On the morning of December 31, 1862, Colonel Benjamin Franklin Scribner had not yet led his brigade of the Army of the Cumberland in a major battle. Although he was no stranger to combat, the Battle of Stone’s River would be his first real test as a brigade commander.
Born in 1825 in New Albany, Indiana, Scribner had served during the Mexican-American War as an enlisted man in the 2nd Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, seeing action at the Battle of Buena Vista and gaining a promotion to First Sergeant. Returning to New Albany after the war, Scribner married Anna Martha Maginness and settled into a lucrative career as a druggist.
Like many other careers, Scribner’s was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. In his memoirs, Scribner wrote that, after Southern secessionists fired on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, he was nearly "overcome with surprise, awe, and grief”. He had seen the worst of the war in Mexico, and the prospect of seeing war come to his own country filled him with dread. Despite this sense of unease, the event also stirred in Scribner a deep sense of patriotism, loyalty, and duty.
“By the firing upon Fort Sumpter [sic] the overt act was committed which did much to strengthen the Union. A military enthusiasm was awakened, companies were formed and the streets echoed with the shrill notes of the fife and the roll and rattle of the drum, the spirit of war filled the air and permeated the minds of all, and the Union sentiment became dominant and aggressive”.
Scribner’s military experience and his family’s status in New Albany society (his father, Abner Scribner, had been one of the city’s original founders in 1819) made him a man of local importance and influence. Shortly after the fall of Fort Sumter, Indiana Governor Oliver Morton appointed him Colonel of the Seventh Regiment of the Indiana Legion, the state’s militia force. However, Scribner’s sense of duty to country would not be content with simply going through the war as a trainer of home guard units. On August 21, 1861, he sent the following telegram:
“To Gov. O. P. Morton or the Secretary of War, Washington, D.C.:
I have a regiment of men nearly ready for service, do you want them?”
Within an hour, he received the reply:
“You are accepted. Report to Adjutant-General Noble at Indianapolis.
(Signed) O. P. Morton”
Years later, Scribner reflected upon this moment: “Thus the die was cast, the Rubicon crossed, and within thirty days from the date of these dispatches I was in the field at the head of the Thirty-Eighth Indiana Volunteers”.
For the rest of 1861, Scribner trained and led the 38th Indiana on operations in Kentucky, serving directly under Brigadier General William T. Sherman during the latter’s brief tenure as commander of the Department of the Cumberland. Throughout the spring and summer of 1862, the regiment undertook several grueling marches throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, and northern Alabama, primarily engaged in counter-guerrilla operations and occupation duty at Nashville. Although Scribner and the 38th gained valuable experience in marching and living in the field, they saw little combat other than minor skirmishing.
This all changed in August 1862, when, at Scribner’s request, the 38th was assigned to the 9th Brigade, 3rd Division, I Corps in Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. It was under this organization that Scribner and his regiment saw their first major action of the war on October 8th, 1862 at the Battle of Perryville, the bloody climax of Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky.
As part of Brigadier General Lovell Rousseau’s division in Alexander McCook’s corps, Scribner was in the thick of the fighting. In its first major battle, the 38th Indiana lost nearly a third of its 500 men and officers killed, wounded, or missing. Scribner himself was lightly wounded when a spent round struck him in the leg.
After Perryville, Scribner was assigned to the command of the 9th Brigade. The brigade consisted of Scribner’s old 38th Indiana, the 10th Wisconsin, and the 2nd, 33rd, and 94th Ohio Regiments. In the re-organization of the Army of the Ohio into the Army of the Cumberland that occurred following Buell’s replacement by Major General William Rosecrans, Scribner’s brigade became the First Brigade, First Division, Center Wing, XIV Corps, with Rousseau retaining command of the division and Major General George Thomas commanding the wing. (At this time, the Army of the Cumberland was synonymous with the XIV Corps; shortly after Stone’s River the army was again re-organized, with Thomas’ Center Wing becoming the XIV Corps proper, McCook’s Right Wing becoming the XX Corps, and Maj. Gen. Thomas Crittenden’s Left Wing becoming the XXI Corps).
