The Tennessee countryside leading from Nashville to Murfreesboro is rolling and rough. The roads in 1862, were poor and the battlefield selected was no better. The area was relatively flat with few imposing hills for artillery or observation. The terrain had rolling, low hills and shallow swales. The land was broken by numerous and sometimes large limestone croppings which in some way gave prominence to the land. It was heavily wooded with red cedars and pines, Black Cherry, American Elm, Orange Osage, Kentucky Coffeetree, oaks and maples. The coming of winter had caused the fruit of the Orange Osage and Coffeetree to fall from their branches, Mistletoe covered many of the leafless trees.
In some fields cotton still clung to their opened bolls on brown, shriveled plants. There were some open fields harvested of their corn. The most prominent feature of the area was the river running south to north through the intended battlefield. Stones River was more or less easy to wade across, but in many places its banks were steep and lined with trees. To Rosecrans’ advantage, the terrain did not lend itself well to the effective use of the somewhat superior Rebel cavalry. The dense cedars afforded some protection for both sides.
The full winter season had set into the Nashville Basin. December 30th saw a smattering of weather that had plagued the armies from the 26th of December, and would continue until January 4th as the Confederates retreated out the Wartrace and Shelbyville roads in a cold, winter rain. On this next to last day of the years, several diarists reported heavy showers, bitter cold, and ice on the river. It snowed on December 31st. The sun fought through the midst and fog on one day, January 1st, otherwise the sky was filled with low hanging, dark clouds. In a number of areas the water pooled and frost in the shallow limestone lined swales.
In the vernacular of the day, Colonel Sirwell announced, in his after action report, “The ball opened this morning [December 30th].” Miller’s brigade, as it marched into the assigned battle line, closed in on Crittenden’s Left Wing. they advanced and took a position to the right of General Palmer’s Second Division and proceeded through the cedars. Negley’s division had lined up its right with Sheridan’s division. Sheridan’s men had skirmished continuously during their march down the six mile long Wilkinson Pike from Stewart’s Creek. The Pioneer Brigade has busied themselves cutting roads through thick stands of cedar in order that Negley could easily move cannons, ammunition wagons, and ambulances. The Federal batteries commenced shelling the enemy as soon as they were in position. The Rebels did not respond immediately, but in their turn opened a corresponding deadly fire on the Yankees. The fight of the day would be with artillery and small skirmishes.
In the chilly morning mist Colonel Miller ordered skirmishes from the 78th Pennsylvania, the 19th Illinois and the 37th Indiana southward across Wilkinson Pike. At 8:30 A.M., Sirwell deployed his skirmishers as ordered; Martin McCanna’s Company B, and William Jack’s Company H, the selected companies moved into their positions. First Lieutenant McCanna, although new to his command, had the Colonel’s confidence. The youthful Captain William Cummins leading Company A and Company F were deployed as a reserve skirmish line. Captain Charles Gillespie had been replace by Acting Lieutenant Absolom Weaver as commander of Company F. Colonel Hull of the 37th Indiana had deployed companies D and E of his regiment as his skirmishers.
The Union skirmishers drove the Confederates southward across the Wilkinson Pike. Moving at the double-quick the Yankees soon adopted a style of Indian fighting. As they pursued the Rebels they frequently took advantage of the trees; stopping in safety they fired at retreating foe. The thrill of the chase quickly ended when a large Confederate force near the Giles Harding house and the brick kiln near it opened a blazing volley into the Union ranks. The Hoosier skirmishers leading the assault, took a fierce pounding. When the boys from Indiana began to falter, the 78th moved forward, passed them, and engaged the Rebels near the brick kiln east of the Harding home.
The regiment’s skirmishers exchanged deadly rounds with the enemy and drove them back. With a lull in the fighting, Sirwell was ordered to withdraw to make room for Colonel George Robert’s Illinois command of Sheridan’s Division. Phil Sheridan’s Third Division had fought their way into place. The 78th was ordered to lie in that position for some time and was eventually ordered to advance and remain on picket near the edge of dense woods. At noon, they were relieved by the 21st Ohio. The efforts of Sheridan’s and Negley’s brigades drove back the Confederates and brought about the occupation of the home, gin-house, and other out buildings belonging to Mr. Harding. General Negley wrote in his after action report that the 78th PA and the 19th IL admirably drove back the Confederates skirmishers.
In the annuals of warfare, many officers were noted to be drunkards, incompetent or both, and they did not fight. The most unusual and equally amusing incident related at the battle of Stones River concerned two Confederate officers that could not determine who the enemy was. Some words passed that led to blows, and though the bullets were flying thick and fast, here was seen the ludicrous spectacle of two Confederate officers engaged in a personal fight on the battlefield. Stanton had got Richmond’s thumb in his mouth, while Richmond was gnawing away at Stanton’s ear.
While the two Confederate attempted to settle their dispute, the sporadic skirmishing and cannon duels increased along the front between the Yankees and Rebels. The army commanders were feeling their way into a major battle.
Although many reports in the Official Record indicates there was little or no fighting for many brigades on the 30th, the fighting for Miller’s command was somewhat heated. Private James Meyers of the the 78th Company H was killed in the early skirmishing action near the Harding house. Colonel Miller lost about 20 killed and wounded during that day.
