As published in the Murfreesboro Post, Mike West, Managing Editor, December 31, 2006
Dawn of December 31, 1862 brought a bitter surprise to the right wing of the Federal Army of the Cumberland.
Gen. Alexander M. McCook, who was in command of that portion of the army, had spent a restless night trying to sleep on a pile of hay near the Gresham House (ed. the Gresham House was located on Gresham Lane near Manson Pike, razed in 1947). His fitful sleep had been interrupted in the wee hours by two of his subordinates, division commander Brig. Gen. Phil Sheridan and Brig. Gen. Joshua Sill who were concerned by Confederate activity along the front.
McCook brushed off their worries confident that a major attack on the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s right wing would forestall any action on his part of the battlefield.
None of them realized that by a peculiar twist of fate that both Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans and Confederate Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg had fashioned identical battle plans – a morning assault on the enemy right by the troops of their left wing.
How could such a coincidence happen? At the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky, Bragg mistook a mock attack by Union troops as the main movement. He was to make the same mistake at Murfreesboro.
On December 30, Rosecrans decided to mask his plan of attack on the right by skirmishing most of the day on the Confederate left and by lighting extra campfires on his right to make his lines look longer. His deception was too effective. Bragg was fooled again. During that night, the Confederate general met with corps commanders Gen. William J. Hardee and Gen. John C. Breckenridge to discuss a change in plans.
Bragg expressed his fears that Rosecrans was planning a massive attack the next morning on the Confederate left. He told the corps commanders he would prevent this by attacking the Union right at daylight. He then realigned troops, moving John P. McCown’s and Patrick R. Cleburne’s division to reinforce the left wing under Hardee’s command.
Gen. Leonidas Polk, commanding Cheatham and Withers’ divisions, was to follow Hardee’s attack. This could have been a disastrous move for the Confederates since it left only Breckinridge with one division on the Army of Tennessee’s flank. If Rosecrans had managed to attack first, Breckinridge’s troops would have been crushed.
Rosecrans’ plan was for McCook to hold the Union’s right while the left wing of the army rolled the Confederates back. Maj. Gen. T.L. Crittenden, supported by the Pioneer Brigade, was to send Brig. Gen. Horatio Van Cleve’s division across the river to attack Breckinridge. With Breckinridge dislodged, the Union army would then hold the high ground and would be able to use artillery to shell the Confederates massed in front of the army. The Union, using Brig. Gen. James Negley’s right as a pivot, would swing through Murfreesboro collapsing the Confederate army.
But Rosecrans had ordered his men to attack at 7AM after breakfast. Bragg chose to attack at daylight, so the day was to be his.
The Union right was composed of three divisions: One commanded by Sheridan and the others by Brig. Gen. Richard W. Johnson and Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis. They had marched into Murfreesboro via the Nolensville Road and Franklin Pike. Johnson’s men were on the far right arranged near what is now the intersection of Old Fort Parkway and Gresham Lane.
Hardee, operating from headquarters at the McCulloch house (which was demolished in 2006), took command of the Confederate attack. His troops had a significant advantage in the fact that they were located just a few hundred paces from McCook’s men, where Van Cleve’s troops had to march nearly a mile and a half before they could engage Breckinridge.
Moving double-quick, the Confederates brushed past a Union skirmish line catching the men of R.W. Johnson’s and Jefferson C. Davis’s division while many of them were still preparing breakfast. The federal lines began to collapse under the weight of 10,000 Confederates appearing out of the early morning fog.
Sheridan’s division wasn’t caught so unprepared. He had assembled his men at 4AM.
“Sheridan came along the line, on foot and unattended …. He called for the major, ordered him to arouse his men quietly, have breakfast and form in line of battle at once. He personally visited each of his twelve regiments and saw that his orders were executed,” wrote a sergeant in the 73rd Illinois Infantry.
But Sheridan’s preparation didn’t help Johnson and Davis.
“The enemy was taken completely by surprise. General and staff officers were not mounted, artillery horses not hitched, and infantry not formed. A hot and inviting breakfast of coffee and other luxuries, to which our gallant and hardy men had long been strangers, was found upon the fire unserved, and was left while we pushed on to the enjoyment of a more inviting feast, that of captured artillery, fleeing battalions, and hosts of craven prisoners begging for the lives they had forfeited by their acts of brutality and atrocity,” wrote Bragg in his official report of the battle.
Putting Bragg’s verbiage aside, Union losses were extremely heavy in the opening moments of the battle. The Confederate line swept R.W. Johnson’s troops out of their camp on Franklin Pike and captured several pieces of artillery.