Scribner, his brigade, and the rest of the Army of the Cumberland, spent the late autumn and early winter of 1862 at Nashville, preparing for another campaign against Gen. Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. This campaign began on December 26, 1862, when Rosecrans ordered his army out of Nashville to seek an engagement with their Southern adversaries then concentrated at Murfreesboro. On the evening of December 29th, the Union and Confederate armies encountered each other at Stone’s River, a few miles west of Murfreesboro. Although Rosecrans deployed his army into line the next day, December 30th, no major action occurred, with both commanders instead preparing plans of attack for the morning of December 31st.
Rarely in the Civil War would two major field armies prepare to do battle over more difficult terrain or in more inclement weather. The ground around Stone’s River was (and still is) littered with rocky outcroppings and boulders, and the dense cedar forests that cover much of the field reduced visibility to no more than a hundred yards in some places. A brigade commander would be hard-pressed to see more than one of his regiments at a time if he found himself deployed in the wooded areas of the field, a daunting prospect for a first-time brigadier like Scribner. It had been raining and sleeting on and off for several days, with the temperature hovering right around freezing. The men on the ground were soaking wet and chilled to the bone; this was exacerbated at night when the temperature dropped even further. Soldiers at Stone’s River would not merely be fighting the enemy. They would be fighting nature itself.
The armies spent the night of December 30th/31st with their frontlines bivouacked less than half-a-mile from each other, the men on both sides trying to stay warm in the cold winter chill. Rousseau’s division, including Scribner’s brigade, was put in reserve behind the Army of the Cumberland’s left (northern) flank, close to Rosecrans’ headquarters on the Nashville turnpike. Rosecrans and Bragg accidentally developed similar plans for the coming battle, both seeking victory through a morning attack on their enemy’s right flank. Bragg struck first, and at 6 a.m. on the morning of December 31st, 1862, the Battle of Stone’s River began.
The battle began well for the Confederates, with Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee’s corps smashing the right flank of the Army of the Cumberland, held by McCook’s Right Wing. The divisions of Union Brig. Generals Richard W. Johnson and Jefferson C. Davis were shattered, although they managed to inflict heavy losses on the attacking Confederates.
Only a resolute stand by Brig. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s division of McCook’s Wing was able to prevent a total collapse of the Union flank after Confederate Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s corps joined the attack. However, Sheridan’s line was under heavy pressure (he lost a third of his division in this stand, including all three of his brigade commanders killed) and could not hold indefinitely. It was at this point in the battle, between 9 and 10 a.m., that Colonel Benjamin Scribner was ordered to take his brigade forward.
Scribner’s brigade and the rest of Rousseau’s division had been formed up in reserve near the Nashville Turnpike since daybreak, and the men could plainly hear the sound of fighting coming up from the south as their comrades in McCook’s wing were fighting for their lives. However, it took some time for Gen. Rosecrans to fully realize the danger facing the Army of the Cumberland, and Sheridan’s division was already making its stand by the time the army’s commander reacted to the potential disaster.
One of Rosecrans’ first orders was to send Rousseau’s division into the thick cedar forest south of the Nashville Turnpike in order to extend Sheridan’s right flank. Scribner’s brigade formed the division’s second line, trailing the brigade of Col. John Beatty and Lt. Col. Oliver L. Sheppard’s brigade of U.S. regulars.
In his official report of the battle, quoted fully in his memoirs, Scribner described his brigades’ initial movements:
“At daylight we left our bivouac and moved about a mile to the front and formed the second line of your (Rousseau’s) division, two regiments extending into the cedar thicket on the right, and the left extending to the Nashville and Murfreesboro Pike. My line was disposed in the following order from left to right, viz: Tenth Wisconsin, Col. A. R. Chapin; Ninety-fourth Ohio, Col. J. W Frizel; Thirty-eighth Indiana, Lieut.-Col. D. F. Griffin, Thirty-third Ohio, Capt. E. J. Ellis; Second Ohio, Lieut.-Col. Jno. Kell. Having just finished loading arms, I received your order to proceed in double-quick time to the assistance of the right wing, and to follow the Seventeenth Brigade (Beatty) on the Pioneer road into the woods. When the Seventeenth Brigade halted in the woods, I was ordered by Gen. Thomas to move to the right, and soon after formed my line of battle near the Wilkinson Pike, on the left of Gen. Sheridan (it was actually on Sheridan’s right; Scribner here was mistaken), when we were opened upon by the enemy’s batteries”.
