December 31, 1862 – A major battle began near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, when General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates attacked the Federal Army of the Cumberland under Major General William S. Rosecrans.
Bragg’s Army of Tennessee numbered about 37,000 men, roughly equal to Rosecrans’s 44,000 Federals. Both Bragg and Rosecrans had planned to attack on the 31st, and both planned to hold the enemy’s left while attacking the right. But while Rosecrans planned to attack after breakfast, Bragg planned to attack at dawn.
The Confederates struck first, with 10,000 men of Major General William J. Hardee’s corps slamming into the unprepared Federal right under Major General Alexander McCook. The assault caught some Federals as they ate breakfast. A Tennessee private recalled that he and his comrades “swooped down on those Yankees like a whirl-a-gust of woodpeckers in a hail storm.”
Rosecrans initially resolved to attack the Confederate right as planned, believing that McCook could hold his own. He ordered, “Tell General McCook to contest every inch of ground! If he holds them, we will swing into Murfreesboro with our left and cut them off.” However, Hardee’s massive surge prompted Rosecrans to cancel his attack and send reinforcements to his right.
Major General Leonidas Polk’s Confederates in the center of the line surged forward in a second attack wave, hitting McCook’s left and the Federal center under Major General George H. Thomas. As Hardee pushed McCook’s men back into Thomas, Thomas tried fending off Polk. Meanwhile, Confederate cavalry rode around the Federal right and threatened the rear. Brigadier General Richard W. Johnson’s Federal division fled across the Wilkinson Pike, which in turn drove Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis’s Federal division across the Nashville Pike.
Brigadier General Philip Sheridan, commanding a division under McCook, anticipated an attack and had his men ready at 4 a.m. They repulsed three of Polk’s charges in a wooded area in front of the Wilkinson Pike known as the “Slaughter Pen.” Sheridan lost all three of his brigade commanders and a third of his men before he began running out of ammunition. He led a fighting retreat to the Nashville Pike.
Rosecrans pulled troops from Major General Thomas L. Crittenden on the left and placed them along the Nashville Pike, supported by artillery. Rosecrans rode behind the lines, rallying his men as shot and shell passed by; one shell blew his aide’s head off.
By 10 a.m., Bragg had pushed the Federal right back three miles while also driving in the center. His men had captured 28 guns and about 3,000 Federals. Bragg ordered troops from Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division, holding the Confederate right, to reinforce the main attack. But Breckinridge refused, arguing that Crittenden was still threatening his front.
When Bragg ordered Breckinridge to cross the Stones River and attack, Breckinridge learned that Crittenden was gone. Bragg then canceled his order for Breckinridge to send reinforcements to the main attack when he received an erroneous report that Federal reinforcements were moving to attack Breckinridge. These blunders prevented Bragg from routing and possibly destroying the Federal army.
The Confederate attacks lost momentum around noon, as Rosecrans established strong defenses in the shape of a “V.” The left part of the “V” ran along the Nashville Pike, and the right part ran long the west bank of the Stones River. The salient was a four-acre wooded area known as the Round Forest. Five Federal brigades repelled several Confederate attacks in what the defenders called “Hell’s Half-Acre.” Some men picked nearby cotton and stuffed it in their ears to dull the continuous roar of the battle.
Breckinridge’s Confederates finally entered the fray around 4 p.m., but Breckinridge sent them piecemeal against the strong Federal salient; two charges failed and fighting ended around 4:30, 11 hours after it began. The Federals held the turnpike, which was their possible line of retreat to Nashville. They also held positions east of the Round Forest facing the Stones River.
The Confederates dug entrenchments as Bragg celebrated what he thought was a great victory. He had lost nearly 9,000 killed or wounded, but he believed the large number of Federals captured indicated that Rosecrans’s losses were much worse. Bragg telegraphed his superiors at Richmond: “The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. We occupy the whole field and shall follow… God has granted us a happy New Year.”
However, Bragg did not achieve his objective of cutting Rosecrans’s line of retreat to Nashville; in fact, he had pushed the Federals right into it. Also, Bragg remained at his headquarters throughout the day, far behind the action, and did not see for himself the damage his army had done. If he did, he might have pressed even harder and committed Breckinridge’s men to break the Federal lines sooner.
Apparently, Bragg had become content to merely drive Rosecrans off. Confederate scouts reported seeing long wagon trains heading back to Nashville, leading Bragg to expect the Federals to be in full retreat by New Year’s Day. But the wagons were just being used to carry the wounded Federals off the field, not to facilitate a retreat.
Rosecrans held a council of war and asked what he should do. Some urged him to withdraw before Bragg cut him off from Nashville, but Thomas and Crittenden proposed to stay and fight. The meeting ended with Rosecrans still undecided. But after scouting his possible line of retreat, he announced that the army would hold its ground. Rosecrans said, “I’ll show him (Bragg) a trick worth two of his.”
Morale improved as the word spread among the troops that they would not retreat. They spent the night strengthening their defenses as Rosecrans placed artillery atop hills overlooking the Confederates about 500 yards away. A staff officer told Rosecrans, “Your tenacity of purpose, general, is a theme of universal comment.” Rosecrans said, “I guess that the troops have discovered that Bragg is a good dog, but hold-fast is better.”
Troops on both sides bivouacked on the open ground as temperatures plummeted below freezing. Many wounded soldiers froze to death overnight.
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