Like Gods for their Altars: With Preston’s Brigade at Stones River
“Their artillery opened upon us a most terrific fire and our forces melted away like night shadows before the break of morning, but they struggled on in face of the fiery sleet, like gods for their altars.”
~ Captain Tod Carter on Breckinridge’s assault on January 2, 1863
Captain Theodorick “Tod” Carter of the 20th Tennessee is today remembered by most Civil War buffs for being mortally wounded within sight of his family’s home during the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864. But during the war, Carter gained some notoriety as a well-regarded and regular newspaper correspondent with the Chattanooga Daily Rebel. Writing under the penname Mint Julep, Carter’s literary sense and penchant for detail make his writings some of the most illuminating from the Army of Tennessee. One of his earliest productions is the following account of the Battle of Stones River which the Rebel published on the front page of their January 15, 1863 issue.
As part of General William Preston’s brigade of General John C. Breckinridge’s division, the 20th Tennessee first went into action late on the afternoon of December 31, 1862, charging against the Federal stronghold at the Round Forest. “The division was drawn up across a broad open stubble field on the left of Stones River,” Carter wrote. “The enemy in heavy force hovered darkly around the skirts of a scrubby growth of timber just across this field. Their sharpshooters, thick as locusts, were concealed in the grass, behind trees and fences, and in the clefts of the rocks along the bank of the river. The brigade moved forward in solid column; staff officers galloped backwards and forwards, up and down the line giving orders, field officers giving commands as the colors fluttered wildly in the wind. They reached the crest of a long swell and saw the woods and fields bristling with bluecoats and Yankee bayonets. Down went blankets and knapsacks and giving the old-fashioned Tennessee yell, they closed in.”
January 4, 1863
The entire South is at this time voraciously devouring every particle and incident of our bloody fight in front of Murfreesboro and I suppose you, too, are under the influence of the prevailing portions of this bloody conflict, so in compliance with an old promise, I will briefly recount what I saw and heard.
As you are aware, the opening forces, though skirmishing on a heavy scale for three or fours days, were not regularly engaged until late Tuesday, too late to be in any manner decisive but the plans had ripened and when night closed upon the scene, the unwanted hush of the long dark lines in deadly proximity, like the muffled stillness of waters at the approach of the storm, bespoke the bloody carnival of tomorrow. By the break of dawn Wednesday morning, the guns of the skirmishers began to crack in straggling, scattering shots, gradually quickening into a fierce and brisk fire on the extreme left of our lines with now and then a field piece flinging in its thunder to the stormy prelude.
By sunup, the hoarse notes of regular battle were heard in that quarter. The game was up and the pack in full cry. Steadily the surges swept from the left toward the center and right, growing heavier, deeper, and stronger as they came and when the hour of noon was past, almost the entire line was submerged in the fiery tempest. For hours it raged with the wildest fury. General Breckinridge’s division was on the right, stretching across and at right angles with the Murfreesboro/Nashville Pike when it reached it. They had been stationed during the morning on the Lebanon Pike to defeat a flank movements should the enemy attempt it from that quarter, but the increasing demonstrations made near the Nashville road lulled every fear of such a move and determined our leaders to dislodge them from their strong position.
The division was drawn up across a broad open stubble field on the left of Stones River. This field had been the theater of a bloody conflict during the early part of the day and fragments of shells, torn and trampled ground, broken vehicles, and other debris of battle indicate a hard-fought field. It was to be again fought and won. The enemy in heavy force hovered darkly around the skirts of a scrubby growth of timber just across this field. Their sharpshooters, thick as locusts, were concealed in the grass, behind trees and fences, and in the clefts of the rocks along the bank of the river. General Preston’s brigade extended from the river towards the ruins of the Cowan House in the center of the old field. The brigade moved forward in solid column; staff officers galloped backwards and forwards, up and down the line giving orders, field officers giving commands as the colors fluttered wildly in the wind. They reached the crest of a long swell and saw the woods and fields bristling with bluecoats and Yankee bayonets. Down went blankets and knapsacks and giving the old-fashioned Tennessee yell, they closed in.
What a roar and tempest of balls! The air screamed with hissing shot and bursting shells! Long strings of the wounded and bloody limped their way to the rear, thickly sprinkled with blue-coated captives. The Minie ball sung its best and merriest Southern air. Our lines moved on. While gallantly leading his boys in a charge, Tom Smith, the popular young colonel of the 20th Tennessee, fell, shot through the breast and arm. Orville Ewing, a son of Hon. Edwin H. Ewing and volunteer aide to General William Preston, was shot through the head and killed. A nobler man and braver soldier never fell in battle. Captains Anly and Whitfield of the same staff were also wounded. The field was thickly strewn with killed and wounded, Southern and Yankee, laying side by side in ghastly confusion. When night closed around, the field was ours.
|General William Preston|
Many of your old friends fell in the fight, among them Captain Watkins and Lieutenant Crosswaite. Although the two armies were in sight of each other and only three-quarters of a mile apart, yet the entire day of Thursday and the greater portion of Friday were consumed in skirmishing and cannon duels. Late in the evening of the latter day, General Breckinridge’s division made one of the most brilliant charges of the war. The enemy had massed a heavy force in the cedar forest north of Stones River near the Lebanon Road and were menacing this wing which was held by a single division. Towards the close of evening, they left a large reserve in this strongly entrenched position and advanced on us with a long heavy line of infantry and artillery, overlapping our command by a strong brigade.
General Breckinridge charged them, and the conflict ensued, bloody and desperate in the extreme. Their artillery opened upon us a most terrific fire and our forces melted away like night shadows before the break of morning, but they struggled on in face of the fiery sleet, like gods for their altars. For an hour the demons of hell seemed to have met in wild, blood-drunken revelry. The enemy finally gave way and our boys dashed upon the like a tigress to her bloody banquet and drove them howling through woods and fields and over the hills to the river and across the river to their den, their reserve. And then, notwithstanding the statement of your correspondent, withdrew quietly and without opposition. The enemy fought bravely but they met men fighting for their homes and their little ones and notwithstanding their superior force, were repulsed and driven back in slaughter. The ground was literally blue with their dead and dying. Our thinned ranks attest to their courage with a melancholy eloquence.
Many of our best and highest spirits fell upon that field. Lieutenant Colonel Labenda, the very soul of gallantry, is still there. Spring will bring her sweetest flowers to that sacred spot. Our loss was heavy. As an instance, the 20th Tennessee with less than 400 men in the fight lost 158! We repulsed them, yes, we whipped them everywhere and our boys were willing to settle the war in sight of Murfreesboro. Why we retreated some future Columbus must discover.
Letter from Captain Theodorick “Tod” Carter, Co. H, 20th Tennessee Infantry, Chattanooga Daily Rebel (Tennessee), January 15, 1863, pg. 1
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