Lost from the O.R. Part 3: Colonel William Sirwell’s report for the 78th Pennsylvania at Stones River

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, the massive 128 volume postwar work issued by the War Department, serves as the cornerstone of our understanding of the military history of the Civil War. Within its thousands of pages reside after action reports, correspondence, court martial proceedings, charts, maps, a veritable mountain and gold mine of information that has delighted (and infuriated) historians since its publication in the 19th century. But even then, it was recognized that not every report made it into the O.R., some were, in a phrase, "lost to history."

A superb attempt was made to address this deficiency during the 1980s and 1990s when Broadfoot Publishing printed 100 more volumes of material in the Supplement to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Amazingly, even with 228 volumes of reports, once in a while something new is discovered that was missed. I'm proud to present one of those missing after action reports: Colonel William Sirwell’s after action report for the 78th Pennsylvania at the Battle of Stones River.

The 78th Pennsylvania served in Colonel John F. Miller’s Third Brigade of General James Negley’s Second Division of George Thomas’s corps. The 78th Pennsylvania played a critical role in the fighting at the Slaughter Pen on the late morning of December 31st, 1862, ground which visitors can walk today on the southern end of the Stones River National Battlefield. It also was the leading regiment in Miller’s charge across Stones River on the afternoon of January 2nd in which the regiment captured the colors of the 26th Tennessee and aided in the capture of three guns belonging to Wright’s Tennessee battery. The 78th Pennsylvania went into action at Stones River with 15 officers and 540 men and had a reported loss of 190, the preponderance of that loss occurring on December 31.

Colonel Sirwell’s report, addressed to Lieutenant Henry M. Cist, who later went on to write a well-regarded general history of the Army of the Cumberland, is unaccountably missing from the O.R. The copy below is reprinted from Joseph T. Gibson’s History of the Seventy-Eighth Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry which was published in 1905.


Members of the 78th Pennsylvania pose atop Lookout Mountain at Chattanooga, Tennessee in this view dating from early 1864. After playing such a prominent role at Stones River, Colonel William Sirwell assumed brigade command after Colonel John F. Miller was commissioned brigadier and sent to take command of General Edward Kirk's old brigade in the 20th Army Corps. The Pennsylvanians by and large missed out on much action at Chickamauga as Sirwell's brigade was marched off the field at General Negley's command around noontime. 

Headquarters, 78th Regt., Pennsylvania Vols.

Murfreesboro, Tennessee

January 12, 1863

To Lieutenant Henry M. Cist, A.A.A.G., Third Brigade, Second Division


I have the honor of submitting the following report of the part taken by my regiment in the late battles before Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

On the evening of December 25, 1862, I received orders to have my command in line for marching at 6 o’clock a.m., on the morning of the 26th inst. My regiment was then on picket duty; by some mistake I was not relieved until after the troops of the divisions had taken up the line of march, which necessarily threw me as the rear guard of a large train of 150 wagons. We took up the line of march about 9 o’clock a.m. on the 26th and marched down the Franklin Pike to a given point, where we left the road abruptly and took a rough, country, dirt road (which was rendered impassable by the heavy rains of the day) by way of Nolensville, for the purpose of striking the Murfreesboro Pike. After a tedious and toilsome march which was rendered so by the condition of the roads, we encamped about 5 miles from Nolensville in the woods.

On the morning of December 27th, we again took up the line of march by same roads and soon came to a creek or ravine where we were detained for a considerable time, on account of the difficulty of getting the trains through. Some wagons had to be unloaded to render our movements as rapid as possible. Having got the train in line, we again started and marched one mile east of Nolensville, where we encamped for the night, it having rained more or less all day.

On the morning of December 28th, we again took up the line of march with more favorable weather and better roads. We marched until we came to where our troops were encamped, where, by your order, we bivouacked for the night on the right of the road, having turned over all the wagons safe to the proper officer, having been three days on the march from the time we took up the line of march until we rejoined the command; during our march, heavy cannonading was heard on our right as McCook was engaging the enemy at Triune.

