The Doubtful Day: Sam Pettit of the 15th Ohio at Stones River

Samuel Sheldon Pettit was a well-traveled man before he enlisted in the 15th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in 1861. The 28 year old harness maker had been born in New Jersey in 1833, moved to Knoxville, Illinois in 1851, and with his wife moved to California in 1854. By 1858, he had returned east and settled in Wyandot County, Ohio. He helped raise Company D of the 15th Ohio in the summer of 1861 and was appointed First Sergeant upon the mustering in of the regiment in September 1861. His exemplary conduct at the battle of Shiloh gained notice and recommendations from his company and regimental commanders and Pettit was soon commissioned as second lieutenant of Co. D. It was in this capacity that he led Co. D at the Battle of Stones River on December 31, 1862. 
Captain Samuel Sheldon Pettit, Co. D, 15th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
(Photo courtesy of Jon-Erik Gilot)

The following account focuses on the crucial first day of the Battle of Stones River, and Pettit provides an exceptional account of the chaos and panic that gripped his regiment at the outset of the Confederate attack on the Federal right. This letter was published in the February 6, 1863 issue of the Wyandot Pioneer published in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Following Captain Pettit's letter are several shorter accounts (and one long one) from other members of the 15th Ohio describing their experiences at Stones River.

Camp near Murfreesboro, Tennessee
January 20, 1863

          For the information of the friends of the 15th Ohio Regiment, and Company D in particular, you will please find a place in your journal for a short letter from one of its actors.

          We left our camp near Nashville on the morning of the 26th of December and took the Nolensville Pike with Sheridan’s and Davis’ divisions in advance, our division was to be held in reserve. Our advance began to skirmish with the enemy’s cavalry soon after leaving our picket lines. This continued all day. We reached Nolensville soon after dark and encamped in a wood near this place. Our advance met with a large body of the enemy’s cavalry posted in this woods, but soon made them skedaddle with some loss on both sides. The trees bore marks of shot and shell in many places.

          In the evening it commenced raining hard. The boys pitched their shelter tents, or as they dub them ‘dog tents,’ your humble servant stretching himself on the ground by the side of a fire with a blanket over him. It rained all night. The dog tents, before despised by most of the boys, were now set down as one of the institutions not to be dispensed with.
"The dog tents, before despised by most of the boys, were now set down as one of the institutions not to be dispensed with," wrote Pettit. 
          On the 27th we moved forward seven miles skirmishing all the way. It rained hard all day and we encamped near a deserted village called Triune in a woods previously occupied by the Rebs. We camped on the farm of General Perkins, now in the Rebel army. It continued raining all night. I turned in with three others in one of the little tents (one by five feet) but could not sleep.

          On the 28th we moved on five miles and learned that the Rebels had gone to Murfreesboro; we then returned to the place we occupied the night before and drew rations. This night I lay down on some rails (not old Abe’s) by the side of a good rail fire and succeeded in getting about two hours’ sleep.

          On the 29th, we started for Murfreesboro and reached our camping place after dark, it being six miles from the town. Here we were not allowed to build fires as we were encamped in a corn field. After the recent rains, the ground being very muddy, the men fixed for the night’s rest the best they could under the circumstances, myself and several others taking to rails here again. Morpheus was destined to desert us for we had not more then fixed for sleep when it began to rain and continued during the night. We weathered it through the break of day when we all made up for loss of sleep and cold by burning rails, making coffee, frying meat on a stick, and warming our hardtack to soften them. Our meal being over, we again set out.

The skirmishing was now becoming more brisk as we advanced until about 4 P.M. We found the enemy posted in a thick wood and under the cedar brush. Our columns cautiously advanced until they came within range of the enemy and then opened their batteries, the Rebels quickly replying. The action now became general along the whole line and continued until night set in, our forces gaining little or no ground and losing a number of men. Our division was still in the reserve. In the evening, the enemy was found to be moving around to our right with the intention of flanking us. Our division was called out on the extreme right and posted very quietly after dark. Our pickets were then thrown out and everything done to guard against a surprise. Sentinels were kept up in every company.
Position of Willich's Brigade at the outset of the Battle of Stones River. The 15th Ohio actually was facing west when the Confederate attack struck at their left rear. Colonel William Wallace tried to maneuver the regiment into position but heavy Confederate fire tore into the regiment. The men bolted for the rear. Note the location of Battery A, 1st OVLA at the corner of the wood. Four of the six guns of this battery were overrun in the opening moments of the battle.
(Map courtesy of Lanny Smith) 

At 5 o’clock in the morning of Wednesday December 31st, the sentinels roused the camp and the men all stood under arms until nearly daylight. Up to this time, all had been quiet along the picket lines. We were now ordered to build small fires and make some coffee. We had just got our coffee ready to drink when bang, bang went several guns on the picket line immediately in front of our brigade and the next second volley after volley and the bullets were whistling in too close proximity to our heads to be comfortable. The cry to arms came up to the regiment from the Colonel [Colonel William Wallace]. We left our coffee, threw our tents and blankets on a pile and sprang for our arms.

