General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee remained stationed around Murfreesboro in Middle Tennessee. A rash of desertions had plagued the army, as many of Bragg’s Kentucky recruits went back home when they realized that Bragg would not be returning to their home state. This left him with only about 40,000 officers and men to face Major General William S. Rosecrans’s 80,000-man Federal army at Nashville.
General Joseph E. Johnston arrived at Chattanooga on the morning of December 4 and officially assumed command of all Confederate armies between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi River. Three railroad accidents had delayed Johnston’s journey from Richmond. His objective was to coordinate the operations of Bragg in Tennessee, Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith’s small Department of East Tennessee (currently in winter quarters), and Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton Army of Mississippi, but this added another layer to an already complex command structure in the region.
Johnston found a dispatch waiting for him from Richmond in which President Jefferson Davis “urged upon me the importance of sending a sufficient force from General Bragg’s command to Lieutenant-General Pemberton’s aid.” Johnston had repeatedly urged Davis to transfer troops from Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes’s Trans-Mississippi Department, which was much closer to Pemberton than Bragg, but that army was about to do battle in northwestern Arkansas.
Johnston replied, “It seems to me consequently that the aid of General Holmes can better be relied on than that of General Bragg.” He then wrote Pemberton asking him to “urge General Holmes to quick movement.” Pemberton informed Johnston that Federals were closing in on him fast, so Johnston asked Bragg to dispatch cavalry to disrupt the Federal supply lines. Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry captured some Federal wagons at Mill Creek, but Bragg could offer no more help from his depleted army.
Traveling to Murfreesboro, Johnston inspected Bragg’s defenses and found them unacceptable. He wrote to a friend back east, “Nobody ever assumed command under more unfavorable circumstances. If Rosecrans had disposed our troops himself, their disposition could not have been more unfavorable to us.”
Meanwhile, Rosecrans’s Federal army was about 30 miles northwest of Bragg. Rosecrans had become the army commander due to his predecessor’s refusal to take the fight to Bragg. Now Rosecrans was doing the same, and the Lincoln administration was not pleased. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck notified Rosecrans on the 4th:
“The President is very impatient at your long stay in Nashville. The favorable season for your campaign will soon be over. You give Bragg time to supply himself by plundering the country your army should have occupied. Twice have I been asked to designate someone else to command your army. If you remain one more week at Nashville, I cannot prevent your removal.”
Rosecrans replied, “I need no other stimulus to make me do my duty than the knowledge of what it is. To threats of removal or the like I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.” Halleck sent another message the next day: “The President is greatly dissatisfied with your delay, and has sent for me several times to account for it. He has repeated to me time and again that there were imperative reasons why the enemy should be driven across the Tennessee River at the earliest possible moment.”
Rosecrans replied, “Things will be ripe soon. Rebel troops say they will fight us… Cumberland (River) still very low; rain threatens; will be ready in a few days.”
Part of the reason Rosecrans did not advance to take on Bragg was because Confederate cavalry constantly raided his lines of communication and supply. Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan attacked from the north and east, cutting telegraph wire, wrecking railroad tracks, and destroying supply depots. Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked from the south and west, wreaking havoc on the lines of both Rosecrans and Major General Ulysses S. Grant in Mississippi.
But then Rosecrans received word that Bragg had been ordered to send a division to reinforce Pemberton. This left the Army of Tennessee even more vulnerable to attack. On Christmas Eve, Rosecrans received intelligence that E.K. Smith’s 10,000 Confederates had retired to winter quarters, and the cavalry commands of Morgan and Forrest had ventured beyond supporting distance for Bragg’s army. He therefore planned to finally begin moving against Bragg at Murfreesboro.
Bragg wanted to stay put because of the large abundance of food and forage around the Murfreesboro area. His men slowly regained their morale, and a large ball was held at the Murfreesboro courthouse on Christmas Eve. The hall was decorated with cedar and evergreen, as well as Federal battle flags captured during Morgan’s Hartsville raid. One of Bragg’s aides recalled, “It was a magnificent affair.” Another grand ball was planned for the day after Christmas, but it was abruptly cancelled when word came that Rosecrans was planning an advance.
Rosecrans held a council of war on Christmas night in the bedroom of a mansion at 13 High Street he had set up as his headquarters. His three corps commanders (Major Generals Thomas L. Crittenden, Alexander McCook, and George H. Thomas) and their division commanders attended. Rosecrans explained the current situation and announced that now was the time to move. As he went over the details, Crittenden said “if the Rebels stand at all there’ll be damned hard fighting.”
The army would move out of Nashville in three columns. The objective was to turn Bragg’s left flank, which Rosecrans believed was at Triune. After finalizing the plan, Rosecrans declared, “We move tomorrow, gentlemen! We shall begin to skirmish, probably as soon as we pass the outposts. Press them hard! Drive them out of their nests! Make them fight or run! Fight them! Fight them! Fight, I say!”
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
- Cozzens, Peter, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1990.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.