Surrounded by a Wall of Fire: With Sheridan’s Division at Stones River

    Two days before Christmas 1862, Co. E of the 22nd Illinois was on picket duty south of Nashville when a regiment of Confederate cavalry rushed one of the posts and captured 13 soldiers. “General Sheridan came up and damned us off and called us cowardly sons of bitches,” recalled Corporal William Austin of Co. A. But a week later on the cusp of the battle of Stones River, the hot-headed Ohio brigadier sent a dispatch to Lieutenant Colonel Francis Swanwick commanding the 22nd Illinois. It was an apology to be read to the men of the regiment. “He stated he was very sorry for what he said in the heat of anger against a very gallant regiment but wished the matter to be forever at rest,” Austin commented. Within moments, the 22nd Illinois and the three other regiments of Colonel George Roberts’ brigade would put in the fight of their lives holding the left flank of Sheridan’s division line south of the Wilkinson Pike. The 22nd would prove themselves to certainly be a very gallant regiment.

          In the ensuing fight, every one of General Sheridan’s brigade commanders was lost: Brigadier General Joshua Sill commanding the First Brigade, Colonel Frederick Schaefer of the Second Brigade, and Colonel George Williamson Roberts of the Third Brigade. “The day had cost me much anxiety and sadness and I was sorely disappointed at the general result, though I could not be other than pleased at the part taken by my command,” Sheridan confided in his memoirs. “The loss of my brigade commanders and a large number of regimental and battery officers with so many of their men struck deep into my heart. My thinned ranks told the woeful tale of the fierce struggle, indescribable by words, through which my division had passed.”

          Period sources from survivors of Sheridan’s regiment tend to be rather scarce, particularly from the Second and Third Brigades, but the accounts of Captain James S. Jackson and William Austin from the 22nd Illinois help fill this void. The 22nd Illinois was the senior regiment in Colonel George W. Roberts’ all-Illinois brigade consisting of the 22nd, 27th, 42nd, and 51st regiments along with Captain Charles Houghtaling’s Battery C of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery. Captain Jackson commanded Co. G of the 22nd Illinois during Stones River and wrote the following letter to his subordinate Second Lieutenant John R. Smith who missed out on the battle; it was published in the January 22, 1863 issue of the Salem Advocate in Illinois. Corporal Austin served in Co. A and left an extensive diary covering the Stones River campaign.

Captain James Jackson: On the morning of the 30th of December, our regiment took the advance and encountered the enemy skirmishers about three miles from Murfreesboro at 9 o’clock in the morning and after a sharp fight, in which our regiment lost 17 men, both armies lay down upon their arms and prepared for the decisive battle which was evident would take place on the morrow. Morning came after a night of rain and our gallant boys arose from their miry beds, took a piece of bacon and a cracker and formed in line of battle about sun-up.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Francis Swanwick of the 22nd Illinois led the regiment until it retreated through the cedars when he was wounded in the arm and captured. As the entire command staff of the regiment was disabled in the fight, Captain Samuel Johnson assumed command of the regiment for the remainder of the battle. 

          Scarcely had our line been formed the enemy fell with demoniac shouts upon our right wing of which our division formed the left. Our brigade led by the gallant and lamented Colonel Roberts met them and after a terrific struggle drove them before us like sheep, capturing one of their battle flags. So far all went well. Not so on the extreme right where the volleys of our musketry mingled with the ominous shouts of the enemy that told plainly that the divisions of Generals Johnson and Davis were being overpowered and driven back. Slowly but surely our men on the extreme right were forced back until Roberts’ brigade (which still held its ground) was completely surrounded by a wall of fire, then it was that the fighting began in earnest.

Corporal William M. Austin: About 7 a.m. Colonel Roberts rode up saying he would give us a dash. The 42nd Illinois in line of battle followed by the 22nd started on the charge for the enemy’s center. The enemy was in the edge of a wood and to reach them we had to cross open fields. When we came out into the fields, the enemy opened upon us with artillery and rifles, shells, grape, and canister which began to tell on our ranks. At every step men fell and went to the rear; but our ranks readily closed up and forward we went, closing rapidly on the enemy in a bayonet charge. The 42nd drove away the enemy and captured a gun, but the 22nd was ordered back to a lane [Gresham Lane] before they reached the enemy.

 

Map depicting the position of Sheridan's Division on the morning of December 31, 1862. As the battle developed, Johnson's and Davis' divisions located south of Sheridan were leveraged out of position and as they fell back, they opened Sheridan's right flank which forced Sheridan to draw his three brigades back towards the Wilkinson Pike. Roberts' brigade became the hinge of that door swinging back towards the north, holding their position against multiple assaults as they gradually fell back to a position along the Wilkinson Pike. The delaying action fought by Sheridan's division was crucial to buying time for the Army of the Cumberland to regroup and eventually hold their ground along the Nashville Pike. 

Captain James Jackson: Our regiment was ordered to support Captain [Charles] Houghtaling’s battery [Battery C, 1st Illinois Light Artillery] and though surrounded on all sides with three batteries playing on him while his horses and men fell all around, Houghtaling still held his ground. A regiment of the enemy’s infantry had moved up with the evident intention of capturing the battery. But our regiment met them and gallantly repulsed them, but soon a whole brigade was hurled upon us.

