To Defy Death Itself: Lancelot Scott at Stones River Part II

    Thursday, January 1, 1863: New Year’s morning dawned clear, much brighter than our hopes. We took position much the same as on the preceding evening. A division of artillery, probably 36 pieces, stood masked in the bushes just to our left. Not much firing took place before we got into line. I soon saw the Rebel line emerge from the wood and try to cross that field and try to for the third time. It was the last. A chief of artillery standing near commanded fire. An almost instantaneous discharge followed and the shattered Rebel columns took refuge in the wood. Not much fighting occurred. In the afternoon, our division was ordered to the extreme right and the Rebels were appearing in force there. We marched back along the pike about a mile and formed but no attack came. We passed the night by the pike. It was intensely cold and having no blanket or overcoat I found it impossible to sleep. That night seemed to be one of unlimited length and of unequaled suffering to me.

The bluff over McFadden's Ford at Stones River where Captain Mendenhall lined up 58 cannon to repulse General Breckinridge's assault on the Federal left. 

    Friday, January 2, 1863: We kept making short moves of position all forenoon. About 2 o’clock, the battle commenced again on the left and the division was ordered there. Arriving, we found the enemy was making the attack on Van Cleve’s division which had been thrown across the river and occupied a low hill that ran down to the stream. On our side the bank was very bluff.

    While we were laying on the bluff, the 15th Ohio came up to our support. I was lying in a low fence corner with Captain Cable and five or six others and just to our right was a mud hole. As the 15th came up, one of them was struck on the top of the head just enough to bring the blood and knock him back into the mud hole, where he lay making such a frantic struggle to get up that I had to laugh at him. We took position some distance back at first but soon the Rebels commenced to drive our men slowly but surely down the hill and into the river and then we advanced to the bluff and, laying down, delivered our volley.

Private Leonidas Allen of Co. F, 18th Ohio Infantry
(Ohio History Connection)

    Just to our right and on the opposite side of a building from our right wing as many as a dozen batteries were playing on the Rebels and they were answered with spirit. The ground fairly quaked and the “plug, plug” of the Rebels bullets was heard entering men at any second. But still the rebel line advanced down the hill with a steady step and seemed to defy death itself. Their flag floated out on the breeze and they came on in such a splendid line that I could not but admire them. But at last when near the river they gave way and then passing a yell, we dashed down the bank and across the river, our left wing and the 19th Illinois in mingled confusion. I don’t believe I ever felt better in my life than I did just then. All this time the batteries were engaged in a deadly duel and the sky was fairly darkened with smoke.

A view across Stones River with Wayne's Hill in the distance; the golf course that sits here once ran red with the blood of hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers who contested this ground on January 2, 1863. 

    I halted under the opposite bank to reload and then hastened up the hill after the retreating Rebels. Only the left companies of our regiment crossed the river, the rest being engaged on the right bank of the river which runs obliquely across the battlefield. There was no order now; everyone was fighting on his own hook.

    About halfway up the hill a color bearer was standing behind a tree while he held the flag out in view. We made a simultaneous rush all striving to get the flag. A private in the 78th Pennsylvania was the first to reach it and as he seized it, the color bearer turned to flee. In an instant, 50 rifles were leveled at him and he fell, shot to pieces.

The 26th Tennessee flag which was captured at Stones River is on display in Pennsylvania. 

    The mass was no so dense that there was no chance to get to the front so I oblique towards the river and soon was engaged with a squad of rebels behind some rocks. After I had fired once and was reloading, I felt a sharp twinge on my left hip and remained still for half a minute thinking I had been wounded. But when I examined it I found that a ball had gone through my haversack and broken my spoon, a piece of which had hit my hip. Our fire got too hot for the Rebels and some of them commenced to retreat from the rocks. Then we charged and captured about a dozen, I being one of the foremost, captured two. They were very much frightened and begged us not to kill them. I suppose they thought that we would act as they would in similar circumstances. They were sent to the rear.

    We had now reached the top of the ascent. A fence ran along the top of the ridge and behind it lay a line of Rebels and a battery. The battery opened on us with cannons and raked us fearfully. We recoiled for a moment and then charged in a perfect frenzy. The shock was terrible. A last desperate rush and we poured past the guns like a mob. A half-witted fellow in Co. I shot down one of the cannoneers just as he was pulling the lanyard string. The infantry and caissons retreated across the field in disorder and the day was ours.

Federal forces surged across Stones River and a soldier in the 78th Pennsylvania captured the colors of the 26th Tennessee. 

    We had been so occupied that we made no note of time and night now seemed to fall like a veil. The pursuit was stopped and a line was formed. The Federal battery stationed on the hill and the captured pieces (three 24-lb belonging to the Washington, Georgia artillery) were dragged across the river. Our fire had produced a dreadful slaughter around the guns. I counted nine Rebels that lay touching each other in one place. I picked up several nice Enfield and Springfield rifles but threw them down, concluding to cling to my old U.S. which had done such good service.

    I now retraced my steps across the river to find the regiment. After a search of about two hours I found it. It was sprinkling rain and was intensely dark. A cheerless prospect was before us. As we had no blankets the rain soon penetrated to the skin. A small gutter ran along just where we had stacked arms and the bottom of it was hard and dry and formed quite a contrast to the mushy ground. I took possession and soon it was filled with sleepers. Late in the night the rain fell heavily but worn out and exhausted I slept on until such a torrent of water came down the gutter that I was forced to rise. Of that night seemed fill of unalterable agony and suffering! But all things must have an end and so did that Friday night. Our faith in our beloved general was now stronger than ever. We had beaten the enemy and our spirits rose in proportion. Let the day’s fight decide as it would; we would go in with willing hearts.

