Gen. Alexander McCook’s Ammunition Train is Saved at The Battle of Stones River

Captain Gates P. Thruston of the 1st Ohio Infantry served as the ordnance officer for Major General Alexander McCook’s Right Wing of the Union Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Stones River. One of Thruston’s duties was to manage the Right Wing’s ammunition wagon train.  As the fighting on the first day of the battle (December 31st, 1862) raged, Thruston prepared to move the train forward to near the Union lines. Confederate cavalry had gone around the Union right and into the rear, threatening to capture the ammunition train.  Years later, Thruston recalled the fight to save the train.

As aide to General McCook, assigned to duty as ordnance officer of the right wing, I had charge of some seventy six or seventy seven heavily laden ammunition wagons, as I remember, each drawn by four horses or mules. General McCook had the largest corps in the army, and his ammunition trains were relatively large. But a single infantry company of about seventy five men and two mounted orderlies had been assigned to me as train guards. I was proud of this new command, but these ordnance treasures carried with them grave responsibilities…Danger already threatened, and it was soon prepared for movement…I decided to direct my train toward the center of the infantry line, keeping well to the front. At the very start a detachment of Confederate cavalry charged wildly upon the train, attacking and endeavoring to stampede our teamsters and animals, but with the aid of the plucky train guards and some help from Captain Pease, of General Davis’ staff, we repulsed the attack and moved on…

While in the open ground, moving our ammunition train rapidly to the left, it was discovered by the enemy. In my anxiety for its safety, I had already reported the importance of the train to every cavalry officer within reach, and appealed for protection. Colonel Zahm, of the Second Ohio Cavalry…promised me all possible help, and promptly formed his regiment in line for that purpose.  Major Pugh, of the Fourth Ohio Cavalry, at my request also placed his regiment on our flank, facing the enemy. The First Ohio, Second East Tennessee, and a battalion of the Third Ohio Cavalry were near at hand.

Alas, when the crisis came, a few minutes later, they were not in position to successfully withstand the shock. They were unprepared, and not in brigade line. Wharton’s Confederates unexpectedly appeared in great force. His artillery opened fire furiously upon the Fourth Ohio Cavalry, and threw the regiment into some confusion…

The train was being threatened by the cavalry brigade of Brigadier General John Wharton.  Wharton was a 32 year old Texan who had entered Confederate service as a captain in the 8th Texas Cavalry, also  known as Terry’s Texas Rangers  after the regiment’s first commander, Colonel Benjamin F. Terry. Wharton took command of the regiment after Terry was killed in a skirmish in December 1861. Wharton fought well with his Rangers at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, sustaining a wound in the process. He received a promotion to brigade command and fought at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky in October 1862. After the Battle of Stones River, Wharton would fight with distinction at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, earning a promotion to Major General. In 1864, he was  transferred to the Trans-Mississippi department , where he led that department’s cavalry and fought in the Red River Campaign in the spring of 1864. In the spring of 1865, Wharton got into an ongoing  argument with Colonel George Baylor of the 2nd Texas Cavalry over military issues. On April 6th, the argument escalated while the two were in a Houston hotel, and Baylor shot and killed Wharton.

Thruston continued:

Soon apparently his entire command charged down upon us like a tempest, his troopers yelling like a lot of devils. They first struck the Fourth Ohio, which could make but little resistance.  Colonel Minor Millikin, the gallant commander of the First Ohio, led a portion of his regiment in a most brilliant counter charge, but it had to retire with fearful losses. In the onslaught the dear, fearless colonel, my intimate college friend, engaged in single combat with a Texas ranger, and was slain.

There was no staying the Confederates. They outnumbered and outflanked us, and to tell the melancholy truth, our defending cavalry retired in confusion to the rear and left the ammunition train to its fate–high and dry in a cornfield. As may be imagined, our  teamsters, the train guards and the ordnance officer (yes, I must admit it) were not left far behind in the general stampede. We fired one volley from behind the protection of our wagons, and then hunted cover in rear of a friendly fence and in the nearest thicket…The Confederates began to collect and lead away our teams and wagons, and our condition seemed desperate–indeed, hopeless.

Happily this appalling state of affairs did not last long. Some of our cavalry rallied, other Union detachments came to the rescue. Wharton had soon to look to his own flanks, and was kept too busy to carry off our train.  The conflict fortunately shifted. Captain Elmer Otis, with six companies of the Fourth Regular Cavalry [4th U.S. Cavalry] , attacked Wharton’s command with great vigor and success. Soon two battalions of the Third Ohio Cavalry came up from the rear…and nearly every wagon was finally recovered…and we were soon moving toward the Murfreesboro pike and the left of our army at double quick speed.

The enemy, still bent on destroying our train, followed us like sleuth hounds.  Pat Cleburne’s artillery fired some hot shots at us from a hill on the main battlefield, and just as we reached the Murfreesboro pike General Wheeler’s troopers charged furiously upon escort and train and captured several wagons, but with the aid of our infantry they were soon repulsed, and the wagons recaptured.

Thus ended for the day the campaign of the ammunition train. Our army front on the new right, was finally established, and for the first time in many hours train guards and animals breathed freely and rested in safety.

–Gates P. Thruston, “Personal Recollections of the Battle in the Rear at Stone’s River, Tennessee”  in Sketches of War History 1861-1865: Papers Prepared for the Commandery of the State of Ohio, Military Order  of the Loyal Legion of the United States., Volume VI.

The Union forces had been beaten back on this first day of the Battle of Stones River, but they had established a secure defensive position and would turn the tables over the next two days and force the Confederates to retreat. If the Confederates had succeeded in capturing the ammunition train and deprived the Federals of a large part of their ordnance,  the results may have been much different. The overall Union commander at Stones River, Major General William Rosecrans, was so impressed that Thruston had saved the ammunition train that he gave him a field promotion to Major and made him his senior aide-de-camp. 

Additional Sources:

Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders
by Ezra J. Warner

No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River (Civil War Trilogy)
by Peter Cozzens

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XX Part 1.

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