With the Regulars at Stones River

    For the 15th U.S. Infantry, the Battle of Stones River was a confusing and very bloody affair. As part of the newly formed Regular Brigade of the Army of the Cumberland, the regiment waded into the dark cedar forest on the morning of December 31, 1862 and promptly found themselves in a swirling cauldron of smoke, bullets, falling tree limbs, and shrieking Confederates. As related in this extraordinary account written by Sergeant Frank Reed of Co. H, the 15th U.S. took heavy losses before they were able to extract themselves from the mess, losses totaling a third of regiment. The 27 year-old former school teacher from Harrison County, Ohio was later captured September 19, 1863 at the Battle of Chickamauga and died from smallpox as a POW at Danville, Virginia on February 5, 1864. (Thanks Kim Torgler!) 
    Reed's account was originally published in the January 30, 1863 issue of the Ohio Democrat of New Philadelphia, Ohio.

Regular Brigade Monument at
 Stones River National Cemetery
(Author's Photo)

"After pushing forward about a half mile and about 300 yards into a thick cedar swamp, our brigade deployed in line of battle. But scarcely had the movement been executed till it was discovered that we were vastly outnumbered and there were no troops immediately on our left, we were soon flanked and order were given to fall back. Unfortunately for us, we had to climb a very large cedar fence.
 In crossing this fence, the battalion was thrown into confusion. Officers became separated from their men, and the men not seeing their leaders, became more and more perplexed, and by the time they could get a few of their men together, the Confederates were so close to us that they were compelled to fire and fall back." Sergeant Frank Reed, Co. H, 1st Battalion, 15th U.S.



Camp near Murfreesboro, Tennessee
January 16, 1863

Editor Democrat:

Having a little time to devote to writing, I propose to employ it in informing the readers of your interesting and justly popular paper and my friends in Old Tuscarawas that I with a few others of the Regular Brigade-composed of the 15th, 16th, 18th, and 19th U.S. Infantry- have survived the terrible battle of Stone River- one of the most terrific and obstinate, perhaps, that has occurred during the progress of this most bloody war. To give a description of the whole battle is not my purpose in writing at present as your readers have heard much about it from older and more experienced writers. I therefore will have my say about the Regular Brigade and be briefly done. This Brigade was lately formed and is now a part of Rousseau’s Division in Thomas’ Corps. Our position on the battlefield therefore was in the center.

On the 26th of December last, we struck tents and marched from our camp near Nashville toward Franklin, Tennessee until we reached the Wilson Pike, upon which we marched a few miles and encamped for the night. Here we found that the Confederates had had their picket lines extending from the Wilson across to the Nolensville Pike. On the morning of the 27th, heavy cannonading was heard in the direction of Nolensville. Our march was then directed across the country toward that place.
Major John Haskell King led the 1st Battalion, 15th U.S. Infantry at the Battle of Stones River. He was wounded three times on December 31, 1862 and surrendered command of the regiment to Captain Jesse Fulmer of Co. B. King was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and later led the Regular Brigade at Chickamauga, and served in both brigade and divisional commands with the IV Corps during the Atlanta Campaign. He was brevetted a major general in 1865 and after the Civil War, remained in the army until his retirement in 1882. He lived out his final years in Washington, D.C. and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery after his death in 1888. (Author's Collection)

After marching about eight miles through woods, over fences, through mud almost knee deep, we struck the Nolensville Pike three miles north of the village. Here the country and the fences indicated that skirmishing had been going on. We encamped about a mile south of the town and on account of the bad state of the roads, our teams did not come up, and we were exposed all night to a cold and drenching rain. On the evening of the 28th, near sun down, the command was ordered across the Murfreesboro Pike and immediately took up their march for that place. The 15th and 19th Infantry being our foraging at the time did not march until the next morning. On account of the miserable condition of the roads, it was thought best to send the wagon train by way of Nashville and Company H of the 15th U.S. (of which your humble servant is a member) was detached as an escort. We reached the command the same day, traveling 36 miles.


The Cedar Forest at Stones River (Author's Photo)
By daylight on the 30th, we were on our way to the battlefield of Stone River. We were held in reserve during the day, slept soundly during the night, little dreaming that so soon on the morrow the spirits of so many of our brave comrades would start on their awful and mysterious adventure in the lands of spirits.

