John H. Purvis at the Battle of Stones River

A few months ago, I shared a letter written by Sergeant John H. Purvis of Co. B, 51st Ohio Volunteer Infantry giving his experiences at the Battle of Chickamauga, which included the death of his brother James. (See here) Nine months prior to Chickamauga at the Battle of Stones River, then Corporal Purvis was struck four times in rapid succession when his regiment tried to stop Breckinridge's famous late afternoon attack on January 2, 1863 that eventually resulted in the final defeat for the Army of Tennessee at that battle. Below is Purvis' account of that afternoon and what it was like to lie wounded as your enemies overrun your position...
51st Ohio National Colors

Nashville, Tennessee, January 19, 1863

Dear Father:

This is the first opportunity I have had to write to you since the battle of Murfreesboro. On the evening of the 2nd instant, we had a severe engagement on the left where our brigade was stationed. The enemy camp upon is in overwhelming numbers. They came swarming in masses, not in columns, and our ranks melted away before them like snow on a spring morning. We fought desperately, but all was of no avail, and the order was given to retreat. But I did not hear it amid the noise of battle and continued to load and fire until the Rebels were almost upon me. Just as I had brought my gun up to fire the sixth time, a ball struck me on the top of my head, knocking me over on my back, but the wound was not deep and I quickly sprung to my feet, discharged my musket, and loaded again. But the blood streamed over my face and into my eyes so that I could not see. Then I turned around to go behind a tree a short distance off, carrying my gun with me. But no sooner had I reached the tree than a ball entered my left leg just above the ankle. This brought me down to my knees, and just as I fell another rifle ball struck me in the lower part of my bowels, and a buck shot hit me on the left knee but this last did not go very deep. Thus I was wounded in four places and I then thought the wound in my bowels was mortal. I was glad to lie down by the tree, faint from the loss of blood which flowed freely from my head and leg.

The 51st Ohio formed the right flank of the front line of Colonel Samuel W. Price's Third Brigade of Horatio Van Cleve's Third Division of Crittenden's Corps (later the 21st Corps). The 51st was wedged between the rest of the brigade and Stones River which was to their right; Captain John Mendenhall assembled the line of cannon across the river that broke the back of the Confederate assault after it overran Price's position.

    On came the enemy with shouts and yells, trampling over me. What my feelings were I leave you to imagine. I cared not so much for myself, though my wounds were frightful; hundreds of my comrades were as badly or worse hurt than I was; but to hear the cursed Rebels shout victory was galling in the extreme.

    Their triumph was short-lived, however, for our men soon rallied; reinforcements soon arrived, and 50 pieces of artillery opened on the Rebel masses. The effect was terrific. The heavens seemed rent with the awful volume of sound which burst from those 50 cannon. The forest trees were shattered to splinters and the earth was torn up by the iron storm. The Rebels were hurled back in dismay, hundreds falling to rise no more. All who could escaped- and back they fled in wild confusion, throwing away their guns and everything else they carried and uttering bitter curses in their flight.

Ed Bearss map showing the location of the 51st Ohio along the banks of Stones River. The regiment was struck by the veteran Kentuckians of General Roger W. Hanson's Orphan Brigade.

    It did my heart good to see them run, closely pursued by our men. I raised up on my knees and hurrahed with all my strength for the old flag- the glorious stars and stripes. I saw the Rebel banner and its bearer fall into our hands. (This would have been the flag of the 26th Tennessee Infantry that was captured by a soldier in the 78th Pennsylvania- Ed. note)  But all this time I was between two fires-ours and the enemy’s. The balls rained thickly around me and I have often wondered since that I was not killed.

Was this one of the men who shot Corporal Purvis?
It might have been...
Sergeant Sidney Reed, Co. A,
2nd Kentucky Infantry, C.S.A.

