Swallowed by the Cedars: A Day with the 15th Kentucky

In the Army of Tennessee, the Orphan Brigade consisted of a group of Confederate Kentucky regiments considered orphans due to the fact that their state did not officially follow them into the Confederacy. The Army of the Cumberland also had a Kentucky regiment with the orphan moniker, but for a different reason. In this case it was the 15th Kentucky Infantry who gained the name of the “Orphan Regiment” due to having its field commanders completely struck down at the Battle of Perryville in October 1862, leaving the regiment “orphaned.”

          The problem of who to appoint to take command of the regiment after Perryville was a knotty one; the field and line officers had taken such heavy losses that it was decided to appoint 19-year-old Louisville native Captain James Brown Forman as colonel. It was ironic that the young man chosen to lead Kentucky’s “Orphan Regiment” was himself an orphan; both parents having passed away before he was eight years old. But Forman had a solid claim to command, having won the affections of the men of the regiment by his courageous actions at Perryville. In the midst of the fight, the regimental banner was shot down again and again, and with their field officers all shot down, the regiment was in danger of coming apart. Captain Forman grabbed the colors, mounted a rail fence, and in waving the flag called on the men to rally on him. In recognition of his heroism and leadership abilities, he was appointed colonel of the regiment in November 1862 and the 15th Kentucky was presented with a new stand of colors, Colonel Forman having turned over the shredded banner he carried at Perryville to the state.

          Fast forward to 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, December 31, 1862. Colonel Forman had two weeks prior celebrated his 20th birthday in a Union army camp near Nashville. The Battle of Stones River had begun barely three hours before, but the scene along the Nashville Pike indicated the Union army was fast falling apart; stragglers and wounded men by the hundreds poured out of the cedars and headed back for Nashville. The sounds of battle kept creeping closer to the Nashville Pike as the Confederates pounded away at the Right Wing. Sensing the peril, General Rosecrans ordered Major General Lovell Rousseau to lead the three brigades of his division into the cedars and halt the Confederates.

This map by Lieutenant Dahl of Davis' Division shows the section of the Wilkinson Pike where the men of Beatty's brigade engaged the Confederates of McCown's and Cleburne's division on the morning of December 31, 1862. The cedars were a blessing and a curse as a defensive position; they were a veritable fortress as long as you could maintain your position. But if you had to retreat, the tangled growth of trees, slippery limestone rocks, and lack of roads presented grave difficulties. 

Colonel Forman was poised to lead his regiment into combat for the first time and like Perryville, it was another desperate endeavor. Mounted “on a splendid black charger which made him a prominent mark for the enemy” as remembered by Alfred Pirtle, Forman entertained few illusions of future grandeur. Turning to a friend on Rousseau’s staff, William McDowell. Colonel Forman stated “I will be killed in the fight. You have always wanted this horse. Now it is my desire that after this battle you should have him.” McDowell shrugged it off playfully and told Forman that if that is how he felt, he’d just as soon have the horse now. “I am in earnest. I know what I’m talking about. I will be killed, you will be wounded, and the horse will also be wounded, and I want Major Allen to see that the horse is cared for and given to you.” And with that gloomy exchange, Colonel John Beatty’s brigade with the 15th Kentucky on the right flank moved into the maelstrom of the cedar forest at Stones River.

The cedars were no place to move an army. Further to the left, the Pioneer Corps had cut a makeshift road that General James Negley’s troops used to take their position in the cedars, but Rousseau’s men did not enjoy such luxury. The closely clustered trees made it a navigational challenge for men, horses, and artillery. The absence of open space within the forest made using artillery a perilous prospect; the southern edge of the cedars opened on to the Wilkinson Turnpike and open fields beckoned beyond the pike, but if the Federals needed to retreat from this position, they’d play hell getting the cannon out. It wouldn’t be much easier for the infantry as this section of the field was covered with broken limestone outcroppings, slick with moss and wet from days of rain. But the position had to be held regardless of complications, difficulties, or cost.

Colonel John Beatty, 3rd Ohio Infantry

Further to the left of Beatty’s men, General Phil Sheridan’s exhausted and battered brigades were preparing to withdraw. They had put up a spectacular fight, holding off a good chunk of the Army of Tennessee for more than two hours, buying General Rosecrans time to construct a new defensive line closer to the Nashville Pike. But Sheridan’s men were spent. Each of Sheridan’s three brigade commanders had been killed, the troops were either out of ammunition or down to their last few rounds, and casualties among the rank and file were very heavy. With Negley’s men on his left, and Rousseau’s division coming in on his right, Sheridan wrote that he was “satisfied I could not hold on much longer without the danger of ultimate capture, so I prepared to withdraw as soon as the troops of Rousseau’s division came into position.”

