Give 'Em Hell by the Acre: The 21st Ohio Earns its Laurels at Stones River

Captain Arnold McMahan of Company C, 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry sat beneath a cedar tree attempting to tabulate the casualties suffered by his company in the fight of that morning. It was a sobering experience for the young Captain- he could now put his hands on less than half of the men that marched into battle under his command that morning. One man he knew to be dead; three of his five Sergeants had been wounded to one degree or another. At least ten of his Privates had been hit and he was attempting to send the worst wounded to Nashville for medical treatment. With so many of the men, no one knew where they were. Were they wounded? Captured? Lost or had they fallen in with another Federal regiment? Answers were few and questions many.
Captain Arnold McMahan, Co. C, 21st O.V.I.

The company was nearly out of ammunition, as indeed the regiment was that evening; the ordnance train had been caught up in the general maelstrom of the battle and had drifted away. The company was also short of food; the supply wagons had been stationed in the rear of the army and rumors had circulated that Wheeler’s cavalry had captured or burned most of it. Men only had what was left in their knapsacks or what they could scrounge on the battle field. Already a few men had made comments about cutting horse steaks from a dead horse that lay tantalizingly close to Federal lines.
The regiment had fought well, even gallantly that morning. McMahan had not been in many battles, but he knew that despite the regiment’s efforts, they had been bested.

Proud veterans of the 21st O.V.I. from a reunion photo taken in the 1920s. The flag of the regimental reunion association lists all of the engagements that the regiment took part in during the Civil War. The Battle of Stones River was among the bloodiest and most memorable of the regiment's four years' service and it was at Stones River that the men earned their laurels as a fighting regiment. 

The Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Major General William Starke Rosecrans, marched from their camps around Nashville on December 26, 1862 with the intention of driving Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee away from the rich foraging area of middle Tennessee. As part of the Third Brigade, Second Division, Center Corps, the 21st Ohio served under some of the best regarded officers in Federal service. Colonel John F. Miller, formerly of the 29th Indiana, was commanding Third Brigade. James S. Negley, a prominent Pennsylvania horticulturist before the war was in command of the Second Division. The corps commander was Major General George Henry Thomas, better known as “Pap” to his troops.
Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Army of the Cumberland
Major General George Henry "Pap" Thomas, commanding the Center Corps
Colonel John Franklin Miller, commanding the Third Brigade, Second Division, Center Corps

The march through inclement weather and on poor roads became legendary within the annals of the Army of the Cumberland. Private Wilson Vance, a 17 year old Findlay native of Company B, serving as an orderly at brigade headquarters left an apt description of the experience: 

“We had several days of marching and skirmishing, of wading through rain-soaked, ploughed fields and the mire of country roads. Cut up and turned into long, narrow sloughs of deep, sticky mortar, of nights spent sleepless on the picket post or vidette duty, or comfortless on the water saturated earth, of the almost hourly recurrent call to arms to await the enemy or reconnoiter, of the frequent and hurried foray over hills and fields, through woods and swamps, and the breathless return from a fruitless enterprise.”

The cedar forest in which the 21st Ohio fought during the first day of the Battle of Stones River is preserved at the Stones River National Battlefield Park. The above shot dates from May 2016 when Federal reenactors portrayed the 21st Ohio during a park event.  My fourth great uncle James A. McLargin of Co. C suffered a severe head wound in these woods on December 31, 1862 and died in Nashville two weeks later. It was a powerful experience to be in the same woods where my ancestors had fought.

For three days, the 21st Ohio marched southeast towards Murfreesboro. On December 30th, the regiment arrived at the 3 mile post along the Nashville Pike and deployed. The entire division advanced into a cedar brake just west of the Pike and sharp skirmishing commenced as the Federal lines rolled forward. Upon halting for the night, the Pioneer Corps busily cut a series of “roads” behind the Center Corps to facilitate communications and supply. In the end, these roads would prove the salvation of many in the Federal army.
Sergeant John H. Bolton, Co. F

Sergeant John H. Bolton of Company F takes up the story:
This morning we were relieved from picket duty before daylight by another regiment and we went to the rear about a fourth of a mile and made our breakfast upon warm coffee and army biscuits which we had scarcely finished when it was evident that General McCook commanding our extreme right was being driven back by the enemy. The continuous roar of musketry and the more deafening sound of artillery gradually moving nearer and nearer told us but too plainly that the conflict has commenced in terrible earnest and in a few moments, we all would be engaged.”