By this time we could distinctly hear the Rebel cheering. They were charging our batteries (two in number), the horses all being off to water but those belonging to one section, which succeeded in getting away, the rest were captured and turned against us in 15 minutes. [Pettit is referring to Battery A, 1st Ohio Light Artillery which was attached to his brigade and lost four of six guns.] We were taken by surprise. General Willich, our brigade commander, was wounded and taken prisoner without giving a command. The men became panic-stricken. The other regiments were running in all directions, ours being the last to leave. 
General August Willich
Wounded and captured at Stones River

We fell back in an open field and undertook to countermarch in the center of the field and had partly succeeded when the Rebels sent a volley into our ranks thinning them some. I had given the order to Company D to lie down which they had done in time to save themselves from the murderous volley. No other company in the regiment did it. We returned fire but the Rebels were now coming over the raise we had occupied and within 150 yards yelling like so many savages. This sent terror among our already broken ranks and then there was skedaddling on our part. The Rebels came down on us five columns deep with their dirty colors flaunting in our faces, yelling and firing volley after volley, and our men were not able to check them. There was no alternative: we must run or be taken prisoners.

Retreat of the 15th Ohio at Stones River. "The Rebels came down on us five columns deep with their dirty colors flaunting in our faces, yelling and firing volley after volley, and our men were not able to check them. There was no alternative: we must run or be taken prisoners," Pettit wrote. 

Many were wounded and taken prisoners; some gave out and were taken. All were trying to get out of the way as best they could. Our lieutenant colonel [Frank Askew] was wounded at the first fire and also our major [John McClenahan]. The colonel had not time to get on his horse and he got lost from the main body of the regiment. No general and no colonel! What could we do? Several times the officers partly succeeded in rallying the scattered forces, but after a volley, it would break again. These things continued until we reached the Nashville Pike. Here we were met by reinforcements posted behind a crest or ridge on the right of the pike. General McCook seeing this was the last and only chance to stop them went personally as the Rebels came on the ridge, and by his presence and encouragement succeeded in checking the enemy and driving them back with great slaughter. Cheer after cheer rose; the dispirited troops catching it up and began to rally. The day was ours if we could hold them. Our men still drove them on as our batteries made sad havoc among them ranks. We regained a half mile of lost ground and night set it, our men still holding what they had gained.
Colonel William Wallace, 15th OVI

Colonel Wallace joined us on our retreat but could not rally the men. After the Rebels were checked, our division was ordered back to reorganize and get ammunition. We then went to the support of another division in front and this ended the doubtful day. I had some 15 or 20 men left with me. In the evening our brigade was moved back and to the right to protect the flank.

Thousands of valuable lives were lost, making vacant and cold many a household. Wives mourning for their husbands, parents for their sons, sisters for their brothers; but the little slab or board on yonder ridge tells too plainly the fate of these noble men. The resurrection alone can tell the result. The wind stirs the trees over these newly made mounds. They sleep their last sleep. No sound of the cannon will call them to battle again. Rest soldiers, rest!

And what can I say for the noble boys of the 15th regiment and particularly for Co. D? All that I can say is, with one of two exceptions, they done their duty and done it well. Some 20 men stood by me all day on that fatal Wednesday. Others who had become separated came to us the next morning as soon as they could find the regiment. But for those that only stopped when they reached Nashville, they deserve the execration of all true men and soldiers.

