On Breckinridge's Assault at Stones River

     The sun had already started to set on Friday, January 2, 1863 before General John C. Breckinridge’s division stepped off for the final assault of the Battle of Stones River. A soldier in General Daniel Adams’ brigade remembered his brigade coming off the line west of Stones River and marching across to the east side thinking that they were being given a rest. But instead, they joined up with the rest of Breckinridge’s division and prepared to join in the attack.

“As soon as we joined the line, General Breckinridge rode out in front of the line on a beautiful white horse, pulled off his hat and made a short but eloquent speech. He then said, “When I give the command ‘Forward’ I do not wish to see a man falter. All I want you to do is follow me and do as I command you to.” We then gave him three cheers. He replaced his hat, turned his horse’s head to the front, drew his sword and gave the command ‘Forward, men!’,” he remembered.

The writer of this incredible account of Breckinridge’s January 2nd assault at Stones River is a mystery, signing his name P.S.S. Based on the context of the letter and the description he gives of the engagement, I believe he belonged to General Daniel Adams’ brigade. He mentions Colonel William Miller of the 1st Florida getting the men into line for the march to the right flank of the army; Miller was in Preston’s brigade, but he also mentions the Washington Light Artillery going in action with his brigade which points to Adams’ brigade.

The author writes from Cahaba, Alabama which was later the site of a prisoner of war camp, but it didn’t open until June 1863 so I’m going to speculate that “P.S.S.” went home to recuperate from his wound which points to him being a member of the 32nd Alabama, the only Alabama regiment in Adams’ brigade. Checking the roster of the 32nd Alabama I found a P. Stephens and a Patrick Sullivan, but the detailed casualty reports kept after the battle and available through Fold3 do not show either as being listed as wounded. The 32nd Alabama only suffered two men wounded during the January 2nd assault, so the author of this missive is a mystery…

          Regardless of authorship, this fine battle letter appeared in the February 25, 1863 edition of the Macon Beacon from Noxubee Co., Mississippi.

 

This unidentified Confederate carries a .69 caliber Model 1822 smoothbore musket. Firing buck & ball ammunition, he would have had to get within close range before being able to hit the Yankees. General Breckinridge's four brigade-assault on the Union left met with initial success as he drove Van Cleve's men back towards Stones River. But once the Confederates had done so, they found themselves pummeled by 58 Union cannon lined up against the river. A counterattack spearheaded by Colonel John F. Miller's brigade charged across the river and forced the Confederates to retreat. At nightfall, the lines were basically where they had both started and another 1,800 Confederate casualties were added to the already hefty butcher's bill that Stones River had laid upon the Army of the Tennessee.
Braxton Bragg ordered the retreat to begin the following night. 

Cahaba, Alabama

February 2, 1863

Dear brother,

          You inquire about my wound, the when and how I received it. Our division, as I have told you before, is commanded by Major General John C. Breckinridge, the finest looking man in Bragg’s army. On Friday January 2nd as we were lying in line of battle about 300 yards from the Yankees, Colonel Miller of the 1st Florida rode along our lines and told us to fall in as we were going to moved from there and were to be relived by another brigade. We did so with cheerful hearts as that had been quite a warm place for us for we were lying in the edge of a cedar hammock within about 300 yards of the finest battery the Yankees had, Parson’s U.S. Artillery. It was commanded and manned by regulars and supported by 10,000 regulars by whom we were shelled night and morning.

This French-made .69 caliber triangular base Minie ball was dropped in the vicinity of Breckinridge's attack. Thousands of these bullets were purchased by the Confederacy and saw use in the Western Theater. 
(Image courtesy of Stan Hutson)

          Well, we left there and were going back as all thought to the rear for a rest as we had not slept for three days and two nights. We marched on for about two and a half miles towards the right of our line of battle and there we found our division in line, facing the enemy, and waiting for us. As soon as we joined the line, General Breckinridge rode out in front of the line on a beautiful white horse, pulled off his hat and made a short but eloquent speech. He then said, “When I give the command ‘Forward’ I do not wish to see a man falter. All I want you to do is follow me and do as I command you to.” We then gave him three cheers. He replaced his hat, turned his horse’s head to the front, drew his sword and gave the command ‘Forward, men!’

"The finest-looking man in Bragg's army."
General John C. Breckinridge


          We marched forward in the prettiest line you ever saw I reckon. Just as we got in musket shot of a thick wood, the Yankees opened on us. General Breckinridge waved his sword and gave the command ‘Forward, double quick, charge bayonets!’ We did this with a yell at which the Yankees about-faced and skedaddled, which is their customary performance on such occasions. They next tried it behind a fence upon which we tried the same remedy and, as before, found it effectual. We now had them in a pretty tight place between us and the river giving them their choice: to take us or the water. The latter being somewhat cooler, they evidently preferred it from the way they soused into it. Now the Washington Artillery, belonging to us, came up and we gave it to them with musket, grape, and canister.

As fast as they got across, they got behind their breastworks on the bank of the river and there we kept up such a hot fire on them that about 300 threw up white handkerchiefs and came over to us. It was here that I got my wound. I and a fellow named Cooper from Co. I were about 100 yards from the regiment fighting on our own hook. The river here was about 60 yards wide; we were on one bank while the Yankees were on the other. Cooper was loading his gun when a round shot struck his gun, carrying it out of his hand, the gun, at the same time, cutting a man in two and the round shot doing the same. Cooper’s arm being paralyzed, he told me he was going to the rear. We saw a Yankee trying to hide among the rocks, so Cooper picked up a loaded gun lying by a dead man and shot the Yankee saying “I’ll show you how to throw your damned pills at me!”

Just then I saw a Yankee aiming at me. I threw up my cut and cut down at him and Cooper says I killed him. I think I must have, too, for I took as good an aim as if I was shooting at a mark. However, he paid me for it as I fell at the same time pierced by a Minie ball. It struck me through the arm into the side; a flesh wound, however, and doing first rate. I and Cooper then walked off the field as big a Major Generals.

 

P.S.S.

 

William Travis panel depicting the Union counterattack on January 2, 1863. 


Source:

Letter from P.S.S., Macon Beacon (Mississippi), February 25, 1863, pg. 2

Comments

Most Popular Posts

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

The Cannons are Now Silent: The Field of Death of Tupelo

The Vaunted Enfield Rifle Musket

Straw Already Threshed: Sherman on Shiloh

Federal Arms in the Stones River Campaign

Escape of Captain Henry H. Alban of the 21st Ohio Infantry

Knapsack Compression: Wilbur Hinman recalls the first step of becoming a veteran

Federal Arms in the Chickamauga Campaign