Tag Archives: Stones River

The Battle of Stones River: Day Two

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.

Army dispositions as of 4 p.m. on Jan 2 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 92, 123; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 267, 286-87, 289; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 61-63; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18190; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 252-54; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 19, 95, 101-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 248-51; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 188-89; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 306-09; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 582; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 560-62, 564-65; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 722-23; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 143-48, 152-53, 155, 158-59

The Battle of Stones River: Day One

December 31, 1862 – A major battle began near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, when General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates attacked the Federal Army of the Cumberland under Major General William S. Rosecrans.

Generals Bragg and Rosecrans | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Bragg’s Army of Tennessee numbered about 37,000 men, roughly equal to Rosecrans’s 44,000 Federals. 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 planned to attack at dawn.

The Confederates struck first, with 10,000 men of Major General William J. Hardee’s corps slamming into the unprepared Federal right under Major General Alexander McCook. The assault caught 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.”

Army dispositions as of 8 a.m. | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Rosecrans initially resolved to attack the Confederate right as planned, 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 prompted Rosecrans to cancel his attack and send reinforcements to his right.

Major General Leonidas 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 Major General George H. Thomas. As Hardee pushed McCook’s men back into Thomas, Thomas tried fending off Polk. Meanwhile, Confederate cavalry rode around the Federal right and threatened the rear. Brigadier General Richard W. Johnson’s Federal division fled across the Wilkinson Pike, which in turn drove Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis’s Federal division across the Nashville Pike.

Brigadier General Philip Sheridan, commanding a division under McCook, 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 three of his brigade commanders and a third of his men before he began running out of ammunition. He led a fighting retreat to the Nashville Pike.

Rosecrans pulled troops from Major General Thomas L. Crittenden on the left and placed them along the Nashville Pike, supported by artillery. Rosecrans rode behind the lines, 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 Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division, holding the Confederate right, to reinforce the main attack. But Breckinridge refused, arguing that Crittenden was still threatening his front.

When Bragg ordered Breckinridge to cross the Stones River and attack, Breckinridge learned that Crittenden was gone. Bragg then canceled his order for Breckinridge to send reinforcements to the main attack when he received 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 long 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.

Breckinridge’s Confederates finally entered the fray around 4 p.m., but Breckinridge sent them piecemeal against the strong Federal salient; two charges failed and fighting ended around 4:30, 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 the Stones River.

Army dispositions as of 4 p.m. | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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 Thomas and Crittenden proposed to stay and fight. 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 they would not retreat. 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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 91-92; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 286-87; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 61-63; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18181-90; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 248-49; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 88-89, 93-94; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 247; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 188-89; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 302-03; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 579-82; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 558-61; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 722-23; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 118-19, 126-27, 133; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 255

Federals Advance on Murfreesboro

December 30, 1862 – Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland advanced on the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg near Murfreesboro.

Maj Gen William S. Rosecrans | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Rosecrans’s Federals began moving out on the morning of the 26th as planned, despite torrential rains. Rosecrans had 81,729 effectives, but nearly half of them were assigned to protect his communication and supply lines from Confederate cavalry raids. The attack force consisted of about 44,000 men divided into three wings:

  • Major General Thomas L. Crittenden on the left
  • Major General George H. Thomas on the center
  • Major General Alexander McCook on the right

As Rosecrans predicted at his council of war, the Federals met Confederate resistance almost immediately. McCook confronted a cavalry detachment at Nolensville around 7 a.m., while Crittenden ran into General Joseph Wheeler’s troopers north of Lavergne. A pattern developed in which Confederates would put up a front, fire a few rounds to stop the Federal advance, and then fall back to do it again. During this time, Bragg learned of Rosecrans’s approach.

On the 27th, skirmishing began on the Nashville Pike. By nightfall, Bragg had gathered most of his forces around Murfreesboro, about a mile and a half from the Stones River. Meanwhile, the main Federal force occupied Stuart’s Creek, 10 miles from Murfreesboro, with advance units beyond Triune. General William J. Hardee’s Confederate corps abandoned Triune the next day and joined the rest of Bragg’s army, 15 miles east.

