THE BATTLE OF STONES RIVER
General Braxton Bragg was a troubled man. In fewer than six months as
commander of the Army of the Mississippi, he had lost a major campaign
and earned the enmity of many of his principal lieutenants and troops.
As fall gave way to winter in 1862, a chill both real and psychological
settled over the Confederate heartland.
Bragg had taken command in June, when many believed the nadir of
Southern fortunes in the western theater already had been reached.
General Pierre G. T. Beauregard had abandoned Corinth, Mississippi, a
vital railroad junction town, and with it the northern portion of the
state. His withdrawal also opened the way to a Federal advance on
Chattanooga, gateway to the Deep South.
BRIGADIER GENERAL BRAXTON BRAGG (LC)|
At that moment, Bragg stepped in to take charge of the army, lying
dormant at Tupelo. He faced three challenges: reopen the Memphis and
Charleston Railroad, which pumped supplies to the Atlantic seaboard;
protect Chattanooga; and recapture at least a portion of Tennessee. As
the defense of Chattanooga was most urgent, Bragg transferred his army
there, countering an advance against it by Major General Don Carlos
Buell's Federal Army of the Ohio. Having secured Chattanooga, Bragg, in
a rare state of exuberance, met with Major General Edmund Kirby Smith,
commander of the Department of East Tennessee, on July 31 to fashion a
plan to push northward into Kentucky. A successful thrust into that
state, Bragg believed, not only would relieve pressure on the Deep
South, but would return much of Tennessee to the Confederacy.
On August 14, Kirby Smith struck out for Lexington, Kentucky, which
he captured with ease, and, as agreed upon, remained there to await
Bragg's entry into the state. Bragg left Chattanooga two weeks later.
Like Kirby Smith, he initially outgeneraled his opposition. General
Buell, incorrectly supposing Bragg's objective to be Nashville, lost
valuable time trying to protect the Tennessee capital. Meanwhile, on
September 17, Bragg captured Munfordville, Kentucky, effectively
interposing his army between Buell and Louisville.
A spirit of elation infused the Army of the Mississippi: many
believed the campaign all but won. Munfordville lay astride Buell's
only practical route to Louisville and was easily defensible. Everyone
in Bragg's army expected a battleand with it a decisive victory.
But for reasons that remain unclear, Bragg chose not to fight. He
ordered a withdrawal northeastward to Bardstown, opening the road to
Louisville. Buell was surprised, Kirby Smith "astonished and
disappointed," and Bragg's generals furious.
BATTLE OF MUNFORDVILLE AS SKETCHED BY HENRY LOVIE. (COURTESY OF MIRIAM
AND IRA D. WALLACH PRINT COLLECTION, NY PUBLIC LIBRARY)|
LIEUTENANT GENERAL NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST (LC)|
While Federal prospects brightened, Bragg grew morose. As the Army of
the Mississippi fell back on Bardstown to await the inevitable Union
advance, the campaign lost its purpose and direction. While Buell
prepared to move on Bardstown, Bragg left his army to confer with Kirby
Smith at Lexington.
Buell struck while Bragg was away, coming up against portions of the
Rebel army at Perryville on October 7. Bragg returned in time to direct
the next day's fight, which ended with his army having driven the
Federals back more than a mile.
But Bragg had enough. A dyspeptic martinet plagued by numerous
ailments who could plan well but lacked both the confidence of his
subordinates and the energy needed for sustained efforts, he was
unwilling to sacrifice his army in what he believed was a bankrupt
campaign and so fell back to organize a retreat from Kentucky.
Bragg really had been looking over his shoulder for some time. In
late September he had sent Nathan Bedford Forrest to secure the Middle
Tennessee town of Murfreesboro and the surrounding country from the
depreciations of Union foragers. And on October 14, just two days after
choosing to abandon Kentucky, Bragg ordered Major General John C.
Breckinridge's division there as well.
With these dispositions, Bragg decided to occupy Middle Tennessee.
