This lesson will describe the Battle of Stones River or Murfreesboro, which took place on December 31, 1862, and January 2, 1863. We will examine the events and plans that led up to the battle, its progress, and its outcome.
Setting the Stage for a Battle
Let’s begin by setting the stage for the Battle of Stones River. The theater was Tennessee, a Confederate state that bordered the Union, and Kentucky, a Union state that bordered the Confederacy. The Confederate plan was to march from Tennessee into Kentucky, drum up support for the South, and bring the state into the Confederacy. Along the way, the Confederate army sought to cut off Union supply lines and push the Union army back, further away from Confederate territory.The Union, on the other hand, wanted to keep a tight hold on Kentucky and capture Tennessee.
Tennessee would be an ideal base for supplies as the Union army traveled south, seeking to gain control over the Mississippi River, cut off the Confederacy from its western supply sources, and isolate the major port of New Orleans.The generals charged with these tasks were Major General William Rosecrans for the Union and General Braxton Bragg for the Confederacy. Rosecrans was a well-liked general, but he could be a bit stubborn. He was also a careful planner who wanted conditions to be as favorable as possible for his army.
Bragg was a rather unpleasant man who tended to hesitate when he should act and then blame others for unfavorable outcomes.Each general’s army was set for battle. Rosecrans led the Union Army of the Cumberland with about 41,000 men. Bragg headed the Confederate Army of Tennessee with about 35,000 men.In the fall of 1862, the Confederates had made their way into Kentucky where they suffered defeat at the Battle of Perryville on October 8. Forced back into Tennessee, Bragg gathered his troops at Murfreesboro in the Stones River Valley to regroup and prepare for another clash with the Union.Rosecrans took command of the Army of the Cumberland after a disappointing performance from the previous general at Perryville.
He set right to work, rebuilding the army and retraining his men. He began the march toward Murfreesboro on Christmas Day, 1862. The stage was set for a battle.
Waves of Confederates
At 6 a.m. on December 31, 1862, approximately 11,000 Confederate soldiers began their advance toward the Union line. These men in gray appeared out of the chilly fog, marching double quick into battle.
They were silent, not firing their weapons, not making any noise except for the sound of their feet thumping against the cold ground.When the soldiers in gray were finally in range of the Union troops, who had formed a battle line, the battlefield exploded with the famous, bone-chilling rebel yell, and waves of Confederates began to pour in upon the right end of the Union line, pushing it back by sheer force of numbers. But the Union line held even as it stepped back and back and back. The Union soldiers fought fiercely, firing their weapons and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with their enemies. The Confederates, even with their own ferocious fighting, could not get through.
Another group of Confederates was attacking the middle of the Union line, where soldiers under the leadership of General Philip Sheridan were struggling to hold fast. Finally, after receiving several waves of Confederates, the Union men discovered that they were low on ammunition. They fell back to resupply, but their line did not break.Casualties on both sides were mounting quickly as Confederates marched directly into heavy Union fire and Union troops were killed and wounded by incoming Confederates. Some units had already lost 30-40% of their men.Around mid-day, both sides paused briefly to regroup. Union General Sheridan pulled his men back to a clump of trees known as Round Forest, which would be easier to defend than open ground.
The Confederates also reformed their lines, preparing four fresh brigades for a renewed charge on the Union line.In the afternoon, the Confederates made a critical mistake. Instead of sending all four fresh brigades at the Union in one massive attack, Bragg chose to stagger their charges. He may not have been aware that the Union had pulled fifty artillery pieces into position.
As each Confederate brigade marched across the battlefield, Union artillery mowed down row after row of soldiers. The ones who made it to the Union line faced devastating fire and hand-to-hand combat. The battle continued all afternoon until darkness approached and the generals called a cease fire. Exhausted, the Union troops dropped to the ground where they were. The Confederates trickled back to their own camps.
As the soldiers rested and attended to the wounded, the generals and their staffs reviewed the day’s battle. Rosecrans and his council seriously debated an overnight retreat. Rosecrans even went out into the darkness to do some personal scouting.
Eventually, they decided to stay put and resume the fight. They discussed their strategies well into the night as Union soldiers moved their wounded back from the battle line.Bragg, informed that the Union was on the move, thought he had won the battle. He was positive that the Union was in full retreat. He made no further plans, but rather retired for the night, celebrating his victory.
A Lull in the Fighting
Bragg awoke on January 1, 1863, to a very unpleasant surprise. The Union army was still very much in place. It had not retreated at all. Bragg had no plans to continue the fight, so he had to scramble to figure out what he was going to do next.Throughout the day, the Union moved a bit north, away from the Round Forest, so the Confederates took over the small grove.
