Union General William Rosecrans bided his time, waiting to attack
Braxton Bragg’s Rebel army at Murfreesboro, 30 miles south of Nashville.
By Michael E. Haskewteadily the rain had pelted down all day, and now as wintry winds and darkness ushered in another miserable night at the mercy of the elements, the battle-tried veterans of Perryville, both Blue and Gray, struggled to find what fitful sleep they could. The following morning, the last one of 1862, would certainly be the last for many of them. In just a few hours, the fields and cedar thickets around the Tennessee village of Murfreesboro would shake with the angry roar of cannons and the sharp crackle of musketry.
Suddenly, almost ghostly in its faintness, the familiar strains of “Yankee Doodle” arose on the chill night air, as a Federal military band broke the uneasy calm. Rebel musicians took up the challenge, and the jaunty strains of “Dixie” rolled back toward the Union lines a scant 700 yards away. The musical competition continued, with every band on either side playing, until the lively, spirited tunes gave way to “Home Sweet Home,” and the lonely men in both armies raised their voices in unison. The impromptu concert belied for a time the death and destruction that would commence with the dawn.
Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee had been camped in the vicinity of Murfreesboro for more than a month following his fruitless invasion of Kentucky. In order to cover the major approaches to the crucial railroad center at Chattanooga, 100 miles south, from the Union base at Nashville, Bragg had arrayed his troops in a great arc, his right 12 miles east of Murfreesboro at Readyville under Maj. Gen. John P. McCown, his left 20 miles west at Eagleville and Triune under Lt. Gen. William Hardee. Commanding Bragg’s center at Murfreesboro was Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, a West Point graduate and an Episcopal bishop. From this alignment Brag could keep his eye on the massing Union army and concentrate his forces quickly when the time came to fight.
A tall, chronically ill man of 45, Bragg had done little in his tenure to inspire the respect and admiration of his subordinates. An 1837 graduate of the Military Academy, he had served with distinction in Mexico and was well-acquainted with many of the best-known field commanders on both sides of the present struggle. A coal-black beard streaked with steel gray gave Bragg the appearance of a grizzled veteran, the consummate professional soldier.
His lieutenants, however, thought Bragg was quite adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They questioned his handling of the army at Perryville, and grumbled about having fought, bled and won what they considered to be a victory there–only to find themselves inexplicably retreating back into Tennessee.
Fanning the flames of dissension in the Confederate camp was a bitter war of words between Bragg and Kentucky-born Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, the former vice president of the United States who now commanded a division in Hardee’s corps. Bragg, it seemed, had become somewhat bitter at the lack of support his troops had received from the people of Kentucky during their recent campaign of Southern “liberation.” Breckinridge and other Kentucky Confederates felt that Bragg had begun to question their own loyalty to the cause.
A strict disciplinarian, Bragg had on more than one occasion imposed the death penalty for desertion. He had also recently made an example of one of Breckinridge’s men. On the eve of the Battle of Stones River, the mood among the leaders of the Army of Tennessee was one of tension and uncertainty.
Union Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell had failed to pursue Bragg in force after the October 8 Battle of Perryville, and recently had been removed from command. The fortunes of the Army of the Cumberland now lay in the seemingly competent hands of Ohio Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans. “Old Rosy” had graduated from West Point in 1842, fifth in a class of 56. A devout converted Catholic who carried a rosary with him and heard Mass every morning, the general stood 6 feet tall and was immensely popular with his troops. President Abraham Lincoln and Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck hoped his appointment would inspire the heretofore sluggish Union forces in the west to greater action.
Rosecrans, headquartered in Nashville by early November, was extremely concerned about supplying his army during a sustained offensive campaign. He was also aware that the main Confederate Army in the theater was only 30 miles away. Halleck, however, grew more impatient with each passing day. “I cannot prevent your removal,” he telegraphed Rosecrans. An enraged Rosecrans replied: “I need no other stimulus to make me do my duty than the knowledge of what it is. To threats of removal or the like I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.”
Finally, on the day after Christmas, Rosecrans divided his command into three wings under the leadership Maj. Gens. Alexander McCook, George H. Thomas and Thomas Crittenden, and ordered the Army of the Cumberland to advance on Murfreesboro. The Union movement was harried almost continuously by Rebel skirmishers who contested every ridge and ford. Cavalry forays led by 26-year-old Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler resulted in spectacular successes against Rosecrans’ supply trains. In 48 hours, Wheeler’s troopers rode completely around the Federal Army, their crowning achievement being the capture of McCook’s immense train of 300 wagons. At midday on December 30, Wheeler fell upon the lightly guarded train near the town of LaVergne. The Rebels either carried off or destroyed nearly $1 million in supplies and captured and paroled 800 prisoners.
