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Battle of Stones River: Philip Sheridan's Rise to Millitary Fame

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Brigadier General Philip H. Sheridan sat pensively in his command tent the evening of January 9, 1863, and stared at the paper on his camp desk. 'At 2 o'clock on the morning of the 31st [December 1862] General Sill, who had command of my right brigade,' he began. Words eluded him as he set aside his post-action combat report and mused for a moment, remembering an old friend, now dead. His face flushed red, and his thoughts went back to the day before the New Year, the day of the Battle of Stones River, the day he wrecked his division to save the army.

Sheridan hunched back over his camp desk, and beneath the flickering yellow glare of a newly issued candle he finished his sentence: '[Sill] reported great activity on the part of the enemy immediately in his front.'

Joshua Woodrow Sill, the 31-year-old commander of Sheridan's 1st Brigade, was an old friend and former West Point classmate. A bond existed between the two soldiers, established during their years together on the Hudson River, that emboldened Sill to visit his division commander early on the morning of December 31 and discuss his growing fear over the military situation of the army, camped just south of Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Sheridan listened intently. Sill was a courageous soldier, not given to sudden flights of fancy. His claim that there were indications of Confederate movement on his brigade front were alarming. The two old friends mounted up and rode down the Harding farm lane, then dismounted and walked among the Union defenders, the 36th Illinois and the 24th Wisconsin. They strode out to the picket line and listened. They could clearly make out the sound of artillery moving in the ghostly half-light and the steady 'trump, trump, trump' of plodding Confederate infantry.

Quickly, they rode back to the command post of XIV Corps' right wing commander, Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook. Sheridan shook him awake and gave McCook the freshly gathered information. McCook sloughed them off. The left wing commander, Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden, McCook explained, was scheduled to attack the right of the Confederate Army of Tennessee at first light. This attack, McCook reasoned, would relieve any threat on their own flank.

Sheridan would have none of it. He and Sill rode back to the brigade, and the bandylegged Ohioan ordered two of his reserve regiments, the 15th Missouri and 44th Illinois, to report to Sill, who placed them in position in short supporting distance of his lines.

Sheridan's battle blood was now up. He walked through his regiments rousing the commanding officers from sleep and ordering the soldiers under arms. Next he made a beeline for his artillery and their officers: Captains Charles Houghtaling, Asahel Bush and chief of artillery Henry Hescock. Soon the cannoneers were at their pieces and ready. It was barely 4 a.m.

A few minutes after 6 a.m., Sheridan's troops heard the familiar staccato sound of musketry to their right, then the intermittent roar of a rifled Parrott gun. It did not take long for the firing to grow into fusillades and the solitary report of a cannon to expand portentously into salvos by battery. The battle had opened with a vengeance; but, thanks to Sheridan's alertness, the men of the 3rd Division would not be taken by surprise as would their cohorts in the 1st and 2nd divisions.

About 7:15 in the morning, the enemy advanced to the attack across an open cotton field, on Sill's front. Under the command of Colonel J.O. Loomis and temporarily serving under the divisional supervision of Maj. Gen. B.F. Cheatham — rumored to be liquored up on some elegant Tennessee moonshine — the three left-flank regiments of Loomis' brigade (the 26th, 39th and 25th Alabama) struck the Union brigade on Sill's right and engaged them at close quarters. Loomis' right three regiments (the 1st Louisiana, 19th Alabama and 22nd Alabama) charged Sill's line.

'This column,' Sheridan reported, 'was opened upon by Bush's battery, of Sill's brigade which had a direct fire on its front; also by Hescock's and Houghtaling's batteries, which had an oblique fire on its front from a commanding position near the center of my line.'

When Loomis' Alabamians came stumbling out of the cedars, Bush's howitzers and 6-pounders opened immediately with canister and began raking the Rebel columns. Houghtaling's Battery C, 1st Illinois, and Hescock's Battery G, 1st Missouri, opened with spherical case shot, walking 12- and 6-pound shells into the massed battalions. The lamentations of brave men rose from the field as the Federal shot and shell played murderously among the Confederates.