15th Ohio Incidents of the Battle of Stones River:

Private Sanford U. Early, Co. C: "In the battle of Stone River, the 15th Ohio was 'hotly engaged, as its loss will show, being 18 killed and 89 wounded. Company C went into the battle, as we were informed by a member of it, with 101 men, and on the following day, it had but 16 to answer at roll-call, and some of them were slightly wounded. Of Company C, John Mossmore, T. A. Jolly and [Corporal] Marshall S. Byrd were among the killed. The latter was a brother of Capt. [John G.] Byrd. Private Sanford U. Early relates the following incident of this battle: He was carrying a wounded officer of an Indiana regiment off the field, when he was struck in the calf of the leg and brought to his knee. The wounded officer begged him to leave him and save himself, but Early told him he was not yet hurt bad enough for that, and, after recovering himself, moved on with his charge, and was soon wounded again in the be thigh, and for a time disabled, but finally got to the hospital with the wounded officer." From the History of Morrow County, Ohio, pg. 269 

Private John B.S. Williams, Co. C: "The colonel’s horses were put in his charge and he started for the rear. Halting to watch the battle, a solid shot struck the ground under the horse on which he was sitting causing the animal to rear and throw him. On his way to the rear, he stopped and picked up the drummer boy of his company, Sanford Early, who had been wounded in the thigh.” From Hardesty's Military and Geographical Encyclopedia for Richland County, Ohio, pg. 490

Private William G. Whipp,Co. G: “The regiment was in a corn field on a reconnoiter and drill when they were surprised by the enemy. In a moment he found himself alone and starting back he overtook a comrade to whom he proposed that they return the rebels’ fire. They fired 3 rounds when he was struck by a bullet. He crawled to the fence corner and while lying there he was fired into by a squad of rebel cavalry. His company had fallen back into a cedar thicket and he made an effort to join them, but his wound compelled him to lie down and he was taken prisoner by two wounded infantrymen. They carried him back to Stone River, and after 2 days his wound was dressed by the rebel surgeon. For 3 days he had nothing to eat. On January 2, 1863, he was taken to Murfreesboro and there remained until the city fell into the hands of the Union army.” From Hardesty's Military and Geographical Encyclopedia for Richland County, Ohio, pg. 470

Private Charles L. Kerr, Co. I: "Mr. Kerr had been detailed bugler at Nashville, but on entering this battle he slung his bugle around his neck and carried a gun. A number of his company were taken prisoners and 3 were killed while trying to escape capture by attempting, with many others, to get through a hole in the fence. Mr. Kerr only saved himself by making good use of his legs.” From Hardesty's Military and Geographical Encyclopedia for Richland County, Ohio, pg. 500

Sergeant Alexis Cope, Co. K: "The morning of December 31, 1862, was very cold and clear. At daybreak we were awakened, built small fires and made our coffee. While we were so engaged we had time to look about us. We saw that our brigade, posted as above described, was in a wooded field about 330 yards square and that a comparatively open country stretched away toward the supposed position of the enemy, with a clump of woods several hundred yards to the southeast of our position. To our rear, towards which our regiment fronted, was a small open field and on the farther side of it was a fence made of upright cedar poles closely tied together, and to the left of the fence was a small farm house which was reached by a gate in the fence.

    Lieutenant Colonel Miles, of the 49th Ohio, who was then a Lieutenant and Aide-de-Camp on the staff of General Willich, in a letter written to his father January 7, 1863, says that very early, on the morning of December 31, General Willich rode to General Johnson's headquarters, that he, Lieutenant Miles, notified Colonel Gibson of General Willich's absence and then followed him. That the general had started back to the brigade and rode right into the advancing enemy and was captured; that he, Lieutenant Miles, after reporting to General Johnson, also started back to the brigade and rode between two of the advancing lines of the enemy. That having on his overcoat, he was mistaken for an aide of one of the Confederate generals and ordered to place an Arkansas regiment in position. He says, "I saluted him as I would one of our own commanders, wheeled my horse and rode in the direction of their reserve until behind a cluster of bushes, when I turned to the left and came out through Davis' lines". He also says that he met General Davis, told him where the enemy's lines were, saw him place a battery in position to play on them and then rode back to the brigade.

     While we were blowing our coffee cool enough to drink, suddenly came the sharp zt, zt, of bullets and we heard General Gibson's stentorian voice calling out, "Fall in 49th and 15th Ohio! Hook up them battery horses"! Dashing our coffee to the ground we rushed to the line, took our guns from the stacks and soon had orders to move a few paces forward and countermarch. In the confusion, the order was not understood by Captain Joshua K. Brown, commanding Company B, and there was a momentary delay, until a sergeant of Company K [Cope himself] ran to him, took him by the arm, told him the order and pulled him in the right direction. But before the movement to countermarch could be completed, we were ordered to lie down and commence firing. 

