In His Own Words--John C. Breckinridge and the Battle of Stones River
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
After a promising day of battle on December 31, 1862, the Army of Tennessee faced a serious reversal on January 2, 1863, mostly due to the fact that Major General Rosecrans and his Union army did not retreat as hoped. The only major fighting to occur on January 2 was the attack made by the Confederate division commanded by Major General John C. Breckinridge against the Union left. The attack failed, and as Breckinridge watched his fellow Kentuckians retreat, he was said to have howled like a wounded lion, grieving for his "poor Orphans." Here started the enmity between him and Braxton Bragg, with the latter providing several "corrections" to Breckinridge's report filed after the battle, all of which are provided below. Grab a large cup of coffee, better yet, a full pot, and learn what the men had to say in their own words concerning this attack that is still contentious among Civil War readers today.
Headquarters Breckinridge's Division
I have the honor to report the operations of this division, of Lieutenant-General Hardee’s corps, in the recent battles of Stone’s River, in front of Murfreesborough.
The character and course of Stone’s River, and the nature of the ground in front of the town, are well known, and as the report of the general commanding will, no doubt, be accompanied by a sketch, it is not necessary to describe them here.
On the morning of Sunday, December 28, the brigades moved from their encampments and took up line of battle about 1£ miles from Murfreesborough in the following order: Adams’ brigade on the right, with its right resting on the Lebanon road, and its left extending toward the ford over Stone’s River, a short distance below the destroyed bridge on the Nashville turnpike; Preston on the left of Adams; Palmer on the left of Preston, and Hanson forming the left of the line, with his left resting on the right bank of the river near the ford. The right of Major-General Withers, of Lieutenant-General Polk’s corps, rested near the left bank of the river and slightly in advance of Hanson’s left. Brigadier-General Jackson, having reported to me with his command, was placed, by the direction of the lieutenant-general commanding, upon the east side of the Lebanon road, on commanding ground, a little in advance of the right of Brigadier-General Adams.
My division formed the front line of the right wing of the army; Major-General Cleburne’s division, drawn up some 600 yards in rear, formed the second line of the same wing, while the division of Major-General McCown, under the immediate direction of the general commanding, composed the reserve.
My line extended from left to right along the edge of a forest, save an open space of 400 yards, which was occupied by Wright’s battery, of Preston’s brigade, with the Twentieth Tennessee in reserve to support it. An open field 800 yards in width extended along nearly the whole front of the line, and was bounded on the opposite side by a line of forest similar to that occupied by us. In the opinion of the lieutenant-general commanding (who had twice ridden carefully over the ground with me) and the general commanding (who had personally inspected the lines), it was the strongest position the nature of the ground would allow.
About 600 yards in front of Hanson’s center was an eminence which it was deemed important to hold. It commanded the ground sloping toward the river in its front and on its left, and also the plain on the west bank occupied by the right of Withers’ line. Colonel [T. H.] Hunt, with the Forty-first Alabama, the Sixth and Ninth Kentucky, and Cobb’s battery, all of Hanson’s brigade, was ordered to take and hold this hill, which he did, repulsing several brisk attacks of the enemy, and losing some excellent officers and men. A few hundred yards to the left and rear of this position a small earthwork, thrown up under the direction of Major R.E. Graves, my chief of artillery, was held during a part of the operations by Semple’s battery of Napoleon guns.
In the afternoon of Tuesday, the 30th, I received intelligence from Lieutenant-General Hardee that the divisions of Cleburne and McCown were to be transferred to the extreme left, and soon after an order came to me from the general commanding to hold the hill at all hazards. I immediately moved the remainder of Hanson’s brigade to the hill, and strengthened Cobb’s battery with a section from [C. L,] Lumsden’s battery and a section from [C. H.] Slocomb’s Washington Artillery. At the same time Adams’ brigade was moved from the right and formed on the ground originally occupied by Hanson’s brigade. Jackson was moved to the west side of the Lebanon road, to connect with the general line of battle.
