Tag Archives: Thomas L. Crittenden

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

Rosecrans Prepares to Advance on Murfreesboro

December 24, 1862 – General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee remained stationed at Murfreesboro, while the Federal high command pushed Major General William S. Rosecrans to leave Nashville and confront them.

As December began, a rash of desertions plagued Bragg’s army; many of his Kentucky recruits went back home when they realized that Bragg intended to regain Nashville and not return to their home state. This left Bragg with only about 40,000 officers and men.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

General Joseph E. Johnston arrived at Chattanooga on the 4th and issued an order officially accepting command of all Confederate armies in the Western Theater. 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 in Mississippi, but this added another layer to an already complex command structure in the region.

Johnston immediately received a dispatch from Richmond asking him to transfer troops from Bragg to Pemberton, who was under a more immediate threat of attack. Johnston had repeatedly urged President Jefferson Davis to transfer troops from 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. General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry captured some Federal wagons at Mill Creek, but Bragg could offer no more help with 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.”

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

Meanwhile, Rosecrans’s 80,000-man Federal Army of the Cumberland was at Nashville, 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.

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 to confront Bragg at Murfreesboro.

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 under the three corps commanders. 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!”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 237-38; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 790; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 6-7, 80-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 235-36; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 293; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 80, 82, 92