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The autumn of 1862 was a season of disappointment for the Confederacy, as two offensives aimed at carrying the war into the North failed miserably. In the East, General Robert E. Lee’s advance into Maryland ended after the Battle of Antietam on September 17. In the West, General Braxton Bragg’s offensive into northern Kentucky, aimed at restoring Confederate authority over the border region, died on October 8 with the bloody but inconclusive Battle of Perryville. Losing heart, Bragg fell back to find a defensible line in middle Tennessee. In mid-November, he settled on Murfreesboro as the army’s destination.

With the collapse of the Southern offensives, the initiative shifted to the Union. In November 1862, President Abraham Lincoln authorized a concerted military advance to revive Union fortunes, which, on the diplomatic front at least, were at their nadir. Should the North fail to conquer substantial stretches of Confederate territory, or at least recapture lost ground before the British Parliament re-convened in January 1863, President Lincoln feared pro-Southern elements in that body would compel the British government to recognize the Confederacy; should that happen, France gave every indication it would follow suit.

Two of the three principal Union armies took to the field. In Mississippi, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant began operations against Vicksburg. In Virginia, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside moved the Army of the Potomac toward Fredericksburg in an attempt to outflank Lee and seize Richmond. But from the Nashville, Tenn., headquarters of the Union Department of the Cumberland, came no sign of an offensive, only complaints of insufficient rations and constant requests for Spencer repeating rifles for the cavalry. Lincoln fumed. “The president is very impatient at your long stay in Nashville,” General in Chief Henry Halleck wrote the new department commander on December 4. “The favorable season for your campaign will soon be over….The Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand someone else will be tried.”

The recipient of Halleck’s ultimatum was the enigmatic Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans. A 43-year-old West Point graduate, Rosecrans possessed many qualities of genius. He was erudite, animated and seemingly indefatigable. Rosecrans had a genuine interest in the welfare of his soldiers and mingled well with them. But with fellow generals, the Ohioan could be intolerant and mercurial. Of a nervous temperament, Rosecrans had an impulsiveness that suggested instability under pressure. None questioned his gallantry, but even his staunchest supporters conceded that under the strain of combat he often issued more orders than necessary.

There was nothing enigmatic about Rosecrans’ opponent in Tennessee, General Braxton Bragg. He was short-tempered, slow to praise and quick to blame defeat on subordinates. Perhaps because he suffered from so many afflictions himself, Bragg often appeared to be indifferent to the suffering of his troops. Years of dyspepsia, dysentery and chronic headaches had enfeebled him, rendering him unable to endure long periods of stress. Defeat in Kentucky and Bragg’s repellent nature caused his two corps commanders, Lt. Gens. Leonidas Polk and William J. Hardee, to urge President Jefferson Davis to replace him. Most of the division commanders agreed. But Davis sustained his old friend, and the plotting generals were stuck with a commander more distrustful and contemptuous than ever. Doubting Bragg’s ability, their best hope rested in a continuation of Federal inactivity at Nashville.

Bragg, on the other hand, welcomed a Federal advance. He believed his position was strong, and was confident his 35,000-man army would win a defensive battle at Murfreesboro. Bragg’s confidence, however, was unwarranted. Easily bypassed, Murfreesboro was a poor place to anchor a defense of middle Tennessee. Good roads and a railroad to the west and a macadamized turnpike northeast of Murfreesboro offered ready avenues for skirting the town. The only two routes Murfreesboro blocked were the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad and the Nashville Pike.

After weeks of threats from Washington, in mid-December 1862, Rosecrans judged the moment “opportune for an advance on the rebels.” From Washington’s perspective, the moment not only was long overdue, but it also was imperative. Burnside had suffered a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg, and Grant was floundering about in the bayous above Vicksburg. With one army routed and another checked, the administration rested its dwindling hopes for victory on Rosecrans.

Amid a cold, drenching downpour on December 26, Rosecrans started the Army of the Cumberland, approximately 44,000 strong, south from Nashville. The Left Wing under Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden took the Nashville Pike, the direct road to Murfreesboro. To his west, Maj. Gen. Alexander McD. McCook led the Center over the Nolensville Pike toward Triune, a town 15 miles west of Murfreesboro held by Hardee’s Corps. Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas moved with the Center to support either McCook or Crittenden as circumstances dictated. Incessant rainstorms slowed the Federal advance to a crawl, permitting Bragg to recall Hardee and form his line of battle in front of Murfreesboro, with the army evenly divided between the west and east banks of Stones River.

