Among the somber cedars: Lancelot Scott at Stones River

    Lancelot Scott enlisted as a private in Co. G of the 18th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in 1861 and soon thereafter was promoted to the rank of sergeant. Scott kept a diary during his service which he expanded upon later in life. The following excerpt covers the period of December 28, 1862 through January 5, 1863, “the most momentous week of my life” Scott wrote. “The histories and stories of battles that I have read have been supplanted by actual facts and scenes and not all that I ever read can convey half the impression of reality. I hardly know how to write the history of the past week but shall try and relate my own experience.”

Image of a Union encampment outside of Nashville, Tennessee in December 1862 by William Travis. Note the contraband cook at left stirring the soup while dressed in a blue forage cap and blue army trousers. While stationed at Nashville, Lancelot Scott had the opportunity to visit the theater in Nashville where he saw a play entitled "Hunchback" then "went threrounds and finally brought up with an oyster supper in a saloon on the square when the boys all ran out without paying." Nashville provided a dose of civilization for these Union troops who had spent the past three months marching all over Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. 

    Sunday, December 28, 1862: Rousseau’s division came up. We still rested in the cedars in front of Murfreesboro.

    Monday, December 29, 1862: Monday morning shortly after sunrise the army was in motion. The batteries were planted all along the creek and the Rebel cavalry driven off by their fire. As the division marched out, we could see them fleeing for dear life. Our division crossed some distance above the pike bridges, our regiment in the advance with Co. B thrown out as skirmishers. They fired a few times at the Rebel pickets. Marching in battle order we did not make much progress until some time in the afternoon when we regained the pike and as some of the left wing was ahead of us we pushed on rapidly. At dark, we were within three miles of Murfreesboro and as not many Rebels had been seen during the day, we though that we would enter Murfreesboro the next day without serious trouble. There was some skirmishing about dark. It rained during the night which passed off miserably enough and we had no fires.

    Tuesday, December 30, 1862: Early on Tuesday morning the division was deployed and then for the first time I began to think that the work was going to be more serious than was anticipated. The ease with which the engineers cut roads through the woods and with which the army was deployed showed that we did not know as much as the commanding general did. Our brigade took positions in the cedars on the right of the pike and at the edge of the woods near the Wilkinson Pike. The 19th Illinois was sent out as skirmishers and soon fell in with the enemy’s skirmishers and then we knew for certain that we were going to fight. The enemy retired slowly. Our skirmishers did not press them, being ordered as I since learned, to merely hold them in check until the right wing of the army got into position. So they did not go far past the Pike. At noon our regiment relieved them and continued on the line until dark. Our company did not go on the line. Many of the boys were carried back on the stretchers.

Lancelot L. Scott
Co. G, 18th Ohio Infantry
Image courtesy of L.M. Strayer

    Those were trying moments standing there expecting every moment to be called forward and take the place of those wounded a great deal worse than the duty itself. I don’t believe I felt any real fear but standing there all afternoon with the balls whizzing past me I got worked up and dreaded to hear the order for the company to advance. But when dark came the regiment was relieved and we fell back to the Pike and bivouacked. During the latter part of the afternoon the right wing of the army got into line and bore down on the enemy right gallantly. I was detailed as guard. Looking to the right, left, and rear, the Union camp fires lit up the sky to the horizon but in front all was silent. No lights from the Rebels glared up on the sky.

    Wednesday, December 31, 1862: Slowly the night passed away and the sun rose upon us ready for action. Our overcoats and blankets were sent back to the wagons and we fell into line. At sunrise, the battle commenced on McCook’s right. The enemy was evidently driving him and as each succeeding volley came, it sounded still farther toward the rear. But our attention was soon called to our own movements. Sheridan’s division having been driven back, one of his batteries galloped over and took position in our front and commenced shelling some Rebels near a brick kiln. The fire drew a reply from a Rebel battery on our right.

    The regiment was standing close column en masse. The shells all came over us. Presently one came that just missed. We all ducked our heads. “Good morning!” cried Colonel Given. “What are you all bowing to me for?” He then put us through the manual of arms and that gave us confidence in ourselves. I don’t believe I felt anything like fear after this.

Lieutenant Colonel Josiah Given
18th Ohio Infantry

    The battle was roaring all around us and still we were standing there. We advanced to within 30 yards of the pike and laid down and awaited the onset of the Rebels. It soon came. Their line marched up with practiced step and the air of veterans. The regiment in our front wore large felt hats. When they arrived near the Pike, Colonel Given commanded us to fire and we did with a vengeance. We continued firing for about 20 minutes then ceased. Only an occasional shot whistled amongst us now. The regiment that marched up so gallantly was nowhere to be seen. A piece of Sheridan’s artillery stood before the left of the company. The near tongue horse was shot the first fire. I laid down behind him and fired. Presently, the other horse received a ball and commenced plunging. He fell and balanced on the tongue. I lay ready to spring if he should roll toward me. Fortunately, he turned the other way and died, his blood pouring on a dead cannoneer.

