Wednesday, January 2, 2013

January 2, 1863: Breckinridge's division charges at the Battle of Stones River

John C. Breckinridge by E.F. Andrews
On the afternoon of January 2, 1863, Confederate General Braxton Bragg ordered Major General John C. Breckinridge to take his division of 4,500 men forward to attack the Union right east of Stones River. From the official report of Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge:
While we were endeavoring to ascertain the force of the enemy and the relation of the ground on the east bank to that on the west bank of the river, I received an order from the commanding general to report to him in person. I found him on the west bank, near the ford below the bridge, and received from him an order to form my division in two lines and take the crest I have just described with the infantry. After doing this I was to bring up the artillery and establish it on the crest, so as at once to hold it and enfilade the enemy's lines on the other side of the river. Pegram and Wharton, who, with some cavalry and a battery were beyond the point where my right would rest when the new line of battle should be formed, were directed, as the general informed me, to protect my right and co-operate in the attack. Captain Robertson was directed to report to me with his own and Semple's batteries of Napoleon guns. Captain Wright, who with his battery had been detached some days before, was ordered to join his brigade (Preston's). The brigades of Adams and Preston, which were left on the west side of the river Wednesday night, had been ordered to rejoin me. At the moment of my advance, our artillery in the center and on the left was to open on the enemy. One gun from our center was the signal for the attack. The commanding general desired that the movement should be made with the least possible delay.

It was now 2.30 p.m. Two of the brigades had to march about 2 miles, to other two about 1 miles. Brigadier-General Pillow, having reported for duty, was assigned by the commanding general to Palmer's brigade, and that fine officers resumed command of his regiment, and was three times wounded in the ensuing engagement. The Ninth Kentucky and Cobb's battery, under the command of Colonel Hunt, were left to hold the hill so often referred to. The division, after deducting the losses of Wednesday, the troops left on the hill, and companies on special service, consisted of some 4,500 men. It was drawn up in two lines- the first in a narrow skirt of woods, the second 200 yards in rear. Pillow and Hanson formed the first line, Pillow on the right. Preston supported Pillow, and Adams' brigade (commanded by Colonel Gibson) supported Hanson. The artillery was placed in rear of the second line, under orders to move with it and occupy the summit of the slope as soon as the infantry should rout the enemy. Feeling anxious about my right, I sent two staff officers in succession to communicate with Pegram and Wharton, but received no intelligence up to the moment of assault. The interval between my left and the troops on the hill was already too great, but I had a battery to watch it and a small infantry support. There was nothing to prevent the enemy from observing nearly all of our movements and preparations. To reach him it was necessary to cross an open space 600 or 700 yards in width, with a gentle ascent. The river was several hundred-yards in rear of his position, but departed from it considerably as it flowed toward his left.

I had informed the commanding general that we would be ready to advance at 4 o'clock, and precisely at that hour the signal gun was heard from our center. Instantly the troops moved forward at a quick step and in admirable order. The front line had bayonets fixed, with orders to deliver one volley, and then use the bayonet. The fire of the enemy's artillery on both sides of the river commenced as soon as the troops entered the open ground. When less than half the distance across the field the quick eye of Colonel O'Hara discovered a force extending considerably beyond our right. I immediately ordered Major Graves to move a battery to our right and open on them. He at once advanced Wright's battery and effectually checked the movements. Before our line reached the enemy's position his artillery fire had become heavy, accurate, and destructive. Many officers and men fell before we closed with their infantry, yet our brave fellows rushed forward with the utmost determination, and, after a brief but bloody conflict, routed both the opposing lines, took 400 prisoners and several flags, and drove their artillery and the great body of their infantry across the river. Many were killed and the water's edge. Their artillery took time by the forelock in crossing the stream. A few of our men in their ardor actually crossed over before they could be prevented, most of whom subsequently, moving up under the west bank, recrossed at a ford three-quarters of a mile above. The second line had halted when the first engaged the enemy's infantry, and laid down under orders; but very soon the casualties in the first line, the fact that the artillery on the opposite bank was more fatal to the second line than the first, and the eagerness of the troops, impelled them forward,a nd at the decisive moment, when the opposing infantry was routed, the two lines had mingled into one, the only practical inconvenience of which was that at several points the ranks were deeper than is allowed by a proper military formation. A strong force of the enemy beyond our extreme right yet remained on the east side of the river. Presently a new line of battle appeared on the west bank directly opposite our troops and opened fire, while at the same time large masses crossed in front of our right and advanced to the attack. We were compelled to fall back. As soon as our infantry had won the ridge, Major Graves advanced the artillery of the division and opened fire. At the same time Captain Robertson threw forward Semple's battery toward our right, which did excellent service. He did not advance his own battery (which was to have taken position on the left), supposing that part of the field had not been cleared of the enemy's infantry. Although mistaken in this, since the enemy had been driven across the river, yet I regard it as fortunate that the battery was not brought forward. It would have been a vain contest. It now appeared that the ground we had won was commanded by the enemy's batteries, within easy range, on better ground, upon the other side of the river. I know not how many guns he had. He had enough to sweep the whole position from the front, the left, and the right, and to render it wholly untenable by our force present of artillery and infantry. The infantry, after passing the crest and descending the slope toward the river, were in some measure protected, and suffered less at this period of the action than the artillery.

We lost three guns, nearly all the horses being killed, and not having the time or men to draw them off by hand. One was lost because there was but one boy left (Private Wright, of Wright's battery) to limber the piece, and his strength was unequal to it.

The command fell back in some disorder, but without the slightest appearance of panic, and reformed behind Robertson's battery in the narrow skirt of timber from which we emerged to the assault. The enemy did not advance beyond the position in which he received our attack. My skirmishers continued to occupy a part of the field over which we advanced until the army retired from Murfreesborough. The action lasted about one hour and twenty minutes. As our lines advanced to the attack, several rounds of artillery were heard from our center, apparently directed against the enemy on the west bank of the river.

About twilight Brigadier-General Anderson reported to me with his brigade, and remained in position with me until the army retired. I took up the line of battle for the night a little in near of the field over which we advanced to the assault, and Captain Robertson, at my request, disposed the artillery in the position indicated for it.

Many of the reports do not discriminate between the losses of Wednesday and Friday. The total loss in my division, exclusive of Jackson's command, is 2,140, of which I think 1,700 occurred on Friday. The loss of the enemy on this day was, I think, greater than our own, since he suffered immense slaughter between the ridge and the river.
Breckinridge's attack had been a disaster--more than a third of the 4,500 men who began the charge were killed or wounded. Bragg's blunder in ordering the attack, and his subsequent attempt to shift the blame for the failure onto Breckinridge's shoulders, would lead to bitter recriminations.

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