The Kentucky Brigade at Stones River
Updated: Dec 29, 2019
This report details one of the most controversial attacks in the Western Theater. Whether it was right or wrong, I will leave that to the reader to decide, and for Colonel Trabue to describe. During the fighting near McFadden's Ford, there were instances of Kentuckians fighting Kentuckians as the 9th and 11th Kentucky Regiments defended the Union left during this Confederate attack. Check my other posts for the Federal point of view of January 2nd, 1863.
Report of Col. Robert P. Trabue, Fourth Kentucky Infantry, commanding Fourth Brigade.
Headquarters Trabue’s (late Hanson’s) Brigade, Tullahoma, Tenn
January 13, 1863.
Sir: The untimely fall of the gallant and lamented Hanson, brigadier-general commanding this brigade, in the engagement on Friday, the 2d instant, at Murfreesborough, imposes on me the duty of reporting, to the extent of my knowledge, the operations of the brigade prior to and after his fall in the battle before that place.
On Sunday, the brigade having received orders to that effect, marched from their camp in rear of Murfreesborough, at 8 a. m., to the position in the front line of battle indicated for our occupation. This brigade formed the left of General Breckinridge’s division, and in line rested with its left on or near Stone’s River, extending eastward until the right was united to Colonel Palmer’s brigade. The position first taken up (the exact line not having been pointed out) was along the skirt of woods in rear of the open fields east and south of Stone’s River, which afforded, by the existence of a small ridge running parallel with the front, and a consequent depression immediately in rear, very good protection against the enemy’s long-range artillery.
On Monday, Semple’s battery of six Napoleon guns, furnished by the chief of artillery, was placed on the crest immediately in front of the right wing, and Cobb’s battery was held to be placed later. Thus formed in line, the Fourth Kentucky was on the right; Second Kentucky second, Major [James W.] Hewitt; Forty-first Alabama third, Colonel [H.] Talbird ; Sixth Kentucky fourth, Colonel [Joseph H.] Lewis, and Ninth Kentucky on the left, Colonel [T. H.] Hunt.
On Monday evening it was perceived that the enemy meant to occupy immediately all the advantageous positions in our front, of which he could possess himself, for artillery. A prominent elevation existed 1,000 yards in front of our left, which General Breckinridge desired we should hold, notwithstanding it was liable to assault, being isolated 1,000 yards in front of our lines. To this end, Colonel Hunt, with the Ninth Kentucky, Colonel Lewis, Sixth Kentucky, Lieutenant Colonel [M. L.] Stansel, Forty-first Alabama, and Cobb’s battery, were ordered to occupy it. Throwing out skirmishers, they were soon engaged with those of the enemy. The force above named was then moved up to the front in support of the skirmishers, and succeeded in establishing Cobb’s battery on the eminence. This was not accomplished without the loss of two valuable officers—Lieutenants [A. J.] Beale and [O.] Kennard, of Company D, Ninth Kentucky, the former severely and the latter slightly wounded. By this time it was dark, when the enemy endeavored in a spirited effort to retake the position, rapidly driving in our skirmishers, and approaching to within a few yards of the battery. This attempt was frustrated by promptly advancing the Forty-first Alabama, under Lieutenant-Colonel Stansel, when the enemy were driven off in confusion, leaving two of their dead near the battery. Our loss here amounted to not less than 10 wounded, falling mainly on the Sixth Kentucky and Cobb’s battery, among whom was Lieutenant [J. B.] Holman, Sixth Kentucky. On Tuesday night these regiments were withdrawn, and I, with the Second and Fourth Kentucky and Cobb’s battery, occupied this position. It was deemed of the last importance to hold this hill, and orders were received to do so at all hazards, it being called the key of the battle-field.
On Wednesday evening the entire brigade was brought up, having been re-enforced by a section of Lumsden’s battery, commanded by Lieutenant [J. A.] Chalaron, and a section of Washington Artillery, commanded by Lieutenant [E.] Tarrant. Semple’s battery having taken up a position 600 yards in rear and left of us, a section of this battery replaced for one night Cobb’s battery. During the week which followed we were kept here bivouacking in the mud and rain, and exposed to an incessant fire from the enemy’s batteries and sharpshooters. A temporary and slight intrenchment was made, which, to some extent, protected the batteries; but the casualties at this place were not inconsiderable (amounting to 40 men), as stated above, and as will appear by reference to regimental reports.
