Assaulting the Round Forest: A Confederate Viewpoint

First Sergeant John  H. Nichols served in Co. F, of the 16th Tennessee Volunteers during the Civil War and in 1902 left a poignant account of his experiences assaulting the Round Forest at Stones River. 
An unidentified Confederate private holding a flintlock musket. The courage of men like these who staged assault after assault against the Round Forest at Stones River was extraordinary. 

The 16th Tennessee, known as the First Mountain Regiment, was raised in the eastern portion of the state in May and June of 1861 and was commanded by Seminole and Mexican War veteran Colonel John Houston Savage. Colonel Savage was a colorful character by all accounts and likely deserves a blog post all of his own. Nichols company, Co. F, was raised in Putnam County and was known as "The Highlanders." Putnam County had been organized in the mid-1850s and its particular value to the Confederacy lay in the saltpeter mines which lay within the county boundaries. 

Map of middle Tennessee dating from 1865 showing Putnam County circled to the right, the yellow star indicating the location of the Battle of Stones River, and the blue pentagon representing the Union forces garrisoning Nashville. 

The 16th Tennessee saw its first service in Virginia and took part in the Cheat Mountain campaign before being sent to South Carolina in early 1862. Following the battle of Shiloh, the regiment was sent west to join the Army of Tennessee at Corinth, Mississippi and spent the rest of the war with that army. It saw hard fighting at Perryville where it suffered 199 casualties (Nichols' brother was wounded there), and in its assault on the Round Forest at Stones River, the 16th Tennessee suffered 208 casualties out of 402 engaged. 

Nichols' account was published in the April 1902 issue of Confederate Veteran.
The 16th Tennessee advanced along these tracks during their assault on the Round Forest December 31, 1862. In this photo taken from just behind the Hazen Brigade monument looking towards Murfreesboro, the tracks lay in the same location as they did during the war. The 16th Tennessee would have been marching toward the camera with two companies to the left of the tracks, and eight more stretching to the right towards the Cowan House. 

Thirty-nine years ago, December 31, 1862, I was in the Confederate line of battle of Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Early in the morning, the Federals were feeling for our line with bomb shells and before we were feeling the effect of their musketry. At the Battle of Perryville, two months before, all the commissioned officers in our company were killed or wounded, and I, being orderly sergeant, had to act in the capacity of first lieutenant while Lieutenant William Wallace had charge of the company (Wallace would be killed in action at Stones River). I did not gird on my sword but carried my gun into the battle and while I commanded as a lieutenant, I fought as a private.

All that morning I was oppressed with a dark foreboding that evil awaited me, and sure enough it came about 11 o'clock. Our company had been so reduced in the Perryville battle that we had only 23 left and in the Stones River battle only six escaped unhurt. My right and left file were both killed before I was wounded. The enemy had three columns of men in front of us pouring in shots thick and fast. The front column was lying down, the next kneeling, and the third standing. Our men were falling so fast I saw that we must be reinforced or be defeated. Just then I received a one ounce Minie ball in my right hip which completely paralyzed by right leg. For some minutes I lay on the ground watching the maneuvering of the enemy, but fully realizing the great danger to which I was exposed, I determined to try to leave the field.
The Cowan House area was cut by numerous fences and outbuildings which served to break up each Confederate assault against the Round Forest. The location of the Union brigades was accurate for the very beginning of the battle (6 a.m.), but by 8 a.m. Hazen's brigade had shifted to its left to cover the Round Forest. The 16th Tennessee moved along the path of the railroad with two companies to the right of the tracks and the remaining eight to the left. The Tennesseans passed to the right of the Cowan House and soon surged ahead of the left of the Confederate line, leaving them alone in an open field with Union infantry to their front and left, and Union artillery batteries blasting grape shot down the railroad into their ranks. The regiment lost more than 50% of its numbers at Stones River, Sergeant Nichols numbering among the wounded. 

