The Stones River Fight — Part 1


In 1811, the Tennessee General Assembly determined that the location for a new county seat for Rutherford County should be called Cannonsburgh in honor of Newton Cannon, a local politician.  A month later, however, those same politicians renamed the location Murfreesboro to honor the memory of Colonel Hardy Murfree, a Revolutionary War hero.  For eight years, Murfreesboro served as the Tennessee State Capital.

Between 29 December 1862 — 3 January 1863, Union and Confederate armies met at Murfreesboro to determine whether Tennessee would belong to the north or the south.  Although hardly anyone today remembers it, a great battle was decided there — at a tremendous cost in human lives.  The casualty rates at Murfreesboro were higher than any other major battle of the Civil War.

The men who fought that battle did so in the worst weather imaginable.  It was bitter cold, with stiff wind, rain, and driving sleet.  Of 80,000 men engaged in combat, 23,000 died or suffered a debilitating injury.  The historian will find admirable gallantry, despicable brutality, exceptional leadership, and gross incompetence at that place.

Some Civil War Background

All of the senior officers of the Confederate and Union armies attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and everyone served for some time in the uniform of the U.S. Army.  Many (not all) served together during the Mexican-American War.  This means that every senior officer, whether serving in the Union or the Confederacy, was educated by the same men, using the same textbook, and employing the same tactics under actual combat conditions.

Up to a point in the Civil War, the Confederacy was happy enough to defend Dixie, and in that sense, some would argue that the Confederacy held the moral high ground.  In the South, the Civil War was often referred to as The War of Yankee Aggression.  In the early days of the war, the Confederacy won nearly every battle because, as General James Longstreet would urge, the men would fight harder if they thought they were defending their homes/states.

President Lincoln wasn’t pleased with the performance of the Union Army, but there was a problem: Mr. Lincoln was out of his depth in military matters, and most of the Union’s senior officers were either back-stabbing politicians or bloody incompetent.  Lincoln ordered the Union Army into the field to solve the question of a divided land and nullification and to underscore the seriousness of the Emancipation Proclamation.  He signed the draft of this document in late September 1862; he planned to announce emancipation on 1 January 1863.  To do that, he needed a Union Army that could win battles.

Union Army

Early in the war, President Lincoln ordered three principal military commanders to the eastern theater of operations.  Lincoln ordered General Ambrose Burnside to confront the premier enemy commander, Robert E. Lee.[1]  By mid-December 1862, the rebels defeated Burnside at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and his generals were on the brink of open rebellion against him.  In the western theater, Union forces had won victories at Fort Henry, Shiloh, Corinth, and Perryville.  Vicksburg was turning out to be more difficult than anyone imagined — but Lincoln needed a substantial win, and he needed it before the first of the year.  Lincoln had hopes in his newly commissioned field army — the Army of the Cumberland, previously known as the Army of the Ohio.

Before the Battle of Perryville, the Army of the Cumberland had done a lot of walking but not much fighting.  After pursuing the Confederate Army of the Mississippi (newly renamed the Army of Tennessee) and defeating rebels at Perryville, Kentucky, the Army of the Cumberland was poised to take all of Kentucky and most of western Tennessee.  Most of central and eastern Tennessee remained solidly in Confederate hands —  and in the view of Lincoln, Tennessee was ripe for Union conquest.

Lincoln’s principal general in the west was Major General Don Carlos Buell — who fell out of Lincoln’s favor because of his lack of aggressiveness.  Like Burnside, General Buell was also the subject of unflattering criticism by his subordinates.  Buell was not in favor of secession, but he was also not enthusiastic about fighting a war in the southern states.  His wife was a slave owner.  When he planned an engagement, he struggled to ensure that any battles did only minimal damage to the local economy.  When Lincoln had had enough of this, he ordered Buell fired and replaced with someone else.

On 24 October 1862, Major General Henry Halleck, Commanding General of the U.S. Army, ordered Major General William Rosecrans to take command of Buell’s army and force Confederate General Braxton Bragg out of Kentucky and Tennessee to seize and occupy the rail hub at Chattanooga (linking Virginia with the deep south) — and complete these tasks as a matter of urgency.  To emphasize Lincoln’s and Halleck’s sense of urgency, Halleck ended his directive by writing, “Neither the country nor the government will much longer put up with the inactivity of some of our armies and generals.”

William Rosecrans (1819 – 1898) was an experienced 43-year-old military officer with service between 1842 – 1854 and returned to active service in 1861.  He served during the Mexican-American War but did not participate in it.  While somewhat unknown to the War Department, he had the reputation as an intelligent planner and aggressive fighter, but a man who much preferred maneuver warfare to self-defeating slug-fests. In battle, he was easily excitable, highly emotional, and prone to direct action. He was a hard drinker, quick to anger but even faster to forgive.

Yet, despite General Halleck’s fair warning, Rosecrans did not immediately leave Nashville to assault the rebel army of Braxton Bragg.  The Army of the Cumberland was disorganized, needed additional training, supplies, and logistics wagons, and had the least capable cavalry in the Union Army.  Rosecrans did not intend to march on Bragg until he was satisfied that his Army could win.