As Rousseau’s leading brigades in the cedar forest began to engage the Confederate brigades of James Rains and Bushrod Johnson, Sheridan’s division to their left began to collapse. Exhausted and out of ammunition, Sheridan’s men withdrew north towards the Nashville Turnpike. This left Rousseau’s division alone in the forest against the better part of an entire Confederate corps, a position which Rousseau quickly realized was untenable. As such, he began placing artillery batteries in a strong fallback position on the Turnpike north of the forest.
It was at this point that Scribner’s brigade was first divided, with Rousseau sending the 2nd and 33rd Ohio to support the fallback position on the Nashville Turnpike. These two regiments would fight there, detached from Scribner’s command, for the rest of the day.
After a brief-yet-fierce firefight, Sheppard’s brigade of regulars on the division’s right front withdrew first. Due to a communications mishap, Beatty’s brigade to their left did not fall back for some time, engaging nearly a full Confederate division in a desperate fight before rejoining the rest of the division on the Nashville Turnpike. Due to the severely limited visibility in the cedar forest, however, Scribner was unaware of Beatty’s stand, and for twenty minutes after Sheppard’s withdrawal it seemed to him as if the three regiments remaining under his command were all that stood in the way of the Confederate onslaught. Thankfully for Scribner, his little command was not heavily engaged before it received the order to withdraw northwards through the woods and back to the Turnpike.
In his memoirs, Scribner relates an interesting anecdote from this period in the battle:
“As I passed out of the cedars and into the open field, after I had given the order from Gen. Rousseau to fall back, I observed Gen. Thomas on the pike to the left of the point at which I had directed my men to re-form. It at once flashed upon my mind what would be Gen. Thomas’ impression of the manner my men were told to cross the open field, as if fleeing in disorder to escape the assaults of the enemy, so I dashed up to him and explained that we had been in the cedars, where we were able to hold our own, we were not being driven out, but were acting in obedience to the order of Gen. Rousseau, who directed me to fall back to the pike, and as we looked upon what seemed a panic-sticken rout, I added that I had told the men to disperse when they entered the field, and every man for himself, to run for the pike, for the enemy would doubtless pursue and have them at a disadvantage. Then pointing to the pike, I said, ‘And now, General, you see they are re-forming.’ Then, lifting my hat, I asked, ‘Have you any further orders?’ He replied, ‘No, re-form on the pike.’ This was the most extended interview I had had with Gen. Thomas, and was the foundation for that good opinion the General ever manifested toward my command.”
While it is possible that this was more a case of a first-time brigade commander attempting to save face with a senior officer after his brigade was caught in a disorderly retreat, following their flight from the cedar forest Scribner’s three regiments did indeed reform in good order on the Nashville Turnpike. A cotton field extended south of the Turnpike several hundred yards to the northern edge of the cedar forest, giving the Union line a perfect field of fire at any Confederates attacking out of the woods.
Shortly after Rousseau’s division re-formed, Confederate Brig. Gen. James Rains’ brigade stepped out of the trees and was slaughtered by the combined fire of several Union regiments and artillery batteries. Rains fell dead, and the remnants of his brigade fell back into the cedar forest. Having formed on the Turnpike nearly simultaneously to this engagement, Scribner relays the following in his report:
“My right had just emerged from the woods, when the enemy… were seen retiring in disorder in a northwesterly direction through a narrow neck of woods. They were opened upon by the Ninety-fourth Ohio and two companies of the Thirty-eighth Indiana. I then threw forward my skirmishers and advanced my command about six hundred yards into the woods…”
As Scribner advanced back into the woods on the right of Rousseau’s division, his brigade was again divided when the 94th Ohio was ordered to reinforce a spot in the line further down the Turnpike. This left Scribner with only two regiments, the 38th Indiana and 10th Wisconsin, under his direct command, less than 40 percent of his brigade’s full strength. During the advance, troops from Brig. Gen. James Negley’s division, also of Thomas’ Center Wing, fell back through Scribner’s lines after running out of ammunition fighting in support of Sheridan in the southeastern corner of the cedar forest, near the Wilkinson Turnpike. Confederates from Hardee’s corps were advancing close behind Negley, and Scribner soon found his command heavily engaged. The dense cedar forest and the limited visibility again gave Scribner the impression that he was fighting nearly alone.
