Ditching the Cards: The 31st Ohio Marches Towards Stones River

    This week’s blog post features an account from the pen of Private Samuel A. McNeil of Co. F, 31st Ohio Volunteer Infantry who shares his experience of marching towards the front through the flotsam of battle on the morning of December 31, 1862 at the Battle of Stones River. Lieutenant Colonel Frederick W. Lister commanded the regiment which was assigned to the First Brigade, Third Division of George Thomas’ Center Corps. Colonel Moses B. Walker commanded the brigade which consisted of the 82nd Indiana, 17th, 31st, and 38th Ohio regiments, of Church’s Michigan battery (Battery D, 1st Michigan Light Artillery but also referred to as the 4th Michigan Battery).
Unknown Ohio Private
    Through the evening of December 30th and the predawn hours of December 31st, Walker’s Brigade marched from Nolensville to Stewartsborough (near Smyrna, Tennessee) and at dawn was guarding a bridge over Stewart’s Creek. Colonel Walker received an order shortly after dawn to march his command south towards Murfreesboro but before starting, a messenger brought the news that General Joe Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry was burning a Union supply train at nearby LaVergne. The 31st Ohio raced the two and a half miles to LaVergne but the Confederates had already made a shamble of the train. Colonel Walker reported that “nearly all the wagons and their contents had been destroyed” and the Rebels were busily paroling the captured train guards and leading away the teams of mules when the Federals arrived. A few shots from the Michigan battery “drove the Rebels pell-mell into the woods on the right and left of the road.”
Colonel Moses B. Walker

And here Private McNeil takes up the story:
    Again we started for the front, the sound of the battle was distinctly heard and we realized that our army was fighting a great battle to decide the question of our farther advance toward the Tennessee River and Chattanooga. As we marched south on the Murfreesboro Pike the sound of the battle was more and more distinct and the “thump, thump” of artillery seemed to us an accompaniment to the constant roll of musketry. Though it was our first experience in the immediate rear of a great army at the opening of a battle, the noise of the battle was not a strange sound.

    There is always a drifting away of more or less stragglers from a line of troops under fire, but the wreckage of an entire division which had been swept from the Union right that morning by an overwhelming force of Confederates was a real surprise to us as we marched with ranks well closed in the direction from which came the incessant roar of artillery and small arms. The soldiers we met were, to a great extent, members of one of the best divisions in Rosecrans’ army and the misfortune which drove them from the field at the opening of the battle was largely the result of incompetency, or to put it mild, the gross negligence of officers of high rank. (McNeil is referring to the disaster that fell upon General Richard W. Johnson’s Second Division of McCook’s Right Wing. General Johnson received much blame for the manner in which his division was driven from the field. DM)

One of the lesser known (or perhaps forgotten) atrocities of the Stones River campaign was the deliberate massacre of Negro teamsters by Wheeler's Cavalry along the Nashville Pike. 

    Many of the severely wounded were helped along by their stronger comrades and the greater number appeared to be overcome by the awful disaster of the early morning, but some were terror stricken and seemed to think of nothing except their own personal safety. We offered some advice to the latter class and one of my comrades suggested to one of the stragglers that he ought to stop for dinner at a sand pit. But in spite of our kidding, if we had expressed our honest opinions, we were not encouraged. From our own knowledge of conditions just then, the tide of battle was against our comrades on the battle line.

Federal infantry on the move. 

    How is it going now at the front?” was one of the questions asked of the men we met. With few exceptions, the exhausted soldiers would inform us that the Confederates were having everything their own way. One bright boy with a shattered arm replied as follows, “They drove our men back to the Nashville Pike this morning, but I’ll bet a brass watch that before Bragg gets through with this job he will want Rosecrans’ men to stop killing Rebels.” We cheered the boy who I hope lived to see the end of the rebellion. We had been in active service at the front more than a year, and we really thought that ours was a regiment of seasoned veterans, but the anxiety of both the officers and soldiers was perceptible as our column approached the battlefield.

A set of playing cards from 1862. 

    In every regiment of soldiers of that war were men and boys who would indulge in card playing. The old game of “seven up” and “draw poker” served to pass away the time while in camp and many of the comrades carried a deck in the blouse pocket. During the last two miles of our march towards Stone River, cards were thrown aside as undesirable property and at one place the Murfreesboro Pike was so nearly covered with the little pasteboards that one could imagine the cards had snowed down. I have serious doubts about there having been one deck of cards left in the pocket of a soldier belonging to the brigade when we arrived at the front; kings, queens, and spots were at a discount, but the pocket Bibles and testaments held their own as they have in times of peace and times of war for many centuries. When our command came within view of the battle lines, it was afternoon and to our surprise the Confederate attack had spent its force and from the bank of Stone River on our left to the cedars on our right were solid lines of blue with ranks closed up, waiting for the next move in the great battle of Stone River. To me the battle lines (the part of the lines we could see) were grand, and I never afterward doubted the ability of that superb Army of the Cumberland to recover from a temporary disaster.


  1. Excellent article, my great great grandfather Michael Conroy fought at Stones River and Chickamauga, 74th Ohio, Negley/Thomas.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Our ancestors were in the same brigade at Stones River- my great great grandfather James P. Brown was in the 37th Indiana, and two of my great-great-great-great uncles (James and Frederick McLargin) served in the 21st Ohio. Uncle James McLargin was wounded in the head at Stones River and died two weeks later in Nashville.


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