General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee outside Murfreesboro, did not expect Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal army to still be opposing him on the morning of January 2. Bragg had received reports from his cavalry that the Federals were retreating following the terrible fight on New Year’s Eve. But only the wagons were falling back, and only to get more supplies from Nashville. Rosecrans had resolved to stay and, if needed, continue the fight.
Bragg deployed skirmishers on the morning of the 2nd who quickly discovered that the Federals were still in their lines and strongly entrenched. Bragg opened an artillery bombardment on the Federal center, and Rosecrans responded with his guns. A cold rain turned to sleet as Bragg directed his attention to the extreme left of the Federal line. It was on a ridge northeast of Stones River, and Bragg ordered the division of Major-General John C. Breckinridge to take it.
Breckinridge was stunned by this order because he had already reconnoitered the area and found it strongly fortified by enemy troops of Colonel Samuel Beatty’s division. Even worse, Breckinridge’s men would have to advance 500 yards over open ground just to get to it. Breckinridge protested the order, but Bragg would not relent. Breckinridge obeyed. The assault was to begin at 4 p.m.
Breckinridge’s division, which included the “Orphan Brigade” of Kentuckians (called such because Federals would not allow them to return to their home state of Kentucky), advanced in two lines. The ferocious Confederate attack surprisingly pushed the Federals across Stones River within about 45 minutes. As the Federal line crumbled, Major-General Thomas L. Crittenden, commanding the Federal left wing, directed his artillery chief, Captain John Mendenhall, to place 58 guns 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 passed through his retreating men “like a wounded lion” until he came upon his decimated Orphan Brigade. Breckinridge wept as he rode among them, 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 Stones River, with the continuing rain and sleet threatening to swell the river to the point that neither part could support the other.
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 to coax him into retreating. Bragg then received a message from Major-Generals Benjamin F. Cheatham and Jones Withers, two divisions commanders from Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk’s corps. The generals wrote, “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 Lieutenant-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 Stones River. The Confederates had been in line of battle for five consecutive days, with no shelter from the freezing rain and no reserves. The high casualty figures started coming into headquarters, and then Bragg received word that Rosecrans was being reinforced.
At 10 a.m., Bragg informed Polk and Hardee that the army would be withdrawing after all. The troops began moving out 12 hours later, 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. Due to the damage his army sustained, Rosecrans had no urgency to pursue and destroy the Confederates. Bragg’s army slipped away to fight again, but it would never again seriously threaten Kentucky or Nashville, and Confederate support in Kentucky and eastern Tennessee evaporated as a result.
Northerners desperate for any kind of victory after the defeats in Virginia and Mississippi were ecstatic by the news of this battle. The Chicago Tribune trumpeted, “Rosecrans Wins a Complete Victory; the Enemy in Full Retreat.” A reporter for the Louisville Journal wrote that Rosecrans, “already famous, has now become immortal. Of all our commanding generals, he is the only one that knows how to fight a battle.” The high praise of Rosecrans’s victory did much to stem the rising tide of anti-war sentiment in the North.
As Rosecrans led his newly named 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.” But besides sporadic skirmishing, Rosecrans would not seriously challenge the Confederate Army of Tennessee again for another five months.
On the Confederate side, officers began to question Bragg’s decisions, particularly his failure to secure the high ground east of 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 made 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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Pray for peace 🕊️