All the ground east of Stone’s River was now to be held by one division, which, in a single line, did not extend from the ford to the Lebanon road. I did not change my general line, since a position in advance, besides being less favorable in other respects, would have widened considerably the interval between my right and the Lebanon road. The enemy did not again attack the hill with infantry, but our troops there continued to suffer during all the operations, from heavy shelling. Our artillery at that position often did good service in diverting the enemy’s fire from our attacking lines of infantry, and especially on Wednesday, the 31st, succeeded in breaking several of their formations on the west bank of the river.
On the morning of Wednesday, the 31st, the battle opened on our left. From my front, information came to me from [John] Pegram’s cavalry force in advance that the enemy, having crossed at the fords below, were moving on my position in line of battle. This proved to be incorrect, and it is to be regretted that sufficient care was not taken by the authors of the reports to discriminate rumor from fact.
About 10.30 a. m. I received, through Col. J. Stoddard Johnston, a suggestion from the general commanding to move against the enemy instead of awaiting his attack.* I preferred to fight on the ground I then occupied, but supposing that the object of the general was to create a diversion in favor of our left, my line, except Hanson’s brigade, was put in motion in the direction from which the enemy was supposed to be advancing. We had marched about half a mile when I received, through Colonel Johnston, an order from the general commanding to send at least one brigade to the support of Lieutenant-General Polk, who was hard pressed, and, as I recollect, two, if I could spare them. I immediately sent Adams and Jackson, and at the same time suspended my movement, and sent forward Capt. E. M. Blackburn, with several of my escort, and Captain Coleman and Lieut. Thomas B. Darragh, of my staff, with orders to find and report with certainty the position and movements of the enemy. Soon after an order came from the general commanding to continue the movement. The line again advanced, but had not proceeded far when I received an order from the general commanding, through Colonel Johnston; repeated by Colonel Grenfell, to leave Hanson in position on the hill, and with the remainder of my command to report at once to Lieutenant-General Polk. The brigades of Preston and Palmer were immediately moved by the flank toward the ford before referred to, and the order of the general executed with great rapidity.
*I find that Colonel Johnston regarded it as an order* but, as I moved at once, it is not material.
In the mean time, riding forward to the position occupied by the general commanding and Lieutenant-General Polk, near the west bank of the river, and a little below the ford, I arrived in time to see at a distance the brigades of Jackson and Adams recoiling from a very hot fire of the enemy. I was directed by Lieutenant-General Polk to form my line, with its right resting on the river and its left extending across the open field, crossing the Nashville turnpike almost at a right angle. While my troops were crossing the river, and getting into line, I rode forward with a portion of my staff, assisted by gentlemen of the staffs of Generals Bragg and Polk, to rally and form Adams’ brigade, which was falling back chiefly between the turnpike and the river. Jackson, much cut up, had retired farther toward our left. The brigade of Brigadier-General Adams was rallied and placed in line across the field, behind a low and very imperfect breastwork of earth and rails. These brigades did not again enter the action that day, which, indeed, closed soon after with the charge of Preston and Palmer. They had suffered severely in an attack upon superior numbers, very strongly posted and sustained by numerous and powerful batteries, which had repulsed all preceding assaults. The list of casualties shows the courage and determination of these troops.
General Adams having received a wound while gallantly leading his brigade, the command devolved upon Col. R. L. Gibson, who discharged its duties throughout with marked courage and skill.