The men of Colonel M.B. Walker’s brigade of Thomas’ corps happened upon the scene during the night, and one observer described the incredible sight: “The turnpike as far as the eye could reach was filled with burning wagons. The country was overspread with disarmed men, broken-down horses and mules. The streets were covered with empty valises and trunks, knapsacks, broken guns, and all the indescribable debris of a captured and rifled army train.”
At 2 a.m. on December 31, Wheeler rode up on the left flank of Bragg’s army, having wrought confusion in the Union rear, destroyed vast stores of supplies, acquired new mounts for many of his troopers and captured enough equipment to outfit an entire brigade.
Rosecrans’ left, under Crittenden, had advanced toward Stones River via the Murfreesboro Pike, while Thomas’ corps, which formed the center, marched down the Franklin Pike to Brentwood, then eastward to the Murfreesboro Pike. McCook, with the Union right, struck out along the Nolensville Pike and took backroads to the Murfreesboro area. Due to the stiff Confederate resistance encountered and the varied routes of approach to the area, the Army of the Cumberland did not reach the battlefield in force until late on December 29. Both commanding generals spent the next day positioning their troops and forming a plan of attack for the coming engagement, Bragg with 37,712 effectives and Rosecrans with 43,400.
The Confederate commander had pulled together his scattered forces two miles north of Murfreesboro, where the only distinct advantage offered was that his lines of battle would cover the main southerly routes of approach and the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. The terrain, cluttered with large boulders, outcroppings of limestone and thick glades of Tennessee red cedar, “offered no peculiar advantages for defense….The country on every side was entirely open and accessible to the enemy,” Hardee stated in his report.
Stones River, which meanders northward toward a junction with the Cumberland near Nashville, divided Bragg’s troops; the general placed Polk’s corps to the west of the stream with the division of Maj. Gen. Jones M. Withers in front and that of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Cheatham a few hundred yards behind. Hardee’s corps was placed east of the river just outside Murfreesboro, with Breckinridge in front and the veteran division of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne in close support. McCown’s division was reserved in the center, while the cavalry brigades of Wheeler and Brig. Gen. John Wharton covered the left and right flanks respectively.
Crittenden anchored the Union left against Stones River and stretched his line southward across the Nashville Turnpike. Rosecrans directed Thomas to place the division of Maj. Gen. James S. Negley in line between Crittenden and the Wilkinson Pike farther south. A second of Thomas’ divisions, commanded by Maj. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau, was held in reserve. McCook swung into line on the right of Negley and extended the Union front still farther south to the Franklin Road.
Strangely enough, Rosecrans and Bragg had formed identical plans of attack. Each intended to strike a blow at his opponent’s right flank while standing fast with his own right. In order to mask his intentions, Rosecrans had ordered McCook’s troops to maintain a spirited skirmish line and probe the Confederate positions throughout the day on the 30th. He also ordered McCook’s men to build campfires extending for some distance beyond the extreme right of the Federal line to give Bragg the impression that large numbers of Yankees were massing for an attack on the Rebel left.
Bragg was quick to take the bait, but Rosecrans underestimated the aggressive extent of his counterpart’s reaction. The Confederate commander quickly transferred McCown’s division to the left in support of Withers and ordered Cleburne from east of the river to the extreme left. Hardee assumed immediate command in the area, leaving only Breckinridge’s detached division on the Murfreesboro side of Stones River.
Rosecrans had ordered Crittenden to attack the Confederate right at 7 a.m., December 31. But Bragg, convinced that the main Union thrust was coming against his left, determined to beat his adversary to the punch and ordered McCown to assault McCook on the Federal right at daybreak. Thus, Bragg’s response to Rosecrans own feint had given the Confederate general the sledgehammer with which he would strike a staggering blow and very nearly gain a swift and stunning victory.
Rosecrans had assured McCook that any offensive move against him by the Confederates could not be sustained due to the speed and strength of Crittenden’s attack on the Rebel right. However, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, commander of McCook’s Third Division, and Brig. Gen. Joshua Sill, one of Sheridan’s brigade commanders, were uneasy about the movements of enemy troops along their front. When the pair rode to McCook’s headquarters before dawn to advise him of their concern, the corps commander gave little credence to the possibility of a successful enemy assault on his position. He remained confident that Rosecran’s prediction of sweeping success against the Confederate right would be borne out.