    Captain Thos. E. Douglass, long afterwards, claimed to have first given the order to fire. Mr. A. B. Graham, who was writing a history of Richland County, asked the writer to confirm his statement in this respect, as Captain Douglass had cited him as witness of the fact, but the writer could not recall the incident he described. How many rounds we fired one cannot remember. Colonel Gibson in his official report as brigade commander says six. It may have been more or less. It seems, however, from the official reports that we held our ground long enough to enable the 49th Ohio and 89th Illinois to retire in fairly good order, but not the 32nd and 39th Indiana, who for a time were separated from the brigade. It soon became apparent that the enemy were rapidly closing in on our front and flank and threatening our rear in such numbers that our only hope of escape was in rapid retreat. Whether we received an order to fall back or not one cannot recall, (Colonel Wallace in his official report says he gave such order). 

    We went back in fairly good order until the picket fence, heretofore mentioned, arose in our way. Many of our men tried to pull the pickets apart in order to get through. Some got over and many were either killed or wounded trying to do so. The writer tried to get over or through the fence and failing to do so, ran to the left towards the advancing enemy and passed through the gate leading into the house before mentioned. Just after passing the house a ball from one of the enemy's rifles struck him in the right arm and knocked his gun from his hand. He picked it up with his left hand and continued his retreat not knowing whether his arm was broken or only bruised. Fortunately the ball was so far spent and his overcoat cape so thick that it only inflicted a severe bruise.

This fence proved to be a fatal obstruction to anything like an orderly retreat. The writer thinks he cannot be mistaken in its character, for he tried to get through it by pulling the cedar pickets apart and failing to do so took the course before mentioned. The fence farther to the right may have been built of rails and this may account for the discrepancy in our experiences. It was in this field and at or near this fence that we suffered our chief losses of the four day's battle. Here Lieutenant Colonel Askew, Major McClenahan, Capt. Thos. E. Douglass and Lieutenants Samuel Hilles and Nicholas Fowler were wounded. Here the most of our killed and wounded fell, and here over a hundred of our men were taken prisoners by the enemy. Lieut. Col. Askew was severely wounded in the hip. Sergeants William G. Malin and William Addison Hogue of Company E tried to get him off the field, but he ordered them to leave him and take care of themselves, which they did. Sergeant Malin is the last known person who saw Sergeant Hogue alive. He was never seen or heard of afterwards and to this day his fate is not known. Father, mother, sisters and brothers, since then have searched among the grave stones in all the cemeteries north and south and have traced every clue which promised anything tangible, but all to no purpose. All that can be said of him is that he went into the battle and was never heard of afterwards. One can imagine the weary vigil in the country home where he was the joy and pride of the family, and how a step on the walk, or an unexpected knock at the door, made the hearts of loved ones beat with fond hope, only to sink again into despair. The father and mother are long since dead, but perhaps even yet, some loving one of the family is still hoping against hope for his return. The war was full of terrible tragedies, but there were few more terrible than instances like this.

Shortly after clearing the fence, those who did so, crossed a small stream and came on to higher ground. Our compact, close, efficient organizations had apparently gone all to pieces and one could see only a disorganized crowd moving to the rear, apparently under no command whatever. The enemy's cavalry appeared on our flank, and some one called out "fix bayonets" and every man fixed his bayonet to be ready for a cavalry charge. Soon we came to a rail fence extending along a bluff bank which commanded a good view of the valley we had crossed in our disorderly retreat. Everyone saw it was a good place to make a stand, and without orders the men formed a line along the fence. A sergeant of Company K [Cope again referring to himself in third person] noticed that the men still had their bayonets on their guns, and went along between the fence, and the approaching enemy and asked the men to unfix bayonets so they could better fire through the fence. The request was as promptly complied with as if it had been an order from the commander in chief delivered in person. Lieutenant Belden with one gun of Goodspeed's battery had taken position on our left, and as the enemy came forward in heavy columns he planted some shells right in their midst. The shells and the well-delivered fire from our line behind the fence gave the enemy a momentary check. 

