Honor Fearfully Won: A Stones River story of the 39th Indiana

In the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, December 31, 1862 outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Private John Wilson of Co. D, 39th Indiana Infantry stamped his feet and rubbed his hands together to fight off the damp chill. The company had been sent out on picket after sunset the night before eating a supper of raw bacon and hardtack; they were not permitted fires. All night long, he and his comrades serving on the picket line of General August Willich’s brigade, constituting the extreme right wing of the Army of the Cumberland, had heard the noises of a Confederate Army on the move in their front. A jumpy Federal picket had shot a cow during the night which had blundered into the lines. A long line of campfires stretching to the west appeared to indicate trouble in the morning. It was a harrowing time for the Shiloh veterans.

Collapse of the Federal right wing at Stones River as depicted by Army of the Cumberland artist William Travis. Hugh Cummings of Co. B remembered in  1898 that the Confederates fell upon the 39th Indiana "with that demonic yell and by the very force of numbers and the impetuosity of the charge they swept us off the field. I even now can hear the balls as they go crashing through the bones of our comrades as they fell before that withering fire. At Shiloh I thought nothing so terrible as a great victory but at Stones River I realized that nothing could be more terrible than a great defeat."

Corporal Henry N. Rankin could hear “the Rebel pickets conversing in a low tone. I was very anxious, as an officer having charge of the picket line. I cautioned our reserve officers as to conditions in our front but they thought it would come out all right. I warned all of the pickets of a very early attack and told them at the first gun to give way and make for our reserve. I had placed the last pickets on duty before daybreak and had scarcely reached my reserve and packed up my knapsack when the first gun was fired on my pickets. They could scarcely be seen and looked more like trees than pickets. I was prepared to run. I called to all I could reach and told them where to go,” Rankin recalled. “A comrade and I made for a fence a short distance away wither several others. Several who jumped the fence were shot as they jumped over and I had just alighted on the ground when a ball struck my head, knocking me to the ground. All of the pickets that were not shot down at the first volley were now scattered badly.”[1]

Private Noah W. Downs of Co. D likewise was run off the field before dawn. “Firing commenced in front of Kirk’s Brigade,” he wrote. “They gradually gave way leaving our left entirely exposed. As soon as he was apprised of the fact, Colonel [Fielder A.] Jones ordered Co. D to fall back and join on the brigade again but no sooner done than the Rebels came over the hill charged bayonets and yelling like Indians. The balls were flying thick and fast, our support on the left had retreated and we were left all alone.” Dozens of the 39th Indiana were gunned down at the outset, and most of Companies B and C were captured outright by the rapidly advancing Confederate battle line.

Private Aurelius M. Willoughby, Co. H

As the regiment fell back in confusion, scattered pockets of Federal resistance vainly tried to stem the Confederate onslaught. Private Aurelius Willoughby of Co. H recalled seeing “a very large burly-looking soldier belonging to the 89th Illinois; he was behind a large tree loading and firing very coolly. Every time he would fire he would yell out to the advancing Rebs, “Here’s your mule!” and then load again. After firing several shots and yelling as usual after each shot, he caught an ounce ball in his shoulder as he stepped from behind the tree to fire. Yelling out that he was shot, he about faced, threw his gun away, and did some of the tallest running to the rear that was done, never stopping to look back for fear he would catch another one. The mule business was ‘played out’ with him,” Willoughby wrote.

As two Confederate infantry brigades under Generals Matthew D. Ector and James Rains pushed Willich’s and Kirk’s men out of their  position at the wooded intersection of Gresham Lane and the Franklin Pike, a brigade of Confederate cavalry under John Wharton swooped out around the left of the advancing Confederate battle line and galloped into the Federal rear, cutting off prisoners from the broken Federal brigades by the bushel. Wharton’s 8th Texas Cavalry (Texas Rangers) captured most of the 39th Indiana, even capturing the regimental colors for a time.

Federal resistance continued even after the men were captured, as remembered by Noah Downs. “Captain [Thomas] Herring with several of his men were captured and the guard having charge of him ordered him to double quick, but the captain told him in his peculiar way that he had “quit doing that.” The guard, much enraged, drew a revolver and swore he would shoot him. “Shoot and be damned,” yelled the captain, “I’m tired.” About this time, our cavalry made a dash on the Rebs and then Herring turned on the guard and told him, “Now sir, this changes the program. You dismount, take off that saber,” he said. The fellow wilted, got off and held the horse while the captain mounted,” Downs related.[2] “They captured the balance of our boys and also the colors,” remembered Private Aurelius M. Willoughby of Co. H. “But the 4th U.S. Cavalry and the 4th Ohio Cavalry dashed in and ran the Rebels off, releasing us and recovering our colors which we have now.”

Lieutenant Colonel Fielder A. Jones, 39th Indiana earned praise for his leadership in the pell-mell retreat on the morning of December 31, 1862. Writing to Colonel Thomas J. Harrison, Jones stated that "at first we all attributed the blame to General [Richard W.] Johnson, but subsequent events have convinced us that the principal blame attaches itself to those much higher in command than he," meaning either Right Wing commander Alexander McD. McCook or Rosecrans himself. "You congratulate me on reputation gained. If you mean it in earnest, I can say it was an honor fearfully won."

