Saturday, August 25, 2012
By Bob Hurst
Each year the Sons of Confederate Veterans holds a national convention to dispense with necessary business, recharge the batteries of all those in attendance and, as Southerners are prone to do, have a genuinely good time socializing with old friends met through previous SCV events and meeting new friends at this grand affair. In admiration of, and out of respect for, our Confederate ancestors, these large gatherings are termed "reunions" since the true Confederates held many reunions in the decades following the War for Southern Independence and we, the descendants, gladly and faithfully maintain the tradition.
The site of the national reunion varies each year and I truly enjoy the opportunity to visit different places and experience local customs and foods. Additionally, as you might expect, each of these venues has a strong Confederate connection so it is possible to experience some Southern history either through the tours available by the reunion or individual adventures of your own choosing. I usually choose the latter and head out with my camera in search of any beautiful antebellum homes in the area.
The 2001 reunion that was held in Lafayette, Louisiana, for instance, was especially enjoyable for me as I was able to make time to travel down to the Bayou Teche area and photograph houses that I had never visited before. All of the host cities are interesting, though, and all have something special to offer to the interested Southerner. Sites for the reunions have been as varied as coastal cities such as New Orleans and Mobile to mountainous venues like Asheville and Dalton. Recent locations have all had a connection to the sesquicentennial (150-year anniversary) of the War with the 2010 reunion held in South Carolina ( SC was the first state to leave the Union, seceding in 1860), the 2011 reunion in Montgomery (the Confederate government was formed in Montgomery in 1861), and the 2013 reunion scheduled for Vicksburg (it was in 1863 that the citizens of that fine town made a gallant 47-day resistance to continuous bombardment during the siege of that river city by the invading yankee horde).
I didn’t forget about the 2012 reunion which was held last month in the attractive Southern city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I saved it till last because this article will be about two significant military events that occurred in 1862 (150 years ago) in Murfreesboro involving the gallant men in the sacred gray defending our Southland against invasion by those odious beings from the other place.
Murfreesboro is a pretty town and history everywhere. The host hotel for the reunion, Embassy Suites, was conveniently located not far from the interstate which made access easy. It was also a fine facility for an event such as ours. Altogether I was very pleased with everything about my stay in Murfreesboro. Far more pleased, I’m sure, than the Union forces who, on two different occasions, had to face the guns and the guile of the boys wearing gray in the year 1862.
The first confrontation between the two armies took place on July 13, 1862. July 13 is a date that is very special to many Southerners and you will find out why later in this article.
First, some backgroud. At the time of this first encounter, Union forces were occupying both Nashville and Murfreesboro which is located about 30-35 miles southeast of Nashville and about a hundred miles northwest of Chattanooga. The railroad that went from Nashville to Chattanooga went through Murfreesboro and Union quartermasters had been stockpiling supplies there for the Union troops in that strategic part of Tennessee.
The Union Army of the Ohio (Union armies were generally named for rivers) was commanded by Major General Don Carlos Buell who had his sights set on making a sweep from Kentucky down to Chattanooga and taking that Southern stronghold. A Union victory in Chattanooga would create a very difficult situation for the Confederacy and even possibly bring an end to the War.
Unfortunately for Buell, Nathan Bedford Forrest had other plans in mind.
The Union garrison at Murfreesboro was manned by the 23rd Brigade of the Army of the Ohio which consisted of regiments from Pennsylvania, Kentucky (the yankee portion), Michigan and Minnesota. Buell had already worked his way all the way south to north Alabama and was planning on moving eastward toward Chattanooga. Forrest, who was a colonel at the time, knew that the Nashville to Chattanooga railroad was the main supply line for Buell’s forces and that he could totally disrupt Buell’s advance by attacking Murfreesboro and severing Buell’s means of survival.
Forrest was also enraged when he learned of the mistreatment of many civilians in the area by the Union Army. Not only had homes and farms been burned but as many as 400 men had been jailed and there were planned hangings for many of these.
