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Artillery saved the day for the Union at Stone's River

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Parson's battery helped hold the final Union line.

Truth is artillery saved the day for Union forces at the Battle of Stones River.

One of the most significant things about the battle is how the Union Army of the Cumberland used cannon fire to hold back the Confederate onslaught.

The classic way to describe the troop movements on the first day of fighting is to compare the Union army to an unfolded pocketknife. A quick, hard attack on the Union right wing (the blade) pushed that part of the army back like a knife blade folding back into the handle.

Quick, precise use of artillery finally stopped that movement just before the battle became a complete rout and a resounding victory for the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Union artillery units at Stones River were generally volunteer units with a few U.S. Regular Army batteries part of the mix. Usually, there would be one battery, normally six to eight cannons, per brigade. However, the fighting near Murfreesboro was to prove just how effective massed batteries could be.

The action of two artillery units was particularly important on Dec. 31. Stokes' Illinois Volunteers and Batteries H & M of the 4th U. S. Artillery help repel Confederate charges that threatened to snap that "knife blade" completely closed.

Stokes' unit was a unique one. It was formed and funded by the Chicago Board of Trade, which is the world's oldest futures and options exchange. When President Lincoln sent out his call for volunteers, the Board of Trade raised the $15,000 necessary to start the new battery of 156 men within 48 hours.
James H. Stokes, a graduate of West Point Military Academy, was elected and mustered as captain. Aug. 2, 1862, en route to camp, the new battery marched in review past the Board of Trade's offices on Chicago's famous Water Street.

Ironically, Stokes was a Virginia native who had family members that sided with the Confederacy. By Dec. 20, 1962, the Chicago Board of Trade was attached to an even more unique group, the Pioneer Brigade, commanded by Capt. St. Clair Morton, of the regular Army's engineering department. The brigade was formed by Maj. Gen. W.S. Rosecrans who detailed two men from each company of infantry in the Army of the Cumberland.

During the night of Saturday, Dec. 29 1862, the Pioneer Brigade built two bridges over Stewart's Creek, then bivouacked on the field three miles from Murfreesboro with plans for the brigade to make some improvements to McFadden's Ford on Stones River.

Early on the morning of Dec. 31, sounds of battle erupted from the distant right of the Union army. The Confederate Army of Tennessee attacked early while Gen. Alexander McCook's wing of the Army of the Cumberland was eating breakfast.

The Chicago Board of Trade Battery came into position on a slight rise between the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad and the Nashville Pike near a cemetery.

"To the left and front lay the key to the position – not to hold the gap would be fatal. At this juncture Major General Rosecrans dashed from left to right and discovered the Chicago Board of Trade Battery right for the fray but without positive direction. His orders were given to officers and men indiscriminately, as the case demanded," wrote the battery's historian.

Rosecrans spurred his horse near the gap in federal lines and beckoned the Illinois troops forward. "Right this way," he shouted.

As on parade, the battery trotted in at intervals due to a point of second-growth forest on both flanks.
On the right and immediate front of the unit, an open field stood within easy musket range from a nearby cedar brake. Union soldiers, pushed by the hard-charging Confederates, burst into the field.

"The cannoneers were at their posts, the general on the right in line. The order rang out, 'load'; before the word 'fire' came he (Rosecrans) raised his hand and plunged down the declivity (slope) in front. He had seen the approaching routed mass of soldiers, who at once would swarm on the front, over and through the battery, followed by the victorious foe; a moment's delay, and the capture of the battery would be inevitable."

Then came the order to fire with the battery launching "death dealing shells" over the head of Rosecrans into the mass of "gray" – beyond. The Chicago Board of Trade Battery fired 30 rounds per minute until the front was clear.

With the federal gun squads standing in relief on the crest, Confederate artillery opened with deadly precision. Then the rebel infantry fired a volley from the protection of the cedars and charged across the field.

The Chicago Board of Trade Battery answered with canister, cutting down lines of Confederates who had reached within 30 yards of the unit. Three times the Confederates shelled the battery, then charged. Each attack was repulsed.

"By 11 o'clock the enemy had learned that neither bravery nor numbers could carry the battery in their front, and all was quiet. Three of our men lay dead by their disabled gun. Then wounded were taken to the rear. The battery having held its ground, it became the pivotal point on which the right and centre rested."
Late in the afternoon, a section of the battery was repositioned to meet a threatened assault by Confederate Brig. Gen. William Preston's and Murfreesboro Mayor Joseph B. Palmer's brigades concealed in the twilight on the border of an open field some 200 yards to the front of the battery.
When the Confederates shot at Union soldiers gathering dead and wounded from the battlefield, the battery section opened up, ending its action on the 31st of December.

While the Pioneer Brigade was shoring up federal positions before the start of the battle, Batteries H&M of the 4th U.S. Artillery had already seen action. By Dec. 30th, Maj. Gen. T.L. Crittenden's wing of Rosecrans' army had already moved close to Murfreesboro. During the day before the battle, the batteries set up in a cotton field next to Nashville Pike and began to lob rounds as they probed the cedars for Confederate troops. The 24th Ohio Regiment, serving with Col. William Grose's Brigade. supported the batteries throughout the day and into the early evening.

On the morning of the 31st, the two batteries remained in the cotton field in support of Maj. Gen. John Palmer's Division. A large Confederate force broke through Brig. Gen. James S. Negley's Division and advanced uncontested toward the rear of Grose's Brigade, who had been moved into reserve for Palmer's Division.

Quickly, Batteries H&M shifted their position to face west and opened fire on the Confederates. The firepower from the cannons rejoined by the Ohio infantry regiment killed Confederate Brig. Gen. James E. Rains and wounded a great many of his men.

The 4th U.S. Artillery had a long history even before what the Union called the War of Rebellion began. After seeing action during the Mexican War, portions of the unit were assigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. and others were shipped to Pensacola, Fla., where they saw action against the Seminoles.

During the Civil War, Batteries H&M saw duty together as part of Crittenden's Division and saw heavy action at Shiloh. When Rosecrans assumed command of the Army of the Cumberland, it was assigned to Grose's Brigade. A few days after Stones River, the two batteries were separated with H remaining with Grose.

Commanding the batteries was Capt. Charles C. Parsons, an Ohio native and U.S. Military Academy graduate. He was brevetted captain for his gallantry at Perryville and to major for his bravery at Stones River.

At Perryville, where his battery was temporarily served by partially trained infantry men, 40 of his men were killed by a furious charge of the enemy and the rest driven back, but Parsons remained with his guns until he was dragged from them by a cavalryman by order of General Alexander McCook. At Stones River the cannoneers repelled six charges, much of the time under musketry fire. At times, the battery had Confederates on three sides of its position.

In its defense of the Nashville Pike, Parson's battery fired some 2, 199 rounds and suffered few casualties thanks to their accurate fire from four 3-inch ordinance rifles and four 12-pounder howitzers. Parsons was often mentioned in official reports for the battle.

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