On the morning of December 29th, we again took up the line of march. We proceeded some distance down the Murfreesboro Pike, when we turned to the right and proceeded along a country road for about three miles, when a sharp skirmish ensued between our forces and those of the enemy. We pressed on. The fighting continued between the enemy’s pickets and our advance. We proceeded on for a considerable distance until we struck the Murfreesboro Pike near a bridge and met the Anderson Troop (15th Pennsylvania Cavalry). We continued on our march until within ten miles of Murfreesboro, where we encamped for the night near a dense cedar grove on the right of said road.

Colonel William Sirwell
78th Pennsylvania

December 30th- the ball opened this morning. We commenced shelling the enemy; the fight of the day was principally with artillery; the enemy failed for a while to reply. We now advanced and took a position, the right of my regiment resting on General Palmer’s left and proceeded through the cedars. (Here I deployed Companies H and B as skirmishers and Cos. A and F as support from my regiment). Our skirmishers were soon withdrawn to make room for Colonel Roberts’ command; we lay there for a while when I was ordered to advance and remain a picket near the edge of dense woods, in which position I remained until 12 p.m., when I was relieved by the 21st Ohio.

On the morning of December 31st, I advanced in my position on the right to a knoll where we lay down to escape the enemy’s fire. The engagement commenced at first with skirmishing, when it increased until one deafening roar of artillery and musketry was heard on our right. The fighting now became desperate and lasted for a considerable time until our right was driven back. The enemy now turned his attention to the center, which he had completely enfiladed. The engagement here was fierce and bloody.

During this part of the engagement, I received an order from someone, who I supposed was clothed with authority, to fall back, which I commenced doing until otherwise ordered by Colonel John F. Miller. When I resumed my first position, the enemy made a flank movement, charging up the hills. I poured a terrific volley into their ranks, but as soon as one man was killed, another took his place. The enemy made a desperate charge, with heads down and bayonets glistening, to the front; in falling back for the third time, the right of Colonel Granville Moody’s regiment [74th Ohio] swung against my left, throwing my regiment into confusion. I made a desperate effort to rally my men and partially succeeded in getting the regiment formed; here some of the men, detailed from my regiment to man a battery, captured by the 78th at Lavergne, came and gave me information that the piece was captured; I immediately sent Company G, 78th Pennsylvania to fetch the piece off the field, which they did in safety.

At this time, we received an order from Colonel Miller to fall back (in doing of which Captain Jack, Co. H, was wounded at the head of his command; also, Lieutenant Anchors, Co. E, who was taken prisoner. We also lost 12 killed and many wounded), which we did fighting in retreat. We now retired to a hill where we reformed and received a supply of ammunition and then advanced to the left of the Murfreesboro Pike, where we stacked arms and rested for a while. I soon, however, received an order to advance again and occupy a position on the right of the pike as a reserve for General Milo Hascall’s Brigade (Crittenden’s Corps). We lay near the knoll of a hill until 10 p.m., when we were withdrawn to the foot of the hill for the purpose of kindling fires, where we stayed until morning.

The 78th Pennsylvania fought in and through this rugged landscape characteristic of the Slaughter Pen at Stones River. 

On the morning of January 2nd, we again took our position as reserve to General Hascall, where we remained until 12 m., when we were ordered to the left as support for General Crittenden; after an hour’s march we took our position in the rear of a battery in a cornfield; about 3 p.m., the enemy made his appearance and commenced a furious attack on General Van Cleve’s division, and after a desperate struggle, drove Van Cleve over the river.

