Scenes at the Gresham House Hospital During the Battle of Stones River

The Gresham House located along a single lane dirt road known as Gresham Lane became the one of the primary field hospitals for the right wing of the Union army during the Battle of Stones River. Casualties from the divisions of Richard H. Johnson, Jefferson C. Davis, and Philip Sheridan were brought back from the front lines and provided medical care in this house and the grounds surrounding it. Private Charles Barney Dennis of the 101st Ohio described the hospital as “a large plantation house surrounded by groves of maple, hickory, oak, and black walnut.” [i] An existing photograph from 1928 shows the Gresham House to be a two-story Greek Revival plantation house featuring a nearly full length front porch, two-story high columns around the front door, and two second story porches and chimneys at the north and south ends of the house.

Gresham House in Murfreesboro, Tennessee as seen in 1928. If these grounds and walls could speak, the stories that could be told: General Joshua Sill's body being deposited on the porch the morning of December 31st and ransacked by Confederate troops eager to lay claim to the prize. Otis Strong scrambling to the second story to put out fires caused from Union and Confederate shells; Surgeon Blount shutting the front door as shells and bullets patted against it. Private Charles B. Dennis walking the grounds writing tags to be attached to the toes of the dead. The dead and wounded men scattered around the maples, hickories, and walnut trees as the yellow hospital flag fluttered overhead. The visits of Generals Hardee, Cheatham, and Cleburne during the battle during the passage of General James Rains' body towards Murfreesboro. The trees in this picture do not appear to date from the war, they are far to small and most likely the original trees present during the battle were chopped down for firewood during the lengthy stay of the Army of the Cumberland after Stones River. The house is long gone and this entire area now an expanse of restaurants and stores. Progress has not been kind to the grounds where the Federal Right Wing fought during Stones River. Nary a sign exists marking what occurred here.
(Photo courtesy of Middle Tennessee State University)

Otis W. Strong was serving as a private in Co. D of the 44th Illinois Infantry when on the afternoon of December 30, 1862, he with ten others from his company, were detached from the divisional provost guard detail and assigned to guard the Gresham house hospital.  He described the how the Battle of Stones River developed from his perspective behind the lines. “All apparently was quiet until daylight when, oh that I might forget it forever. During the night, the enemy had concentrated their whole force upon our center and at daylight 5,000 Rebels came rushing on us like demons. Our forces fell back in the greatest confusion and here a regular Bull Run scene was enacted, placing our hospital in a critical position directly between the fire of the two armies. Canister pierced the hospital in every direction. Three times I volunteered to ascend to the top of the building and extinguish the flames that had caught from the bursting shells.” [ii]
Lieutenant O.R. Dahl of the 15th Wisconsin Volunteers drew this detailed topographical map of the Battle of Stones River. This shows the Gresham House (misspelled as Griscom) located along Gresham Lane and just south of the Wilkinson Pike at the center of the picture. The Jenkins House to the west of Gresham was torn down in 2006, one of the last remaining antebellum structures near the battlefield. The spot labeled as 34 marked the graves of 80 Union soldiers who died at the hospital while spots 35, 36, and 37 to the east of Gresham House indicated individual graves of Union officers and men. The red line marked B indicates the route that Lt. Dahl's brigade (Carlin's) retreated during the battle. Charles B. Dennis of the 101st Ohio was also in Carlin's brigade and was wounded near the B on the map and was brought by wagon to Gresham House. 

“The provost guard of each division was ordered to the rear with pointed bayonets and loaded rifles with orders from General Rosecrans to bayonet or shoot every straggler that made his appearance. Being mostly new troops, and the battle raging with all its fury, back they would come and back they would forced into the fight. One poor fellow came back upon the full run and it became my duty to halt him, asking him about the same time if he was wounded. “Let me go, let me go,” he shouted. “I’m demoralized as hell!” [iii]

Members of the ambulance corps demonstrate the techniques used to remove the wounded from the battlefield. Private Charles B. Dennis of the 101st Ohio was hauled to Gresham House in a wagon he described as a "Prairie Schooner," or a Conestoga wagon. A rush of wounded men from Johnson's and Davis's divisions descended upon the Gresham House and the yard in front was soon covered with men. According to a map drawn by Lieutenant O.R. Dahl of the 15th Wisconsin, more than 80 dead Union soldiers were buried just south of the hospital adjacent to Gresham Lane. Those bodies were later removed to Stones River National Cemetery where they rest today. 

