A Wonderful Conflict of Arms: Skedaddling with the 99th Ohio at Stones River
On the afternoon of January 2, 1863, General John C. Breckinridge led a late afternoon attack aiming to drive the Federal left from Wayne's Hill at Stones River. Waiting atop the hill were two brigades of General Horatio Van Cleve's Third division of the left wing and among those troops were the 99th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Thus far, the regiment had not seen serious action at Stones River but Breckinridge was about to give them an education on the horrors of combat.
Looking back on the cascade of events he witnessed that day, Chaplain James Morrow of the 99th Ohio recalled the actions of the regimental color sergeant Moore E. Thorne. "Our color Sergeant Moore E. Thorne of Sidney is a regular hero, " he wrote. "After reforming on the riverbank, an officer of another regiment asked Thorne where he belonged. The 99th Ohio was the reply. Then fall in here said the officer. “No, damned if I will. I will wave this flag over the 99th Ohio or I will wave it nowhere. Men of the 99th Ohio, rally around your own flag and follow me,” shouted Thorne. Suiting the action to the request, away he marched over the field with the coolness of Ney and the courage of Murat."
"Just as we commenced falling back, Captain William C. Scott of Co. A had his thigh broken by a rifle ball. We had to leave him when he fell and that he might keep his sword from the Rebels he laid upon it thus concealing it from their view until they were driven back. About 10 p.m. we removed him from the field to the hospital. I returned to the battleground and about 4 o’clock the next morning and one of our men handed me the captain’s sword, which I carried to him soon after and on seeing it, he smiled as if an old friend had arrived exclaiming, “Good, the Rebels did not get it.”
Chaplain Morrow's rather pithy account of the battle is pulled from two letters that he wrote to the Lima Weekly Gazette in January and February 1863; Morrow's letters saw publication in several western Ohio newspapers of the time and I've chosen to highlight the less polished version complete with Morrow's name-calling of his Confederate opponents.
Battlefield of Stone River, Tennessee
January 10, 1863
On the 26th of December, the Army of the Cumberland commenced moving from the vicinity of Nashville towards Murfreesboro distant from the former place 30 miles. We had not marched more than three miles when we heard heavy cannonading in the front. All day the booming guns seemed to tell of hot work ahead. Saturday was much as the previous day had been except that we occasionally saw buildings wrapped in flames, dead horses lying along the road, and every now and then an ambulance would pass to the rear with a wounded soldier or soldiers. Sabbath we rested in camp at Stewart’s Creek. Monday morning we began to move and just as the shades of evening settled around us we encamped in the vicinity of Stones River. The enemy was in front in force, probably 75,000 strong.
Tuesday morning the battle opened by the enemy throwing shot and shell into our lines, but most of the day was spent in feeling each other’s position. But on Wednesday morning the enemy attempted to mass his troops and turn our right wing. And for some time the conflict was terrible; our lines being driven back for nearly two miles. Several of our hospitals were captured and many of our brave officers and men fell during the day. The Rebel loss was also severe. Thursday was comparatively quiet. An occasional brush was all that transpired during the day to remind us that we were struggling in deadly conflict.
"Hanson was a short but very fat man; he weighed nearly 300 pounds and mounted upon his splendid white horse, he became a conspicuous mark for the shots of our men and particularly the Kentuckians of our army who blazed away in grand style until old fatty rolled from his horse about as gracefully as a hogshead of whiskey would tumble downstairs." ~ Chaplain James M. Morrow, 99th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
General Robert Weightman Hanson
During Thursday January 1st, the Third Division of the left wing was moved across Stones River. This division was originally the Fifth, commanded by General Van Cleve, but now under the command of the brave and gentlemanly soldier Colonel Samuel Beatty of the 19th Ohio. And a cooler and braver man does not exist than Colonel Beatty. Early Friday morning the Rebels threw out their sharpshooters and skirmishing commenced. During the day picketing continued, varied occasionally with a shell thrown among our boys. The Third Brigade, to which the 99th Ohio belongs, was in front. Four hours they lay flat on the ground while the round shot whistled over them and musket balls and shells fell among them. Their position was peculiarly trying yet not a man flinched.
A little before 4 p.m. the entire division of General Breckinridge bore down upon our division. The Rebel advance was led by General John C. Breckinridge, the contemptible tool for whom many a Northern man voted when he ran for President. Indeed, in the 99th Regiment there were men who had been guilty of that political sin, but they have promised to sin no more. Among the prominent Rebel officers of that day’s strife included Roger Hanson. Hanson was a short but very fat man; he weighed nearly 300 pounds and mounted upon his splendid white horse, he became a conspicuous mark for the shots of our men and particularly the Kentuckians of our army who blazed away in grand style until old fatty rolled from his horse about as gracefully as a hogshead of whiskey would tumble downstairs. Thus may it happen to every traitor, whether fat or lean. [The 8th and 21st Kentucky regiments were in the same brigade as the 99th Ohio.]
