Woodard’s Night Ride at Stones River

     The Army of the Cumberland spent Tuesday, December 30, 1862 maneuvering into position facing Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee northwest of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It proved to be hot work, particularly for Alexander McDowell McCook’s wing which forced its way into positions south of the Wilkinson Pike and paralleling Gresham Lane. The sun had already set when Captain William Wiles, Rosecrans’ provost marshal, ordered  James H. Woodard to ride along the army’s front lines and report what he observed.

Woodard, in this 1892 account, provides his personal experiences and discussions with the commanders of the McCook’s corps and provides valuable insights into the mindset of Generals McCook, Sheridan, Johnson, Willich, and Sill on the night before the battle. Just before sunrise, he took breakfast with General Willich who Woodard found unconcerned about a Rebel attack. “I found General Willich about half past 5 in the morning sitting by a campfire, drinking some coffee, and he asked me to join him at breakfast which I did,” Woodard wrote. “A few hours before all had been noise and confusion upon his front, but now everything was entirely quiet. While we were eating, an orderly came up from General Johnson’s headquarters with a dispatch to the General, the substance of which was: “General McCook is apprehensive that an attack will be made upon your line at daybreak. See that your men are under arms and on the alert.” General Willich laughed and said in his German way, “They are so quiet out there I guess they are all no more here.” His whole manner impressed me with the feeling that he had no apprehension of an attack upon his front.”

Woodard was serving as a musician with Co. E of the 86th Indiana Infantry at the time of Stones River and based on his account must have been detailed to the provost marshal's detachment of the army where he served under Captain William Wiles of the 44th Indiana, both regiments serving in Fyffe's brigade of Van Cleve's division. Woodard was later promoted to hospital steward but was discharged for promotion in December 1863. He was commissioned as adjutant of the 128th Indiana Infantry in the 23rd Army Corps; interestingly, the Indiana state roster doesn't list him as an adjutant but his military record with the National Archives and pension documents list him as such. 

 

James Woodard's ride took him all along the lines held by General Alexander McDowell McCook's wing on the night of December 30th. Woodard was present for the conversation in which Sheridan, prodded by Sill, was able to convince McCook that the right flank of the army was in danger. McCook reportedly agreed with Sheridan but countered that his orders were maintain his position while Crittenden staged the army's primary assault across Stones River. McCook sits at the center of this summer of 1863 image surrounded by several members of his staff while a member of his escort holds the 20th Army Corps battle flag. 

          My regiment being in Van Cleve’s division which had its line near to and across the Nashville and Murfreesboro Pike, and directly in front of General Rosecrans’ headquarters, I went down to visit my comrades just before dark. After visiting my own regiment, I met Lieutenant Bracken and together we rode to the extreme left of the army in front of Stones River, returning to headquarters almost directly by General Palmer’s division. I reported to Captain William Wiles [Rosecrans’ provost marshal] about 9 o’clock and he directed me to ride as far forward on our front as I could get on the Nashville and Murfreesboro Pike, and turning to my right, follow the line as nearly as possible to the extreme right of the infantry line, and return directly from the end of the ride, as nearly as I could, to department headquarters.

          Although I had been over all of the ground in daylight, the change of the position of the camps, and the campfires lighting up the darkness of that gloomy night, changed the appearance of the woods and cedar thickets to such an extent that I could not recognize a single location. I kept in the rear of our line until I came to what I afterwards knew was Wilkinson’s Pike and riding a short distance along that, I turned again to my right; and while in a cedar grove I saw a little distance in front of me campfires and thinking I was still in the rear of our lines, I rode on until I was in plain view of a group of Confederate infantry who, although on picket duty, had built a fire and were trying to warm themselves.

I discovered them in time to make a safe retreat and a few minutes later I was through our own line which I discovered was Sill’s brigade of General Sheridan’s division. It was then probably about 10 o’clock and from General Sill’s headquarters looking eastward and southward, we could clearly see large bodies of troops passing between us and the enemy’s campfires, moving to their left which was our right. I spoke to General Sill about this movement, and he informed me that it had been going on ever since dark and he was satisfied that the enemy was attempting a flank movement upon our right and suggested that I go on and ascertain how far the movement extended. I followed our line, keeping the movements of the enemy in sight, along in front of Davis’ division and out to the Franklin Pike to Johnson’s division.

General Joshua W. Sill

When I reached Johnson’s line, I found it lay in the shape of a hook; his left joining Davis, his right running down to and across the Franklin Pike, then turning away to the right, bent around until it reached the pike again. It was at the edge of a wood, open ground in front. So that while the left of his brigade faced almost southeast, his extreme right faced almost northwest towards Overall’s Creek. There was a body of cavalry lying in front of Johnson’s extreme right with pickets for a considerable distance towards Overall’s Creek. I attempted to follow this line further but was stopped by the pickets and after a good deal of difficulty found my way back to General Johnson’s headquarters and was told by his staff officers that they had noticed the movements of the enemy and that the General had gone back to General McCook’s headquarters which were said to be near the Gresham House on the road over which we had fought with Zahm’s brigade during the day. The officers of General Johnson’s staff who were present seemed very uneasy about the movements of the enemy in front.