But for hundreds of Federals, the battle was over, among them Private John Wilson of Co. D who tells this story of his time in Rebel hands:

“I was taken by the Texas Rangers and they were all about half drunk or a little more. After robbing me of everything they wanted, I along with a great many others was turned over to some Tennessee infantry to be taken into town and a half dozen Rangers also went with us; indeed, the Rebel soldiers were very anxious to guard prisoners and the corporal in charge had to send several back to their regiments. The Rebels were very kind and used us as best they could. I saw several of them dismount and help up wounded Union prisoners on their horses and walk themselves. They entered into conversation with us very freely. One told me a colonel had been around their lines four or five times with whiskey that morning before daylight and everyone had as much to drunk as he wanted. He also told me they had been in line of battle all night and that the campfires we saw were all false, as they lay close to our lines and could hear our pickets talk and even sometimes make out what they said.”

The Confederate guards earned praise from their Yankee
prisoners for their fair treatment.

“Every one of them had plenty of tobacco, an article we all were sadly in want of. They gave us the weed very readily and liberally; not only so on the battlefield, but all over the Southern states. The Rebel soldiers treated us far better than the citizens all throughout our trip through the South, but there were some exceptions. When we got to Murfreesboro in going up the street to the courthouse, I saw four or five women standing on a portico. When we got opposite to them, an old Jezebel of iniquity who had no teeth mumbled out in the peculiar manner of toothless people, ‘I would sooner have see them all left on the battlefield,” then the rest of them joined in the same cry. One of the Rebel soldiers riding alongside of me said, “You would not say that you damned old bitch if you had to go and fight,” but not loud enough, of course, for her to hear.”

“When we got to Tullahoma, a large crowd assembled to see us and many of them provided corncakes which they distributed among us. I got a piece from a soldier that had just got home from the North, having been a prisoner, he procured all he could for us, stating that he had been well-used when a prisoner with the Federals. In marching through the streets of Chattanooga, several of the citizens indulged their spite by calling us nicknames, laughing, and insulting us. Their officers and soldiers felt ashamed of them and said “twas like fighting a Negro who durst not fight you.” We stopped three hours at a place called Ringgold, Georgia and the people here were very social and some conscripts we talked to wished very much to be in our situation, prisoners of war. All along through Georgia, Alabama, and eastern Tennessee, they people are heartily tired of the war.” Wilson’s contingent of prisoners were sent south from Chattanooga to Atlanta and had made it into southern Alabama when the train received orders to bring the Federals back north and to send them through eastern Tennessee for exchange at Richmond, Virginia.[3]

The warm welcome the Federal prisoners received throughout the South didn’t sit well with some, particularly the editor of the Athens Post. “Several thousand Federal prisoners have passed this place recently going in the direction of Richmond. The prisoners were mostly western-born, with a heavy sprinkle of the foreign element. On Sunday, a train loaded with that sort of livestock was detained at the depot an hour or two and the rush to see the captured elephant was great. It is said the sight of the prisoners made some of the Secesh, who have stuck pretty close to home since the war commenced, as mad as Dutchy’s cow and that they cussed the dreadful Yankees and wanted to fight. The Lincolnites or Union men as they prefer to be called, were out in force and it is reported that the billing and cooing between them and such of the prisoners as we condescend to notice them was marked enough to be disgusting. It is stated that several females had the bad taste to wave with their handkerchiefs an affectionate adieu to the departing prisoners as the train moved off. The last report would seem almost incredible and we hope there is no foundation for it,” it opined.[4]

This phenomenon of Unionist support in the deep South was also something Private Wilson commented upon. “At Greenville, Alabama, they talked nothing but the most rabid secession. One would think they were the bitterest enemies we had. There was quite a gathering of young women on the platform, one of whom waved a Secesh flag when we started from the depot. Next day, when we returned, I saw the young lady at the depot again. I asked her to let me see the flag she was waving yesterday. She said it was at home but if I would take it North and show it to the young ladies there, she would give it to me and ordered a young Negro to go for it. I told her I expected to capture one on the battlefield to show both old and young ladies at the North. ‘Well,” says he, ‘I suppose I may speak my real sentiments to you. I am for the old Union and so are many here. I only waved the flag yesterday because my family are suspicioned of being traitors to the Southern Confederacy.’ A Secesh captain coming up in the platform at this moment, she was afraid to be seen talking to a Union soldier,” Wilson remembered.[5]

[1] Corporal Henry N. Rankin, “Midwinter Battle of Stones River,” National Tribune, July 22, 1926

[2] Private Noah W. Downs, Howard Tribune (Indiana), February 12, 1863, pg. 1

[3] Private John Wilson, Howard Tribune (Indiana), February 5, 1863, pg. 1

[4] “Federal Prisoners,” Athens Post (Tennessee), January 16, 1863, pg. 2

[5] Wilson, op. cit.


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