Battle of Stones River

General Rosecrans rallies the Union troops at Stones River; Kurz and Allison 1891 (Image via Wikipedia)

The 272 men of the 35th Indiana seemed to be spending most of the Battle of Stones River out of harms way. The fighting had been ongoing since 31st December, when a Confederate force had smashed into the Union army’s right flank, almost winning a stunning victory for the Rebels. The Irishmen were positioned on the Army of the Cumberland’s left, and their only involvement on the 31st was to help stem the flow of fugitives from the Confederate onslaught and fight off some enemy cavalry. The 1st January also passed with little action, although there was some sharp skirmishing that night. The third day of battle found the 35th placed with their brigade on the east side of Stones River, where they were positioned on a strategic hill commanding McFadden’s Ford. As the day wore on it looked like they would once again escape heavy fighting. Then, around 4 p.m., with only 44 minutes of daylight remaining on the 2nd January 1863, the men of Major-General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederate division surged forward to the attack. Outgunned and outnumbered, the Indiana Irish were in for the fight of their lives.

As the regiment’s skirmishers fell back they described an ‘immense force’ of Rebels advancing en echelon towards their position. Colonel Bernard Mullen, commander of the 35th, promptly ordered his men to lie down and fix bayonets. The 51st Ohio and 8th Kentucky regiments to the Hoosier’s right were engaged first, and it was not long before the Confederates were almost on top of the 35th’s position. The Irish calmly let them advance to within 30 or 40 paces of their line before they rose with a cheer and delivered a devastating volley into the right flank of the Rebels. The Confederate line seemed to stagger, and before it could recover Mullen and his men had reloaded and were firing again. The attackers fell in droves. Despite their initial shock, the Confederate’s responded, and the 35th began to suffer from artillery fire, particularly solid shot which ploughed through the left of their line. The two sides hammered away at each other from close range for some twenty minutes, but Mullen was aware that the sheer weight of enemy numbers would force him to retreat without support from the second line. He went to the 99th Ohio positioned behind the Irishmen to request their assistance and attempt a bayonet charge, but they would not come forward to the 35th’s support. Instead the 99th fell back to the main Federal positions on the west side of the river.

As the bloody exchange continued the entire brigade line was now at risk of collapse; the 79th Indiana to the Irishmen’s left were also heavily engaged and the 51st Ohio and 8th Kentucky to their right were being forced back. Colonel Mullen takes up the story: ‘At the end of forty-three minutes of a desperate and unequal contest, I found the enemy completely around my flanks. To prevent a useless destruction of life, or entire capture of my regiment, I gave the order to retire. I was obliged to repeat it, and even then the brave fellows complied reluctantly-many refused, and they were either killed or captured.’

Part of the ground through which the Confederates attacked on 2nd January 1863 (Photo: Angela Gallagher)

The 35th fell back to the river some 400 yards to the rear, where Mullen rallied the men. Despite the initial Confederate success, the assault was an ill-advised one due to the nature of the terrain. Breckenridge had been aware of this before the attack, but had been forced to proceed with it on the express orders of General Bragg. Having already sustained heavy casualties as a result of the resistance of the 35th and their comrades, they had taken the hill which was their objective. Now they not only faced fresh Union regiments, but no less than 45 artillery pieces arranged hub to hub by Captain John Mendenhall on the river’s west bank to fire into their exposed position (1). The maelstrom of shot and shell which ensued devastated the Confederate attack. The reformed remnants of the 35th contributed to this fire and together with their comrades surged forward with a cheer in pursuit of the retreating Rebels. Along with men of the 51st Ohio the Irishmen succeeded in capturing one of the Confederate batteries.

Mullen was full of praise for his men after the fight: ‘I feel obliged to call attention to the splendid conduct of my adjutant, John Scully. His escape was a miracle, freely exposing himself, and cheering the men throughout the action to deeds of valor. Serg. Major Robert Stockdale fought desperately, but coolly; he deserves particular mention, not only for his conduct on this field, but for the faithful and cheerful manner he has ever performed his duties. To Dr. Averdick, my surgeon, I must acknowledge valuable services; brave and defiant on the field, he is kind and attentive in the hospital wards. Quartermaster Igoe was on the field, attentive to the wounded, using every effort to have them carefully transported to the rear. By 10 o’clock that night not a wounded man of the Thirty-fifth could be found on the field. To Father Cooney, our chaplain, too much praise cannot be given. Indifferent as to himself, he was deeply solicitous for the temporal comfort and spiritual welfare of us all. On the field he was cool and indifferent to danger, and in the name of the regiment I thank him for his kindness and laborious attention to the dead and dying.’ The regiment left 22 men dead on the field and 115 men wounded, captured or missing, testament to the savage nature of the fighting. Mullen was asked to ascertain if any individuals were conspicuous in their gallantry or if any had disgraced themselves through cowardice. In his report he states that he asked for a list of names from each of the Company commanders, but received but one response, that all in the regiment were ‘a body of heroes.’

The Army of Tennessee retreated from Stones River on the night of 3rd January, and the Union had won the field. The campaign for Middle Tennessee was not over, but an important step had been taken. Soon the Union would be able to look beyond Tennessee and towards Atlanta and the Deep South. There was to be much hard fighting ahead however, and the Irishmen of the 35th Indiana would be in the thick of it throughout.

(1)   Cozzens 1991:191

References & Further Reading

Official Records  20 (Part 1). Report of Colonel Bernard F. Mullen, Thirty-Fifth Indiana Infantry

Cozzens, Peter 1991. No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River

McDonough, James Lee 1980. Stones River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee

Civil War Preservation Trust Stones River Page

Stones River National Battlefield

For more on the 35th’s Chaplain Father Cooney see:

Schmidt, James M. 2010. Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory and the Notre Dame in the Civil War Blog