Battle of Stones River

From Academic Kids

Template:Battlebox The Battle of Stones River or Second Battle of Murfreesboro (in the South, simply the Battle of Murfreesboro), was fought from December 31, 1862, to January 3, 1863, in central Tennessee, as the culmination of the Stones River Campaign in the American Civil War. Although the battle itself was tactically indecisive, the Union army's repulse of the Confederate attack was a much-needed boost to U.S. morale after the defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg.


Stones River Campaign

After Confederate General Braxton Bragg's Army of Mississippi was defeated at the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862, he retreated to Harrisburg, Kentucky, where he was joined by Maj. Gen. Kirby Smith's army of 10,000 on October 10. Although Bragg now had a strong force of 38,000 veteran troops, he made no effort to regain the initiative. The Union victor at Perryville, Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, was equally passive and refused to attack Bragg.

Bragg, frustrated, withdrew through the Cumberland Gap, passed through Chattanooga, turned northwest, and eventually stopped in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. His army, renamed the Army of Tennessee as of November 20, took up a defensive position northwest of the city along the West Fork of the Stones River, and posted a detached division under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge on the low hills to the east of the river. The corps of Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee was placed in Triune, Tennessee, about 20 miles to the west.

On the Union side, President Abraham Lincoln had become frustrated with Buell's passivity and replaced him with Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, victor of the recent battles of Iuka and Corinth. Rosecrans moved his 47,000 men of the XIV Corps (which was also designated the Army of the Cumberland) to Nashville, Tennessee, and was warned by Washington that he too would be replaced if he did not move aggressively against Bragg and occupy eastern Tennessee. Rosecrans, in the widespread tradition of cautious Union generals, would not be hurried and he took ample time to reorganize his forces, particularly his cavalry, and resupply his army. He did not begin his march in pursuit of Bragg until December 26.

While Rosecrans was preparing in Nashville, Bragg ordered Colonel John Hunt Morgan to move north with his cavalry and operate along Rosecrans's lines of communications, to prevent him from foraging for supplies north of Nashville. The Battle of Hartsville, at a crossing point on the Cumberland River about 40 miles upstream from Nashville, due north of Murfreesboro, was an incident in Morgan's raid to the north, before Rosecrans had the bulk of his infantry forces on the move. The relatively small battle that followed Morgan's surprise attack was an embarrassing Union defeat, resulting in many captured Union supplies and soldiers.

The Army of the Cumberland marched southeast the day after Christmas in three columns, or "wings", towards Murfreesboro and they were effectively harassed by Brig. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's Confederate cavalry along the way, delaying their movements. The left wing under Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden took a route that was parallel to the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, passing through La Vergne and south of Smyrna. The center wing under Maj. Gen. Alexander M. McCook marched south along the Nolensville Turnpike to Nolensville, south to Triune, and then eastward to Murfreesboro. The right wing under Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas moved south along the Wilson Turnpike and the Franklin Turnpike, parallel to the Nashville and Decatur Railroad, then eastward through Nolensville and along the same route used by Crittenden south of the Nashville and Chattanooga. The separation of the wings was designed to launch a turning movement against Hardee at Triune, but when the Federal march began, Bragg moved Hardee back to Murfreesboro, avoiding a confrontation.

By the time Rosecrans had arrived in Murfreesburo on the evening of December 29, the Army of Tennesee had been encamped in the area for a month. It was organized as two corps of infantry (commanded by Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk and Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee) and cavalry under Brig. Gen. Joseph Wheeler. By nightfall, two thirds of Rosecrans's army was in position along the Nashville Turnpike, and by the next day Rosecrans's army numbered about 45,000 and Bragg's 38,000.

The odds were closer than those figures would indicate. Bragg had the advantage of cooperating cavalry commands under Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and now-Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan, who raided deeply behind Union lines while Wheeler's cavalry slowed the Union forces with hit-and-run skirmishes. On December 29, Wheeler rode completely around the Union army, destroying supply wagons and capturing reserve ammunition in Rosecrans's trains.

