Comanche versus the Professor: The Artillery Duel Along the Franklin Pike

 In the closing hours of daylight on Tuesday, December 30, 1862, the last of the three divisions of General Alexander M. McCook’s corps maneuvered into position south of Wilkinson Pike near Stones River. Colonel William P. Carlin’s brigade moved through a thick cedar forest and upon exiting the trees, spied a six-gun Confederate battery across the swale, apparently without infantry support. Carlin’s impetuous division commander Jefferson C. Davis wanted those guns taken and ordered the 21st Illinois to get the job done.

The battery was commanded by 23-year-old Captain Felix H. Robertson. A cadet at West Point who offered his services to the Confederacy when his native Texas seceded, Robertson’s fearful gunners nicknamed him “Comanche.” This sobriquet stemmed from both Felix’s swarthy appearance (some soldiers whispered that he was a half breed) and from his savage brand of discipline. However much his men disliked him, none dared to use the nickname in his presence due to Robertson’s wrathful temper. The Texan was among the gunners that fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, and after serving on the staff of General Adley Gladden in Pensacola, he was given command of the Florida battery of six Napoleons that he now led into battle at Stones River. Strong-willed and prone to complaint, Robertson’s unswerving support and admiration of General Bragg only served to worsen his unpopularity with his men.

Captain Felix H. Robertson

Robertson soon found himself in the fight of his life. The 21st Illinois charged to within yards of his guns before taking the brunt of six rounds of canister fired at short range. The Illinoisans fell by the bushel, but Robertson more than had his hands full. He had two sections firing from near the Widow Smith House while his third section, in position 250 yards to the north, opened a raking fire on the advancing Federal skirmish line. Two Federal batteries (the 2nd Minnesota of Carlin’s brigade and the 8th Wisconsin of Woodruff’s) were throwing shells into his midst, but four guns from Lieutenant William A. McDuffie’s Eufala Light Artillery from General James Rains’ brigade of McCown’s division dropped trail south of his position and started to exchange shots with their Federal counterparts in the woods. It was an equal fight at ten guns per side.

But it was the infantry that posed the greatest danger to Robertson and his Floridians. Despite firing round after round of canister, Robertson’s gunners started to drop with frightening rapidity from the Yankees’ long-range musketry. “Though the enemy was repulsed with great loss, canister shot being used freely and with fine effect, it was not without the loss of several brave men who were wounded by the sharpshooters who had affected a lodgment in easy range of the guns,” Robertson reported.

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Magevney of the 154th Tennessee saw the peril and advanced his regiment to combat Carlin’s sharpshooters. “I drew up my command in the rear of the battery, extending the left wing of the battalion a little forward to take advantage of a dip in the ground. At this time, the enemy came out of the woods in force, evidently intent on charging our battery,” he reported. “As our gunners were in a great measure disabled by the severe fire to which they were subjected, I moved forward the line in front of the guns, determined to meet them in a countercharge, but they fell back under cover and I occupied my former position.

By this time, Post’s skirmish line had emerged from the cedar thicket and witnessed the 21st Illinois’ impetuous charge and while they admired its dash, they wanted no part of it. “This was the most gallant charge we ever saw, but it was one regiment contending against a brigade of the enemy and they could not sustain the charge and had to give back, which they then did in good order. We were then ordered back and retired without firing a gun amid the rattle of grape and canister,” one soldier from the 75th Illinois recounted.

"The Professor." Captain Warren Parker Edgarton, Battery E, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery

Captain Warren Parker Edgarton in later life.

Another soldier who viewed Comanche’s handiwork with a more professional eye was Captain Warren Parker Edgarton commanding Battery E of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery. A 26-year-old professor of law from Cleveland, Ohio, Edgarton had a reputation as one of the most “scientific” gunners in the army. As General Edward N. Kirk’s brigade marched along Gresham Lane and prepared to deploy, Edgarton and his lieutenants galloped ahead to the Franklin Pike and turned their sights towards Robertson’s battery.

 Edgarton quickly demonstrated why he had the reputation as a scientific gunner. “Our captain drew us up behind a row of cedar trees which skirted a lane between us and the enemy,” Private William H. Laughlin recalled. “This lane led out into the open field we were to take. Captain Edgarton and his lieutenants then rode out on the ground and taking out their watches, they computed the distance to the Rebel battery by noting the time it took from the report of their guns to be heard after seeing the puff of smoke and then multiplying this by the number of yards that sound travels per second. They then took an average of the results of returned with it to the gunners,” Laughlin observed.

“The gunners had set their sights for the number of yards given by the captain. He looked over us to see that every man was in his place, no detail forgotten, then in a voice which inspired us all with courage, he gave the command ‘double quick, march!’ Away we went, our drivers spurring and lashing our horses into the keen run while us gunners held on for dear life. We were in a moment in the open field and Edgarton gave the order ‘unlimber to the front and commence firing.’ Our range was accurate and every ball tore into their battery scattering death and destruction on every side. One of our percussion shells struck a wheel, destroying the gun while another struck just under the gun on the axle and exploded, throwing the gun end over end into the heavens,” Laughlin stated.

Private Elijah M. Strong of Battery E noted in his diary that “never were guns served with a better will. The long-suppressed excitement of the boys was worked off in a way that was extremely surprising to that Rebel battery.” Edgarton’s guns opened at less than 700 yards with their five 6-pdr James’ rifles and Robertson agreed with the Ohioans’ descriptions of their deadly effectiveness. “The cannon firing at the battery was spherical shot and soon blew up a limber to a piece,” Robertson stated. This single shot wounded four men. The battered Texan soon received orders to withdraw as did McDuffie once he ran out of long-range ammunition.

Edgarton's Battery E utilized five M1841 6-pdr James rifles and a single 6-pdr smoothbore at Stones River. All six guns would be captured at the outset of the Confederate attack on Johnson's division on the morning of December 31, 1862; Edgarton himself being wounded and captured. 

General Edward N. Kirk lauded Edgarton’s performance in silencing the Confederate batteries. “It was the finest performance I ever saw. A number of men and horses were killed at the first and second discharge and the enemy was driven back in confusion, leaving some disabled carriages and pieces on the ground,” he wrote. The sun was setting as the balance of Kirk’s brigade filed into the woods north of Edgarton’s battery and deployed into a line of battle. Willich’s brigade followed shortly afterwards and went into line in a perpendicular position to Kirk’s line, forming a croquet designed to guard the army’s flank.

“We shortly found ourselves on the extreme right of our army and almost face to face with the enemy whose breastworks were in plain view across an open field,” Sergeant Major Lyman Widney of the 34th Illinois recounted. “Our battery was brought up to the edge of the timber and exchanged a few shots before the shades of night hid the enemy and ourselves from each other’s view. Strict orders were issued that no fires should be allowed to disclose our position to the enemy. The air became quite cold after nightfall and we soon found it impossible to sleep. Some of my messmates concluded to build a rail pen and line it with long grass from the field. We found the exercise restored our warmth but it did not continue long after we lay down in the pen in vain hope of falling asleep, so I spent the most of my time pulling the long grass and carrying it in.”

The stage was thus set for the opening of the Battle of Stones River the next morning.


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