Blood and Buttons: Charles Anderson at Stones River (Part One of Two)
Historians are like wildcatters. They usually drill hundreds of dry holes before they hit black gold. Only rarely does Lady Luck deal us a handful of aces. Such was the case when Rob Tolley, an anthropologist from Indiana University, stumbled upon a huge trove of letters, photographs, diaries, and other memorabilia at a remote ranch in Wyoming. Included among many hundreds of documents was the speech manuscript of Charles Anderson, the man who spoke after Lincoln at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, and whose oration had been lost to history for more than 150 years.
Anderson’s family papers are now housed in five repositories across the country, including more than fifty archival boxes at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. This embarrassment of riches led me to publish my first book, The Lost Gettysburg Address: Charles Anderson’s Civil War Odyssey, in 2015.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime project. Instead of struggling to find enough private letters and other primary sources to create a monograph, I had to make difficult choices about what to include and what to leave out. Left on the cutting room floor, but now permanently housed in my Microsoft One Drive, are innumerable treasures. One prized discovery was an Anderson letter, penned a few days following the battle, wherein he describes his experiences as colonel commanding the Ninety-Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Here is a transcript:
Camp 2 Ms S of Murfreesboro on Shelbyville Road
7 January 1863
Dearest Wife and Children
Here we are alas not all safe or well- at least 11 of my poor braves, killed – dead – and 47 wounded. Doubtless, more yet of each class to be subtracted from the unknown quantity of missing. If you got my last two letters, you will see that all my apprehensions from the changes in our Brigade, took place and wonderfully as I surmised and prophesized. Nevertheless, we know less than nothing of our personal fortunes or fates in advance. For instance, poor dear Genl Sill – brave, honest carpenter, _____, Scheunemann and King might have all been well and happy if they had not done what really seemed best for all except Genl Sill. I still do not understand why he left his brigade who loved him so devotedly. If he had staid I it and the other changes had not been made, or, I guess, if he had remained in command of the division, not only would both commands have fared better, but I really believe we should have had for the whole Army and Country the most overwhelming, crushing, exterminating victory in the war. For we were “surprised”. And with Sill – that was an utter impossibility. As for me personally things could not have turned out better. I put my Regt to bed and asleep at the very spot where the next Morns attack first washed away our lives! And more by accident than good sense. I took the responsibility of moving it, without and rather against orders, to a place where we were last attacked. I really believe that in the former camp, we would have been exterminated, almost to a man. For unlike the other Regts of the Division, we had marched most laboriously the whole day and then had to go on a scout with Cavalry in the evening. As no fires were allowed until day break – and the night was too cold for sleep – we should have been all dead asleep when the enemy surprised our sister Brigades at that very spot at ½ past 6. Kirk’s & Willich’s the Genl seem to censure (with uncertain shares of blame). K&W I only know that when we left the little space between their camps, Willich did know that his two regimental Picket lines did not meet! And yet I do think these to be two of the most diligent, alert and qualified Brigade commanders in this Army- always excepting Sill. But Homer nods – Why should not we be anoddin ____ ____ beyond this good luck of our encampment. I stood and ran next day on horse and foot in the very thickest hail of balls of every shape and size. My horse was hit 3 times- 2 by spent balls glancing from trees – truest I think once by a spent ball. One ball – aimed at only 75 yds distance- as I turned to see where and how the enemy was advancing- struck near the 2d button of my coat- exactly over the pit of the stomach. It then struck upon the left hand slope of the correspondent 3rd vest button, which slanted it away from the little hollow between the first floating rib and turned it upon the outside end of that left rib. It yielded inwardly of course to the pressure. The ball tore away the skin and flesh form the outside of the rib a finger length & breadth and passed off harmless into the air, or else into some poor fugitive of the crowd before me. In another instant my horse was struck above the root of the tail – near the spine. He fell as if dead. I dismounted. He arose plunging and by his struggles as I attempted to hold him by the reins at the jaw, he threw my drawn sword away from me. Seeing what I took to be a hole out of his shoulder (a cuckold burr) I let him go. He broke off, kicking and plunging violently thru my lines, knocked down several men & fell again. By this I thought he was killed. I then took to my native heels and ran as if I were still a whitehead. In some 50 yards I passed into an open cotton field where all the Regt was crossing- or falling. I here overtook Capt. Birch – and immediately after, was struck again – another miracle. The ball hit the middle button on my left wrist, glanced against my side in the direction of my hip-joint, tore away a big hole in them- you see I cut off the point of my flesh say 1 ½ inch – and so I again escaped maim for life, as before, instant death. I wondered how at such a point a ball could so enter the clothes; take hold of my flesh, and only make one hole in the clothes. Yesterday afternoon as the chaplain and I were sitting together – I took off my boots for the first time and was surprised to find the original ball, neatly fitted between the ancle and the heel- with its two scars precisely fitted (by him) to the sphere of the button and with the remnant of the button exactly filling, with its concavity, the convexity of the twirling ball. You call these providential deliverances. But as I see better men killed by similar glances the other way. I still think them accidents. But I can’t say much now of Anderson luck. So much for self. Nick’s case you know all about doubtless. His Regiment under him gained with that of poor Fred Jones (my law student, Latham’s school fellow- noble man and officer!) I really think the very highest honors of the day- unless perhaps my sweetheart Guenther surpassed even these.
The letter itself is extraordinary in its candor and detail, but the most exciting feature was a hand-drawn map of the battlefield, complete with Union troop positions on December 31, 1862, and January 2, 1863. I included the map in illustrations for the book, but it is difficult to study in that format, so I will be making a high-resolution scan available as a free bonus this month to Emerging Civil War Patreon subscribers, who may download it for closer examination.
David T. Dixon is also the author of Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020). His website is www.davidtdixon.com.
2 Responses to Blood and Buttons: Charles Anderson at Stones River (Part One of Two)
I just walked by the church in Gettysburg where Anderson spoke
His brother Nicolas Longworth Anderson was also in the battle commanding the 6th Ohio