A Union victory starts off 1863
Battles & Leaders photo
Union reinforcements rush in to blunt the Confederate advance.
In the fall of 1862 all did not bode well for the North. The Army of the Potomac had changed leadership and then lost dismally at Fredericksburg while in the west the Federal armies had lost much of the territory gained earlier in the year and Confederates threatened the Union-held capital of Tennessee: Nashville.
Enter onto the Union scene William Rosecrans. A victor at the Mississippi battles of Iuka and Corinth in September and October 1862, and a general who actually bested Robert E. Lee in western Virginia in 1861 (before Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia), Rosecrans assumed command of the Army of the Cumberland located 60 miles north of Nashville. He first advanced in early December to Nashville and rescued the Union garrison there.
Then he focused on the Confederate Army of Tennessee commanded by the irascible Braxton Bragg who could not get along with his corps commanders. Bragg’s army was located at the rail stop town of Murfreesboro on Stones River 30 miles south.
Starting south on Dec. 26, Rosecrans’ army reached Stones River on Dec. 30. They had several skirmishes during the march. Before them on both sides of river lay Bragg’s army. That night, the two sides faced each other, 43,400 Federals opposing 35,700 Confederates. Both sides planned to attack the next morning over terrain not conducive for battle filled with dense cedar thickets, rocky outcroppings and shallow ravines.
One impromptu incident occurred that night. To stir the men’s spirits, Northern bands started playing patriotic tunes. The Confederate bands replied with their own Southern martial music. Then, one Union band commenced “Home Sweet Home” soon to be joined by musicians from both sides. When the last note ended, quiet returned to the soon-to-be-contested ground.
Early the next morning Bragg undertook the initiative before his Union counterpart.
Out of the morning mist charged 10,000 Confederates who struck the unsuspecting Union right. Totally shocked by the onslaught, it folded quickly, placing the Union line in peril. The Southern line advanced toward the vital Old Nashville Pike.
Fortunately for the North, the Union division of Gen. Philip Sheridan bought precious time, delaying the attack and allowing Rosecrans to reform his line. All three of Sheridan’s brigade commanders were killed and where the division stood later became known as the “Slaughter Pen.” James Negley’s division supported Sheridan and also suffered severely. But both units held.
Artillery on both sides inflicted high casualties on attackers and defenders.
Eventually, Sheridan’s line broke and Negley withdrew. Half of Rosecrans’ force was in disarray, but the general formed a strong line along the Old Nashville Pike.
Faced with the fortified line, poor communication from Bragg and the failure to receive fresh reinforcements, the Confederate attack lost momentum. The only bright spot on the Union side was the stalwart defense by William B. Hazen’s brigade on the left. It proved to be the only unit that held its original position, a wood known as the Round Forest. This scene of hard fighting gained a new name after the conflict: “Hell’s Half Acre.”
Sundown concluded the action. Bragg had inflicted heavy casualties, captured thousands of men plus 31 artillery pieces. Rosecrans barely escaped.
High losses were not limited to just the Federals. A member of the 32nd Alabama wrote about his survival after attacking the Round Forest, “Had not the timely order of retreat been given none of us would be left to tell the tale. . . . Our regiment carried two hundred and eighty into action and came out with fifty eight.”
That 1862 New Year’s Eve night proved distressing for both armies. The wounded suffered in the cold temperatures. One Union officer described the horrific scene around one hospital, “Here at midnight lay the wounded and dying, covering an acre of ground around the great building, of which every room was filled, every outhouse crowded, every floor wet with blood.” An Illinois artilleryman wrote, “If I live to be a hundred years old, I shall never forget this day or night.”
New Year’s Day 1863 ended up relatively peaceful, with Rosecrans primarily tightening up his position and minor skirmishes occurring between the two lines.
Jan. 2 was far different.
Bragg observed that the Federals had taken a position on high ground east of Stones River. He feared if Union cannon occupied this height, the right flank of the Army of Tennessee would be in jeopardy. In response, Bragg ordered John C. Breckinridge to take four brigades and attack the Federals.
At 4 p.m., the Southerners advanced and quickly overwhelmed the Northerners. However, across the river, the Federals regrouped and brought forward reinforcements. Soon, a daunting line of 57 cannons pummeled Breckinridge’s men and Union forces poured across the river. The disorganized Confederates failed to repel the Northern offensive and withdrew to their original position. Only darkness halted the attack.
At the end of the day Breckinridge counted up his losses. Of 4,500 engaged, a staggering 38 percent became casualties. The attack had opened successfully, but failed dismally.
The next day Bragg retreated and left Murfreesboro in Rosecrans’ possession. The capture of the town coupled with the Southern retreat made this first battle of 1863 a Union victory, though a costly one. Rosecrans lost 12,706 men, Bragg 9,870, 29 percent and 26 percent respectively of each force.
Stones River’s outcome pleased President Abraham Lincoln. He complimented Rosecrans in a letter, stating, “I can never forget . . . you gave us a hard-earned victory, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”
Donald Wickman is an author and historian who lives in Rutland.