The 36th Illinois Infantry at the Battle of Stones River
The 36th Illinois Infantry entered U.S. service in September 1861, and saw significant action at the battles of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, and Perryville, Kentucky in 1862. In late December 1862, the regiment was part of Brigadier General Joshua Sill’s brigade of Brigadier General Phillip Sheridan’s division of the 14th Corps in the Army of the Cumberland, under the command of Major General William Rosecrans. On December 26th, the Army of the Cumberland moved out of Nashville, Tennessee and marched south toward Murfreesboro, where General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee awaited.
On December 30th, the 36th Illinois engaged Confederate pickets and acted in support of artillery at Murfreesboro as the Federals moved into position. The regiment was heavily engaged on the 31st as the two armies clashed on the first day of the Battle of Stones River. Sheridan’s division fought a costly delaying action against the divisions of Generals Benjamin F. Cheatham and Patrick Cleburne in an area of the battlefield that became known as the Slaughter Pen.
The regiment was under the command of Colonel Nicholas Greusel, who moved up to brigade command on the 31st after the death of General Sill. Major Silas Miller assumed command of the 36th Illinois, until he was wounded and captured, when Captain Porter C. Olson took over. Olson filed the regiment’s after action report.
HEADQUARTERS THIRTY-SIXTH ILLINOIS VOLUNTEERS,
January 9, 1863.
The Thirty-sixth Illinois Regiment, Col. N. Greusel commanding, was called into line at 4 o’clock on Tuesday morning, December 30, 1862, and stood under arms until daylight, to the left of the Wilkinson pike, our right resting upon it, and 5 miles from Murfreesborough. At 9 a.m. we moved forward to Murfreesborough; two companies were deployed as skirmishers to the right of the road, and were soon engaged with the enemy’s skirmishers. When 2 miles from Murfreesborough the regiment was deployed in the cornfield to the right of the pike, and two companies were deployed forward as skirmishers, as ordered by General Sill. The regiment lay in line in this field until 2 p.m., at which time the whole line was ordered to advance. The skirmishers kept up a sharp fight, the enemy’s line retreating and ours advancing. We drove the enemy through the timber and across the cotton-field, a low, narrow strip stretching to the right into the timber. A rebel battery, directly in front of the Thirty-sixth, directed a heavy fire on us. Our skirmishers advanced to the foot of’ the hill, near the cotton-field, and here kept up a well-directed fire. We were ordered to support Captain Bush’s battery, which was brought into position in the point of timber where our right rested, and opened fire with terrible effect upon the enemy. We remained as a support until nearly dark, when Captain Bush went to the rear, the enemy’s battery, or, rather, its disabled fragments, having been dragged from the field. In this day’s engagement the regiment lost 3 killed and 15 wounded; total, 18. We occupied the hill during the night, and our skirmishers were in line at the edge of the cotton-field.
On the morning of December 31, soon after daylight, the enemy advanced in strong force from the timber from beyond the cotton-field opposite our right. They came diagonally across the field. Upon reaching the foot of the hill, they made a left half-wheel and came up directly in front of us. When the enemy had advanced up the hill sufficiently to be in sight, Colonel Greusel ordered the regiment to fire, which was promptly obeyed. We engaged the enemy at short range, the lines being not over 10 rods apart. After a few rounds, the regiment supporting us on our right gave way. In this manner we fought for nearly half an hour, when Colonel Greusel ordered the regiment to charge. The enemy fled in great confusion across the cotton-field into the woods opposite our left, leaving many of their dead and wounded upon the field. We poured a destructive fire upon them as they retreated until they were beyond range.
The Thirty-sixth again took position upon the hill, and the support of our right came forward. At this time General Sill was killed, and Colonel Greusel took command of the brigade. A fresh brigade of the enemy advanced from the direction that the first had come, and in splendid order. We opened fire on them with terrific effect. Again the regiment on our right gave way, and we were again left without support. In this condition we fought until our ammunition was exhausted, and until the enemy had entirely flanked us on our right. At this juncture Major Miller ordered the regiment to fall back. While retreating, Major Miller was wounded, and the command devolved upon me. We moved back of the corn-field to the edge of’ the timber, a hundred rods to the right of the Wilkinson pike and 2 miles from Murfreesborough, at 8 a.m. Here I met General Sheridan, and reported to him that the regiment was out of ammunition, and that I would be ready for action as soon as I could obtain it. We had suffered severely in resisting the attack of superior numbers. I had now only 140 men. The regiment fought with great obstinacy, and much is due to Col. N. Greusel for his bravery in conducting the regiment before being called away.