The 1st Louisiana hit Sill's troops first, as Lt. Col. F.H. Farrar, Jr., led the charge into the 24th Wisconsin. The 24th's commander, Major Elisha Hubbard, counted five battle flags sweeping down on his neophyte soldiers (the regiment had only been activated for four months). His pickets were driven in and right flank threatened when a regiment and a battery from Colonel William E. Woodruff's brigade on his right suddenly withdrew under the onslaught.

'I maintained my position,' Hubbard reported, 'waiting for orders, until the enemy were in the wood in my rear, and had come on my flank and delivered a cross-fire, doing me considerable damage.' More than 100 of Hubbard's young men lay dead and wounded (the 24th would count 174 casualties by the end of the battle) and, with his position untenable, the young major reasoned that it was time to get out and ordered the regiment to 'break to the rear by companies.' Amidst the cacophony of battle the command was not heard by all, and an orderly withdrawal became a near rout. Hubbard, perhaps embarrassed, reported, 'No regiment could have formed line more rapidly than they did, after retreating.'

Meanwhile, back at the 24th's old position, Colonel Farrar lay dead, his chest pierced by a Yankee Mini bullet. 'This young officer,' Confederate Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk wrote, 'was one of the most promising of the army, intelligent, chivalrous, and brave.'

The 36th Illinois formed battle lines to the left of the 24th Wisconsin. Positioned at the top of a hillock, the seasoned veterans had an excellent field of fire. Colonel Nicholas Greusel ordered his soldiers to fix bayonets and hold their fire until given the command. When Loomis' 19th Alabama, with its battle flags whipping in the wintry air, marched to within 50 yards, Greusel ordered a volley delivered. Federal fire drove the Alabamians to ground, and for 30 minutes the men from Illinois and Alabama exchanged murderous fusillades. A gray cloud of gun smoke lay across the hill and swept slowly down among the Confederates.

Greusel ordered the 36th forward with bayonets at the ready. Just then Loomis, commanding the Confederate brigade, was accidentally injured and carried to the rear. The Federals, with fire in their eyes and their muskets and bayonets extended, charged the 19th Alabama. The Southerners yielded, grudgingly at first, then rapidly when the Union assault became general.

Sill galloped over to Bush's guns to aid in the advance and was promptly shot in the face and killed. Command of the brigade devolved on Greusel, while command of the 35th Illinois fell to Major Silas Miller.

As Loomis' Alabamians were retreating, Colonel A.J. Vaughan's home-state Tennesseans came marching through their lines with their scarlet battle flags uncased and a stern, determined look on their faces. Woodruff's shattered regiments had counterattacked and retaken their old line on Sill's right. Vaughan's Tennesseans did not hesitate; they charged up the hill.

On Vaughan's right, Colonel Arthur M. Manigault's 4th came through the cedar brakes and cornfields against Greusel or, more precisely, against the 88th Illinois positioned on Greusel's left. Manigault's amalgamated brigade of Alabamians and South Carolinians charged directly at the 88th. Colonel F. T. Sherman reported: 'I ordered the men to hold their fire until the enemy were within short musket range, when, the skirmishers having nearly all rallied on the battalion, I ordered them to rise up and fire, which they did with a coolness and daring worthy of veteran soldiers.'

The 88th's fire swept the packed ranks of Confederates as their artillery support, Captain D.D. Water's Alabama battery, hastened into line a few hundred yards east of a brick kiln on the brigade's right, to the rear of the fast-advancing 10th and 19th South Carolina. Water's howitzers and Napoleon 12-pounders opened with spherical case shell and in turn came under fire from Hescock's rifled Parrott guns. The infantry assault failed under the Federals' withering fire, and the Confederates fell back and rallied in the cedar brakes. Meanwhile, Water's cannoneers kept up a regular fire to cover preparations for a fresh charge.

