Perfectly Appalled: Arthur MacArthur Escapes Death at Stones River

In the immediate aftermath of the Federal victory at Stones River, 17-year-old Arthur MacArthur, Jr., later a recipient of the Medal of Honor and father of General Douglas MacArthur, composed a letter to his father back in Wisconsin attempting to put into words what he had seen and witnessed. He felt lucky to be alive. But the greatest danger came not from the Confederates, but from friendly artillery fire when his 24th Wisconsin Infantry was advancing across a cornfield on December 30, 1862.

“We advanced through the cornfield, the battery in our rear playing all the while. And here I came very near to an untimely end, as one of the shells was passing over our heads, the plug flew out and came very near hitting me the same way it did Bleyer. It struck six feet in the rear of my horse which made me feel very uncomfortable,” he related. Despite the danger and the heavy casualties his regiment suffered the next day, MacArthur reported that he “never felt better in his life.”

          The young adjutant’s letter saw publication on the first page of the January 28, 1863 issue of the Daily Milwaukee News. Through but a youth, the News reported that MacArthur’s “discretion and gallantry” at Stones River “has not only won the warm official commendations of his superior officers but has endeared him to the whole regiment.” Arthur would again demonstrate his gallantry nearly a year later on the slopes of Missionary Ridge when he carried the 24th Wisconsin’s flag over the top, earning a Medal of Honor for his actions.

Adjutant Arthur MacArthur., Jr., 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry


Headquarters, 24th Regiment, Camp on Stone River, Tennessee

January 1863

Dear father,

          We have taken Murfreesboro. You can little imagine what a thrill of delight ran through the heart of every volunteer in the army when the above fact was announced to them.

          On the 26th of December 1862, the Army of the Cumberland moved from Nashville with the intent to battle. It rained hard pretty much all day. There was heavy cannonading in the advance during the whole line of march. At about 4 p.m., the 15th Wisconsin regiment took one gun from the enemy. On the 27th, we advanced and were drawn up in line of battle. We expected the enemy to make a stand but were mistaken. Our advance guard entered Triune without any opposition. The rain poured in sheets all day long and if we were engaged not more than half the guns would go. The 28th was Sunday and we had a good day’s rest. It was pleasant all day. We drew ammunition and everything necessary for a long and stubborn fight. We were now but one day’s march from Murfreesboro.

          The 29th dawn bright and beautiful. We marched early but were delayed on account of the bad roads. We arrived within 5-1/2 miles of Murfreesboro then filed into a cornfield for the night to be without fires. The mud was nearly knee deep and about 10 o’clock at night the drenching rain began. At length, after the night passed in mud and water about a foot deep, the 30th came. We were in the advance today, our skirmishers thrown out, and we advanced hardly half a mile before the skirmishers were at it hot and lively. We advanced about two miles when the army formed in line of battle. We turned off from the pike into the woods; on the opposite side of the woods was a large open space consisting of two cornfields and three open fields. In the center of one of these was a house used for a hospital. On the opposite side of the space was another wood in which the enemy had their line of battle.

We supported Rush’s battery, the one the old 1st Wisconsin supported at Perryville. In our rear was another battery. We had to lay down on our faces to allow the battery in our rear to work. It was here that Lieutenant George Bleyer was severely wounded by the plug from a shell from our own battery. We lay here nearly 5 hours. About 3 o’clock, an onward movement was ordered. We sprang to our feet with this happy anticipation of a fight fixed upon our minds. We advanced through the cornfield, the battery in our rear playing all the while. And here I came very near to an untimely end, as one of the shells was passing over our heads, the plug flew out and came very near hitting me the same way it did Bleyer. It struck six feet in the rear of my horse which made me feel very uncomfortable.

The 24th Wisconsin was the leftmost regiment of Sill's brigade on the morning of December 31, 1862.

We advanced, however, until we got into the last open field and there we halted and the artillery came rushing down and planted itself in the edge of the woods where the enemy had been, but they had retreated across a small ravine about 300 yards from our battery. Here occurred one of the most eventful artillery duels I ever read of. The batteries, not a gunshot apart, firing at each other. The battery we had opposed to us was the famous Washington artillery of New Orleans.