During the engagement of Wednesday, time and again did the gallant Cobb, aided by his not less gallant lieutenants and three sections before referred to, disperse the enemy’s columns as they endeavored to succor that part of their force engaged with the right of the left wing of the army. Indeed, during every day of our occupation of this hill our battery did signal service, frequently driving the enemy’s artillery away and often dispersing his infantry. All this while the brigade covered more than a mile of front with skirmishers and pickets, using for that purpose from six to ten companies daily. These advanced to within 100 yards of the enemy in many places, and were hourly engaged. On this hill Cobb’s battery lost 8 men; Colonel Hunt, Ninth Kentucky, lost a most excellent officer killed (His adjutant, Henry M. Curd), whose death all lament, and wounded Capt. Joseph Desha, whose subsequent conduct elicited universal praise, together ‘with Lieutenants [G.] Lewis, Company A, and [H.] Buchanan, Company H, wounded, and 3 other officers and 23 privates. (See detailed statement.) Colonel Lewis, Sixth Kentucky, lost slightly here; Lieutenant-Colonel Stansel, Forty-first Alabama, lost here two of his best officers and several men; the Second and Fourth Kentucky, though equally exposed, lost less at this point.
On Friday, the 2d instant, at 3 o’clock, the order came to move to the right and front, and form the left of the front line of General Breckinridge’s division to attack that portion of the enemy’s left which were posted in the woods and ravines on the south side of Stone’s River, opposite the extreme right of our army, which was done. Colonel Hunt, with his regiment, remained at the hill, ordered to support the battery, and six companies were kept out as before on picket duty, thus leaving us for the fight about 1,200 men.
Stone’s River in front of this new position runs nearly parallel with the new line, but inclines to the point occupied by the right of this brigade, when, by a change of direction to the north, it runs for some distance nearly perpendicularly from the front of our line. At this point, whence the river changes its direction northward, is a skirt of woods and an elevated ridge, behind which and in the ravine and woods the enemy lay concealed. To the right of our line the enemy were likewise posted in a woods, thus outflanking us. One thousand yards in the front from this first skirt of woods is a ford of the river, while the bank of the river opposite us, between the ford and point of attack, overlooks the south and east bank. One mile farther down the river is another ford, as I have since learned. This topography, as well as the enemy’s strength, was wholly unknown to us.
The two lines of the division having been formed, the signal for attack was sounded at 4 p. m., when this brigade in line moved steadily forward to the attack, with arms loaded and bayonets fixed, instructed to fire once and then charge with the bayonet. The peculiar nature of the ground and direction of the river and the eagerness of the troops caused the lines of General Pillow’s (formerly Palmer’s) brigade and this brigade to lap on the crest of the hill, but the fury of the charge and the effective fire of the lines put the enemy at once to flight. All in front of us that were not killed or captured ran across the river at the ford and out of range of our fire, as did a battery which had been posted off* to our right, and many of the infantry mentioned before as being on the right likewise fled across this ford. A part, however, of this force, double-quicking toward the ford from their position, finding they would be cut off, formed in line to our right on a ridge, and, not being assailed, held this ground. Meanwhile, and from the moment of beginning the attack, the enemy’s artillery from the opposite side of the river directed on us a most destructive fire. Very soon, too, the crests of the opposite side of the river swarmed with infantry, whose fire was terrible. Thus exposed to the fire, seemingly, of all his artillery and a large portion of his infantry from unassailable positions, as well as to the flanking fire from the right, it was deemed prudent to withdraw. This was done slowly, though not in the best order, resulting mainly from the confusion consequent upon the too early advance of the second line into the ground already too much crowded by the first. The lines were reformed about 600 yards in rear of the river, and near the line from which we advanced to the attack.
