Holding the Nashville Pike: Captain John H. James of the 26th Ohio at Stones River
Part II of Captain John H. James' account of the Stones River campaign covers December 28-31, 1862, including his lengthy account of the role played by the 26th Ohio in defending the Nashville Pike during the crucial afternoon of the 31st of December.
|Captain John H. James, Co. A, 26th Ohio Volunteer Infantry|
On Monday morning we moved forward again with our division in the rear (having had the advance the last day’s march through LaVergne) and without serious opposition we arrived in front of the enemy’s position on Stones River about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We maneuvered around getting a position until dark when we settled down in a cornfield and commenced preparations for the night. We had hardly stacked arms and dispersed, however, when the word came to fall in again and immediately cross the river and push on to Murfreesboro. As I supposed they would hardly attempt to cross the river in the face of the enemy at night, I immediately concluded they had heard that the enemy was evacuating and we were going in pursuit.
But the order to march into Murfreesboro, if given, was altogether too premature as was soon discovered. We marched down near the river a little to the right of where we had been lying and formed into line- the whole brigade, nay two of them of our division- the other being Colonel Charles Harker’s which was already across on the other side. All was perfectly quiet- our own officers giving commands making about all the noise there was to be heard when, whiz came a bullet and then two or three more over our heads, right near where the General and his staff were standing. This indicated that there was some force of the enemy closer than we had supposed.
General Hascall told us to lie down and soon after moved us back out of range until something was to be done. The next thing done was to move us quietly back to our position in the cornfield and let us go to bed. It seems that Colonel Harker after crossing the river with his brigade discovered that he was right in front of a battery and a heavy infantry force, so close to where we were that he could hear every command given by our officers. They could have annihilated him if they chose or had known it, but they seem to have thought that there were only a few skirmishers across the creek and were probably waiting for a general advance. This, however, was not made but on the contrary Harker was quietly driven back across the creek and the old position resumed. We went to bed in a cornfield and slept pretty comfortably though it rained a good deal in the night.
The next day though we were constantly expecting an order to move until late in the day. Everything was quiet on our end of the line, though on the right there was almost continual firing and cannonading, occasionally quite heavy. He remained in the same position all day; the men having made shelters out of rails and cedar which made them pretty comfortable. Being very bad off for something to pass the time, I strolled over to the house occupied by brigade headquarters after dinner. It had been pretty thoroughly ransacked and pillaged by straggling soldiers before the officers got there and upon their arrival a great lot of things were left in confusion about the rooms. James R. Warner (who is on brigade staff now) and I looked round to see if we could find something to read. There was a stray volume of Captain Cook’s voyage, a life of Marshal Neney (which Warner selected) and a part of a volume of some of the old English essayists, either the Spectator or some of its brethren. They served to pass an hour or two and we left them where we found them; though for all their owners would ever see of them again we might as well have kept them. The next night the house was converted into a field hospital and filled with wounded men and, of course, everything disappeared that was movable.
Wednesday morning December 31, 1862, the day of battle, was dark and lowering but by 10 o’clock it had cleared off and the rest of the day was clear and beautiful. We got up about 7 o’clock and found everything quiet in our front and all along the left, though away off to the right we could hear firing, at times quite heavy. It was about the same, however, as it had been the day before and excited no special attention beyond the occasional remark that “McCook was at it again on the right” or “That is pretty heavy firing, isn’t it?”
We had no idea of the determined attack of the enemy and the (to us) disastrous surprise and struggle which was taking place on our right hardly two miles away. We supposed it to be nothing more than cannonading and heavy skirmishing preceding our intended crossing of the river. In fact, no one seemed to have any idea of the attack, when made, would be made by the enemy. It seemed to be taken for granted that Rosecrans had only to choose his own time for commencing the battle by crossing the river when he was ready and where he thought best. We all expected a battle that day, but expected it to be brought on by our crossing the river and attacking, and not by being attacked on our own ground.
