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The 45th Tennessee fights at Chickamauga, Stones River

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McFadden's Ford...today.
After fighting in Louisiana, the return to Murfreesboro was undoubtedly difficult for the 45th Tennessee.

It was a case of so close, yet so far away for the Confederate infantrymen who were encamped around their hometown, but not free to come and go.

For those from nearby counties like Cannon and DeKalb and the temptation to just go home must have been strong. After all, most of the troops had just volunteered for a year.

Wisely, its commanders gave the unit some leave in December 1862 in the days before the Battle of Stones River.

Historian Larry J. Daniel recounted what followed in his “Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee.”

Soldiers from the 45th returned to camp loaded with holiday treats, cakes, cookies, pies and other battlefield rarities.

Cleverly, the men of the 20th Tennessee hatched a battle plan of their own. They challenged the 45th to a snowball fight.

While the battle was being hotly contested, a raiding party from the 20th sneaked into the 45th’s camp and made off with many of the sweets.

At Murfreesboro, the regiment saw more organization changes. Col. J.B. Palmer of Murfreesboro was placed in command of Brown’s Brigade as part of Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s Division. Palmer was colonel of the 18th Tennessee, another unit comprised of nearly all Rutherford County men. Brown had been seriously wounded at the Battle of Perryville.

Palmer, a prominent attorney, had served as mayor of Murfreesboro before the war. He had been taken prisoner at Fort Donelson on Feb. 16, 1862. He was held at Fort Warren, Mass., until August 1862. His regiment, the 18th, reformed at Jackson, Miss. with Palmer re-elected colonel.

The brigade saw action on both days of the battle outside of Murfreesboro.

On the first day, Breckinridge’s Division saw little action except for a late afternoon movement against Union Gen. William B. Hazen’s Brigade holding the Round Forest position on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.

Amazingly, Palmer was forced to surrender command to the much-maligned Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow who had previously surrendered many of them at Fort Donelson.

When the battle began, Breckinridge’s Division was on the Confederate right flank on the opposite side of Stones River. When Confederate Army of Tennessee commander Gen. Braxton Bragg called the division into action, it had to wade or ford the cold river on that icy late December afternoon.

Instead of waiting for the men to regroup, Bragg ordered them to attack in piecemeal fashion instead of a unified division of several thousand men. The scattered attacks failed to rout Hazen.

The battle resumed on Jan. 2, 1863 and was highlighted by Breckinridge’s charge.

During the New Years Day lull in fighting, Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans took the opportunity of seizing the high ground overlooking McFadden’s Ford on Stones River. He ordered Gen. Horatio VanCleve’s division to occupy the spot. Meanwhile, Breckinridge resumed his position on the opposite side of the river.

On the morning of the Jan. 2, Bragg was surprised to discover the Union Army of the Cumberland hadn’t retreated back to Nashville and had instead reinforced its key positions on the railroad line. After considering the situation, he decided to drive out the Union troops by catching them in an artillery crossfire from across the river.

Naturally, the perfect spot for the artillery, in Bragg’s thinking, was the high ground now held by VanCleve’s Brigade. Bragg summoned Breckinridge to his headquarters and informed him that he was to take that position.

Breckinridge, the former vice president of the United States, instantly saw the insanity of Bragg’s plan. Not only was the ridge completely invested with at least a full division of Union troops, but Yankee artillery was positioned to decimate any attackers.

In his effort to sway Bragg’s plans, Breckinridge drew a map of the situation on the ground with a stick, but Bragg refused to listen.

Breckinridge then rode to Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s position in the Confederate center where he would have a better viewpoint of the Union position.

Polk attempted to intervene, but Bragg still wouldn’t listen.

Breckinridge then delivered the fateful news to his brigadiers, telling Brig. Gen. William Preston:

“General, this attack is made against my judgement and by special orders of General Bragg. Of course we all must try to do our duty and fight the best we can; but if it should result in disaster and I be among the killed, I want you to do justice of my memory and tell the people that I believed this attack to be very unwise and tried to prevent it.”

Brig. Gen. R.W. Hanson didn’t take the orders so well. He had to be restrained from riding to headquarters and killing Bragg.

But the charge was still scheduled for 4 p.m. with the lateness of the hour, Bragg thought, not giving the Union troops time to counterattack.

However, Union Maj. General Thomas L. Crittenden spotted the Confederates building for an attack. Crittenden ordered his chief of artillery, Maj. John Mendenhall, to gather all available artillery in the area.

Mendenhall assembled a huge battery of 58 cannons on the west bank of McFadden’s Ford.

Breckinridge’s men, including the Rutherford County troops in the 18th and 45th Regiments, charged.

Palmer, relieved of brigade command by Gideon Pillow an hour earlier, rejoined the 18th.

Pillow, after the attack began, was found cowering behind a tree by a furious Breckinridge, who ordered him forward.