“Passing in the rear of General Sheridan’s division, our brigade got into the same kind of position that held at Perryville, that is, one on the extreme right wing of the army with the 15th Kentucky on the right of the brigade,” remembered Adjutant William P. McDowell. “With instructions to hold the enemy until the artillery could be gotten out of the thicket, we again met the enemy and stopped for a while his triumphant charges.” A flock of turkeys, panic-stricken by the cacophony of noise from gunfire, shells, and booming cannons, pummeled their way through the regiment. The shrieking Confederates of Hardee’s corps were not far behind.

The tangled growth and series of limestone outcroppings characterized the cedar forest at Stones River. This particular picture was taken some distance east of where the 15th Kentucky fought, but it provides one a sense of the difficulties of movement posed by the ground itself for troops, let alone artillery.

General John P. McCown’s division, refreshed and re-armed after crumbling the Union right flank in the morning, took position as the left flank of the Confederate attack and moved north of the Wilkinson Pike, flanking Rousseau’s position in the cedars. Closer in, the hard fighting Arkansas brigade led by Colonel Lucius Polk pushed forward and started to work their way around the flank of Beatty’s brigade, and slammed into the 15th Kentucky. The thick brush and hastily constructed fieldworks helped shield the Federals from much of Polk’s fire, and the Confederates took heavy losses, but they smelled blood in the water. Pushing further to their left, the Arkansans soon found the flank and swept in to capture the Federals.

Behind the lines of the 15th Kentucky, Colonel Forman rode back and forth encouraging his men to keep up their fire. His horse had already taken a bullet in the hind leg; within a moment, Forman’s prophecy was fulfilled, and the young Kentuckian fell to the ground pierced by a Minie ball and quickly expired. He had been in action less than ten minutes before he was killed. Major Henry Kalfus (who was later dismissed for uttering disloyal sentiments in front of his men) assumed command but, overwhelmed by the Confederate fire now striking his regiment from front, right flank, and rear, he ordered a retreat.

“I shall never forget how martial he looked, all accoutered as was his wont, as he lay like a marble statue in the bottom of an army wagon in which the beams of a lone candle strove to dispel the shadows.” Lieutenant Alfred Pirtle as he gazed upon the body of Colonel James B. Forman of the 15th Kentucky
Colonel James Brown Forman, 15th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry
This image was cropped from a full length photo taken of him in either November or December 1862 wearing his colonel's straps. The handsome young Kentuckian was killed in action only moments after his regiment became engaged at Stones River. (Author's collection)

“Holding our position a little too long, we had to fight both front, flank, and rear to get back to the 14th Corps’ position in the center for the enemy had passed around our right and were enveloping us before we knew it,” remembered Adjutant McDowell. It was a confusing, ferocious, and bloody scramble to get out of the cedars and the 15th Kentucky lost a third of its numbers in so doing. Colonel John Beatty recalled that “the fright spreads and my brigade swept by my to the open fields in our rear. I hastened to the colors, stop them, and endeavor to rally the men. The field is by this time covered with flying troops and the enemy’s fire is most deadly.” Just as Beatty was starting to gather a cadre of men around him, his horse was struck down, and by the time he got to his feet, the brigade was on the run, and this ended the fighting on December 31, 1862 for the 15th Kentucky.

It was a gloomy camp behind the Nashville Pike that night. The 15th Kentucky, a hard-luck regiment if there ever was one, was “orphaned” again. Major Kalfus was not an inspiring figure like Colonel Forman, and the prospects for the future under his faltering leadership appeared bleak. The Federal wagon trains had been cut to pieces by Wheeler’s cavalry; the army would have to fight and survive off what it had in hand for the time being. All expected a renewal of the fighting in the morning and shuddered at the thought. The Union army had held its ground on the Nashville Pike, but at a frightening cost of men.

But the loss of one man in the 15th Kentucky cut to the core, and a few hardly souls of the regiment determined to do something about it. “His men formed a small squad after the night had fallen and with great caution and silence, made their way into the intense darkness of the forest and after some efforts, found his body and slowly brought it into our lines with much labor,” recalled Alfred Pirtle. “I shall never forget how martial he looked, all accoutered as was his wont, as he lay like a marble statue in the bottom of an army wagon in which the beams of a lone candle strove to dispel the shadows.” James Brown Forman, the orphan, and leader of the ‘Orphan Regiment,’ had gone home to his maker, and his earthly remains would soon thereafter be respectfully consigned by his friends to the soil of his home in Louisville.



Account of Adjutant William P. McDowell, Southern Bivouac, 1886-87, pgs. 246-53

“New Year’s Eve on the Field of Battle,” Alfred Pirtle, Louisville Evening Post, December 31, 1915

Beatty, John. The Citizen Soldier

Jenkins, Kirk C. The Battle Rages Higher: The Union’s 15th Kentucky Infantry. University Press of Kentucky, 2003, Chapter 5



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