And so far as we can see or know, this impression extended to the highest generals in command. At least, if it did not, for whither it did or not, there was a horrible lack of generalship displayed somewhere for not guarding against the contingency of an attack from the enemy. From all accounts the surprise on our right was complete and disastrous. General Joshua Sill, it was said, was killed in his tent by a ball passing through it. [A wild camp rumor as is explained in this blog post regarding Sill’s final days. Click here.] Major Seymour Race, of the artillery, told me that some of the batteries of the right wing were rushed upon before they were harnessed up and while some of the horses had gone to water. Captain Edgarton’s battery, he said, fired several shots at the advancing enemy and did all he could but he was entirely unsupported by infantry. So completely unprepared were the people for the attack that the arms of a regiment attacked in front of the battery were shot through and knocked down by his pieces, no men being about, they had not even been primed. [Click here to read all about the actions of Battery E, 1st OVLA in the opening moments of the battle.] No better evidence of the completeness of the surprise can be needed than the profound ignorance which seemed to prevail on the left, where we were, in regard to it.
Up to 9 o’clock we were just as quiet as we are today in camp. We ate our breakfast leisurely and about 8 o’clock I went to Major Squires quarters, where a number of the officers were standing around talking. About half past 8, Van Cleve’s division began passing his quarters going towards the left where they were to cross the river by a road cut out and bridge or ford prepared by the pioneers during the night. We supposed it to be the beginning of a general movement of the left wing across the river and so it was. We stood watching the column pass until eight or nine regiments and two batteries had passed and till we heard some firing in the direction of the head of the column (between their advance and the enemy’s pickets) when an orderly came with an order to Major Squires to form the regiment.
I may as well say a word about the field on which the battle was fought. The turnpike and the railroad from Nashville to Murfreesboro cross Stones River (which is about such a stream as Mad River) about two miles north of Murfreesboro. The creek or river is very crooked and on the right of the turnpike as you go south runs almost parallel with it then sweeping round across the road runs back towards our left, leaving a large area of slightly rolling ground something in the shape of a horseshoe with the railroad and turnpike running through it from the north or open end of the horseshoe to the south. On this ground, which was partly timbered and partly cleared, our army was posted in a line of battle following the general course of the creek and of which we occupied the left. The enemy occupied the other side of the creek.
|The railroad line leading south into Murfreesboro as viewed from behind the Hazen Brigade monument.|
Just as we were falling in in pursuance of the order I spoke of, rapid musketry firing was heard directly in our rear. The enemy’s cavalry had got clear round our right; they had been driving our right wing back for several hours and were attacking our wagon train which was parked in our rear. This put an entirely different face on the matter. It looked very much as if we were surrounded. Van Cleve’s division came running back on a double quick from the left and went back towards the rear. We were in for it now, evidently, and forming in column of companies, we marched back towards the rear where it was now necessary to form a new line fronting just the other wat and drive the wagons and ambulances back behind it for protection.
It was about half past 9 when we started out and after taking two or three positions, we began to get into the battle by about 10. Things looked very blue and very critical I can tell you. The wagons were driving about the get in our rear in the greatest confusion, apparently obstructing our movements at every turn. The firing continued on our late right and rear and every minute stragglers and wounded kept coming back repeating that their regiment belonging to the right wing was all broken up and scattered. It looked as if all we could hope to accomplish was to avoid either rout or defeat.
Still we moved on and were finally placed in position- the first one we took up after getting engaged- and ordered to lie down. We had hardly been here five minutes when we were ordered to go double quick to support a battery on the railroad which was threatened by the enemy. We kept down one side of the railroad embankment (which was quite high) while the battery and its infantry supports on the other side of the bank kept up a tremendous fire on the advancing enemy. I don’t know what battery it was, but it was splendidly served. The embankment kept us from seeing it, but I never heard such a fire. The reports of the cannon came as fast as the ticking of a watch, while the rattle of our musketry was like the continuous crackling of a fire. By the time we got fairly into position behind the battery, the enemy was repulsed and the fire ceased. But so completely had the enemy encircled us that there seemed hardly any place where their balls didn’t come from.
|General William S. Rosecrans|
While we lay directly behind the battery which had just been attacked, a Rebel battery opened a flank fire away off to our left and rear which kept us dodging balls as we lay along the ground until we were moved to a new position which we soon were. General Rosecrans came riding up, asking ‘Where’s Crittenden? Where’s Crittenden/’ No one answering, I told him we were part of his corps. Just then an officer came up on horseback and took him off to General Crittenden. Almost immediately we were moved off down to the railroad and then across it to the Nashville turnpike, across which we formed facing towards Murfreesboro. After remaining here some time under a heavy fire, we were suddenly ordered to get up and change front to the rear so as to bring us along the turnpike facing west, lately occupied by our right wing.