Both sides cared for their wounded and tried to do something about the dead soldiers that blanketed the ground. There were a few small skirmishes but no major fighting. Night fell, and the campfires blazed as soldiers on both sides wondered what would happen the next day.January 2 began quietly. Both sides scouted the enemy’s positions. Bragg was still trying to decide what to do. The two sides also exchanged a bit of artillery fire.
That’s when Confederate General John C. Breckinridge noticed something. The Union had called up a large number of artillery pieces on the left side of its battle line.
This was a cause for concern.
A Wave Broken
On the afternoon of January 2, 1863, Bragg called Breckinridge into his headquarters and ordered him to attack the Union line on the left. Breckinridge protested. Such a mission was akin to suicide, considering the number of Union artillery pieces he had noticed in that position.
Bragg insisted. Breckinridge was to take his Kentucky troops and do as he was ordered. Breckinridge had no choice, for Bragg outranked him.
He began to prepare for battle. Rosecrans noticed the Confederates’ preparations and sent reinforcements to the left.At 4 p.m., Breckinridge’s Confederates charged the Union left through the chilly rain and sleet. The Union artillery let loose, inflicting heavy casualties.
But the Confederates kept coming. Against all odds, they reached the small ridge where Union troops had dug in. They went over the top and kept going.
The Union line broke. The Confederates really should have recognized their victory and halted where they were, but inflamed by the excitement of battle, they pushed on. That was a mistake.Just over the next ridge, the Confederates came face to face with another group of Union artillery. The Union opened fire at close range, shattering the Confederate line. A Union reinforcement brigade stepped up and attacked, driving the Confederates back in a rapid retreat.
Any of Breckinridge’s soldiers who were left standing fled with the Union troops in hot pursuit. They did not stop until darkness put an end to the day’s fight.
The Aftermath of Battle
Breckinridge was furious. He had known exactly what would happen if his men charged that Union line, and events had turned out exactly as he thought they would. Bragg, noticing that more Union reinforcements were on their way, called a retreat on January 3, and the Confederate army, broken as it was, headed south.
The Union claimed victory. Rosecrans and his men had held their ground. Kentucky was safe from further Confederate invasions, and Tennessee was on its way to security in Union hands. The victory at Stones River was also a morale booster for the Union, which had recently experienced a few disheartening defeats in the East.Bragg, however, suffered for his loss. Blasted by southern newspapers and facing the severe displeasure of his superiors, Bragg, true to character, blamed the defeat at Stones River on Breckinridge and several of his other subordinates.
Bragg kept his rank, but only because his replacement, Joseph E. Johnston, could not take command due to poor health.The biggest news of the Battle of Stones River, however, was its casualty rate. Over 24,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing by the time the fighting ended on January 2. The numbers were almost evenly split between the Union and the Confederacy.
While the total number was lower than that of other battles, the percentage of soldiers killed, wounded, or missing at Stones River was higher than in any other Civil War battle – 27% for the Confederates and 23% for the Union.
At the Battle of Stones River, Confederates under General Braxton Bragg clashed with Union soldiers under Major General William Rosecrans on December 31, 1862, and January 2, 1863. The Confederate goal was to keep control of Tennessee and march into the Union-controlled Kentucky. The Union, on the other hand, wanted to retain Kentucky and capture Tennessee.
On December 31, the first day of fighting, the Confederates sent wave after wave of men slamming into the Union battle line. The Union line backed up but held firm, especially under the leadership of General Philip Sheridan at the center. At the end of the day, Rosecrans contemplated retreat but decided against it. Bragg thought he had won the battle and made no further plans.January 1 saw a lull in the fighting as Bragg scrambled to form a new battle plan, and both sides regrouped, rested, and cared for their wounded.
On the afternoon of January 2, Bragg ordered General John C. Breckinridge to attack the Union battle line on the left. Breckinridge, who had seen Union artillery pieces in that area, protested but obeyed. After the initial success of breaking through the Union line, the charging Confederates came face to face with the Union artillery and were routed.The Confederate army retreated to the South, stunned and broken by its defeat. The Union rejoiced in its victory, for it had tightened its control over Tennessee and Kentucky.
Both sides, however, suffered severe casualties. Indeed, on those two winter days, Stones River ran red with blood.
When the lesson is done, you should be able to:
- Identify the theater of the Battle of Stones River
- Name the generals in command during the Battle of Stones River
- Summarize what happened during the Battle of Stones River