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12541Re: Breckinridge's Report for Stones River

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  • hartshje
    Jul 8, 2002
      Wakefield,

      In Message #12443 you made quite a lengthy reply to my statements
      about Breckinridge's Jan 2d assault at Stones River. Below, I have
      excerpted your main points, followed by my own return comments:

      > Van Cleve and Sam Beatty, who assumed command on Jan.1, 1863,
      > neither attempted to break out their losses between Dec 31st and
      > Jan 2nd. True, two of Van Cleve's three brigades were brought back
      > over Stone's River late on December 31st to help stem the tide
      > against Cleburne's CS Division. These two brigades (Beatty's and
      > Fyfee's) participated in the final repulse of Cleburne's division.
      > Certainly this constituted rough work however the after action
      > reports do not indicate that the two brigades were roughly handled
      > nor do they report that they were broken in their defense. At any
      > rate I would think that it would be a fair guess that certainly Van
      > Cleve's Division was probably not anymore seriously depleted by
      > having 2/3s of its strength fighting on the 31st than Breckenridge
      > which had 3 of its four brigades or 3/4ths of its strength being
      > thrown against the Round Forest on the 31st. In short just my rough
      > guess but it seems that any losses suffered on the 31st were pretty
      > much a 'wash'.

      I don't know about it being a "wash". The likelihood is that on
      the 31st Breckinridge did suffer more heavily than VanCleve. But
      I don't see how that relates. Bragg claims Breckinridge lost 700 men
      that day, Breckinridge claims 400. I believe the difference comes
      from Jackson's brigade, which remained detached when Breckinridge went
      back to the east side of the river. Breckinridge claimed a total of
      2,100 casualties in his report, but that DID NOT INCLUDE Jackson,
      who's losses were reported by Hardee seperately as an independent
      brigade. What Bragg did was to take Breckinridge's report of 2,100
      casualties and subtract 700 for the 31st and then claim only 1,400
      were lost on Jan 2nd, when Breckinridge puts the loss at 1,700.
      Bragg also makes the same error to exaggerate Breckinridge's strength
      for the assault, using the pre-battle return for all five brigades,
      then subtracting a loss of 700 on the Dec 31st, and claiming that
      Breckinridge had about 1,000 more men for the assualt than he
      actually had.


      > According to Union Left Wing artillery chief Mendenhall's post-
      > battle report if Breckenridge opposed the assault at 2 p.m. when he
      > received his orders because the federals had massed artillery on
      > the west side of the river, then Breckenridge was clairvoyant.
      > Mendenhall indicates in his report that only 15 guns were in fact
      > in position west of the river at 4 p.m. when Breckenridge's assault
      > actually started. How Breckenridge could have anticipated that
      > Mendenhall would assemble nearly 50 guns in the hour between the
      > start of Breckenridges assault and its cresting of the objective
      > Hill is truly something to ponder.

      Unfortunately, I cannot seem to locate Mendenhall's report in the
      O.R.'s. However, James L. McDonough in "Stones River – Bloody
      Winter in Tennessee" pages 180, 181 uses as his source writings by
      Edwin C. Bearss, and states that UP UNTIL MID-AFTERNOON there were
      six Union batteries of 24 guns posted on the west bank of the ford.
      In addition, there was a 6-gun battery (3rd Wisconsin) with
      VanCleve's division (under Beatty). This would make a total of
      30 guns that Breckinridge would have seen in his reconnaisance.
      15 more guns were brought up AFTER the attack was underway. Your
      post says exactly the opposite of this. Please point me to the report
      you referenced. Also, 12 more guns at a mile distance would add
      their enfilading fire during the assault, making the total 57 guns.


      > As far as the estimate of 1000 yards of open ground approach there
      > seems to be quite a bit of conflicting testimony. Although
      > Breckenridge gives some various differing distances in his report
      > the following I think is at least one estimate of how far he
      > thought the distance to be covered was- "To reach him it was
      > necessary to cross an open space 600 or 700 yards in width, with a
      > gentle ascent. The river was several hundred yards in rear of his
      > position, but departed from it considerably as it flowed toward his
      > left. " At another place in the report Breckenridge states the
      > distance to be travelled was 1600 yards. At any rate most reports
      > seem to agree that a significant part of the approach was through
      > heavy woods. So maybe Breckenridge `s reference to the 600 or 700
      > yards was the final approach.

