Action at Stones River

Action at Stones River

A Story by Morgan

Chapter one , of a fictionalized narrative of a Civil War Soldier at the Battle of Stones River Tn.

Action at Stones River-

December 31st 1862 (New Years Eve)

The company awoke before dawn to a cold rain coming down as it had for the previous day- everything is wet, shoes, clothes and the pieces of oiled canvas that pass for tents give little relief from this relentless spittal from on high.  This day promised action despite the weather, we had seen the campfires of the enemy from across the river the night before and could hear their wagons and artillery moving into position still.  We had been shadowing a division of their infantry for two days and now their massing forces turned to fight on ground favorable to them.  Battle was in the air there was no mistaking the signs.

The Old Man, didn’t care where we fought them, and would bring on an action at any place or any time we could make contact.  There seemed to be an endless supply of men, horses and equipage, a great torrent from the North that nothing could withstand.  A force which would run in rivulets through the countryside or over mountain passes, through peaceful hamlets and vacant barns, over the twice fought ground- irresistible.  When in the vicinity of the enemy these various currents would as if by instinct draw together like quicksilver.

So it was with experienced soldiers, although there were many fewer of us now than there were in 61’, our ranks were filled now with new recruits and those unhappy fellows who were drafted.  It’s hard to say which is worse those who come into this affair of their own accord or them that was forced by one reason or another, at least the draftees were angry from the get-go and ready to vent themselves on any enemy or anything.  Most recruits had their heads filled with patriotic notions of one sort or another, and are wholly unprepared for the pitiless carnage that is modern warfare.  I kept my distance from the recruits and tried not to remember their names or their faces, likely as not they’d be dead men soon enough, for death came quickly to unwitting and the unprepared.

 Yesterday our company had come across a scene of devastation, the aftermath of an artillery duel is generally a messy affair,  with limbers exploded , unmounted guns laying about and dead horses littering the field.  The area around the scene of this engagement looked as though it had be plowed for spring planting , with the ground churned up by the solid shot and rifled shells.  These boys had gone at for some time-mauling each other from afar and upon the ground were left several notable momentos,of the engagement,  including a gold signet ring still on the finger of it’s previous owner, bearing a curious device with a quartered shield and a Latin phrase which even the most educated amongst us can’t cipher. 

This led to speculation as to whether this was the largest portion left of a man or if there was somewhere a man only missing his finger.  This had obviously been the position of the Federal artillery, as many fragments of shells scattered about appeared to be of the Whitworth variety.  This gun was imported through the blockade from the English by the Rebs, and it was much feared and respected by the troops for both the accuracy of it’s curiously shaped spiraled shells, and the shrieking sound those shells made in flight- winged death to be sure. 

We imagined that these poor fellows had gotten the worst of it, although we had no love for artillerists, as we of the infantry were often victims of the projectiles of both sides.  Once in flight a cannon shot was about as indiscriminate a killing device as one could imagine, stopping for nothing other than the eventual forces of gravity and lack of inertia.  A 12lb. Solid shot could split a tree in two, or decapitate an entire squad without slowing a bit.  Nearby lay the remains of a horse which had been struck squarely in the head by a shell,  it had exploded upon entering the animals body cavity and blown it to pieces. Artillery casualties were the worst to come across on the battlefield, man or horse, it was often difficult to distinguish between the two.

 Men generally died easier than the horses, and most soldiers felt sympathy for the horses who had no choice in whom the bore upon their backs or where they ridden to.

The new men were quite impressed by the scene and reacted differently, some acted as though they were viewing a traveling show, and were mightily amused, others simply became sickened and turned away.

We had been ordered to pack several days rations at Nashville five long days ago- cold hard bread, corn meal and a piece of fatty bacon wrapped in brown paper that I was able purchase from a sutler, was about all I had left at this point, and if an engagement was brought on we could plan on being hungry for another two days at least.  The poor weather had slowed our quartermasters wagons to a crawl, and being mired to their axles in the muddy roads made them easy prey for Rebel Cavalry.  I was sure those fellows across the river were hungrier than I, and were far more interested in the meager contents of my knapsack than in spilling my blood.  Winter was a miserable time for campaigning especially in this part of the country where the weather was likely to change from snow to rain and then bright sunshine all in the course of an hour or so.