Morning came. Every movement was executed in quick time. Troops were taking position- artillery likewise was moving rapidly, selecting positions of advantage; and soon our brigade was ordered to the front. After pushing forward about a half mile and about 300 yards into a thick cedar swamp, out brigade deployed in line of battle. But scarcely had the movement been executed till it was discovered that we were vastly outnumbered and there were no troops immediately on our left, we were soon flanked and order were given to fall back. Unfortunately for us, we had to climb a very large cedar fence and before we reached it, Capt. J. Bowmen Bell of the 15th Infantry fell and in a few moments expired. In crossing this fence, the battalion was thrown into confusion. Officers became separated from their men, and the men not seeing their leaders, became more and more perplexed, and by the time they could get a few of their men together, the Confederates were so close to us that they were compelled to fire and fall back.

Regular Brigade position at upper left; the green colored area denotes the Stones River National Battlefield Park boundaries. (Ed Bearss Map, National Park Service)

Soon after crossing the fence, Lt. William B. Occleston, Co. H, 15th U.S. Infantry was severely wounded and carried off the field; this left the company without a commissioned officer and the command fell upon Sgt. P.A. Conklin. Thus we kept falling back, showing some resistance, until we came to the edge of the woods, where upon our left, the 6th Ohio Infantry had taken position and made a terrible resistance, losing great numbers of their brave fellows; but soon they gave way and now came the slaughter. We had to fall back at least 400 yards through an open field, exposed to the fire of the enemy who had now gained the edge of the woods; and indeed if it had not for our artillery, and had the enemy followed up on the advantage, the result might have been serious in the extreme, but as it was, they soon fell back into the thick timber. For a few minutes the musketry almost ceased, but the artillery still belched forth its smoke and iron hail with a deafening sound which made the very earth tremble.

First Lieutenant Horace Jewett led Co. A of the 1st Battalion of the 15th U.S. Infantry at Stones River and earned his second of three citations for gallantry that he earned during the war. Jewett led 47 men into the Cedars on the morning of December 31, 1862, and lost a third of them (three killed, eleven wounded, and two missing) before they came out. (Photo courtesy of Stan Hutson)



While this was going on, the scattered ranks were again in line and marched forwards to the skirts of the woods ready again for another mortal conflict; but ere our brigade was fairly in position, the volunteers who were on our right gave way, as we had done before, being forced to yield the ground on account of vastly superior numbers. At this fearful crisis, our Major John H. King ordered an advance. We had gone but four or five rods when the enemy again came towering down upon us like the rolling thunder of heaven, engulfing us on the right and in front-making an attempt at extrication, almost certain death; and so it proved to be, for scarcely a man came out without having been wounded or having the marks of a bullet in his clothing. But notwithstanding the galling fire to which our battalion was exposed, we fell back but about 200 yards to a small thicket of bushes which through the negligence of the owner of the land, had been permitted to grow up among the rocks. This formed but little protection to a battalion, but here we lay flat upon the ground, escaping as much as possible the destructive fire which now seemed to be concentrated upon us. It was evident that we could not stand it long-many of our boys were killed and wounded.

Again we were ordered back and again we were exposed to the concentrated fire of the enemy. It was in this last conflict that we sustained the greatest loss- it was here that Capt. William W. Wise (Co. C) was mortally wounded, Capt. Joseph S. York (Co. G) received a wounds which is likely to prove fatal, here our major was wounded in the arm, besides many of our non-commissioned officers and privates. In one company of our battalion, there was not a single sergeant or corporal which escaped death or wounds so that at the very lowest estimate we have lost in killed, wounded, and missing every third man. But the 16th, 18th, and 19th suffered as severely as did the 15th. Major Stephen D. Carpenter of the 19th U.S. was killed; Major Adam Slemmer of the 16th U.S. was wounded and in one battalion of the 18th U.S. there were 56 left dead on the field. Several officers whose names I cannot now give were either killed or received wounds.

The concentrated fire of the Federal batteries along the Nashville Pike
eventually halted the Confederate offensive in the early afternoon hours of
December 31, 1862. The 15th U.S. went into the battle with 16 officers
and 304 men- it lost a total of 106, nearly one third of the participants.
Reed's Co. H went into action with 35 men and lost 13; losing both of its
commissioned officers; it was led off the field by a sergeant.
(Author's photo)
Where our brigade was engaged and on our right, extending the whole length of McCook’s command, our loss was probably heaviest, for the whole line was driven back a considerable distance, almost making an entire change of front. But the enemy was far from escaping, for you could see their dead and wounded here and there, dotted all over the field.