Adjutant Biddulph went to find the ammunition wagon, but did not succeed. I then informed Quartermaster Bouton that I needed cartridges, but he failed to find any except size .58, the caliber of most of the arms being .69. I was now ordered by Major-General McCook to fall back to the rear of General Crittenden’s corps. I arrived there about 10 a.m. I here obtained ammunition, and dispatched the adjutant to report to Colonel Greusel the condition and whereabouts of the regiment. He returned without seeing the colonel. Lieutenant Watkins soon rode up, and volunteered to take a message to Colonel Greusel or General Sheridan. He also returned without finding either officer. I now went in search of General Sheridan myself; found him at 12 o’clock; reported to him the regiment (what there was left of it) ready to move to the front. He ordered that I should hold the regiment in readiness and await his orders.
At 2 p.m. I received orders from General Sheridan to advance to the front, on the left of the railroad, and connect my command temporarily with Colonel Laiboldt’s brigade. We were here subject to a very heavy artillery fire. A 12-pounder shell struck in the right of the regiment and killed Lieut. Soren L. Olson (a brave and faithful officer, commanding Company F) and Corporal Riggs, and wounded 3 others. At dark we were moved by Lieutenant Denning one-quarter of a mile to the rear, where we remained for the night.
At 3 a.m. January 1, 1863, by order of General Sheridan, we marched back to his headquarters, on the Nashville pike, a distance of half a mile, where, at daylight, I reported to Colonel Greusel. As ordered by him, we took position to the right of Captain Bush’s battery, fronting west. We built a barricade of logs and stone, and remained through the day ready to receive the enemy, but no attack was made.
On the morning of the 2d, the regiment was in line at 4 o’clock; stood under arms until daylight. We remained ready for action during the day until 4 p.m., when, by order of Colonel Greusel, we moved to the right, on the line formerly occupied by General Davis. During the night considerable skirmishing occurred on our front.
On the morning of the 3d instant, the regiment stood under arms from 4 o’clock until daylight. At 8 a.m., by order of Colonel Greusel, we changed position to the right, and somewhat to the rear, letting our right rest upon the Nashville pike.
On the morning of the 4th, we were under arms at 4 o’clock; no fighting occurred on our part of the line during the day.
In the action throughout, the regiment behaved in the most gallant manner. The officers, with only a single exception, distinguished themselves for bravery and coolness; the men, with unflinching courage, were always ready, and met the enemy with a determination to conquer. I tender my thanks to Adjutant Biddulph for the gallant and efficient manner in which he assisted me, and also to the other officers for their gallant action throughout the stormy conflict, which resulted in victory.
I append to this report a list of casualties.
PORTER C. OLSON,
Captain, Commanding Thirty-sixth Illinois Volunteers.
Lieut. J. B. WATKINS,
Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.
As Olson noted, the 36th was deployed but not engaged on the final two days of the battle. The regiment suffered 212 total casualties, including 65 killed and mortally wounded in the Battle of Stones River, one of the bloodiest of the war with total casualties on both sides of approximately 3000 killed and 16,000 wounded. But Rosecrans had earned a victory for the Union, as Bragg withdrew on January 3rd.
The 36th Illinois served until the end of the war, and saw action at Chickamauga, the Atlanta Campaign, Franklin, and Nashville. Colonel Greusel, who had fought well at Stones River, resigned due to poor health in February 1863. Major Silas Miller, was exchanged in June 1863. He was promoted to Colonel and went on to command the regiment. Miller was mortally wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in June 1864. Captain Olson was eventually promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and also commanded the regiment. He was killed at the Battle of Franklin on November 30th, 1864.
History of the Thirty-Sixth Regiment Illinois Volunteers During the War of the Rebellion by L.G. Bennett and William M. Haigh
No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River
by Peter Cozzens
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XX, Part 1. U.S. War Department
Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865 by William F. Fox