McCook’s cavalier response satisfied neither Sheridan nor Sill, and long before daylight Sheridan had his division formed and ready. Brigadier Generals Richard W. Johnson and Jefferson C. Davis, McCook’s two other division commanders, on the other hand, had made no preparations to receive an attack. To their troops, the lightning stroke of Hardee’s corps, when it came, was irresistible. As the 10,000 Butternuts in McCown’s and Cleburne’s divisions descended upon them, the Union soldiers were blown away like dry leaves in a gale-force wind. “Sold again!” some shouted. “We are sold again!”
The Confederates emerged from the cover of the cedars at first light and formed in lines of battle six-deep, advancing slowly at first and then picking up the tempo. Not until they were on top of the unsuspecting Yankees did the first Rebel yell break the early morning stillness. The Rebels of Brig. Gens. M.D. Ector, James E. Rains and Evander McNair lashed out at the Union brigades of Brig. Gens. Edward Kirk and August Willich of Johnson’s division. Kirk’s sentries had seen the Southerners coming and given their comrades some warning, but most of Willich’s troops were caught with their weapons stacked, preparing breakfast, just as some had been at Shiloh, Tenn., the previous spring. Willich himself was captured on his return from division headquarters.
McCown’s troops drove the Union right steadily back, yielding the forward positions to Cleburne as their ammunition ran out. As the Confederate tide surged forward, entire Union brigades became disorganized and scattered. Here or there the Federals would rally and offer some resistance, but with frightening regularity these isolated units would find themselves outflanked and absorbing casualties from Rebel fire in their rear.
When General Kirk was wounded, command of his shattered brigade passed to Colonel J.B. Dodge of the 30th Indiana. Lieutenant Colonel Orrin D. Hurd in turn took charge of the regiment. In his report, Hurd recounted his regiment’s part in the confusing combat: “After the regiment on our left and we had sustained the enemy’s fire for some time, the 79th Illinois Volunteers advanced to our immediate right and supported us gallantly; but being outflanked by a superior force of the enemy, and exposed to a heavy crossfire, they fell back and we were obliged to do the same, having no support whatever, and having suffered heavy loss….In retiring the men became very scattered.”
Hurd’s command suffered horribly in the hours between 6 a.m. and noon. Of 487 officers and men in the 30th Indiana who were available for duty, 208 were officially listed as casualties–30 killed, 108 wounded and 70 missing or taken prisoner. Other regiments, though, suffered even higher numbers of casualties. Several disorganized and bloodied units virtually ceased to exist.
Colonel Philemon P. Baldwin, commander of Johnson’s 3rd Brigade, found his troops hotly engaged, almost without warning. “At daybreak I was informed by stragglers who were running across the open field in my front, of the attacks on Generals Willich’s and Kirk’s brigades,” he wrote. “Dispositions were scarcely made when the enemy, in immense masses, appeared in my front at short range, their left extending far beyond the extreme right of my line. My infantry and artillery poured a destructive fire into their dense masses, checking them in front, but their left continued to advance against my right….The enemy came in such overwhelming numbers that, after half an hour’s stubborn resistance, my line was compelled to retire, not, however, until the enemy had flanked my right and were pouring in an enfilading fire. Had my line stood a moment longer it would have been entirely surrounded and captured.”
As the sun climbed higher, Withers’ and Cheatham’s divisions of Polk’s corps joined in the fray, pitching into Sheridan’s alert brigades and Negley’s division holding the Union center. Sheridan made a gallant stand, throwing off three successive waves of attacking Rebels. Negley’s troops, posted in a thick cedar glade, repulsed the charge of Brig. Gen. Patton Anderson’s brigade of Withers’ division, but the fresh regiments of Brig. Gen. A.P. Stewart tipped the balance in favor of the Confederates.
The second Confederate surge succeeded, and the Federals on the right retreated, abandoning a dozen cannons. All three of Sheridan’s brigade commanders, including his close friend Sill, had been killed, and Little Phil’s troops found themselves with empty cartridge boxes and heavy casualties. Rousseau’s fresh division had been ordered to Sheridan’s aid, but there was no stopping the hard-driving Confederates–the entire Union right flank swung back like a huge gate on a hinge. By 10 a.m., McCook’s whole corps had been driven back from four to five miles to the vicinity of the Nashville turnpike.
