Monthly Archives: December 2012

150 Years Ago: A few hundred yards difference

Success and failure on the battlefield is measured by a lot of small increments.  Sometimes it is hours… or minutes… or seconds.  Other times the measure is yards … feet … inches.  Such was the case 150 years ago on December 31st at the battle of Stones River.

As Confederate troops neared the Nashville Pike around noon, General William Rosecrans deployed what reserves he had.  For about two miles from Overall Creek to the Round Forest, the Federal lines bent back to the pike.  The pike was not just a terrain feature on the map, rather it was the army’s supply lines.  Losing that road meant retreat, route, or worse.  The nation could ill afford a second major military disaster in the month of December 1862. We often use the cliche “last ditch defense” to describe a position.  This was truly a last ditch defense.

On the far right of the defense, cavalry fought cavalry as Brigadier General John Wharton’s Confederates arguably missed the greatest opportunity of the battle.  Blue troopers from Colonel Lewis Zahn’s and Colonel Robert Minty’s brigades held their end of the line.

To their left, infantry from different divisions made a stand in the cotton fields around the Widow Burris’ house.  (Recalling yesterday’s post on preservation, those fields are outside the park boundaries.)

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Fields south of Asbury Lane today

The blue line fell back, disorganized at some points, but ultimately held – some two hundred yards short of the pike.

To the center of the line defending the pike, General Rosecrans committed his reserves.  That reserve was the Pioneer Brigade, some men with just twenty rounds.  Supporting them was the Chicago Board of Trade Battery and Battery B, 26th Pennsylvania.  Their lines formed barely 150 to 200 yards to the southwest of the pike.

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Position of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery

That part of the line held.

To their left, more infantry and artillery – a “grand battery” with over two dozen guns – anchored the defense of the high ground that is today the National Cemetery.  Lieutenant Francis L. Guenther, commanding Battery H, 5th US Artillery, held his fire as the Confederate infantry approached.  When urged to action by his commander, Guenther responded, “I see them sir. They are not near enough.”  When the Confederates marched closer, Guenther’s guns unleashed a rain of canister into their ranks.

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Gunner’s view across the pike from a Parrott Rifle

And that part of the line held.

At the Round Forest, Colonel William Hazen’s brigade was the core around which a stout defense formed.

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James Rifle at the Round Forest

The blue troops held the position against all the Confederates threw at the Round Forest.

Later that evening, some two hundred wagons arrived on the pike from Nashville bringing much needed ammunition and other supplies to the Army of the Cumberland.  The day’s fighting was at an end, and the results were inconclusive at best for either side.  But the arrival of those supplies ensured the Federals could stand their ground the next day.

And what did that next day bring?

Think not of the battlefield, but off the battlefield – the Emancipation Proclamation. As the wagons rolled into the army’s perimeter, an important executive order took effect.  Slavery would be abolished.  Of course, as politics would play into the actions, the order didn’t directly apply to those within sound of the guns that day.  But in time, slavery in the United States would be abolished.

The Army of the Cumberland held that day. A few days later they moved into nearby Murfreesboro as the Confederates retreated.  Long months passed before the army again moved forward, this time reaching the hills of northern Georgia.  But where the army went, it now carried emancipation as if an unfurled standard.

Those last few hundred yards beside the Nashville Pike were more than just grass, dirt, and trees.  It meant survival for an army and by extension the freedom of thousands well away from the battlefield.  One-hundred and fifty years later, we cannot disassociate the actions along the Nashville Pike from where we are, as a nation.

Stones River: The Preservation Story

Yesterday morning, we made a few stops prior to reaching Stones River National Battlefield, proper, and the sesquicentennial events.  One of those was a rather typical highway intersection.

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Gersham Lane and Franklin Road

On December 29, 1862, Federal cavalry pressed Confederate skirmishers away from this intersection.  The following day troops from Brigadier General Richard Johnston’s division of Major General Alexander McCook setup positions here.  The position was, for all practical purposes, the right flank of the Army of the Cumberland when the Confederate assault stepped forward on the morning of December 31.  This was the first objective in General Braxton Bragg’s attack plan.

But today this is about two miles, direct line, from the southern boundary of the Stones River National Battlefield.  In between is a school, shopping malls, residences, and a major interstate highway.  All ground contested during the battle.  Indeed many important sections of the battlefield were not included within the park boundaries. That begs the question – why wasn’t this major battlefield better preserved?

Let me offer the short version of that story here, but recommend Stones River National Battlefield Historic Resource Study by Sean Styles for further reading.  The story of the battlefield park starts in during the war.  Like many battlefields, a National Cemetery established during the war was a presence, giving the government at least some interest in the locality.  But a wartime memorial also served to attract visitors and veterans to the battlefield.