Although he never explained them, Bragg's reasons for choosing this
course of action are apparent. As the initial objective of the Kentucky
campaign was simply to restore to Confederate control a portion of
Tennessee, Bragg could argue that, by securing its central counties, his
campaign had succeeded. As to the choice of Murfreesboro in particular,
lying as it did astride the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, it was
the key to the rich Stones River Valley and, in Bragg's mind, to the
equally fertile Duck and Elk river valleys. Bragg's change of base was
facilitated by Buell's unwillingness to risk another battle. Content
simply to see Bragg go, he allowed his prey to descend the Cumberland
Gap into East Tennessee unmolested.
LEONIDAS POLK (USAMHI)|
MAJOR GENERAL DON CARLOS BUELL (USAMHI)|
But Bragg was hardly out of trouble. While the army recuperated at
Knoxville, he boarded a train for Richmond, Virginia, on October 31 to
win presidential approval for his planned move into Middle Tennessee
and to clear himself of blame for the Kentucky fiasco.
That he would succeed on the latter count was by no means certain.
His two principal subordinates, corps commanders William J. Hardee and
Leonidas Polk, were urging President Jefferson Davis to dismiss him:
only a change of commanders, they argued, could save the army and
salvage Confederate fortunes in the West. Kirby Smith added his voice to
the call for Bragg's removal, as did influential members of the
Confederate Congress and the always vitriolic Southern press.
But Davis chose both to sustain his old friend and to approve his
request to occupy Middle Tennessee. Polk and Kirby Smith both came to
Richmond after Bragg to press their demand, but Davis gently rebuffed
them. Davis neither replaced Bragg nor transferred Polk and Hardee,
leaving the army to enter Middle Tennessee with a high command torn by
The Kentucky campaign elicited little enthusiasm in the North.
Although the state had been saved for the Union, many Northerners
considered the campaign a defeat, suggestingwith logic that would
have pleased Braggthat the Confederacy, by regaining control of
Northern Alabama and Middle Tennessee, had ended with more than it had
begun. The press labeled Bragg's retreat from Kentucky an escape and
laid the blame on Buell.
MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM STARKE ROSECRANS (LC)|
He was an easy mark. Unpopular with his troops, Buell had also lost
the confidence of President Lincoln, who was angry that Bragg had been
allowed to withdraw. On October 24, he relieved Buell, naming in his
place Major General William Starke Rosecrans.
Rosecrans joined the army at Bowling Green on October 30. The same
general order that brought Rosecrans to the army also changed its name.
The Army of the Ohio was now the Fourteenth Army Corps, composed of a
left wing, right wing, and center. (On January 9a week after
Stones Riverthe army was designated the Army of the Cumberland,
the name it would carry until the war's end.)
Although happy to be rid of Buell, the army was unsure what to make
of its eccentric new commander. A West Point graduate who had left the
service in 1853 to direct a Cincinnati coal company, Rosecrans brought
to the army many qualities of genius. He was erudite, animated, and
seemingly indefatigable. But he could also be indiscreet, intolerant,
and mercurial, with an impulsiveness that suggested instability under
pressure and a tendency to issue too many orders during combat.
Whatever his shortcomings, the army needed a commander with
Rosecrans's energy in the weeks following Perryville. The Kentucky
campaign had shattered morale, and Union communication and supply lines
were in a shambles. Marauding Rebel cavalry had ruined the railroad
between Louisville and Nashville, upon which the Federals depended both
for supplies from Louisville and communications with Nashville. More
threateningly, the presence of enemy troops on the outskirts of
Nashville gave rise to fears that the city itself might fall.
NASHVILLE LOOMS IN THE DISTANCE BEYOND THE CUMBERLAND RIVER.
