New Year’s Hell: A Confederate Captain’s Vendetta at the Battle of Stones River

December 31, 2020Matt Fratus
Battle of Stones River New Years Eve coffee or die

The Battle of Stones River occurred between Dec. 31, 1862 and Jan. 2, 1863 and was considered one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Confederate Capt. William H. Harder of the 23rd Tennessee Infantry Regiment was severely wounded during the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, and his condition was so severe Southern newspapers wrote stories of his death. He was taken prisoner to Camp Douglas in Chicago. While imprisoned and protected by an eight-gun battery, Harder confronted the Union captain who was inspecting the artillery pieces. They exchanged words and Harder promised they would meet again on the battlefield, except this time the roles would reverse.

“You will want it, but you won’t get it,” the Union captain said. 

“Do not tantalize me with the gun, for when I am exchanged, I expect to be made a commander and if I see that battery in the line of battle, I will have that gun,” Harder told him, according to Harder’s war diary.

“You see that flag?” the captain challenged Harder. “Would you know it in the line of battle?” 

“I would,” Harder replied in confidence.

“Well then,” the captain said, “come and take it.”

Battle of Stones River coffee or die
A painting depicts the intense three-day fight during the American Civil War’s bloodiest of battles on New Year’s Eve 1862. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Following Harder’s release from the prison camp, these two would get their chance to square off once more. On Dec. 31, 1862, Harder and the Union captain were participants among 75,000 to 80,000 soldiers in the Battle of Stones River, a three-day onslaught that saw more than 23,500 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in action. The holiday battle was a New Year’s hell, and the fighting conditions weren’t that of a typical sunny Tennessee day.

“To begin with, the terrain around Stones River is full of rocky limestone outcroppings and dense cedar thickets which made communications and the movement of troops and artillery a real problem,” National Park Service historian Charles Spearman of the Stones River National Battlefield told the Tennessee Traveler. “The weather was cold and wet. The roads were muddy. The river was higher than usual, and the temperatures were freezing. There was even some sleet and hail.”

Harder and his men advanced into Murfreesboro, marching toward the eight-gun battery position when he noticed a familiar sight — the same battery captain’s flag he’d seen while in prison. On a personal vendetta and with orders to take the regiment to get it, Harder raised his sword into the air and thrust it down three times to signal to the captain that it was him. An all-out gun battle ensued where both sides exchanged fire for 10 minutes. Harder saw the captain fall and moved to seize the guns. He and his men would hold them only for a brief time, however, before being forced to retreat.

“I got the guns and did not get them. Thus is the fortune of war,” he would later write.

Though three days of desperate fighting resulted in the Confederates capturing 54 artillery pieces, the Union’s effort to bolster support and boost morale would end in a victory for the North — at the cost of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War.

“The Battle of Stones River only once more manifested the prowess of the southern soldier, of his gallantry, and indamnitable perseverance but gained nothing,” Harder wrote in reflection.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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