"Yelling like fiends incarnate" The opening moments of Stones River

    The opening shots of the Battle of Stones River were fired near the intersection of Old Fort Parkway (Tennessee 96) and Gresham Lane- it was near this point that the angle formed by two Federal brigades of General Richard Johnson's division constituted the right flank of the Army of the Cumberland on December 31, 1862. Shortly after dawn, General John P. McCown's division attacked this position, quickly overwhelming the Union picket line, and driving these two brigades out of position. 

The intersection of Old Fort Parkway and Gresham Lane marks the site of the opening shots of the Battle of Stones River. Federal skirmishers tangled with McCown's division to the south and southeast of this intersection at dawn. The site is unmarked and is home to a Mapco gas station. When I last visited the site in 2016, I asked the young lady behind the counter of the gas station about the significance of the intersection, she seemed befuddled and, jerking her thumb over her shoulder, said the battle was fought at the national park. 


    First Lieutenant Shepherd Green from the 49th Ohio Volunteer Infantry was present at this intersection on the morning of December 31, 1862. He was then serving as the acting assistant adjutant general of General August Willich's staff and while General Willich was back at division headquarters, Green was near the camp of his old regiment. "At dawn on the morning of the 31st we rose from our beds of blankets and corn blades and began eating our meal of hard bread and bacon. All seemed quiet-not even the firing of a single gun broke the ominous silence. But a few moments elapsed however before the fearful, long pent-up storm burst forth like a destroying avalanche," he wrote. 

    Green's letter, written to his father and later published in the Ottawa Telegram, provides a fine staff officer's point of view of the retreat of the Federal right wing and gives some insight into the demoralization that gripped McCook's troops after being driven more than two miles from their original position. "God deliver me from a repetition of the feelings of those few hours! All seemed lost! Scarcely an old friend or associate could be found. Rousseau was being driven and the army seemed on the verge of ruin! Artillery trains, wagons, rider less horses, ambulances, etc. crowded in one moving mass, rushed disorderly towards the limited bounds of our prison; the enemy was upon every side shouting and yelling like fiends thirsting for blood. An incessant, terrific roar of artillery, and the awful rattles of musketry filled the air and shook the earth. Something must be done and that immediately, or this Grand Army will be lost."

    The following account was published in the February 7, 1863 issue of the Ottawa Telegram published in Ottawa, Putnam Co., Ohio.

Lieutenant Shepherd Green
Acting Assistant Adjutant General on staff of General August Willich

Captain Green was killed in action November 25, 1864 at Columbia, Tennessee at the outset of Hood's invasion of Tennessee. He is buried at Bellefontaine City Cemetery in Bellfontaine, Ohio. He was just 22 years of age. 



General August Willich

Headquarters 1st Brigade, south of Murfreesboro, Tennessee
January 6, 1863

Dear Father:
          I will write you at length as I promised, the first opportunity after the great battle of Stones River, and will give you the as accurate an account of the struggle as time, circumstances, and a confused remembrance will permit.

          There had been firing of artillery and slight skirmishing the afternoon of the 30th and at dusk we moved to our position on the extreme right of the right wing, 3 miles from Murfreesboro Pike, covering the flank and rear. At dawn on the morning of the 31st we rose from our beds of blankets and corn blades and began eating our meal of hard bread and bacon. All seemed quiet-not even the firing of a single gun broke the ominous silence. But a few moments elapsed however before the fearful, long pent-up storm burst forth like a destroying avalanche.  The immense columns of the enemy came steadily but irresistibly down upon the pickets and battle line of General Kirk who was in front of us. His fire was delivered manfully, and hundreds of Rebels bit the dust, no sooner were gaps made then desperate men filled them again. It was but a short distance from General Kirk’s line to our position, and the enemy were soon upon us, yelling like fiends incarnate.
 
Note the location of the 39th and 32nd Indiana regiments at the intersection of Gresham Lane, which at this time was a dirt road, with the Franklin Pike. The opening shots of the battle were fired in the open fields to the south and east of the intersection where the skirmish line of troops from the 39th Indiana opened fire on the murky shapes forming out of the early morning darkness at roughly 6:20 a.m. on December 31, 1862. 

General Willich was absent and in attempting to rejoin his brigade rode into the Rebel lines and was made prisoner. Colonel Gibson formed the brigade as well as he could and with one regiment covered the withdrawing of the others. About 300 yards from our position in camp, the brigade made a noble stand, and mowed down the advancing Rebels with tremendous carnage. 
Colonel William H. Gibson, 49th OVI

Here fell the brave Lieutenant Colonel Levi Drake while heroically endeavoring to rally his men. Of this brave patriot soldier too much can not be said in praise. The bravest of the brave, the McDonald of every battle, he was loved, honored, and respected by the men and his brother officers, In Lieutenant Colonel Drake I lost a devoted friend, a wise counselor, and one who seemed more a father than a commander. I probably felt his loss more severely than any other in his wide circle of army acquaintance, for he was to me indeed a father, friend, and brother. Could I offer any consolation, gladly would I do it, but the task is too sad a one, and the fresh battle wounds can not yet cease to bleed for the good and brave; but this satisfaction they will have-that he fills a brave patriot soldier’s grave, a willing sacrifice to the cause of freedom and constitutional liberty; that he lived as an ornament to society, a bright start in the military firmament of his state, and the service in which he held so honorable a position. Let us cherish his memory as that one of pure feelings and rare courage, who was taken from us by the hand of the All-Wise Being.

