Following Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky that culminated in the Battle of Perryville, Bragg left his army and traveled to Richmond. Here, he met with the president of the Confederacy: Jefferson Davis. Bragg, unsurprisingly, had been criticized by his subordinates for his command decisions during the Perryville Campaign. In response to this, Davis decided to appoint Joseph E. Johnston, former general of the Army of Northern Virginia, to command of the department of the west. This put Johnston over Bragg and the Army of Tennessee and Pemberton and the Army of MIssissippi.
Following this promotion, in December, Johnston went to Tennessee to see the situation first-hand and decided to send 10,000 soldiers from Bragg to Pemberton to re-enforce Vicksburg. This meant that the Army of Tennessee was now at 35,000 men, minus cavalry. The Federal army standing off against Bragg was stronger with 47,000 men. This army was situated at Nashville, TN, under the command of William S. Rosecrans who had replaced Don Carlos Buell.
Upon taking command, Rosecrans faced mounting pressure from Washington to launch an offensive. Throughout the war, Washington was constantly frustrated by a seeming lack of initiative by the Federal commanders. Rosecrasns replied that he would move when ready. Rosecrans deemed December 26, 1862, as the day to make a move and began to move his army south. The army under Rosecrans contained 8,000 more men than Braggs. However, the Confederates attempted to even the playing field. Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan launched raids behind the Union line. While this was occurring, Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler attacked the Federal supply lines as they moved south, slowing Rosecrans’ move. On the 29th, Wheeler rode around the entire Union army and captured a portion of Rosecrans ammunition and attacked supply wagons. However, despite the pesky raids by Forrest, Hunt and Morgan, the Union army reached Murfreesboro on the 30th.
Preparations are Made
Braxton Bragg chose the ground north of Murfreesboro to make his stand. This land was fairly open with spatterings of red cedar and split by Stones River. Bragg’s men were stationed on either side of Stones River. On December 30, Bragg and Rosecrans made their plans of attack. The Union plan was to attack Breckinridge’s corps on the rebel right flank. The Confederate plan was to attack Hardee’s corps on the Federal right flank. Both commanders were planning to launch the same offensive of turning the enemy’s right flank, getting behind them, and then severing the army from their bases.
A Battle of the Bands
The night of the 30th, on the eve of battles, the Union and Confederate bands battled musically. Only separated by a few hundred yards, the Union band began playing “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia.” In response, the rebel band played “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” The soldiers on both sides began to join in and, for a moment, were united in a magical moment.
The next day, the Union attack was ordered for 7:00 a.m. However, Hardee’s brigades began at dawn. This attack caught the Federals off guard while they were eating breakfast. 13,000 Confederates attacked the Union right and pushed them back three miles. It was at that point that the Confederate assault was stopped before the railroad and turnpike. In response to this, Rosecrans called off his attack on the Confederate right and instead sent reinforcements to the Federal right. Rosecrans performed spectacularly under the mounting pressure. Rosecrans rode along the lines rallying his troops and moving them into position. While riding, one of his staff officers was beheaded by a cannonball, splattering Old Rosy in blood.
The first two Union brigades broke nearly instantly under the Confederate attack. The third division under Major General Philip Sheridan, however, held their ground in the right center. Sheridan had woken his men up at 4 a.m. and were ready when the rebels reached them. By 12 p.m., the Union line had been “forced into the shape of a bent jackknife.”
Hell’s Half Acre
The hinge of the Union line was situated in a patch of woods alongside the turnpike and railroad called the Round Forrest. On this day, it would gain another name: Hell’s Half Acre. Bragg ordered division commander John C. Breckinridge to attack the axis on which the Union army had swung. Breckinridge had formerly been the Vice President of the United States under James Buchanan and also ran for president in 1860. The attack was brutal and so loud that soldiers stopped, picked cotton, and plugged their ears with it. However, despite the intense fighting, William B. Hazen’s Union brigade held off Confederate attacks with the help of artillery.
A New Year
As December 31 turned into the New Year, it was clear that Bragg had been successful but that the job was not finished. On the evening of the 31st, Bragg sent word to Richmond stating that he had won a great victory where it was created “great exaltation.” Bragg also reported that the enemy “is falling back” However, Bragg was still outnumbered, was in a precarious position and had his units greatly weakened by the day’s fighting. In addition, that evening Rosecrans held a council of war and they chose to hold their ground. On the first day of the new year, little occurred. There were some skirmishes and the main movement was a Union division occupying a hill to the east of Stones River.
On January 2, 1863, Bragg ordered Breckinrdige to attack the high ground east of Stones River that the Union had taken the previous day. Breckinridge did not want to attack due to the Union artillery across the river. However, Bragg refused to change plans and 4,500 Confederates were ordered to take the hill from the Federals. They were successful in pushing the Federals off the hill. However, the 58 Union guns across the river and an infantry counterattack forced the Confederates to abandon the hill they had fought so hard to capture. They suffered 1,500 casualties in just one hour.
This retreat from the hill convinced Bragg of what he had already been told by his subordinates: that the work of the rebels at Murfreesboro was exhausted. On January 3, 1863, the Union force received reinforcements and the Confederates disengaged and moved south. The rebels took up a new position behind the Duck River. The Confederates had suffered 12,000 casualties while the Union force had suffered 13,000. For the Confederates, these casualties equated to more than a third of their force. For the Union army, they suffered a loss of 31 percent of their army. These casualties made Stones River the bloodiest battle of the Civil War in proportion to the forces engaged.
This stand by the Federal army at Stones River did bring some holiday joy to the North. Lincoln wired Rosecrans and stated, “God bless you, and all with you. I can never forget, whilst I remember anything (that) you gave us a hard earned victory which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could hardly have lived over.” The carnage of Stones River, however, resulted in Rosecrans making no attempt to chase Bragg’s army and making no offensive movement for months.
A Battlefield Atlas of the Civil War, Craig L. Symonds
Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson