153 years ago today, two mighty armies, the Union’s Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Major General William S. Rosecrans, and the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by General Braxton Bragg, were locked in a bloody stalemate at the Battle of Stone’s River, Tennessee. The fighting started on December 31, 1862, and after a pause on New Year’s day, the bloodletting continued on January 2, 1863. The following account of the battle was written by Benjamin Watkins Leigh Butt, a corporal in Stanford’s Mississippi Battery of Light Artillery.
Butt sent this account to the Memphis Daily Appeal, which published it in the January 22, 1863, edition of the paper. This is the second time the writings of Corporal Butt have been featured in this blog; back in 2012 I posted a history of Stanford’s Battery written by the soldier after the war. That article can be found here: https://mississippiconfederates.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/a-history-of-stanfords-mississippi-battery/
The Battle of Stones River, or Murfreesboro as it was known by the Confederates, took a heavy toll on the Mississippi units that fought at this Tennessee killing ground. The Mississippi infantry regiments alone suffered a loss of 1,513 killed, wounded, and missing. Particularly hard hit were the 29th Mississippi Infantry and the 30th Mississippi Infantry. – Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Mississippi in the Civil War, page 96.
Benjamin Watkins Leigh Butt wrote a very descriptive account of the Battle of Stones River, that vividly recounts the suffering of the Mississippians who fought there. I am proud to be able to share it with you:
BATTLE OF MURFREESBORO’
Camp Near Shelbyville, Tenn., January 12, 1863
EDITORS APPEAL: Again by the kind hand of providence has my life been spared, and I have been permitted to pass through a series of bloody fights, unhurt. From my personal observation, and the best data I can collect, I will endeavor to give your readers a faithful account of the battle of Murfreesboro, or Stone River more properly, as it was fought along the banks of that stream.
On Friday, December 26th, the enemy, with his entire force, except a small garrison at Nashville, commenced his grand advance, our cavalry disputing his way and slowly falling back before him. On Saturday and Sunday, all the tents and equipage of our army were transferred to the baggage wagons and sent back to the rear, some two miles south of Murfreesboro’.
Monday morning found our troops drawn up in line of battle along the banks of Stone river, our center being a mile and a half northwest of town. Our right wing, Breckinridge’s division, with Cleburne’s division in reserve, was posted on the eastern bank of Stone river; while our center, Wither’s division, with Cheatham’s division as a reserve, and our left, under McCown, were on the opposite side of the stream. The distance between our advance and reserve divisions was about one thousand yards.
The enemy’s lines were drawn up within a mile of ours, and during the whole of Monday there was skirmishing on our left, but with no definite or important result. Occasionally the sullen roar of a cannon, followed quickly by the shrieking of a shell, told us that the enemy was feeling, as military savants say, for our position. On Monday night it rained, and, as our front lines were not permitted to have fires, and each soldier had only a single blanket, the long night hours passed drearily away. During the night, however, temporary breastworks were thrown up along our lines, to protect the troops, in case a charge should be made by the enemy.
On Tuesday morning skirmishing again commenced on our left, and was kept up during the day, but much heavier than on the day preceeding. Toward noon the enemy made a charge on Robinson’s battery, which was quickly repulsed. About 3 1/2 P.M. Captain Stanford was ordered to send a section (two guns,) of his rifle battery around to the left wing where the enemy had succeeded in obtaining a favorable position for his artillery. Accordingly Lieutenant Hardin took command of the section designated, and we proceeded for half a mile through a dense cedar grove, coming up immediately behind Robinson’s battery, which was engaged in a terrible conflict with a battery of the enemy only four hundred yards distant. Here we remained a few minutes for orders, while the shells were exploding among us every minute. There was scarcely a tree to be seen which was not shattered by these terrible missiles.
Video of the author’s reenactment unit, Battery C, 1st Mississippi Light Artillery, live firing a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, on July 2, 1993. The rifled cannon that were being fired by Stanford’s Battery would have looked and sounded much the same.
Presently we were ordered into a cornfield just to the left of Robinson. We unlimbered and opened immediately upon the enemy in front. As soon as we uncovered, our position exposed us to the view of another Yankee battery, on a hill to the right, some seven hundred yards distant, so situated as to give it a raking fire upon us.
For some reason or other, I fear for no good one, Robinson’s battery to our right ceased firing as soon as we had opened, thus turning the whole of the enemy’s fire upon us. In a moment our ears were greeted with a perfect hurricane of shell and cannister, the latter coming from the battery nearest us.
