On the morning of December 31, two opposing armies faced each other outside Murfreesboro in Middle Tennessee. Major General William S. Rosecrans commanded the 44,000-man Federal army (later named the Army of the Cumberland but now designated as the Fourteenth U.S. Army Corps), which was arrayed as follows:
- Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s command held the left of the army’s line, with the left flank anchored at Stones River and the right at a dense forest.
- Major General George H. Thomas’s command was to Crittenden’s right, extending to the Wilkinson Pike.
- Major General Alexander McCook’s command was in the process of coming up and taking positions to Thomas’s right.
General Braxton Bragg commanded the 38,000-man Confederate Army of Tennessee, which was arrayed as follows:
- Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division, detached from Lieutenant General William J. Hardee’s corps, opposed Crittenden on the right, on the opposite bank of Stones River from the rest of the Confederate army.
- Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s corps held the center opposing Thomas.
- The remainder of Lieutenant General William J. Hardee’s corps held the left opposing McCook.
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 attacked at dawn. Some 10,000 men of Hardee’s corps slammed into McCook’s unprepared wing, catching 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 planned to go ahead with his attack on the Confederate right, 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 was too much for McCook to handle, and Rosecrans had to cancel his attack and reinforce his right.
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 Thomas. As Hardee pushed McCook’s men back into Thomas, Thomas tried to fend off Polk. Meanwhile, Confederate cavalry rode around the Federal right and threatened the rear. One of McCook’s divisions (under Brigadier General Richard W. Johnson) fled across the Wilkinson Pike, which in turn drove another of McCook’s divisions (under Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis) across the Nashville Pike.
Only Brigadier General Philip Sheridan, commanding McCook’s third division, 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 of his brigade commanders and a third of his men before he started running out of ammunition. He led a fighting retreat to the Nashville Pike.
Rosecrans pulled troops from Crittenden on the left and placed them along the Nashville Pike, supported by artillery. Rosecrans rode along the lines all day, 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 Breckinridge’s division, holding the Confederate right, to reinforce the main attack. But Breckinridge replied that he could not obey because Crittenden was still threatening his front.
Breckinridge then discovered that Crittenden was gone, but by this time Bragg had canceled the order for him to join the main assault. Bragg was acting on 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 along 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.
One of Hardee’s divisions under Major General Patrick R. Cleburne almost broke through the enemy lines, but the Federals barely held. Cleburne reported, “It was… after 3 o’clock; my men had had little or no rest the night before; they had been fighting since dawn, without relief, food, or water; they were comparatively without the support of artillery, for the advance had been too rapid to enable my single battery to get into position and answer the enemy; their ammunition was nearly exhausted and our ordnance trains could not follow.”
Breckinridge’s Confederates finally entered the fray around 4 p.m., but they were sent in piecemeal against the strong Federal salient. Two charges failed, and fighting ended around 4:30, some 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 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 Crittenden proposed to stay and fight, and Thomas said flatly, “This army can’t retreat.” 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 there would be no falling back. 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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