Map showing the location of Miller's brigade on the morning of December 31, 1862. The 21st Ohio held the left of the brigade line just east of McFadden Lane.
Map courtesy of Lanny Smith

Private Samuel A. “Sol” Linton of Company I continues:
Orders came to fall in and we were soon on the move for the front. We changed position two or three times and as we passed by where a beef had been killed and partly skinned, I stopped and cut off a piece. The regiment moved past and moved to a fence between the cedars and cotton field. We were ordered to lie down.”

Private Henry Foust, Co. G
Photo courtesy of Rob Tong

Sergeant George Thomas Squire of Company E continues:
The battery belonging to our brigade occupied a little knoll to the right of our regiment and they were hard at work. Right in front of us was a little strip of woods between us and another open field and as soon as we got to our place in the field, we were ordered to lie down. Pretty soon the other regiments of our Brigade opened with small arms; we laid still and heard the bullets whistle over us. A flock of wild turkeys came running out of the woods towards our regiment and stopped. They were so frightened they could not fly and some of the boys laid down their guns and caught three or four of them. And rabbits came trotting along and would not try to get out of our way. It seemed as through the very wild animals were terrified at the unearthly uproar.”
Captain Silas Canfield, Co. K

Captain Silas Canfield, commanding Company K continues:
Withers massed his division by brigades and moved to the attack of General Negley’s division, about the time Sheridan’s men became engaged. A corn field was in the front of the 21st Ohio and as soon as the Rebels came in range, the infantry opened a deadly fire on them. More persistent courage on the one hand or greater coolness on the other could hardly be displayed. Openings through the serried ranks were several times made by canister shot, still they came boldly on. Men fell at every step and still they pressed forward. ‘Gosh, I got a dead one on him. He’ll never kill any more Yanks. This gun never deceives me. I know right where she carries. Such are some of the expressions made by the men of the 21st during the heat of battle. When the enemy was about 30 yards distant, the order was given to fix bayonets; but at about this time, they broke and fled, followed by a volley as a parting salute.”
Sergeant Robert H. Caldwell of Company I continues:
It was truly sublime, the fierce roar of the artillery and the sharp rattle of musketry made an almost indescribable din. I had the pleasure of firing about 10 rounds and I flatter myself that I never pulled trigger without first getting a good sight. I took a regular squirrel sight on them before firing.”
Private Liberty Warner, Co. H

Private Liberty Warner of Company H continues:
The Rebs came up 2 or 3 columns deep, screeching and yelping like hounds. We rested our guns across the fence and made them yell another tune. I was as cool as a cucumber and took steady aim at the cloud of flash and smoke. I believe some of my lead came near enough for them to hear it whistle, if nothing farther.”
Private Jacob Adams of Company F continues:
This being the first heavy fire the regiment was ever under, the boys stood under it in fine shape, and were greatly encouraged and enthused when Colonel Jim as we called Colonel Neibling went up and down the line repeating ‘Give ‘em hell by the acre boys!’ We were elated in our success in holding our line intact against assault after assault by enmassed columns.”
Captain Canfield of Company K again:
Our front clear, we had a chance to view the ghastly sight. Colonel Neibling came along the regiment and said, ‘My God, boys, we gave them hell didn’t we?’

Lieutenant Colonel James M. Neibling of Findlay assumed command of the 21st Ohio in the summer of 1862 following an unsavory episode where Colonel Jesse S. Norton was caught associating with Alabama secessionists, then made false charges against his division commander General Ormsby M. Mitchel. Upon further investigation, it was found that Colonel Norton had never been properly exchanged following his capture at Scary Creek in July 1861. His charges against Mitchel fell apart and by December Norton had resigned his commission. "Colonel Jim" was beloved by the men of his command; Neilbing proved a tenacious fighter but a poor disciplinarian. But at Stones River, his dauntless enthusiasm was the marvel of his men who presented him with a beautiful sword in the spring of 1863 engraved "Give 'em hell by the acre." Both the presentation sword and the sword Neibling carried at Stones River are in private hands; I once had the opportunity to hold Neibling's original sword that he carried at Stones River. It was a powerful experience. 