General Halleck, however, was under pressure from Lincoln to get a victory.  Halleck threatened Rosecrans with relief if he “didn’t get to it.”  Still, Rosecrans would not be bullied.  He answered Halleck, saying, “Everything I have done was necessary and absolutely so.  If the Government which ordered me here confides in my judgment, it may rely on my continuing to do what I have been trying to do.  As to threats of my removal and the like, I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.”  The problem, of course, was that no one in Washington understood the condition of the Army of the Ohio through the summer and at the end of Perryville.[2]

The Confederacy

Rosecrans had troubles, but Confederate General Braxton Bragg had even more difficulties.  After the battle at Perryville, Kentucky (8 October 1862), Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi withdrew to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where Major General E. K. Smith reinforced him with 10,000 troops.  Perryville was not that far away, but Major General Don Carlos Buell had no interest in pursuing Bragg or any other Confederate Army.

Braxton Bragg was also frustrated: his army was low on supplies, and he had no way of resupplying his men.  Logistical shortages prompted Bragg to withdraw from Kentucky and move his 38,000 men some 400 miles to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, through Knoxville and Chattanooga.  On 20 November, the combined armies of Bragg and Smith became known as the Army of Tennessee.

Bragg exercised command over two Army corps.  One under Major General William J. Hardee (which included the infantry divisions of major generals John C. Breckinridge, Patrick R. Cleburne, and John P. McCowan), and Major General Leonidas Polk (with infantry divisions under major generals Benjamin F. Cheatham and Jones M. Withers and a cavalry brigade under Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler).

Bragg’s field officers were (mostly) competent men.  In contrast, Bragg was perhaps the least likable officer in the entire Confederate Army.  He was ill-tempered, stubborn, intractable, overly sensitive to criticism, and more than a little paranoid — which, in his case, was justified because he was despised by nearly everyone, including the subordinates who challenged his every decision.  Some scholars have suggested that Bragg’s headquarters was more like a snake pit than a field HQ.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had known Braxton Bragg since the Mexican-American War; they had a long-standing mutual admiration and (to some) disgustingly similar personalities.  Davis viewed the public outcry over Bragg’s withdrawal from Perryville as a personal attack.  He believed that Bragg was being too harshly criticized in the Southern press and Confederate Congress because of his association with Davis.  Therefore, as he often tended to do, the Confederate president saw this as another example of his real and perceived enemies trying to gain political leverage.  In public, Davis was Bragg’s staunch defender.

Leading the charge against Bragg was General Leonidas Polk, a former Episcopal bishop from Louisiana (and also a close friend of President Davis). Privately, Davis had deep concerns about Bragg, and the primary source of these came from Bragg’s subordinates. General William Hardee, E. Kirby Smith, and Henry Heth supported Polk’s criticism of Bragg.  They believed Bragg had lost his mind and said so in writing.  Another of his officers defended Bragg, claiming he was perfectly sane — just grossly incompetent.

Late in October, Davis ordered Bragg to Richmond to discuss complaints against him and his performance as an army commander.  Bragg was surprised and angry with the insubordination, but he took a conciliatory tone with the president.  He admitted that he lost Kentucky but had inflicted many casualties on the Yanks and had managed to keep his army intact.  Bragg argued that his army was the only fighting force remaining in the west and the only Confederate Army capable of resisting the Union’s advances.

To save himself, General Bragg offered his president a new plan.  Not just to resist the Union Army but to take the fight to Rosecrans.  Bragg had earlier ordered Major General Breckinridge to move his division to Murfreesboro and establish a defensive work.  Bragg did this, he said, as a means of drawing Rosecrans to where Bragg could defeat him.  Afterward, Bragg said, he would drive his army to Nashville, seize the capital and threaten Grant’s rear in Western Tennessee.

This is the kind of talk President Davis liked to hear, so without giving the specifics much attention, Davis approved the plan and sent Bragg back to Tennessee.  Meanwhile, as Bragg returned to Tennessee, Davis promoted Polk and Hardee to Lieutenant General.  Thus bribed to put up with Bragg’s eccentricities, Polk and Hardee promised to help Bragg in his campaign against Rosecrans.

By 28 October, General Breckinridge was fully deployed to Murfreesboro.  Bragg faced numerous challenges in executing his planned offensive as the weeks passed.  First, there had been no solution to his logistical problems.  Winter was on the way, and forage was inadequate.  Then, in early December, President Davis ordered Bragg to reassign 7,500 of his men to Vicksburg, reducing the size of his army to around 40,000 men.  Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland had twice that many.

(Continued next week)


  1. Connelly, T. L.  Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee 1862 – 1865.  Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
  2. Cozzens, P.  No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River.  University of Illinois Press, 1990.
  3. Daniel, L. J.  Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army.  University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  4. Davis, W. C.  Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol.  The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.
  5. Hess, E. J.  Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth, and Stones River.  University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
  6. Lamers, W. M.  The Edge of Glory: A Biography of General William S. Rosecrans, U.S.A.  Louisiana State University, 1961.
  7. Woodworth, S. E.  Jefferson Davis, and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West.  University Press of Kansas, 1990.


[1] At the beginning of the Civil War, LtCol Lee served in Texas.  He did not support the secession of states but was conflicted about raising a weapon against his home state of Virginia.  General Winfield Scott recommended Lee for promotion to Major General and command of the U.S. Army.  When on 24 May, Lincoln advisor Francis P. Blair offered Lee command of the City of Washington as a major general, Lee replied, “Sir, I cannot draw my sword against my state.”

[2] How little has changed since 1863. 

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Military, Civil War, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Kentucky, Tennessee. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Stones River Fight — Part 1

  1. Andy says:

    A fascinating story so far. Awaiting part two.


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