In 1861 men from the far reaches of Mississippi were organized into the 1st Mississippi Infantry Battalion, or Blythe’s Battalion. These volunteers came from Calhoun, Clay, and De Soto counties in the north, as well as from Amite County in the state’s far southern corner. The following year the unit was reorganized as the 44th Mississippi Infantry. Their first taste of combat was at Shiloh in April, and the unit also fought at Munfordville, KY in September. At the time of Stones River in December, it was part of General James Chalmers’ brigade.
The Confederate attack at Stones River began at dawn on December 31, 1862, with a devastating surprise assault on the Union army. Quickly the Confederates overran the Federal camps and pushed the routed troops back.
Anchoring the Union line on its left flank, not far from Stones River, was a wooded area known as the Round Forest. It was defended by several Union units, including a brigade led by Gen. William B. Hazen. Throughout the day Confederate assaults, all piecemeal, struck at the Round Forest.
The first assault saw Gen. James Chalmers lead his Mississippi troops forward at around 9 o’clock. During the attack Chalmers fell, struck in the head by a shell fragment. Yet the furious Confederate assault closed in on Hazen’s troops. During the din, his division commander called out to General Hazen, saying, “Hazen, you’ll have to fall back” In reply he shouted, “I’d like to know where in hell I’ll fall back to?”
The Confederates had to attack across 800 yards of open ground, and past the ruins of a burned out home (the Cowan house). Union infantry and artillery had them in range the whole way.
Chalmers attacked twice, the second time coming to within 50 yards of the Union line. For thirty minutes the two sides blazed away, the Confederates finally falling back. Hazen’s 41st Ohio ran out of ammunition, and he ordered the unit to fix bayonets and club their muskets if another attack came, but was able to replace them with the 9th Indiana before those desperate measures were needed.
C.P. Ball of the 41st Ohio recalled, “I will never forget the splendid appearance of the rebel line of battle as it advanced to engage our brigade . . . they came at us with a yell, as if to gobble us up.”
Perhaps few units were as ill-prepared to make the attack as the 44th Mississippi, on the right of Chalmers’ line. When they lined up for the assault, they had an unfortunate distinction: they had been re-issued weapons only five days earlier, and most were inoperable. In fact some men had no weapons at all when they stepped off. If the men were told that rifles would be available soon, the reason would certainly not be reassuring.
All the regiment’s rifles had been gathered five days earlier for redistribution among the brigades’ other units. Two days later several wagons arrived with what Major Thompson of the brigade called “refuse guns.” Thompson was horrified to find that “Many of these guns were worthless- some being bent, some cocked could not be pulled down, some whose hammers had to be carried in the men’s pockets until time to commence firing, others so foul as to render it impossible to ram home the cartridge, many without ramrods and only one bayonet in the lot.” He goes on to state that “one half of the regiment moved out with no other resemblance to a gun than such sticks as they could gather.”
Picture the troops lined up for their assault, already under enemy fire, and imagine the courage of those who lined up with broken rifles, sticks, or nothing at all. In their attack the regiment lost 4 killed, 31 wounded, and 17 missing.
Company D from Desoto County lost several men in the attack. Private William H. Burton was wounded in the right hand. Private John Collins of Corinth was wounded and captured, dying in a Union hospital eleven days later. Private Ephraim R. Haynes was also wounded and captured, but survived and was exchanged in April. Private Solomon Payne was mortally wounded, shot through the left side, and died the next day on January 1. Private Valincourt A. Spencer was wounded below the knee but returned to service. Lastly, Private William D. Young of Tupelo was wounded slighting in the right hand. Did these particular men carry functioning weapons, unserviceable rifles that they tried to use, or were they some of the unlucky who went in supporting their comrades, looking for the chance to pick up a working weapon? We will never know.