Rosecrans quickly met the perceived though
illusorydanger, advancing the army to Nashville during the first
two weeks of November. Once settled into the Tennessee capital, he
turned his attention to the army's internal problems. He dismissed
incompetent officers by the score, looked to his soldiers' welfare, and
secured the appointment of the talented Brigadier General David Stanley
to command his inept and badly equipped cavalry. As morale improved,
Rosecrans concentrated on reorganizing the army. He structured its three
wings so as to approximate corps: The right and left wings each contained
three divisions of infantry and nine batteries of artillery; the center
contained five divisions and fourteen batteries. The right wing
mustered 15,832 present in early December, the left wing 14,308 and the
That the center was the largest command in the army and that Major
General George Thomas led it was no accident. Perhaps the most able
defensive general the war produced, the native Virginian enjoyed the
affection of his men and the deep respect of Rosecrans, who leaned
heavily on him for advice.
Sadly, Rosecrans's remaining wing commanders left much to be desired.
Major General Alexander McCook, who led the right wing, already had
proven incompetent, although much had been expected of the arrogant
former West Point instructor. Fellow blowhard Major General Thomas
Crittenden, a Kentuckian with potent political connections but little
military sense, commanded the left wing. Having inherited the two,
Rosecrans was reluctant to relieve them.
ROSECRANS AND STAFF (USAMHI)|
Lincoln appreciated Rosecrans's efforts in rejuvenating the Army of
the Cumberland but demanded more. As November drew to a close, the
administration began to pressure Rosecrans to advance before winter
forced an end to active campaigning. Their reasons were sound. The
fortunes of the Union, at least on the diplomatic front, were at their
nadir. Failure to conquer substantial amounts of Confederate territory,
or at least recapture lost ground, raised the specter of foreign
intervention on behalf of the South, particularly by Britain.
So now, in November, Washington prepared for a concerted drive by all
the major Union field armies. In Mississippi, Ulysses S. Grant made
ready an overland march against Jackson, supported by a demonstration
against Grenada by Major
General Samuel Curtis from eastern Arkansas. Grant hoped the capture
of Jackson would ensure the fall of Vicksburg. In Virginia, Major
General Ambrose Burnside moved the Army of the Potomac toward
Fredericksburg, placing General Robert E. Lee's communications with
Richmond in jeopardy. Lee hoped to receive reinforcements from the West.
They were not forthcoming, but the Lincoln administration recognized the
danger of a Southern interdepartmental troop transfer, although they
assumed Bragg would move into Mississippi against Grant, rather than
into western Virginia to relieve pressure on Lee. In any event, it
seemed imperative that Rosecrans keep him occupied.
MAJOR GENERAL JOHN C. BRECKENRIDGE (LC)|
Unbeknownst to the authorities in Washington, Bragg had no objective
beyond the occupation of Middle Tennessee, which he completed on
November 26. Nor, as winter approached, was he concerned about a Federal
offensive. Instead, he turned his attention to reorganizing his depleted
forces. He consolidated the Army of the Mississippi and Kirby Smith's
Army of Kentucky into the Army of Tennessee, the name it was to carry
for the rest of the war. Three corps of infantry were created, led by
Polk, Hardee, and Kirby Smith.
Polk's corps contained three divisions. Major General Benjamin
Franklin Cheatham, a hard drinker and a hard fighter who was immensely
popular with his troops, most of whom were fellow Tennesseans, commanded
the first. Major General Jones Withers, a West Point graduate turned
lawyer, led the second. Major General John C. Breckinridge commanded the
third division. The most influential division commander in the army, the
Kentuckian had been vice-president in the ill-starred Buchanan
administration. He and Bragg bad fallen out over Bragg's unwarranted
conviction that Breckinridge was somehow responsible for the failure of
the Kentucky campaign, even though he had been on duty in Mississippi
with his division when it began and had tried to join Bragg's army in
time to take part in it.
MAJOR GENERAL JOHN P. MCCOWN (LC)|
Lieutenant General William J. Hardee commanded Bragg's second corps.
