A Stone Cold Night at Stones River: December 31, 1862

Looking for survivors at night among the Union dead

In surveying Ambrose Bierce’s war literature, one will inevitably come across two anthologies which had supposedly collected all AGB’s stories and memoirs related to the Civil War.

Unfortunately, both anthologies, while each has its merits, have both omitted at least one war tale of his–a short piece called A Cold Night.

Typical of Bierce, on reading the short tale, one is hard put to tell whether Bierce’s account is fact or fiction. It is certainly macabre, and some would say unbelievable, but the circumstances he describes–the night after the first day’s battle on December 31, 1852–are nonetheless accurate.

Bierce leaves us to speculate as to whether the dead may catch a chill after receiving a bullet to the brain.

This short piece was originally published as a newspaper article, then subsequently amalgamated it with several other strange tales which he combined to make “Bodies of the Dead.”

The story first appeared in book form amalgamated with a number of non-Civil War tales, later editors have overlooked it ever since. So, for those of you Civil War buffs with a taste for the offbeat and macabre, I republish it here:

A Cold Night
Ambrose Bierce

THE first day’s battle at Stone River had been fought, resulting in disaster to the Federal army, which had been driven from its original ground at every point except its extreme left. The weary troops at this point lay behind a railway embankment to which they had retired, and which had served them during the last hours of the fight as a breastwork to repel repeated charges of the enemy. Behind the line the ground was open and rocky. Great boulders lay about everywhere, and among them lay many of the Federal dead, where they had been carried out of the way. Before the embankment the dead of both armies lay more thickly, but they had not been disturbed.

Among the dead in the boulders lay one whom nobody seemed to know — a Federal sergeant, shot directly in the center of the forehead. One of our surgeons, from idle curiosity, or possibly with a view to the amusement of a group of officers during a lull in the engagement (we needed something to divert our minds), had pushed his probe clean through the head. The body lay on its back, its chin in the air, and with straightened limbs, as rigid as steel; frost on its white face and in its beard and hair. Some Christian soul had covered it with a blanket, but when the night became pretty sharp, a companion of the writer removed this, and we lay beneath it ourselves.

With the exception of our pickets, who had been posted well out in front of the embankment, every man lay silent. Conversation was forbidden; to have made a fire, or even struck a match to light a pipe would have been a grave offense. Stamping horses, moaning wounded – everything that made a noise had been sent to the rear; the silence was absolute. Those whom the chill prevented from sleeping nevertheless reclined as they shivered, or sat with their hands on their arms, suffering but making no sign. Everyone had lost friends, and all expected death on the morrow. These matters are mentioned to show the improbability of anyone going about during those solemn hours to commit a ghastly practical joke.

When the dawn broke the sky was still clear. “We shall have a warm day,” the writer’s companion whispered as we rose in the gray light; “let’s give back the poor devil his blanket.”

The sergeant’s body lay in the same place, two yards away. But not in the same attitude. It was upon its right side. The knees were drawn up nearly to the breast, both hands thrust to the wrist between the buttons of the jacket, the collar of which was turned up, concealing the ears. The shoulders were elevated, the head was retracted, the chin rested on the collar bone.

The posture was that of one suffering from intense cold. But for what had been previously observed — but for the ghastly evidence of the bullet-hole — one might have thought the man had died of cold.

Attack at Stones River
The bloodletting on both sides on the 31at was horrific, made all the worse that night by the bitter cold, which killed many of the wounded on the battlefield.

For more strange and unexplained accounts of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, published by Rutledge Hill Press and still in print. My most recent work, The Paranormal Presidency, delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life and career. Now in print in hardcover is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles the war service of one of America’s greatest short story writers. Ambrose Bierce was best know for his cynical quips and his masterful short fiction. Less well known is his career as a soldier in the Union Army where he distinguished himself in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Now in hardcover with University of Tennessee Press.
Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
This nonfiction book chronicles Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln documents his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism. Schiffer Publishing.


THE DAY THE RIVER TURNED RED: Christmas 1862, A Civil War Christmas Part 6


Christmas Eve, 1862. Both sides were filled with thoughts of home. Thomas Nast (color version)
Christmas Eve, 1862. Both sides were filled with thoughts of home. Thomas Nast (color version)

CHRISTMAS 1862. It had been a bloody year and December of 1862 proved to be a bloody month.

The confidence and initial optimism of the Rebels had been dashed by the series of defeats at Forts Donelson and Henry in January, the loss of Nashville and the mid-South in the February and March, and then the stalemate at “Bloody Shiloh” in April. There was also the futile Fall Kentucky Campaign, where the Confederate forces almost conquered the Bluegrass state—but not quite. Back east, Robert E. Lee inflicted defeat after defeat on the Yankees, but still the blue-backs kept coming on against him.

After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, Spencer Welch of the 13th South Carolina, noted just days after Christmas that, “The Yankees are certainly very tired of this war. All the prisoners I have talked with express themselves as completely worn out and disgusted with it. ”

Spencer writes to his wife how the Yankees on the other side of the lines don’t even have their guns loaded and how both sides talk familiarly with each other, as if they were enjoying a time out in some sort of great game. For among all the death and dying, the Christmas spirit had still taken hold of both; North and South, all yearned for peace and home.

As far as Thomas Nast was concerned, Santa was definitely a Union man.
As far as Thomas Nast was concerned, Santa was definitely a Union man.

Out west, however, Christmas day was but a prelude to battle. No sooner was the holy holiday over than General Rosecrans, in charge of the newly renamed and reorganized Army of the Cumberland, marched out of Nashville to do battle with General Bragg’s Rebel Army of Tennessee, laying in wait for them in nearby Murfreesboro, encamped by the winding banks of Stone’s River.

In the West there was no rest from war at Christmas in 1862. Broken artillery from the Battle of Stones River.
In the West there was no rest from war at Christmas in 1862. Broken artillery from the Battle of Stones River.

On December 26, the two sides faced each other across the river, awaiting battle on the morrow. On one side a regimental band piped up; on the other side an enemy band replied in kind. One side played Dixie; the other Yankee Doodle; and so it went on the eve of battle, until the battle of bands ended with both sides playing Home, Sweet, Home in unison.

The thoughts and prayers of loved ones at home on Christmas Eve were for the safety of their soldiers at the front. While in camp, it seems, Santa had declared for the Union cause—at least insofar as Thomas Nast was concerned.

A field sketch of Fort Macon, Christmas Day, 1862.
A field sketch of Fort Macon, Christmas Day, 1862.

In camps North and South, Christmas was a more mellow holiday in ‘62 than it had been before; for many comrades who had shared their Christmas fare in ’61 were now dead and gone. All wished for peace; but none now dare hope for it anytime soon.

For more about the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Out now is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, which chronicles the wartime service of famous author Ambrose Bierce with the 9th Indiana and Army of the Cumberland.


Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.


Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins).
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)








Here’s An alternate version of “Dixie” on YouTube