Battle of Stones River

UNION GENERAL William Rosecrans (bottom, left) encourages his troops as Confederates charge during the Battle of Murfreesboro (TN), also known as the Battle of Stones River. Black River planter St. John Richardson Liddell, a general on the staff of General William Hardee, was praised by his superiors for his efforts there. Liddell lost more than a third of his brigade at Murfreesboro (607 killed and wounded). (Illustration Credit: William Rosecrans, Battle of Stones River, Library of Congress)  

(21st in a Series)  

During the early years of his Confederate service in the Civil War, Black River planter St. John Richardson Liddell was on his own financially.  

From the beginning of the conflict through the summer of 1862, Liddell had paid his own expenses as he served in multiple rolls under the command of General William Joseph Hardee, who in 1861 had appointed Liddell his aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel, but without pay.  

An 1838 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, Hardee was a well-respected tactician and considered one of the best corps commanders in the Confederacy. In 1855, he wrote, Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, which was widely read among military men.  

Liddell had attended West Point, too, but left before graduating due to a dueling incident.  

In 1861, Kentucky and Tennessee were major battlegrounds with the Union army seeking to capture the Confederate railroad centers and river ports, while targeting Corinth, Miss., the junction point of two major railroad lines. Before attacking Corinth, the Union army barely defeated the Rebels at Shiloh.  

Immediately after joining the Confederate effort, Liddell delivered messages to Jefferson Davis in Richmond, VA, but later fell seriously ill in Alabama with typhoid fever. After that, he took part in the fighting at Corinth, Miss., only to see many of the men in his regiment, still shaken by the horrors of Shiloh, cower from action.  

In June 1862, Liddell wrote that his personal funds “were nearly exhausted.” He felt he had to withdraw from the war and find a way to contribute to his home state of Louisiana. Mostly, he wanted to return to his residence along the Black River in Catahoula Parish. So he went to see Hardee.  

“I told him that by going nearer to home, I could look after the necessities of my family.”  

Back in Louisiana, Liddell’s Llanada Plantation was sinking in debt. He had lived in Catahoula since the late 1830s where he and wife Mary built up the plantation worked by scores of slaves. Despite his active civic life, a happy home life and a number of friends, Liddell for years had been at odds with a longtime enemy, Black River planter Charles Jones, who lived downriver and was counted among the wounded at the Battle of Shiloh.  

In the late 1840s, the two men became embroiled in a feud that became known as the Black River War. Charles Jones had been shot in the face and back by a woman he claimed was acting on behalf of or in conjunction with Liddell. Later, Liddell shot and killed two of Jones’ friends, both of whom had told just about everyone that they hated Liddell and intended to kill him.  

Liddell asserted he had acted in self-defense and a parish jury believed him.  

Now Liddell was neck-deep in a civil war, out of money and ready to go home. But General Hardee wouldn’t hear of it. “He even offered to secure me a commission as Captain in the Confederate regular service on his own staff. He would assist me with pay from his own funds.”  

Liddell felt he was too old at age 47 “to be governed by ambitious notoriety for distinction.” In the meantime, he learned that five colonels from Arkansas wanted him to command their brigade: “To be their unsolicited choice greatly flattered me.” He accepted.  

In July 1862, he was ordered to Chattanooga. There, a short time later, he received official confirmation that he had been appointed general of the brigade with “an effective force of 2,000 men” and no longer required to pay his own expenses.  

Just two months earlier, the Union had captured Corinth and targeted the railroad center of Chattanooga, Tenn., above the Georgia line.  

In a countermove, the Confederates launched its Kentucky Campaign, designed to push the Union army out of east Tennessee and Kentucky. Liddell was part of that offensive.  

 

‘LIDDELL’S RECORD’  

 

Liddell’s Civil War years are recounted in a book (Liddell’s Record), published in 1985. The work is a collection of rough manuscripts written by Liddell immediately after the war. The material was later converted into a readable format by editor Nathaniel C. Hughes.  

During the course of his study, Hughes drew several impressions of Liddell based on the planter’s writings and life.  

Although Liddell felt guilt over the immorality of slavery, experiencing nightmares over the institution during the Civil War, he fought for the South until the end.  

The views he expressed in his manuscript were so frank that his friends thought some of the material should never be printed. But as Liddell once wrote, “I am not going to protect my friends in making a faithful record.”  

Liddell was the kind of man who had no reservation about stating his opinion. If he didn’t like you, you probably knew it, but he would not abuse you. However, if you did something to offend a member of his family or a friend, if you threatened him or anyone he loved, then he would come knocking on your door.  

During the Civil War, Liddell seemed to be everywhere. He was present at some of the most famous battles during the war. He also knew the generals well, heard their complaints about other generals and by including these behind-the-scenes moments in his account of the war took the reader inside the Confederate camps where leaders conferred, argued, cried and made battle decisions.  

“His experiences indeed ranged widely,” Hughes wrote. “He pored over {General P.G.T.} Beauregard’s battle maps prior to the Battle of Bull Run {Manassas}; he saw action in Missouri in 1861; he fought with the Army of Tennessee through 1862 and 1863; and operated in the Trans-Mississippi Department in 1864; and he ended the war defending Mobile.  

“As a consequence of his broad serve, his familiarity with the old army establishment, and his social contacts, Liddell knew or had entrée to the Confederate military and political high command.”  

