January 2, 1863 – General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates renewed their attacks on the Federal Army of the Cumberland after Bragg discovered that Major General William S. Rosecrans had not retreated as hoped.
No major fighting occurred on the day after the terrible battle northwest of Murfreesboro. Both sides exchanged sporadic artillery and rifle fire as they tended to their wounded. Rosecrans spent the day strengthening the Federal lines, resolving to “prepare to fight or die.”
Confederate General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry raid had depleted Federal supplies and ammunition, and Federal wagon trains had to travel under heavy guard. But Rosecrans assured his commanders, “Our supplies may run short, but we will have our trains out tomorrow. We will keep right on, and eat corn for a week, but we will win this battle. We can and will do it.”
The Federals withdrew from their salient at the Round Forest, taking up strong positions further north along the Stones River. The line still somewhat resembled a “V,” but it was more compact as it anchored itself on the Nashville Pike and the Stones River. Major General Leonidas Polk’s Confederates took the positions in the Round Forest that the Federals abandoned.
That night, a division of Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s corps under Colonel Samuel Beatty crossed the river and seized the high ground facing Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates on the east bank. This comprised Rosecrans’s new left flank.
Rosecrans’s refusal to withdraw surprised Bragg, who expected the Federals to be on their way back to Nashville by New Year’s Day. Bragg spent the day coming up with a plan to follow up on his success of the 31st. During that time, he learned that he had lost more men than originally believed. Also during that time, Rosecrans continued strengthening his positions.
Bragg deployed skirmishers on the morning of the 2nd to see if the Federals had retreated. They quickly learned that the Federals had not. Bragg opened an artillery bombardment on the Federal center, and Rosecrans responded with his guns. A cold rain turned to sleet as Bragg ordered Breckinridge to seize the ridge northeast of the Stones River. Breckinridge’s men would have to advance 500 yards over open ground to get there.
Breckinridge knew that Federal troops already held the ridge, but Bragg did not. When Breckinridge protested the order, Bragg insisted that he obey. Breckinridge obeyed. His division, consisting mostly of Kentuckians that included the “Orphan Brigade” (called such because Federals would not allow them to return to their home state of Kentucky), advanced in two lines around 4 p.m.
The ferocious Confederate attack pushed the Federals across the river within about 45 minutes. As the Federal line crumbled, Crittenden directed his artillery chief, Captain John Mendenhall, to place 58 cannon on the high ground west of the river. When the Confederates came within range, the guns opened with murderous accuracy.
The artillery stopped the Confederate advance, giving the infantry time to regroup and counterattack. The Federals eventually pushed the Confederates back to their starting point, inflicting heavy losses in the process. The Confederates lost about 1,800 men in the futile assault. Breckinridge rode among his troops saying, “My poor orphans, my poor orphans!”
In the fighting from December 31st through January 2nd, the Federals sustained 12,906 casualties (1,677 killed, 7,543 wounded, and 3,686 missing or captured) out of about 44,000 men. The Confederates lost 11,739 (1,294 killed, 7,945 wounded and 2,500 missing or captured) out of about 37,000. The 24,645 total casualties for both sides surpassed both the Battles of Shiloh and Antietam, and the 31 percent casualty rate exceeded all other battles in the war. Four generals were killed: Federals Edward N. Kirk and Joshua W. Sill, and Confederates James E. Rains and Roger W. Hanson.
The sleet and the coming darkness prevented Rosecrans from launching a counterattack. Both armies remained in their positions, just as they did after the first day’s fighting, as each commander waited for the other to withdraw.
Bragg held a council of war with his corps and division commanders at 10 p.m., but he could not decide on a course of action. At that time, parts of the Confederate army were on both sides of the Stones River. The continuing sleet would eventually swell the river and make it too high for either part to support the other. The rain and sleet continued through the night.
At 2 a.m., Bragg was awoken and told that Federal troops were threatening his right flank. However, Rosecrans merely feinted against Bragg’s right to try forcing him to retreat. Bragg then received a message from two of Polk’s commanders, Major Generals Benjamin F. Cheatham and Jones Withers, whose divisions had been decimated:
“We deem it our duty to say to you frankly that, in our judgment, this army should be promptly put in retreat… We do fear great disaster from the condition of things now existing, and think it should be averted if possible.”
Polk endorsed the message: “I greatly fear the consequences of another engagement at this place in the ensuing day. We could now, perhaps, get off with some safety and some credit, if the affair is well managed.” Bragg angrily told Polk’s messenger, “Say to the general we shall maintain our position at every hazard.”
Polk shared the communications with Major General William J. Hardee, Bragg’s other corps commander, who called Bragg’s decision “unwise, in a high degree.” As day broke, both armies remained within striking distance of each other, but neither made a move to attack. The rain continued falling, raising the level of the Stones River. The Confederates had been in line of battle for five consecutive days, with no shelter from the freezing rain and no reserves. That morning, Bragg received a scouting report that Rosecrans was being reinforced.
At 10 a.m., Bragg informed Polk and Hardee that the army would withdraw after all. The troops began moving out that night, eventually falling back to Tullahoma on the Duck River, 36 miles south. Just as he did after the Battle of Perryville, Bragg claimed victory despite retreating. He reported, “Common prudence and the safety of my army… left no doubt on my mind as to the necessity of my withdrawal from so unequal a contest.”
Rosecrans also claimed victory, even though he had merely fended off Bragg’s attacks without launching any of his own. He chose not to pursue Bragg, whose army slipped away to fight again. But it would never again seriously threaten Kentucky or Nashville, and Confederate sentiment in Kentucky and eastern Tennessee evaporated as a result.
As Rosecrans led his Army of the Cumberland into Murfreesboro, President Abraham Lincoln expressed gratitude for this great boost to Federal morale:
“God bless you and all with you! Please tender to all, and accept for yourself the nation’s gratitude for your and their skill, endurance, and dauntless courage. I can never forget, whilst I remember anything, that you gave us a hard-earned victory, which, if there had been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”
Rosecrans responded, “We shall press them as rapidly as our means of traveling and subsistence will permit.” However, besides sporadic skirmishing, Rosecrans would not seriously challenge the Confederate Army of Tennessee again for another five months.
Meanwhile, Confederate officers began questioning Bragg’s decisions, particularly his failure to secure the high ground east of the Stones River before the Federals took it on New Year’s Day. Bragg’s subordinates also questioned the wisdom of demanding such a suicidal attack as the one by Breckinridge’s men on the 2nd.
This was a very costly battle for both sides, but even more for the Confederates because it was for nothing. They left the field to the Federals, along with Murfreesboro, which had been their home since November. This fight and the subsequent retreat greatly weakened the Confederate army and shattered morale. A Confederate soldier later wrote:
“I am sick and tired of this war, and, I can see no prospects of having peace for a long time to come, I don’t think it ever will be stopped by fighting, the Yankees cant whip us and we can never whip them, and I see no prospect of peace unless the Yankees themselves rebell and throw down their arms, and refuse to fight any longer.”
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