Saving the Army at Stones River: Chicago Board of Trade Battery

     The Chicago Board of Trade Battery, led by Captain James H. Stokes, was formed in the summer of 1862 in response to President Lincoln's call for 300,000 troops. The battery was mustered into service August 1, 1862 and after spending a month in Chicago drilling with their new equipment, they departed for the seat of war, arriving in Louisville on September 10, 1862. The battery was soon attached to Buell's Army of the Ohio and served with it during the Perryville campaign. Just prior to the Stones River campaign, Stokes' battery was attached to the Pioneer Brigade, tasked with provided the protection of heavy firepower when the pioneers undertook the arduous tasks of constructing roads or river crossings. 

    On the first day of Stones River, the battery, consisting of four 6-lb smoothbores and two 10-lb James rifles, found itself sitting in the Federal center with the chaos of battle breaking out around them, but without orders. "The Battery came into position near the graveyard between the railroad the Nashville Pike. A slight rise beyond was occupied. To the left and front lay the key to the position- not to hold the gap would be fatal. At this juncture, Major General Rosecrans dashed from the left to the right and discovered the Chicago Board of Trade Battery right for the fray but without positive direction. His orders were given to officers and men indiscriminately as the case demanded. He spurred back to near the gap, returned part way, and beckoned, shouting "Right this way!" 

    As if on parade, the command at a trot came into battery in the gap on the crest with diminished intervals made necessary by a point of second growth forest on either flank. On the right and immediate front in an open field and within easy musket range, debouched the enemy in pursuit of the retreating blue. The cannoneers were at their posts, the General on the right of the line. The order rang out "load!" and before the word "fire!" came he raised his hand and plunged down the declivity in front. He had seen the approaching mass of routed soldiers who at once would swarm on the front, over, and through the battery, following by the victorious foe; a moment's delay, and the capture of the battery would be inevitable. The artillerymen stood with lanyards tightly drawn until to longer wait all was lost. As from one gun, all six shells passed over the head of the commanding General into the mass of the Confederates beyond, and from thence 30 shells per minutes until the front was clear," stated the Adjutant General's report of Illinois.

    The following account, published in the Fulton County Ledger of Canton, Illinois, was written by Private Charles H. Maple of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery. Stones River was the battery's first  serious engagement and Maple takes understandable pride in their accomplishments, as well he should- the battery expended 1,450 rounds at Stones River, the fourth highest amount in the army!

Unidentified member of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery 

Camp, Chicago Board of Trade Battery near Murfreesboro, Tennessee

January 9, 1863

   Dear brother,

          You have heard no doubt ere this that your humble servant has been in a battle and thanks to a kind and beneficent father, I have passed through unhurt.

I wrote to father on Sunday last, January 4th. At that time things looked rather blue for our army. We had not advanced our lines since the fight commenced on the Monday previous and in fact we had been repulsed, and our first line of battle compelled to fall back one mile from where they made their first stand. General [Richard W.] Johnson had been caught napping, and 3,000 of his command were taken prisoners including a part of the 88th and 89th Illinois Volunteers; the Rebs had burned our ammunition and provision trains, our army was fast becoming demoralized, stragglers being more plenty than fighting men and everything looked as though we were growing weaker on all sides. About two hours after I wrote my last letter, the news came that the Rebs were evacuating Murfreesboro. At first it was disbelieved, but finally shout after shout went up from the soldiers until the whole army had joined in the joyful chorus and one more victory was gained by the Federal arms.

          Do you think this war is any nearer an end than when we were mustered in for three years’ service? I think if the creator should be pleased to call such men from earth as Seward, Beecher, Sumner, and Davis, Rhett, Yancey, etc., this rebellion would be terminated sooner than it will while they play so conspicuous.

          This thing of stopping cannon balls for the purpose of making newspaper items is a rather dangerous business. Well, we have seen a fight and the wire edge is off and I think there is not any of the boys who would insist on going through the same again; however, we are ready and willing to give up our lives if in so doing we were satisfied that we could put down this rebellion.

Major General William S. Rosecrans
J.W. Campbell, 20th Army Corps Photographer backmark
(Author's Collection)

          On Monday December 29, 1862, we, for the first time, reached a point from which we could see the front of our lines. We remained inactive all day and at night bivouacked on the bank of Stewart’s Creek; we are attached to what is called the Pioneer Corps, an organization made up of detachments detailed from every regiment in General Rosecrans’ army whose duty it is to build bridges, fortifications, etc. We were guarding Stewart’s Creek while the Pioneers built a bridge. During the night, the enemy had fallen back about four miles, and in the morning, we started forward and marched to what afterward proved one of the greatest battlefields ever fought over. On Tuesday nothing of importance transpired, only now and then a few volleys of musketry or the boom of some cannon, and our boys as indignant as possible because we were not allowed to have a hand in it.

