The Battle of Stones River

The Battle of Stones River was fought from December 31, 1862 through January 2, 1863.  Fought in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the battle is often overlooked by Civil War students.  However, this sanguinary battle was a resounding Federal victory, pushing the Confederate Army of Tennessee out of the central portion of the state.  With a combined strength, of both armies, of nearly 80,000 men it was also one of the bloodiest battles in the Western Theater, with 23,000 combined casualties – a casualty rate close to 30%!  After the victory President Abraham Lincoln sent his congratulations to the Army of the Cumberland commander, US Major General William S. Rosecrans, “You gave us a hard-earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the nation could have scarcely lived over it.”(i) 

While Rosecrans defeated CSA General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee 146 years ago, the battle continues today.  With development slowly encircling the battlefield, it has had the undesirable honor of making the Civil War Preservation Trust’s “Most Endangered Battlefields” list many times.  Additionally, this past Good Friday, the battlefield was directly hit by a tornado, causing significant damage to many of the largest trees.  Their is, however, a silver lining.  The Civil War Preservation Trust has permanently saved 24 acres of the battlefield and Tennessee Congressman Bart Gordon recently announced that the state had approved $1.5 million to make improvements at the national battlefield.  I visited the battlefield on January 6, 2010 and was very impressed with the National Park Service’s efforts to clear the tornado damaged trees from the hallowed ground.

I have included the following short narrative on the Battle of Stones River, to provide an overview of the battle for my readers.  I wrote the narrative for my other website, BattlefieldPortraits.com.  For additional information on the battle, please check out the following items.

Mike’s photo essay on the Battle of Stones River

Mike’s blog article on Julius P. Garesche killed at the Stones River

Battle of Stones River
(also known as Murfreesboro)


Location: Murfreesboro, Tennessee (Rutherford County)
Dates: December 31, 1862 – January 2, 1863
Union Commander:  William S. Rosecrans, Major General
Confederate Commander:  Braxton Bragg, General 

Battle Summary:

During the summer and early fall of 1862, Lincoln’s western armies were having success.  His armies had pressed the Confederate armies out of Kentucky, and portions of western Tennessee.  With U.S. Grant’s victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, in February, 1862, the Federal troops commanded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. This provided the leverage necessary to push CSA General Albert Sidney Johnston to abandon all of Kentucky, and western Tennessee.  Grant’s victory over Johnston’s Army of the Mississippi, at Shiloh, pushed troops under P.G.T. Beauregard into northern Mississippi.  Confederate General Braxton Bragg, with his Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Lieutenant General Leonidas “Bishop” Polk and Lieutenant General William Hardee, moved into Kentucky in September and October.

While Lincoln was pleased with the success of his troops, under Grant, he remained very concerned for the safety of loyal Unionist citizens in eastern Tennessee.  After the fall of Iuka and Corinth, Mississippi, US Major General William S. Rosecrans, replaced US Major General Don Carlos Buell as commander of the newly designated Army of the Cumberland.  Meanwhile, after his unsuccessful invasion of Kentucky, Bragg was at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, protecting the vital southern rail hub at Chattanooga.

Late in December, after repeated threats from Commander-in-Chief, Major General Henry W. Halleck, Rosecrans put his army in motion.  Rosecrans slowly moved from Nashville, towards Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee, at Murfreesboro.  With the Army of the Cumberland plodding towards his Army of Tennessee, Bragg sent Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to raid Rosecrans’ supply line.  Wheeler was successful, capturing hundreds of prisoners and a portion of the Union supply line.

Meanwhile, Braxton Bragg had formed a defensive line, running southwest, to northeast, just north of Murfreesboro – his supply depot.  His army straddled the Stones River.  While Bragg had time to entrench his army - he failed to do so – an error that cost him dearly.

With Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland within striking distance, on December 30, Bragg decided to go on the offensive.  Just after dawn on December 31, Bragg had the left ¾ of his army wheel on its right flank, hoping to turn the Federal army’s right flank.  While the move was initially successful, the surprised Federal troops soon rallied.  Early the same morning, Rosecrans had planned to attack the Confederate right flank, so his lieutenant, US Major General Alexander McD. McCook’s Corps was ill prepared to meet the rebel attack on his sector – the Federal right.  Assigned to carry out the attack were the corps of William Hardee, on the far left, and Leonidas Polk, near the rebel “hinge,” in the middle of the line.  The attack pushed McCook’s Corps back fairly easily.  However, US Brigadier General Philip Sheridan was able to hold his section of the line, at a very defensible position along the railroad, near the Murfreesboro-Nashville Pike.  (This area would be known as the Round Forest, and is part of the Stones River National Battlefield.)  

By noon, with the assault on the Union right grinding to a halt, Bragg determined to divert Rosecrans’ attention.  He sent four brigades, commanded by CSA Major General John Breckinridge, to assault the Federal left flank.  As Breckinridge’s troops crossed Stones River they were hit by heavy Union artillery and infantry, that held a naturally strong defensive position, near McFadden’s Ford.  Breckinridge’s troops being sent in piecemeal, would be annihilated.

Sporadic fighting would continue until sunset.  When Hardee requested reinforcements, around 4:00 PM, Bragg replied that he had none to send.  Hardee, capturing the moment for all eternity, stated, “The enemy lay beyond the range of our guns, securely sheltered behind the strong defense of the railroad embankment, with wide open fields intervening, which were swept by superior artillery.  It would have been folly, not valor, to assail them in this position.”

On January 2, with a division of US Major General Thomas Crittenden’s Corps arrayed east of Stones River, Bragg once again went on the offensive.  After Bishop Polk’s Corps, in the center, hammered US. Major General George Thomas’ Corps, Bragg sent Breckinridge’s Division to push Crittenden from their right flank.  Breckinridge advanced in two lines.  With sharp fire from his front, and being enfiladed from the west side of the Stones River, Breckinridge’s Division was cut up.  The assault would gain no ground for the Army of Tennessee, and would leave many dead southern soldiers on the field.  This would end the fighting at Stones River – a very costly battle on both sides.

Campaign: Stones River

Outcome: Union Victory

Troop Strengths
Union: 44,000
Confederate: 34,000

Casualties (estimated):
Union: 13,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 10,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)

Battle Aftermath:
Late in the evening of January 3, under the cover of a heavy rain and darkness, Braxton Bragg began to withdraw his Army of the Tennessee.  Rosecrans did not pursue Bragg, who would end up spending the remaining winter months, and much of the summer of 1863, in camp near Tullahoma, Tennessee.  Rosecrans would stay at Murfreesboro, building an elaborate fort, Fortress Rosecrans, to protect his army.  The fortress was so large that entire wagon trains could disappear in the fort, amongst the thousands of Federal troops.

In June 1863, the Lincoln administration, through Henry Halleck, finally got William Rosecrans’ lethargic army moving.  They would push Bragg’s Army of Tennessee out of their camps at Tullahoma, and into northern Georgia.  Plodding through mountainous country, west of Chattanooga, Rosecrans would enter northern Georgia in September, 1863, to meet Bragg near another lazy waterway – Chickamauga.

(i) Cozzens, Peter, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stone’s River, published by University of Illinois Press on November 1, 1989, Pg. 207.

About Michael Noirot

I grew up in the Central Illinois farming community, of Dunlap. Growing up, I played sports, tinkered with cars and enjoyed photography. While I did well in school, I did not become passionate about history until my early 30's. I have built a large library, of books on early America, politics and the Civil War. I am an avid reader. Fortunately, I have had plenty of opportunities to travel, over the years, and have been to most of the Civil War battlefields. I work while I travel, so more often than not, I am up, in the middle of the night, to get sunrise pictures, or I will be out until well after dark, exploring Civil War battlefields. I have other hobbies, and passions, that I really enjoy. Number one on the list would be guitar. I play my guitars on a regular basis, and enjoy the Bluegrass, and Contemporary Christian (CCM) genres. I play a style of guitar, called FLATPICKING, where using a flat pick, you play lead solos, similar to the way a fiddle would have been played during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Laura, my wife, and I also enjoy scuba diving, travel and spending time at our property, in the country. Lastly, we spend as much time with our families, as possible. Thanks for stopping by.
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