“I soon found myself nearly surrounded, a heavy column turning my left. The Tenth Wisconsin was ordered to change front, forming a right angle with the Thirty-eighth Indiana. This position was scarcely taken when the enemy came down upon us with great fury. They appeared to be massed in several lines and their head seemed to be in terraces not twenty-five yards before us. For twenty minutes these two regiments maintained their ground, completely checking the advance of the enemy’s column. Here the Thirty-eighth lost their brave captain, J. E. Fouts, besides nearly one-third of their number in killed and wounded. Lieut.-Col. Griffin and Maj. J. B. Glover both had their horses shot under them and their clothing perforated with bullets. The Tenth Wisconsin nobly vied with their comrades on the right, and I am convinced that both regiments would have suffered extermination rather than yield their ground without orders. But at length the order came and we fell back and formed on the pike, and fronting the cedar thicket, but the enemy did not venture to follow us farther than the edge of the woods.”
Scribner’s little demi-brigade lost heavily during its twenty-minute slugfest in the cedar forest. This is exemplified by the losses in Scribner’s old 38th Indiana, with the Hoosiers losing one officer and 13 enlisted men killed, three officers and 91 enlisted men wounded, and seven enlisted men missing.
Though detached from his command for much of the battle, Scribner’s other regiments were also heavily engaged. The 2nd and 33rd Ohio, detached during the initial advance into the cedar forest, fought in support of several artillery batteries on the Nashville Turnpike, with the 2nd Ohio capturing the colors of the 30th Arkansas in the fighting, although their commander, Lt. Col. John Kell was killed.
After his fight in the cedar forest, the firing on Scribner’s section of the field slackened as the Confederates shifted their focus east, where Col. William B. Hazen’s brigade of Crittenden’s Left Wing made their famous defense of “Hell’s Half Acre” in the Round Forest, finally halting the Confederate advance and staving off total disaster for the Army of the Cumberland.
As the fighting died down, Scribner’s brigade took up a defensive position in the cotton field south of the turnpike:
“Having re-formed my brigade, I advanced my right to the woods from which we had just emerged, deployed, as skirmishers, the Ninety-fourth Ohio through the neck of timber (the 94th was re-attached to Scribner’s command as he was reforming), with my left resting on the Nashville pike. Here we remained the remainder of the day under the fire of sharp-shooters, and ever and anon the shot and shell from the enemy’s batteries on our left fell among us.”
Although his men skirmished with Confederates in the woods and were under intermittent artillery fire for the rest of the day, Scribner’s role in the main fighting was at an end.
As night fell, a cold chill settled onto the battlefield as Scribner and his men slept on their arms where they had fought.
“The night after the first day’s fight was a trying one to my command. They maintained all night the line upon which they formed during the afternoon and, having to lie down upon the wet and muddy ground, their clothes were in a sorry plight. The night turned cold, and many had their garments frozen to the ground. Fires were not permitted, even to boil coffee. The officers, however, had no difficulty in enforcing this command, for the striking of a match to light a pipe would bring a bullet whizzing by and thus prove the wisdom of the order.”
Perhaps worse than the cold or the threat of a sharpshooter’s bullet was the plight of the wounded. Many of Scribner’s men had fallen in the thick tangles of the cedar forest, making them difficult to find in the darkness. That night, many of the wounded froze to death before any aid could be given. Years later, the memories of that night still stood out strongly in Scribner’s mind while he was composing his memoirs:
“One poor fellow, not far from me, kept up an incessant cry of ‘Oh, God Almighty! God Almighty! God Almighty!!!’ I sent a staff officer to assist and comfort him, but without avail, for he kept up that piteous wail until the hospital detail bore him off. There is something awful and mournful in death under all circumstances, but with the dead arranged for burial by a professional undertaker there is a calmness, a repose, a dignity, a reverent and subdued tone and order that saddens but does not horrify, but on the battlefield there is a different scene. Here, as at some vast morgue, you are gathered to identify the dead, and it appalls the senses, for here they lie as they fell, their eyes unclosed, their forms stiff in the positions in which they died, their gory wounds through which noble lives ebbed away, augmenting and fixing upon the mind the ruthless, cruel and ghastly spectacle. But I will not dwell upon these shocking details.”