After the remains of our brigade were again in line, the 15th Infantry were detached from the brigade to support the Chicago Board of Trade Battery and two pieces of the 5th U.S. Battery. Here, which was to the right and rear of the place where we had been engaged, I found that the enemy had almost succeeded in taking the above named artillery, for his dead and wounded lay within two or three rods of it. About the same time a desperate attempt was made by the enemy to take a battery which had position on our left, but were repulsed with terrible slaughter. Here the 2nd Ohio Infantry distinguished themselves. The enemy again formed his line of battle, which could be seen for half a mile across the open field. He drew up his cavalry in front of the infantry and once more to take a battery. The cavalry rushed boldly forward, but before they had reached half the distance required, they were met by such a shower of grape and canister that it was almost certain death to proceed further, they therefore soon returned more speedily than they had advanced. After this, the musketry almost ceased. Some important skirmishing was kept up until dark. There was still some artillery fighting but doing little execution. Thus, almost within rifle range did the two armies lay upon their arms anxiously awaiting to see what the morning would bring forth.
Second Lt. William Henry Heilman, 15th U.S. Inf.
(Author's Collection)

When morning came, everything indicated sharp work ahead, but it seemed that both armies doubted the propriety of making an attack and consequently little of importance occurred during the day. Toward evening, however, our brigade accompanied by the 5th U.S. Battery was sent in the direction of Nashville. We had gone about five miles when we were ordered back at the double quick. The reason of our going out was to check the progress of the enemy’s cavalry, which had gained the pike between us and Nashville, cutting off communication and at the same time destroying our trains; and the reason of our sudden return was that our center was seriously threatened, and in case of an attack, much depended on the battery which is considered among the best in the service. Upon our return the fighting had ceased, and night having already set it, we filed off into the timber to take breath and rest our exhausted limbs.

We slept soundly during the night, but early in the morning were aroused by the most terrific cannonading I ever heard. The enemy, during the night, had succeeded in planting a battery within short range of three pieces of one of our batteries, and the first fire killed nearly all the horses attached. The pieces were hauled off by hand. The enemy were soon compelled to withdraw, however, and until toward evening a comparative quiet was experienced. But about 4 o’clock P.M., the left wing was furiously attacked, and for a short time the result seemed doubtful. At one time, our troops were driven across the river; and casting my eyes to the left I saw hundreds of men falling back in confusion across an open field. About this time, Col. Peter T. Swaine (99th Ohio), formerly a captain in our battalion, came up wounded in the arm. His regiment had given way in confusion and in trying to rally them received a wound. While this was going on, the enemy advanced so as to expose them to the united fire of the 4th and 5th U.S. Batteries- the roar of which seemed to far exceed the very artillery of heaven.
Miller's and Stanley's Charge Across Stones River on January 2, 1863.
At this important crisis, the 6th Brigade, Rousseau’s Division, was pushed forward on the double quick; but before this brigade had arrived, the troops first engaged had rallied and were holding the enemy in check; and now being reinforced, they charged upon them with a yell, driving them back in confusion and with terrible slaughter, capturing two or three of their flags; one belonging to the 26th Tennessee was carried along our lines which excited prolonged cheering among our troops. (Editor note: This flag was captured by the 78th Pennsylvania Infantry of Miller's Brigade and currently resides at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in the 'Objects of Valor' display). Had it not been so near night, we might have driven the enemy beyond the river, but night having already set in, we contented ourselves with the ground already gained. During the night, our pioneers threw up some breastworks and in the morning two companies of our battalion were ordered forward to protect them while they continued to work. The sharpshooters were constantly firing at us but did no injury. The work was completed and the artillery took position behind the embankment while our brigade was stationed on the trenches on the left of the pike. The trenches on the right were occupied by volunteers.