Forrest had his men ready to move out at 1 AM on the morning of July 13 and by 4 AM they had reached the first units of the bluecoats, most of whom were still sleeping. Forrest had learned of the divided deployment of Union troops (the guys from Michigan didn’t like the guys from Minnesota and the guys from Minnesoat didn’t like…well, you get the picture) and had divided his own forces to take on the various groupings of Union soldiers. By early afternoon all Union forces except those from Michigan and Minnesota had been subdued and the amazing Forrest then performed one of those feats of wizardry that only he could pull off.
In the afternoon his troops had skirmishes with units from both Michigan and Minnesota regiments. Forrest, the master of the ruse, then started rotating his troops in front of the Minnesotans in such a fashion as to make it appear that he had more troops than he actually did. He then contacted the commander of the Minnesotans and convinced him that everyone else had surrendered. Amazingly, the yankee commander quickly surrendered. When the commander of the Michigan regiment heard of this he also quickly surrendered. This is the same tactic that Forrest would use again later in Rome, Georgia, to convince Union colonel Abel Streight to surrender to him even though Streight had four times as many troops as Forrest – he just didn’t realize it. Of course, there was only one Forrest!
After all this, Forrest and his officers retired to Oaklands, a fine mansion in Murfreesboro dating from 1813, to celebrate the birthday of Col. Forrest which happened to be that very day. Forrest received a belated birthday present eight days later when he was promoted to brigadier general.
Oaklands still stands and there is a plaque on the grounds indicating that during this clash there were 19 Union soldiers killed, 120 wounded and 1200 captured. By the way, one of those captured was Union general Thomas Crittenden who had arrived just the day before to assume command of the garrison. Altogether it was just a typical event for the remarkable Forrest.
Even though this encounter was not a major battle of the War, it did have a significant impact. Forrest had his men carry off or burn all the supplies that Buell had collected at Murfreesboro for his planned advance to Chattanooga. This prevented Buell’s planned invasion of Chattanooga and later led to the loss of his command. He eventually resigned from the army. ( As an aside here, Don Carlos Buell was one of the few Union commanders that I think highly of. He was a man of high moral character and on numerous occasions he bucked the tide by calling for punishment of Union soldiers and even officers who were involved in committing atrocities against Southern civilians.)
Incidentally, this encounter is frequently referred to as the First Battle of Murfreesboro. The much larger battle fought later in the year is commonly called the Battle of Stone’s River, the Second Battle of Murfreesboro, or just the Battle of Murfreesboro (especially in the South). In this article I will refer to that contest as the Battle of Stone’s River.
While the July 13 confrontation was little more than a skirmish, the Battle of Stone’s River was a major battle of the War that also proved to be one of the bloodiest. There is too much to write about this clash to include an in-depth coverage in this article ( I will likely revisit the battle later in another article), but I will give a synopsis and touch on some of the interesting elements of Stone’s River.
After the Kentucky campaign, General Braxton Bragg had withdrawn his army to Murfreesboro and had prepared to go into winter quarters. The army, which had been known as " The Army of Mississippi " , had recently been renamed " The Army of Tennessee ". The newly created Union " Army of the Cumberland " was occupying Nashville under the command of General William Rosecrans and was being urged by the administration in Washington to advance to Murfreesboro and attack the Confederates there.
Rosecrans left Nashville on December 26, 1862, with his army of 44,000 troops and the intent of defeating Bragg and his army of 37,000 at Murfreesboro. Rosecrans reached Murfreesboro on December 29 and his army settled in about two and a half miles northwest of town near the Stone’s River. The Confederates were prepared for battle and attacked at dawn on December 31. That day became the single bloodiest day of fighting in Tennessee during the entire War with a total casualty count of more than 17,000 between the two armies. The day went strongly in favor of the Confederates but to Bragg’s surprise Rosecrans and his army did not withdraw.