The enemy had every advantage of us. Our pieces were in an open field, while his batteries were partially protected by woods. Our chief advantage, that of long range, was lost by our proximity to the enemy, while his guns were of large calibre, and we were as near as he could wish. It was a rash and unwise order that sent us to such a position. But we remembered that we were Mississippians, and resolved to stand though our lives should be sacrificed in the attempt.
Whiz, rattled the cannister – bang, exploded the shells around us, while the sharp crack of our two rifle pieces responded to the roar of the enemy’s twelve guns. Fortunately, providence smiled upon us. The greatest portion of the enemy’s shots were aimed too high, and passed just over us. I suppose that at least a dozen shells passed within ten feet of my head. We maintained this unequal contest for half an hour and were then ordered from the field, having fired about sixty rounds. Up to this time we had lost only two men wounded. We regarded our preservation as little less than a miracle. We had the satisfaction before leaving the field of noticing that the enemy’s battery immediately before us had ceased firing, our pieces having fired eight or ten rounds without a reply. As we were leaving the field to avoid a company of sharpshooters who were flanking us with the intention of picking off our cannoneers, one of the enemy’s pieces reopened, and about the third shot our commanding officer, Lieut. Hardin, was struck with a shell, and instantly killed. We bore him off the field, and rejoined our command without further loss.
About dark the enemy made another charge on Robinson’s battery, but it being well supported by infantry, the charge was gallantly repulsed. This ended the fighting for the day. The night closed in with a cold wind from the North, while most of our poor soldiers had to lie on the damp and frozen ground without fires.
The Great Battle of Wednesday
Finding that the enemy seemed indisposed to attack us in our position, our generals determined on Tuesday night to assault his right wing early in the morning. Accordingly Cleburne’s division was detached from our right and transferred to the left, to be ready for the attack.
The last day of the dying year dawned upon us cold, clear and beautiful. The rising sun dispelled the mists that hung like phantoms along the river banks, tinging the emerald cedars with gold, and making the frost-clad fields resplendent with myriads of miniature diamonds. But ere it had risen, the scattering fire of pickets swelling into the angry crash of opposing brigades, and mingled with the deep thundering of artillery, told us that the action had commenced in earnest on our left. So sudden and impetuous was the attack of our troops under McCown and Cleburne, that the enemy steadily gave way before them. Brigade after brigade was hurried up to reinforce their broken ranks – battery after battery was placed in position to rake our advancing troops; but vain were their efforts to hurl back the mighty onward tide, though they fought with a desperation worthy [of] a nobler cause.
On, on pressed our gallant boys, their enthusiastic cheers rising above the din of battle. About eight o’clock Withers’ left became engaged and fought as Alabamians and Mississippians know how to fight. They were seconded by brave “Old Cheat” and his Tennessee veterans. About this time Generals Polk and Bragg rode along our lines (our brigade was still in reserve), and were greeted with three hearty cheers. Bragg’s hard, grim old visage was wreathed with smiles as he announced to us that we had taken all the enemy’s batteries on our left, and that “Hardee was driving them before him like sheep.”
About 9 A. M., Walthall’s Mississippi brigade made the most desperate charge of
the day. They had to pass through an open field to attack the enemy in a cedar thicket in front, while a battery on each flank poured a murderous fire of cannister into their ranks. They pressed on to within a hundred yards of the enemy’s lines, when they were compelled to fall back before the terrific storm of lead and iron that swept down half their numbers. The 29th and 30th Mississippi regiments suffered awfully. The 30th had sixty-four men killed in five minutes.
At this juncture Stanford’s rifle battery was ordered round to the right to silence one of the batteries that was making such havoc in our ranks. We unlimbered with a hearty good will, poured in a few rounds rapidly, and diverted the enemy’s fire. Our veterans, by this time reinforced, again charged the enemy’s lines, drove them from the woods, and took their two batteries.
By 10 o’clock the fighting was general on our left and center and for four or five hours was of the most desperate character. The enemy’s right wing had been forced back so as to form almost a right angle with his center; but here he massed his troops in such numbers as to make that point almost invulnerable. By far the hardest fighting was done in the center. For hours each army stood without giving or taking an inch, while the ground was being literally covered with the slain.
At noon we were ordered on a bid to fire upon a celebrated rifle battery that had annoyed our lines for some time. We exchanged some savagely complimentary shots, and then the aforesaid battery thought proper to take a better position. About this time a brigade in Withers’ division being ordered to charge, we accompanied it through the field for four hundred yards, where we halted and unlimbered.
