The Stones River Fight — Part 2

A Gathering Storm

As General Bragg struggled to manage his army at Murfreesboro, Major General Rosecrans prepared his plan.  Despite his curt response to Halleck’s orders to move against Bragg, Rosecrans got the message.  It was in his mind that he would move against Bragg as soon as his men received their much-needed supplies.  Operational planning began just before Christmas in 1862.  His army was well supplied, and his intelligence sources informed him that Bragg had been forced to send reinforcement troops to Vicksburg.  Rosecrans was also aware that Bragg was losing the cavalry of John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest.[1]  His every indication was that Bragg was settling into winter camp at Murfreesboro.  It was true.  In anticipation of the arrival of Rosecrans’ army, General Bragg ordered his rebels to establish defensive positions along the Stones River.

General Rosecrans called his war room together on Christmas Day.  He and General George Thomas briefed subordinate commanders on the plan of attack.  The Army of the Cumberland would advance toward Murfreesboro in three columns totaling around 44,000 men.  Rosecrans intended to leave less than half of his men in Nashville to protect the railhead and primary source of resupply.  General Thomas Crittenden would proceed straight down the Nashville Turnpike; General Alexander McCook and General George Thomas would advance on Crittenden’s right.  General Rosecrans mistakenly believed that Bragg’s force was scattered around the town.  He also took too few men.

As the briefing concluded, Rosecrans served his officers a little Christmas cheer.  Eventually, the brandy produced a lighter mood among the staff.  Suddenly, General Rosecrans pounded his fist on the table and loudly announced, “We move tomorrow, gentlemen!  We shall skirmish, probably as soon as we pass the outposts.  Press them hard!  Drive them out of their nests!  Make them fight or run!  Fight them!  Fight them!  Fight I say!”

Meanwhile, General Bragg’s camp enjoyed the holidays in grand style.  Oblivious to any possible threat, Bragg’s officers attended Christmas balls and parties.  The liquor flowed, and the officers danced the nights away while their men huddled for warmth in dark camps, feeling the emptiness of loneliness for families so far away.

If the enlisted men were miserable, the officers were not — and their non-stop merriment was noted by a Civil War memoirist named Sam Watkins, one of General Bragg’s infantry privates.  Watkins later wrote that during Christmas 1862, “John Barleycorn was our general-in-chief … [and] our generals, our colonels, and our captains had kissed John a little too often.”

On the morning of December 26, as the Army of the Cumberland moved south, an incident occurred that added to the continuing discord among Bragg’s commanders and the men of his army as well.  Historians claim that the ablest field general serving under Bragg (1862) was Brigadier General John Breckinridge, a former Vice President of the United States.  He was a popular and gifted commander.  As a native of Kentucky, Breckinridge was an essential part of Bragg’s fall campaign, and it was both the hope of Bragg and Breckinridge that thousands of Kentucky men would flock to the rebel side.  When that didn’t happen, Bragg became very bitter toward Breckinridge.  Bragg moaned in a letter to his wife that he had no use for Breckinridge or anyone else from Kentucky.  

Bragg also made no secret of his contempt for Breckinridge among the officers in his headquarters.  Because Kentucky rested in the hands of the Union, Breckinridge and his Kentucky brigade became known as the “Orphan Brigade.”  Bragg went out of his way to demonstrate his contempt toward Breckinridge.  On December 20, Bragg convened a court-martial to hear the case regarding charges of desertion against Private Asa Lewis of the 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment (CSA), who left his post without permission to care for his family — there being some confusion about the term of his enlistment.  Breckinridge and his officers pleaded with Bragg to show the boy mercy, given that his father had died, and Lewis was now the family’s only means of support.  But Braxton Bragg was implacable and was determined to make an example of him.  A firing squad put Private Lewis to death on the day after Christmas.