      We can definitely agree on this point. The open field leading up
      to the hill was about 650 yards. The approach prior to reaching the
      field was more or less wooded. Still, that's a long way to go against
      an enemy on higher ground who knows your coming, and you know he has
      at least 30 guns in place. I wouldn't want to do it!


      > Breckenridge's own words seem to imply (at least to me) that the
      > reason he could not hold the position was because of massive Union
      > forces flanking him on the right (that area which the cavalry
      > should have been covering) and directly counter-attacking.--
      > "The second line had halted when the first engaged the enemy's
      > infantry, and laid down under orders; but very soon the casualties
      > in the first line, the fact that the artillery on the opposite bank
      > was more fatal to the second line than the first, and the eagerness
      > of the troops, impelled them forward, and at the decisive moment,
      > when the opposing infantry was routed, the two lines had mingled
      > into one, the only practical inconvenience of which was that at
      > several points the ranks were deeper than is allowed by a proper
      > military formation. A strong force of the enemy beyond our extreme
      > right yet remained on the east side of the river. Presently a new
      > line of battle appeared on the west bank directly opposite our
      > troops and opened fire, while at the same time large masses crossed
      > in front of our right and advanced to the attack. We were compelled
      > to fall back. "
      > Later Breckenridge talks about the artillery fire which he says
      > made the crest of the hill untenable but once again he does not
      > seem to say that it was the artillery which forced him to retire--
      > "It now appeared that the ground we had won was commanded by the
      > enemy's batteries, within easy range, on better ground, upon the
      > other side of the river. I know not how many guns he had. He had
      > enough to sweep the whole position from the front, the left, and
      > the right, and to render it wholly untenable by our force present
      > of artillery and infantry. The infantry, after passing the crest
      > and descending the slope toward the river, were in some measure
      > protected, and suffered less at this period of the action than the
      > artillery."

      The enemy artillery made the hill untenable, but the counter-
      attacking Union forces were the immediate cause of the retreat.
      Breckinridge was not going to be able to hold that hill regardless.
      In reference to the cavalry, I agree that Bragg and Breckinridge are
      equally culpable here, and some fault must lay with Pegram and
      Wharton, who were in plain view of the battle, and should have
      shown some initiative here. Be that as it may, when Breckinridge
      first broke the Union line, only 3 regts. of Grose's brigade still
      remained on the Confederate right flank. The strong force that
      moved against the right later was from the Union divisions that
      counter-attacked over the river after the Confederates fell back
      from the artillery and infantry fire coming from the west bank.
      Even if the cavalry had come up, they were not going to stop the
      Union counter-attack (see my next paragraph below as to why.)


      > Finally Breckenridge's addendum to his report sums up why he
      > believed the assault failed--
      > "And in regard to the action of Friday, the 2d of January, upon
      > which the commanding general heaps so much criticism, I have to
      > say, with the utmost confidence, that the failure of my troops to
      > hold the position which they carried on that occasion was due to no
      > fault of theirs or of mine, but to the fact that we were commanded
      > to do an impossible thing. My force was about 4,500 men. Of these,
      > 1,700 heroic spirits stretched upon that bloody field, in an
      > unequal struggle against three divisions, a brigade, and an
      > overwhelming concentration of artillery, attested our efforts to
      > obey the order."
      > Not to be unduly critical of Breckenridge but where did he come up
      > with THREE divisions of Union infantry? I can not help but wonder
      > about the rest of his assessment when he so clearly missed the mark
      > on this item and also it seems to be somewhat at odds with
      > Breckenridge's earlier statements that stated the flank movement
      > was the cause for his withdrawal.

      I think now you are just trying to see if I am still paying
      attention. In fact, Breckinridge did directly fight against Beatty's
      division, Palmer's division, Negley's division, and Morton's Pioneer
      Brigade. In support of these, and joining in the counter-attack were
      Davis' division and one brigade of Johnson's division. As I stated
      above, I don't think the Confederate cavalry was going to hold back
      all these Yankees.