Soon, however, we were out-flanked by the enemy's cavalry and were compelled to fall back, firing at the enemy every chance we could get. Finally, we came to a "devil's lane", two fences close together, crossed them and came into a fine open piece of woods through which thousands of men seemed to be drifting in disorder. There had been no attempt to reform our regiment and so far as one could see, the other regiments of the brigade with one exception were in the same state of disorder. The exception was the 89th Illinois. It appeared to be compact and in perfect order. It was commanded by Charles T. Hotchkiss, its Colonel, who was mounted and was coolly conducting its retreat. In this woods we had the color sergeant with us, who was still carrying our regimental flag. Lieutenant Chandler W. Carroll of Company E and a few men rallied about the flag, raised a shout, and started back through the woods to the devil's fence above mentioned, calling on every one to turn back. In a moment, almost, the tide of retreat turned and everyone was cheering and rushing wildly back. We formed along the devil's lane and as the enemy came up we gave them a galling fire. We continued it until the enemy's cavalry again came round our flank and we were again compelled to fall back. It was our last stand until we reached the Nashville pike. 

Here we saw a line of men in perfect order, standing with bayonets fixed, and ready to meet the enemy as soon as our stragglers got out of the way. The line was in command of Colonel Moses B. Walker of the 31st Ohio, who sternly ordered us to pass round his troops and not to attempt to break his line. We had no sooner passed to his right than the enemy approached within firing distance, and Walker's men did some as fine stand up firing and fighting as we had ever seen. The remnants of our regiment soon formed on the right of Walker's troops and with them advanced into the cedar woods and engaged the enemy. Here Isaac Eugene Dillon of Company E was wounded-shot in the cheek or jaw-and the writer can still see his look of anguish as he went to the rear. At this point the enemy's advance was checked. It was about nightfall. The remnants of the regiments of the brigade were gathered together and withdrawn a few yards and placed in reserve, Colonel Wallace in command.

We bivouacked among the rocks' and as our stragglers came up we began to realize how disastrous the day had been. General Willich was reported killed. Colonel Askew was wounded and captured, and more than one-half our men were missing, many of whom were killed or wounded and in the enemy's hands. We had been driven back between three and four miles and had lost, it was said, 31 pieces of artillery and thousands of prisoners. The night was very cold, all had lost their blankets and overcoats and fires were forbidden. A group of shivering men, in violation of the order, had made a small fire between two rocks and were trying to warm themselves when General Rosecrans came by on foot. He said, "My men you must not do that. Just a short while ago some men farther along the line made a little fire and the rebels threw a shell into their midst and killed or wounded some of them. Better bear the cold". The men put out the fire very promptly. 

While we were shivering and waiting, a group of officers were crouched together talking, and we noticed Colonel Gibson who had been taken prisoner. In the morning, and when released had drifted back with the debris of battle to Overall's or Stewart's Creek. He had just come up and was relating his experiences. He said, among other things, "When our cavalry charged the enemy and released us, I thought the day was lost, and said to myself, 'Here's for Nashville or the Cumberland River”. General Rosecrans came to our part of the line more than once during the night. He seemed to be unattended. He wore a private's cavalry overcoat. His face was drawn, his jaw set, and we heard him say more than once, "Bragg's a good-dog, but Hold Fast's a better". His presence inspired confidence. He gave us to understand that there was to be no retreat, but that we would fight it out where we were. We got the impression that we were receiving large reinforcements, and stragglers coming in reported seeing the camp fires of several thousand new troops coming to our help, We heard afterwards that, to create this same impression on the enemy, General Rosecrans had sent out officers to instruct the stragglers back at Overall's' and Stewart's Creeks to build fires. This deception evidently had its desired effect for General Bragg in his official report of the battle gives our reinforcements as one of his reasons for giving up Murfreesboro. It also gave us hope that we could renew the battle next morning with hope of final victory." From the Regimental History of the 15th Ohio Volunteer Infantry by Alexis Cope


  1. Great post, Dan. Interesting that Petitt uses almost the same words as Willich on December 28, when the brigadier reported the rebels "no more here, all gone to Murfreesboro. " That comment was taken out of context in a recollection nearly 30 years later by Lieut. JH Woodward that characterizes Willich as jolly and complacent the morning of Dec 31. Cozzens makes that error and I repeated it in my Anderson biography. I correct that error in the Willich biography, coming Sept 1.

  2. Do you have any history of the Bucktails Volunteers out of Pennsylvania? My great-grand father Enlisted in that group in 1861.Also called 1st Pennsylvania Rifles,Kane's Rifles.

  3. Thanks for sharing, I’ve been lucky to find relics along the trail from Triune to the first days battle site at Gresham Ln and Franklin Rd. My 3rd Great Grandfather was with the 17th Tennessee fighting in that same location.
    Marty Gates


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