Preston and Palmer being now in line; Preston on the right, Lieutenant-General Polk directed me to advance across the plain until I encountered the enemy. The right of my line rested on the river (and, from the course of the stream, would in advancing rest on or very near it), while the left touched a skirt of woods from which the enemy had been driven during the day. At the opposite extremity of the plain a cedar-brake extended in front of Palmer’s whole line and two-thirds of Preston’s line, the remaining space to the river being comparatively open, with commanding swells, and through this ran the railroad and turnpike nearly side by side. It was supposed that the enemy’s line was parallel to ours, but the result showed that, in advancing, our right and his left at the point of contact would form an acute angle. These two brigades, passing over the troops lying behind the rails, moved across the plain in very fine order under the fire of the enemy’s artillery. We had advanced but a short distance when Colonel [T.] O’Hara (my acting adjutant-general) called my attention to a new battery in the act of taking position in front of our right, between the turnpike and the river. I immediately sent him back to find some artillery to engage the enemy’s battery. He found and placed in position the Washington Artillery. About the same time Capt. E. P. Byrne reported his battery to me, and received an order to take the best position he could find and engage the enemy. He succeeded in opening on them after our line had passed forward.
A number of officers and men were killed along the whole line, but in this charge the chief loss fell upon Preston’s right and center. His casualties amounted to 155.
The Twentieth Tennessee, after driving the enemy on the right of the turnpike, and taking 25 prisoners, was compelled to fall back before a very heavy artillery and musketry fire, Colonel Smith, commanding, being severely wounded, but it kept the prisoners and soon rejoined the command. The Fourth Florida and Sixtieth North Carolina encountered serious difficulty at a burnt house (Cowan’s) on the left of the turnpike from fences and other obstacles, and were, for a little while, thrown into some confusion. Here for several minutes they were exposed to a destructive and partially enfilading fire at short range of artillery and infantry; but they were soon rallied by their gallant brigade commander, and, rushing with cheers across the intervening space, entered the cedar glade. The enemy had retired from the cedars, and was in position in a field to the front and right. By changing the front of the command slightly forward to the right, my line was brought parallel to that of the enemy, and was formed near the edge of the cedars.
About this time, meeting Lieutenant-General Hardee, we went together to the edge of the field to examine the position of the enemy, and found him strongly posted in two lines of battle, supported by numerous batteries. One of his lines had the protection of the railroad cut, forming an excellent breastwork. We had no artillery, the nature of the ground forbidding its use. It was deemed reckless to attack with the force present.
Night was now approaching. Presently the remainder of Lieutenant-General Hardee’s corps came up on the left, and, with McCown’s command and a part of Cheatham’s, prolonged the line of battle in that direction. Adams’ brigade also appeared and formed on the right of Preston. The troops bivouacked in position.
The commanding general, expecting an attack upon his right the next morning, ordered me during the night to recross the river with Palmer’s brigade. Before daylight Thursday morning, Palmer was in position on the right of Hanson. No general engagement occurred on this day, the troops generally being employed in replenishing the ammunition, cooking rations, and obtaining some repose.
On Friday, January 2, being desirous to ascertain if the enemy was establishing himself on the east bank of the river, Lieutenant-Colonel [John A.] Buckner and Major Graves, with Captain [Edward P.] Byrne’s battery, and a portion of the Washington Artillery, under Lieutenant [W.] C.D. Vaught, went forward to our line of skirmishers toward the right and engaged those of the enemy, who had advanced, perhaps, 1,000 yards from the east bank of the river. They soon revealed a strong line of skirmishers, which was driven back a considerable distance by our sharpshooters and artillery, the latter firing several houses in the fields in which the enemy had taken shelter. At the same time, accompanied by Major [W. D.] Pickett, of Lieutenant-General Hardee’s staff, and by Maj. James Wilson, Colonel [T.] O’Hara, and Lieutenant [J. Cabell] Breckinridge, of my own, I proceeded toward the left of our line of skirmishers, which passed through a thick wood about 500 yards in front of Hanson’s position and extended to the river. Directing Captain [Chris] Bosche, of the Ninth, and Captain [Thomas] Steele, [jr] of the Fourth Kentucky, to drive back the enemy’s skirmishers, we were enabled to see that he was occupying with infantry and artillery the crest of a gentle slope on the east bank of the river. The course of the crest formed a little less than a right angle with Hanson’s line, from which the center of the position I was afterward ordered to attack was distant about 1,600 yards. It extended along ground part open and part woodland. While we were endeavoring to ascertain the force of the enemy and the relation of the ground on the east bank to that on the west bank of the river, I received an order from the commanding general to report to him in person. I found him on the west bank, near the ford below the bridge, and received from him an order to form my division in two lines and take the crest I have just described with the infantry. After doing this I was to bring up the artillery and establish it on the crest, so as at once to hold it and enfilade the enemy’s lines on the other side of the river. Pegram and Wharton, who, with some cavalry and a battery, were beyond the point where my right would rest when the new line of battle should be formed, were directed, as the general informed me, to protect my right and co-operate in the attack. Captain Robertson was directed to report to me with his own and Semple’s batteries of Napoleon guns. Captain Wright, who with his battery had been detached, some days before, was ordered to join his brigade (Preston’s). The brigades of Adams and Preston, which were left on the west side of the river Wednesday night, had been ordered to rejoin me. At the moment of my advance, our artillery in the center and on the left was to open on the enemy. One gun from our center was the signal for the attack. The commanding general desired that the movement should be made with the least possible delay.