Corporal William M. Austin: General Sheridan rode up to Colonel Roberts and ordered him to fall back with his battery and brigades and take a new position. Our flank had been exposed which caused us to fall back some 300 yards into a poor position. Our new position was a very inferior one on account of the lowness of the ground and the almost utter impossibility of moving artillery; we were in the edge of a cedar wood filled with large rocks. The 22nd formed in line of battle and knelt in front of the battery. The enemy came on and we were soon engaged.

 

Captain Charles Houghtaling's frock coat and sword
Stones River National Battlefield


Captain James Jackson: About this time, poor John Gregory, our orderly sergeant, fell while nobly doing his duty, but the details are too sickening to recall: man and horse fell, mingled in bloody death, all was done that human nature could accomplish to stay the tide that was setting so strongly against us, but in vain. May God in mercy never let one look upon such a sight again. To be brief, we rallied what men were not either killed or wounded and finally succeeded in penetrating the enemy’s line to escape.

 

Second Lt. James M. McAdams
Co. E, 22nd Illinois


Corporal William M. Austin: Fast and thick rained the missiles of death upon our artillerists. At times a rider struck by a bursting shell would fall from his horse dead or mangled he would sit upon his horse if possible. Some could be seen working at the guns with mangled limbs, but none faltered for an instant but with shouts they continued to send the contents of their guns into the ranks of the desperate foe. When this battery ceased firing, every cartridge had been burnt, their caissons were empty, and their numbers sadly diminished. In the meanwhile, the infantry was doing the part of duty assigned to them. The roll of musketry nearly equaled the artillery and greatly exceeded it in rapidity. We all knew the dangers that surrounded us, but we would wait for orders though to many they never came. We aimed our pieces coolly and random firing need not be indulged in for the foe was pressing close on to us and our aim was certain to find an object. Every moment, in glancing along our lines, I could see men fall and limp to the rear. My company thinned out fast until near half gone, but the rest kept their guns and did their duty like men.

          The enemy in their movements was impetuous, which often led them into positions where they could not but meet with destruction. They showed themselves right under the muzzle of our guns and we had a good chance of seeing them under fire. One fellow mounted a building and waved a battle flag in our faces. He was fired at by several in my notice but took his time getting down. Another one planted his flag in a field in our front and lay down at the foot of the staff to avoid our balls. When they were charged, our guns would send down whole ranks but still they would come up to the work. I saw one regiment split by canister; it divided into halves and took opposite directions on the double quick. Like us, they would duck their heads at the whistle of a shell and sometimes reminded us of quails dodging for cover.

          The fight raged in all its fierceness and about noon the enemy made a more determined fight on account of our battery getting out of ammunition and the enemy was not slow in finding it out. Colonel Roberts, seeing how matter stood, ordered us to fall back which we did in good order. As we were going back, Lieutenant Colonel Swanwick ordered us to about face and charge which we did with a yell. It was a mistake and Colonel Roberts stopped us and sent us back. This is the darkest time we saw that day. The enemy was in our rear and on our flanks and pressing hard in front. We were surrounded and many a face showed what it felt. The idea came forcibly to our minds that we would be forced to a surrender. The scene we saw here was a fearful one. Men were struck down on all sides, the missiles flew from all directions, and we sought no shelter. The boys took it all coolly and jokes passed freely.

 

Colonel George W. Roberts
42nd Illinois
    By my watch it was 12:20. The cry passed around that Colonel Roberts was killed. That was the hardest blow to us we had felt that day. He was out amid the carnage of that fight, directing the fire of a battery when a ball passed through his heart. His last words were ‘put me up boys.’ He fell forward on to the neck of his horse, and in this manner was carried into the thicket and laid on the ground. His bugler Eddie refused to leave him when we retreated and was taken prisoner by the enemy. Colonel Harrington of the 27th Illinois was carried by us with his face partially torn out. Our colonel with his arm broke stopped to make us a speech. While these things were transpiring around us, General [James S.] Negley said we had orders to cut our way to the pike. While he was giving this, a bullet struck his horse and the gallant general had to dismount and drawing his sword, led us out. The enemy in our rear were not in large force and we soon made our way out to the Murfreesboro Pike.

Captain James Jackson: But who can look upon our once noble regiment numbering 1,000 men and now see them without sentiments of the most poignant sorrow. We entered the fight 341 strong and our loss in killed, wounded and missing is 199. Three of our color bearers were killed the last being Corporal Robert Mallory of my company. As for myself, I came through without a scratch although my mare was shot twice. Our colonel’s horse was also shot twice and every mounted officer in our brigade had his horse shot with the exception of our adjutant Robert Clift who received a spent ball in his body.

Colonel Fazilo Harrington
27th Illinois

In conclusion I will say to you that now that the excitement of battle is over and I can calmly reflect on the scenes through which I have passed during the last week and remember those gallant spirits who have passed away to that unseen land where the sound of battle never comes and the tread of armies is never heard, I feel weary and sad. When I reflect that out of a company numbering 28 on the morning of the fight, only eight responded to their names at roll call this morning, my heart is too full for utterance.

Corporal William M. Austin: On January 4th, we buried our dead. Our men who had fallen into the hands of the enemy were stripped of their clothing. Some were exposed in a manner than was an outrage on decency. Colonel Roberts was found buried; General [John M.] Palmer was the first man to find his grave. This body was taken up and sent to Illinois. Our dead were buried by us, a sad business and a subject for thought. General [Benjamin] Cheatham’s horse was found with a notice that he belonged to that Rebel. The Rebels had removed all of their dead from the field and took our wounded prisoners.

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