Chaos Behind the Lines: A Non-Combatant's View of Stones River

     Caught among the chaos of the collapsing Right Wing at Stones River, one Michigan non-combatant likened his situation to being thrown from the frying pan into the fire. "The defeat of our right wing had enabled the enemy's horses to gain the rear of our entire army and hardly had we fairly emerged from the woods when we were greeted by a volley of shells from a flying battery. The road was literally packed with army vehicles of every description, all mingled together in inextricable confusion, and the panic produced by this salute can be more easily imagined than described," he wrote. "While the disorder was at its height, a sudden charge of the Confederate cavalry was made on the straggling masses and in probably a space of five minutes, a solid mile of wagons and ambulances was in the enemy's possession." 

    The following account describing scenes behind the lines of the right wing of the Army of the Cumberland on December 31, 1862 was written by Hospital Steward F. Henry Spencer of the 21st Michigan Volunteer Infantry; his account was published in the December 29, 1883 edition of the Philadelphia Weekly Times

Enlisted men of the 21st Michigan Volunteer Infantry


          The morning of December 31st at Stones River opened with a clear sky and a change of the accustomed moisture. The night had passed quietly, and a general impression prevailed that the enemy had retreated during the darkness. The train of the right wing, including its ambulances, was parked along the rear of McCook’s Corps quietly awaiting orders to move into Murfreesboro. The darkness scarcely disappeared when a rattling of small arms on our extreme right attracted our attention. From a light skirmish fire, it rapidly developed into a deafening and incessant roar in which the booming of cannon and screaming of shells were barely discernible.

In a few minutes, stragglers, wounded and unwounded, began to pour to the rear, each confirming the other in the statement that Johnson had been surprised and his division broken to pieces. General Davis was there to check the enemy, however, and his and Sheridan’s troops would soon recover the lost ground. Anxiously we waited for cheers to announce that the tide of battle had turned but the tide of stragglers continued to increase with fearful rapidity and the crash of musketry was steadily drawing nearer. Soon shells began to drop among the wagons and suddenly the line of battle came into view- a straggling mass of combatants in blue and gray of which the latter were clearly the victors.

But we had only escaped an infantry frying pan to fall into a cavalry fire. The defeat of our right wing had enabled the enemy’s horses to gain the rear of our entire army and hardly had we fairly emerged from the woods when we were greeted by a volley of shells from a flying battery. The road was literally packed with army vehicles of every description, all mingled together in inextricable confusion, and the panic produced by this salute can be more easily imagined than described. While the disorder was at its height, a sudden charge of the Confederate cavalry was made on the straggling masses and in probably a space of five minutes, a solid mile of wagons and ambulances was in the enemy’s possession.

Adjutant J.T. Walker, 8th Texas Cavalry. "Our captors in my immediate vicinity were members of a Texan regiment and almost any one of them would have figured as a leading character in a Buffalo Bill play," Spencer commented.

Our captors in my immediate vicinity were members of a Texan regiment, and almost any one of them would have figured as a leading character in a Buffalo Bill play. Long-haired, unshorn, and wild-looking while managing their horses as gracefully as Comanche Indians, they swept down upon the train and revolver in hand, each singled out a teamster and sharp and summary was the punishment of the unlucky driver who neglected or disobeyed their imperious commands to halt. In a few moments the entire train was stopped, disentangled, and heavily guarded on its road to Murfreesboro.

One who had witnessed an army stampede is never anxious for a repetition of the sight. When suddenly confronted by an unexpected force, the majority of men are seldom very cool or deliberate in their actions while not a small minority become as blind and unreasoning as the brute creation. With the advent of the enemy began a scene of terror and confusion which almost defies description. Drivers cut their teams loose and galloped wildly in every direction in search of safety; other abandoned their entire outfits and escaped on foot. Some cooler or possessing more courage, endeavored to save their loads, but number of wagons were overturned by collisions with others or wrecked by running against stumps, logs, and trees.

During the excitement, casualties were numerous: broken arms, legs, and heads were freely distributed, and many a chance shot from the combatants in front found a lodgment in a non-combatant in the rear. The ambulances were more easily managed than the wagons and after a mad scramble through the cedar thickets, among swamps and over stone ledges, they nearly all reached the Nashville Pike in safety, followed shortly by a portion of the wagon train.

William Travis' depiction of the collapse of the Right Wing at Murfreesboro; note the ambulance on the right of the image. 

By a singular misconception, the Confederates imagined that our center, as well as right, had been drawn from the field and that the road was open to the city. The Union center, however, was still unbroken and the pike we were pursuing led directly through our infantry lines. A short distance in its read was a brigade of Michigan, Ohio, and Regular cavalry, and before our guards realized their mistake, their advance was in a few yards of these troops. The celerity with which our captors abandoned their guard duty and formed into line of battle spoke well for their soldierly qualities, but after a brief but vigorous resistance during which the unlucky trainmen received an unfair proportion of the leaden pellets, they were finally driven back on their advancing infantry.

At the commencement of the engagement, a small body of Confederates found themselves cut off from their comrades and in endeavoring to cut their way through nearly all were killed or captured. One of them, however, after dodging a dozen saber strokes and escaping a score of carbine bullets, broke through our men and dashing through our infantry lines escaped- badly wounded- to the enemy’s lines on our front.

How our train after this opportune rescue succeeding in reaching a place of safety has always been a mystery to me. After several hours, during which it was unprotected between the contending forces and received an unlimited quantity of lead and iron, it finally came to anchor behind our unbroken left wing and its provisions and ammunition this luckily saved, contributed measurably to the victories of the succeeding days.

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