It was now 2.30 p. m. Two of the brigades had to march about 2 miles, the other two about 1 mile. Brigadier-General Pillow, having reported for duty, was assigned by the commanding general to Palmer’s brigade, and that fine officer resumed command of his regiment, and was three times wounded in the ensuing engagement. The Ninth Kentucky and Cobb’s battery, under the command of Colonel Hunt, were left to hold the hill so often referred to. The division, after deducting the losses of Wednesday, the troops left on the hill, and companies on special service, consisted of some 4,500 men. It was drawn up in two lines—the first in a narrow skirt of woods, the second 200 yards in rear. Pillow and Hanson formed the first line, Pillow on the right. Preston supported Pillow, and Adams’ brigade (commanded by Colonel Gibson) supported Hanson. The artillery was placed in rear of the second line, under orders to move with it and occupy the summit of the slope as soon as the infantry should rout the enemy. Feeling anxious about my right, I sent two staff officers in succession to communicate with Pegram and Wharton, but received no intelligence up to the moment of assault. The interval between my left and the troops on the hill was already too great, but I had a battery to watch it and a small infantry support. There was nothing to prevent the enemy from observing nearly all of our movements and preparations. 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.
I had informed the commanding general that we would be ready to advance at 4 o'clock, and precisely at that hour the signal gun was heard from our center. Instantly the troops moved forward at a quick step and in admirable order. The front line had bayonets fixed, with orders to deliver one volley, and then use the bayonet. The fire of the enemy’s artillery on both sides of the river commenced as soon as the troops entered the open ground. When less than half the distance across the field, the quick eye of Colonel O’Hara discovered a force extending considerably beyond our right. I immediately ordered Major Graves to move a battery to our right and open on them. He at once advanced Wright’s battery and effectually checked their movements. Before our line reached the enemy’s position his artillery fire had become heavy, accurate, and destructive. Many officers and men fell before we closed with their infantry, yet our brave fellows rushed forward with the utmost determination, and, after a brief but bloody conflict, routed both the opposing lines, took 400 prisoners and several flags, and drove their artillery and the great body of their infantry across the river. Many were killed at the water’s edge. Their artillery took time by the forelock in crossing the stream. A few of our men in their ardor actually crossed over before they could be prevented, most of whom subsequently, moving up under the west bank, recrossed at a ford three-quarters of a mile above. 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. As soon as our infantry had won the ridge, Major Graves advanced the artillery of the division and opened fire. At the same time Captain Robertson threw forward Semple’s battery toward our right, which did excellent service. He did not advance his own battery (which was to have taken position on the left), supposing that that part of the field had not been cleared of the enemy’s infantry. Although mistaken in this, since the enemy had been driven across the river, yet I regard it as fortunate that the battery was not brought forward. It would have been a vain contest. 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.
We lost three guns, nearly all the horses being killed, and not having the time or men to draw them off by hand. One was lost because there was but one boy left (Private Wright, of Wright’s battery) to limber the piece, and his strength was unequal to it.