However, the 21st Ohio was about to be caught within the jaws of a Confederate pincer movement. To the southwest of the regiment’s position, Sheridan’s and Rousseau’s divisions were finally driven from their line along Manson Pike and commenced retreating through the cedars. This left Negley’s division exposed on their right flank and rear.
First Sergeant Erastus Biggs, Co. A
Died of wounds January 2, 1863
Photo courtesy of Rob Tong

Private John C. Leonard of Company A remembers:
The enemy came up on the right and left of our brigade and flanked us and we had to fall back about a mile and a half, leaving the dead and a few of the wounded on the field. The enemy came up and stripped those that were killed of everything that was on them but their shirts and drawers. Tilden got Joseph Camp to take Absalom Kleckner’s pocketbook out of his pocket. There was three dollars and five cents in it, besides a note of eight dollars due next payday.”
Being on the right flank of the regiment, Company A was the worst exposed company in the regiment as the other regiments of Miller’s brigade began to retreat from their positions. It also suffered the highest casualty rate of any company in this fight. Company commander Lieutenant Enoch B. Wiley, a Perrysburg resident who was due to be promoted to the rank of Captain, was wounded so severely that he died a few days later. The company was led from the cedars by a sergeant.
Captain James W. Knaggs, Co. B
Wounded in left side and arm
December 31, 1862

The next company in line was Company F; Sergeant John Bolton relates his experiences during the withdrawal from the cedars:
We were compelled to withdraw and reform our line of battle in the edge of the cedar thicket in our rear. Here we scarcely got into position when the enemy were again upon us and the first charge they made we again sent them back but they reformed and made another desperate charge. Owing to now being outflanked on our right and under a severe cross fire, we had to withdraw. My comrade John Shelly and self did not hear the order ‘About face and march to the rear,’ we were so busily engaged in loading and firing that we were unconscious of our surroundings until we were ordered to surrender by a Rebel officer. Both of us delivered a hurried shot at them and ran at our top speed through a volley of musket fire and succeeded in getting to our regiment with no marks or wounds, but our clothing was in different places pierced by musket balls.”
Confederate troops charging the 21st Ohio position as depicted at Stones River National Battlefield Park

Company I was near the regimental center when the order came to retreat, as Sol Linton relates:
Second Lieutenant George Cleghorn began to cry and said it was a disgrace to retreat and called on the boys to fight. But soon there came a fire from the right and this said to me git and for the first 20 rods I just wiggled my toes and flew. I found nothing in my way that I could not get over. The Rebs were helping me by their yells “Halt, you damn Yankee SOB, Run Yank, Git thar damn you, Bull Run.’ I knew that they had just fired and if I could out run them, I stood a good chance of getting out. As I neared the edge of the cedars, I heard the command ‘Charge’; it sounded like a Southerner’s voice and my hair raised. The brush was so thick, I could not see the men, but before I could make up my mind what to do, I caught sight of the blue coats and was soon in the rear of the column.”
Private W. Sidney Brewster, Co. C

Private W. Sidney Brewster of Company C continues:
Our regiment was obliged to retreat in perfect confusion. I couldn’t bear the idea of being shot in the back so I took my position behind a cedar and resolved to give them the best I had. But it was all in vain; they was too many for us and it was too late to retreat by this time. The rest of the troops had got out of sight except a few of us that was playing Indian on them. I started to run but they was too close to us, The bullets whistled around us from every side. I jumped into a large hole which happened to be near. In a moment, about 20 Rebels came up and demanded me to surrender, which I was obliged to do or die. I preferred to surrender.”

A gruesome drawing from Adolph Metzner of the 32nd Indiana depicting Federal and Confederate casualties at Stones River. The ground within the cedars was strewn with dead and wounded; the Confederates buried many of the dead of the 21st Ohio on January 1, 1863 after stripping the dead of shoes, pants, blankets, etc. Corporal Maxwell C. Reynolds of Co. I was one of these, however, when Federal troops disinterred the bodies after the battle, Reynolds' body could not be found. Speculation was that his stripped body thrown into a mass grave of Confederate dead. Maxwell's brother James was shot through the arm on January 2, 1863 and died of that wound January 14, 1863 in Nashville, Tennessee. A joint stone commemorates the brothers at Harrington Cemetery in Elmore, Ohio. 

This 21st Ohio retreated from the cedars and took position along the Nashville Pike and remained there the balance of the day. The following was written by a member of Miller’s Brigade who describes the night of December 31st and January 1st:

The misty darkness around them was filled with noise and motion. Men who had become separated from their regiments were wandering around trying to find them in the bewildering maze of men, wagons, and animals. Officers were calling aloud the names of regiments to bring together stragglers. Aids were rushing around to find Generals and Colonels to give and receive orders and instructions. Regiments and batteries were marching hither and yon to get into position and complete the formation of the line for the next day’s battle. The 37th Indiana, which had fallen back in good order with its brigade was well together and made an island around which a restless sea of humanity flowed and eddied. Cheerless as was its bivouac in the cold mud, yet it was infinitely preferable to being lost in the inextricable confusion that reigned over those cotton fields on that sorrowful night of December 31, 1862.”
January 1, 1863 was an exceedingly solemn, unhappy New Year’s day for the Union soldiers on the banks of Stones River. Of the 44,000 who had gone into the line on the evening of December 30th, nearly 9,000 had been killed or wounded and about 2,000 were prisoners. The whole right wing of the army had been driven back several miles to the Nashville pike. Cannon, wagon trains, tents and supplies had been captured by the rebel cavalry which had burned miles of wagons, and the faint hearted one murmured that the army would have to surrender or starve.”

