“If the Rebel Wants to Die, Let Him Go.” A Tennessean Left for Dead at Stones River
“I was the last of the color guards to fall. Captain Nat Gooch told me that the color bearer and the color guard had all fallen so close together that he could have covered us all with the flag.”
During the Civil War, the Confederate army did not have individual medals for valor such as the Medal of Honor, but after the engagement at Stones River, companies were allowed to vote on which members of their company deserved special recognition for heroism demonstrated on that field. Corporal William L. McKay of Co. I of the 18th Tennessee was accorded that honor and recommended for promotion “for his superior gallantry on the battlefield of Murfreesboro on the 2nd day of January 1863.”
It was small recompense for his horrible experiences of being wounded during Breckinridge's assault that afternoon then lying unattended for two days as he relays in the following memoir. He eventually ended up in a Federal hospital camp. “Eight surgeons made the rounds of the camp Monday morning examining the wounded,” he wrote. “One of them examined me and decided to amputate my leg but said my arm could be saved. I at first rebelled and said they should not, but finding this would not do, I begged them not to cut it off. This attracted the attention of the chief, a big Dutch surgeon, who came and examined me and said “Let him alone. If de damn Rebel wants to die, let him go.” They left me and examined a Florida soldier who was wounded almost exactly like myself through the thigh, but he did not have the arm and body wounds, nor did he object to the amputation. They took him out, cut off his leg, and brought him back and the next day he died. On my other side was a handsome young Yankee soldier, shot through the calf of his leg, no bones broken. He seemed unable to stand the pain, just gave up and died; the surgeon said there was no reason for him to die, just simply gave up. The man at my head, another Yankee also died, so three men nearest me died and none of them seemed to be wounded as badly as I was.”
After the war, McKay wrote a short memoir of his services with the 18th Tennessee which includes this fascinating account of Stones River. Stones River National Battlefield has a handwritten copy of these memoirs, a portion of which Confederate Veteran published in 1926. During the Stones River campaign, the 18th Tennessee was part of Colonel Joseph Palmer’s brigade of General John C. Breckinridge’s division.
The fighting began early on the 31st on our left wing and the enemy was driven from every position and were almost in complete rout. About 3 p.m. we were ordered to double quick to the left wing which we did, crossing the river in water from knee to waist deep, then across an open cotton field under a heavy fire of artillery with grape, canister, and bombshells wounding a number of our regiment. After crossing the field, we were halted in a cedar thicket, the original battle line of the Yankees, and found a great many dead and wounded Yankees. I carried water from a well to the wounded until about midnight. About 2 a.m. we were ordered back to our old position on the right wing where we remained quietly except for an occasional bombardment from the enemy which would force us to move about to keep out of range.
On the afternoon of January 2nd our division was ordered to charge the enemy who were massed on our right wing. We charged across an open field and were met by a large force of infantry supported by about 80 pieces of artillery massed on the river bluff. After a short but bloody fight in the open field, the first line of the enemy broke and were followed to the river by our men with the Rebel yell, but they were met by the reserve force of the Yankees and forced to retreat with heavy loss.
I was shot through the right thigh with a Minie ball soon after starting after the retreating army. I was the last of the color guards to fall. George Lowe, the color bearer, was in the act of falling after being shot through the body when I caught hold of the flagstaff to prevent the fall of the flag and received my first wound and we fell together. Captain Nat Gooch then took the flag and has told me since that the color bearer and the color guard had all fallen so close together that he could have covered us all with the flag. He, too, was soon shot down and Logue Nelson of Murfreesboro then took the flag and carried it safely through the battle.
I remained helpless and partially unconscious until our command retreated. I saw the Yankees coming and attempted to get up but could not. Our men moved up a battery of three guns [Wright’s Tennessee Battery] and planted them just over where I lay. The fire from the guns was nearly hot enough to burn my face and the Yankee bullets rattled on the gun carriages like hail and our men were forced to leave the guns as they did not have enough horses to take them away. After the battery was deserted, I was between the lines and received my second wound from a bombshell fired by the Confederates, breaking my left arm and terribly bruising my body from concussion. I received several other slight wounds while lying between the lines. I lay where I fell until about midnight and received brutal treatment from the Yankees. General Jefferson Davis’s division marched by and over me and the commanders of companies would say as they passed over me “Look out, here is wounded man.” Some of them would step over me carefully while others would give me a kick and call me a damned Rebel and I was covered with black spots from the bruises.
About 1 o’clock two Yankee boys who were searching the battlefield for a friend came along. They seemed very sorry for me and determined to have me taken to a hospital. One of them stayed with me, holding my hand, while the other hunted for an ambulance. It was some time before they could get one as they were hauling their own wounded off first. They finally secured one and helped to lift me in it. I was taken to a hospital camp and laid on the ground, they thinking I was too near death to waste time on me. It was raining. I lay all day Saturday in the rain without any attention being paid to me; when I asked for water, they said “You don’t need water. We will take you to the graveyard after a while.” I did not suffer, however, as I could suck the water out of my coat sleeve as it rained on me. About dark on Saturday, finding that I would not die, I was picked up and laid in a tent out of the rain. During the night, two wounded Confederates died in this tent, one of them having fallen across my legs and lay there several hours.
About noon on Sunday I was moved to another tent where I could have more room and attention. The tent was occupied by both Confederate and Yankee wounded. On Monday I was given breakfast, the first food offered me, and the first I had eaten since Friday. Eight surgeons made the rounds of the camp Monday morning examining the wounded. One of them examined me and decided to amputate my leg but said my arm could be saved. I at first rebelled and said they should not, but finding this would not do, I begged them not to cut it off. This attracted the attention of the chief, a big Dutch surgeon, who came and examined me and said “Let him alone. If de damn Rebel wants to die, let him go.”
|This unidentified image of a Confederate infantrymen wears the black striped trousers often associated with western Confederates.|
They left me and examined a Florida soldier who was wounded almost exactly like myself through the thigh, but he did not have the arm and body wounds, nor did he object to the amputation. They took him out, cut off his leg, and brought him back and the next day he died. On my other side was a handsome young Yankee soldier, shot through the calf of his leg, no bones broken. He seemed unable to stand the pain, just gave up and died; the surgeon said there was no reason for him to die, just simply gave up. The man at my head, another Yankee also died, so three men nearest me died and none of them seemed to be wounded as badly as I was. The young surgeon in charge of the tent was a nice gentleman and very kind to me, paying me special attention. He was from near Chicago.
About the 7th or 8th, Casper Freas, a Yankee sympathizer, came with Mrs. R.R. Clemmons in search of her husband who was missing, and his wife hoped to find him in the hospital. He was never found, and his two brothers were both killed on Friday. I was reported killed on the field and Bob Dillon reported that he had turned me over and knew that I was dead, so Mr. Freas and Mrs. Clemmons were very much surprised to find me. She took a great interest in me while he procured a certificate that I was mortally wounded and with this he got a pass to take me out of the lines.
The provost marshal came and issued me a parole and gave me a good cursing saying that a great many of my kind had been found behind rock fences and cedar bushes bushwhacking with paroles in their pockets. Mr. Freas came for me about 10 with a spring wagon and a feather bed. The young surgeon before mentioned gave me a pair of blankets, a bottle of whiskey, some tea, coffee, and sugar, but as soon as the wagon was out of his sight, the Yankee guards and camp loafers took from under my head the whiskey and from over me the blankets; the other things there did not find as they were under the feather bed. Mr. Freas took me to his home about ten miles from Murfreesboro in Wilson County.
“The Gallant Color Guard,” Confederate Veteran, Volume 34 (1926), pg. 245-246
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