Colonel Housum’s Coat and the Opening of the Battle of Stones River
Twenty years after the Battle of Stones River, the Grand Army of the Republic held a fair in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania where two poignant relics of the battle were placed on public display. “The display of fancy articles and relics all combine to make it a place where an evening may be spent with profit and enjoyment,” the local newspaper crowed. “The relics on exhibition are an interesting feature. Most conspicuous in this line is the uniform of the lamented Colonel Peter B. Housum, which was worn by him when he fell at the head of his regiment at the battle of Stones River. The coat is a blue frock and contains the hole of the bullet that cost him his chivalrous life.”
On display near Colonel Housum’s bloody coat was a superb military drum carried by John Stoner who served in Housum’s 77th Pennsylvania regiment. “Stoner was near the lamented Colonel Housum when he fell mortally wounded, and assisted in placing him in an ambulance, thus preventing him from falling into the hands of the enemy. It bears the following inscription: Presented to John Stoner, Drum Major of the 77th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers by his friends of Chambersburg, Pa. for gallantry displayed at Stone River, January 1863,” the newspaper reported.
The veterans of Chambersburg cherished the memory of Colonel Housum; the local G.A.R. post was named in his honor and each Memorial Day, the post held its Memorial Day services at Housum’s graveside. In 1887, Housum’s close friend and confidante Samuel T. Davis gave a commemoration address that went into detail describing the opening of the Battle of Stones River and the circumstances of Colonel Housum’s demise. General Edward N. Kirk noted in his official report that following Colonel Housum’s wound, Adjutant Davis “took command and handled the regiment with great efficiency.”
|Lieutenant Colonel Peter B. Housum of the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Prior to the war, Housum was engaged manufacturing tin plate stoves and machinery in Chambersburg. His death at age 39 left a widow and six children; his widow never remarried.|
Comrades, I would be a traitor to my feelings and more of a coward than I dared to be 25 years ago on December 31, 1862, did I stand in the presence of the tomb of my friend and compatriot in arms Colonel Peter B. Housum and not pay tribute to him who was my constant friend and companion in arms for nearly 15 months. Together we assisted in the organization of the 77th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers and aided in transforming from citizens a regiment of as brave and well-disciplined soldiers as ever tipped their visors to the great Napoleon. Together we made long and tiresome marches and whether in tent or bivouac if there was but one ration or blanket between us, each was sure to get half. Together we stood by each other in the bloody fields of Shiloh, Triune, and LaVergne. From the position I occupied as adjutant of the 77th Pennsylvania, I was necessarily not only cognizant of his plans in battle but his confidante and friend. No one knew or loved Colonel Housum better than I and although amid a storm of leaden hail, no one felt the shock of his death more than his adjutant. I know there are those within the sound of my voice who would like to hear the story of my friend’s sacrifice on the altar of our country; if you will bear with me I will endeavor to tell it in as few words a possible.
December 30, 1862 was spent by both armies in getting into position at Stones River in front of Murfreesboro. The 77th was part of Kirk’s Brigade, Second Division which occupied the extreme right of the line of battle about three miles in length. The position of the right wing was mostly on a high cedar-covered ridge with open ground in corn and cottonfields in front. Willich’s Brigade was on the right of the line and in its center was Edgarton’s Battery. Kirk’s brigade was formed on Willich’s left, the 30th Indiana and the 77th Pennsylvania in front in deployed line. The 29th Indiana was in double column in the rear as reserve, and the 34th Illinois was on the extreme right and a little to the rear of the Franklin pike in position and upon which it was supposed the enemy would advance to the attack.
Across the narrow valley which extended along our front was posted the Rebel army in order of battle, its left wing tracing the crest of a rough and rocky ridge partly screened by timber. When General Richard Johnson was informed that the center of the Rebel army was opposite our extreme right, he felt fearful that his division might be compromised and imparted to his brigade and regimental commanders the substance of the information he had received and enjoined upon them all to “use the strictest vigilance.” During that night of suspense, Colonel Housum, ever of the alert and mindful of his duty, to my certain knowledge never closed an eye in sleep.
|Brigadier General Edward N. Kirk, Housum's brigade commander, was wounded the same morning as Colonel Housum but lingered until July 1863 before he died of his wounds.|
December 30th had been a dreary day, rain had fallen almost constantly and the soldiers were saturated with water. Towards the night, the wind swept coldly and cheerlessly from the north and as no bivouac fires were permitted, the aspect was truly cheerless. At 5 o’clock on the morning of December 31st, the division was quietly called to arms and thus awaited daylight. At precisely 6:22 and not ten minutes after the dawn of day, a brisk firing was heard upon the extreme right of General Kirk’s line. The enemy could be seen advancing over the open country with flags flying in our immediate front about one-fourth of a mile distant.
As I sat on my horse at the edge of that cedar thicket and beheld that moving mass in four heavy columns, battalion front and four battalions deep with a strong reserve held in mass, I will never forget the impression made upon my mind. That and the moment when Colonel Housum received the fatal ball are the only distinctly outlined circumstances which appear to me as real at any time reference is made or thought suggested of the late war. The Rebel column moved directly on the 34th Illinois; it was an overwhelming force. General Kirk ordered the 34th to advance to the support of its skirmishers and pickets which were beginning to be pressed; General Kirk hoped to check the advancing enemy and relieve our battery. The 34th advanced steadily out into the open field and commenced firing, but its position was an especial mark for Rebel practice and they poured into it a murderous fire.