Three batteries now opened upon us with a terrible fire of shell. A number exploded in the very ranks of the infantry, killing and wounding many. I was gunner of one of our pieces, and had fired but once when a cannon ball killed two men at my gun. The head of one was shot off within a foot of mine, and his brains spattered my face. We remained in this dangerous place for half an hour, but without further loss, except that of several horses, and a limber so badly shattered that we had to get another before the gun could be removed. The brigade that had charged was compelled to fall back. We then retired to our former position, and fired several more rounds, after which we were relieved by another battery, and were in the fight no more during the day. From this time, about two P.M., for an hour, the fire of the infantry almost ceased, and the action was kept up by artillery. The enemy’s right wing had been driven back for two miles, and his center forced back for half a mile. Our right was but partially and slightly engaged during the day.
Toward evening the fighting again became general with the infantry along the
center, and here the “high pressure” (Chalmers’ Mississippi brigade) made a splendid charge. Ketchum’s battery, connected with this brigade, did splendid execution. It was charged once, and had to fire double charges of cannister. During the charge it had three men killed, and eighteen wounded. The battle closed before dark, by which time the enemy’s center had been driven back fully a mile, we holding the battlefield.
The last sun of 1862 went down in blood – a sad, but fit representative of the eventful year that has just sped by on the wings of father time. While we engaged the enemy in front, Wheeler had swept round in his rear, burning about 300 wagons and taking a large number of prisoners, besides about 2,000 mules. During the night our forces were busy bringing off our wounded and securing the captured artillery. We took about forty pieces, a large number of small arms, and from 4,000 to 6,000 prisoners.
The enemy fell back during the night to a strong position, and busied himself in reorganizing his shattered forces, and throwing up breastworks. Thursday, New Year’s day, passed without any fighting except a few slight skirmishes.
Gen. Bragg has already been censured for not attacking the enemy on Thursday. Why he did not, it is not for me to say. This much, however, can be said for Gen. Bragg. Like a good General he wants to save his men. If the “Army of Tennessee” were annihilated, we have no new troops to fill its place. An attack upon the enemy’s lines would have been attended with heavy loss on our side, and though success would probably have attended our efforts, yet the risk was very considerable.
At daybreak on Friday morning the four batteries of Cheatham’s division, Scott’s, Carnes’, Smith’s and Stanford’s, supported by Chalmer’s brigade, formed on a hill eight hundred yards from the enemy’s lines, and had a lively time during the day, shelling the enemy’s sharpshooters from the woods, and engaging a line of the enemy’s batteries in front. At times the fire of the enemy was tremendous, but being just behind the crest of the hill we suffered but little. About three o’clock P. M., we were ordered to engage the enemy’s batteries, while Breckinridge should charge their lines. He met them, and drove them back with great slaughter for a mile, when suddenly falling behind their entrenchments, and being supported by a number of batteries, our forces were compelled to fall back with heavy loss. Here the enemy took three pieces of Breckinridge’s artillery; so he lost everything that had just been gained, and was driven back to his original position. This was certainly an unfortunate move.
If Breckinridge had had a supporting division, the result would have probably been quite different; but he had no reserves at hand. There was no fighting of account on Saturday, and Saturday evening, to our surprise, the whole army was ordered to fall back.
We camped two miles south of Murfreesboro that night, and Sunday a part of the army marched to Shelbyville, part to Tullahoma and a portion to Manchester. There was at least one good reason for our retrograde movement. Our troops had been out for a week, exposed to the rain and cold, with but a single blanket each, and for the most part without fires. Human nature could not hold out much longer under such exposure.
The enemy slowly occupied Murfreesboro, but did not molest us in our retreat. They were evidently glad to be rid of us on any terms. Our loss in all the fights- killed, wounded and missing – will probably reach eight thousand. The enemy admits a loss of from twenty thousand to thirty thousand. We held the field for four days, buried our dead and secured all the spoils. Hence we claim the victory.
Stanford’s battery lost one lieutenant and two privates killed, and six privates wounded, two severely. We also lost ten horses. The enemy is too much crippled to fight us for a month to come. Whenever he is ready, we will welcome him again “with bloody hands to hospitable graves.”
In the January 31, 1863, edition of the Memphis Daily Appeal, “Leigh” included a postscript to his letter about Murfreesboro:
I wrote an account of the battle of Murfreesboro for your paper some days since, and omitted to mention the casualties in Stanford’s battery. They are herewith appended, and you will confer a favor by giving them publicity.
STANFORD’S BATTERY – This gallant organization from Grenada, Miss., was actively engaged in the late battle of Murfreesboro. The following list of casualties has been furnished:
Killed – Lieut. A. A. Hardin; Privates W. C. Brooks and R. H. Elliott. Wounded – Sergt. B.G. Duncan; Privates m. Hartsfield, Charley Phillips, P. L. Shumate, T. C. Rosamond, and George Sledge. None of the latter were severely hurt.