On the 88th's right, the brave men of the 36th Illinois lent valuable assistance in repulsing Manigault's charge, but in rendering that service they expended nearly all their ammunition. Miller ordered the 36th to retire from the line and fall back toward the Wilkinson Pike in search of the ammunition train. During the retreat, Miller fell wounded, and command of the regiment devolved on Captain Porter C. Olson. The regiment, Olson informed his division commander, would be ready for action as soon as he found some .69-caliber ammunition. The 36th already had suffered brutally; only 140 men were ready for duty. The remainder lay dead, dying or wounded among the boulders east of the Harding farm lane.

Sheridan's line had become untenable, and the diminutive, hard-fighting general decided to pull back and change front. The enemy had succeeded in 'completely turning my position and exposing my line to a fire from the rear,' Sheridan wrote. 'I hastily withdrew the whole of Sill's brigade and the three regiments sent to support it, at the same time directing Col. [George] Roberts, of the left brigade, who had changed front and formed in column of regiment, to charge the enemy.'

Sheridan rallied his division on the shattered remnant of Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis' 2nd Division. The 88th Illinois and 21st Michigan withdrew to the outbuildings of the Harding farm. The 15th Missouri and 44th Illinois, low on ammunition, became separated from the other two regiments. Colonel Frederick Schaefer was finally able to assemble his command across the pike and form line of battle.

Bush's 4th Indiana Battery was forced to retire to the rear of the brigade, but continued firing canister as it went. During the withdrawal, Bush's Parrotts engaged Water's 12-pounders in a bitter artillery duel. The Indiana artillerists drove one section of Water's guns from the field, wounding several Confederate gunners, wrecking a caisson and disemboweling some unfortunate artillery horses. Bush dropped trail near the Harding house and went into battery. Meanwhile, Houghtaling took up position on the right of the pike, just at the edge of the timber.

By 8:30 a.m., Manigault had rallied and re-formed his brigade and had his men moving in columns toward Sheridan's division. On Manigault's left, Brig. Gen. George Maney's brigade came up through the cedars to support the attack.

Roberts, commanding Sheridan's 3rd Brigade, saw the Rebels advancing across the valley and formed line to charge the oncoming battalions. Arrayed in columns of regiments, the Federals moved at the double-quick, their battle flags uncased, to engage the enemy. The subsequent charge, made with bayonets, had a telling effect. Manigault's brigade, already swept viciously by shot and ball from Hescock's batteries, now was confronted by charging infantry.

'These regiments,' Colonel Luther P. Bradley wrote, 'went forward at the double-quick, and cleared the wood in front of our lines, the enemy giving way before we reached him.' The grand charge of Roberts' brigade was personally witnessed by Sheridan, who promptly called the men back to the division line before they could be taken prisoner by the hordes of Confederates that roamed, in some confusion, among the cedar brakes southeast of Wilkinson Pike.

In response to the continuing deterioration on his right, Sheridan began preparing his third defensive line of the morning. Meanwhile, the Confederates would not make it easy for the enemy. Maney's brigade resumed moving. He managed to get Lieutenant William B. Turner's Mississippi battery up, and they immediately sent a shower of case shot toward Bush's retiring artillerists.

Houghtaling opened fire on Maney's troops, discharging spherical case shot and shell with telling effect. Maney and his officers became confused, believing the position had been cleared by Manigault, and assumed that Houghtaling's guns were Confederate. Colonel H.R. Field, commanding the 1st and 27th Tennessee Consolidated Regiment, ordered his men to lie down without firing. Finally, it was ascertained that the battery firing canister into his prone soldiers was indeed Union, and the order was given to return fire. Maney ordered up Turner's guns again and studied the lay of the field in front of his brigade. 'The enemy had withdrawn from the ridge I now occupied and posted his infantry in these woods,' Maney wrote, 'and established his battery so as to rake the field between us with an oblique fire from my front and right. Evidently his dispositions were made in expectation of my moving directly over this field against him.'

Sheridan had thrown up an impressive defensive works in a hurry, and even though there were three Rebel brigades pressing his front, his first thoughts were for his right flank. If his right could be held, he was confident that — assuming the ammunition trains came up — he could hold against any frontal assault.