The command fell back in some disorder, but without the slightest appearance of panic, and reformed behind Robertson’s battery in the narrow skirt of timber from which we emerged to the assault. The enemy did not advance beyond the position in which he received our attack. My skirmishers continued to occupy a part of the field over which we advanced until the army retired from Murfreesborough. The action lasted about one hour and twenty minutes. As our lines advanced to the attack, several rounds of artillery were heard from our center, apparently directed against the enemy on the west bank of the river.
About twilight Brigadier-General Anderson reported to me with his brigade, and remained in position with me until the army retired. I took up the line of battle for the night a little in rear of the field over which we advanced to the assault, and Captain Robertson, at my request, disposed the artillery in the positions indicated for it.
Many of the reports do not discriminate between the losses of Wednesday and Friday. The total loss in my division, exclusive of Jackson’s command, is 2,140, of which I think 1,700 occurred on Friday. The loss of the enemy on this day was, I think, greater than our own, since he suffered immense slaughter between the ridge and the river.
I cannot forbear to express my admiration for the courage and constancy of the troops, exhibited even after it became apparent that the main object could not be accomplished. Beyond the general good conduct, a number of enlisted men displayed at different periods of the action the most heroic bravery. I respectfully suggest that authority be given to select a certain number of the most distinguished in each brigade, to be recommended to the President for promotion.
I cannot enumerate all the brave officers who fell, nor the living, who nobly did their duty; yet I may be permitted to lament, in common with the army, the premature death of Brigadier-General Hanson, who received a mortal wound at the moment the enemy began to give way. Endeared to his friends by his private virtues, and to his command by the vigilance with which he guarded its interest and honor, he was, by the universal testimony of his military associates, one of the finest officers that adorned the service of the Confederate States. Upon his fall the command devolved on Colonel [R. P.] Trabue, who in another organization had long and ably commanded most of the regiments composing the brigade.
I cannot close without expressing my obligations to the gentlemen of my staff. This is no formal acknowledgment. I can never forget that during all the operations they were ever prompt and cheerful by night and day in conveying orders, conducting to their positions regiments and brigades, rallying troops on the field, and, indeed, in the discharge of every duty.
It gives me pleasure to name Lieutenant-Colonel Buckner, assistant adjutant-general, who was absent on leave, but returned upon the first rumor of battle; Colonel O’Hara, acting adjutant-general; Lieutenant [J. Cabell] Breckinridge, aide-de-camp; Major Graves, chief of artillery (twice wounded and his horse shot under him); Major [James] Wilson, assistant inspector-general (horse shot); Captain [Charles] Semple, ordnance officer; Lieutenant Darragh (severely wounded). Captains Martin and Coleman, of my volunteer staff, were active and efficient. The former had his horse killed under him.
Drs. J. F. Heustis and [John E.] Pendleton [Ninth Kentucky Infantry], chief surgeon and medical inspector, were unremitting in attention to the wounded. Dr. Stanhope Breckinridge, assistant surgeon, accompanied my headquarters and pursued his duties through the fire of Wednesday. Mr. Buckner and Mr. Zantzinger, of Kentucky, attached themselves to me for. the occasion, and were active and zealous.
Capt. E. M. Blackburn, commanding my escort, ever cool and vigilant, rendered essential service and made several bold reconnaissances. Charles Chotard, of the escort, acting as my orderly on Wednesday, displayed much gallantry and intelligence.
The army retired before daybreak on the morning of January 4. My division, moving on the Manchester road, was the rear of Hardee’s corps. The Ninth Kentucky, Forty-first Alabama, and Cobb’s battery, all under the command of Colonel Hunt, formed a special rear guard. The enemy did not follow us.
My acknowledgments are due to Col. J. Stoddard Johnston, Lieutenant-Colonel Brent, and Lieutenant-Colonel Garner, of General Bragg’s staff, and to Major Pickett, of Lieutenant-General Hardee’s staff, for services on Friday, January 2.
