Battle of Stones River: Details



Murfreesboro was a small town in the Stones River Valley, a former state capital named for a colonel in the American Revolutionary War, Hardy Murfree. All through the war it was a center for strong Confederate sentiment, and Bragg (Confederate) and his men were warmly welcomed and entertained during the month of December. Located in a rich agricultural region from which Bragg planned to provision his army and a position that he intended to use to block a potential Federal advance on Chattanooga. "The field of battle offered no particular advantages for defense. Despite this, Confederates were reluctant to move farther south, say to the arguably more defensible Duck River Valley, or farther north, to Stewart's Creek.

Sensitive to the political requirements that almost no Tennessee ground be yielded to Federal control, Union troops chose the relatively flat area northwest of the politically influential city, straddling the Stones River. Portions of the area, particularly near the intersection of the Nashville Pike and the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, were characterized by small but dense cedar forests, in places more impenetrable to infantry than the Wilderness of Spotsylvania in Virginia. Short limestone outcroppings, separated by narrow cracks as if rows of teeth, impeded the movement of wagons and artillery.


By the time the Union leader had arrived in Murfreesboro on the evening of December 29, the Southern army had been encamped in the area for a month.

Union troops outnumbered Confederate troops 41,000 to 35,000.


Dec. 29

On December 29, 2,500 Confederate men rode completely around the Union army, destroying supply wagons and capturing reserve ammunition in Rosecrans's trains. They captured four wagon trains and 1,000 Union prisoners.

Dec. 30

On Dec. 30 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. Rosecrans (Union) ordered his men to be ready to attack after breakfast, but Bragg (Confederate) ordered an attack at dawn.

The armies bivouacked only 700 yards (640 m) from each other, and their bands started a musical battle that became a non-lethal preview of the next day's events. Northern musicians played Yankee Doodle and Hail, Columbia and they were answered by Dixieand 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.

Dec. 31

At dawn on Dec. 31 (about 6 am) Confederates struck first – before many in the Union had finished eating breakfast. NOTE: This was the third major battle (Fort Donelson & Shiloh) in which an early morning attack caught a Union army by surprise.

Brig. Gen. Richard W. Johnson’s (Union) division suffered 50% casualties.

The Union cancelled their own planned attack on the Confederate’s right.

As Rosecrans raced across the battlefield directing units, seeming ubiquitous to his men, his uniform was covered with blood from his friend and chief of staff, Col. Julius Garesché, beheaded by a cannonball while riding alongside.

What saved the Union from total destruction that morning was the foresight of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan (McCook's wing), 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.

More than one third of Sheridan’s (Union) men were casualties in four hours of fighting in a cedar forest surrounded on three sides that became known as "The Slaughter Pen". By 10 a.m., many of the Confederate objectives had been achieved. They had captured 28 guns and over 3,000 Union soldiers.

Two Confederate blunders aided the Union. Confederates didn’t realize the Union morning attack had been cancelled and they 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—Breckinridge moved forward and was embarrassed to find out that there were no Union troops opposing him.

Repeated attacks on the left flank of the Union line were repulsed by Union brigade in a rocky, 4-acre wooded area named "Round Forest" by the locals; it became known as "Hell's Half-Acre"

Bragg (Confederate) 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 had been ordered to cross the river. By 4 p.m., Confederates assaulted in piecemeal attacks and suffered heavy repulses. Two more brigades arrived, and they were sent in, reinforced by other elements of Confederate troops. The attack failed a second time. Union responded with a limited counterattack that cleared his front. By 4:30 p.m., the battle was finished.

Bragg's (Confederate) plan had had a fundamental flaw: although his objective was to cut Rosecrans's (Union) line of communication (the Nashville Pike), his attack drove the Union defenders to concentrate at that point.

Night of New Year’s Eve

That night Rosecrans (Union) held a council of war to decide what to do.

Union - Some of his 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. Thomas has been quoted by different sources in the council meeting as saying either "This army does not retreat" or "There's no better place to die." The decision was made to stand and fight, and as the Union line was reinforced, the morale of the soldiers rose.

Confederate - Bragg was certain that he had won a victory. Although he had suffered 9,000 casualties, he was convinced that the large number of captured Union soldiers meant that Rosecrans had lost considerably more. The Confederate army began digging in, facing the Union line. Bragg sent a telegram to Richmond before he went to bed: "The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. We occupy [the] whole field and shall follow him. ... God has granted us a happy New Year."

January 1 – 3

At 3 a.m. on January 1, 1863, Rosecrans revived his original plan and ordered a division 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.

Convoys of wounded had to travel under heavy escort to be protected from the cavalry, and Wheeler (Confederate) interpreted these movements as preparations for a retreat, and he reported such to Bragg. Buoyed by his sense that he had won the battle, Bragg (Confederate) was content to wait for Rosecrans to retreat.

4 pm. Jan. 2 - the Confederate charge ran into heavy fire from massed Union artillery across the river, commanded by Crittenden's artillery chief, Capt. John Mendenhall. Mendenhall deployed his guns perfectly—45 arrayed hub-to-hub on the ridge overlooking McFadden's Ford (with 12 more guns about a mile to the southwest, which could provide enfilading fire), completely commanding the opposite bank and heights beyond—and saved the day for Rosecrans. The Confederate attack stalled, having suffered over 1,800 casualties in less than an hour.

On the morning of January 3, a large supply train and reinforced infantry brigade reached Rosecrans (Union). Confederate cavalry attempted to capture the ammunition train that followed it but was repulsed.

Confederate Retreat

Bragg knew that Rosecrans was not likely to retreat and would continue to receive reinforcements—the Confederates had only about 20,000 men ready to resume a battle and intelligence reports convinced Bragg that Rosecrans would soon have 70,000—and he knew that the miserable weather of freezing rain could raise the river enough to split his army. Beginning at 10 p.m. on January 3, he withdrew through Murfreesboro and began a retreat 36 miles to the south. Rosecrans occupied Murfreesboro on January 5, but made no attempt to pursue Bragg.


This was the highest percentage (38%) of killed and wounded of any major battle in the Civil War, higher in absolute numbers than the infamous bloodbaths at Shiloh and Antietam earlier that year.

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."

The Confederate threat to Kentucky and Middle Tennessee had been nullified, and Nashville was secure as a major Union supply base for the rest of the war.

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