Strong continued, “Our troops continued to fall back and the surgeon told us to take care of ourselves the best we could, and we were compelled to leave our poor wounded comrades to the mercy of the fiery element, which soon left but a smoldering pile of embers to tell their fate.” [iv]

Surgeon Joseph Blount of the 25th Illinois Infantry was the surgeon in charge of the hospital and described the scenes as the hospital was attacked then overrun by the Confederates. “Soon our army passed the hospital and the Rebels came forward- I heard the whiz of bullets, the quick messengers of death. I stepped into the house and closed the door. I had taken two or three steps when I heard the pat of a musket ball against the door and at the same instant a pat against the head of a man by my side. He fell dead at my feet. Other balls passed into and through the house and wounded others while some were killed. The line of the enemy advanced until even with the house and were firing at our men while standing under the cover of the hospital. I stepped out and remonstrated with General [St. John R.] Liddell of Louisiana for such cowardly conduct. He gave me an awful cursing and said if he could have his own way, he would kill every one of us and much other abusive language.” [v]

General St. John R. Liddell of Louisiana

General Liddell provides some explanation for this harsh treatment of Surgeon Blount in his memoir: he was heartbroken over the news he had just received that his son Willie had been killed in battle. “Then the third enemy line engaged us at the hospital. Firing from the window caused Colonel Govan to fire on all of the men mounted near the hospital enclosure. The enemy’s line of battle at this hospital stretching far to the left, sustained our attack only a short time before giving way. Someone now told me that my son Willie was killed. I felt deeply distressed. I knew that it was a fact of war, consoling myself with the reflection that he could not have fallen on a more honorable occasion.” [vi]

Federal prisoners swarmed around the Gresham House, and General Liddell soon started ordering them to the rear. “Many prisoners were brought to me. The prisoners seemed troubled and ask what they should do. I told them that no one would molest unarmed men. In marching to the rear, they would find the officer in charge of this business. But if they wished to escape and thought the thing practicable, I had no objection provided they promised never to fight us again/ This pleased them. One man seized my hand saying, ‘We agree, you are the man for me.’ The hospital yard was full of them, whither they had gone to escape the fire of the line. Wharton’s cavalry and other commands took them all in charge.” [vii]

General James Edward Rains of Tennessee. This talented brigadier lost his life within sight of the Gresham House during the late morning of December 31, 1862. Following the battle, his body was brought under guard into his hometown of Nashville where he was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery. 

The Gresham House hospital already contained the body of slain General Joshua W. Sill, who Charles Dennis remembered being set out on the front porch of the house. (General Hardee visited it the next day). But the Gresham House hospital also had the body of Confederate General James Rains pass through on December 31, 1862. “He fell nearly in front of our hospital,” Blount recalled. “He was brought in through the yard. I was talking with Generals Cheatham and Hardee as he passed. General Cheatham asked who it was. On being told, he alighted from his horse and wept over his body for some time. General Rains was a favorite general.” [viii]

Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham of Tennessee. Stories were rampant that Cheatham was drunk during the Battle of Stones River, a charge that General Bragg used against him in the controversy that followed the battle. Perhaps seeing the dead body of General James Rains at Gresham House helped sober him up? Or perhaps made him drink all the harder? The stresses of combat upon both the leaders and men affected everyone differently. 

Quoting again from Charles B. Dennis of the 101st Ohio: “The scene within the hospital grounds was anything but cheerful, although the best possible care had been given the wounded, there was much that could have been done for their comfort, and many a poor chap died from lack of proper nursing. The ground outside were covered with badly wounded men, some of them mangled horribly, waiting for room to be made in the operating rooms. Before they reached there many of them died. In a place screened off by brush, there was a row of more than a hundred dead that had died after being brought to the hospital."

"I concluded that I would ask the surgeon in charge (Dr. Blount) if he could not give me some light work that I could do- anything that would distract my attention from the gruesome sights of the hospital and grounds, and incidentally get me a little nearer the culinary department.  The surgeon put me writing tags that were pinned to every dead man; the tag was his record so far as it could be obtained. Passing around the grounds the next day [January 1, 1863] I found the body of a man and raised the blanket to see his face. It was our own Lieutenant Colonel Moses Wooster. He had died the night before and had been laid out there in his uniform, a card pinned to him but the name on it was as far from Wooster as Wooster was from life. I got another card, wrote his name on it together with his rank and home address of Norwalk, Ohio. His remains were sent there later on for burial.” [ix]
Scene of a Union field hospital in Virginia during the summer of 1862. The grounds of the Gresham House no doubt looked like this during the Battle of Stones River. "In a place screened off by brush, there was a row of more than a hundred dead that had died before being brought into the hospital," Charles Dennis remembered. (Library of Congress)

Dennis continues: “In the afternoon of January 1st, quite a large cavalcade of horsemen rode into the west gate headed by a man of fine stature and sitting his big, gray horse like the soldier he was; his face was a grim but not unkindly one, his hair and full whiskers trimmed short and just touched with gray, and the head surmounted by a soft, black felt hat that gave him a very decided resemblance to our own Pap Thomas. He rode to the porch of the house and asked if the body of General [Joshua W.] Sill was still there. A hospital sergeant pointed it out to him and riding over, the man dismounted, and approached the body. The body lay on the porch covered with a blanket. The man took off his hat, lifted the blanket, and looked into the dead face for quite a time, and finally recovering, he said to the sergeant, ‘Poor Sill. He was one of God’s noblemen.’ This big, fine looking man was General [William J.] Hardee of the Confederate Army.” [x]