          On Wednesday morning we moved from the woods to the open field about a mile and a half from the enemy’s front and had gone about 300 yards when zip went a shell just over our heads, then another, then a shot, then two or three together, until the whole air seemed filled with these deadly missiles. We laughed at first, but in a few moments, we were ordered to take a position and it was not long before we sobered down and nary a laugh. The fire increased all the time until the roar was almost deafening. Suddenly a howl was heard from the Rebs, then see a man running out of the woods and presently the firing begins to cease, and as the roar dies away, the howling increases. The Rebel howl is similar to that of a wolf. Soon our right wing was in full retreat and at this juncture our battery is ordered to commence firing with this injunction from Captain Stokes, “Hold your fire, boys, until you see the whites of their eyes and then give it to them!”



The density of the cedar forest as depicted above made it nearly impossible to move artillery through the thicket. The Pioneer Brigade before the battle had cut a few rough roads through the forest and these lanes proved their worth during the desperate fighting of December 31, 1862. The Chicago Board of Trade Battery saw action in the open fields near the present day visitor center; it later took a position along the Nashville Pike.

          For one hour our boys poured in the shell and canister so fast that the forward course of the Rebs was checked. We are now ordered to charge forward and move forward about 200 yards and again commenced to fire; all the time the bullets and shells were showering around us faster than you ever saw hail in Illinois. Just opposite us on a corresponding hill, the Rebs could be plainly seen, every action and movement clear. We had been in this position but a few moments when the Rebs prepared to charge. On they came, a moving forest of bristling bayonets, one of the sublimest, yet most awful sights I ever beheld. Gently they descended the hill on the other side, cross the valley, and ascend the hill on which the battery is stationed.

This thing of stopping cannon balls for the purpose of making newspaper items is a rather dangerous business. Well, we have seen a fight and the wire edge is off...

Now the sight becomes terrifically sublime; round shot after round shot goes screaming through the air or tear their way through the living masses; shell after shell chased each other overhead and bursting in sulfurous canopy scattered their fragments far and wide, dealing out death in every direction. The enemy began to waver, and our boys began to work faster and pour in the shot so fast that they are compelled to fall back, and to the Board of Trade Battery is given the honor of saving the army from a total defeat. After we took our second position, General Rosecrans, who was just behind was just behind the battery cheering and urging the boys. At this time, we lost three killed and seven wounded. The enemy retired, and nothing further occurred that day; and when night came we laid down on the cold damp ground, and almost before I touched the ground I was asleep- completely played out.

Reenactors prepare to fire a brass Napoleon during a Park event in May 2016

What an awful night was that New Year’s Eve- so different from that time one year ago. Instead of attending a ball at the Sherman House, I attended one given to General Rosecrans in which 80,000 brave men took a part. When I awoke in the morning, instead of happy greetings and smiling faces, nothing but the groans of dying men and the cold, rigid forms of those who were cold in death. Being nearly frozen myself, I lay thinking of what happy times I had been accustomed to have when at home and how different it was then. I could hardly realize that such was the case, but it was so and could not be helped. All the succeeding day we stood awaiting the approach of the enemy, but they did not appear in very great force and we did not have to fire a gun. All day a Rebel sharpshooter in a tree about 200 yards off, shooting at us. Finally, one of the Pioneers saw him and slipped up and knocked him out of his hiding place. At night we were relieved by another battery and again put in reserve.

          Friday morning, we moved out on the field again and took a position and a Rebel battery was run out just opposite us, and for about 40 minutes we had some of the sharpest artillery practice I have ever witnessed, but we soon compelled them to draw back. In the afternoon, the Rebs made another dash at our left wing and nearly succeeded in turning our flank, and in fact did so for a short time. The whole of our infantry (consisting mostly of Ohio troops) were on the run when our battery was ordered to charge again. Talk about pluck. If the boys in the battery have not got pluck, then it is not found anywhere.

The Federal counterattack on the afternoon of January 2, 1863 across Stones River; the impetuosity of this attack combined with the thundering of 58 cannon opening on Breckinridge's division quickly decided the issue. 

          “Forward, forward,” was the cry, and Captain Stokes and Lieutenant Robinson taking the lead and I (being first postilion) close upon them with my horses on the run. If ever shell and shot came in heaps, it did at this time. Right in the face of two batteries we charged up in full view and took our position and for two hours we engaged them, but, as on Wednesday, we were too much for them. After it was all over, General Rosecrans rode up and thanked us again and again for saving, a second time, his army from disgraceful defeat.

          That night we slept in the rain and about 2 o’clock I awoke finding myself in a puddle of water about six inches deep and my back, which I hurt, pained me very much. I got relieved, went to the hospital and had it bathed, dried my clothes, and felt much better. But I must close lest I weary your patience. We are anxiously expecting someone down from Chicago, but they have not yet arrived. Love to all.

Your brother,

Charlie

~Fulton County Ledger (Canton, Illinois), January 27, 1863, pg. 1

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