Grandest Charge of Them All: Adams’ Brigade Charges the Round Forest at Stones River

 Of all the attacks made on the Round Forest at Stones River on December 31, 1862, the charge of General Daniel Adams’ brigade struck the Federal defenders as being the most disciplined and hardest hitting of them all. One Federal commented that “Adams’ men fell by the hundred, yet still they moved on with irresistible force. It was a magnificent brigade.”

Adams’ men, part of General John C. Breckinridge’s division, had missed all of the morning action while they awaited the Federals to cross to the eastern bank of Stones River. But as the Confederate advance slowed in the early afternoon, General Braxton Bragg ordered Breckinridge to send four of his five brigades marching across Stones River to break the Federal hold on the Round Forest. Unfortunately, the brigades were sent into action in piecemeal with Adams’ brigade following a fruitless charge made by General John Jackson’s brigade.

Among Adams’ men that made the charge was Captain Ezekiel John Ellis commanding Co. H of the 16th Louisiana Infantry. The 22-year-old captain, commanding the old, consolidated Cos. F and G, left a remarkable diary account of this charge which I reproduce below.

Captain Ezekiel John Ellis, Co. H, 16th Louisiana Infantry left a remarkable diary account of his service with the Army of Tennessee. After the war, he served four terms in Congress before passing away at the age of 48. 

 

Finally, an order was sent to Breckinridge on the right to send troops. Here arose that difficulty as yet unsettled which caused the severe censure of that officer by General Bragg. One thing is evident: Breckinridge was tardy in obeying the order. He alleged that he was threatened in his front. This afterwards proved to be unfounded for the entire corps of Crittenden had been withdrawn from his front in order to check Hardee on the extreme Federal right. Another order was sent and this time General Breckinridge obeyed by sending the brigades of Adams and Jackson to Withers’ assistance.

We marched at the double quick some two miles and crossed the river by wading as the ford was shallow. We had as yet been unengaged although we had been employed for half an hour in the morning in dodging shells which the enemy sent at us as I thought then in the most prodigal profusion. We crossed the river and were halted not far from the bank. In front, the battle was raging with terrific fury. Over us, pieces of artillery were shaking the hills and the Yankee shells were flying over us.

At this moment, General Bragg rode by us. Loud cheers greeted him as he passed rapidly along the line and hastily checked his horse in front of the colors, turned towards us, pulled off his cap and waved it as if for silence. I shall never forget Bragg as I saw him then with his pale emaciated face slightly flushed with the ardor of battle, his fierce eyes, supernaturally large and full of light, his thin lips compressed, and his form compact yet attenuated, so upright and firm in the saddle while he restrained his restive horse. It seemed to me as much by the stern will which sat on that marble brow as by the pressure of his left hand upon the bridle rein.

"Louisianans, the enemy's right has been routed and we are steadily driving it back. He still stands firm in the center. He must be defeated there," General Braxton Bragg exhorted his fellow Louisianans. "Remember the wrongs of your state, your insulted wives and mothers, your polluted shrines, and desecrated homes. Be men and strike for vengeance and liberty!" 

He waved his cap and all was hushed in an instant. Then the rigid lips unclosed, the stern brow was unbent and the words came short and clear with a force that dared you to forget. “Louisianans,” said he. “The enemy’s right has been routed and we are steadily driving it back. He still stands firm in the center. He must be defeated there. It remains for you to do this and the victory is ours. Remember the wrongs of your state, your insulted wives and mothers, your polluted shrines, and desecrated homes. Be men and strike for vengeance and for liberty!”

This speech of Bragg’s may not be repeated verbatim as he spoke it. At the time I thought I would never forget his words. The most deafening cheers greeted the general as he rode rapidly away towards where the conflict seemed fiercest. Then we began to advance moving by the right flank. Every heart was full of enthusiasm. Each man seemed to feel that no task was beyond our accomplishment.

We were now moving through a cotton field and the enemy began to shell our line. One shell killed Ed Parmele and Japhet Harull of my company. They were mangled and torn to pieces and died in an instant. The same shell killed Captain Oliver’s horse and broke the handle of a litter in the hands of the bearer. It burst right in the ranks and I wonder that more of the men were not injured. As we reached the turnpike the regiment was placed in column right in front. For 200 yards we marched in column up the pike under a fierce artillery fire. Shell and shrapnel hissed and screamed and burst about us, but with steady tramp and arms at the right shoulder shift the column moved swiftly and steadily on.