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Hazen Monument – the oldest surviving CW battlefield monument

The Hazen Monument, built during the war by veterans of Colonel William B. Hazen’s Brigade at the Round Forrest, where they fought with distinction during the battle.  The proximity of this monument and the national cemetery, just to the northwest, and the railroad line naturally made the site an attraction for travelers along that line.  That also eased logistics for veterans’ reunions.

Working along those lines, in 1906 the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railroad established a memorial on the other side of the railroad.

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Artillery Monument

The railroad also set aside the remains of Redoubt Brannan, visible from a passing train, as an attraction.

During the 1890s, in what historian Timothy Smith calls the “Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation”, Stones River was among the plans for additional reservations beyond the original five (Gettysburg, Shiloh, Chickmauga-Chattanooga, Antietam, and Vicksburg).  The Stones River Battlefield and Park Association secured options on several thousands of acres of land.  Prospects looked good, given the lobbying power of the veterans.  But despite several bills drafted, the proposal never gained traction.  Proponents were checkmated in 1912 with a report from Charles Grosvenor, then Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park commissioner, stating landmarks on the Stones River battlefield were “entirely obliterated.”  Whether that assessment was valid or not, I cannot say.  But given the extant landscape today, I’d say Grosvenor probably overlooked some features.

Not until after World War I did Congress again take up battlefield preservation.  Under the 1927 Act for Study and Investigation of Battlefields was Stones River considered again.  In March of that year, a small section of the battlefield, 300 or so acres, became part of the National Park system.  Small sections of additional acreage, transferred in the 1930s, brought the total to just under 400 acres.  Over the following decades the park benefited from several waves of improvement projects, from the New Deal’s WPA to Project 66.  But no major land acquisitions added to the land preserved within the park.

With the growth of Murfreesboro in the middle of the 20th century, development pressed on the battlefield.  The construction of Interstate 24 bisected the fields over which the action took place on December 31, 1862 (not unlike Monocacy battlefield and I-270 in that respect).  Over time, the land was, as Grosvenor said earlier, “entirely obliterated.”  But in 1992, the park nearly doubled in size with the donation of the last remaining sections of Fortress Rosecrans, opening the total park acreage to 570.  While significant of course, the fortress was a post-battle structure.

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Remains of Fortress Rosecrans

The statistic often cited in regards to preservation of Stones River is one fifth.  That is the fraction of the battlefield which lies within the national park.  As for the remainder, it is indeed “entirely obliterated.”  There is a lot of “what could have been” attached to the preservation of Stones River.  But there’s also much we should be thankful for.  One can still look across the fields and consider the actions of December 31, 1862 through January 2, 1863.

150 Years Ago: The Federal artillery at Stones River

With the battles of Fredericksburg and Stones River occurring in close proximity, calendar wise, we can make an easy comparison between the artillery parks of two major Federal armies – one in the east and one in the west.  Brigadier General Henry Hunt provided a very detailed report about Fredericksburg (along with a supplementary letter complaining about the 20pdr Parrott rifles).  The Army of the Potomac’s cannoneers manned 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, 10-pdr Parrotts, 12-pdr Light Field Guns (Napoleons), and a few 12-pdr field howitzers.  Hunt’s siege train included 20-pdr Parrotts (to his displeasure) and a few 4.5-inch rifles.   So with the exception of the 12-pdr howitzers, the Army of the Potomac fought with “new stuff.”

The Chief of Artillery for the Army of the Cumberland, Colonel James Barnett, filed a detailed report for Stones River in February 1863.   (Again, Fourteenth Army Corps, Army of the Cumberland, and Department of the Cumberland designations are interchangeable, somewhat.  Barnett prefaced his report as “Department of the Cumberland”.  I’ll ask the reader’s indulgence with the use of “Army of the Cumberland” to make the “army to army” comparison here.)  That report included a tally of the guns supporting each wing of the army:

Right wing, Second Division, composed of the following batteries: Battery A, First Ohio Artillery, Lieutenant Belding commanding, attached to General Willich’s brigade; Battery E, First Ohio Artillery, Captain Edgarton, attached to Colonel Kirk’s brigade; Fifth Indiana, Captain Simonson, attached to Colonel Buckley’s brigade, having the following guns: Nine James rifles, three 6-pounder smoothbore, two 12-pounder howitzers, two 10-pounder Parrotts, and two 12-pounder light field guns…

The artillery of the First Division is composed of the following batteries, and had the following guns: Fifth Wisconsin, Captain Pinney, attached to Colonel Post’s brigade; Second Minnesota, Captain Hotchkiss, attached to Colonel Carlin’s brigade; Eighth Wisconsin, Captain Carpenter, attached to Colnel Woodruff’s brigade.  Four 10-pounder Parrotts, eight 6-pounder smooth-bore, four 12-pounder howitzers….