By the mid-afternoon the earlier flush of battle had worn off; the reality of combat had set in. By evening the clouds of the bleak, dreary day were swept away and the stars peeped out for a short time. Rosecrans’ and Bragg’s armies lay along a four mile front. From the bank of the Stones River to the north the lines extended southwesterly to the Franklin Turnpike, awaiting the coming fury. In the clear, dark, biting cold Negley’s division ended the day to the left of Sheridan’s division with their right flank resting onto he east-west Wilkinson pike at the junction of McFadden’s Lane. They were perpendicular to the pike and fronted south eastward while stretching approximately one-half mile in a covex line to the rough road leading north to McFadden’s Ford.
There is no mention of McFadden’s Lane within any of the after action reports on the battle of Stones River. However, it appears on all the maps made at the time. General Manigault drew the road on his map. In Captain Bickham’s book he refers to the road that today is named Van Cleve’s Lane as a “trace.”
Timothy Stanley’s brigade of Negley’s Division anchored the far right of the division on the Wilkinson Pike. His brigade ensconced in a cedar thicket butted against Robert’s brigade of Sheridan’s division. John Miller’s brigade anchored the far left of the division at a point on McFadden’s Lane, approximately one-half mile from the Nashville Turnpike and the railroad.
As the approach of Rosecrans’ army, Bragg had wasted no time in setting a well-defined line of battle. Bragg’s army was split into two corps. Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk commanded one and Lieutenant General William Hardee the other. Hardee’s corps as the left wind and Polk’s Corps as the center were ordered to the west side of the river. Major General John Breckenridge’s Division anchored the right flank. It remained posted on the east side of Stones River to afford protection to the town.
The armies rested fitfully after the day’s stinging fire fights, but Rosecrans was not resting. He began to shift his overall alignment once again. His grand design ws to have Crittenden attack Breckenridge, Bragg’s right. Thomas would move forward against “Bishop” Polk concurrently with Crittenden and McCook to hold his ground against Hardee and serve as anchor to the right wheel.
By capturing the high ground east of Stones River near McFadden’s Ford at Rosecrans’ left, Wood’s batteries would be able to enfilade the Rebels in front of Negley and Palmer. Negley’s right flank, that section, held by Timothy Stanley’s brigade, would be the pivot of the entire wheel movement. By crushing Bragg’s right flank with Crittenden’s assault, Rosecrans intended to sweep through Murfreesboro. In doing so, he would cut off any route of escape and destroy the Confederate army.
General Edward Kirk, another of Richard Johnson’s brigade commanders, was mortally wounded. The Right Wing fell back firing, but it was apparent to the retreating soldiers that nothing could stem the Butternut tide sweeping over them in the early morning light. As the skirmishers of the 78th PA fired into the attacking gray-butternut and lines fell back, they knew that they were in trouble. The confident Rebels sang as they moved forward. The Confederate drove the Yankees in the right wing out of their camps, overran gun emplacements, and killed hundreds of Union troops within the first half hour.
McCook’s two right divisions, those commanded by Brigadier General Jefferson Davis and Brigadier General Richard Johnson, did little to insure their troops from the suspected attacks. The insidious Davis endeavored to steady his division, but his excited manner and the impression that he was confused did little to inspire his fleeting troops. McCook’s brigades melted like snow in a summer sun. The Yankees had quickly broken and fled in terror.
Supposedly, McCook and Johnson were aware of the Confederate lines to their right, but did nothing to support that section on their front. General Johnson in his after action report stated that he reported the over extension of the Rebel left. He claimed that McCook relayed the same fact to him. Some adjustments were made to the Union right, but obviously not enough. In spite of his report, with a dawn attack expected, and with the fearful possibility of a flank attack, Johnson did little to help the situation. He made his headquarters over a mile back from his division. This headquarter position made it impossible to direct his division when they needed him the most.
Within an hour of Bragg’s fierce assault, one of McCook’s staff officers reported to Rosecrans that the Right Wing was under full attack; however Rosecrans was not told of Johnson’s rout or the rapid succession of events that drove Davis from the field, too. Rosey sent word back to McCook to make a stubborn stand.
Even as the sounds of battle heightened on his right, Rosey was still confident in his plan. the sounds of cannon and the battle cried did not yet indicate the degree of his problems; he continued pressing his attack on his left. Van Cleve’s two brigades supported by Wood’s division had forded Stones River. In Rosecrans’ mind the plan was developing well, or so he thought. General McCook had engaged Bragg’s left and Rosecrans’ rank and file moved to engage Breckenridge on the Confederate right flank. Now another staff officer arrived from McCook to report that the right was collapsing. Rosecrans evaluated his situation and quickly abandoned his plan. Phil Sheridan recorded that the color of Rosey’s ruddy face failed; he became anxious. His character was being tested to the limit. Neverthe less, Rosecrans quickly pulled himself together and went to work. He developed a defensive plan until he could counter stroke. He ordered the recall of Crittenden’s troops, which Confederate intelligence failed to notice. Rosey mounted his horse and galloped off to his right wing. He had to save his army. He was now on the defensive.