Hardee criticized Bragg’s battle line as singularly unsuited to the defense. “The open fields beyond town are fringed with dense cedar brakes, offering excellent shelter for approaching infantry and are almost impervious to artillery. The country on every side is entirely open and accessible to the enemy.” The greatest danger, he warned, lay in how quickly Stones River might swell to an “impassable torrent” during a violent rainstorm. Hardee’s arguments were well-founded. Simply put, Bragg did not know the ground his army was committed to defend; in two months in Murfrees-boro, he had failed to reconnoiter the terrain.

Rosecrans had problems of his own. Because of the bad weather, delaying actions by Confederate cavalry and unaccountable lassitude by McCook, it was late afternoon December 30 before Rosecrans had his entire army on the field, three miles northwest of Murfreesboro. His line of battle ran from the west bank of Stones River southwest three miles to the Franklin Road. Crittenden held the left with Brig. Gen. Horatio Van Cleve’s division tucked in a pocket along the riverbank. Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood’s division continued the line to the Nashville Pike. Brig. Gen. John M. Palmer’s division formed on Wood’s right. Having arrived on the field the previous evening, Crittenden’s men passed the day quietly. Thomas occupied the center, with Brig. Gen. James S. Negley’s division in battle line and Brig. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau’s division in reserve. Brig. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s division of McCook’s Right Wing continued the line of battle south of the Wilkinson Pike. Next came the divisions of Brig. Gens. Jefferson C. Davis and Richard W. Johnson. Both had been forced to skirmish their way into position on December 30, and darkness found them entangled in cedar thickets fronting to the southeast, with no idea what lay in front of them.

General Bragg spent December 30 in the saddle, listening intently as the firing on his left grew louder, heralding McCook’s advance. Relative calm on the right led Bragg to interpret McCook’s tentative forward movements on his left as the prelude to a general attack in that sector. Consequently, he dispatched Brig. Gen. John P. McCown’s division—his only reserve—to this threatened part of the field with orders to extend the Confederate line below the Franklin Road. As the afternoon wore on and the skirmishing to the south intensified, Bragg directed Hardee, then on the east bank of Stones River, to proceed to the left with Brig. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne’s division, and support McCown. That left Brig. Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s division, the largest in the army, alone on the east bank of Stones River.

Responsibility for the Confederate center, which ran from the west bank of Stones River to the Franklin Road, rested with Polk. His corps was deployed in two lines, with Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham’s division in front and Maj. Gen. Jones M. Withers’ division lined up behind him. Only 700 yards of cedar brakes, large limestone outcrops and small fields separated Cheatham from the Federals.

Having passed a tension-filled day awaiting a Federal attack that never came, Bragg resolved to seize the initiative. Assuming Rosecrans had stripped his left to support McCook, Bragg’s first inclination was to attack up the Nashville Pike. But Polk disagreed. As transferring McCown and Cleburne to the left had greatly extended that part of the line, he proposed a turning movement against the Federal right flank. Bragg concurred and issued the necessary orders. Hardee would begin the attack with his two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade. Polk would take up the attack in turn, executing a “constant wheel to the right” with his right flank as pivot. The object was simple: Drive Rosecrans up against Stones River and, by interposing cavalry on the Nashville Pike, cut him off from his supply base at Nashville.

Execution would be more difficult. A wheeling movement was challenging in open ground; over broken ground laced with cedar thickets and cut by fences and fields it might prove impossible. Compounding the difficulty was Bragg’s insistence that the attack be made in successive lines advancing simultaneously with uniform spacing between them. Worse still, Polk’s generals would be working under unfamiliar command relationships, as Cheatham and Withers decided to split their commands for ease of supervision over the rough terrain. Cheatham would direct his and Withers’ left brigades; Withers would command his and Cheatham’s right brigades. Whether Bragg knew of the odd arrangement is uncertain.

Rosecrans’ plan mirrored Bragg’s. It called for a morning assault against the enemy’s right. Crittenden was to initiate the action, fording Stones River with Van Cleve’s and Wood’s divisions at McFadden’s Ford and then driving Breckinridge into Murfreesboro. Palmer and Thomas would press Polk across the river. While Crittenden and Thomas crushed the Rebel right and center, McCook was to occupy the best defensive ground he could find and accept Bragg’s attack; if none came, he was to stage a diversionary attack.