Bragg had 37,713 effectives, making him almost numerically equal to Rosecrans. The advantage shifted more to Bragg’s favor when he dispatched Wheeler to ride around the Federals and raid their supplies. Wheeler’s 2,000 troopers rode behind the Federal army to Jefferson, where they seized 20 wagons from Crittenden’s supply train. They next rode northwest to Lavergne, where they captured all of McCook’s 300 wagons worth “many hundred thousands of dollars,” along with 700 prisoners.

By the time Wheeler’s men returned to Bragg’s army in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, they had captured and paroled about 1,000 Federals, destroyed parts of four wagon trains, seized enough arms and equipment to supply a brigade, and took enough horses to replenish the cavalry. The troopers also wreaked havoc on the Federal flanks and rear.

The Federal advance slowly proceeded nonetheless, with Crittenden’s wing reaching the Stones River in the late afternoon of the 29th. Believing that Bragg was withdrawing, Rosecrans ordered Crittenden to occupy Murfreesboro east of the river with one division and keep the rest of his troops on the west bank. Although Crittenden could see that Bragg was not retreating, he dispatched Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s division to take the town.

Heavy skirmishing ensued until Wood pulled back. When Rosecrans learned of this, he agreed to hold off trying to take Murfreesboro until the rest of the army arrived. By that night, about two-thirds of his men had taken positions along the Nashville Pike, less than a half-mile from Bragg’s front lines. They suffered through a cold, wet night. Meanwhile, Bragg resolved to attack if the opportunity presented itself.

By the 30th, the entire Army of the Cumberland had arrived in the Confederate front. It had taken the Federals three days to cover 30 miles, as they were hampered by foul weather, skirmishers, and cavalry raids. The opposing lines ran north to south on either side of the Stones River. Bragg’s army stretched along a four-mile front, about a mile and a half west and northwest of Murfreesboro. Bragg held the Nashville Pike and the Stones River. Skirmishing intensified on the 30th.

Army dispositions on Dec 30 | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Rosecrans spent the day positioning troops to attack. He hoped to drive Bragg’s army out of Murfreesboro so he could secure a supply line to Nashville, enabling him to take control of Middle Tennessee. Rosecrans’s slow advance had given Bragg time to develop an attack plan of his own. Bragg hoped to destroy Rosecrans’s army and regain Nashville.

Not only did Rosecrans and Bragg both plan to attack on New Year’s Eve, but they both had the same battle plan: hold with the right and attack with the left. Whichever army moved first would automatically put the other on the defensive. If the armies attacked simultaneously, they would simply revolve in a half-circle, ending up at each other’s starting point.

Bragg hoped that turning the Federal right would put Rosecrans’s back to the Stones River and cut his line of retreat northwest to Nashville. Bragg wired his superiors, “Enemy very cautious, and declining a general engagement. Both armies in line of battle within sight.”

Rosecrans’s army consisted of Crittenden on the left, Thomas in the center, and McCook on the right. Crittenden was to turn the Confederate right and seize the heights across the river. The Federals could then place artillery there to enfilade the Confederate line. Thomas was to pivot as Crittenden attacked. McCook was to build extra campfires to make the Federal right seem stronger than it truly was, thus dissuading Bragg from counterattacking there.

Bragg’s army consisted of Hardee’s corps on the left, Major General Leonidas Polk’s corps in the center, and Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division (detached from Hardee’s corps) on the right. Both Hardee and Polk were on the same side of the Stones River as the Federals, while Breckinridge was on the opposite side. Bragg strengthened Hardee’s sector for his planned attack on the Federal right. Bragg wired his superiors, “Enemy very cautious, and declining a general engagement. Both armies in line of battle within sight.”

The Federals and Confederates camped so close to each other that the opposing bands staged a battle of songs. Federal bands played northern favorites like “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail, Columbia,” and Confederate bands played southern tunes like “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” A band then began playing “Home, Sweet Home,” and both sides joined in.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 91-92; Brooksher, William R./Snider, David K., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 283; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18181; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 246-48; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 80-83, 85; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 243-46; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 300-02; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 579; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 555-57; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 722-23; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 93-94, 96-98; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 255