The Confederate’s dislodged VanCleve’s men, who were now commanded by Col. Samuel Beatty.

Screaming the infamous Rebel yell, they pursued the Union troops across Stones River. When they were in range, Mendenhall fired over his own troops into Breckinridge’s men. The huge battery was firing more than a hundred cannon blasts a minute.

The fight lasted less than 20 minutes with the Confederates suffering more than 1,700 causalities. Stones River literally ran red with their blood.

Bragg had thrown away victory at Stones River.

Col. Anderson Searcy’s regiment had 113 causalities during that brief encounter. Col. Palmer suffered three major wounds, but survived. Brig. Gen. Hanson was killed.

Bragg retreated to Tullahoma where on Feb. 16, 1863; the 45th was reassigned to Maj. Gen. B.F. Cheatham’s Brigade of Polk’s Corps. On Feb. 28, Brown (Palmer’s) Brigade got a new infusion of men in the form of the 23rd Tennessee.

The 45th was stationed at Fairfield in March and April 1863. After the Battle of Hoover’s Gap, it was transferred again to Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart’s Division. Fortunately, the unit did miss the fight at Hoover’s Gap where Union Col. John T. Wilder first “premiered” the firepower of the Spencer repeating rifle.

As the Army of Tennessee retreated to Chattanooga, the 45th was stationed in both Loudon and Charleston before being moved to the Chickamauga area. By then the regiment was part of Maj. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner’s Corps, which was assigned to the left wing of the Army of Tennessee. That wing of the army was under the temporary command of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet on loan with a corps of 5,000 men from the Army of Northern Virginia. Longstreet was under consideration to replace Bragg as army commander.

Longstreet opened the attack on Sept. 20, 1863, sending his eight brigades in three deep lines against the Union front. Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans, reacting to a perceived gap in Union lines, issued an order that caused a real gap. The Union right collapsed and only the tenacious holding action by Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas prevented the crushing of the Army of the Cumberland. Longstreet drove a third of the Union army off the battlefield, including Rosecrans and Gen. Phillip Sheridan.

While Chickamauga was the biggest Confederate victory in the Western Theater, Bragg threw away a chance by failing to pursue the Union army.

The 45th Tennessee saw its heaviest action at Chickamauga at Snodgrass Hill where Thomas held while the rest of the army retreated, suffering 98 casualties out of 226 effectives engaged. Like most Civil War regiments, the 45th’s numbers were dwindling due to both battlefield causalities and disease.

Earlier in 1863, the regiment had 323 men available for duty out of 449 present.

But the combined unit still managed to capture two artillery batteries and to push the Union line for another half mile. But the Confederate gains came at a heavy cost.

Palmer, just recovered from his wounds at Murfreesboro, was again seriously wounded along with Col. Butler and Maj. Butler of the 18th. Maj. Taz Newman of the 45th was injured and Col. John M. Lillard of the 26th Tennessee was fatally wounded.

Following Chickamauga, the Army of Tennessee moved in to Chattanooga where it laid siege to the Army of the Cumberland. The 45th was stationed first on Lookout Mountain and then Missionary Ridge.

Brown’s Brigade (Palmer’s) was transferred to Maj. Gen. C.L Stevenson’s Division of Gen. William Hardee’s Corps on Nov. 12, 1863. The 3rd Tennessee was added and the 45th was combined into one field unit with the 23rd Tennessee Infantry Battalion. Col. Searcy was given command of the unit.

The 45th/23rd was stationed on Missionary Ridge near the historic train tunnel on Nov. 25, 1863 and held that point until the Confederate line broke. The 45th had 12 casualties at Missionary Ridge and retreated to Ringgold, then Dalton, Ga., where the unit reported 232 effectives out of 316 present. The men wintered at Dalton and were transferred yet again from Hardee’s Corps to Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Corps.

During the Atlanta Campaign, the 45th fought at Rocky Face on May 7 and Resaca on May 14-15 before retreating, skirmishing, through Adairsville, Cassville, Cartersville, Powder Springs, Marietta and Peach Tree Creek to Atlanta. Moved to Dallas, Ga., the 45th had been under fire for 115 days.

Stephenson’s Division was reassigned to Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee’s Corps on July 26, 1864.

On Nov. 18, 1864, Brown’s and Reynold’s Brigades were combined with Col. Palmer in command of the unit, which was renamed Palmer’s Brigade. The 26th Tennessee was added to Colonel Searcy’s unit.

Regiments from other states (the 58th and 60th North Carolina and the 54th and 63rd Virginia) were added to Palmer’s Tennesseans.

By the luck of the draw, Palmer’s Brigade (and the 45th) missed the fighting at Franklin and Nashville.

Lee’s Corps arrived too late for Franklin, but they did get to fight at Murfreesboro one more time at the Battle of the Cedars on Wilkinson Pike.

Mike West can be reached at 869-0803 or at mwest@murfreesboropost.com

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