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
JOHN C. BRECKINRIDGE,
APPENDIX BY GENERAL BRAXTON BRAGG TO THE REPORT OP MAJOR-GENERAL BRECKINRIDGE.
First. A note dated 10.10 o’clock, December 31, saying, “The enemy are undoubtedly advancing upon me.”
Second. A note dated 11.30 a. m., December 31, in reply to what he calls in his report "a suggestion from the commanding general,” in which he says, "I am obeying your order;” but expressing the opinion that the move would expose him "to a heavy force of the enemy advancing from Black’s” (on Lebanon road).
Third. A note dated 12.50 o’clock, January 1, 1863 (an error for December 31, 1862, the day it was received), correcting previous report as follows: "It is not certain the enemy is advancing upon me in two lines,” &c., and requesting the two brigades asked as reenforcements against an imaginary danger be held where he could get them. The hour of this note shows, too, an advance of half a mile (see report) in one hour and twenty minutes.
Fourth. A note dated 7 p. m., December 31, an application to re-enforce Hanson in his isolation.
Fifth. An order to Brigadier-General Pegram, commanding cavalry, indorsed "received,” directing the cavalry to join in the attack to be made by General Breckinridge.
It is stated in the general’s report that he was informed the cavalry was to attack with him; that he failed to communicate with it, yet reported he would be ready precisely at 4 o’clock, and did attack at that hour with nearly a third of his force absent.
The tabular statement No. 7, February 8, 1863, accompanying my report of the battle, shows the force of this division on Wednesday, December 31, to have been 7,053. The loss of Wednesday, the 31st, was 730, not 440, as made by the division commander; and the loss on Friday, the 2d, was 1,338, not 1,700. The loss of Wednesday, 440, stated by the division commander, deducted from his whole strength, leaves 6,613. Deducting again the regiment and battery he was ordered to leave out, and adding the two batteries of Captain Robertson, leaves him still over 6,000 infantry and artillery, instead of 4,500, with which he says he made the attack; and, correcting his error in making the loss too small on Wednesday and too large on Friday, he still has underrated his force by more than one-fourth.
[Inclosure No. 1.]
December 31, 1862—10.10 a. m. General Bragg, Commanding Forces:
The enemy are undoubtedly advancing upon me. The Lebanon road is unprotected, and I have no troops to fill out my line to it.
JOHN C. BRECKINRIDGE.
[Inclosure No 2.]
December 31,1862—11.30 a. m.
General : I am obeying your order, but my left is now engaged with the enemy, and if I advance my whole line farther forward and still retain communication with my left, it will take me clear away from the Lebanon road, and expose my right and that road to a heavy force of the enemy advancing from Black’s.
JOHN C. BRECKINRIDGE,
On the above was the following indorsement:
Headquarters Army of Tennessee,
Tullahoma, Tenn., March 6, 1863.
The order of which General Breckinridge acknowledges the receipt in his note to General Bragg, of which the within is a copy, was borne and duly delivered by me.
J. STODDAED JOHNSTON,
Colonel, Aide-de-Camp to General Commanding.
[Inclosure No. 3.]
Headquarters Breckinridge’s Division,
In the Field, January 1, 1863—12.50 o’clock.
Assistant Adjutant- General:
Colonel : It is not certain that the enemy are advancing upon me in two lines. General Pegram promised to report the true condition of things. The two brigades you ordered to me might be held at the ford of the river, subject to further developments. If necessary, I could get them into position from that point before the enemy could reach me. Very respectfully,
JOHN C. BRECKINRIDGE,
[Inclosure No. 4.]
Headquarters Breckinridge’s Division,
In the Field, December 31, —7 p. m.
General Braxton Bragg,
Commanding Army of Tennessee :
General : When I crossed the river this evening with two brigades, I left General Hanson’s brigade holding the hill already designated on the commanding position in front of my division. I have the honor now to report that Hanson’s brigade is still in the same position, with three batteries, isolated from the balance of the army.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JOHN C. BRECKINRIDGE.
