Colonel William B. Hazen’s brigade made the Round Forest one of the Civil War’s most famous tracts of real estate on December 31, 1862. However, when the fighting ended that day the position stood out as a salient waiting to be isolated. After nightfall, Hazen’s brigade withdrew from the ground they so valiantly defended. On January 1, the Round Forest lay between the opposing lines. Sharpshooters of the 9th Mississippi soon occupied the forest, taking advantage of the “lull” on New Years Day. Later, the 51st Indiana drove the Mississippians out of the forest. But by nightfall the Mississippi infantry returned to the stand of trees. This see-saw affair continued through the 2nd day of the year while major fighting occurred elsewhere. By the end of the 2nd, skirmishers from the 42nd Indiana occupied the forest.
On the morning of January 3, once again the Confederates moved into the Round Forest. The 9th and 10th Mississippi from Colonel Thomas White’s brigade, who’d take command in place of the wounded Brigadier General James Chalmers, moved on the north side of the railroad (which bisected the woods). On the south side of the railroad (the only section now in the park), the 19th 25th Alabama regiments, with the 17th Alabama Battalion Sharpshooters of Colonel John Coltart (replacing the wounded Colonel John Q. Loomis) moved up. With several batteries firing in support, the Confederates drove the 42nd Indiana out of the woods.
The Confederates maintained a skirmish line in the woods while rotating troops around during the day. These skirmishers pestered the Federals so badly that in the afternoon a request went up the chain of command for an attack to clear the Round Forest (again!). The approved plan called for Brigadier General James G. Spears’ brigade along with Colonel John Beatty’s brigade (NOTE: from different divisions) to attack the forest at around dusk. Preceding the infantry advance, Battery H, 5th US Artillery (Lieutenant Francis L. Guenther) and Battery A, 1st Michigan Artillery (Lieutenant George W. Van Pelt) would provide cover fire into the woods.
At around 6 p.m. the batteries opened fire. After ten minutes of artillery fire, the infantry advanced. In the falling light, the Federals pressed into the woods, fighting hand to hand at some points with a foe seen only at close quarters. Muzzle flashes gave away positions of the respective lines. But as with any night action (even today) the danger of fratricide loomed. Twice Beatty rode up to friendly forces in order to redirect fire away from his troops – once to Guenther’s gunners and later to some of Spears’ infantry.
After some two hours of fighting, the Confederates held on to the southeastern edge of the woods, while the Federals occupied the opposite side. Sensing their mission completed, the Federals soon withdrew, falling back to prepared works in their defensive line. The last casualties at Stones River fell in the Round Forest in a seemingly indifferent contest.
Observers – and since this happened in front of the Federal lines there were plenty – recorded the sights and sounds of this otherwise rare night action. In a letter home Lieutenant Colonel Daniel F. Griffin, 38th Indiana, wrote:
… and on Saturday night, an attack after dark drove [the enemy] from the center. This last, a battle after night, was truly grand, the lines to be traced as they advanced or receded, by the steady line of fire. This last seems to have decided their hasty leave, as they commenced at midnight, leaving nothing but a barren town, inhabited by some 3000 to 5000 wounded, that they could not transport away.
Griffin, of course, overestimated the influence of this last action on General Braxton Bragg’s decision to retreat. But he was correct in so much the night action was the last in the battle of Stones River. Rather fitting that the “hard-earned victory” ended in “Hell’s Half-acre.”
Smith, Lanny Kelton, The Stone’s River Campaign: 26 December 1862-5 January 1863: The Union Army, 2008, pages 566-567.
Smith, The Stone’s River Campaign: 26 December 1862-5 January 1863: Army of the Tennessee, 2010, pages 591-595.
Also see the Stones River Battlefield’s excellent online collections, from which Griffin’s letter was accessed.