 

IS WILLIE DEAD OR ALIVE?  

 

Soon, the Confederates launched the Kentucky Campaign. One of the goals of Confederate commanders Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith was to convince Kentucky, a border state, which had been neutral, to join the Rebel cause in the war. There was both strong Union and Confederate sentiments in the state, and both armies were trying to win the public over. The idea was to move through Tennessee into Kentucky and push out the Union army.  

In Kentucky, Liddell crossed the Cumberland Gap made famous by Daniel Boone. He said the sight was “truly magnificent.”  

At Knoxville, Tenn., according to editor Hughes, Liddell and his staff had their pictures taken. One member of the staff described Liddell as being “of striking appearance, dignified; of soft speech, gentle, winning manner, graceful in gesture; he was the type of the cultivated gentleman of his time and kind.  

“He endeared himself to his staff by his considerate treatment; to his soldiers by his careful attention to their wants and comfort in camp, as well as by his gallant bearing in action …”  

The two opposing armies met in Perryville, KY, in the fall of 1862. The Rebels ultimately lost and left Kentucky. Liddell’s brigade suffered 72 killed and wounded in one skirmish alone.  

Not far from Murfreesboro, Tenn., along the Stones River 34 miles southeast of Nashville, Liddell, “out of his own purse, provided a Christmas dinner for his entire command. He had his commissary scour the surrounding country for sheep, pigs, poultry, and vegetables, and furnish a feast for his men that was unique as far as known.”  

But soon Christmas cheer was replaced by the reality of war. By then, Liddell’s 15-year-old son Willie, who had fought at Shiloh, was now on the same battlefield as his father, but with other troops.  

There at the Battle of Murfreesboro, also known as the Battle of Stones River, Liddell’s Arkansas brigade had the enemy on the run when he soon was the recipient of bad news: “Someone now told me that my son Willie was killed. I felt deeply distressed.” But minutes later the news changed for the better when Liddell’s aide-de-camp “came up and told me” that Willie “had been badly wounded in the first engagement.”  

“Willie had fallen from his horse” in front of a Confederate battery. Liddell recalled that his aide-de-camp “rode to Willie immediately, dismounted, examined his wound, and with the aid of some Yankee prisoners, placed him on his horse. But the horse’s head was cut off at that moment by a cannon ball.” The aide-de-camp “picked him up and removed him slowly to an ambulance that happened to be at hand.”  

 

‘MY GOD, I AM SHOT!’  

 

Later, during another engagement at Murfreesboro, the shooting was so fierce that Liddell watched one man after another fall and wondered how he remained unharmed.  

His bugler was shot and later, Liddell’s regimental surgeon Dr. W.R. Kibler “rode alongside of men and saluting me with a smile said, ‘General, I am ordered to come and look after you or staff should any be shot.’”  

Liddell answered, “You are too close up for a surgeon. I fear you will be shot.”  

“No, I think not,” the surgeon answered, “I am not afraid.”  

“Just at that moment,” Liddell wrote, “casting my eyes to the enemy’s regiment on my right, I saw it waver and begin to double up in confusion.”  

Liddell spurred his horse forward “with a cheer” and “waved my cap to my men to advance with me … I drew my revolver and fired repeatedly into the enemies ranks. At the fourth shot, Dr. Kibler, who had ridden forward, carried away with the excitement of the moment and was cheering lustily by my side, exclaimed, ‘My God, I am shot.’”  

Liddell put away his revolver and moved to help the doctor, but the surgeon fell from his horse, the shot having been fatal.  

At the end of the Battle of Murfreesboro, Liddell wrote that his brigade losses were “607 killed and wounded, out of an effective total of 1,706, which was over one-third of the whole.”  

General Patrick Cleburne, Liddell’s division commander who in an earlier battle had lost several teeth when shot in the left cheek, reported that Liddell “led his brigade with a skill, courage, and devotion which, I believe, saved my left flank from being turned by the enemy.”  

Liddell soon visited Willie, who was laid up in a Confederate makeshift hospital. He had been wounded in the thigh.  

A few weeks later, General Cleburne came to visit Liddell.  

He asked, “Would you be willing to give up slavery for the independence and recognition of the South?”  

“Willingly,” Liddell answered.  

 

‘AMONGST ENTIRE STRANGERS’  

 

As the war pressed on, Liddell’s continuously thought about wife Mary, his home along the Black River and the Union efforts to take Louisiana.  

Specifically, editor Hughes wrote, “Liddell worried about marauding Yankee gunboats coming up Black River and raiding. He worried … about the trouble and expense of running Llanada without necessary manpower and supplies.”  

Plus, sons Judge and Willie were still fighting in the war He worried about them, too.  

“I would come if I could,” Liddell wrote Mary.  

He was depressed and weary.  

“I have thought of tendering my resignation because I am over age and would like to do what I can for my own state.  

“I myself feel like I am amongst entire strangers, even with my own command. There is nobody but my servant Peter with me.”  

In 1863, as Liddell feared, Yankee gunboats moved up Black River. At Llanada, Mary was in a panic, uncertain what to do and considering heading west.  

“Use your own judgment, dear wife, about going to Texas,” he wrote her. “I cannot advise you.”  

(Next Week: Chickamauga and Chattanooga.)  

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