We now advanced in line until we reached a rail fence, where we gave the enemy a deadly volley, completely checking his advance. I now ordered my men to advance at a charge bayonet, which they did. Some other regiment (I think the 19th Illinois) followed after and for a while obeying my commands. Here the 78th captured a stand of colors belonging to the 26th Tennessee and three pieces of artillery (Wright’s Tennessee Battery), which were brought off the field in safety. My regiment was the first to cross the river and pursue the retreating enemy, not however, without being considerably scattered. We were now ordered back. I rallied my men on the side of the river with me, while the balance formed on the hill lately occupied by the enemy. I soon rejoined my command and reformed my regiment. In the engagement, Lieutenant Halstead (Co. K), and four privates were killed. We soon bivouacked for the night in the position where we reformed.

The flag of the 26th Tennessee that was captured by the 78th Pennsylvania on January 2, 1863, is on display in the Objects of Valor exhibit at the State Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

On the morning of January 3rd, I was ordered to detail men to throw up breastworks, which was speedily done, and cannon planted behind them. The balance of the day was spent getting ammunition and rations. We remained all night in the same position. At about dusk, the enemy commenced a furious attack on our center; the struggle was desperate. The artillery we were guarding sent missiles of death among the enemy. I formed my regiment in line of battle, awaiting orders, but the enemy was beaten and we rested on our arms.

On the morning of the 4th, we took up the line of march and proceeded down the Murfreesboro Pike in strong force until we came to the entrenchment lately occupied by the enemy, which we found deserted. Here my regiment formed on the top of a hill outside his entrenchment and rested for the night. On the morning of January 5th, we again took up the line of march for Murfreesboro, which had been deserted the evening previous by the enemy, which we entered in triumph. And by order of General Negley, I was appointed provost marshal, the duties of which I performed until I assumed command of the 31st Brigade, 2nd Division.

I cannot speak too highly of the bravery of the officers and men of the 78th Penna. Vols., who were ready at any moment to obey any order. I would respectfully mention and call attention to the bravery of the following officers and men of my regiment: Captain William Cummins, Co. A, whose bravery and disregard for his personal safety could not be excelled by any officer in any of the battles before Murfreesboro. Not only on this occasion, but Captain Cummins had discharged his duties as a true soldier on all occasions. He is an officer and gentleman in every sense of the word, and I would recommend him for promotion.

Captain William S. Jack, of Co. H, was wounded in the thigh on Wednesday the 31st inst., in the leg while leading his company. After receiving his wounds, he was carried to the rear where he obtained a horse and returned to his command and took his position at the head of his company, but his wound was so severe, he had to retire from the field, leaving command of his company to Sergeant McBride. Of Captain Jack and Lieutenant Maize, I cannot speak too highly.

First Lieutenant Martin McKenna, commanding Co. B, was the officer in charge of the skirmishers that dealt such destruction on the Rock City Guards- on my left the destructive fires poured into their ranks by my skirmishers nearly annihilated that regiment (these Rock City Guards were from Nashville and have been in the Rebel service since the war commenced and are said to be the best troops in the rebel army). The bravery of Lieutenant McKenna cannot be spoken too highly of and I would recommend him for promotion. Lieutenant Samuel N. Lee, Co. B, is a brave officer and did his duty well. Captain Ellwood, Co. I, is a brave officer and discharged the duties assigned him. He was seen at all times at the head of his command encouraging and cheering them on. It will be seen by the list of killed and wounded in his company, that his men fell thick and fast, but he still exhibited that bravery becoming a soldier.

Lieutenant Marlin, Co. A, was struck in the shoulder by a piece of shell; he still discharged his duties. Sergeant Weaver, Co. F, acting Lieutenant, and in command of his company, is a brave young officer, always at the head of his company, discharging his duties until severely wounded in the engagement of December 31, 1862, and carried off the field. I would respectfully recommend him for promotion.