      > You next stated-"Also, Bragg could have easily taken the hill the
      > previous day without an attack. It was not manned until later by
      > Union troops, although I think it still would have been untenable
      > by the Confederates. If Bragg thought the hill so important, why
      > did he wait until the enemy occupied it to try taking it?"
      > I believe that Rosecrans in his report states that he ordered Van
      > Cleve's Division to occupy the high ground east of McFadden's Ford
      > at 3 am on January 1st and this order was immediately executed. It
      > appears then from the records that the hill in question was in fact
      > occupied by the Federals by dawn on January 1st. I do not believe
      > that three of Breckenridge's brigades returned to the west side of
      > the river until well after sun up on January 1st. Thus while Bragg
      > certainly could have attempted the assault one day earlier it would
      > not have been against an undefended hill. Also the reports seem to
      > indicate that Breckenridge did not report the Federals occupation
      > of the high ground to headquarters on January 1st.

      You are definitely correct about the time of the Federal's
      occupying the hill. That was my error. But having said that,
      Rosecran's did abandon the hill on Dec 31st to fight off Bragg's
      assaults west of the river. If the hill was of strategic value to
      Bragg, he had a perfect chance THEN to have Breckinridge seize the
      hill, instead of using four of his brigades in fruitless, piecemeal,
      bloody frontal assualts against the Round Forrest. But even if that
      HAD been done, I don't see how the hill could have been retained for
      long when it was commanded by the higher ground on the west bank.
      Then we probably would have seen a massive bombardment and infantry
      assault by the Federals on January 1st, instead of the historical
      fight that occurred on the 2nd.


      > I certainly find John C. Breckenridge to be an interesting
      > character but I also find him to be the ultimate POLITICAL
      > appointee. I confess that there was nothing in his prior command
      > performance at Shiloh that would lead me to refer to him as
      > a 'noted hands on' Division commander. In fact this was arguably
      > his first time ever commanding a division in combat. From all
      > Confederate accounts of the January 2nd assault it seems that a
      > very cogent and believable story can be made that he failed to
      > properly coordinate with his cavalry flanking force and that
      > Breckenridge simply lost control of his Division. The brigade
      > reports (even good friend and fellow Kentuckian Preston)
      > acknowledge that the two lines of assault became jumbled and
      > disorganized as the division swept over the hill and went beyond
      > its stated objective. Heck even Breckenridge seems to grudgingly
      > admit this although he minimizes the importance. Further it
      > appears that Breckenridge and yes maybe even Bragg failed to
      > coordinate with available cavalry units to help protect the right
      > flank of the assault column. Breckenridge nowhere explains why he
      > did not coordinate better with Pegram's available cavalry force.
      > The closest he comes is stating he sent staff officers to make
      > contact and they never did. Pillow in his report (a story in
      > itself) clearly states that when he asked Breckenridge whether he
      > had talked to the cavalry Pillow was told that Breckenridge had not
      > and apparently that Breckenridge had not even thought to make
      > contact.

      Well, I never said he was a "noted" hands-on commander. What I
      meant was that a division commander who is with his division during
      a battle is more intimate with the condition of his troops and their
      losses than an army commander would be, especially one like Bragg,
      who was usually too remote from the front line to really know what
      was going on.


      > Once again I really do not want to be overly petty and I do hope
      > that you do not think I am splitting too many hairs. But as I
      > indicated initially the "infamous" January 2nd suicide assault upon
      > closer examination does not appear to me to have been a totally
      > hopeless attempt by Bragg just to kill off Kentucky people. The
      > Hill was overrun. Breckenridge's opposition to the charge based
      > upon the artillery concentration that was not there at the time of
      > his alleged opposition seems problematic. The story goes on but it
      > seems to me that it is pretty fair to say that Breckenridge
      > certainly contributed his fair share to the failure of the assault,
      > by losing control of his assault column and also by failing to
      > protect his right flank which he, himself seems to say at the time
      > was the actual cause for his withdrawal. All the blame does not
      > fall upon Bragg.

      I will agree with you that Breckinridge certainly DID NOT do an
      outstanding job on this day, and Bragg is not the only one to blame
      for the failure of this assualt. But he sure is to blame for
      ordering it. And, if he had managed things better on Dec 31st, the
      Union army probably wouldn't even have been around on Jan 2nd. But
      then again, I could be WRONG!

      This has been a great debate. Thanks much for your input.
      Respectfully,
      Joe H.
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