Capturing a Dutch General: The 8th Texas Cavalry at Stones River

The 8th Texas Cavalry, also known as Terry's Texas Rangers, was one of the more storied cavalry regiments serving in the Army of Tennessee. In the opening moments of the Battle of Stones River, the hard-riding Texans swooped around the Federal right flank and galloped into the rear of the retreating regiments from Richard Johnson's division. One of the better accounts of the mayhem these cavalrymen caused is provided by First Lieutenant James Knox Polk Blackburn who was serving in Co. F. Among the more notable incidents of his account is Blackburn's memories of capturing General August Willich. 

Last week, I shared a post from Lieutenant Shepherd Green who was serving on August Willich's staff during the Stones River campaign. Today's post, pulled from Blackburn's article that ran in the Southwestern Historical Society Quarterly magazine in 1918, provides a fine contrasting point of view to the opening moments of the Battle of Stones River.

One of my favorite images of an unidentified Confederate. The determination in this soldier's eye is evident and the slogan "Victory or Death" says it all.  Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The regiment moved to Murfreesboro where two armies were rapidly gathering for one of the great battles of the Civil War. Just whether we moved that night, or fell back gradually as the enemy advanced to Murfreesboro I cannot now recall, but on the first day of January, 1863, brigade skirmish line was formed from our brigade and I was ordered to take charge of this line. The men were placed in line ten feet apart on foot in one side of an old field grown up in long weeds about as high as a man's head. The enemy were in the other side of the same field. Our skirmishers were armed with rifles or muskets for the occasion. I was told to keep the men to their places so there would be no weak spot and no bunching of our men on the line, to keep them firing continually, etc., etc. As I rode along that long line of men--I was the only man on horseback in that line--I saw that Bill Simpson of Company F was about two feet, or three feet at the most, from a high poplar stump in line with the men, so I said, "Bill, take the stump. There it is but a little ways from your place and it may save your life or your limbs." He looked up at me and said, "I thank you, I am doing very well here," and refused to use it. These two lines of skirmishers were in what was afterward known as the left flank of our army during the battle and as far as I am able to tell now this was the beginning of that great battle.

We were relieved after a while by some infantry and we re-mounted our horses to meet some Yankee cavalry that came in on our left. We charged them, drove them, and scattered them. As we returned from pursuing them my horse slipped and fell, throwing me on the horn of my saddle and producing a case of nearly strangulated hernia from a slight rupture I had had before. This fall laid me up for several days and took me off the battlefield until the battle ended and longer. Whatever else I relate of this battle or as to what happened in or to the regiment must be from hearsay and not from personal observation. The regiment was engaged all the time, sometimes in the flank, sometimes in the rear of the enemy; sometimes fighting infantry, sometimes cavalry; capturing many of the enemy and destroying much of his supplies.
Brigadier General August Willich

One or two incidents I wish to relate happened during that conflict. A Yankee General fell into the hands of the Rangers. They asked him his name and rank. He said, "General Willich." "The same who commanded the 32nd Indiana Infantry as Colonel?" he was asked. "Yes the same, and who are you," demanded the General. "Terry Texas Rangers" was the reply. "Mein Gott," said General Willich, "I had rather be a private in that regiment than to be a Brigadier General in the Federal army." Willich had met the boys at Woodsonville, Ky., as Colonel of the 32nd Indiana regiment and had met them at Murfreesboro as Brigadier General and had lost out both times and was qualified to judge of their military prowess. General Willich was Dutch or German, with a foreign accent.

Colonel Harrison by this time had so long escaped personal injury from shot and shell, his men dubbed him "Old Iron Sides," because as they said he was sheathed with iron and no bullet could penetrate his body. On the second day of this battle, Billy Sayers, his Adjutant, sat on his horse beside him under a heavy fire. Colonel Harrison leaned over to Sayers and whispered, "I am wounded, but don't say anything about it on account of the men." Billy wanted him off the field, but he refused to go. It proved to be a flesh wound in the hip, not very serious, and he stayed with and commanded the regiment throughout the battle. On another occasion the Colonel, while standing in front of his line ready to make or receive a charge as it might happen, was looking through his field glass at a body of cavalry some distance off. Suddenly he exclaimed, "Now boys, we will have some fun. There is a regiment out there preparing to charge us, armed with sabres. Let them come up nearly close enough to strike and then feed them on buckshot." So they came up with great noise and pretense, hoping to demoralize and scatter their opponents and then have a race in which they could use their sabres effectively. But as the Texans stood their ground the Yankees ran up to within a few steps and halted suddenly, giving our boys the chance they were wishing for. One volley from the shotguns into their ranks scattered these sabre men into useless fragments of a force. Many of them surrendered and our boys quizzed them with merciless questions. "Why did you stop?" "Are your sabres long ranged weapons?" "How far can you kill a man with those things?" After a conflict lasting two days with varying success and defeat for both armies, the Southern army withdrew to the south, leaving the other army with fresh reinforcements encamped not far from the last lines of battle the evening before.
Adjutant J.T. Walker, 8th Texas Cavalry

The weather had turned fearfully cold and the earth would freeze very hard at night. About the first night after we left Murfreesboro Jim Stevenson, coming off of duty late, came to the log heap fire of my mess, and asked permission to sleep near our fire. Jim was a shiftless boy whose dress was weather worn and untidy, his body generally dirty and infected with what the boys called "graybacks." So no one would sleep with him and he didn't expect any one to divide bedding with him. We granted his request and he made his pallet down a little space from the rest of us and went to sleep. Next morning he slept on after daylight. I went to see how he was faring and to awake him if still living. I caught his top blanket at his head and raised it up and as it was set and frozen it stood up on the other end like a dried raw hide would do with like handling. I said, "Get up my boy, don't try to sleep all day. How did you sleep?" He replied, "Bully," that he had two blankets last night. He had an old thread bare blanket under him and a heavy army blanket he had captured from the enemy during the battle just fought. He had slept all night without moving, as evidenced by an unfrozen streak, just the shape of his body on that blanket where he had lain on his side; the rest of that blanket being frozen stiff as a board. Jim could suffer hardships without a murmur, and although he was shiftless and loved to play poker he could always be depended upon when there was any fighting to be done. He was a brave man and a good soldier.

Comments

  1. Blackburn admits that his memory was faulty after 50 years, but his story about the capture of Willich and the quotes are pure fiction. An interesting piece to study regarding the creation of mythical Civil War menory.

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