[Inclosure No. 5.]
Headquarters in the Field,
January 2, 1863—1 p. m.
Brigadier-General Pegram :
General : The general is about moving to take by force a position between Hower’s house and the right of .our line, on the [this] side of the river. General Wharton will be there. You will arrange and dispose your command in the vicinity of Hower’s, so as to co-operate with this movement.
GEORGE WM. BRENT,
Headquarters Breckinridge’s Division,
Tullahoma, Tenn., March 31,1863.
Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.:
Sir: Two days ago I read General Braxton Bragg’s official report of the battles of Stone’s River, before Murfreesborough, and, after a proper time for reflection, I think it my duty to send you this communication.
I cannot conceal from myself the fact that so much of the report as refers to my conduct and that of my command (except some general compliments to the courage of a portion of my troops on Wednesday, 3lst of December) is in tone and spirit a thorough disparagement of both. This tone runs through all its parts, and lies like a broad foundation underneath the whole. At the same time the narrative of events is made to sustain the general spirit.
While the report of the commanding general fails, as I think, to do justice to the behavior of my division on Friday, the 2d of January, yet its strictures are chiefly leveled at my own conduct as an officer during all the operations. By direct statement, and by unmistakable innuendo, it is throughout a reflection upon my capacity and conduct.
Without referring to its contents in detail, I have to say, in respectful terms, that neither its material statements nor its equally material innuendoes can be maintained by proof; that its omission of important facts creditable to my division and myself is as remarkable as many of its affirmative statements ; in a word, that in spirit and substance it is erroneous and unjust.
I trust that nothing in the foregoing expressions passes the limit of military propriety, and that plainness of statement will be pardoned to one who, even under the weight of superior military censure, feels that both he and his command have deserved well of their country. Having met the commanding general repeatedly on the field, and on three occasions in council, during the progress of the operations, without receiving from him the least indication of dissatisfaction with my conduct, I was not prepared to see a report bearing a subsequent date, containing representations at variance with these significant facts. Nor was my surprise lessened when I observed that it was written after a correspondence with his corps and division commanders (I being one of the latter), in which he invokes their aid to sustain him, and speaks of them as officers upon whom I have ever relied as upon a foundation of rock.
The commanding general, having written and forwarded his report before receiving those of his subordinate commanders, could have derived no assistance in its preparation from those usual official aids to the commander-in-chief; and since his position on the field prevented him from seeing many of the movements, especially those of Friday, the 2d of January, it much concerns all affected by his statements to know something of those other, and to them unknown, sources of information to which he has given the sanction of his influence and rank as the head of the army.
I have felt that it would be improper in a paper of this character to enter upon a detailed vindication; yet in view of the fact that the casualties of war may at any time render an investigation impossible, I hope that it has not been improper for me to place on record this general protest against the injurious statements and inferences of the commanding general, particularly since, not anticipating his censures, I may not have been sufficiently minute in portions of my own report.
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.
I have the honor to request that a court of inquiry be appointed, to assemble at the earliest time consistent with the interests of the service, and clothed with the amplest powers of investigation. Of course, I do not desire the interests of the service to be prejudiced in the least degree by any matter of secondary importance; accordingly, while an early investigation would be grateful to my feelings, I can cheerfully await the time deemed best by the proper authority.
With great respect, your obedient servant,
JOHN C. BRECKINRIDGE, Major-General, Provisional Army Confederate States.
So what do you think? Who is in the right? Perhaps both were correct in certain aspects, and both wrong in others. Both had unique perspectives to this part of the engagement that the other was not pertinent to. Whatever your thoughts, it is likely that this controversy will remain with us for some time to come.
Derrick Lindow is an author, historian, teacher, and creator of the WTCW site. His first book, published by Savas Beatie, will be released in Spring 2023. Go HERE to read more posts by Derrick and HERE to visit his personal page. Follow Derrick on different social media platforms (Instagram and Twitter) to get more Western Theater and Kentucky Civil War Content.