The limestone bluff above McFadden's Ford with the monument resting upon the hill marking the location of some of the Federal cannon that helped hold this part of the line for Rosecrans. 

    Saturday January 3, 1863: Early in the forenoon came the order “fall in 18s!” We were going on the skirmish line. The rain fell in floods. We marched out past the breastworks and took refuge from the rain in a Negro shanty. Eighteen dead bodies lay in front of the hut and dotted the field all around the outposts. We had to keep in the hut for every move outside was a signal for a Rebel bullet. When the outposts were relieved, the ongoing guard would double quick up to the line under a shower of bullets and the old guard watching their chance would slip back. Our company came in late in the afternoon. When I arrived at my post, I found the hole (gopher holes we called them) full of water. Lying on the damp ground and in water was not conclusive to either health or comfort but necessity knows no law so I had to do it.

    At the end of an hour when the relief came we were thoroughly chilled. The body of Colonel Joseph Hawkins of the 13th Ohio lay just to our right between the lines. I came on again about 9 o’clock. The Rebels in our front of the line built large fires. Some move was evidently pending. The night was intensely dark. Our artillery shelled the woods. The shells would come whizzing over our heads and bursting in a glare of light bore distraction to all before them. I noticed one thing about them that I shall improve on. When they burst all of the pieces go on in their former direction.

Plaque on the artillery monument at Stones River; the monument was erected by the railroad in 1906 as a point of interest along the line. 

    Spears’ Tennesseans and one or two other regiments marched out just to our right and engaged the enemy in a point of woods about 200 yards from us. For awhile, a fierce fight occurred. The combatants were so close that we could hear every command that they would give and tell which one delivered volleys by the direction of the flash. One Rebel commander appeared very anxious to keep his men from running and used a profusion of oaths to affect his object. Presently our attention was called out front. A man was approaching from the direction of the Rebels. I heard the click, click of the guns in the next gopher hole and called to the boys in a low voice to let him come up as it might be one of our men wounded and on his way to the rear. He proved to be a Rebel, an orderly sergeant in the 1st Louisiana regiment. Shortly after two more came in and one of the Co. B boys shot one of them, wounding him. They belonged to some South Carolina regiment. They were taken to the reserve and Captain Steadman busied himself all night taking care of the wounded man.

    After an hour or more the fight ceased and the regiments withdrew. The Tennesseans threw the left of their picket line behind our right and while a relief was coming back from post, one of them fired and killed Oscar Clark of Co. D, one of our best soldiers. A squad of Co. D hurried out and threatened to kill the whole guard but was formally pacified. Scattering shots were still exchanged on our right and when I came on again at 1 o’clock, a considerable skirmish was in progress. It was a wild night and a fierce wind blew in our faces while the falling rain pelted us piteously. George Butt found an old cracker box near the hole and putting it on his head went to sleep. At 3, the regiment was relieved and marched back to where the division was bivouacked and, collecting some cedar boughs, I threw myself down on them and despite the cold was soon fast asleep.

18th Ohio Infantry regimental colors with the battle honor "Stone River" emblazoned atop the eagle. (Ohio History Connection)

    Sunday January 4, 1863: The sun was shining bright and clear when I awoke Sunday morning. Looking around me I found that I had my bed on the edge of a little gutter and lying in it was a dead man. Cheer after cheer was rolling up from the cedars and reverberating along the river. I inquired as to the cause. The Rebels had retreated. If anything earthly could seem heavenly, it was those cheers as they rose on the air and a glorious sun streaming down from a cloudless sky which seemed to share in our triumph. Rosey, Thomas, and Negley never knew how our hearts exalted them in that hour. That come what would, our unshaken confidence in them would lead us through peril and suffering. Our banners had been torn. Our artillery scattered here and there with broken wheels and dismounted guns. Our ranks were shattered. Our comrades lay in the still embrace of death among the somber silent cedars and in the muddy river. We had nothing to eat or wear but we had victory.

    A force was sent into Murfreesboro in the afternoon which took possession of the town and exchanged shots with the Rebel rear guard which hung on the outskirts of the town and seemed loathe to leave the scene of its bloody defeat. During the afternoon, Captain Cable, two others, and myself visited the field of Wednesday’s fight. I found the rebel at the edge of the cedars that I had taken position behind. He was a gigantic, dreadfully swollen man that had been shot through the head. I picked up a ball near him and am going to keep it as a memento. Also found one near where I made my first fire. We found our dead that had been within rebel lines collected in squads but unburied. I found two of my company in one of the collections: Jack Springer of Nelsonville and John Pratchant, a Tennessean. Poor Jack! Many a time have we roamed the streets at home together when all else was asleep. He was shot through the head. I cut a lock of his hair and am going to send it to his mother. And so passed Sunday the last day of the great battle. Previously, we had all been dissatisfied, always saying among ourselves that we would never get into a battle of any magnitude. But we have been gratified at last and now wait anxiously to hear what our friends think of our actions.

Federal artillery standing guard over the graves at Stones River National Cemetery

    Monday, January 5, 1863: This morning we crossed Stones River and entered the town with banners flying and drums beating as the 19th Illinois sang “John Brown’s Body.” On the way in, we passed some brick chimneys in a deserted camp, a pretty sure sign that the Rebel army would have wintered here but for our untimely interference. Our brigade moved out three miles on the Shelbyville Pike as a corps of observation. After a stay of three hours, we returned to town and are now quartered on the Manchester Pike a short distance from town on a ridge. Rosey has just rode past and was greeted with the greatest enthusiasm.

General Rosecrans rides with his ablest lieutenants in this painting by William Travis. 


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