While Turner's Mississippians went into battery on the ridge south of the Wilkinson Pike, Manigault's brigade came up on Maney's right, and Vaughan's 4th Brigade supported his left. Turner's guns were directed on Houghtaling's batteries, posted 500 yards east. The Mississippi battery, Turner reported, discharged 200 rounds of case and solid shot from his dual brace of 12-pounders and howitzers.

As the men of his division were establishing their salient along the Wilkinson Pike, Sheridan took it upon himself to launch a reconnaissance of his right. What he found did not please him. There was, in effect, no organized resistance taking place west of his position. The officers of the 1st and 2nd divisions were unable to re-form a line, and Sheridan's right flank was vulnerable to enfilade fire. He quickly returned to his command and ordered two of his brigade commanders, Greusel and Schaefer, to change front to the west and prepare for an immediate onslaught. 'This movement was successfully accomplished under a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, every regiment of mine remaining unbroken,' Sheridan wrote.

Greusel had lost the 36th Illinois (they were required to leave the line due to a lack of ammunition) and the 21st Michigan (which had taken up position south of the pike in support of Hescock's battery), and now had only the 88th Illinois and 24th Wisconsin. Schaefer's 2nd Brigade, or at least elements of it, rallied on Greusel's left, deep in the thickly wooded cedar brakes, among the rocks, caverns and fallen trees north of the pike.

Sheridan's salient on Wilkinson Pike quickly became the epicenter of Confederate attention. His division was the last organized Federal resistance along the pike, and the army's commander, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, needed time to rally his troops. How long Sheridan held out would determine the outcome of the battle.

No sooner had Sheridan's command taken up its new line than Brig. Gen. S.A.M. Wood's Confederate brigade came charging across the field north of the pike. Sheridan's artillery immediately enfiladed the assaulting columns and drove the charge into the ground. Brigadier General Lucius E. Polk's 1st Brigade came up on Wood's right, but was staggered and forced to change front by Houghtaling's well-placed shot. The Confederate division commander, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, wrote: 'Polk moved forward, but was forced by the infilading fire to change front forward on his first battalion, so as to place his line at right angles to the pike and facing eastwardly.' This took time, and provided something of a respite for the beleaguered Federals hunkered down among the woods and limestone outcroppings along the Wilkinson Pike salient.

Cleburne sent urgent messages to Brig. Gen. Bushrod Johnson to bring up his brigade; they arrived just as Wood's troopers came marching up from the ammunition trains. 'We descended the slope of a hill and entered the cedars, on rocky acclivity some 200 yards to the left of the position to which Captain Terry had driven the enemy's skirmishes,' Johnson reported. 'My men here opened fire, when I directed them to desist, believing that our friends were in front of our line. Riding now in advance of the right of our line, the enemy's fire was unexpectedly drawn. After a few rounds it was found that a heavy force was flanking our right, where we were unsupported. I consequently moved my command to the rear in good order.'

Johnson's brigade had slipped past Polk's brigade, missing them altogether, and stumbled into Sheridan's right flank, under the command of the belligerent Greusel. In the meantime, Polk's brigade charged across the rock-strewn heights toward Sheridan's right. 'I again moved on,' Polk wrote, 'but did not proceed far when the enemy's batteries, posted across a cornfield on the right of the pike commenced playing fearfully upon my ranks.'

Meanwhile, south of Robert's brigade, Manigault's five Confederate regiments moved against the Federals with renewed fury. The battle-hardened Rebels came on with their usual lan, charging through the thick cedar underbrush to within a few feet of their blue-clad adversaries. The clamor of battle swept the field; Hescock's artillery leveled to zero degrees, rammed home double loads of canister, and fired by battery. In a few minutes it was all over. Manigault's bold charge had been bloodily repulsed.

Manigault, however, was not finished. On his right, Walthall's 3rd Brigade, under Brig. Gen. J. Patton Anderson, came up. Anderson reported: 'About 9 a.m., Col. Manigault came to me and informed me that he intended to charge a battery in his front; wished me to send two regiments to his support. I consented to do so, and immediately ordered the 45th Alabama and the 24th Mississippi forward to perform that duty. They became hotly engaged soon after leaving their breastworks.'

