A Mississippi Colonel recounts the 1864 Tennessee Campaign
Somehow, Colonel M.D.L. Stephens had remained unscathed as he led his 31st Mississippi Infantry toward the death-dealing Union earthworks at the November 30, 1864, Battle of Franklin. Stephens had made himself even a bigger target when he scooped up his regiment’s flag after its color-bearer fell shot. Then a Yankee bullet found him and put him down.
Marcus De Lafayette Stephens was a prosperous, 31-year-old doctor in Calhoun County, Miss., at the time of Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860. After Stephens represented Calhoun County at the Mississippi Secession Convention, he became a lieutenant in the 17th Mississippi Infantry, serving in Virginia until February 1862. Stephens returned home at that point to raise a company of the 31st Mississippi, and was elected lieutenant colonel of the regiment shortly after its organization. The men of the 31st spent the following two years marching, camping, and fighting in their home state and Alabama before joining the Army of Tennessee during the Battle of Resaca, Ga., the first major engagement of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.
Stephens led his regiment through that campaign, during which he received a promotion to colonel. Due to illness, he missed one of the 31st’s bloodiest days of the Civil War at the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Following the evacuation of Atlanta and several weeks of rest in September 1864, the 31st marched with the Army of Tennessee into northern Georgia in an offensive movement led by Lt. Gen. John B. Hood. The Confederates eventually advanced into northern Alabama, Hood planning to cross the Tennessee River and liberate middle Tennessee.
On October 26, 1864, Hood ordered a portion of his army to surround the fortified Union garrison occupying the town of Decatur, Ala., on the Tennessee River. Hood hoped to seize the town and use the pontoon bridge constructed there by the Federals to get his army over the river. The 31st, part of a brigade of Mississippians commanded by Brig. Gen. Winfield S. Featherston, occupied the far right of the Confederate line around Decatur, supporting a number of Southern artillery batteries adjacent to the Tennessee River. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the earthworks protecting these cannon had been poorly prepared.
Following a day of relative inactivity on October 27, the Federal commander in Decatur decided to attack the Southern batteries located on the Tennessee River because they threatened the Union’s pontoon bridge. The unit chosen for the assault was the untried 14th U.S. Colored Troops. This regiment, numbering 363 enlisted men and officers, charged across open ground for several hundred yards before going over the “slight works” protecting the Confederate artillery and capturing four pieces. Before the Federals could move the guns, Confederate infantry, including the 31st Mississippi, advanced to retake the cannon and the 14th quickly retired to the Union earthworks with a loss of 55 men killed and wounded. This action is described by Colonel Stephens in the following memoir excerpt.
Stephens, like many Confederates, expressed contempt for the fighting ability and bravery of African-American troops. The Union commander at Decatur, Brig. Gen. Robert Granger, however, expressed a positive opinion about the 14th U.S.C.T.’s action on October 28, 1864. Granger claimed that the performance of the African Americans “was everything that could be expected or desired of soldiers. They were cool, grave, and determined, and under the heavy fire of the enemy exhibited no signs of confusion.” The day after the action at Decatur involving the 14th and the Mississippians, Hood decided to march his army farther west to find a different crossing of the Tennessee.
In the weeks following the engagement at Decatur, Hood’s Army eventually crossed the Tennessee River at Florence, Ala., and moved into Tennessee. On November 30, 1864, the Confederates faced an entrenched Union Army at Franklin. In the frontal attacks launched by Hood that day, Featherston’s Brigade occupied a position on the far Confederate right. As the Mississippians advanced through the cut of the Nashville and Decatur Railroad, they found themselves under artillery fire from Union cannon on the other side of the Harpeth River in Fort Granger. Once the Southerners had passed through the cut, they faced lines of abatis and obstructions placed in front of the Federal lines. Advancing on both sides of the Lewisburg Pike, Featherston’s men faced a hailstorm of canister fire from Union cannon as well as volleys of musketry. Incredibly, some Confederates made it to the Union parapet, including Colonel Stephens, although most quickly became casualties. When the fighting ended, the 31st Mississippi had lost approximately 145 men killed and wounded out of 250 taken into the battle.
Stephens survived, and in 1899, he penned a memoir of his Confederate service, which included the sections below of fighting at Decatur and Franklin. Stephens’ unpub-lished memoir is in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Some paragraph breaks have been added to enhance readability.
Engagement at Decatur
We rested a day and marched to Decatur, Ala. where we attacked and drove the enemy back within their entrenchments [on October 26, 1864]. We formed line of battle all around Decatur but on the river side, the enemy came down the river with Gunboats and shelled our position several hours. I was now in command of my Regiment[,] Gen’l [Winfield S.] Featherston in command of Brig[ade]. My Regt was on our extreme right near the river.