Bragg sensed that complete and final victory was close at hand, but nearly a third of Hardee’s troops had been killed or wounded in the morning’s fighting. Reinforcements would be necessary to mount a decisive push against the Union line, but the only unbloodied Confederates on the field were those of Breckinridge, across Stones River. Bragg ordered Breckinridge to send two brigades to Hardee for the final thrust, but Breckinridge was under the mistaken impression that he was about to be attacked by the division of Brig. Gen. Horatio Van Cleve, which Rosecrans had ordered across the river just after the Rebels had commenced their early-morning attack.
When Rosecrans finally became aware of the danger to his right, he ordered Van Cleve back across the stream to support his threatened flank. Breckinridge moved forward, finding no Union troops in his front, but the delay had bought the Federals precious time.
Rosecrans himself rode forward to supervise the patchwork formation of a new defensive line in Thomas’ area at right angles to the original one. Van Cleve came splashing back across Stones River and took up position in line of battle between the divisions of Rousseau on his left and Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood on his right. Rosecrans also positioned several batteries along the high ground that commanded the approaches to the new Union line. With Rousseau on the right and Maj. Gen. John Palmer’s division on the left, the apex of the angular Federal salient rested in a grove of cedars so thick that their branches hung to the ground. Straddling the acute angle formed by the intersection of the Nashville Turnpike and the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, this area of dense cedar growth, underbrush and rocky outcroppings was known locally as the Round Forest. But by the end of the day, those who fought there would always remember it as “Hell’s Half-Acre.”
The Rebels realized that the Round Forest salient was the key to the entire Union position. Breaching the line at this point would allow them to take their enemy in flank both to the left and right. Bragg’s soldiers hurled themselves against the Round Forest with renewed ferocity. However, in one of the most heroic and least-publicized defensive actions in the war, one of Palmer’s brigades, commanded by Colonel William B. Hazen, took the Rebels head-on and stood solid as a rock.
For more than eight hours, Hazen’s four regiments, the 9th Indiana, 6th Kentucky, 110th Illinois and 41st Ohio, stood their ground in the face of unrelenting Confederate pressure. Hazen described the action: “Upon this point, as a pivot, the entire army oscillated from front to rear the entire day….I dispatched word to the rear that assistance must be given, or we must be sacrificed…and gave orders to Lieutenant-Colonel Wiley to fix his bayonets and to Colonel Casey (without bayonets) to club his guns and hold the ground at all hazards.”
Using his interior lines to great advantage, Rosecrans was able to bolster threatened areas of his defensive perimeter by shifting troops only short distances. This he did without regard for command or unit organization. At various times during the day Hazen was reinforced by units from Rousseau, Palmer, Van Cleve, Negley, Wood and Sheridan.
Late in the afternoon, Bragg ordered Breckinridge to release four brigades to Polk for a final assault in the fading light. Polk, however, doomed this desperate attack to failure from the outset by sending in the brigades piecemeal. First the men of Brig. Gens. Daniel Adams and John K. Jackson were sacrificed with heavy losses. Then those of Brig. Gen. William Preston and Colonel Joseph Palmer met a similar fate.
As Hazen’s men began to waver under Confederate pressure, Rosecrans rode forward with his staff to rally them. In their gallop to the line, Rosecrans and his staff exposed themselves to Rebel fire. A cannon shot crashed through the trees and bounded along the ground like a bowling ball. The missile passed just wide of Rosecrans and struck his chief of staff, Colonel Julius P. Garesche, in the face. Rosecrans’ overcoat was splattered with his close friend’s blood. Garesche’s headless body stayed astride its mount for 20 paces before falling lifeless to the earth.
Rosecrans rode bravely into the Round Forest, unaware that several members of his staff had been killed or wounded. A number of soldiers close by urged him to take cover, but the general bravely responded: “Men, do you know how to be safe? Shoot low! But to be safest of all, give them a blizzard, and then charge with cold steel!”
The Confederate attempts to carry the Round Forest failed at terrible cost to both sides. The determined Southerners had thrown the strength of 10 brigades against the Federal position, but still could not dislodge the defenders. As the cold and darkness of night closed in, the sheen of a bright moon revealed the sad carnage of the day, and the horrors of war became vividly evident.
In the winter chill, Hazen searched near the railroad tracks for the body of his friend Garesche. Rigor mortis had set in, and the dead man’s hand was outstretched as if to greet Hazen’s burial detail. Hazen removed Garesche’s West Point class ring and the latter’s well-worn copy of Thomas A. Kempis’ book, The Imitation of Christ. The body was removed and temporarily interred on a small knoll as Hazen looked on, shivering in a borrowed, blood-stained blanket.
