As published in the Murfreesboro Post, October 29, 2006
By Mike West, Managing Editor
It’s not easy to put a face on the soldiers who fought at the Battle of Stones River.
Where were they from? How did they end up here? Combined together, the Federal Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee had 81,000 troops on the field of battle. That figure is equivalent to the city’s current population. So if you can imagine every man, woman and child in Murfreesboro charging in en mass across Thompson Lane, you have an idea of the numbers involved.
Most of the U.S. troops were from the Midwest with heavy representation from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. But one of the most puzzling units was a Pennsylvania cavalry unit.
The Ohio troops of Gen. William Babcock Hazen are a perfect example of Union tenacity. Their action at the Little Round Forest stopped the Confederate advance. Among Hazen’s men was mapmaker Ambrose Bierce, who later grew to fame as a journalist, satirist and critic only to mysteriously disappear.
Many famous, infamous and soon to be renowned men fought at Murfreesboro. Many more are among the ranks of the unknown. Even women, dressed as men, bore arms.
There strong delegation of Southerners wearing Union blue as well. Kentuckians were joined by East Tennesseans to fight the secessionists.
Other Kentucky troops were on hand to fight for the South. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, the former Vice President of the United States, led a division of 6,000 men mostly from Kentucky and Tennessee. The Confederate states of Alabama, Texas and Arkansas also fielded Confederate units.
So it was brother vs. brother at Stones River. Some famous brothers, and brothers-in-law were among the combatants. Confederate Brig. Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm, who commanded the First Kentucky “Orphan” Brigade, had a famous brother in law – President Abraham Lincoln.
But weathering some of the hardest fighting of the Civil War, were men from Rutherford, Cannon, Williamson and Sumner counties. They gave up life and limb fighting on their doorsteps, defending their homeland against so-called Northern aggressors.
When it comes to total causalities, Stones River was the eighth costliest of the Civil War with 24,645 soldiers killed, wounded and missing (12,906 Union and 11,739 Confederate). The Top 10 (ranked in order) included Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Antietam, The Wilderness, Second Antietam, Stones River, Shiloh and Fort Donelson.
An estimated 620,000 Americans died in the Civil War, exceeding the totals of all other wars added together.
At Stones River, several brigades, regiments and companies were decimated.
The 8th Tennessee (Confederate) Infantry, captured six artillery pieces and 400 Union soldiers, but lost 306 men out of 474 engaged in the battle, including its commander Col. William L. Moore who was killed on Dec. 31. Many of the soldiers from the unit were from Marshall and Lincoln counties.
Two Confederate Generals, James E. Rains and Roger W. Hanson, were killed at Stones River. Federal Brigade Gen. Joshua Sill died at a spot near the current location of Medical Center Parkway. Fort Sill, Okla., is named in his honor.
Many of the Union dead are buried at Stones River National Cemetery. Often, they were mourned from afar like in the case of Thomas T. Robinson of the 21st Illinois. His fellow Masons published an announcement of his death in the Mattoon (Ill.) Gazette.
In many cases, family members came to Murfreesboro by horse and buggy or whatever transportation possible to retrieve the remains of dead Confederates. The family members of Company C of the 18th Tennessee didn’t have far to travel. Led by former Murfreesboro Mayor Joseph B. Palmer, most of the men were from Rutherford County.
Palmer survived Breckinridge’s charge at McFadden’s Ford across Stones River … barely. He was wounded in three places. A minie ball passed through the calf of his left leg, another lodged in his right shoulder and an artillery shell fragment struck his right knee. Four color bearers for the 18th died in the charge and one other was badly wounded.
All of this transpired in the bitter winter weather with rain turning the frozen ground into mush. Stones River was a wet, frozen hell for troops from both sides.