Colonel Timothy Stanley's brigade consisted of four regiments: his own 18th Ohio, the 69th Ohio, the crack 19th Illinois, and the 11th Michigan, supported by Captain Frederick Schultz's Battery M, 1st Ohio Light Artillery. This brigade fought in the southernmost border of the cedar swamp, land which today forms the southern boundary of Stones River National Battlefield. 

    The man on my right belonging to the 42nd Illinois was shot dead. The Rebels advanced again. The 19th Illinois marched down in our front to make a charge, their colonel sitting on his horse smoking as unconcerned as if imaginable. A shell came over and struck a tree which fell and killed several men. The charge was not made for the Rebels in our front ceased to fire save for the sharpshooters. We changed front so as to face to the right where Sheridan’s division had been.

    In our front now there was a large open field and we could see regiment after regiment of Rebels marching across and obliquing in behind us. It was not a gratifying sight and our situation became critical in the extreme. The “glug glug” of the sharpshooters’ balls was incessant and the tops of the trees threatened to fall on us every instant from the cannon balls that tore through them. It was a curious scene to see the tree tops falling without any visible cause. Soon a roar rose in our rear that exceeded anything before heard. The enemy had encountered opposition in their project of surrounding us. The first line was repulsed and we at last received orders to retire from our now worthless position. We retreated several hundred yards and took position in the cedars about 50 yards in the rear of the first line in the near position.

This bucolic image dating from the late 1800s shows the Wilkinson Pike looking east from the Blanton House. The 18th Ohio fought in the woods at the center of this photo. As is evident, the term "pike" implied nothing more than a cleared road, not a hardened macadamized surface like that on the Nashville Pike. (Middle Tennessee State University)

    The enemy came on in overwhelming numbers and their shots when they engaged the first line all came directly among us. I was in the rear rank and hugging the ground behind a pair of big boots that Jim Ventz was wearing. The balls cut so close that I thought I would get behind a small cedar tree that stood just to my right and rear about six inches through but just as I reached it, three or four balls struck it and I scrambled back behind the boots.

    When the enemy came up we gave them a volley but it was of no use. No single line of men could stem the massed columns that swept everything before them. We were in the edge of the cedars. Beyond lay a cornfield about 200 yards wide and then the railroad bank which offered a safe refuge. We retreated from the cedars like autumn leaves before the wind and reached the railroad where all the regiments on our left had by this time formed a new line. But our removal had left the troops on our left in a precarious position and general Rosecrans came riding over, hat in hand, and implored us to charge back and gain the woods. There were only about 200 of the regiment left; the rest were scattered dead, wounded, and prisoners.

Lieutenant Charles Grant
Co. D, 18th Ohio Infantry

    Colonel Given gave the command and we fixed bayonets and marched back across that field of death on the double quick. A line of Rebels was issuing from the woods. They retreated before our charge and we gained the shelter of the woods but our efforts, though determined, were of no avail. No support came to our aid. With the enemy to the right and front and soon to the left pouring in a deadly fire, it was something human endurance would not stand and we gave way. At the edge of the woods I came across a dead Rebel and hauling him into position, I lay down behind him and fired. It seemed to me that all of the bushes around me were cut off by enemy’s balls.

    The enemy brought up a battery as we were retreating across the field and gave us a volley. I dropped just in time to save myself from a shell, it passing on and taking a shoulder from a man in front. We were running towards one of our batteries and the cannoneers waved their hands for us to get out of the way as quick as possible. A line of Rebels was issuing from the woods. When we got near the battery, we dropped and it opened on the enemy with terrible effect and retreated in disorder. I was now thoroughly exhausted.

Walking tour stop at Stones River National Battlefield in the approximate location where Stanley's brigade fought on December 31, 1862. The Wilkinson Pike is location to the left of the picture and the cedar swamp is to the right. 

    We formed again and lay there under artillery fire during the rest of the day. The sounds of battle were now principally on our left. One continuous roar of thunder rolled up from the left wing. The enemy was trying to drive it similar to the right but all his attacks were successfully resisted and we still had some hope, but night closed down upon us almost discouraged. Indeed, I did feel almost helpless that night as I lay down on my bed of cedar boughs tired and half starved. I could have no bright anticipations of victory on the morrow. Nothing but my faith in Rosey and Negley kept me from despairing. But thoughts of the battle died away when sleep came to my relief and the night passed off without any alarm. It snowed in the night.

Click here to read Part II: "To Defy Death Itself


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