Bragg, flush with victory, cabled Richmond with news of the day’s events as the last hours of 1862 passed into history. “God has granted us a happy new year,” he informed the Confederate high command, fully expecting to find the Union army in complete retreat at sunrise.
As Rosecrans’ exhausted soldiers bivouacked for the night, the Union generals discussed the possibility of retreating. He concluded, however, that his men still had plenty of fight left–he would remain on the field. But he would have to reform his line to meet the possibility of a renewed Confederate attack. Through sheer force of character and organizational skill, Rosecrans consolidated his battered forces during the night, reassuring his subordinates and encouraging the soldiers in the lines to be prepared for a renewal of the bitter contest at daylight.
While his adversary worked through the night, Bragg went to bed without changing troop dispositions at all. He expected to catch the Army of the Cumberland in the open on the road back to Nashville on the first day of 1863. He thus was surprised and chagrined to find the Union soldiers still in position to give battle on New Year’s Day and lapsed into deep depression. For a while the Rebel general entertained the faint hope that the Union army might still retreat, but that was not to be, and Bragg’s men spent the day occupying the abandoned Round Forest and caring for the many wounded.
The next day it came to Bragg’s attention that the Federals had reoccupied some high ground on his right, east of Stones River. These troops threatened the Rebel flank, and Bragg determined to dislodge them. Once again he called upon Breckinridge. A 4 p.m. attack, Bragg theorized, would take the position and allow his troops to dig in at dusk, with nightfall preventing a Union counterattack. Again Breckinridge was hesitant. The Union line looked virtually impregnable. His Kentucky and Tennessee veterans were anything but lacking in courage, but they would have to cross several hundred yards of open ground, exposed to Federal artillery from the ridges on both sides of Stones River.
Bragg was insistent, and once again tempers flared. Breckinridge, however, acceded to his commander’s order. He placed Brig. Gen. Roger W. Hanson’s famed Orphan Brigade in the front line, along with the Tennesseans of Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow. In the second line, some 200 yards back, were the units of Preston and Colonel Randall Gibson.
All the while, Brig. Gen. Samuel Beatty’s Union division watched from the heights. Rosecrans also took notice of the Confederates massing for attack and assembled reinforcements. Major John Mendenhall, Crittenden’s chief of artillery, rolled up 58 cannons, almost carriage to carriage, on a hill just west of the river.
Breckinridge rose at 4 p.m. and shouted in a booming voice, “Up my men, and charge!” The Union guns thundered and tore great holes in the lines of advancing Rebels, who closed ranks and pressed forward. The men of the 2nd and 6th Kentucky and 18th Tennessee swept up the crest of the ridge, driving the Federals before them.
Breckinridge’s troops had surprised even themselves with their dazzling success, but now it was time to stop and consolidate their position. Instead, they kept up their pursuit of the fleeing Union soldiers and came into full view of Mendenhall’s artillery. The carnage was incredible. Within minutes the Confederates were in headlong retreat as Union gunners rained a terrible fire on their enemy.
Hanson was mortally wounded in the fighting, and a Union counterattack retook the ridge. Breckinridge’s ravaged troops struggled back to their original positions. The general was wracked with grief as he surveyed his shattered command. He was raging like a wounded lion as he passed the different commands from right to left, but tears streamed from his eyes when he beheld the remnant of his own old brigade. “My poor Orphans! My poor Orphans! My poor Orphan Brigade! They have cut it to pieces,” he wailed.
During the night, Bragg, on the advice of Polk and Hardee, decided to retreat t Tullahoma, 36 miles south. Rosecrans allowed the Confederates to move unmolested and entered Murfreesboro on January 4. Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, having lost 9,239 casualties, or 27 percent of its fighting men, went into winter quarters at Tullahoma. The Army of the Cumberland suffered 9,532 killed and wounded, a loss of 23 percent.
The Confederate withdrawal left Rosecrans in possession of the field and constituted a costly, if somewhat qualified, victory for the North. After teetering on the brink of disaster, the Federals had stood firm and forced their enemy back on the defensive. Kentucky would remain free of organized Confederate units with the exception of infrequent cavalry raids, and Nashville would remain a key base of supply, especially useful in the campaign to capture Chattanooga that Rosecrans, even now, was planning for the coming spring.
Chattanooga, Tenn., resident Michael Haskew is a self-described Civil War enthusiast. He is also the editor of World War II Magazine and a former writer for the Chattanooga News-Free Press. For further reading, he suggests James McDonough’s Stones River–Bloody Winter in Tennessee and Stanley F. Horn’s The Army of Tennessee.