On December 30, the Union force moved into line two miles northwest of Murfreesboro. The two armies were in parallel lines, about 4 miles long, oriented from southwest to northeast. Both commanders devised similar plans for the following day: envelop the enemy's right, get into his rear, and cut him off from his base. Since both plans were the same, the victory would probably go to the side that was able to attack first. Bragg's forces were situated with Polk on the west side of the river, Breckenridge on the east. He began moving Hardee's corps across the river to his left flank in preparation for the next morning's attack. Crittenden, facing Breckenridge on the Union left, failed to notify McCook, on the Union right, of these troop movements. McCook, anticipating that the next day would start with a major attack by Crittenden, planted numerous campfires in his area, hoping to deceive the Confederates as to his strength on that flank.

The armies bivouacked only 700 yards from each other and their bands started a musical battle that would be a non-lethal preview of the next day's events. Northern musicians played Yankee Doodle and Hail, Columbia and they were answered by Dixie and The Bonnie Blue Flag. Finally, one band started playing Home Sweet Home and the others joined in. Thousands of Northern and Southern soldiers sang the sentimental song together across the lines.

December 31

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Map of battle

At dawn on December 31, about 6 a.m., Confederate General William J. Hardee struck first, attacking the Union's right flank, before some of the Yankees in Brig. Gen. Richard W. Johnson's division had even finished their breakfast. (This was the third major battle, after Fort Donelson and Shiloh, in which an early morning attack caught the Union army by surprise.) The 13,000 Confederates who massed on their left attacked like a "tidal wave". Although meeting stiff and spirited resistance, they drove the Union troops back three miles to the railroad and the Nashville Pike by 10 a.m., where Johnson was able to rally them. Rosecrans canceled Crittenden's attack on the Confederate right, which had begun with Brig. Gen. Horatio P. Van Cleve's division crossing the river at 7 a.m., and rushed reinforcements to his own right flank. As he raced across the battlefield, his uniform was covered with blood from a staff officer beheaded by a cannonball while riding alongside.

What saved the Union from total destruction that morning was the foresight of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, who anticipated an early attack and had the troops of his division up and ready in the center of the right half of the line by 4 a.m. While they slowed the enemy advance, they did it at heavy cost to themselves; all three of Sheridan's brigade commanders were killed and more than one third of his men were casualties in four hours of fighting in a juniper forest that became known as "The Slaughter Pen".

Two Confederate blunders also came to the aid of Rosecrans. Breckenridge, on the east side of the river, did not realize that Crittenden's early morning attack had been withdrawn. He refused to send two brigades as reinforcements across the river to aid the main attack on the left. When Bragg ordered him to attack to his front—so that some use could be made of his corps—Breckenridge moved forward and was embarrassed to find out that there were no Union troops opposing him. At about this time, Bragg received a false report that a strong Union force was moving south along the Lebanon Turnpike in his direction. He canceled his orders that Breckenridge send reinforcements across the river, which diluted the effectiveness of the main attack.

By 11 a.m., Sheridan's ammunition ran low and his division pulled back, opening a gap that Hardee exploited. The Union troops regrouped and held the Nashville Pike, supported by reinforcements and massed artillery. Repeated attacks on the left flank of the Union line were repulsed by Colonel William B. Hazen's brigade in an area that would become known as "Hell's Half-Acre"; Hazen's brigade was the only part of the original Union line to hold. The Union line was stabilized due to strong leadership by Rosecrans and the rallying of the divisions under Johnson and (the unfortunately named) Union Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis. The new line was roughly perpendicular to the original line, in a half oval with its back to the river.

Bragg now planned to attack the Union left, a portion of the oval line facing southeast, manned by Hazen's brigade. The only troops available for such an assault were Breckenridge's and Bragg ordered him to cross the river, but Breckenridge moved slowly. By 4 p.m., Breckenridge's first two brigades assaulted Hazen and suffered a heavy repulse. Two more brigades arrived and they were sent in, reinforced by other elements of Pope's corps. The attack failed a second time. Thomas responded with a limited counterattack that cleared his front.