Lieutenant Colonel Levi Drake, 49th OVI
Killed in action December 31, 1862


          We were driven back slowly, terribly before the double lines of the advancing enemy. About 9:30 a.m., we found ourselves retreating across a piece of timber; coming to an advantageous position, Colonel William H. Gibson (49th OVI), Captain Andrew Dawson (15th OVI), and other brave spirits rallied the shattered ranks and after the most desperate efforts, we formed in line and with one loud cheer and a terrific volley, we checked and sent the fiends howling back. But new lines came up and our lines slowly drifted, drifted no one knew where. Seven times we rallied our broken lines and each time made fierce and bloody resistance as the piles of Rebel slain will plainly show at each point.

At 2 p.m., we reached the lines of General [Lovell H.] Rousseau near the Murfreesboro Pike. God deliver me from a repetition of the feelings of those few hours! All seemed lost! Scarcely an old friend or associate could be found. Rousseau was being driven and the army seemed on the verge of ruin! Artillery trains, wagons, rider less horses, ambulances, etc. crowded in one moving mass, rushed disorderly towards the limited bounds of our prison; the enemy was upon every side shouting and yelling like fiends thirsting for blood. An incessant, terrific roar of artillery, and the awful rattles of musketry filled the air and shook the earth. Something must be done and that immediately, or this Grand Army will be lost.

General William S. Rosecrans
It seemed to be beyond human power to avert the terrible catastrophe, but there was giant mind equal to the occasion, from line to line rode the towering form of the general commanding [Rosecrans]. Where the battle raged the fiercest, there stood the man who managed the workings. Cool, decided, brave in the darkest moments, he seemed to know but one idea. “We must fight to the bitter end.” To see him was to feel in his hands that we were safe from defeat. O! Father you can not imagine one’s feelings at such a time. I thought the sun would never set upon the heart-breaking scene on that eventful day. There are said to be times when the bravest heart quails and sickens. I confess there was a moment when mine ceased to hope, and its life blood rushed in one thick cold blood to the fountain. I almost prayed to die-to have a coveted death shut out the agonizing fear that all was lost!

          That terrible awful day of carnage closed at last, and the two armies lay exhausted on the gray field. All night slow artillery firing was kept up by our batteries to keep the enemy at bay. The sad, sad night passed-we alone knew how. What an eventful New Years Eve! What remembrances were called to mind in the anxious hours of the long, weary night of ceaseless watching!

          New Year’s Day dawned with the opening of thundering batteries. The sun seemed to struggle in vain to pierce the thick, murky cloud that hung like a pall over the bloody field. At last it appeared, half-hidden by the dense fog and red and fiery as it too had been bathed in the bloody torrent. About this time Rosecrans masked his batteries behind a line of infantry, which gave way before the solid columns who moved to the very mouth of our double-shotted guns. The word was given and whole regiments melted away before a withering fire of canister.

 
Private William John Lisle, Co. I, 49th OVI
Died in field hospital January 1, 1863 from
wounds received December 31, 1862
          Fighting continued on the front and left all day and towards night, our brigade was sent by special order of General Rosecrans to our extreme right to make a reconnaissance. Arriving about one mile from our right line, at the place designated, we threw out our skirmishers and sharpshooters and discovered the enemy in strong force advancing in line of battle upon General Davis, but seeing their movements were observed by us, they withdrew and sent a regiment of cavalry down upon us., which was repulsed by our skirmishers. We occupied this position until dark when we withdrew behind a cedar grove and slept for a few hours, and never was sleep more thankfully received by tired and worn out soldiers. Long before daylight we were in line of battle, awaiting the storm we expected to break forth. We were drawn up as a general reserve for the center, right or left, as exigencies demanded.

About 4 p.m., tremendous firing was heard on our extreme left, occupied by Van Cleve’s division. Our troops, again overpowered, were pressed back into camp. Nothing could equal the terrific onslaught! Our brigade was ordered by General Rosecrans in person to march in solid columns to the point where we could be first under fire, then deploy and charge for life and country. I had some misgivings as to our shattered troops standing another fire, but the firm, steady tramp gave hope and confidence to all. Line after line came out from column in a manner that enlisted the encomiums of the commanding general. Through an open field, exposed to a terrible fire of grape, canister and musketry, the line moved quickly and in perfect order until the command ‘Charge!’ was heard to the extreme end of the line, and it swept down with a loud cheer, clearing the north side of the river to the last Rebel, save the dead wounded and prisoners.



         
This assault and defeat closed the efforts of the great Rebel army. Their utter failure seemed to paralyze the very heart of their commander, and they retired sullenly before us.

1st Lieutenant Shepherd Green, Company I, 49th O.V.I., A.A. Inspector General, 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, Right Wing.

Comments

  1. A very fascinating account by this young man, and it is on my bucket list to visit this battlefield sometime around New Years (always try to go when the battle was fought) in the not so distant future. Thanks for posting it here.

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