The 24th was ordered to lay down in the field. We were in such a position that we could see everything passing between the two batteries. At length the enemy caught sight of us and turned two guns on us and the way the shot and shell did fly around our boys is amazing. A solid six-pound shot struck the head of one of our men [Private Henry Pfaff, Co. K] and completely demolished it. We lost one man killed and three wounded on the 30th, but the 31st was the day reserved for the climax of all the battles in the west.

We slept on our arms all night within sight of the enemy’s fires. The two armies were not 500 yards apart. At half past 6 a.m., the enemy advanced on us in solid columns six regiments deep, then drove in our skirmishers and then the firing began. I thought I heard bullets at Perryville but in comparison to what occurred on the morning of the 31st it was nothing. The bullets seemed to be passing around my ears in perfect showers, something similar to a heavy hailstorm. And then the shells, grape, canister, and solid shot began to fly. To tell the truth, I was perfectly appalled. I never imagined anything like it, not even after my experience at Perryville.

Lieutenant Christian Nix, Co. D
Killed in action
Stones River Battlefield has his sword on display

McCook’s Corps formed the right wing of the army and consisted of Johnson’s, Davis’, and Sheridan’s division. Johnson and Davis formed one wing of our center and Sheridan’s division was at right angles to the other two. The enemy attacked the right wing on all sides simultaneously. They succeeded in driving the extreme right consisting of Davis’ and Johnson’s divisions. We were at right angles to them, the enemy had us on the flank and in our rear and of course we had to retreat. General Sill, our brigade commander, was killed at the firstfire so we were left without any commander. We retreated into one of the open spaces spoken of and rallied behind a rail fence with the intention of charging back into the woods. But General Sheridan, who happened to see us at that moment, send an aide to call us back into the woods where the rest of the brigade lay.

Our being separated from the rest of the brigade resulted from General Sill being killed and we being left without orders. The firing by this time seemed to be on all sides. It seemed as though the enemy had entirely surrounded us. In order to get into the woods where we were ordered we had to pass through the two cornfields before spoken of. The shell and solid shot flew worse than at any time previous. It was here that George Rockwell, who is a near relation to Mrs. Birchard, was killed by being hit by a solid shot. At length we arrived in the woods and here there was a general retreat, and I would not at that time have given a snap of my finger for the whole army.

We retreated through the woods and through an open field, the shot and shell flying all the while. At length we came into a cedar swamp. There the firing reached its climax. At length we came out of the swamp into an open field and here my hopes began to revive. We were in the rear of nearly 100 pieces of artillery which kept up an incessant fire and gave the infantry time to reform. I saw General Rosecrans then and his confident look was enough to inspire us all with confidence of success. I believe in my soul that Rosecrans is to be the general of the war. If you ever have an opportunity, it would repay you to visit the field and surrounding woods from which we drove the enemy. I think it is the greatest piece of generalship that has yet been shown.

Our brigade went down the pike to engage the enemy’s cavalry but were disappointed. The next day our lines were established, and the battle assumed the look of a siege. Heavy cannonading and musketry firing were going on all the while but nothing in comparison to that of the 31st. At length, after days of hard fighting, the fact was announced that Murfreesboro was ours. The army is now in camp about five miles on the south side of the town. The 1st Wisconsin was not actively engaged; Captain McVean was wounded by a sharpshooter but not seriously.

This carved wooden slab recovered from the Stones River battlefield marked the grave of Lieutenant Christian Nix of the 24th Wisconsin. One of his comrades carved "Lieut Nix 24th Wis" and placed this marker above the rough field grave in the days following the battle. Lieutenant Nix's grave was moved to the Stones River National Cemetery after the war. 

Our regiment has been though a campaign with which the one in Kentucky cannot be compared. We have slept in water and mud three feet deep almost every night. But I am still alive and never felt better in my life. I have endeavored to give you as correct an idea of the battle as possible, but you can imagine nothing like the reality.

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