud, or standing around the fires with your eyes full of smoke. I have just been our over the ground over which we fought on the thirty-first. Many of our wounded were still lying on the ground where they fell. How the poor fellows have managed to live is a mystery to me. Many of them have died since we picked them up. Of course only those that were wounded the worst are lying out yet, as those that could manage to walk or crawl are found in the houses scattered around. No attempt had been made by the enemy to bury our dead, and they were still lying as they fell. They have left their own conscripts, or drafted men, as they fell; they have only buried their regulars and volunteers; they have evidently had every available man in their ranks. The country for miles is covered with burial parties, regularly detailed and under the charge of officers, searching every thicket and fence corner for bodies, that are carefully picked up, wrapped in their blankets and buried as decently as possible under the circumstances. These parties go over the ground that their commands have fought on, and the graves of their dead comrades are marked by them with their name and the regiment and company to which they belonged, rudely cut on a piece of board and stuck in the ground at the head of the grave. The rebels are generally buried in long trenches where they are laid side by side. Their loss in killed has evidently been much heavier than ours. This disproportion is accounted for by their persistent attacks in massed columns and our men fired lower than theirs did, thus doing greater execution. In front of the line of my brigade in my second position on the thirty-first, there was buried in one trench 179 rebel conscripts, the other rebel troops killed there had been buried by their comrades, and there were nearly as many buried a short distance from there, in front of where Baldwin's brigade fought at the same time. A large majority of them were killed by musketry; but the work of Simonson's artillery was evident. Towards evening I went back to our hospital, which was situated some little distance in the rear in and around a farm house, which hardly afforded the necessary accomodations for performing operations on the wounded. The rebels had destroyed a train loaded with tents and hospital supplies, consequently many of them were compelled to stand shivering around the fires or lie on the cold wet ground; but an extraordinary spirit of cheerfulness was visible now, as they knew in a very short time they would be comfortably fixed.

January 5. Our cavalry moved this morning into and south of Murfreesboro, driving the rebels before them, meeting with little resistance. They returned, or at least a portion of them, and reported that Bragg had fallen back in the direction of Shelbyville. The fourteenth corps has moved into Murfreesboro, where we found about two thousand rebels and four or five hundred of our own wounded, left by Bragg for want of transportation. He evidently left in great haste, but left no supplies of any kind.

January 6. About noon we marched through Murfreesboro to a position two and a half miles south of there on the Shelbyville pike. Supplies are coming up rapidly and, in a day or two, those that are left of us will be pretty comfortably fixed once more. And now, reader, I have tried to tell, in a way that you can understand, the sufferings and privations endured, and the heroic courage displayed by those who won the battle of Stone River. The trouble was that our line was too long and thin, and should not have extended farther than the Wilkinson pike to the right and then been drawn back along it to Overalls creek. Our left was all right on the river. General Rosecrans seemed determined to "swing his left into Murfreesboro," as he was ordering and repeating continually. Supposing that Bragg had let him do it, and Bragg had swung his left into Nashville, which would have been the case if Bragg had been a rebel Sherman, I have no doubt, and then where would we have been? A little less attention to trying to "swing" and a little more attention to the formation of our line, would have saved the disaster to the right, for which it was in no wise responsible, and the battle would have been decided by the night of the first instead of the fifth, and a vast amount of suffering saved to our wounded, if not a large, actual saving of human lives. As it is, it was one of the bloodiest battles on record in proportion to the numbers engaged. Our loss in killed and wounded was 8,778, being a trifle over one-fifth of those engaged or, in other words, every fifth man was killed or wounded, and we lost 2,800 prisoners. The rebel loss in killed and wounded was 14,560, or one out of every four, and we captured between 4,000 and 5,000 prisoners, including the 2,000 wounded they left at Murfreesboro. With one or two incidents I must close.

When the war broke out a young man, whose mother lived on one of the farms we fought over on the thirty-first, was at school in Virginia. He at once volunteered, got a commission and was assigned to staff duty in the rebel eastern army. He was anxious to get home to see his mother once more; but the opportunity never occurred until just before the battle, when some troops were sent to Bragg by Lee and this young man was sent with them. They arrived at Murfreesboro during the night on the thirtieth, were placed in line and attacked us on the morning of the thirty-first. By one of these peculiar accidents that we cannot account for, the troops he was with crossed his mother's farm, and while making a charge he was instantly killed in the door yard in front of the house, falling almost across the door-step. A sad coming home for him.

Corporal William Rosebrook of Company B, my regiment, 30th Indiana, was one of the regimental color guard. When his regiment was in line along the fence on one side of a corn field the position was described on the 31st he was struck by a rebel bullet and fell. He crawled back a few feet out of the line, dragging his gun with him. A moment after a man near him had his gun struck by a bullet so as to render it unserviceable. He dropped it and looked around for another. Rosebrook motioned to him, and when he stepped back said: "Take my gun; there's a load in it. It has not missed hurting some rebel every time it has been fired to-day." The man took it, fired twice, and while loading again noticed that Rosbrook was lying uncomfortable, stepped back to him and found he was dead!

One of the most singular sights on the field were the actions of the numberless small birds and rabbits that were driven frantic with terror. The birds would flutter and circle around our heads apparently too bewildered to get out of the way, and flocks of a hundred or more at a time would drop down on the ground and sit there stupefied with fright, while rabbits, of which there were a great number, would hop around more like toads than anything else, and both rabbits and quails would actually crawl up as close as they could to the men where they were lying on the ground in line of battle, and lively firing going on around.

*It has been ascertained since then that the loss of the enemy in proportion to ours in killed and wounded, was one hundred and sixty-five to one hundred. Gen. Rosecrans' Official Report.

Northern Indianian Thursday Mar. 18, 1875 front page

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