    As soon as the Rebels were driven back, and our men passed me in pursuit, I thought it was time for me to try and get off the field, as it was getting dark. I stripped off my accoutrements and crawled down to the river where two kind-hearted soldiers of the 11th Michigan found me and carried me across the river to a house where my wounds were dressed. Here my brother James found me and took me in his ambulance to the general hospital of our division. My wounds were again examined. The balls were still in my leg and bowels and the surgeon tried to take them out, but could not, and they are in yet. However, I am doing finely; much better than I expected and am in a fair way to recover. I may, however, be lamed for life as the large sinew in my left heel is cut. I was brought to Nashville a few days since and will soon be sent to Louisville or Cincinnati.

Your affectionate son,

John H. Purvis
Tuscarawas Advocate, February 6, 1863, pg. 2

This image shows Mendenhall's artillery position from near where Corporal Purvis lay wounded.
News item:

The following soldiers of the 51st Ohio wounded at the battle of Murfreesboro were brought from Nashville to hospitals in Cincinnati on the 12th instant: Private John Long (Co. C), Private George Meese (Co. G), First Sergeant Andrew George Wood (Co. B), Corporal James K. Ecksline (Co. B), Private Wesley Poland (Co. A), Private Thomas Huston (Co. B), William Sugle, Sergeant John H. Purvis (Co. B), Private Thomas Elliott (Co. I), Private William Welch (Co. F, died of wounds February 14, 1863), W.L. Ritterly, Private Jacob Gross (Co. E), Private Samuel Thomas Hilton (Co. E), Corporal Reuben B. Whitaker (Co. H), Samuel Thompson, Private John Ginther (Co. B), L. Courtright, Private Alexander Berlin (Co. A, died of wounds March 15, 1863), Private William Moore (Co. A), Private John Plotts (Co. A), H. Covant, John Reefer, and W.P. Gortman.
Tuscarawas Advocate, February 20, 1863, pg. 3

No. 163 Report of Lieutenant Colonel Richard W. McClain, 51st Ohio Volunteer Infantry

HDQRS. FIFTY-FIRST REGIMENT OHIO VOLUNTEER INFANTRY, Camp near Murfreesboro, Tenn., January --, 1863

COLONEL: I have the honor to make the following report of the operations of the 51st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry in front of Murfreesboro during the late engagement:

    On our arrival at Stone's River, on Monday evening, December 29, 1862, my regiment was ordered on picket duty, to take post to the left of the pickets of General Wood's division, where we remained until Wednesday morning, December 31, when we received orders to rejoin our brigade, which was then en route for the purpose of crossing Stone's River. After we had crossed over, the 51st was assigned its position in the center of the first line of battle; the 8th Kentucky on our right, and the 35th Indiana Infantry on our left. We had not been in line of battle over half an hour, when I received orders to recross the river and take position opposite the ford, where we remained until 1 p. m., when the enemy's cavalry, with two pieces of artillery, made a dash at our hospital wagons, which had not yet recrossed. Thereupon the 51st was ordered to change position some 40 paces to the rear, in order to open the way for one of our batteries to open fire upon the enemy. We remained in that position until 3 p. m. The enemy's shot commenced falling among us, and we were again ordered to change our position about 100 yards to the rear, and out of range of the enemy's battery, where we remained during the night.

    On Thursday morning, January 1, at 5.30 o'clock, I received orders from Colonel Samuel Beatty, then commanding the Third Division, "to take the 51st Ohio and throw it across Stone's River immediately; then to deploy four companies as skirmishers, holding the remaining six companies as a 'reserve;'" adding at the same time, "move your regiment forward," and he would throw additional forces to support me, and, if possible, to accomplish this before it was clearly light, which was done. Our line of skirmishers had not advanced far before a spirited fire was opened between them and the enemy's line of skirmishers. In a few minutes I received orders to "halt the line of skirmishers and not bring on an engagement," which I did.