We had been in the “Land of Cotton” for a year, pressing an enemy who refused to be beaten, and who had the ability at times to snatch victory from certain defeat.  The enemy was far more thrifty than we, and counted each soldiers life as precious, an irreplaceable resource that was spent grudgingly.  He would be dug in on the best ground and wait for us to bring on the engagement, with his men and guns in a position to do us the most harm.

The bugles now called us to form up on the muddy road that ran through camp and down to the ford in the river.  The mud was the kind of red clay that this part of the South was known for, and now it mixed with the cold winter rain and ran like blood down through the ruts in the road, spilling over in places to leave large red pools of thick water. In fact the whole countryside had been churned up by the actions of the two maneuvering armies and looked much as I would imagine hell to look on such a day.

We shouldered our rifles and came into line behind a Dutch unit from "ZinZinnati" as they called it. It surprised me how much patriotic zeal these men had for their newly adopted homeland, many could not speak a word of English, but were willing to face the leaden hail same as we. For my part, I simply hoped they wouldn't be in the way, "Dutchmen- they thought they was leavin all their troubles behind when they came here" said Thompson an Indiana man who had been a cooper before the war.  "It's going to be a shame to see those dandy uniforms get all messed-up when the minis start flying" he had a morose sense of humor about most things, and it was difficult not to be grim at this particular moment. This particular unit wore a distinctive grey uniform, which was somewhat unfortunate for them and ironic to the rest of us.

As we waited for the column to form-up the sky began to lighten in the east, and I could begin to make out the dim shapes of other columns forming  nearby.  And now over the rise to our right we could hear the first pop-pop-pop of the coming engagement as the skirmish lines came into contact.  A boy named Emish who stood next to me on the right was one of the new recruits, he couldn’t have been more than sixteen and was barely into his chin whiskers. He asks me “What's it like?” “The marching part , or the getting shot at part?” I answered.  "The shooting part I guess- all I ever shot was rabbits and squirrels" said the boy as he tugged at his shoe which had become stuck in the thick mud.  "Never shot a man huh?, I wouldn't worry about that son, once the shooting begins in earnest you'll never be sure if you ever actually hit a man or not"  This news didn't cheer him much so I added "Lots of men will tell you they killed this many or that many, most of them have actually never killed anybody- now when it comes to close quarters and using a bayonet that's a different story..."

The sound over to our right had gone from the random firing of the skirmishers, to the more general and disciplined fire of a company in line, and now the first echoes of cannon fire from the batteries across the river.  Two officers on horseback near us commented that the Rebs had launched their attack on our right first and seemed to be serious about the endeavor.  The order came down the line that we were to advance and a general movement began.  We were marching through an area of scattered woods past an old cabin whose front door hung wide open, with it's contents scattered about the yard as though the house itself had convulsed and spewed broken furniture and crockery. The barn had been stripped of much of it's siding by soldiers in need of firewood, the corn cribs had been pillaged of their contents as well.  As we approached the crest of the ridge we could see the smoke of the rebel guns from across the river, which was mixing in with the fog from the river to form a blanket over the ford.  A flying battery of four guns passed us and took up a position on the ridge and began to unlimber.  We were now ordered to move off the road and down through a field of tobacco towards the sound of the fighting.  A random shell passed close overhead and struck a rail fence in our rear sending up shower of splinters.

© 2011 Morgan

Author's Note

First crack at story writing- be merciful

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Added on October 27, 2010
Last Updated on January 5, 2011
Tags: Civil War, military, southern, combat



cincinnati, OH

New to writing- have had a longtime interest in history of various eras- currently working in as a creative professional. more..