General Joshua W. Sill, "one of God's noblemen" in the words of General William J. Hardee. Then Lieutenant Sill served as an instructor at West Point when Hardee was superintendent in the late 1850s. Sill had resigned from the army just before the outbreak of the war and was working as a professor of mathematics in New York. He quickly offered his services to the state of Ohio and became colonel of the 33rd Ohio Volunteers; eventually he was promoted to brigadier general and led a division during the Perryville campaign. At Stones River, he was gunned down while galloping along his lines directing a counterattack. His body was brought back to the Gresham House where the Confederate advance soon convinced his aides to leave his body before they were captured themselves. Confederate soldiers captured the hospital and spying the dead general upon the porch, soon took his gauntlets and boots, cut the buttons from his coat, and even carried off his trousers. The coat that Sill was wearing when he was killed actually belonged to his friend General Phil Sheridan; they had inadvertently swapped coats during the night and Sheridan's family later donated the coat Sheridan wore during the battle to the Ross County Historical Society in Chillicothe, Ohio. 

          Surgeon Blount gave more details on the visit of General Hardee to Gresham House on January 1, 1863. “In the morning General Hardee with General Cleburne and others called to see me. General Hardee shook hands very cordially and expressed much sympathy for us. He asked after General [Alexander] McCook; said he had heard that he had been killed, hoped it was not so and that McCook was an old friend of his. And now, said I, you are trying to kill him. ‘No,’ said he, ‘I am not fighting General McCook but the Northern invading army.’
General William J. Hardee
“Their soldiers treated our wounded very kindly. They brought a great many to our hospital and others they carried them into little squads of three to six, and built fires at their feet to keep them warm and sometimes stayed with them all night. They robbed the dead of everything, however, though their officers did not encourage it. They offered as high as $20 in gold for a pair of boots. They are very destitute of shoes. They took General Sill’s boots and pants and General Hardee was very angry for it, and if he finds the man who did it, he will punish him severely. As he (Hardee) was leaving, he again extended his hand and with a warm, friendly shake, said ‘good morning’ and at the same time touching his cap as did the other generals as they turned to go away. I felt that they were my personal friends and to the last day of my life I will remember the kind feeling they manifested to me and through me, to our wounded.” [xi]

          Charles B. Dennis again: “In the evening of the same day there came in to the ground from the east side a mounted man of small stature (compared to the big Hardee). He was attended by an aide and an orderly. He rode up to the fire that had been built in the center of the ground, dismounted, and asked if he could see the surgeon in charge. One of our men ran in and brought Dr. Blount out. He stepped up to the little man who asked how things were going in the hospital, if supplies were plentiful, especially medical supplies, anesthetics, instruments, etc. Dr. Blount told him that the Confederate surgeons had taken most of his anesthetics, whereupon the little man turned quickly to his aide and told him to ride to Murfreesboro at once and get from the surgeon general of Bragg’s army a supply of ether. As the aide started for his horse, the little man asked him if he knew what ether was and told him he better write it down, which the aide did and departed.
General Patrick R. Cleburne
          “The little man appeared to be in a talkative mood and not averse to conversing with the enlisted men. The talk was mostly about the war, which the little man said was to be deeply regretted. He seemed either nervous or diffident, his voice while clear was not heavy and he had a habit of rubbing his hands together as he talked, as I have often seen diffident men do. He said he was wounded once at Richmond and showed us the scars on his cheeks where he said some careless Yankee shot him, not doing much harm, though, only making two little holes and taking along two molars. But he said a man can’t tell when ‘Finis’ will be written. He was General Patrick Cleburne, a major general of the Confederate Army. He had been an officer in the British army and when his time was out, he came to America and settled in Arkansas. When the war broke out he joined the rebel side. He was a fierce fighter, a good general, and had the reputation of being a kind-hearted man.” [xii]

[ii] “The Battle near Murfreesboro, a letter from a soldier in an Illinois regiment,” Adrian Daily Watchtower (Michigan), January 21, 1863, pg. 1
[iii] “A Soldier’s Letter to his Parents,” Adrian Daily Watchtower (Michigan), February 14, 1863, pg. 2
[iv] “The Battle near Murfreesboro,” op. cit.
[v] “Letter from Dr. Blount,” Rockford Register (Illinois), January 1863
[vi] Hughes, Nathaniel C. editor. Liddell’s Record. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985, pg. 109
[vii] Liddell’s Record, op. cit., pg. 110
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Dennis account, op. cit.
[x] Dennis account, op. cit.
[xi] “Letter from Dr. Blount,” op cit.
[xii] Dennis account, op. cit.


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