23 days – 23 posts – 23 ancestors
Ancestor #21 – Rice Benjamin Carpenter
Rice was my 3rd great grandfather. He was born to Benjamin Carpenter and Nancy Rice in 1828 in Tennessee. Before 1834, his family moved to Lauderdale County, Mississippi. This was just following the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, and the government had moved the Choctaw Indians off the land and were selling it for cheap to get it settled by Americans.
Rice married Mary Ann Rodgers (Ancestor #17) in 1846 and had five children before he went off to fight in the Civil War. On December 31, 1862, he fought in the Battle of Stones River in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The following is a chapter from my book “Okatibbee Creek.”
The ground is hard. The air is chilly. Every night, it’s pitch-black out here. I haven’t been able to sleep a wink. I can hear some low, quiet talking outside, an ole hoot owl in the woods far away, a couple of bull-frogs croaking in the grass, and even someone snoring next to me. I wish I could sleep.
I remember the day we arrived. The land here was quite beautiful then. There were thick woods of cedar trees lining a beautiful river.
That was a month ago. Over the last three weeks, most of the trees have been used for firewood, to build makeshift cabins, and turned into poles to hold up tents. It’s been raining a lot, mixed with a little snow and freezing rain. When the sun comes out in the morning, everything melts. Now this once beautiful land looks like one big, muddy pigsty. The mud is awful and the smell is even worse. God, the smell.
We were told that we would be awakened well before dawn for a mission. It must be almost that time. I’m tired. I’m anxious. I’m hungry. If we have a mission this early, there won’t be time for any breakfast. Maybe some hardtack and warm canteen water and that’s it.
I don’t know what I’d do right now for a good, strong cup of hot coffee. We haven’t had any coffee for weeks. We’ve been boiling chicory and peanuts instead. I would like some real coffee.
I would also like some clean clothes and some new shoes as well. I wonder if Mr. Calhoun has new shoes selling in the store. I would like some of his well-made shoes without mud on them, and with soles that aren’t worn through. I would like some clothes that aren’t caked in mud and sweat. I would like a chicken dinner. I would like to see my wife and my children. I would like to get away from these drunken, loud men. I would like to get away from the coughing and the diseases that are spreading through our camp like wild-fire. I would like to get back to my civilized store and my comfortable life, away from this godforsaken war that has gone on far too long for my taste. I should have been home months ago.
I hear them outside moving around now. I hear them all waking up and starting to stir. Someone sticks his head in my tent and says, “Rice, come on, we’re meeting at the captain’s tent in ten minutes.”
Yeah, there is something big going on, all right. One could almost cut the tension in the air with a knife. In ten minutes, we will find out exactly what it is. I put on my coat and hat and what remains of my worn shoes, and head through the mud to the captain’s tent.
“Men, you all know we have Yankees just over the river. We’ve heard that they plan to engage us after breakfast, but we’re not going to wait for them to come across. We’re going to give them a nice little surprise wake-up right now.” He points to a map on the table and continues. “The Kentucky boys are going to go around this way, and the Tennessee boys are going to take them on from that direction. We will move through this way. Since it is so early, we should be able to catch most of them still asleep in their tents.”
He waves his stick around the map so quickly, it is almost hard to figure out exactly where we are supposed to go.
“Any questions?” he asks.
All the men shake their heads.
“Good, let’s go kick some Yankee butt. When we are finished, we will confiscate their coffee, and I’ll join you in a cup,” he says.
“Now you’re speaking my language, Captain,” I joke.
He smiles and pats me on the shoulder as I leave the tent.
We grab our muskets and revolvers and move through what remains of the dense cedar glades, up the river-bank, as quiet as deer at dusk. It is still dark. I guess it must be about four or four thirty in the morning. We usually move to the sound of drum and bugle, but not on this day. Today, we are gravely quiet. As we plant ourselves behind some low limestone rocks about seven hundred yards away from the enemy, I can see about thirty campfires and a few men wandering around, but the camp is mostly quiet. It might be my imagination, but I think I smell coffee. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a cup of that. It dawns on me that there are a lot more campfires than men, so they must want us to think that their army is a lot bigger than it actually is. Why else have so many campfires?
I am uncomfortable lying on my belly so low on the ground behind eight-inch-tall limestone rocks, and I wonder why we haven’t built some fortifications over the last month. Not that there are any trees left to build them with, but I wonder nonetheless. I assume we weren’t planning on this attack, but since the opportunity has presented itself, we are going to take advantage of it, with or without fortifications.