Leaving the pike, the regiment was deployed in line and began to advance by the front. The first line of Yankees now opened upon us. The fire was returned with spirit. A rabbit scared by the strange and terrible sound of heavy battle came running along our line. A private, a calm imperturbable and sleepy looking fellow of my company, Calvin Hennegan by name, deliberately trained his gun and killed the poor frightened animal. “Hennegan, why the devil did you do that?” He replied, “Why captain, the Yanks is too fur and I want to be a-killin’ what I shoot at.”

At this moment a charge was ordered. Forward we went and backwards went the Yankees. We were now within 100 yards of the nearest section of the terrible battery. The fire was terrible. Huge gaps were cut in our ranks, were quickly closed, and the line still pressed onward. At this time, the regiment on our right began to waver. It was thrown into confusion and finally broke into a disorderly retreat. The 32nd Alabama, though in much confusion, stood its ground. Nothing daunted, the regiment with wild cheers still swept forward; the battery was reached and two guns were captured. [These would be guns from Battery F of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery.] The artillerymen were driven from the other pieces then we halted and at 70 yards distance from an unseen for the deadliest fire of musketry I ever saw was opened upon us.

A brigade was thrown forward against our right flank and opened a murderous crossfire upon our rapidly melting ranks. Yet the troops stood firm. Never did I see more coolness exhibited by men. Every instant someone was stricken down but the survivors, undismayed, fought on. Colonel Fisk had fallen, shot through the body; he lived only a few hours. One color bearer was shot, another shared his fate and then the colors were placed in the hands of the Hannegan who had shot the rabbit. He bore them for a long time afterwards.

General Daniel W. Adams

It was with terrible anguish that I saw my men falling and writhing on the ground. And yet I was powerless to aid them. General Adams, with a broken arm, rode up and ordered a retreat. Major Francis Zacharie communicated the order to the first company and it passed down the line. Hence the retreat was made in much confusion. General Adams said to the boys near him, “Boys, we fell back, but damn it, we are not whipped!” I succeeded in keeping a few of my men together. Passing down the pike I saw one of my company just ahead of me. He was on the double quick. Suddenly, he fell forward on his face. I stopped, turned him over but poor Coffman was dead- a ball had passed through his head and his brain was oozing out on the ground. The enemy attempted a pursuit but our artillery soon drove them back.

Halting near our batteries, we soon rallied and reformed the line but over half the regiment was missing. Of the 447 men who went into the charge, 270 had fallen. Out of 55 men, I could find only 24. We had failed. It was not the fault of the men or the officers, but simply because the task was too much for mortals to accomplish. Over 30 guns now opened on the position we had charged and the brigade was ordered to lie down behind a line of rude fortifications made of rails. The enemy replied to our batteries with over 60 pieces of artillery. A constant stream of shells flew over and around us. One burst a few feet from me in Captain Watson’s company that killed six men. The skull of one of the miserable men was blown off with the quivering brain still attached. It flew several paces and fell upon the body of one of his comrades who was lying down.

Looking towards our batteries I saw General Bragg in their midst with his sad, stern face on which no emotion was discernible, riding from one piece to another calmly directing the aim of the gunners. I expected every moment to see him fall and I trembled for the army. Again, was the position from which we had just been repulsed assaulted but without decisive result. Towards night under a fire of artillery we were moved over to the left just in rear of the position which the right of Rosecrans had occupied in the morning. There we halted and built small fires. I could not sleep at first. The smoke of battle had settled and obscured the moon which rode high in heaven and struggled to cast a feeble light upon the blood-drenched field. Occasionally the boom of a cannon or the report of a single musket broke the silence. I sent out parties to look for the dead of my company of which six or eight were found and buried. The most melancholy feelings pervaded my breast. That day I had seen the best and bravest of my company fall, some of them to rise no more. I could not sleep but turned away and walked over the field.



 Captain Ellis survived the battle and the war; he was captured at Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863, and spent the rest of the war in the prisoner of war camp at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. After the war, Ellis returned to Louisiana and later served four terms in Congress. He died in Washington, D.C. on April 25, 1889, at the age of 48.

To learn more about the Battle of Stones River, Savas Beatie will be publishing my upcoming campaign study entitled “Adrift in a Sea of Blood” in early 2024.

Source:

Diary of Captain John Ellis of Co. H, 16th Louisiana Infantry, Stones River National Battlefield Park archives

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