We had thrown up temporary breastworks and had a battery of 4 guns, in our line. The battery was ordered some 200 yards in front of the line of our entrenchments…and was shelling the enemies’ line. When a Brigade of Negroes [actually only the 14th U.S.C.T.] moved under cover of the river bank and attacked and drove back our skirmish line & captured the 4 pieces of artillery. Then, my Regt. rose up from the trenches and poured a galling fire into the enemy, now surrounding the captured cannon.
…We gave them 3 or 4 vollies, and then charged them. It was about 300 yards to their line and we pressed them with our small arms and cannon as long as it could be used. We captured our 4 pieces and killed and wounded many of the negroe troops. They all seemed drunk & made but a feeble resistance. We killed many but did not attempt to capture any.
The reason they captured our battery was that we had two of our companies on skirmish line in front of the battery and the enemy pressed our skirmish line back, but the skirmishers held them in check as long as they could & then slowly retreated back…so the battery could not fire at the enemy without killing our men. Our men could not fire on the enemy until our men came back to us. Companies E & F were on the skirmish line and several of them were killed and many wounded. As the Regiment drove back the brigade of Negroes the field was colored black with dead negroe soldiers. We took the line of entrenchments in our front and I sent Gen’l. Featherston word that we had the enemies’ line of entrenchments and could enter the city if he wished. He ordered [us] to hold our position for further orders. My soldiers all got a nice silver watch & $30 from the pockets of the dead negroes as they had recently been paid off. We had a regiment full of watches & money for a while.
At midnight we were ordered back to our line of entrenchments and then ordered to move to the left and follow the moving column, which we did, and morning found us on the R.R. moving in the direction of Tuscumbia the rest of the army having already moved forward, we bringing up the rear. My Regiment had been continuously moving and fighting for three days and nights without rations or sleep….
Battle of Franklin
Our division early in the morning [on November 29, 1864] crossed Duck River some 8 or 10 miles above Columbia and moved in the direction of Spring Hill which place we reached at dark and formed line east of RR. We rested on our arms in battle line all night, while the enemy was rapidly retreating on the [Columbia] Turn Pike road not more than 200 yards from our line. The men were restless and wanted to charge & fire upon the retreating line, but we were restrained and let the enemy with artillery & baggage trains pass. Early in the morning we moved out on the Pike road and followed closely upon the retreating enemy. The road was blockaded with broken weapons & dead horses. We arrived in front of Franklin late in the evening and found the enemy well posted and fortified in a circle around the city from Harpeth River above to the river below. They appeared to have three strong lines of entrenchments posted in our front.
With a “solid rebel yell” we charged the works
We formed line of battle our Division was on the extreme right—all of the bands before going to our army were posted on a high ridge and commenced playing Dixie and our whole line was ordered to charge in 2 lines. Just as the cannonading opened and we moved to the onset, a shell bursted in front of Company A of my regiment & killed & wounded seven men, the killed and wounded were sent to the rear. The men took the line of advance and the line closed up into a scathing fire of shot and shell from our right across the river and in front. We crossed the [Nashville & Decatur] R.R. and moved on the enemy’s line, just to the left of an old gin house. We found a spring abatis in our front of locust without timber about 60 yards in front of their breastworks….This main line was well built & stubbornly defended…with cannon well posted all along the line [and] troops…armed with 16 shooting Henry Rifles…behind strong breastworks with large heavy head logs assembled in the top of works with post holes.
We came in range of small arms as soon as we crossed the Rail Road and with a “solid rebel yell” we charged the works and soon reached the abatis which deranged our line, but we soon pressed through the obstructions and rapidly reformed in front of the last breastworks, when the order was given
to fix bayonets and charge. Color bearer after color bearer had been shot down until the colors were borne by the color Sergt. [G.A. Spencer] Neal, and as he fell, he handed me the flag, which I took rather reluctantly for [there] had already been killed & wounded 10 men bearing this flag in this battle, but I took it in my left hand and looked around for the command only a few scattering men were seen advancing. The rest were lying down.
With the flag in my hand & repeated the command charge…the few living men, rushed forward with me to the breastworks. Some went over the works, others were shot at the works. Just as I was in the act of planting our flag in the breastworks of the enemy, I was shot down wounded in my right thigh just below my hip–the thigh bone being shattered and a small artery severed. I fell down in the trenches of the enemy and Sergt. [Gregory T.] Hunter ran up to me. I handed him the flag, and as he took it, his right arm was shot & took the flag in his left hand and I told him to run back with it & save it, if possible, which he did, and the old flag is still preserved at Houston, Miss. The few men that were not killed or wounded fell back on the reserve and charged again with them but were again repulsed.
