December 30, 1862 – Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland advanced on the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg near Murfreesboro.
Rosecrans’s Federals began moving out on the morning of the 26th as planned, despite torrential rains. Rosecrans had 81,729 effectives, but nearly half of them were assigned to protect his communication and supply lines from Confederate cavalry raids. The attack force consisted of about 44,000 men divided into three wings:
- Major General Thomas L. Crittenden on the left
- Major General George H. Thomas on the center
- Major General Alexander McCook on the right
As Rosecrans predicted at his council of war, the Federals met Confederate resistance almost immediately. McCook confronted a cavalry detachment at Nolensville around 7 a.m., while Crittenden ran into General Joseph Wheeler’s troopers north of Lavergne. A pattern developed in which Confederates would put up a front, fire a few rounds to stop the Federal advance, and then fall back to do it again. During this time, Bragg learned of Rosecrans’s approach.
On the 27th, skirmishing began on the Nashville Pike. By nightfall, Bragg had gathered most of his forces around Murfreesboro, about a mile and a half from the Stones River. Meanwhile, the main Federal force occupied Stuart’s Creek, 10 miles from Murfreesboro, with advance units beyond Triune. General William J. Hardee’s Confederate corps abandoned Triune the next day and joined the rest of Bragg’s army, 15 miles east.
Bragg had 37,713 effectives, making him almost numerically equal to Rosecrans. The advantage shifted more to Bragg’s favor when he dispatched Wheeler to ride around the Federals and raid their supplies. Wheeler’s 2,000 troopers rode behind the Federal army to Jefferson, where they seized 20 wagons from Crittenden’s supply train. They next rode northwest to Lavergne, where they captured all of McCook’s 300 wagons worth “many hundred thousands of dollars,” along with 700 prisoners.
By the time Wheeler’s men returned to Bragg’s army in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, they had captured and paroled about 1,000 Federals, destroyed parts of four wagon trains, seized enough arms and equipment to supply a brigade, and took enough horses to replenish the cavalry. The troopers also wreaked havoc on the Federal flanks and rear.
The Federal advance slowly proceeded nonetheless, with Crittenden’s wing reaching the Stones River in the late afternoon of the 29th. Believing that Bragg was withdrawing, Rosecrans ordered Crittenden to occupy Murfreesboro east of the river with one division and keep the rest of his troops on the west bank. Although Crittenden could see that Bragg was not retreating, he dispatched Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s division to take the town.
Heavy skirmishing ensued until Wood pulled back. When Rosecrans learned of this, he agreed to hold off trying to take Murfreesboro until the rest of the army arrived. By that night, about two-thirds of his men had taken positions along the Nashville Pike, less than a half-mile from Bragg’s front lines. They suffered through a cold, wet night. Meanwhile, Bragg resolved to attack if the opportunity presented itself.
By the 30th, the entire Army of the Cumberland had arrived in the Confederate front. It had taken the Federals three days to cover 30 miles, as they were hampered by foul weather, skirmishers, and cavalry raids. The opposing lines ran north to south on either side of the Stones River. Bragg’s army stretched along a four-mile front, about a mile and a half west and northwest of Murfreesboro. Bragg held the Nashville Pike and the Stones River. Skirmishing intensified on the 30th.
Rosecrans spent the day positioning troops to attack. He hoped to drive Bragg’s army out of Murfreesboro so he could secure a supply line to Nashville, enabling him to take control of Middle Tennessee. Rosecrans’s slow advance had given Bragg time to develop an attack plan of his own. Bragg hoped to destroy Rosecrans’s army and regain Nashville.
Not only did Rosecrans and Bragg both plan to attack on New Year’s Eve, but they both had the same battle plan: hold with the right and attack with the left. Whichever army moved first would automatically put the other on the defensive. If the armies attacked simultaneously, they would simply revolve in a half-circle, ending up at each other’s starting point.
Bragg hoped that turning the Federal right would put Rosecrans’s back to the Stones River and cut his line of retreat northwest to Nashville. Bragg wired his superiors, “Enemy very cautious, and declining a general engagement. Both armies in line of battle within sight.”
Rosecrans’s army consisted of Crittenden on the left, Thomas in the center, and McCook on the right. Crittenden was to turn the Confederate right and seize the heights across the river. The Federals could then place artillery there to enfilade the Confederate line. Thomas was to pivot as Crittenden attacked. McCook was to build extra campfires to make the Federal right seem stronger than it truly was, thus dissuading Bragg from counterattacking there.
Bragg’s army consisted of Hardee’s corps on the left, Major General Leonidas Polk’s corps in the center, and Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division (detached from Hardee’s corps) on the right. Both Hardee and Polk were on the same side of the Stones River as the Federals, while Breckinridge was on the opposite side. Bragg strengthened Hardee’s sector for his planned attack on the Federal right. Bragg wired his superiors, “Enemy very cautious, and declining a general engagement. Both armies in line of battle within sight.”
The Federals and Confederates camped so close to each other that the opposing bands staged a battle of songs. Federal bands played northern favorites like “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail, Columbia,” and Confederate bands played southern tunes like “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” A band then began playing “Home, Sweet Home,” and both sides joined in.
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