When everyone gets into position, we start aiming for the men who are walking around, though when they hear the first gun-shot, they crouch down, running and scurrying for their guns. I see quite a few of them fall before I ever hear one of their guns shooting back at us. For a moment, I think this is going to be an easy victory. We’ll send those Yankees back home with their tails between their legs before dawn. Then we’ll drink their coffee.
A few days ago, about twenty-five hundred of our Calvary boys rode all the way around the Union camp, confiscated four wagon trains, and took about a thousand Union prisoners, but we didn’t get any coffee. Maybe these Yankees don’t have much coffee, either.
“Well, they’re not getting any today,” I mumble to myself as I raise my musket and fire.
As the Yankees start to run away, someone behind us gives the rebel yell and we all follow suit. It is a mix of an Indian war cry and a gypsy scream. The Yankees probably think Indians are attacking them. We all rise from our positions and start running after them.
After we cross the freezing cold river, we pick up speed and are almost right on top of them. We are moving in and fast. Roughly ten thousand Confederate troops are raining down on their heads before breakfast. Most of those Yankee boys are running away like scared little rabbits.
“Run, rabbit, run!” I yell.
Our band starts playing “Dixie” and we hum along as we aim, fire, and reload. Occasionally, cannon fire shakes the ground, fills the air with smoke, and drowns out the band. One cannon fires so close behind me, I think my hearing will be gone for good. I am aiming at a Yankee when a cannon fires. I blink my eyes and the Yankee is gone.
One of the boys loading the cannon yells to me, “I got him for you, Rice. You go on home now.”
He roars with laughter as I roll my eyes at him and wiggle my finger in my ear, gesturing that I can’t hear him. He laughs louder.
Our band is now playing “My Bonnie Blue Flag” as we start moving in closer. We walk so far and so long, it seems the Yankees have all but run all the way back home. We move for a solid two miles before we catch up with them again. By the time we engage them again, it is light outside.
Our band always plays marches like “Marching Through Georgia” or “I’m a Good Ole Rebel.” The Yankee bands always play songs like “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A popular song on both sides is “Home Sweet Home,” but our band is not allowed to play that. The captain says the melancholy tune makes everyone homesick, and he is afraid some of the men will desert and go home. But for some reason on this cold Tennessee morning, our band starts playing that song.
Our boys always sing along, but today, the strangest thing happens. The Union boys start singing along. I can hear them singing over the gunfire. I can’t believe I can hear Yankees singing, partly because they are that close, but mostly because we are in the heat of battle. Singing together seems more than bizarre to me. Then the Union band picks up on the tune and they start to play along also. Everyone is singing and for a split second, the shooting stops. For a brief moment, the cannon fire stops.
I think, how can everyone sing together and then resume shooting one another? How can everyone share this melancholy moment and take up arms again? Men on both sides are singing together like I’ve never heard anyone sing before. In another time, another place, we would be friends.
I stop firing and listen to everyone singing, thinking this is the most surreal moment I can remember in my life. I am lying flat on my stomach, and I lift my head to look around at the men. As I rise further and turn to look at the ones behind me, I feel a searing pain rip through my chest. I reach up to my chest and feel warm blood oozing out of a bullet wound. Damn. I optimistically think it is probably only a surface wound, and I will be all right if I can make it all the way back to camp. I can write to Mary and tell her I’m all right. I don’t want her and the children to worry about me.
As I try to get to my feet and turn toward the direction of camp, I feel another hot pain go through my left temple.
I hear someone yell, “Rice, get down!”
I fall to my knees, thinking this can’t possibly be the end. No, it can’t be. I have a beautiful wife and wonderful children to get home to. I try to get up again, but stumble forward and fall facedown onto the ground.
“Rice!” I hear someone yell again.
I stare at the pebbles and the pine needles on the ground. Blood starts to pool under my face, turning the dirt and pebbles and pine needles a flood of bright red.
I listen as the cannons roar and the rifles fire and the band plays “Home Sweet Home,” and I think of my beautiful Mary and my wonderful children—Mattie, Benjamin, Charlie, and Monroe. How lucky I am to have them.
Then slowly, everything fades from red to black.
Killed in battle December 31, 1862
Remains and memorial at Evergreen Cemetery in the Confederate Circle