The situation at Stones River on the afternoon of January 2, 1863. The 21st Ohio was among the troops that charged across Stones River and drove back Breckinridge's assault on the Federal left, in the process taking part in the capture of Mebane's Tennessee battery, the flag of the 26th Tennessee Infantry, and numerous Rebel prisoners.
Map courtesy of Hal Jespersen,

Things started to change on Friday January 2nd as Sergeant Squire of Company E relates:
The next day we were on the right all the forenoon. We had been out of rations since the morning of the 1st and about noon on the 2nd we got some bacon and flour without anything else. We wet the flour up in our cups without salt and some roasted it in the ashes. But I took a big flat stone and laid it on the fire until it got hot then I took and spatted my dough out flat- put it on the stone and turned it up before the fire. I then took and roasted a piece of meat and let the grease drop on it while baking. I had just got mine done when all at once came the order to fall in and we were started off on the double quick toward the left wing. I eat my dough while running and I never had anything taste better.”
Adjutant Edward L. Baird, 21st O.V.I.
Baird earned praise for his steadiness under fire
at Stones River. He died in 1867 and is buried at
Fort Meigs Cemetery in my hometown of
Perrysburg, Ohio.

Braxton Bragg had ordered John C. Breckenridge’s division to assault the Federal left which was entrenched along a rise on the east side of Stones River. Negley’s division was dispatched to a position on the right rear of Van Cleve’s division, separated by Stones River. Crittenden’s artillery chief then gathered as many artillery pieces as he could and placed them along the heights overlooking the river and covering the rear of Van Cleve’s division. And there the men waited.
Private Jacob Adams, Co. F

Sol Linton continues:
Soon their batteries opened fire along their front as far as I could see, and soon after General Breckenridge with a grand display of troops dashed at Van Cleve’s division which had been stationed over the river. They soon gave way and came across the river in our left front in great disorder, crossing at a ford prepared for artillery. All around us bullets whistling everywhere and comrades hit on the left and right. Is it any wonder that some talked of running? But there was one man, Sergeant Mike Rice, who did more to hold the boys in line than all the officers we had, and he did it by very few words. ‘We can check them and anyone who runs now is a damn coward.’ At this, all hug the ground the harder and keep quiet.”
All was not quiet back at brigade headquarters. Colonel Miller repeatedly asked for permission to charge the oncoming enemy. But no General could be found that could give such permission. As Wilson Vance relates:
Miller found himself the ranking officer present with the division and realized a decision fraught with so much importance lay with him. He was surrounded by a group of regimental commanders who alternately studied the field and his face. He turned to the officers around him saying quietly ‘I’ll charge them.’ After opening ranks to allow the fugitives through, then Miller, placing himself at the head of his men, spurred his horse into the water. An orderly returned with an order from General Palmer forbidding the movement. ‘It’s too late now,’ replied Miller who drew his sword and gave the order to charge.”
First Lieutenant Robert S. Dilworth, Co. I

Lieutenant Robert S. Dilworth recalled:
Colonel Neibling in a sonorous voice cried out ‘Attention!” The whole regiment sprang to their feet with their arms gripped, ready for the oncoming assault of the Rebel forces and the coming struggle. The Rebels charged up to the river’s edge and Colonel Neibling cried out, “Deploy into line on the fifth company!” We were in our places quicker than it takes to tell it and our next command was to lie down and then we commenced to pour a withering fire into their advancing ranks which caused them to begin to fall back. Colonel Jim then rode out and in a voice that sounded above the din of battle, cried out “Charge!” And charge it was, right up to the river’s bank amidst a terrible swarm of iron and lead.
Federal troops dashing across Stones River on January 2, 1863

Sergeant John Bolton continues:
We were ordered to advance and fire. We rushed down the bank of the river and the heavy columns of the Rebels were on top of us. We delivered a number of very effective volleys in quick succession and then charged through the river up the other bank and drove them steadily before us. Their battery of six guns on the other bank, which was playing on us with terrible effect, we charged upon and took. The officers refused to surrender and were bayoneted. We took and turned the full battery upon them and drove the enemy across a large cotton field into the woods.”
Private Abel Comstock, Co. C
Wounded December 31, 1862

