Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sheridan at Stones River

In addition to pages 104-112 of Morris's Sheridan, The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan pertaining to Stones River, I have two battle histories of Stones River: No Better Place to Die, The Battle of stones River by Peter Cozzens and Stones River -- Bloody Winter in Tennessee by James Lee McDonough. The battle histories agree with Morris's description the highlights of which are presented below:

Rosecrans, McCook and virtually the entire rest of Rosecrans army were not expecting Bragg to attack on the morning of December 31st. Almost everyone was convinced Bragg would dig in and wait for Rosecrans to attack. Only Sheridan and Sill (commanding Sheridan's 1st Brigade) thought otherwise. They heard rumbling in the night, but couldn't get anyone else to take an interest. So, on December 31st, Rosecrans' army "had fixed on 7:00 A.M. as zero hour to give the soldiers time to eat."

Sheridan, on the other hand had gotten his men up at 5:00 A.M. and fed them while it was still dark. Thus, when "ten thousand Confederate troops broke for Johnson's unsuspecting [2nd] division at a dead run . . . [his troops] never had a chance." After driving Johnson's 2nd division from the field, the Confederates turned on Davis's 1st division.

Sheridan's 3rd division opened fire with its artillery, "tearing great gaps in the enemy line; musket volleys from fifty yards forced the attackers into stumbling retreat. Sill, buoyed by the successful stand, led a counterattack through the blood-spattered cotton. Leaning across his horse's neck to tell artillery captain Asahel Bush to double-shot his guns, he suddenly pitched headlong to the ground, struck in the face by a minie bullet. Staff officers carried the dying general off the field in a blanket. Rosecrans, told of Sill's death, said grimly, 'We cannot help it. brave men must be killed.'

"Sheridan, likewise, had no time to mourn for his friend. Woodruff, on the right, had been overrun, leaving the division vulnerable to being flanked. Sheridan receded Sill's brigade and ordered Roberts to cover the withdrawal by charging the Rebels in the woods to the south. At the same time, Schaefer and Greusel, now commanding Sill's brigade, were directed to form a new defensive line on the high ground behind their artillery batteries. Roberts's men charged forward across an open field, sunlight glinting off their bayonets. The Rebels fell back behind their artillery; canister splintered into the trees above them. The charge brought Sheridan time to cobble together a new position at a right angle to his original line. He also attempted, without notable success, to rally Davis's badly demoralized men. . ."

"A similar disaster now threatened Sheridan. The two enemy divisions that had overrun Johnson and Davis now wheeled ominously toward his line. The distinctive 'sip-sip' of bullets clipped through the branches of mangled cedar trees. Sheridan held as long as he could, then withdrew deeper into the woods to link up with Brigadier General James S. Negley's unbloodied division [the 2nd division of General Thomas's 'center' corps]. Calmly chewing an unlit cigar, he stationed his men at a ninety-degree angle to Negley, facing south-southwest -- almost exactly opposite the direction they had faced a few minutes before. The enemy pressed them on every side.

"It was now 9:00 A.M. McCook's corps had been under devastating attack for almost three hours; of his sixteen thousand troops, only Sheridan's division remained in the fight. As he had done at Perryville, McCook failed to take charge of the situation. 'The right wing is heavily pressed and needs assistance,' he reported to Rosecrans. Then on the heels of his first report: 'The right wing is being driven. It needs reserves.' Rosecrans, hearing the steady thump of artillery, blanched at the news. 'So soon?" he asked. He dispatched a message to Sheridan telling him to hold where he was. Sheridan had no illusions about the order -- it 'would probably require a sacrifice of my command.'

"He prepared to make the sacrifice, but he wanted to force the Rebels to pay dearly for it. . . Three times the Confederates charged Sheridan's line, each time presaging their attack with knee-buckling artillery fire. . . Through it all Sheridan moved calmly about, directing artillery, shifting his lines, giving orders' as quietly as though sitting in his tent.' Studiedly insouciant, he lit his cigar. Rousseau, among other, marveled at his comportment. 'I knew it was hell in there before I got in' Rousseau said later. 'But I was convinced of it when I saw Phil Sheridan, with hat in one hand and sword in the other, fighting as if he were the devil incarnate.'

"Finally, after two hours of unremitting fire, Sheridan yielded to the inevitable. As the Rebels prepared another assault, he ordered Roberts -- 'an ideal soldier both in mind and body' -- to cover the retreat. . . Roberts's brigade, the only one of the three with any ammunition left, deployed north of the Wilkinson Turnpike while the rest of the division withdrew under fire through the shattered trees. Roberts, on horseback, rode the line, shouting encouragement to his thinned-out ranks. A perfect target, he toppled from the saddle with three bullet wounds. Gasping in pain, he ordered his men to put him back on his horse; he died as they were hoisting him up. . . Despite constant pressure, Sherman reported, 'the division came out of the cedars with unbroken ranks, thinned by only its killed and wounded. . . "Here we are,' he told Rosecrans, 'all that are left of us.' . . . in four hours of furious combat, culminating in one of the bravest fighting retreats of the war, he had lost more than 1,600 men including three brigade commanders. Sill, Roberts, and Harrington were dead; soon Schaefer would join that terrible list."

"The Rebel effort was magnificently brave, but, as at Perryville, it was not enough. By 5:00 P.M. their attacks had ceased. The Union line had held at last, with nowhere else to bend. The Confederates had simultaneously driven the Yankees too far and not far enough. Night fell, as it had at Perryville, on a southern army that had won the day -- but not the battle. Seven thousand Federals, and an equal number of Confederates, lay dead or wounded on the awful field."

". . . The next morning . . . Bragg was shocked to find Rosecrans still standing between him and Nashville. . . An . . . attempt by Bragg . . . to break the Union left ended with a deafening roar from Rosecrans's well-laced artillery. In the space of an hour, 1,700 Rebels were killed or wounded.

"The Battle of Stones River was over, although it took Bragg another day to admit it. Nearly 25,000 soldiers had fallen in the fighting; Sheridan's losses totaled 1,633, or forty percent of his division, his highest casualty rate of the war. . . He had with the help of . . . Sill, correctly perceived the danger looming on the night before the battle. Alone among division-level commanders on the Union right, he had prepared for an attack that, once it was launched, had quickly overwhelmed other, more unwary divisions. With the help of outstanding subordinates, whose worth he had recognized long before the battle, he not only had withstood the initial attack, but had also managed to delay the enemy's advance for two crucial hours, enabling Rosecrans to cobble together a new position. As a fighting withdrawal, his division's performance at Stones River ranked among the very best in this, or any other, American war. No less an expert than Ulysses S. Grant would later say: 'it was from all I can hear about it a wonderful bit of fighting. It showed what a great general can do even in a subordinate command; for I believe Sheridan in that battle saved Rosecrans' army.'

"Grant was not alone in his praise of Sheridan. McCook commended his 'gallant conduct and attention to duty,' and Rosecrans reported that 'the consistency and steadfastness of [Sheridan's] troops . . . enabled the reserves to reach the right of our army in time to turn the tide of battle and change a threatened rout into a victory.' He urged that Sheridan be promoted to major general. For someone who, a mere seven months earlier, had been a lowly commissary captain wrangling over the quality of beef for his general's table, Sheridan's rise had been truly remarkable. Furthermore, it had been achieved on the battlefield, not in some drawing room or rear-echelon tent. His men -- those who had not been left behind on the viney hills of Perryville or in the winter-stricken woods at Stones River -- knew his worth as a fighting general; their steadfastness and courage had helped him prove it. . . ."

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