Manigault's command, now swollen to seven regiments, burst forward to the sound of bugles and drums. 'The enemy,' reported Anderson, 'being in heavy force and strongly posted, backed by many pieces of artillery, so planted as to enfilade a portion of our line. In addition to this enfilading fire, Colonel Manigault was exposed to a cross-fire from a battery in front of his left. In the unequal contest our line halted, staggered, and fell back in some confusion, but were easily rallied, reformed, and moved to the front.'

Hescock's artillery, ably supported by several regiments of infantry, was holding firm to the Wilkinson Pike salient, but the ammunition from their caissons was quickly disappearing. Anderson ordered additional regiments — the 27th, 29th and 30th Mississippi — into the fray, determined to break the Yankee lines. The Confederates pushed forward into the open field in front of the Union position. Lieutenant Colonel James Autry, commanding the 27th Mississippi, fell dead. Colonel W.F. Brantly of the 29th Mississippi suffered a concussion. On the brigade's left, the 30th Mississippi was caught by converging and enfilading fire; 62 officers and men were killed and 139 soldiers were wounded in that regiment alone.

Within minutes of the assault, Anderson's soldiers were driven to ground in the bloody stubble of the cornfield before Sheridan's guns. They became little more than cannon fodder, pinned down and nearly unable to move. Their withdrawal left the field littered with dead and dying, their frontal assault a brutal reminder of the folly of war.Sheridan's bold stand, now an hour and a half long, had provided Rosecrans with enough time to react to the Confederate onslaught. He ordered Maj. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau's 1st Division to take up position on Sheridan's right. Hastily, Rousseau rushed into line.

South of Sheridan's Wilkinson Pike salient, Confederate Brig. Gen. Alexander Stewart's 2nd Brigade came up in support of Anderson's brigade. Stewart's division commander, Maj. Gen. J.M. Withers, wanted him to loan two regiments to Anderson for another try against Sheridan's line. 'Fearing this would scatter the brigade and produce confusion,' Stewart wrote, 'it was suggested to him that the entire brigade had better be advanced, to which he assented.'

As Stewart's command arrived at the jumping-off point, Houghtaling's ever-vigilant artillerists walked 6- and 12- pound shells into his lines, knocking down a number of infantrymen. Panicked members of the 29th and 30th Mississippi regiments fell back in disorder, leaving a large number of dead and wounded on the open ground beyond Wilkinson Pike.

Across the way, the bold men of Sheridan's division were near the end of their rope. All of his original brigade commanders lay dead on the field, along with many of his field grade officers. Casualty rates among the division were staggering, and worst of all, their ammunition was nearly depleted.

Again Stewart's Tennesseans charged, their battle flags whipping in the gray winter sky, pressing hard on the Union salient, determined to break the blue lines. 'By a rapid fire, commencing with Walker's regiment [19th Tennessee] on the left and gradually extending to the right, [we] repulsed the enemy, who fled in confusion to the edge of the woods, leaving many dead and wounded behind,' Stewart reported.

Sheridan ordered his men out of the pocket as best he could. The tattered remnants of his division were hard pressed by Stewart's Tennesseans on the southeastern side of the salient and Polk's brigade on its western end. Withdrawing, the division's artillery suffered severe losses. Many of the cannoneers were dead or wounded, and the survivors could not pull the guns through the dense cedar thickets. More than 160 horses were lost to Rebel fire.

Captain Hescock, Sheridan's artillery chief, explained almost plaintively, 'The loss of guns, in the division, I believe to be unavoidable, and necessary to the successful resistance of the enemy's attack, which was made in heavy masses; and I do not think the officers can be blamed, as they could not do otherwise without most disastrous results to the army.'

Sheridan's 3rd Division had fought for four hours, established three defensive positions under direct fire, engaged nine Confederate brigades, and claimed 2,000 to 3,000 casualties while suffering 990 casualties out of 5,000 troopers engaged. In the final analysis, his hard-fighting soldiers saved the Union army at Stones River and, in effect, started Phil Sheridan on a meteoric rise to military fame.



This article was written by Robert Cheeks and originally appeared in the January 1997 issue of America's Civil War magazine.

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