General Joe Wheeler’s cavalry brought news of Rosecrans’ approach on the afternoon of 28 December.  Bragg moved to prepare to meet the Union threat, but Rosecrans’ three columns confused him, and he was uncertain where to expect the Union attack.  Bragg dispersed his army across all the approaches to Murfreesboro from Nashville, but his positions were set on rugged terrain and not particularly advantageous to either side.

The land was marked by limestone outcroppings, deep crevices, and large boulders, surrounded by dense, thick stands of red cedar.  The lay of the ground made unit cohesion difficult, with lush foliage limiting visibility in numerous places.  Additionally, with high wind, dense rain, and freezing temperatures, the weather was simply awful.

As the Union army approached Murfreesboro, Bragg’s cavalry slashed at the Union columns at every opportunity.  Rosecrans finally took up positions opposite Bragg on 29 December, deploying Crittenden’s men on the left flank, anchored on the river, and extending across the Nashville Turnpike.  General George Thomas moved in on Crittenden’s right, extending the Union line to the south, while General McCook took the far right, with his line arcing toward the southwest.

Bragg placed General Hardee opposite McCook, with Polk in the center facing Thomas.  However, the Confederate right was another matter.  Here, Bragg chose to put Breckinridge across the river, which separated his right-wing from the rest of the army.  It was not a sound placement by any means, and while his commanders urged a Bragg to reposition those troops, Bragg stubbornly refused their arguments.  This meant that both Rosecrans and Bragg envisioned an assault on the other’s right flank — and both intended to launch their attack on New Year’s Eve morning, December 31.

The night of December 30 was cold, wet, and miserable for the fighting men on both sides.  Sometime before evening tattoo, one of the Union’s regimental bands struck up “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia.”[2]  As the music drifted across the field, the Confederate soldiers listened quietly, and when the Union band had stopped playing, one of the Confederate bands answered with Dixie.

This friendly music exchange continued until a Union band started to play the bittersweet sounds of “Home, Sweet Home.”  Within minutes, a Southern band joined in, and the bands played together in a unique expression of mutual longing for home and family.  Within a short time, the two arms’ entire music played together.  One soldier from Tennessee remembered that “after our bands had ceased playing, we could hear the sweet refrain as it died away in the cold frosty air.”

New Year’s Eve Day dawned cold and gray.  The fog and dense drizzle obscured the battlefield.  Crittenden’s men positioned themselves on the Union left to move across Stone’s River to assault Bragg’s right.  Rosecrans was nearby to observe the fight.  Only the sound of men preparing breakfast could be heard to the south along General Thomas’ line.  On the far right, two of General McCook’s divisions were preparing for a fight.  General Phil Sheridan led one of those divisions.[3]

During the night, one of Sheridan’s brigade commanders, General Joshua Sill, brought him word that his pickets had spotted considerable Confederate activity to his front.  To him, it appeared as if they were moving toward the far right of the Union line.  Sheridan and Sill rode to wake and brief General McCook.  McCook quickly dismissed them and any possible threat and went back to sleep.

General Sheridan remained disturbed (not to mention highly irritated).  Upon returning to his headquarters, he ordered his staff to quietly rouse the men, give them a quick breakfast, and get them into the battle line.  Sheridan walked the line personally to ensure every regiment was in place and ready for what he suspected might be a Confederate attack.

As the black night turned gloomy gray, McCook received additional reports of enemy movement.  He finally issued orders to the other divisions to stand.  McCook’s orders no sooner left this command tent when the rebels attacked through their typical rebel yell.  Behind that yell came 11,000 troops under William Hardee.  They smashed into the Union right, shooting men down as they ate breakfast with their weapons out of reach.  Hand-to-hand fighting broke out, but McCook’s men began to flee in panic toward the rear.

Eventually, these men reformed some three miles behind the lines.  Some of the Union regiments stood to fight, but because of the Union panic, these hardy men were surrounded without any flank support.  They, too, eventually left the battlefield.  Within a half-hour, two of McCook’s brigades ceased to exist.