It rained during most of the day and at night poured down in torrents, the trenches some place almost knee deep. Thus we passed the night-wet to the skin- not allowed even to build comfortable fires for fear of being annoyed by the enemy’s shells. During the night above alluded to occurred the grandest and most exciting scene of which I have been a witness. About dark, the 5th U.S. and Loomis’ battery commenced shelling the woods in front of us. For about 30 minutes the roar of these twelve pieces together with the explosion of the shells, which kept the woods in an almost constant blaze, exceeded anything I ever heard or saw. While this took place, the 3rd Ohio, 1st, and 2nd Tennessee regiments formed in line in front of the breastworks and under cover the guns went forward as skirmishers, who soon came in conflict with those of the enemy. Soon the whole force was engaged and for about an hour, the woods were kept in a blaze. The enemy, however, were compelled to give way, having been driven from their breastworks. During this time, we were commanded to fix bayonets and if our troops were repulse and the enemy in turn attempted to drive us from our position, to fire one volley and charge them with the bayonet; but happily for us they did not make the attempt.


"Boys, there is a good fat horse lying up here
that was killed this morning."
~Brig. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau

In the morning it was discovered that the enemy had withdrawn, leaving his dead upon the field. Our dead were then collected and buried and thus ended one of the most obstinate and bloody battles of the war. The following day we were marched through Murfreesboro and encamped near town. During this battle our troops suffered for want of rations as the Confederate cavalry, as before noticed, had possession of the road. Early on the morning of January 2, a horse was killed by a cannon ball and before night he was eaten up. The same day there was issued to our battalion 75 ears of corn as rations. This is a hard story but it is nevertheless true. The eating of the horses was suggested by Gen. Rousseau himself- as he rode along our line, says he “Boys, there is a good fat horse lying up here that was killed this morning;” thus suggesting the use of his flesh as food.

Such is some of the experience of a soldier; yet the troops, so far as my knowledge extends, are all in good spirits and willing for another advance-willing to follow their brave and skillful leader wherever he may direct his course. But lest I grow tedious to no purpose, I close for the present, remaining yours with respect,

FRANK REED

Captain Jesse Fulmer wrote the following official report for the battalion in the absence of the wounded Major John King:

This battalion, with the others of the brigade of regulars, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. Shepherd, 18th U.S. Infantry, advanced several hundred yards into a dense forest of cedars, about 9 o'clock on the morning of the 31st ultimo, to engage the enemy. The 15th, with the First Battalion of the 16th Infantry on the left, were moved a short distance from the other battalions of the brigade and formed in line of battle. Captain Henry Keteltas' company (Co. E) was immediately ordered forward as skirmishers, and, as such, advanced them some 400 yards beyond our line. He had been enticed thus to advance by the action of scattering rebels in our front, who, wearing our style of uniform, feigned to be of us.

This piece of deception, however, was timely detected, and a heavy firing between the skirmishers was immediately commenced. Ours were driven back, and the enemy, in two or three lines of battle, hurriedly advanced, with a strong line of skirmishers in front. Our line of battle suffered somewhat by mistaking a body of rebels dressed in our uniform for our troops. When commanded to open upon the enemy, the battalion poured in a heavy fire upon them, but were soon compelled to give way to the vastly superior numbers of the enemy. We fired, retreating, until we reached the rear of the position just that moment taken by the 6th Regiment Ohio Volunteers. Here we halted to reform our line, but, while so doing, the overwhelming numbers of the rebels, and the fierce onslaught they made on the 6th Ohio, forced those gallant volunteers to fall back also; whereupon we moved out of the woods, returning the enemy's fire, and, under cover of Guenther's battery, succeeded in taking favorable position and reforming our line. It was in this engagement that Captain J. Bowmen Bell was killed, Captain Joseph S. York wounded, and, I fear, mortally, and Lieutenant William B. Occleston severely wounded.
Colonel Nicholas Longworth Anderson led the
6th Ohio Infantry at Stones River. He was slightly
wounded in the thigh while fighting adjacent to the
Regular Brigade (Author's Collection)

The battalion reformed, advanced, and again took position in the woods, as also the others of the brigade. This was done promptly, and with a zeal highly creditable to men who had only a few moments before been under a most galling and terrible fire. Very soon we were again engaged with the enemy, and, after a spirited engagement for a while, were ordered to fall back. Then it was that Major King was wounded, and the command of the battalion devolved upon me. I continued the movement, firing upon the enemy, and moved up to the support of Guenther's battery. In this affair Captain Wise fell, mortally wounded, and has since died.

For the remainder of that day we acted in support of Guenther's battery, and remained on the front of our lines that night until nearly daybreak, when we moved to the rear. Later in the morning we moved forward again, first supporting the center, then the right.

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