While thus engaged in reforming my own regiment, I received intelligence of the fall of General Hanson, when I took command of the brigade, the other regiments of which had likewise been reformed. This brigade in the battle having
advanced to within 80 yards of the ford, a part of Colonel Lewis’ Sixth Kentucky and a part of the Second Kentucky having crossed the river a little to the left, when near the ford, slightly protected by a picket fence on this side, they fought the enemy across the river until the rear having fallen back made it necessary to withdraw them also.
I obtained returns on the field showing still in line more than half the men with which we started out, notwithstanding a loss of 33 percent. I remained in line until 9 o’clock, having replenished the cartridge-boxes, when I received orders to return to my original position on the hill, which was obeyed.
We remained in this position until Sunday morning at 1 a. in., when, having been assigned the duty of bringing up the rear, we moved off, with Colonel Hunt’s Ninth Kentucky, Forty-first Alabama, Lieutenant-Colonel Stansel, and Cobb’s battery being detailed as special rear guard. My pickets were withdrawn at 3 a. m. by Captain [C.] Bosche, of Ninth Kentucky, under direction of Captain Martin, of General Breckinridge’s staff.
I have thus briefly given you a report of the part taken by this brigade, omitting many details and incidents creditable to individuals and to the command.
In the absence of a report from my own regiment (Fourth Kentucky) prior to the time when I took command of the brigade, I will state simply that both officers and men did their duty. Willis [S.] Roberts, major, was killed early in the action by a grape-shot. Than him there was none a more gallant officer. He had not recovered from wounds received at Baton Rouge. Lieutenant Colonel [Joseph P.] Nuckols was wounded in shoulder, near picket fence. Captain [W. P.] Bramblett, First Lieutenant [G. B.] Burnley, Second Lieutenants [Green F.] Higginson, [N. D.] Clayton, [and Robert] Dunn were killed, and Lieutenants [Isham T.] Dudley, Robert Moore (since said to have died), John [B.] Moore, [William] Lashbrooke, and [R. A.] Thompson were wounded, together with privates and non commissioned officers.
One company (Captain [J. L.] Trice’s), being on picket duty, was not in the engagement. The color-bearer (Robert Lindsey), being wounded, refused to allow any one to accompany him to the rear, although bleeding at the mouth and nose. He handed the colors on return to Private Jones, who was killed, when they were borne to the last by Joseph Nichols, of Company F. Thus it will be seen that of 23 officers of this regiment who went into the fight, 7 were killed and 6 wounded. The command of the regiment was, on my assuming command of the brigade, turned over to Captain [Thomas W.] Thompson. The detailed statements heretofore furnished show the casualties to have been as follows:
The conduct of Colonel Lewis, Lieutenant-Colonel Stansel, Forty-first Alabama; Maj. James [ W.] Hewitt, Second Kentucky; Lieutenant-Colonel Nuckols and Captain Thompson, of Fourth Kentucky, as well as that of the other field and company officers engaged, was gallant in the highest degree, and the men repeated also the steadiness and courage which characterized them at Donelson, Shiloh, Baton Rouge, Vicksburg, and Hartsville.
Lieutenants [T. E.] Stake and [Joseph] Benedict and Captain [S. F.] Chipley, of General Hanson’s staff, bore themselves with exemplary courage.
My thanks are due, too, to the medical staff and to Captain Semple, division ordnance officer, and Acting Lieut. Presley Trabue, brigade ordnance officer, for their promptness in bringing up supplies of ammunition, and to my adjutant, Robert H. Williams, of Fourth Kentucky.
I cannot close this report without more special mention of one whose gallantry and capacity we all witnessed with pride, and whose loss we and the whole army sincerely deplore. I mean the gallant General Hanson, who fell in the pride of his manhood in the thickest of the fight, nobly doing his duty. His wound was mortal, and death ensued on Sunday morning, at 5 o’clock.
Colonel Hunt, Ninth Kentucky, although not in the engagement of Friday, deserves commendation for his conduct prior and subsequent to that time, as do the other officers and the men of his regiment. Kespectfully, K. P. TBABUE, Colonel, Commanding Brigade. P. S.—The missing list comprises those who went into the engagement, but were not seen to come out. They must have been killed or wounded/ I find, also, I have omitted to mention that Lieutenant-Colonel Stansel received a severe wound in the leg, but did not quit the field, and still commands his regiment.