Of the following named sergeants, I would respectfully speak: 1st Sergeant Miller, Co. A, 2nd Sergeant John Keifer, Co. F, 2nd Sergeant T.M. Bell, Co. D, 3rd Sergeant Murphy, Co. I, He was wounded in the Wednesday fight and taken prisoner, but not paroled and is now in the hospital; 2nd Sergeant Robert W. Smith, Co. K, 4th Sergeant William W. Smith, Co. K. I would respectfully recommend for promotion Sergeant Samuel Croyle, Co. G, of him I cannot speak too highly; after Lieutenant Maize was wounded, he assumed command of Co. G and bravely led them on battle. I respectfully recommend him for promotion. Sergeant Hamm, Co. C, the color bearer who stoutly and bravely carried the stars and stripes through all our trials and difficulties, as the flag will testify by the number of bullet holes in it, this flag was also torn by a piece of shell. I respectfully recommend Sergeant Hamm for promotion.

1st Sergeant Samuel J. McBride of Co. H, who assumed command of Co. H, after Captain Jack was wounded, is a brave man and I would respectfully recommend him for promotion. 3rd Sergeant Henry A. Miller, of Co. H, of this young man I cannot say too much; he is a good disciplinarian, kind and affable- he is the idol of his company, brave to a fault, always meets his companions in arms with a smile, always respectful and pleasant to his superiors- never disobeys an order, always at his post- never absent from the command. In the late battles of Stones River, he was always found in the front ranks dealing death and destruction to the enemy. I will not recommend him promotion- promotion already awaits him.

Of the privates in my regiment who have all done their duty with a few slight exceptions, I would recommend Private Hughes, Co. B, and Private Davis, Co. I. To these two privates we owe the capture of the stand of colors belonging to the 26th Tennessee (Rebel) Regiment. Private Davis came so close to the color bearer that he could not make his escape; in his efforts, Davis shot him. At this time, Davis and Hughes advanced together, Davis seizing the flag staff and Hughes the colors, attempting to tear the flag from the staff; in this he was prevented by some members of the regiment and turned the flag over to Davis. I ordered the flag to the rear; this took place under my own eyes and for the brave act I have appointed Hughes, Co. B, and Davis, Co. I, as Sergeants.

Of my secretary, Alfred L. Weir, Co. F, I must not pass without notice. He is an industrious young man, as all who have had dealings with the regiment can testify. The only time he would leave his desk was when the regiment was likely to have a fight. At the battles of Stones River, he was always by my side ready for any emergency. I bespeak of him higher honors than he now enjoys.

Of Lieutenant Henry W. Torbett, my Adjutant, a braver man never wore the straps of a First Lieutenant. I would respectfully recommend him for promotion. Of my Sergeant Major Franklin Mechling, whom I have mentioned in the reports of the fights of Lavergne and Neely’s Bend, behaved himself gallantly in the battle of Stones River; in the fight on Wednesday, he struck in the forehead by a ball and slightly wounded; after getting his wound dressed, he returned and faithfully discharged the duties of his office. I would respectfully recommend him for promotion. Of my Major A.B. Bonnaffon, who is on Colonel Miller’s staff as topographical engineer, when not in discharge of his duties to Colonel Miller, rendered me valuable services. Major Bonaffon, although a young man, is an old soldier with but few equals in the army; a higher position awaits him.

I would respectfully say a few words in behalf of Private Hosack, who joined Co. G as a private and since the regiment entered the service, he has been acting as private physician for the company of which he is a member. Of Dr. Hosack’s services on the battlefield and since the battle of Stone’s River, the poor soldier who is now wounded or suffering from his wounds can speak. He has been and is all to my regiment.

The Rev. R.C. Christy, Chaplain of my regiment, is a brave, good man, always to be found (although in feeble health), in the middle of danger and where duty called him. He has been and is of valuable service in attending to the sick and wounded.

All of which is respectfully submitted,

William Sirwell,

Colonel commanding 78th Regiment Penna. Vols.


Gibson, Joseph Thompson. History of the Seventy-Eighth Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Pittsburgh: Press of the Pittsburgh Print Co., 1905, pgs. 178-184


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