Gen’l [John] Adams with his Brig[ade] supported Featherston in this charge and the 15th Miss. Regt. Col. [Michael] Farrell was the support of my Regt. & as my men fell back he cried out “Steady men, fix bayonets.” Adams’ Brig[ade] was soon repulsed and fell back. Gen’l Adams and Col. Farrell were both mortally wounded in this charge. I lay in the trenches, while the charge was being made and when Adams’ Brig[ade] fell back and night came on, a Federal soldier came over their works and came to me. He saw I was rapidly bleeding to death and he cut off the tail of my coat and made [a] bandage and bound around my thigh–placed the knot in the wound–gave a stick & twisted the bandage tight around my leg & place[d] the stick in my hand, which stopped the bleeding. He went to his Colonel & reported my condition and the Col. sent a litter with four of his men, and they took me over the breastworks to. their Col. [Lt. Col. W. Scott Stewart, 65th Illinois Infantry].
I found the Col. a nice man….When they laid me down…in rear of the enemy’s lines, a heavy night assault was made by our forces and the bullets ate up the ground all around me when my men fell back Col. Stewart came to me and said you must be sent to the rear as your men may charge again and you will be killed. He sent me back on a litter to the hospital where I remained but a short time when they put me in an ambulance and sent me back across the river and placed [me] in an old field and threw me out on the frozen ground.
The battle was now over, it was late in the night, and the enemy began to fall back toward Nashville. The army was moving all night. It was very cold and I lay on my back on the rough frozen ground until I was almost dead. When along came a kind, generous…Federal soldier and gave me a pair of good heavy ground blankets and kindly folded them around me and soon along came another noble so[u]led Federal soldier and built a good fire at my feet out of boxes found nearby & placed boxes of crackers & meat all around me to protect me from the cold north wind….About sunrise Capt. [Thomas J.] Pulliam of Co. C of my Regt. and quite a number of the men of my regt found me. They asked where I had been. I told them that I had been out drawing rations for them.
The ambulance soon arrived and I was placed in it with coffee, canned food, meat, crackers &c and taken back across the river….As we crossed the river, Col McGavvicks [John McGavock] handed me a canteen full of good brandy. I drank until I was ashamed & went on to the hospital at Col. McGavick[’]s [home, Carnton], in good spirits. I was placed in a room with wounded officers. Capt. [Roland W.] Jones of 1st Miss. Battalion was in the room & the dead bodies of Genl. Adams & Col. Farrell. (Farrell died at Carnton on December 25, 1864.) That evening our army pressed the enemy on to Brentwood and on to Nashville and the battle of Nashville was fought in a short time. Dec. 2nd, my uncle, Miles R. Hanson, that lived 8 miles from Franklin, came with a 2 horse hack…and took me to his house where I lay in bed until our army fell back when I was placed on my horse & my leg tied to the horn of my saddle and I rode out with my negro boy Mervin walking in front of me and assisting me in every way he could.
The creeks & branches were all up from heavy rains. We often had to ford these streams with Mervin riding behind me. Sometimes we were with our army & sometimes in the rear. We finally reached Florence….Our army was crossing the [Tennessee] River at Bainbridge on a pontoon bridge some 7 miles above Florence. I sent my boy, Mervin, with my horse to cross the river with the army. Late in the evening Miss Kirkman had a small skiff going across the river and she very kindly offered me a seat on her boat which [I] accepted and were soon out in the middle of the river. When a Gun Boat of the enemy came steaming up the river and commenced shelling the boats crossing the river.
I lay on my back on the rough frozen ground until I was almost dead
Miss Kirkman stood in the boat when the shells were bursting in the river and splashing the water all around us, as cool and restrained as an old soldier, brave noble woman. We landed in safety on the south side of the river, in South Florence. Miss Kirkman…insisted that I should go with her to her home, but my leg being broken & I on crutches had to decline her kind offer. She and her servants dashed up the hills in the direction of her home some mile or so away. I set out on my crutches to a house on the road side near by. The man of the house was not at home, [but] his daughter invited me in. The Gun Boats were still shelling at a fearful rate and everything was in confusion amongst the few settlers of South Florence. It was quite cold, but the young lady soon had a good fire in a small outhouse in the yard, and I lay down on a quilt on the floor before the fire.
After another week of travel, Stephens made it to his home in Sarepta, Miss., on New Year’s Day 1865 with the assistance of his teenaged African-American slave named Mervin. Colonel Stephens’ shattered thigh ended his Confederate military service, the wound confining him to bed for two months and then to crutches for a year. In the decades after the Civil War, Stephens was a merchant, den leader and Grand Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, and holder of several local and state government offices in Mississippi. M.D.L. Stephens died April 15, 1911, and is buried next to his wife in Oak Hill Cemetery in Water Valley, Miss.
Keith Bohannon is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Ga. His essay on the destruction of Confederate Army records during the Appomattox Campaign will appear in the forthcoming 2018 University of North Carolina Press book, Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia, edited by Caroline Janney.