Brig. Gen. Edward N. Kirk’s brigade lost 500 men killed or wounded in the first few minutes. Brig. Gen. August Willich lost almost that many soldiers when Confederate brigades led by Brig. Gens. Mathew Ector and Evander McNair charged into Kirk’s camp with bayonets fixed. Kirk’s brigade was pushed back into Willich’s adding to the confusion.
Kirk, 34, was an Ohio schoolteacher and lawyer, before the war. He was wounded at Shiloh where he led the 34th Illinois Infantry. He was near Capt. W.P. Edgarton’s Ohio battery when he was shot in the hip. The minie ball lodged near his spine, mortally wounding him. Willich’s horse was shot out from under him and Confederates captured him.
Kirk was rushed to a regimental hospital in a house on Wilkinson Pike, but the general demanded that his bearers keep moving. Moments later, Confederate cavalry moved in, claiming it for headquarters. Col. J.B. Dodge of Indiana assumed Kirk’s command.
“This brigade met with a serious loss, in the person of General Kirk, early in the engagement. He fell at the head of his brigade, trying manfully to resist and repeal the overwhelming force thrown against it,” Dodge said.
As McCown’s Confederates moved to the far right of the Union line, Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s division moved into the gap. Brig. Gen. John A. Wharton’s cavalry slid around the right and began to hack at the rear of the Union army. In the process, the cavalry captured 1,500 federals, a four-gun artillery battery and several hundred supply wagons.
The onslaught reminded Union infantrymen of the horrible surprise attack at Shiloh and then Perryville, leaving the troopers to shout “We are sold! We are sold again.” A crazy rumor developed after the defeat in Kentucky that Rosecrans’ predecessor, Gen. D. Carlos Buell, had literally sold out the army.
Advancing out of the early morning fog, the Confederates added to the bedlam with the infamous Rebel yell sounding like thousands of hounds from hell running down their prey. The yell wasn’t the “yee-haw” depicted in some movies and TV shows. It was more like a American Indian war cry with a piecing sound like “yai, yai, yi, yai, yi” that could be heard for miles.
The Union right had been pushed nearly two miles when McCown’s third brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. James E. Rains, moved into action. Composed of men from Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama, Rains’ brigade move directly west south of the Franklin Pike, then turned north around the Union right.
“The men were greatly fatigued and their ammunition exhausted. As soon as this was replenished, I ordered them again to advance. Rains’ brigade being fresh, was brought forward to the right to attack a battery, while Ector’s, McNair’s, and Liddell’s brigades moved forward in the direction of the Nashville road,” corps commander Hardee wrote.
Rains, like Murfreesboro mayor J.B. Palmer, was a Whig and had been an opponent of secession. The son of a Nashville Methodist minister, Rains was a Yale graduate and former associate editor of the Daily Republican Banner. His ex-boss, newspaperman turned general Felix Zollicoffer, had died earlier at the Battle of Mills Creek in Kentucky.
Unfortunately, the artillery unit Rains was ordered to attack was the combat-seasoned Parson’s Battery, U.S. Regular Army Batteries H&M. In its defense of federal lines near the Nashville Pike, Parson’s battery fired some 2,199 rounds and suffered few casualties thanks to their accurate fire from four 3-inch ordinance rifles and four 12-pounder howitzers. Seeing the Confederate break-through, the battery was shifted to the west.
Col. Frederick C. Jones saw the breakthrough as well and ordered the 24th Ohio Infantry Regiment to about face, and march to the rear 150 paces. The combined fire from the 24th Ohio, Batteries H & M, and other regiments, struck the flanks of the unsupported Confederate brigade.
Rains advanced and met his maker and the Confederate advance was crushed with the 24th Ohio claiming about 200 Confederate prisoners.
“Unfortunately, this brave officer and accomplished gentleman fell, shot through the heart, and his brigade recoiled in confusion. Ector and Harper were ordered to fall back under cover, while [J. T.] Humphreys’ battery bravely engaged sixteen pieces of the enemy (artillery) until our infantry were sheltered,” Hardee said.
Rains’ last words reportedly were “Forward my brave boys, forward!”. Rains was initially buried on the battlefield, but his father met with Union General Rosecrans and formally requested his body. It was transferred through Federal lines and reburied in the Nashville City Cemetery, which was the last resting place of his former editor, Zollicoffer. In 1888, Rains was re-inteered in the Confederate section of Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville.
What had begun as a rout, was now turning into a fighting retreat with Sheridan’s better-prepared division holding the line along limestone outcroppings and dense cedar glades. But Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s Corps was moving forward against the middle of the Union Army.
And one more beloved Union general would die that morning fighting in the vicinity of now what is Medical Center Parkway.