This was the great position of the day and it was here the day was saved, and defeat turned into victory. If this line had given way, we all believe, that all would have gone in utter rout. It was the most critical moment of the day. We had hardly got into position behind the turnpike when at least 5,000 men, the remains of the broken divisions of the right and center, came rolling back in confusion across the open field which extended for some 200-300 yards between us and the woods occupied now by the enemy. They went over us as we lay on the ground in line and kept on to the rear where I suppose they rallied and formed, though many of them doubtless joined the throng of stragglers belonging to regiments which had given way earlier in the day, and swelled the disgraceful stampede towards Nashville.
In this critical juncture, I am glad to say the old 26th Ohio stood right up to the mark, or indeed I should say the whole of Hascall’s brigade and Wood’s division, in fact, the whole left wing. Nothing, of course, was under my own observation but our own regiment and those immediately around us. Some of the left wing’s single regiments were forced back, it is true, as on the right and center, but I think it is conceded that the left wing saved the day. Wood’s division received the highest encomiums from General Rosecrans while our regiment was complimented highly by those who saw it. The colonel of a regiment on our left told his men to stand their ground as long as they saw the 26th Ohio hold theirs; that if it gave away then they might give it up. General Van Cleve, and Colonel Nicholas Anderson of the 6th Ohio both spoke in highest terms of our regiment. Colonel Anderson’s regiment laid right in front of our regiment and Colonel Anderson was lying right in front of our company. Some of my men, in firing, did not rise up enough (they loaded laying down) and shot so close over the 6th Ohio men as to wound one of them slightly, and Colonel Anderson earnestly requested us to guard against this. One of my men was wounded slightly in the same way by a regiment behind us.
|Colonel Nicholas L. Anderson|
6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Right in the midst of the action, I heard someone call out in front ‘Hallo captain, how are you?’ Looking up the line I saw Lieutenant Montagnier of the 6th Ohio lying a short distance off. He was for a long time on General Hascall’s staff and knew us all very well, and he had not seen us for a month or two when he met us in this way on the battlefield. I returned the salutation but this is as near as we got to each other and I have not seen him since, though I hear he got through safely.
Our line was hardly formed in this new position when the Rebels made two or three most determined attacks on different parts of the line, thinking to break it, as they had broken others before during the morning, but they could not do it. Forming in the edge of the woods, they advanced boldly about half across the open field but the fire was too much for them, and they fell back to repeat the attempt on some other part with better success. The brunt of the attack fell rather on our left wing and on the regiments to our left, not extending so far to the right as our company. [Co. A was on the right flank of the regiment] What we were engaged with was the enemy firing from the woods across the open field in front of us.
While we were firing here, a cry was raised in the ranks that we were firing on our own men, that another line was in front of us and we were firing into their rear. This created great doubt and hesitation for a time and partly suspended our fire. Many of our men confidently declared that they were our men, that they could see them firing in the same direction we did. Determined to ascertain the truth of the matter if it could be ascertained, I went down to ask the major, leaving Lieutenant Foster in command of the company. Major Squires, who sent the adjutant to General Hascall for information, said the General knew of no forces of ours there and if they were our men, they had no business to be there, and his answer to me was to pour it into them. And it proved that none of our men were there. The doubt which our men felt had been increased by seeing several of our wounded, straggling back from the woods in front where the Rebels were. One of these, however, reputed the story, that they were our men. But the most convincing arguments on the subject were the bullets which kept coming from that quarter, proving that there were undoubtedly Rebels there, whoever else might be. Colonel Nicholas Anderson, who laid right before me, also scouted the idea of their being our men and showed me a Rebel flag which I had not seen and which was hardly distinguishable in the edge of the woods. Their colors were plainly seen.
When I came back to the company, I found Lieutenant Foster with his hand on his leg, stooping over. ‘Well captain, I guess I am gone up,’ said he. Finding he could walk, I told him to make the best of his way to the rear and I would see him when the fight was over, which I did not for four days. His wound, though a severe and painful one, is not dangerous. The bullet struck through the top of his boot below the knee and ranged downwards and remains in his leg. He has not decided on having it removed, the general opinion of the doctors being that its removal would be difficult and unnecessary. He has gone home to Hamilton on 20 days’ leave but will not be fit for duty for some two months. His wound does not seem to affect his spirits at all as it would appear from his letters. He is a brave fellow.
