Stones River: Federals Make a Stand

In Middle Tennessee, the combat outside of Murfreesboro on New Year’s Eve had nearly destroyed Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal army. But the Federals still held their line of retreat back to Nashville, even if Rosecrans was not yet ready to use it. He held a council of war with his officers in the dark early hours of New Year’s Day to determine what their next move should be.

Major-General Alexander McCook, whose right wing had been hit hardest by the Confederates, urged retreat. Major-General Thomas L. Crittenden, whose left wing had seen minimal action compared to the rest of the army, deferred to Rosecrans. When Rosecrans asked Major-General George H. Thomas, commanding the Federal center, Thomas declared, “General, I know of no better place to die than right here.”

Maj Gen William S. Rosecrans | Image Credit:

Rosecrans conducted a night inspection and saw light behind his lines. Since he had prohibited his men from lighting fires, Rosecrans concluded that the light must be coming from Confederates in his rear. He therefore decided to stay and directed his men to “prepare to fight or die.” But Rosecrans was unaware that the light was actually coming from Federal troops disobeying his orders, not Confederates attempting to surround him. His orders stood nonetheless.

General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, believed that he had soundly defeated the Federals, and he fully expected Rosecrans to start retreating when dawn came on New Year’s Day. His cavalry commander, Brigadier-General Joseph Wheeler, reported seeing long lines of wagons heading back up the Nashville turnpike, indicating that Bragg had guessed correctly. But these wagons were actually going back to Nashville to get more supplies, not to lead a retreat. Bragg therefore made no plans to follow up his victory, thereby giving Rosecrans a full day to strengthen his defenses.

The Federals withdrew from their salient at the Round Forest, taking up strong positions further north along Stones River. McCook’s line on the Federal right ran northwest along the Nashville Turnpike; Crittenden held the Federal left along Stones River, and Thomas remained in the center. Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk’s Confederate corps took the positions in the Round Forest that the Federals abandoned. Federal supplies dwindled as wagon trains had to travel under heavy guard, but Rosecrans assured his men, “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.”

On the night of the 1st, a division of Crittenden’s wing under Colonel Samuel Beatty crossed Stones River and seized the high ground facing Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates on the east bank. This comprised Rosecrans’s strong new left flank. Both sides traded sporadic artillery and rifle fire throughout the day, but no major moves were made.

As the day progressed, it became increasingly apparent to Bragg that the Federals were not retreating like he thought. Worse, returns from the New Year’s Eve battle showed that he had lost nearly a third of his army. Even if he wanted to renew the attack on Rosecrans, he would have much fewer men to do it with, against an enemy that had spent the whole day strengthening its defenses. Men on both sides readied for the fight that they expected to resume the next morning.


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