But McCook’s dispositions troubled Rosecrans.

“You know the ground, you have fought over it. Can you hold your present position for three hours?” he asked McCook.

“Yes, I think I can.”

“I don’t like the facing…but must confide that to you,” Rosecrans said. “If you don’t think your present the best position, change it. It is only necessary for you to make things sure.”

McCook not only failed “to make things sure,” but he also neglected to communicate Rosecrans’ concerns to his division commanders, and a mood of indifference settled over the Union Right Wing.

The complacency ended at dawn on the 31st. Out of the chill morning fog a wall of butternut—McCown’s Division with Cleburne trailing—slammed into Davis and Johnson, achieving complete surprise. “Their coffee pots were on the fire, their guns in stacks,” said a delighted Rebel. Within 90 minutes the Federals were in full retreat toward the west. McCown followed them, which slowed Cleburne, who unexpectedly found himself in the front line. A stubborn defense by Sheridan splintered the Confederate attack. Cleburne and Cheatham threw their commands piecemeal into the action, but no one corrected them. Hardee’s whereabouts were unknown, Polk failed to lend a guiding hand, and Bragg remained glued to his headquarters, out of touch with the tactical situation.

Rosecrans, on the other hand, immersed himself in the action—McCook’s defeat threw him into a hyperactive fit. Riding repeatedly to the front line and often beyond, he admonished everyone he came upon to turn and fight. Whatever the wisdom of an army commander exposing himself to direct brigades, regiments and companies, Rosecrans’ presence helped restore the morale of those around him in a moment of crisis.

Fortunately for his army, Rosecrans issued a number of orders critical to the course of the battle before succumbing to his anxiety. First he ordered Thomas to send Rousseau’s division into the cedars to slow McCown’s and Cleburne’s advance toward the Nashville Pike. Next, he directed Crittenden to suspend Van Cleve’s crossing of Stones River and retain two brigades in reserve along the railroad. No sooner had Rosecrans relayed those orders than the panic-stricken troops of Johnson and Davis’ division poured out of the cedars “firing their muskets in the air or back in the faces of their comrades following them.” Witnessing this indisputable proof of McCook’s defeat, Rosecrans abandoned hope of retaining a reserve and instead mustered every available unit to piece together a new front line west of the Nashville Pike, sending Van Cleve’s two brigades past the growing throng of demoralized troops and into the cedars on Rousseau’s right.

Rosecrans’ next decision was his wisest of the day. Aware that Rousseau and Van Cleve could not hold out indefinitely and that a Confederate charge on the Nashville Pike was likely, he placed the Pioneer Brigade (combat engineers fighting as infantry) and two artillery batteries on a commanding rise near army headquarters. From there, the cannon could train on any Confederates attempting to cross the 800 yards of open ground between the eastern edge of the cedars and the turnpike. When Van Cleve and Rousseau fell back two hours later, Rosecrans redeployed them to the right of the Pioneer Brigade.

At 3 p.m., McCown and Cleburne attacked Rosecrans’ new line. Hungry, tired, low on ammunition and without artillery support, the Confederates faltered and broke almost instantly. Afterward, Hardee complained of the absence of reinforcements at this critical moment of the battle, which he believed allowed Rosecrans to patch together a final defensive line near the turnpike.

Hardee’s criticism is justified. Although the Nashville Pike was Bragg’s objective, he refused Hardee’s several requests for reinforcements, saying none were available. By 3 p.m., this was true. Bragg had committed Breckinridge’s five-brigade division, which undoubtedly could have pushed through to the turnpike with Cleburne, in a reckless attempt to break a salient along the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad created when Rosecrans’ lines contracted. Known to posterity as the Round Forest, the position was defended by a single Federal brigade. Open fields in front of the Round Forest channeled Southern assaults into a compact killing zone, offsetting superior Confederate numbers. During the morning, General Withers pounded away futilely with two brigades. That afternoon, it was Breckinridge’s turn. Although Bragg ordained the attack, he left its timing and execution to Polk. Rather than waiting for Breckinridge’s entire division to cross Stones River, Polk committed his brigades individually, guaranteeing defeat.