About the same time Foster was wounded, Chris Shearer, one of our men, was severely wounded in the leg. He was a very pretty boy, hardly over 18 with a face as smooth and almost as fair as a girl’s. He crawled back to me in great pain evidently and begged me to take off his knapsack, which I helped him to do, and sent a man with him to take him to the hospital. [Captain James sent Private Frank Getsinger to help the man back because, in James’ words, ‘I could depend on him to come back.’’] It is not allowable for soldiers to leave the field for such purpose during the engagement, but I could not stand it to see such pain. After the battle, I went to the general hospital a mile or two in the rear to see him and others of our wounded. He seemed pretty comfortable and doing well but he died the next Wednesday.
After occupying this position for nearly four hours, and it was feared that our ammunition was getting exhausted, our regiment was relieved and another regiment came up behind us to take our place, and we got up and moved to the rear in good order. As we moved off and the bullets came whistling from behind us, the thought occurred to me how easily it might happen to some poor fellow who had done his duty all day and was then doing it to be shot in the back, and afterwards have it thrown up to him as a reproach by some mean fellow of the baser sort. It was a strange thought probably for the time and place, but it occurred to me.
Moving back a few hundred yards, we halted in a big field beyond the railroad and replenished ammunition from a wagon. While standing here by ourselves (no other regiment immediately around), General Rosecrans rode up with some of his staff. He has changed very much since I saw him in Columbus in June 1861. He was then quite like the picture you have of him. He now appears, or did as I saw him on the field, to have gained greatly in size and weight, appearance which was probably increased by being on horseback and wearing a large cavalry overcoat. He bore a much sterner expression of countenance. He inquired which regiment this was, and found fault with its being left in such as exposed position while replenishing ammunition, directing it to be faced about so as to take advantage of a little undulation in the ground as a shelter. ‘The most exposed place in the field,’ said he. ‘Right where my adjutant general was killed.’ But the tide of battle had evidently turned in some other direction since then, for all the time we stood there, I don’t recollect seeing a shot.
We didn’t stand long, however, before we received orders to go and support a battery in another part of the field. It was apprehended that the Rebels would charge our battery and we were placed on its left as infantry supports, and as soon as we got into position, were ordered to lie down to avoid the fire. The Rebel battery engaged with ours was on the top of a bare hill about a half mile off and was most effectively served. We could see them plainly against the sky with a heavy column of infantry near them as supports. When we got into position, it was about 3 o’clock and we laid there till 5 with nothing to do, nothing we could do, but lie there and take it. We lay on the side of a hill exposed broadside to the enemy’s battery and they soon got the range so that every shot seemed to strike somewhere amongst is or so near that escape seemed impossible. Our little company now reduced to hardly more than 20 men covered a space hardly larger than the library floor (18 feet square) as we lay on the ground, and four of them were wounded while we lay there, all slightly however, and all at once. Perry Hatfield, who was with me some five months as cook, was one of them and Pat Mee another.
I hope it will not be thought very unheroic to confess that as we laid under the harrowing fire, many a longing look was cast at the sun with the hope that it would go down and give us rest. If so, I’m afraid it is a charge to which many have confessed. I heard a high officer commanding a brigade say he didn’t know how often he thought of the expression of Wellington at Waterloo: “Oh that Blucher or night would come!” Another staff officer said he looked at his watch and it wanted five minutes of 3 o’clock. Pretty soon he looked again and was rather surprised to find it still wanted four minutes of 3 o’clock. Determined not to look again until a good while has elapsed, he put up his watch, as he thought for a long time, then looked again and it was not quite 3 o’clock yet! He put up his watch in disgust and did not look again. Time passes slowly when a man has nothing to do but lie still under battery fire. If we had known more of how the day was going, or had anything to do, or had any responsibility, we might have felt differently. As it were, we knew nothing of any Blucher to arrive and only looked for night.
At last, at twenty minutes past 5 o’clock, by my new Waltham watch, the sun went down and soon after we were moved to another position where we lay about an hour longer before it got dark and the firing entirely ceased. Then we got up and moved about and gathered in groups to talk over the events of the day, and I tell you, it was a luxury to do so. We had been almost constantly under fire for eight hours, most of the time lying on the cold ground. We were stiff and tired and cold and it was a great treat to be free to move about as we pleased once more and to stretch ourselves.
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