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Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict Between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland

 Larry J. Daniel, LSU Press

Three book-length studies of the Stones River battle have been written since 1980, Larry Daniel contends, but “the mention of Stones River frequently brings puzzled expressions to those beyond the region.” Daniel makes use of previously unexamined letters, diaries and manuscripts to remedy that in Battle of Stones River. Building on his experience with Western campaigns, he documents the war’s bloodiest battle in relation to the number of combatants involved.

A good battle narrative is difficult to write, weaving information about individual actions, unit movements and anecdotal accounts into a compelling story. Daniel largely succeeds, but sometimes lets his enthusiasm for the trees obscure the forest. For example, his specificity about unit locations, distances and timing might overwhelm nonexperts. The maps included help, but not enough.

The plans of Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans and Confederate General Braxton Bragg were mirror images at Stones River. Each planned to attack the right wing of the other while holding firm on the left. When Bragg struck first, at dawn on December 31, 1862, the Union lines broke and swung back like a gate on a rusty hinge—held by the brigade of Colonel William Babcock Hazen, which supported the end of the Union line at “Hell’s Half Acre.” Hazen’s stand in the face of repeated Rebel attacks allowed broken units to re-form and probably saved the Army of the Cumberland from a rout. A Confederate attack on January 2, 1863, across Stones River against the Federal left was broken up by massed artillery directed by Captain John Mendenhall.

The fight was a tactical draw, but Rosecrans held the field and Bragg retreated. Daniel concludes that “the battle proved to be the first step in a drive that would lead the Federal Army toward Tullahoma, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and ultimately Atlanta.” The carnage at Stones River, like that at Shiloh, convinced New Yorker George Templeton Strong the North was willing to engage in a prolonged war of attrition to preserve the Union. “The South,” he said, “could not win such a war.”


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.