The 6th Kentucky at Stones River
Updated: Feb 2
As a Kentuckian, and passionate student of the Civil War, I am fortunate to study regiments from my state that fought on both sides of many Western Theater battles. Stones River is one of those with several. From the Kentucky Orphans to the 15 different Kentucky Union organizations sprinkled throughout the Army of the Cumberland, there are a lot of stories to explore. The 6th Kentucky was a part of Colonel William B. Hazen's brigade, and withstood hellacious fighting at the Round Forest. This area is somewhat preserved today, though the modern view is definitely not the same. A stop at the Hazen Brigade monument and Hell's Half Acre site is a must when visiting Stones River National Battlefield.
A few things before we get into the 6th's role in the battle...Maps. I don't think any map is ever going to be 100% accurate, and the Trust's maps are no different. Think of these areas as approximations. The same is true for the photos of relative troop positions. Also, I left the language of the report as close as possible to how it is recorded in the ORs.
Report of Col. Walter C. Whitaker, Sixth Kentucky Infantry. Headquarters Sixth Kentucky Infantry, Battlefield of Stone’s River, Tenn.,
January 5, 1863.
The undersigned, Walter C. Whitaker, colonel commanding Sixth Kentucky Infantry, of the Second Brigade, late the Nineteenth, commanded by Col. W. B. Hazen, of the Second Division, late the Fourth, commanded by General Palmer, makes the following report of the part taken by the Sixth Kentucky Infantry in the battle of Stone’s River:
On the night of December 30, the Sixth Kentucky and Forty-first Ohio Volunteers were drawn up in line of battle, fronting east and toward Murfreesborough, in advance of the army, on a cotton-field lying south of the Nashville and Murfreesborough turnpike road, and near where the same crosses the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, and also near where both roads strike the bank of Stone’s River. On the east, some 250 yards in front of the Sixth Kentucky, on a high piece of ground, in a curtilage, surrounded with a strong palisade of cedar timbers, some 7 or 8 feet high, firmly set in the ground, stands the burnt brick dwelling-house of Mr. Cowan; in the rear of this house the enemy had their rifle-pits. Beyond the house the ground gently rose higher for some 300 yards to the crest of the ridge, on the top of which, in a southeasterly direction, the enemy had a battery. Beyond the crest of the hill, and toward the river from the house, the ground gently sloped, until it reached the river and a grove of timber in the rear. On this slope, concealed from our view, the enemy had an earthen breastwork for infantry and artillery. On the right and south of the position of the Sixth was a dense wood of oak and tall cedar. In the same direction, his left resting on the right of the Sixth, with an interval of 250 yards between them, General Cruft had his brigade drawn up in line of battle. Immediately in rear of, and west of, the Sixth was an open field, with a few old houses, some scattered trees, and large surface rocks, through which the turnpike and railroad ran. Directly north of this line of battle was an embankment of the railroad, some 7 or 8 feet in height. On the edge of this field the gallant Ninth Indiana and One hundred and tenth Illinois were drawn up as reserve. Company D, Captain Proctor, and Company I, Lieutenant Patchin, from the Forty-first Ohio Volunteers, and Company C, Captain Todd, and Company I, Captain Stein, of the Sixth Kentucky, were acting as pickets, Companies C and I occupying the curtilage of the brick house, with a small interval between them and the enemy’s pickets.
Shortly after sunrise on the morning of the 31st, the pickets were attacked by the enemy, but maintained their position. Heavy firing was soon heard on the right of our army and gave indications of the rapid advance of the enemy. The enemy soon made a most furious attack upon our left. The pickets of the Sixth were driven in by a large force, which, protected by the palisade and out buildings of Mr. Cowan’s house and the high ground, opened a galling fire on the Sixth, which was in the open ground. They gradually advanced under cover, with the intention of flanking the Sixth on the right. Changing position by the right flank, the regiment was formed in line of battle in the skirt of timber south of the cotton-field—an advantageous position—under cover of the timber. Here we were assaulted by a large body of the enemy; from their numbers I estimated them as a brigade. Three times they advanced, and as often were they driven back with great slaughter. From this position the Sixth was enabled to protect the left flank of the Twenty-second Brigade, General Cruft, who was gallantly maintaining his position. Some of the enemy’s skirmishers having, after two hours’ hard fighting, gained position in the edge of the wood, the Sixth was thrown forward to drive them from their cover. While in the act of advancing, the enemy, who had driven in General Negley’s force on the right, opened a fire on the right flank of the Sixth, by which my lieutenant-colonel (Cotton) was killed. After some hard fighting the enemy were driven from their cover. Then, changing front, the right wing defending one flank and the left wing the other, the Sixth fought the advancing foe until their ammunition was exhausted. Changing position in good order, they took another position in rear of the railroad, where, having replenished their ammunition, they formed in line of battle on the north side of, and under cover of, the embankment of the railroad, the Ninth Indiana being on their left, and the Forty-first Ohio a and One hundred and tenth Illinois being in reserve in the rear. The battle had been furiously raging from 8 o’clock in the morning until noon.