Nearby, General Sheridan and General Sill fought the rebels to a standstill … but with the loss of two brigades, they were eventually forced backward.  At about this same time, General Polk began his attack on the Union center.  Polk’s assault was a half-hearted affair, and General Thomas was able to turn them back, inflicting a large number of casualties.

From Rosecrans’ position on the field, he could hear the steady thumping of artillery to his right and a steady cascade of small arms fire.  The initial reports weren’t good, but Rosecrans seemed unconcerned.  It wasn’t until McCook requested immediate replacements that Rosecrans realized the magnitude of the disaster on the Union right.  He ordered Crittenden to stop his advance and release reinforcements to bolster Sheridan and Sill.

General Hardee continued to press Sheridan and Sill.  It wasn’t long before dead horses and men, abandoned rifles, and burning wagons littered the battlefield northwest of Murfreesboro.  The soldier’s spilled blood, ghastly to look at and sickly to the smell, lay in large puddles on the ground because the limestone did not permit the liquid to soak into the soil.

Sheridan was a man possessed on the battlefield, moving from position to position to direct his brigades.  This was soon a necessity.  Before 10:00 a.m., Sheridan had lost all three of his brigade commanders.  The Union line had been pushed back into a V formation, with the left facing east and the right facing west.  Sheridan’s division manned the apex of this reformed line, and, given that they formed a salient, the Confederate attacks now came from both sides.  Working tirelessly, he organized a withdrawal while maintaining a tight hold on Union units on either side.  While this V-shaped line was vulnerable to Braggs line, it also allowed Rosecrans to quickly shift his forces wherever they were needed, which he did with great energy and skill.

On horseback, Rosecrans darted back and forth on the battlefield, demanding reports, delivering orders, encouraging his men — showing the flag to calm everyone down.  Typical of this day, Rosecrans rode to Colonel William Redwood Price, one of the brigade commanders.  Price’s brigade was set I along the river.  Rosecrans shouted at Price, “Will you hold this ford?”

Price replied honestly, “I will try, sir!”

Rosecrans shouted even louder, “Will you hold this ford?”  Price replied, “I will die right here, sir!”

But still not satisfied, Rosecrans shouted once more, his voice filled with emotion, “Will you hold this ford?”  

The young colonel responded, “Yes, sir!”

By noon, Union apex had shifted to an area known as the Round Forest, a small limestone hill punctuated by dense cedar groves.  The Union right flank aligned along the Nashville Pike.  Rosecrans continued to strengthen his line, sending units where they were needed without respect for the name of their unit.  All the while, Union forces were killing rebels left and right.  Hardee’s assault petered out because there was no one left to fight.  Bragg ordered Polk to renew his attack upon the Round Forest.  At that location, Polk’s men were met by a devastating punch issued by Colonel William Hazen’s brigade.

Polk continued to hammer away at Hazen, but Rosecrans kept pouring reinforcements into what the men began to call Hell’s Half-Acre.  By 1:00 p.m., Polk’s men were exhausted.  They could not load another bullet.  Bragg called for Breckinridge to send him four fresh brigades from across the river.

General Rosecrans and General Thomas continued to reinforce the Round Forest by bringing in every available piece of artillery.  By 4:00 p.m., the first two of Breckinridge’s brigades began moving across the river.  As the brigades came online, their commanders awaited the arrival of the remaining two brigades and General Polk’s orders.  Bragg was beside himself, urging Polk to launch another attack with what he had available.

The men of Breckinridge’s brigades marched smartly across a field now littered with hundreds of dead men from the earlier fight.  Newly arrived Union artillery quickly opened fire, blasting huge gaps in the advancing line, but the Kentuckians maintained their advance.  General Hazen ordered his infantry to fire when the Confederate line reached a range of only 50 yards.  The result was devastating.  Breckinridge’s men fell by the dozens, and the entire attacking line staggered to a halt, then broke to the rear amid a hail of rifle and artillery fire.  One Kentucky regiment lost 47 percent of its men within ten minutes — many other units suffered more than 30 percent casualties.