Polk’s failure to break the Round Forest salient marked the end of the day’s battle. That night, General Rosecrans convened a council of war to decide whether the army should maintain its compact, semi-circular position along the Nashville Pike or retreat to Nashville. McCook advised retreat; Crittenden and Thomas believed the army should stand and fight. Rosecrans decided to inspect the ground to the army’s rear before making a decision. What he saw ruled out retreat. Along Overall Creek, well north of the army’s right flank, torches flickered and danced. “They have got entirely in our rear and are forming a line of battle by torchlight,” Rosecrans told his lieutenants; they must rejoin their commands and prepare to “fight or die.” Gallant words, but Rosecrans had erred. The torches he had seen were not those of enemy guides but rather firebrands that Federal cavalrymen carried to start the campfires of freezing Union infantrymen.

At Bragg’s headquarters there was no talk of retreat. Confident the New Year would find the Federals gone, Bragg issued no orders of consequence. Although daybreak revealed the Union army still on the field, faulty intelligence from his cavalry convinced Bragg that Rosecrans would withdraw. After a ride around the enemy rear, cavalry chief Brig. Gen. Joseph Wheeler that afternoon reported long wagon trains creaking up the turnpike toward Nashville. Before retreating, an army normally started its wagons rearward first, so Bragg’s conclusion that this movement sig­naled withdrawal is understandable. But the wagons were empty, their drivers searching for provisions.

While the Army of Tennessee lay on its arms, Rosecrans strengthened his defenses, directing Crittenden to occupy the high ground above McFadden’s Ford on the east bank of Stones River with Van Cleve’s division, temporarily under the command of Colonel Samuel Beatty. By nightfall, Rosecrans’ compact lines were well entrenched.
January 2 dawned cloudy and cold. Realizing at last that only a determined assault could pry Rosecrans loose, Bragg decided to strike the untested Union extreme left. He hoped to find an artillery position on the east bank suitable for enfilading the Union line across the river. Instead, his staff reported the hill he hoped to occupy was swarming with Yankees. Possessing the hill was critical recalled a Southern staff officer—“It commanded the entire field of battle. From this point, either the enemy’s or our left could be enfiladed.” Bragg agreed; the Yankees must be driven from the east bank. He gave the mission to Breckinridge, whose division was the least shot up of any Confederate command. To preclude a Federal counterattack, Bragg set the hour of the assault at 4 p.m., 45 minutes before sunset.

Breckinridge completely surprised Beatty and his brigade commanders, who assumed the Confederates would wait until the next morning to attack. The Confederates swept the Federals from the east bank and seized the hill, only to be driven back to their line of departure by the massed fire of 45 Federal cannons hastily arrayed but perfectly positioned on higher ground along the west bank by Crittenden’s artillery chief. Events unfolded so rapidly that Rosecrans played a negligible role in the outcome.

Breckinridge’s defeat marked the end of the Battle of Stones River, a tactical stalemate. Nearly a third of those engaged were casualties, making Stones River the costliest battle of the war in terms of numbers engaged. With fewer than 20,000 infantrymen left in the ranks—and on the mistaken assumption Rosecrans had been reinforced—Bragg withdrew on January 3. He vacillated for three days before settling on a position behind the Duck River, 40 miles south of Murfreesboro. Badly shaken, he sent his generals a letter on January 11 soliciting their views on the retreat from Murfreesboro and his own fitness for command. Polk was away on leave, but Hardee, Cleburne and Breckinridge all called on Bragg to step down. Bragg refused, and warned President Davis a conspiracy was afloat to unseat him.

Davis sent General Joseph Johnston to investigate and take any action he deemed necessary. But Johnston didn’t want field command in the troubled West, and downplayed the unrest. Angry and humiliated, Bragg engineered transfers for Hardee and Breckinridge, and it appeared the anti-Bragg forces had been subdued. But the discord was merely dormant, awaiting a new battlefield setback to release it. The damage done to the high command of the Army of Tennessee and Confederate fortunes in the West was permanent.

The Army of the Cumberland got so badly hurt at Stones River that Rosecrans never seriously contemplated a pursuit. Although he fell short of a decisive victory, Rosecrans had held his ground. Another battlefield setback might have doomed the Union war effort. The humbling of Union arms at Fredericksburg and outside Vicksburg had so deepened Northern war weariness that the governors of Indiana and Illinois actually feared insurrection in their states. News of Rosecrans’ success swung popular sentiment in the West back around, and Lincoln was ever grateful. Eight months afterward, he wrote Rosecrans of his continued belief in the importance of Stones River to the Northern cause. “I can never forget, whilst I remember anything, that…you gave us a hard-earned victory which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”

Peter Cozzens is the author of 16 books on the Civil War and the American West.<