From General Johnson’s headquarters, I had no difficulty in making my way to those of General Davis who was also absent with a part of his staff at General McCook’s headquarters. From there I made my way back again to General Sill’s position and found him very near the spot where I had left him when I first went around the line. I had made the General’s acquaintance just before the army’s advance from Mill Creek and had in some way become impressed with his coolness and skill as an officer and soldier; and as he occupied a position from which he had the best opportunities of observation, I asked him what he thought of the situation. He said he believed that the enemy was marching around by the way of Overall’s Creek, and he was apprehensive that a night attack would be made in our rear, and if not made before daylight, certainly very early in the morning. I asked him if he had consulted General Sheridan about the matter, and he said he had sent three messages to him advising him of the movements of the enemy, but that he believed he would ride back and have a talk with him.

General Phil Sheridan

I accompanied him on this ride and about a quarter of a mile in Sill’s rear we found Sheridan’s headquarters. The General had gone into camp on the warm side of the body of a fallen tree. He was awake when we arrived and General Sill in the most earnest manner urged him to go back and impress upon General McCook’s mind the danger of the enemy attacking him on the right flank. General Sheridan finally consented, and I accompanied the two Generals back to where we found General McCook sleeping on some straw in a fence corner. General Sheridan woke him up and reported to him the general condition of the front of the line. I distinctly overheard all of that conversation between the three generals.

General McCook said in substance: “I have reported to General Rosecrans all the facts which you gave me. I have been advised by Johnson and Davis of the situation, but my orders from General Rosecrans are very definite. I was at headquarters tonight in company with General Stanley and my instructions were affirmed by a personal interview with General Rosecrans. The plan of battle is for the attack to be made by our left wing. In fact, Crittenden and Thomas are expected to do most of the fighting. I am merely to hold my line if the enemy attacks me, and if he does not attack me, I am to attack him with sufficient force to hold his attention, but I am not to make an attack until further orders from department headquarters.” From General McCook’s headquarters, I returned directly to department headquarters and finding Captain Wiles asleep, I woke him and reported the result of my observations. Captain Wiles directed me to return at once to Willich’s brigade which was upon the extreme right of McCook’s line and remain there until after the battle began.

I found General Willich about half past five in the morning sitting by a campfire, drinking some coffee, and he asked me to join him at breakfast which I did. A few hours before all had been noise and confusion upon his front, but now everything was entirely quiet. While we were eating, an orderly came up from General Johnson’s headquarters with a dispatch to the General, the substance of which was: “General McCook is apprehensive that an attack will be made upon your line at daybreak. See that your men are under arms and on the alert.” General Willich laughed and said in his German way, “They are so quiet out there I guess they are all no more here.” His whole manner impressed me with the feeling that he had no apprehension of an attack upon his front.

Woodard ended up having breakfast with General Willich on the morning of December 31st. "His whole manner impressed me with the feeling that he had no apprehension of an attack upon his front," Woodard noted. He did not, however, note whether the General's pet raccoon, depicted above, joined them at breakfast. 

But nevertheless, he finished his breakfast and mounted his horse and rode along the line of his brigade. While engaged in this expedition, he received another communication, I think from General McCook direct, instructing him to be on the lookout as General Hardee was undoubtedly on his front, and no doubt but the center of the enemy’s line of battle was directly in front of Willich’s brigade. I rode back towards the right of the line, in the rear (Willich going to the rear) and had scarcely reached the end of the line when it seemed to me that the whole Confederate army burst out of the piece of woods immediately on the front, and just beyond the open field. Within two or three minutes, a similar advance of cavalry was made on the part of the enemy, apparently from our rear.

The enemy advanced in four lines. I believe that Willich’s line would have remained firm but for the movement on his right flank by the enemy’s cavalry. I soon found Colonel Bill Gibson of the 49th Ohio and remained with him for about 20 minutes when he said to me, “Go back and tell General Johnson that my right flank is being turned, and I must have reinforcements.” I rode back and found General Johnson and delivered my message, and within a minute an officer of General Willich’s staff appeared with similar information. General Johnson at once gave the order for his reserve brigade, Baldwin’s, to advance and relieve Willich’s (now Gibson’s) brigade. Somehow, I don’t know how it happened, by the time the reserve brigade reached the front, the front brigade had passed to the left far beyond the position occupied by the reserve.

I started to go back, intending to go to General McCook’s headquarters; but as there were sounds of firing in that direction, I followed our own line which it then seemed was being attacked on Davis’ front and before I got there the attack had begun on Sheridan’s division. I confess that this vigorous advance of the enemy deflected my movements to the rear, and I attempted to make my way from Sheridan’s new line (which had turned around and was then almost parallel to the Wilkinson Pike, going, as I supposed, toward department headquarters and found myself in the midst of Johnson’s and Davis’ division, and just in the rear of them I found General McCook, who was engaged in trying to reform Johnson’s broken line.

 

Source:

Woodard, James H. “General A. McD. McCook at Stones River.” Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, California/Oregon, Volume 1. Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing, 1995, pgs. 152-156

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