One might think that such horrendous casualties might have convinced Bragg of the futility of another attack, but he refused to change his mind.  When General Breckinridge’s other two brigades arrived, he ordered Polk to sacrifice them as well.  To more than a few of Bragg’s junior officers, the general was utterly insane.

By that time, Union artillery in the Round Forest numbered more than 50 guns, and as the rebels renewed their assault, Union gun crews fired as fast as they could reload.  The second Confederate attack met the same fate as its predecessor.  All that was proven was that the Kentucky men knew how to die.

At one point, General Rosecrans and his staff closed on the action in the forward edge of the battle area.  With him was Colonel Julius Garesché (his aide and his closest friend from his cadet days at West Point).  As the fighting raged in front of them, a solid shot from a Confederate cannon roared past within inches of the commanding general’s head.  As it flew by him, it hit Garesché in the face.  He was immediately decapitated, and his headless body stayed in the saddle for 20 paces before pitching off the horse to the ground.  Rosecrans rode on, his uniform covered with Garesché’s blood (completely unaware of what happened behind him).  Later, when he was told about his friend’s death, he quietly said, “Brave men die in battle.  Let us push on.”[4]  

The sound of battle faded with sunset.  The prominent sound on the battlefield was the moaning and crying of the dying, and the frigid night was filled with the yellow blur of lanterns floating on the open field as medics from both sides attended to the wounded and dying.

That night, General Rosecrans held a commanders’ meeting to discuss the plan for the next day.  The general asked his men if they should retreat.  Thomas answered for everyone, saying, “This army does not retreat.”

Bragg was flush with victory in the enemy camp, certain that Rosecrans would limp back to Nashville.  He sent an urgent telegram to President Davis touting his triumph.  “God has granted us a happy New Year.”  So convinced was Bragg of his victory that he went to bed that night without making a single adjustment to his battle line.  As far as he was concerned, the Battle of Stone’s River had been settled.

With the dawn of the New Year, Bragg was astounded by the sight of lines of blue-uniformed infantry.  When his generals came seeking their orders, Bragg appeared paralyzed and in shock.  His only tactical order that day was to order Breckinridge to re-occupy his original position across the river.  That night, Bragg walked in the fields looking for signs that Rosecrans was withdrawing.  He found none.

On the morning of 2 January 1863, Bragg ordered an artillery bombardment to see if Rosecrans would respond.  Rosecrans lobbed twice as much artillery back at Bragg.  After throwing a tantrum, Bragg decided to relocate his artillery to the point of high ground east of the river in front of General Breckinridge.  Doing so would allow Bragg to pour devastating fire into the Union’s left flank — which might drive Rosecrans out of his positions.   To facilitate this, Bragg ordered a reconnaissance of the area.  When his scouts returned, they told him that the high ground he wanted for his artillery was already in possession of a Union division.

Bragg decided to order Breckinridge to take the Union-held ridge and summoned the general to his headquarters.  When Breckinridge learned of his assignment, he reacted with deep anger.  His men could not possibly take such a strong position.  Displaying his deep dislike for Breckinridge, Bragg opined that since his Kentucky soldiers had suffered the least thus far and now it was their turn to prove their worthiness.  The by-now seething Breckinridge protested again.  Bragg angrily ordered him to carry out his orders.

When Breckinridge returned to his men and informed them of their mission, General Roger Hanson, commanding the Orphan Brigade, exploded in anger and informed Breckinridge that he had every intention of going to Braggs headquarters and “shooting that son of a bitch.”  Breckinridge prevailed upon Hanson to prepare his men for an attack.

At 3:00 p.m., as Breckinridge massed his men for the assault, Rosecrans observed the activity and sent reinforcements across the river.  Equally important, he also moved additional artillery onto the west bank of the river, where they could cover the Union defenders.  By the time Breckinridge began to move forward, Rosecrans had assembled 58 guns on the high ground facing east.  Breckinridge’s line of march would take him over 600 yards of open ground into the mauling teeth of a Union infantry division.

