Stones River National Battlefield | THE BATTLE OF STONES RIVER

Stone Rivers battlefield museum

Stone Rivers battlefield museum

By Larry Holzwarth

In the fall of 1862 the Confederate Army of the Mississippi, under Major General Braxton Bragg, merged with the army under Major General Kirby Smith as it withdrew to Tennessee. Union Major General Don Carlos Buell allowed the Confederates to withdraw unhindered, causing an exasperated Abraham Lincoln to remove him from command. Buell was replaced by William Rosecrans.

The retreating Confederate forces reached Murfreesboro by late November, with the combined forces now reorganized as the Army of Tennessee. North of Murfreesboro the Confederates occupied a defensive line straddling the Stones River. Despite detaching a full infantry division and sending it to assist in the defense of Vicksburg, Bragg made no effort to fortify his position, instead remaining in bivouac.

Meanwhile, despite strong urging from Lincoln, Rosecrans lingered in the vicinity of Nashville, occupied with supply matters. Not until the day after Christmas did he begin to march south to engage Bragg. During this comparative lull, Confederate cavalry raids harassed his lines of supply, and the efficacy of these raids eventually caused Rosecrans to advance with less than his full force. Roughly 44,000 men advanced towards Bragg’s positions near Murfreesboro of the more than 81,000 under Rosecrans’ command.

By late in the day of December 29th, Rosecrans’ army began to arrive in the area that the Confederates had by then occupied for more than four weeks. Repeated Confederate cavalry raids both to Rosecrans’s front and across his supply lines hampered the Union advance, but did not stop it. Late in the evening of December 30th the Union army was deployed in battle line nearly four miles long, opposite a similar deployment of Confederates, with most of the men situated between Franklin Road (Hwy 96 today) and Nashville Pike (Old Nashville Hwy today). Rosecrans had about 41,000 troops available on the field, while Bragg could muster about 35,000. All of Rosecrans’s army was situated west of Stones River while about a third of Bragg’s troops were on the eastern side, with the river dividing his army. Both commanders intended to strike at the right flank of their opponent the following morning, although Rosecrans’ plan was to launch the attack in full light after his troops had had their breakfast. He was too late.

Battle lines as of 6 AM on December 31, 1862, the start of the battle

Start of the battle, 6 AM on December 31, 1862 (click to enlarge)

At 6.00 a.m. on New Year’s Eve, the entire left flank of the Confederate army, a force of just over ten thousand veteran troops, slammed into the Union right flank, catching divisions under the command of Major General Alexander McCook by surprise. One Union division, ironically commanded by a Brigadier General with the name of Jefferson Davis, held briefly before being driven back. General Bragg’s goal was to push Rosecrans’ men past the Pike and the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad (which ran parallel to the road) all the way to the Stones River. Once the Confederates took control of the road and railroad, the Union would be cut off from their escape route back to Nashville, and with their backs to the Stones River, they would be trapped. While the Confederates were never able to push past the Pike, by mid-morning, they had driven McCook’s forces backwards for over three miles to the Pike, capturing artillery batteries and supplies in the process.

9 AM, December 31, 1862

9 AM, December 31, 1862 (click to enlarge)

Rosecrans had the very same idea as Bragg: attack the Confederate right at Nashville Pike and swing them southwest, away from the road and railroad, cutting off their retreat back towards Chattanooga. In fact, Rosecrans had already initiated his own attack on the Confederate right, which was east of Stones River, when he recognized the seriousness of the attack by the Confederate left. Rosecrans canceled his attack and shifted those troops, under General Crittenden, to support McCook’s position.

With the Union right collapsing to the Nashville Pike, Bragg launched his second major attack, this upon the Union right center. Here Union Major General Philip Sheridan, remembering the pre-dawn attacks at Shiloh earlier in the year, had placed his division in combat formation at 4.00 a.m. Although the division was attacked on its flank and front by succeeding waves of Confederate troops, it held out for more than four hours in a cedar forest which came to be known as The Slaughter Pen. Sheridan’s division lost a full third of its men, including all three brigade commanders, during the course of this fighting. Sheridan finally withdrew from this position to the Nashville Pike before noon.

Bragg’s attack on the Union right and right center had been a complete surprise, driving his enemy back several miles, inflicting heavy casualties, and leading to the capture of more than two dozen pieces of artillery, as well as more than 3,000 prisoners. But his plan failed to split the Union forces, and had in fact driven them back into a strong defensive position, with fresh Union troops in mutually supportive positions along the Nashville Pike. The entire Union line had pivoted to the right, with their backs to the river.

By mid-afternoon Bragg had moved the portion of his army which had begun the day east of the river to the western side, as they were the only fresh troops available to continue the attack. These troops, under the command of General John C. Breckinridge, (a candidate for President of the United States in 1860) began attacking the Union center around 4 p.m. Despite multiple assaults the Union center, under Major General George H. Thomas, held and the fighting began to lull. Although sporadic artillery and sniper fire continued until late evening, the main portion of the battle was over.

End of fighting the evening of December 31, 1862 (click to enlarge)

Bragg’s army had endured over 9,000 casualties, and the Union army, although pushed back, had remained on the field. Bragg’s unit commanders began issuing orders for their men to dig in, perhaps remembering the success of the first day at Shiloh being lost when the Union counterattacked on the second. Bragg meanwhile telegrammed the Confederate government in Richmond that he had won a major victory, informing President Jefferson Davis that the Union army was withdrawing from the field.

During the lull in the fighting New Year’s Day, Union soldiers crossed Stones River and occupied a hill on the east side near the McFadden Farm, the side that belonged to the Confederates since the battle began. Rosecrans ordered the placement of artillery on the hill where his troops could command a line of fire over the Confederate positions. He also stationed infantry to protect the artillery from possible Confederate attack. Bragg did little to hamper this repositioning, waiting instead to see if the Union move was being made to position troops to cover the retreat of the Union Army.

Fighting resumed on January 2nd, this time on the east side of Nashville Pike at the McFadden Farm. By the afternoon, Bragg decided to attack the Union positions east of the river, assigning Breckinridge’s troops to the assault. Although the Union infantry was initially pushed back, the massed artillery on the heights east of the river as well as on elevated ground on the western side tore the Confederate formations to pieces. This Confederate attack on McFadden’s Ford resulted in the loss of over 1,800 troops in about 45 minutes. Union counterattacks caused the Confederates to withdraw.

Union reinforcements began to arrive from Nashville in the morning of January 3rd. Later that evening, Union troops under Thomas attacked the Confederate center and drove the enemy from their entrenched position.

Bragg was by now reduced to only about 20,000 effective troops, while Rosecrans was reinforced and likely to receive further reinforcement. After Thomas’s successful attack on the night of the 3rd, Bragg began to withdraw his troops through Murfreesboro, eventually retreating to Tullahoma, Tennessee, more than 35 miles south of Stones River. Two days later Rosecrans occupied Murfreesboro, where he would spend the next five months constructing fortifications, including a huge earthwork redoubt which was dubbed Fort Rosecrans. Although Rosecrans drew heavy criticism for not following up the defeated Bragg and destroying his army, the fortifications he erected helped ensure that no further attack would be made by the Confederates on Nashville.

The Battle of Stones River, although not as well known as either Shiloh or Antietam, surpassed both in terms of casualties. Total casualties were over 24,000 men in a battle in which the total number of opposing forces was about 76,000. Although Antietam is often referred to as the bloodiest single day in American history, more Americans were killed or wounded at Stones River, with the majority of those occurring on the last day of what had been the bloodiest year in American History. The following year would be worse.

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Last updated on March 10, 2020
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