Sergeant George Squire continues:
We pushed on and most of us were about 50 yards in a little hollow in a cornfield and here we laid and loaded and fired until reinforcements came and then we got up and pushed ahead. I went into this battle with 80 rounds of cartridges and came out with 10. We lost in all 13 wounded and one killed from our company.”
Sol Linton on the end of the battle:
I captured a Johnny and turned him over to one of Co. C who had been wounded. When I fell back to the river, I found a very tall man sitting in the water, which was a very cold bath. He began to beg to be helped out so I took hold of him and helped him across the river.”
A popular depiction showing Federal troops capturing the Confederate battery commanded by Captain John Mebane at center while the colors of the 26th Tennessee (erroneously called the 25th Tennessee in this print) are captured on the right. John Bolton claimed that he picked up the colors and ran with them for a distance before throwing them on the ground; soldiers from the 78th Pennsylvania were given credit for capturing the 26th Tennessee flag and the flag is currently housed in the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. 

The 26th Tennessee battle flag that was captured at Stones River. 

The Battle of Stones River was ultimately a bloody but inconclusive engagement. Rosecrans and his army had succeeded in pushing the Army of Tennessee out of middle Tennessee, but accomplished this objective at such a high price in lives that the army remained in camp around Murfreesboro for six months afterwards. The 21st Ohio had paid a high price in their first large scale engagement. Total casualties amounted to over 200, including 7 of the 21 officers present at the start of the battle. The regiment gained a well-earned reputation as one of the best fighting regiments in the Army of the Cumberland; it was this fighting reputation gained at Stones River that led to their fateful selection to reinforce Horseshoe Ridge during the Battle of Chickamauga.
Sergeant Reason Bates, Co. C

Facts of the 21st Ohio at Stones River:
21 officers, 590 men engaged
Reported 22 killed, 126 wounded, 55 missing, a total of 203 (34%)
Of the wounded, 27 died of their wounds
Corporal William Didway carried the colors throughout the entire engagement
The regiment was armed primarily with .69 caliber rifle muskets during the battle, but 2 companies (A and B) were armed with .58 caliber Enfield rifle muskets.
One of the several 21st Ohio regimental flags in existence; this one is owned by the Ohio History Connection. The Hancock County Museum owns a company flag that was owned by Co. C from Perrysburg and is emblazoned with "Don't Give Up the Ship" in commemoration of Oliver Hazard Perry, the town's namesake.

Officers of the 21st during the Battle of Stones River
Lieutenant Colonel James M. Neibling
Acting Lieutenant Colonel Dwella M. Stoughton
Acting Major George F. Walker
Adjutant Edward L. Baird
First Lieutenant Enoch B. Wiley, commanding Co. A (wounded and died of wounds)
Captain James W. Knaggs, commanding Co. B (wounded in left side and arm)
Captain Arnold McMahan, commanding Co. C
Captain Mathew Ewing, commanding Co. D
Captain Lewis E. Brewster, commanding Co. E
Captain Henry H. Alban, commanding Co. F
Captain Isaac Cusac, commanding Co. G
Captain Milo Caton, commanding Co. H
Captain Charles H. Vantine, commanding Co. I
Captain Silas S. Canfield, commanding Co. K


  1. Well done Dan. Excellent telling of the 21st O.V.I in action at Stones River! Thank you for your continued dedictation to the memory of the men of the 21st. Mark Stibitz

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. This is fascinating to read. My GG-Grandfather Eli Haddox Dukes, 20 yrs old, enlisted in Company A, 21st Infantry Regiment Ohio, 1861-1864, fought here. By a twist of fate I now live in Murfreesboro, TN, location of the Stones River battle. I know he was wounded in one of his legs and was captured at some point, but I don't know if it was here. He escaped after a while, and rejoined his troops and lived to be 84.

  5. Wonderfully researched article on the 21st Ohio. They did great work in the rear guard action at Chickamauga. What a magnificent regiment.
    Your research is first rate.
    -Dave Mercado


Post a Comment

Most Popular Posts

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

The Cannons are Now Silent: The Field of Death of Tupelo

The Vaunted Enfield Rifle Musket

Straw Already Threshed: Sherman on Shiloh

Federal Arms in the Stones River Campaign

Escape of Captain Henry H. Alban of the 21st Ohio Infantry

Knapsack Compression: Wilbur Hinman recalls the first step of becoming a veteran

Federal Arms in the Chickamauga Campaign