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Photo A: Milton Russell received this Congressional Medal of Honor in 1897.  ID.37.109.16

Photo B: Union soldier Russell earned this medal for his valor at the Battle of Stones River, Tennessee during the Civil War.  ID.00.4.1023

 
 

November 2008

Milton Russell: Uncommon Valor during the Civil War

At 9 o’clock in the evening on December 29, 1862, 26-year-old Captain Milton Russell rousted his men of the 51st Indiana Volunteer Infantry’s Company A from their sleep and led them through the frigid waters of Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Russell and his 200 Union soldiers had been sent to find out how difficult the river was to ford and learn how close Confederate troops were to the riverbank.

Russell’s troops waded in the dark through bone chilling waters up to their hips, their teeth chattering.  As the men neared the opposite shore, a volley of bullets from concealed Confederate skirmishers erupted from behind a rail fence not 40 feet away.  There were only two ways out and Captain Russell had a split second to decide:  Should he retreat back across the river? Or advance on the enemy?

The decision that young Captain Russell made would earn him a Congressional Medal of Honor.

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MORE:  Milton Russell: Uncommon Valor during the Civil War

Milton Russell wears his Medal of Honor on his vest in this portrait taken in a Des Moines, Iowa, photographic studio about 1900. ID.37.109.41

 

After his unitís capture in May 1863, Milton Russell spent a year as a prisoner of war in the harsh conditions of the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Russell drew an arrow to mark the top floor room where he was allotted living space during his grueling imprisonment. ID.37.109.2

 

Milton Russell was born in 1836 and grew up on a farm in Hendricks County, Indiana.  In 1857, 21-year-old Russell married Harriet Harlan.  Two years later, they became the parents of a daughter, Sella.  In October 1861, a few months after the Civil War began, the young husband and father enlisted as a 1st lieutenant in Company A of the 51st Indiana Volunteer Infantry.  As he bid them farewell, Russell may have wondered if he would ever see his wife and child again.

Stones River

By the time that Milton Russell led his men across Stones River in December 1862, the 51st Indiana had seen only limited action, though they had been present at engagements like the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee and the siege of Corinth, Mississippi, in the spring of 1862.  In August 1862, Milton Russell was promoted to captain.  During the summer and fall, the 51st was involved in the pursuit of Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his troops in Kentucky.  By late December, the 51st Indiana arrived at Stones River, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where Bragg’s retreat had set the stage for the Battle of Stones River on December 31, 1862 and January 1-3, 1863.

As the Confederate bullets flew at his men as they crossed Stones River, Captain Russell quickly sized up the situation. The Confederates had fired--their guns were empty.  The guns of Russell’s men were still loaded.  He gave the command to charge.  In a flash, his men went over the fence, fired upon the Confederates, then fixed their bayonets.  The Confederate troops fled, with the men of the 51st Indiana’s Company A on their heels for about 400 yards until Russell brought them to a halt.  Milton Russell’s men had achieved their objective--they had obtained the desired information.

Russell’s commanding officers had only instructed him to wade across the river and then wait for further orders.  Russell took a risk in deciding to pursue his Confederate attackers.  He swiftly and correctly calculated that his troops had but a brief window of opportunity.  He took it.  And Russell bravely charged ahead of his men as they ran to the riverbank and up it to engage the Confederates.

Streight’s Raid

After Stones River, Milton Russell and the 51st Indiana would fight on.  The 51st’s colonel, Abel Streight, led 1700 Union troops on an April 1863 raid into Alabama and Georgia intended to disrupt Confederate railroad supply lines between Atlanta and Chattanooga.  Their ultimate goal was to reach Rome, Georgia.  As they neared their destination--with Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his men in hot pursuit--Streight ordered Russell to take 200 handpicked men and proceed to Rome to hold the bridge until the main command could join them.  Streight’s forces never made it.  And Russell and his men were not able to take the bridge at Rome.  Colonel Streight finally surrendered his exhausted forces to Forrest near Cedar Bluff, Alabama, on May 3, just short of his final goal. 

Prisoner of War

Streight’s officers, including Russell, were sent to the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia.  A year later, Russell was transferred from Libby to other Confederate military prisons at Macon, Georgia, and then Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina.  While Russell might have been out of combat, he was not out of danger.  These prisons offered crowded conditions with inadequate food, water and shelter.  Many prisoners died from disease.

After 18 months as a prisoner of war, Milton Russell finally escaped.  He managed to join Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops near Millen, Georgia, on their famous March to the Sea in November 1864.  Russell was discharged from the 51st Indiana a month later.

After the war, Russell returned to civilian life.  He moved with his family to Des Moines, Iowa, where he became a grain merchant.  Russell died in 1908 at the age of 71.

Medal of Honor

In 1897, Congress awarded Milton Russell the Congressional Medal of Honor for his “distinguished gallantry in action” at Stones River in December 1862.  The Medal of Honor has been awarded to nearly 3,500 people since its inception in 1862.  It is the highest military award given by the United States government to a member of the Armed Services for valor in an action against an enemy. 

One can imagine how proud Milton Russell was to receive this award.

 
-- Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life

 

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