I arose, but immediately fell to the ground. I summoned all of my strength and it seemed to concentrate in my left leg, so I did a first rate job of hopping for about one-fourth of a mile where I took shelter behind an oak tree near a pond of water. Tip, tip, tip went an occasional ball into that pond but I felt much safer there than I did on the field.

A few steps from me was the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad track and a little farther was Stones River with a low bluff on the south side. Down the railroad the enemy was sending a load of grape shot every few minutes. I was anxious to take shelter under that bluff, so immediately after a load of shot went rattling down the road, I hopped across as quickly as possible, but had not much more than cleared the track when another load of shot came crashing down, making splinters fly from the crossties.

Under the bluff, I found many wounded men. Here, among other wounded officers, I saw Captain Bluford Savage in the shades of death; he died without a groan. He was a brother of my old colonel John H. Savage. By the assistance of my messmate Albert H. Ballard, who was wounded in the hand, I was able to make my way up the river to the ambulance and was taken to Soule College. My wound was severe, and so sure were the doctors that I was going to die that they declined even to dress it. My father chanced to be in Murfreesboro and he obtained permission to carry me home. It was about ten months before I was able to walk on crutches and most of the time for ten years thereafter I was on crutches.
Colonel John H. Savage in an image dating from the Mexican War when he served as lieutenant colonel of the 11th U.S. Infantry. 

Colonel Savage reported the following regarding the colors of the 16th Tennessee: "My flag-bearer (Sergeant Marberry) was disabled early in the charge. The flag was afterward borne by Private J.B. Womack (Co. E), who was also wounded. The flag-staff was broken and hit with balls in three places; the flag literally shot to pieces. The fragments were brought to me at night."
A Polk pattern battle flag reportedly carried by the 16th Tennessee at Stones River that now resides in the former Museum of the Confederacy (now American Civil War Museum) in Richmond, Virginia. 

His report of the action in front of the Round Forest is also illuminating. "When the advance was ordered, my regiment being the right of Cheatham's division, I was directed by General Donelson (through his aide, Captain John Bradford) to move along the railroad, but two companies to its right and eight on its left, taking the guide to the right. The advance was made under a heavy cannonade, and the line of battle and direction maintained, although serious obstructions impeded the march. The eight left companies advanced between the railroad and the turnpike in front of the Cowan house without the slightest protection, engaging a battery and the enemy's infantry in the woods at a distance of less than 150 yards. The right companies advanced through a stalk-field to the edge of a cotton-patch," he wrote.
Donelson's brigade marker near the location of the Cowan House. The 16th Tennessee would have advanced to the left of the marker towards the Round Forest.
"Here the enemy opened a heavy fire at short range from a line extending to the right as far as I could see. This killed Captain Spurlock, who fell while leading his men in the most gallant manner. At this moment it seemed to me that I was without the expected support on my left, and that the line had divided and gone off in that direction. My men shot the horses and gunners of the battery in front, but I could not advance without being outflanked and ----- by the enemy on my right; I therefore ordered them to halt and fire. In a few moments my acting lieutenant colonel (Lucius N. Savage) fell by my side, supposed mortally wounded, and my acting major (Captain James J. Womack) had his right arm badly broken. There were batteries to the right and left of the railroad which literally swept the ground. The men maintained the fight against superior numbers with great spirit and obstinacy. The left companies, being very near and without any protection, sustained a heavy loss. Thirty men were left dead upon the spot where they halted dressed in perfect line of battle."

Sickened by the way in which his regiment and family had been decimated in two badly managed battles, and further incensed by being passed over for promotion to brigadier general after Stones River (Savage was the senior colonel in the brigade), Colonel Savage resigned his commission and ran for Congress, his motive being, as reported in his obituary "to square accounts with Governor Isham Harris, General Braxton Bragg, and others."

Colonel John Houston Savage, 16th Tennessee Volunteers


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