It must be admitted that they came, not as a mob, but in good order. They marched in splendid military style and advanced as coolly and gracefully as if on dress parade. Thorough discipline was indicated in all their movements. But alas, for the poor Butternuts; it was the last marching that many of them ever did. Such was the vast number of their attacking force that the Third Division was compelled to fall back. It would have been a little less than murder to have not done so. But we did not retreat until the enemy was within 30 or 40 yards of us.
|The Federal counterattack over Stones River on the afternoon of January 2, 1863.|
Just as we commenced falling back, Captain William C. Scott of Co. A had his thigh broken by a rifle ball. We had to leave him when he fell and that he might keep his sword from the Rebels he laid upon it thus concealing it from their view until they were driven back. About 10 p.m. we removed him from the field to the hospital. I returned to the battleground and about 4 o’clock the next morning and one of our men handed me the captain’s sword, which I carried to him soon after and on seeing it, he smiled as if an old friend had arrived exclaiming, “Good, the Rebels did not get it.” [Captain Scott would die of this wound two days later at a field hospital in Murfreesboro.]
Falling back across the river, which is narrow and shallow, the force advanced until he came within easy range of our cannon, when the most terrible slaughter commenced and our infantry being reformed and largely reinforced, we pursued the retreating foe for a mile and a half. Our color Sergeant Moore E. Thorne of Sidney is a regular hero. After reforming on the riverbank, an officer of another regiment asked Thorne where he belonged. The 99th Ohio was the reply. Then fall in here said the officer. “No, damned if I will. I will wave this flag over the 99th Ohio or I will wave it nowhere. Men of the 99th Ohio, rally around your own flag and follow me,” shouted Thorne. Suiting the action to the request, away he marched over the field with the coolness of Ney and the courage of Murat.
|The tattered and frayed colors belonging to the 99th Ohio were carried by Sergeant Moore Thorne during the battle of Stones River. "I will wave this flag over the 99th Ohio or I will wave it nowhere," he reportedly said.|
Another incident occurred that was rather funny. The incident refers to my special friend Adjutant Benjamin F. Lefever, who since he came into the army, had been wont to wear very large boots. As the fight was about to begin, the officers (as was proper) sent their horses to the rear and when ordered to fall back, Ben’s horse was gone, but himself and the boots were there in the thickest of the affray. Now bear in mind that falling back in the midst of a perfect storm of lead and iron, you will not always pick your steps as deliberately and gracefully as would a later at home while crossing the mud bespattered streets. You may be compelled by force of circumstance to “go it” blind. Ben was retreating as a soldier should, coolly and calmly, but a little on the fast order, or as the Yankee once said, not exactly running but rather tall walking. The adjutant went forward but his big boots, cowardly things, refused to keep up. The relation between Ben and his boots was just the reverse of that which existed between the Irishman’s heart and his legs. Pat said he had as brave a heart as ever throbbed in a man’s bosom, but his legs were so cowardly that they always ran away with his brave heart in the hour of danger. The adjutant’s boots refused to run, stuck fast, and he walked right out of them. Be it spoken to his praise that having obtained reinforcements he returned bravely to the fight where he continued battling manfully until the Rebels were routed and driven from the field. He was not precisely in the condition of our Revolutionary heroes, but first cousin to their condition: they fought barefooted, he in his stocking feet.
|Musician Joseph Henry Clapper, Co. E, 99th Ohio Volunteer Infantry|
The conflict was terrific, beyond anything I could have conceived. You can form some idea of the severity of the battle when I inform you that the Third Division of the left wing alone lost 1,181 men. The 99th Ohio went into action with a little less than 400 men and lost 72 killed, wounded, and missing: 14 were killed, 44 wounded, and the remaining 14 missing; of this latter number, some were known to be wounded. For the first 44 minutes of the action there was a continued roar of infantry and artillery that seemed to shake the earth and whole lines of the enemy went down before the hot blast of our guns.
Taking the battle of Stones River all in all, it was a wonderful conflict of arms. For five long days and nights the mighty struggle went on as wave battles with wave on the bosom of the ocean. Only ours was not the blue sea lashed by the storm, but an ocean of fire swept by a tempest of lead and iron. I was enabled to be present, more or less, each day on every part of the battlefield and therefore only describe what I saw. To me, limited as I am in military knowledge, it did seem as if every living thing would be swept from the face of the earth so far as our army was concerned. As I rode over the space within our lines, whistling shot and exploding shells seemed to greet me everywhere. You ask if I was frightened? I answer not after the fight fairly commenced. Man is a singular being. And it is a fortunate provision of nature that removes the sense of fear when danger is imminent. As I toiled over the bloody field of the night of January 2nd nearly all night in darkness and rain, how often I thought of the quiet homes and loved ones there that would never greet the manly forms that lay cold and silent about me.
Letters from Chaplain James M. Morrow, 99th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Lima Weekly Gazette (Ohio), January 28 and February 4, 1863
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