There was no fighting the next day on January 1, 1863, but the following day Bragg ordered a strong ground attack against an elevated position across the river that was fortified with more than 50 cannon. Both General John C. Breckenridge and General Roger Hanson strongly opposed this strategy by the commander but had no option other than to obey orders. Attacking across a large, open field the Confederates sustained heavy losses, including General Hanson, and had to withdraw to their original position. Later that day Bragg received information that Rosecrans’ army had reinforcements on the way that would raise the troop strength of the Union forces to 70,000. The next day General Bragg moved the Confederate Army south to Shelbyville.
Of all the major battles of the War, Stone’s River had the highest percentage of casualties on both sides with a combined total of more than 24,000. Although the Union Army suffered greater casualties and was unable to overrun the Confederates, the fact that Bragg withdrew his troops to Shelbyville allowed the yankees to claim a victory and get a morale boost from the encounter.
Every battle has so many stories and there is no way to tell them all (in fact, many will likely never be known), but there were three events that occurred during the Stone’s River engagement that especially intrigue me.
The first took place the evening of December 30 and involved, of all things, the bands of the respective armies. Most all armies had bands to provide entertainment for the troops during those long periods between actions. On the evening of the 30th the two bands were entertaining their respective armies. Since the armies were camped in close proximity, each side could hear the tunes of the other and this soon led to a battle between the two bands as each sought to outdo the other. The Union band would blast out tunes like "Yankee Doodle" and "Hail Columbia" and the band in gray would counter with "DIXIE", "Bonnie Blue Flag" and other Southern favorites. I found this an interesting prelude to the bloody event that was soon to follow.
The second event that intrigues me involves the order given by General Bragg on January 2nd to launch an attack across an open field against a strongly fortified elevated position. As mentioned earlier, this order was strongly questioned and opposed by General John C. Breckenridge, the Division commander, and General Roger Hanson who was commanding a brigade. Although Breckenridge violently opposed the strategy, he did not go so far as his friend and compatriot, Hanson, who actually volunteered to go to headquarters and shoot Braxton Bragg. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Sadly, while leading his brigade in the attack across the large field, General Hanson was wounded severely and died two days later. I wonder if he had a premonition of this as he led his men through heavy fire?
The event that intrigues me the most, however, did not involve generals, or bands, or strategies or casualty counts, or any of the other things you so frequently read about concerning battles. This event involved a group of Mississippi troops who can only be described as "bold and true fighters". These remarkable individuals were troops of the 44th Mississippi Regiment. Before the battle started, smallpox struck this unit and it was quarantined along the banks of Stone’s River. Their weapons were taken and given to other units since they weren’t expected to see action.
As the battle raged on the first day, however, it was determined that the Confederates needed every available man and the Mississippians were ordered to battle. As these amazing fighters advanced on the enemy, they picked up sticks, tree branches or anything else they could find that they might could use as a weapon. According to a letter sent to CONFEDERATE VETERAN magazine many years later by a veteran of the 44th, these unarmed Mississippians came out of the battle with more guns than they needed – guns they had collected from fallen compatriots and fallen enemies as they advanced. I think the words of Lieutenant General William Hardee sums up the situation well concerning these remarkable men and all the Confederate soldiers:
"It is worthy to remark that at Murfreesborough, whenever the fight was confined principally to musketry, and the enemy had no advantage in artillery, we were successful. It was only when they massed heavy batteries, under cover of railroad embankments, that we were repulsed. In every form of contest in which mechanical instruments … can be used, the Federalsare our superiors. In every form of contest in which manly courage, patient endurance, and brave impulse are the qualities and conditions necessary to success, we have invariably been successful."
The actions of the men of the 44th Mississippi, who so honored the Cause that they were willing to go into battle unarmed, was a testament to the courage, bravery and fortitude of the Confederate soldier and just another reason why so many of us hold our Confederate ancestors in such high esteem and always will.