The Union defensive fires were overwhelming, but Breckinridge’s line never faltered.  They marched into the Union line, pushing the blue-bellies backward out of their positions.  Breckinridge had achieved the impossible, but instead of halting and consolidating a defensive position, they foolishly continued their assault.  It was a fatal mistake.

As soon as the retreating Union troops were out of the line of fire, the Union’s 58 artillery pieces west of the river opened fire on Breckinridge’s still advancing line.  The guns fired about one-hundred rounds a minute, and the Kentucky boys fell by the dozens, and within minutes, the entire flow of the battle had changed.  It was devastating to Breckinridge; General Hanson lay mortally wounded.

That night, amid another cold, driving rain, Bragg called a meeting of his subordinate commanders and principal staff.  After a discussion of raised voices, neither Bragg nor his subordinates could offer a plan of action — except to say that General Bragg no longer commanded a combat-effective army.  At 10:00 a.m., on 3 January 1863, Bragg ordered a withdrawal, ending the Battle of Stone’s River was over.

Afterward

Lincoln and the War Department hailed the fight as a significant victory for the Union; President Davis and General Bragg suffered defeat and embarrassment.  Bragg remained in command of the Army of Tennessee both because Davis could not stand the loss of face he would suffer if forced to dismiss Bragg and because there was simply no one to replace him.  Even so, Bragg and his subordinates continued to hate one another until Bragg was relieved of his command following the Union breakout at Chattanooga in November 1863.

Stones River was General Rosecrans’s career high point.  Lincoln ultimately fired him after the Battle of Chickamauga.  Success has many fathers — while failure is a bastard.

Sources:

  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.

Endnotes:

[1] Confederate cavalry was organized in different ways within various rebel theaters.  In the Army of Tennessee, the cavalry was organized as one corps under a lieutenant general.  The corps may consist of two to four cavalry divisions.  Each division included from three to four brigades.  Each brigade supported two to three regiments.  Each regiment had three to four battalions.    

[2] Evening tattoo is an evening call played by both the British and American armies.  Originally, the performance  was played on the snare drum and was known as “tap too.”  The name later applied to more elaborate military band performances, which are known as “military  tattoos.”

[3] Alexander McCook served as a temporary major general; his permanent rank in the Union army was captain.  He was no more qualified to serve as a general officer than Custer was to lead a mess wagon.

[4] No matter Rosecrans’ words he was deeply affected by his friend’s death.  After the battle, he carefully cut the buttons from his uniform and placed them in an envelope marked, “Buttons I wore the day Garesché was killed.”  He carried that envelope with him for the rest of his life. 


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in Civil War, Confederate States, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Tennessee, The Union. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Stones River Fight — Part 2

  1. Mustang, Sir! Did I mention I am a passionate American Civil War amateur historian? I haven’t written much on it, but am thrilled to find you have lent your pen here too! Thank you for drawing my attention to this! And Stones River! U.S. Regular, Sgt. Amos Fleagle went missing in action during the morning attack that swept through and rolled up the right flank. I think he was 18th U.S. Inf. but I’m not sure that is correct.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy says:

    An awesome and terrifying account of the Stones River battle. Seems that General Bragg’s pride greatly hampered his ability to lead. Bragg’s unwillingness to listen to his subordinates was crippling for his army. And his ridiculous placement and then piecemeal employment of Breckenridge’s forces was appalling.

    I look forward to the telling of more history like this.

    S/F

    Like

  3. A really thorough discussion of General Bragg is found in “Autumn of Glory; The Army of Tennessee 1862 – 1865”. Its the 2nd of two volumes by Thomas L. Connelly. A little dry, but you really get the sense of what a twisted, miserable man Bragg really was. Its also just a really good overview of the war in the West.

    Like

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