Battle of Stones River

American Major Civil War Battle (1862-1863)

The Battle of Stones River (a.k.a. the Second Battle of Murfreesboro), December 31st, 1862 to January 2nd, 1863 was one of unusual circumstance. Though many believe the battle to have taken place as the end of the Confederate Heartland Offensive, many others believe it to be the beginning of the Chattanooga Campaign. Truthfully the battle is independent. As a sister battle to the Battle of Fredericksburg it was fought to give weight to the Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln was loosing the Civil War at this time and had to fend of French and English military aid to the Confederacy; so he was going to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. However, he needed force behind his edict to show the world that he was capable of winning the war.

The Confederate Army under Braxton Bragg retreated from the Battle of Perryville through the Cumberland Gap, Knoxville and settled down for the winter in Murfreesboro, TN. The Union General William S. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland were camped 35 miles away from Bragg in Nashville but had no idea where Bragg and the Army of Tennessee could be. Lincoln sent Rosecrans a telegraph telling him to find the Confederate Army, fight them, and win a major victory by the end of the year for Lincoln to look good in the press (this was the same communication sent to General Ambrose Burnside before the Battle of Fredericksburg) or else he would be stripped of command.

It wasn't until Rosecrans read a Murfreesboro gossip column the he learned where Bragg was. It innocently enough told simply of a great wedding done by Leonidas Polk for John Hunt Morgan and a local belle. The article however inadvertently listed off the commanders in attendance allowing Rosecrans to act on a hunch and take his army to Murfreesboro. The weather was unbearable, snow, sleet, ice, and rain for the better part of a week; neither army could light fires or build shelter lest it give away their position. Men suffered greatly sleeping in the mud, almost freezing to death. This ordeal was worse for the poorly supplied Confederates.

At dawn on December 31, 1862, General J. P. McCown’s Division with General Patrick Cleburne’s men in support stormed across the frosted fields to attack the Federal right flank. Their plan was to swing around the Union line in a right wheel and drive their enemy back to the Stones River while cutting off their main supply routes at the Nashville Pike and the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. The Union Army was routed while cooking breakfast in a matter of minutes.

General Philip Sheridan had his men rise early and form a line of battle. His men were able to repulse the first enemy attack, but the loss of the divisions to his right forced Sheridan’s commanders to reposition their lines to keep Cleburne’s Division from cutting off their escape route. Sheridan’s lines pivoted to the north, anchored by General James Negley’s Division in the trees and rocks along McFadden Lane.

Confederate brigades assaulted Sheridan’s and Negley’s Divisions without coordination. The terrain made communication and cooperation between units nearly impossible. For more than two hours, the Union forces fell back step by bloody step slowing the Confederate assault.

By noon, the Confederate Brigades of A.P. Stewart, J. Patton Anderson, George Maney, A.M. Manigault, and A.J. Vaughn assaulted the Union salient from three sides. With their ammunition nearly spent, Negley’s and Sheridan’s lines shattered and their men made their way north and west through the cedars towards the Nashville Pike.

The cost of this delaying action was enormous. While the fighting raged in the Slaughter Pen, General William S. Rosecrans was busy trying to save his army. He canceled the attack across the river and funneled his reserve troops into the fight hoping to stem the bleeding on his right. Rosecrans and General George Thomas rallied fleeing troops as they approached the Nashville Pike and a new line began to form along that vital lifeline backed up by massed artillery. The Confederates were slaughtered time and time again on what became know as No Man's Land.

Both armies lay to sleep after coming to a draw (though Rosecrans still in a very bad situation). The screams and cries of the men (many of which stopped during the night) plagued memories of the men for the rest of their lives. The fighting was so intense and the slaughter so great that on January 1st there was no fighting, but an unheard of armistice to help retrieve a fraction of the dead and the dying.

the two armies came to blows again on the afternoon of January 2nd. General Bragg ordered John C. Breckinridge to attack General Horatio Van Cleve’s Division (commanded by Colonel Samuel Beatty) occupying a hill overlooking McFadden’s Ford on the east side of the river. The Confederates lost, of about 3,500 men, 1,800 men in 20 minutes charging 57 pieces of massed artillery. This was the bloodiest charge of the war.

After Bragg retreated, though it was a tactical draw, the numbers were tallied. Of the 81,000 men that were in the armies 24,000 became causalities (almost all in the first day). Never before had an army been wrecked like at Stones River, and never again would a battle cause such a percentage of loss to an army.

After the Battle, the Union army occupied the town and began building Fortress Rosecrans, the largest earthen works fortification on the continent, and in 1865 soldiers set about creating the Stones River National Cemetery.

Battle of Stones River
Defending the Nashville Pike
Click to enlarge.