Retrieving Major Carpenter: Joseph R. Prentice Earns His Medal of Honor at Stones River

It was midday on December 31, 1862, when the six companies constituting the 1st Battalion of the 19th U.S. Infantry were thrust into the furnace in the desperate fight to maintain control of the Nashville Pike at Stones River. “After taking our position on the hill near the railroad, we were again ordered with the remainder of the brigade to advance in line of battle into the cedars,” recalled Captain James B. Mulligan. “We engaged an overwhelming force of the enemy for a full 20 minutes. It was as we received the order to retire that our Major Stephen D. Carpenter fell, receiving six mortal wounds and dying instantly. The fire from the enemy at this time was terrific and our men were falling on all sides.”

Private Joseph Rollin Prentice of Co. E, 1st Battalion, 19th U.S. Infantry was later awarded the Medal of Honor for retrieving the body of his commander from the field while under heavy enemy fire. He was wounded in action May 30, 1864 during the Atlanta campaign and discharged from the army. The Lancaster, Ohio native returned to farming in Indiana after the war then moved to Kansas and Nebraska where he engaged in the freight business. The War Department issued him his medal in 1894 in which he stated "I would not take a farm for it." Prentice died August 7, 1908 in Colorado Springs of a sudden illness and is buried at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Hebron, Nebraska. It is worth noting that he wears the formal Hardee hat and frock coat worn by the western soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland's Regular Brigade. 

Private Joseph R. Prentice of Co. E was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on the field that afternoon. “Our brigade was in the middle of the line of attack and very soon the Rebels slackened their fire on our division and concentrated all their energies upon the two wings of our line,” he wrote. “It was evident that if the flanks were weakened, the enemy could very easily surround us almost completely and so have us wholly at their mercy. To defeat this plan, Major Carpenter ordered us to retreat in good order and after we had about faced, he fell behind and proceeded to follow us in the rear. No sooner did the enemy see us retreating than they opened fire on us again. I was in the front rank in the advance, now in the rear in the retreat, and could plainly see the awful destruction wrought upon our ranks by the death-dealing work of the enemy. Suddenly, above the din and roar of battle, I heard the major call our ‘Scatter and run boys!’ and was about to join the rest in the rush to a place of safety when I heard a horse bearing down on me like mad. As I ran, I looked around and saw that it was Major Carpenter’s horse dashing after us, frenzied by several slight bullet wounds. I managed to turn him and head him along our lines,” he wrote.

“Then I rushed after the boys to tell them of the fate of the major but did not manage to see any of the commanding officers until we retreated about a quarter of a mile. Then I gained permission to return and look for him. Back I went at the top of my speed and as soon as I entered the clearing, the enemy’s sharpshooters opened a brisk fire on me. Still, I was bound to find the major if possible and knowing about where he fell, rushed to the spot. Bullets ploughed up little puffs of dust at my feet and whistled around my head. A short spurt more and I was at the place. Glancing round, I saw him lying face downward upon the dust and rushed to his assistance. But, poor fellow, he was past need of human assistance! Nevertheless, I picked him up and carried him to the rear, my ears filled with the mournful dirge of bullets that threatened me at every step,” he stated.

Major Stephen Decatur Carpenter, a West Point graduate of the class of 1840 and Mexican War veteran, sustained two head wounds and four body wounds while retreating towards the Nashville Pike at midday of December 31, 1862. A few weeks prior, he had written a letter to the War Department pleading for his battalion of only 200 men to be brought up to full strength. "It is not unreasonable to suppose that my battalion in battle may be ordered to support a battery as it was at Shiloh and be met by a battalion or regiment numbering 800 or 1,000 men. The result would be certain disgrace."  His obituary noted that a lieutenant colonel's commission was on its way to him from the War Department at the time of his death. Carpenter's body was initially buried on the field at Stones River but was exhumed and sent to be buried amongst his family at Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, Maine. 

The 19th U.S. suffered greatly during the battle losing one seven men killed, 55 wounded and seven missing during the fight on December 31st. “The only loss of officers we sustained was Major Carpenter, a loss to this regiment which can never be replaced,” noted Second Lieutenant Charles F. Miller of Co. E. “He was a favorite with the old officers and a father to us young officers. During the five days, we suffered much from fatigue, cold, and want of food. I saw our men eat horse flesh and one day we had corn issued to us by the commissary one ear to a man, the officers receiving the same.”

Long after the war, Joseph Prentice recalled how he received the Medal of Honor for his hometown newspaper the Hebron Journal of Hebron, Nebraska. “As Mr. Prentice showed the medal, he remarked, “I would not take a farm for it.” The medal is now kept in a frame but can be removed at the owner’s pleasure. The medal is similar to a G.A.R. badge but is larger and has an additional emblem above the flag. On the front of the star is a representation of liberty crushing rebellion and on the other side is inscribed the following: ‘The Congress to Joseph R. Prentice, late private, Co. E, 1st Battalion, 19th U.S. Inf’y, for gallantry in action at the battle of Stone River, Tenn., Dec. 31, 1862.’ A manuscript letter also accompanied the medal signed by the Adjutant General of the War Department.

“Our brigade was in the battle of Stones River, Tennessee and was cut off from both sides so that we had to retreat,” Prentice told the local reporter. “My major was cut down and I returned and picked him up and his sword and carried him about one half a mile. By the time I reached there, he was dead. The first lieutenant [Charles Fleming Miller] noticed what I had done and made a memorandum of it for promotion. Afterwards he went into recruiting service and I never got it. A few years ago, I was reading about Andersonville prison and reading about these medals of honor, I thought I would see if I couldn’t get one. I wrote to the Adjutant General and he told me that my deed deserved a medal, and if I could furnish proof of the facts, I could get it. I wrote to Colonel Anson McCook of the 2nd Ohio and secured affidavits of five other soldiers who had witnessed it and turned it over to the Adjutant General. Three of four years afterwards I received the medal.”


Inscription on Joseph Prentice's gravestone in Hebron, Nebraska quotes the inscription on his Medal of Honor. 


Official report of Captain James B. Mulligan, 19th U.S. Infantry

Account of Private Joseph R. Prentice, Co. E, 19th U.S. Infantry, as written in Beyer & Keydel’s Deeds of Valor, pgs. 127-128

“Medal of Honor,” The Hebron Journal (Nebraska), February 15, 1895, pg. 5

Letter from Second Lieutenant Charles Fleming Miller, Co. E, 19th U.S. Infantry, Daily Capital City Fact (Ohio), January 23, 1863, pg. 2


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