About 2 p. m., the right of the army having been driven back, the enemy appeared in heavy force on the crest of the ridge east of Mr. Cowan’s burnt dwelling. Massing their forces, they intended, if possible, to crush the Nineteenth Brigade, which had maintained its position during the day against overwhelming numbers. Onward they came; the colors of five or six regiments advancing abreast in line of battle were visible on the crest of the ridge. A further view of this line was intercepted by intervening inequalities of ground and woods. Firmly they advanced until within good range of the guns of the Sixth and Ninth. A most destructive fire was opened upon them by these regiments, by Captain Cockerill’s and Captain Parsons’ batteries, and by the Fortieth Indiana Regiment, commanded by Colonel Blake. They broke in confusion, but, rallying, advanced again. Three or four times they rallied and advanced to the attack. Each time they were driven back with great loss, the last time in such confusion that it became a rout. The day was ours. We encamped that night on the position that had been so ably and successfully defended.
The Sixth has to regret the loss of two of her bravest and most gallant officers: Lieut. Col. George T. Cotton was killed, nobly encouraging the men on the right, and Capt. Charles S. Todd, commander of Company C, the color company, fell, pressing his men on to victory—scion of illustrious patriots, a braver spirit has not been offered up on the altar of his country.
The total loss in killed is 2 officers and 11 enlisted men; 6 commissioned officers were wounded—Lieutenants Bates, Company A; Dawkins, Company B; Armstrong, Company F; Frank, of Company I, and others; 88 enlisted men were wounded. Total killed and wounded, 107.
Lieutenant Dawkins, acting as adjutant, rendered me very great assistance, until he was so severely wounded as to be carried from the field. Lieutenant Rockingham, of Company A, deserves the highest commendation for courage, coolness, and efficiency as an officer. Sergt. William Jones, of Company A; Captain Dawkins, of Company B; Lieutenants McCampbell, of Company D, and Armstrong, of Company F; Captains Marker, of Company G, and Johnston, and Lieutenant Whitaker, of Company H : Captain Stein and Lieutenant Frank, of Company I; Lieutenant Campbell and Sergeant Furr, of Company K, are specially noticed for gallant conduct and efficient services. I can speak in the most approving manner of the soldierly bearing and courage of the men of the Sixth Kentucky. Three or four times regiments, retreating in confusion, would break through their lines, yet they never faltered in their duty, but obeyed implicitly the orders of the officer commanding.
I was personally cognizant of very gallant conduct on the part of Lieutenant Meeker, of the signal corps, under very heavy fire, in endeavoring to rally some of the fugitive regiments that were breaking through my lines. I was attracted by his bearing, inquired of him his name, and give him merited commendation.
On Friday, in the evening, January 2, the enemy made a most violent and determined attack upon the left of our forces, which had been advanced beyond Stone’s River. The Sixth Kentucky was ordered, with the brigade, by Colonel Hazen, to cross the river and aid the forces engaged. This order was immediately obeyed. In double-quick time the Sixth advanced through a heavy shower of solid shot, shell, grape, and minie balls, cheering as they went. The timely aid brought inspired the forces engaged with the enemy, who, pressing forward, drove the enemy, with great slaughter, from the field. While they were advancing, great numbers of one of the divisions attacked (said to be General Van Cleve’s) ran in great affright. Throwing down their arms, they broke through the ranks of the Sixth, saying, “All is lost.” This did not throw the Sixth into confusion.
Steadily they advanced, every man and officer doing his duty.
In the advance, 2 men of Company G were killed by rifled cannon shot, and 2 from Company H were wounded.
The regiment remained encamped on the opposite side of the river till January 4, when it moved to its present quarters, where it learned of the flight of the enemy.
A detail was made, and all its noble dead entombed, with their soldier’s honor, in a soldier’s grave, on the ground where the Nineteenth Brigade made its memorable, determined stand against such overwhelming numbers.
Great credit is due to the talented and indefatigable surgeons of the Sixth Kentucky, Drs. Joseph T. Drane and E. T. Long, for their faithful and indefatigable attention to the wounded. They not only cared for and attended the wounded of their regiment, but many others besides. They were on the field in discharge of their duty amid the thickest of the fight.
Respectfully submitted. W. C. WHITAKER, Colonel, Commanding Sixth Kentucky Volunteers.
For further reading on the 6th Kentucky, check out the regimental history by Joe Reinhart. A History of the 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry U.S.: The Boys Who Feared No Noise. Find it on Amazon!
Visit his work at: http://6thkentuckyus.yolasite.com/photos.php .
You can find letters, diary entries, and plenty of other photographs and material on the site.
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.