Colonel Samuel W. Price, commanding the Third Brigade, Third Division, Left Wing

    The six companies of reserve were then ordered to take position on the eminence on the right of the first line of battle, my right resting near Stone's River, while the 8th Kentucky and 35th Indiana formed on our left. We immediately discovered a battery of the enemy about 1,200 yards in our front, which I reported to Colonel Beatty, who sent a battery to the front, posting two pieces to my right and four pieces to the left of the first line. Our battery then opened fire on the enemy, consisting of artillery, cavalry, and infantry, who were posted in the edge of the woods in front of us, the enemy feebly replying with their artillery, their sharpshooters at the same time keeping up a brisk fire on our line of skirmishers all day. Thus passed Thursday. In the evening the four companies that were skirmishing were relieved and formed with the regiment, where we lay that night on our arms.

    On Friday morning, at daybreak, the enemy's sharpshooters opened on us with increased vigor. Two companies of the 51st were then sent to relieve the front line of skirmishers. At about 12 m. the enemy changed the position of their battery to the left of our front, and opened a heavy fire on us at this elevated point, and, having got range of the two pieces of artillery posted where we were stationed, our pieces had to be withdrawn a short distance to the rear. The enemy's line of skirmishers was then strengthened, and drove our skirmishers back a short distance, and gained possession of some buildings which our skirmishers were unable to hold. Our line then rallied, drove the enemy from the buildings, who set them on fire before leaving them.

    Between the hours of 1 and 2 p. m. we could distinctly see in the distance large bodies of infantry forming in our front and moving to our left, accompanied by artillery and cavalry. I immediately notified the proper officers of the movements of the enemy. Soon thereafter we saw large bodies of infantry forming in our front in line of battle, and moving toward us. They advanced to within between 600 and 800 yards of our front and halted, and commenced throwing down a line of fence running parallel to our line. I immediately directed Adjutant William Nicholas to report the fact, and he informed Major Lyne Starling of the enemy's movements, as well as the brigade and division commanders that the enemy were in the act of attacking us. The enemy's artillery was playing on us up to this time, when it ceased, and their line of battle immediately advanced, their center moving steadily, while their left was thrown around to Stone's River. After advancing in this manner to within 200 yards of our front, they set up a most hideous yell, and charged upon us in two lines of battle, closed in mass, while their skirmishers rallied to their left.
General Roger W. Hanson was mortally wounded
leading his Orphan Brigade in their
desperate attack at Stones River.

At this period the eight companies of the 51st were lying down, with bayonets fixed, being partially protected by a depression of the ground, the two companies of skirmishers still disputing the advance of the enemy's left, which was in advance of their center, and moving more rapidly, in order to get between us and the river, to outflank us. When their line arrived within 60 yards of our front, so that we could plainly see their breasts, I gave the command to rise and fire, which was done, the enemy at the same time opening a terrific fire upon us; their front line, using revolving rifles, kept up a continuous fire, and advancing. Being pressed heavily, and our right forced back and outflanked, the artillery having been withdrawn previous to the charge, we were compelled to fall back and cross the river, where I rallied portions of the regiment under cover of our artillery, then recrossed the river, and advanced with our colors and assisted in driving the enemy beyond our first position, capturing one piece of artillery belonging to the Washington Battery, our colors being the first to wave over the gun. It being dark, and the enemy driven from the field, we were ordered to seek quarters for the night.

The following is a list of the killed, wounded, and missing in the regiment during the engagement: Killed, 24; wounded, 122; missing, 44.

Total, 190.

The following is a list of those especially noted for gallantry and ungallantry:

For gallant conduct: Sergeants Thomas Rodgers (Company C, color-bearer) and William O. Barnes, Company H; Privates Jesse T. Beachler, Company A; Private Marcellus Morgan, Private John G. Fox, and Private John Hilliker, Company F; Private Nathaniel Jones and Musician Theophilus Phillips, Company H, and Private Nathan A. Carpenter, Company I.

For ungallantry: First Sergeant William A. Himes, Company A; Privates Jacob Lenhart and Private Martin Hart, Company F.

Great praise is due both officers and soldiers for the manner in which they sustained the first charge of the enemy, and, although compelled to fall back, being pressed by superior numbers, still greater praise is due them for rallying with the advance, and assisting to drive the enemy from the field.
I am, colonel, your obedient servant,

Richard W. McCLAIN,


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