Meantime, Edgarton’s battery opened fire. It could not at first distinguish the enemy and threw a few shells in the direction of their fire. In a moment, however, they came in sight of and near the battery when it opened with canister. The Rebel line replied and at the first fire killed or wounded 75 horses which entirely disabled the guns. At this time, the fight had not been raging five minutes yet it was terrific. The 34th Illinois poured volley after volley into the advancing hosts. The skirmishers of the 29th Indiana, 30th Indiana, and 77th Pennsylvania also directed an oblique fire on the advancing column, but it moved like an automaton and scores of our men were killed and wounded.
When within about 30 yards of our line, the Rebel column partially changed front and moved on our right at the left oblique and the double quick. Their yells were deafening. They moved so as to completely flank Kirk’s line and render the position untenable. Here an almost hand-to-hand conflict ensued between the 34th Illinois and the Rebel column. The Rebels next rushed upon Edgarton’s guns. He in a voice than rang above the din of battle told his men to save themselves while he grimly stood by one of his pieces and assisted by Lieutenant Berwick, loaded and discharged it into the living column as it closed upon him, mowing a huge road through it and in an instant after he was wounded and fell across the trail of his piece. Many of his men refused to leave him and fought the foe with their swabs and were killed or captured. While in this position, Edgarton received a bayonet thrust in the breast and was left for dead.
When the attack was so fiercely made upon the pickets of the 34th Illinois, the pickets of the 77th Pennsylvania aided in the fire upon the Rebel column and our regiment advanced to their support. Another column of the enemy soon moved directly on the 29th Indiana. The 77th joined with the 29th Indiana in repelling the Rebel advance and for a few minutes there was kept up a terrible and destructive fire of musketry at half range. The 77th had an immense advantage in position and the Rebel line would soon have sunk beneath such a steady and fatal fire had it not retreated across the little brook which meandered through the valley in front. At this moment, an overwhelming attack on the regiment composing the line of battle on our right forced them back and uncovered the 77th Pennsylvania. Almost at the same moment, the 22nd Indiana of General Davis’ division which joined the 77th on its left was pressed by a heavy column of the enemy and gave way. Our regiment was suddenly left isolated and alone save the presence of the enemy.
In our front, the column we had repulsed and driven across the brook but a few minutes before was reformed and again advancing. On their right and partially in their rear were the columns which had turned and dispersed the remainder of our brigades, Colonel Housum finding himself separated from the brigade quickly formed on the right of General Jefferson Davis’ division which had already changed front, its line seeming nearly perpendicular to its first formation. Here it must be remembered the whole right of line was outnumbered almost ten to one. Directly in front of the 77th and about 400 yards distant was the Rebel battery. A little to the right and in front of this battery were Edgarton’s guns which the enemy had captured and turned against us.
Colonel Housum, deeming the moment opportune, ordered the regiment to charge these batteries which were across somewhat open ground. With a yell, the regiment pitched forward on a full run shoulder to shoulder amidst a storm of shot, shell, grape, and canister. When about two-thirds of the distance and while crossing a fence, the colors fell and with the color bearer Sergeant Scott Crawford pierced by several balls [Crawford was shot in both legs and died that day]. Scarcely had they touched the ground before willing, brave, and strong arms flaunted them to the breeze in the face of a defiant foe. On we rushed and when within a few yards our guns discharged a volley of leaden hail which almost completely annihilated the Rebels who were pouring missiles of death among us from our own guns. Edgarton’s battery was again in our possession and a deafening cheer went up from every throat which was loud enough to be heard above the din of battle.
No attention was paid to the captured guns, but straight on to the other battery flushed with what proved to be only an apparent victory. We continued to advance under a raking fire of grape and canister until we were suddenly confronted by a largely superior force concealed in the edge of the woods; as we were unsupported, we were compelled to fall back abandoning the fruits of our glorious victory. While retreating in line of battle and in good order within about 100 yards of the right of General Davis’ line, Colonel Housum and myself dismounted and were in the rear of our line between them and the enemy encouraging our soldiers to fall back in good order. Here he received the fatal wound. I caught him as he staggered when he coolly remarked, “Davis, I am wounded. Stay by the brave boys of the 77th.” The strong arms of four of his regiment bore him tenderly amidst a shower of bullets from the bloody field of carnage. I never beheld his familiar face again.
Lieutenant Colonel Peter B. Housum was severely wounded in the hip by a small caliber bullet and, although carried back to a Union field hospital, died the evening of January 1st 1863 from the effects of his wound. Colonel Joseph B. Dodge who took command of Kirk’s brigade after Kirk was wounded, lamented the death of Colonel Housum, calling him a “cool, clear-headed, and courageous officer and gentleman.” Captain Thomas E. Rose, Housum's brother-in-law, later wrote that Housum "died like a brave man and a Christian." A 1959 newspaper article noted that when Housum died, he was carrying a photograph of his wife Lucy and infant daughter Cynthia on his person.
General William S. Rosecrans was impressed by the pluck demonstrated by the 77th Pennsylvania, and at a review held on March 20, 1863, he reportedly said “It was the banner regiment at Stones River. They never broke their ranks.”
“The Grand Army Fair,” Valley Spirit (Pennsylvania), December 22, 1883, pg. 3
“Memorial Day: The Appropriate Observance in Chambersburg,” Valley Spirit (Pennsylvania), May 31, 1887, pg. 3
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