After a freezing and horrifying night spent among the dead and dying, early on the morning of January 1st Scribner’s exhausted brigade was finally relieved and pulled into reserve near Rosecrans’ headquarters. After eating a breakfast of hardtack and having their first hot coffee since the previous morning, Scribner’s brigade (now reunited with the 2nd and 33rd Ohio) spent the remainder of the battle holding a defensive position between the Nashville Turnpike and the edge of the cedar forest.
January 1st passed relatively quietly, but on January 2nd Scribner and his men had an excellent view of Confederate Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge’s failed attack on the Army of the Cumberland’s left flank, with Breckenridge’s failure marking the effective end of the battle. Both sides initially claimed victory, but on January 3rd Braxton Bragg withdrew the Army of Tennessee through Murfreesboro and began a retreat towards Tullahoma, Tennessee, leaving the field under the control of William S. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland.
As a proportion of soldiers involved, the Battle of Stone’s River was the bloodiest major battle of the Civil War, and in absolute numbers was bloodier than both Shiloh and Antietam. Total casualties were 24,645, 12,906 Union and 11,739 Confederate, more than 30% of the forces engaged. Of the 1,646 men and officers in Scribner’s brigade, 32 were killed, 180 wounded (many of whom would later die of their wounds), and 45 were reported missing.
The battle had been a trying test for Col. Benjamin Scribner, and the first-time brigade commander from New Albany, Indiana had performed admirably in the fighting. Scribner would go on to lead his brigade through the muddy Tullahoma Campaign, held the final Union line with Thomas at Chickamauga, stormed the heights of Missionary Ridge during the Battles for Chattanooga, and in the summer of 1864 received a much-deserved Brevet promotion to Brigadier General of Volunteers during Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. Shortly before the conclusion of that campaign and the fall of Atlanta, Scribner resigned from the army due to complications with his health (he had long struggled with near-debilitating hay fever and allergies), and subsequently returned home to New Albany.
Decades after the war, while composing his memoirs, Scribner reflected on his experience at Stone’s River specifically and the war in general:
“No merely official report of an engagement can adequately represent the conflict which rages within the breasts of those taking part in it. When a great battle has been fought and perchance won, its announcement is received as an accomplished fact; the anxieties and uncertainties pertaining to the actors in it are overlooked in the general rejoicing, and triumph is regarded as a matter of course. But while the conflict is yet undecided, no one can predict the result; that history is being made, that great consequences hang upon the issue may at times be comprehended, but no one knows the end. Life or death, victory or defeat are wavering in the balance; every moment is pregnant with contingencies which may make or mar the wisest plans and fondest hopes.”
An eminently modest man, Scribner attributed his brigade’s success at Stone’s River wholly to his men, always downplaying his own role in the battle. Speaking to the bravery of the men under his command, Scribner wrote that, “Courage is not an exceptional quality. In this country it is a national attribute.”
Benjamin Franklin Scribner died in Louisville, Kentucky on November 29th, 1900, having exemplified courage as a national attribute through a lifetime of service to his country. He is buried in New Albany’s Fairview Cemetery.
Cozzens, Peter. No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stone’s River. University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Green, Robert. “Benjamin Franklin Scribner (1825-1900).” WikiTree. Created Jan 8, 2018, last modified Jun 25, 2021. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Scribner-589.
Perry, Henry Fales. History of the Thirty-eighth Regiment Indiana Volunteer Infantry, One of the Three Hundred Fighting Regiments of the Union Army in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. Palo Alto: F. A. Stuart Printer, 1906. Held by the Library of Congress Online Catalog.