The batteries of the Third Division are as follows: Battery G, First Missouri, Captain Hescock, attached to Colonel Schaefer’s (Second) brigade; Battery C, First Illinois, Captain Houghtaling, attached to Colonel Robert’s (Third) brigade; Fourth Indiana Battery, Captain Bush, attached to General Sill’s (First) brigade, with the following guns: Two 10-pounder Parrotts, four 12-pounder light field guns, two James rifles, six 6-pounder smooth-bore, and four 12-pounder howitzers….

Center – The artillery of the First Division consists of the following batteries: Captain Stone, First Kentucky Battery; Lieutenant Van Pelt, First Michigan Battery; Company H, Fifth U.S. Artillery, Lieutenant Guenther, with the following guns: ten 10-pounder Parrotts, two James rifles, two 6-pounder smooth-bore, and four 12-pounder light field guns….

The batteries of the Second Division, Brigadier-General Negley, are as follows: Company M, First Ohio, Captain Schultz; Company G, First Ohio Artillery, Lieutenant Marshall; Company M, First Kentucky [Second Kentucky Battery], Lieutenant Ellsworth, with the following guns: Two 12-pounder Wiard steel guns, two 6-pounder Wiard, four 12-pounder howitzers, two James rifles, one 6-pounder smoothbore, and two 16-pounder Parrotts….

Left Wing – The batteries of the left wing are the following: Company M, Fourth U.S. Artillery, Lieutenant Parsons; Company H, Fourth Artillery, Lieutenant Throckmorton; Company B, First Ohio Artillery, Captain Standart, attached to the Second Division; Tenth Indiana, Captain Cox; Eighth Indiana, Lieutenant Estep; Sixth Ohio Captain Bradley, attached to the First Division; Seventh Indiana Battery, Captain Swallow; Third Wisconsin, Lieutenant Livingston; Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania [Battery B, Pennsylvania Light Artillery], Lieutenant Stevens, attached to the Third Division, with the following guns: Four 3-inch rifles, ten 12-pounder howitzers, six James rifles, twelve 6-pounder smooth-bores, and sixteen 10-pounder Parrotts.

In addition Barnett mentioned the Chicago Board of Trade Battery under Captain Stokes with four 3-inch rifles and two James rifles.  Not mentioned in Barnett’s report are ten batteries assigned to the Center Wing’s unengaged forces (Third, Fourth, and Fifth divisions if you are counting).  Barnett also left out Lieutenant Nathan Newell’s section of the 1st Ohio, Battery D in support of the Cavalry Division; and Captain Cockerill’s 1st Ohio, Battery F which was in the Second Division of the Left Wing.

By Barnett’s count, the Army of the Cumberland at Stones River had 137 guns engaged at Stones River.  By type those were:

  • Thirty-two 6-pdr field guns
  • Twenty-four 12-pdr field howitzers
  • Twenty-three James rifles
  • Thirty-six 10-pdr Parrotts (The “16-pdr Parrotts” in the Center Wing is a transcription error)
  • Ten 12-pdr Napoleons
  • Four Wiard rifles
  • Eight 3-inch Ordnance rifles

Certainly a varied lot compared to the artillery supporting the Army of the Potomac.  Indeed, if you throw out the James and Wiard rifles, the list of types is closer to what armed the Army of Northern Virginia.  However, the Army of the Cumberland had a more favorable mix of rifles, with 71 total.  Although we know that the James and Wiards were not as well received as the Parrotts and Ordnance rifles.

I cited Barnett’s organization of the artillery above not only to show the weapon quantities and types, but also the assignments.  The Army of the Cumberland did not centralize control of the artillery at higher levels, and retained the “one battery to each brigade” pre-war practice for the most part.  Furthermore, there are a lot more junior officers commanding those batteries.  Consider even the Army’s chief of artillery was wearing colonel’s eagles and not brigadier’s stars.

Another point with the order of battle is the number of U.S. regular artillery formations.  There were really only two – Battery H, 5th US and combined Batteries H and M, 4th US.  And this translated into a shortage of “regular” artillery officers.  Barnett himself is a good example.  He was a senior officer in the Cleveland Light Artillery, a militia formation, before the war.  While a capable officer, he was not a Hunt or William Barry, with a career spent in the practical study of how to use artillery on the battlefield, notions of how to use it with greater impact, and a recently published manual on the use of artillery.

But I would not read too much into the differences between the artillery of the respective armies.  At Stones River the artillery played just as important a role in the outcome as at the major eastern battles.  The western artillerists could and did practice their deadly trade just as well as their eastern counterparts.