That night Rosecrans held a council of war to decide what to do. Some of the generals felt that the Union army had been defeated and recommended a retreat before they were entirely cut off. Rosecrans opposed this view and was strongly supported by Thomas and Crittenden. The decision was made to stand and fight and as the Union line was reinforced, the morale of the soldiers rose. Rosecrans was quoted after the battle as saying, "Bragg's a good dog, but Hold Fast's a better." On the Confederate side, Bragg was certain that he had won a victory. His army began digging in, facing the Union line.

January 1–3

At 3 a.m. on January 1, 1863, Rosecrans revived his original plan and ordered Van Cleve's division (command by Col. Samuel Beatty following Van Cleve's wounding the previous day) to cross the river and occupy the heights there, protecting two river crossing sites and providing a good platform for artillery. But the day was relatively quiet as both armies observed New Year's Day by resting and tending to their wounded. Polk launched two probes of the Union line, one against Thomas, the other against Sheridan, to no effect other than wasted casualties.

In the rear, Wheeler's cavalry continued to harass the Union line of communication on the turnpike back to Nashville. Convoys of wounded had to travel under heavy escort to be protected from the cavalry and Wheeler interpreted these movements as preparations for a retreat, reporting such to Bragg. Buoyed by his sense that he had won the battle, Bragg was content to wait for Rosecrans to retreat.

At 4 p.m. on January 2, Bragg directed Breckenridge's troops to attack Beatty's division, which was occupying the hill on the east side of the river. Breckenridge initially protested that the assault would be suicidal, but eventually agreed and attacked with determination. The Union troops were pushed back across the ford, but the Confederate charge ran into heavy fire from Union artillery across the river and stalled. In less than an hour, the Confederates suffered over 1,800 casualties. A Union division under the command of James S. Negley led a counterattack and the Confederate troops retreated.

On the morning of January 3, a large supply train and reinforced brigade reached Rosecrans. Wheeler's cavalry attempted to capture the ammunition train that followed it, but was repulsed. Late that evening, Thomas attacked the center of the Confederate line with two brigades, apparently acting on his own initiative, and drove the Confederates from their entrenchments.

On the night of January 3, Bragg withdrew skillfully through Murfreesboro and began a retreat to Tullahoma, Tennessee, 36 miles to the south. Rosecrans occupied Murfreesboro, but made no attempt to pursue Bragg.


Total casualties in the battle were 23,515: 13,249 on the Union side and 10,266 for the Confederates. This was the highest percentage of casualties of any battle in the Civil War. The battle was tactically inconclusive, although Bragg would traditionally be considered defeated since he withdrew first from the battlefield. And in fact he received almost universal scorn from his Confederate military colleagues; only his personal friendship with President Jefferson Davis saved his command. But a case can also be made that it was at least a strategic Union victory. The battle was very important to Union morale, as evidenced by Abraham Lincoln's letter to General Rosecrans: "You gave us a hard-earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over." And the Confederate threat to central Tennessee had been nullified.

Rosecrans spent five and a half months reinforcing Murfreesboro. The massive earthenworks "Fort Rosecrans" was built there and served as a supply depot for the remainder of the war. The next major clash, the Battle of Hoover's Gap, also known as the Tullahoma Campaign, would not come until June, when Rosecrans finally moved his army against Bragg.

Part of the site of the Battle of Stones River and Fort Rosecrans is now a National Battlefield administered by the National Park Service. It contains the nation's oldest intact Civil War monument, erected by William Hazen's brigade at Hell's Half Acre. The 600-acre National Battlefield includes Stones River National Cemetery, established in 1865, with more than 6,000 Union graves.


  • Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
  • Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars, Frederick A. Praeger, 1959.
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States), Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-195-03863-0.

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