Battle of Stones River

Battle of Stones River
Date December 31, 1862 – January 2, 1863
Location Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Victor Union victory
United States (Union) Confederate States
Military Leaders
William Rosecrans Braxton Bragg
Military Units in Battle
Army of the Cumberland Army of Tennessee
Unit Strength
41,400 35,000
Casualties and Deaths
Total: 12,906 Total: 11,739
1,677 killed
7,543 wounded
3,686 captured/missing
1,294 killed
7,945 wounded
2,500 captured/missing
Part of the American Civil War

The Battle of Stones River was fought between December 31, 1862 and January 2, 1863. This battle was the culmination of the campaign in Middle Tennessee. The battle of Stones River was devastating for both sides and, of all the major Civil War battles, this had the highest percentage of casualties suffered.

Despite being an inconclusive battle that had a high number of casualties, the Confederate withdrawal and the troops’ survival against two Confederate attacks were a much-needed morale boost for the Union army after their recent defeat at Fredericksburg.

William S. Rosecran, Major General of the Union Army of the Cumberland, travelled with his Union troops on December 26th to challenge Braxton Bragg, a Confederate General, and the Army of Tennessee. Both commanders planned to execute manoeuvres that would attack their opponent’s right flank. Bragg struck first, attacking before breakfast on December 31st.

A massive assault, launched by Major General William Hardee and his corps was followed by an attack from Leonidas Polk. Together, they managed to overrun the Union wing commanded by Major General Alexander McCook. Brigadier General Philip Sheridan prevented this attack turning into a complete disaster for the Union army by providing a stout defensive line that repeatedly repulsed the attacking Confederates.

Most notably, they rebuffed assaults in the ‘Round Forest’ salient. Bragg attempted multiple assaults on the area, but Major General Breckinridge’s troops were slow to arrive to the Round Forest and their attacks failed every time.

After a break in the fighting and tending to the high number of wounded soldiers, Bragg ordered fighting to resume on January 2nd. Bragg ordered Breckinridge to attack the well-fortified Union troops based east of the Stones River. There, they were faced by an overwhelming number of artillery and the Confederates suffered heavy losses. By now, Bragg was aware that Rosecrans was getting reinforcements and chose to withdraw what was left of his troops on January 3rd.

Confederate Military Forces

On October 8th, 1862, General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Mississippi abandoned their Kentucky invasion and traveled to Harrodsburg, where Major General Kirby Smith and his army of 10,000 men joined him. Low on supplies and frustrated with the results of the current campaign, Bragg eventually stopped in Murfreesboro. Smith’s Army of Kentucky and Bragg’s Army of Mississippi joined forces and became renamed the Army of Tennessee. In Murfreesboro, Bragg took up a defensive position along Stones River.

On December 16th, Bragg sent the infantry division led by Major General Carter Stevenson to assist a campaign in Mississippi. This resulted in Bragg’s troop numbers being reduced by 7,500. What was left of Bragg’s army included two Corps – one led by Major General William Hardee that included three divisions, the other led by Major General Leonidas Polk.

Hardee’s troops included three infantry divisions led by Major Generals John Breckinridge, John McCown and Patrick Cleburne. Polk’s troops consisted of two infantry divisions led by Benjamin Cheatham and Jones Withers plus a cavalry division commanded by Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler.

Union Military Forces

Major General William Rosecrans, the recent victor of battles Corinth and Iuka, was assigned as the replacement for Major General Don Carlos Buell. Rosecrans and his XIV Corps (soon renamed the Army of Cumberland) traveled to Nashville and, once there, was ordered to move aggressively against the Confederate troops and occupy the eastern part of Tennessee.

Although the full army consisted of more than 81,700 soldiers, a little over half marched towards Murfreesboro, Nashville. Confederate cavalry successfully harrassed Rosecrans’ forces and delayed the Union’s movements. Rosecrans’ army was split into three wings: a left wing consisting of 14,500 men led by Major General Thomas Crittenden, right wing consisting of 16,000 men (including those led by Brigadier General Philip Sheridan) and the central wing of 13,500 men under the command of Major General George Henry Thomas. The cavalry unit, under Brigadier General David Stanley, was split between each of the three wings and preceeded each of the three Union troops.

December 29th – Plans for battle

On the evening of December 29th, Rosecrans and 2/3 of his army arrived in Murfreesboro. The original plan was to have engaged Hardee’s unit at Triune, but Bragg had ordered Hardee to return to Murfreesboro because he didn’t want to have a confrontation there.

Similarly to the first Battle of Bull Run, the commanders of both armies devised these tactics: attack the right, get to the rear and cut the opposing force off from their base. Since both commanders were using the same confrontation tactics, the victory would be likely to go to whoever managed to attack first. Rosecrans had ordered his men to attack after breakfast, while Bragg had ordered his to attack near dawn.

December 30th – First battle

On the first day of battle, the Confederate army launched their attack first. This was the 3rd major battle (Shiloh and Fort Donelson were the others) in which attacks launched in the early hours of the morning caught Union forces by surprise. In this first attack, Johnson’s division lost more than half its men.

Despite meeting resistance, Hardee was able to drive the Union troops back 3 miles by 10 am. At the Nashville Pike, Johnson was able to rally his troops in order to fend off a second wave of Confederate attacks led by Polk’s corps. Fortunately, for the Union forces, Major General Philip Sheridan had anticipated the early attack and his men were up and ready to fight at 4 am and played a major part in reinforcing the right flank of the Union army. In three separate charges, Sheridan and his men were able to hold off the attacking Confederate force.

By 11 am, Sheridan’s division was low on ammunition and pulled away from the right flank. Meanwhile, the left flank of the Union Army, positioned in a 2.5 miles wooded area called the Round Forest (later nicknamed Hell’s Half Acre), was repeatedly under attack. Both sides suffered enormous losses, and by 4:30 pm, the battle was over for the day.

January 2nd – Last major battle

After the capture of 3,000 Union soldiers and several guns, Bragg was feeling confident about winning the battle. On January 1st, Rosecrans ordered one of his divisions to occupy the nearby hills across the river – a place that enabled them to protect vital crossing sites and place a lot of crucial artillery. On January 2nd, at 4 pm, Bragg ordered troops to attack the division occupying the hills. This led to the Confederate army losing 1800 men in under an hour of fighting and stalled the attacks from the Confederates.

After failing to stop Rosecrans from receiving new supplies and reinforcements, Bragg and what was left of the Confederate army retreated to Tullahoma on the morning of January 3rd and no attempts were made to follow.

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