An able lieutenant, Hardee was a professional soldier who had made a
name for himself before the war as author of the two-volume Rifle
and Light Infantry Tactics that came to be known simply as Hardee's
Tactics after being endorsed by the War Department.
Hardee profited from the services of two able division commanders.
Patrick Cleburne, an Irishman who had served in the British army before
immigrating to Arkansas, took command of the first in early December. A
born leader, he was held in high regard by both Hardee and Bragg.
Brigadier General Patton Anderson of Florida, one of Bragg's few allies
in the army, commanded the second division.
The remaining corps of the Army of Tennessee was composed of two
divisions that Kirby Smith had furnished Bragg led by Carter Stevenson
and John McCown, whom Bragg considered a misfit unworthy of command.
The cavalry also was reshuffled. Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler, a
twenty-five-year-old favorite of Bragg, was appointed chief of cavalry,
although there was little in his record to date, save loyalty to Bragg,
to merit such a promotion.
Bragg believed that the move into Middle Tennessee and reorganization
of the army was having a salutary effect. President Davis was
skeptical: too many reports of continued unrest within the officer corps
were reaching his office. Affairs outside of Tennessee disturbed him as
well. Cooperation in the West was at a minimum, coordinated action
nonexistent. While Bragg advanced into Middle Tennessee, Lieutenant
General John Pemberton was in peril of losing much of Mississippi,
including Vicksburg, to Grant's offensive. Pemberton turned to Bragg
(who as departmental commander was, on paper at least, his commander)
for reinforcements, but Bragg offered only words: he suggested that his
own move into Middle Tennessee might relieve pressure on Pemberton, to
the extent that it created a diversion in Grant's rear. Everyone
concerned but Bragg was upset. Bragg and Pemberton squabbled until November
24, when Davis intervened to unite the commands of Pemberton in
Mississippi and Bragg in Tennessee under General Joseph Johnston.
Johnston's responsibilities were as enormous as his resources were
limited. Davis expected him to coordinate the efforts of Bragg and
Pemberton so as to maintain control of the Mississippi River Valley. As
Tennessee was of secondary importance to Davis, he assumed that
Johnston would take from the Army of Tennessee such troops as might be
needed to save Vicksburg. But this Johnston declined to do, fearing that
Rosecrans would avail himself of the weakening of Bragg's army to march
unimpeded against Lee's flank in Virginia or to reinforce Grant; in
either case, he argued, Tennessee would be lost.
GENERAL JOSEPH E. JOHNSTON (LC)|
Johnston's arguments convinced Davis only that it was time for a
presidential trip to the West. He arrived at Murfreesboro on December
12. Conversations with Bragg's lieutenants convinced him that
Rosecrans's intentions were purely defensive and that a winter campaign
was unlikely. With his doubts about the wisdom of a Mississippi
Riverfirst strategy allayed, he ordered the reinforcement of
Pemberton with Carter Stevenson's seventy-five-hundred-man division and
a brigade from Henry Heth's division.
Stevenson's detachment prompted another reorganization of the army.
Kirby Smith's command, now reduced to McCown's division, was abolished.
McCown was attached to Hardee's corps, and Kirby Smith returned to East
Tennessee. As Breckinridge's division had been transferred to Hardee's
corps several days earlier, Anderson's division was disbanded and its
regiments divided between the two corps. But the detachment of Stevenson
did more than necessitate a reshuffling. It seriously weakened the army,
depriving it of one-sixth of its infantryinfantry that would be
sorely missed at Stones River.
In positioning his forces to cover the primary avenues leading to
Murfreesboro from Nashville, Bragg had scattered the Army of Tennessee
across a fifty-mile front, making rapid concentration problematical. But
this vulnerability did not trouble him or his generals, who with the
onset of winter became even more certain that Rosecrans would make camp
at Nashville until spring. Bragg was so sure of this that he sent Nathan
Bedford Forrest with two thousand cavalrymen into western Tennessee to
harass Grant and John Hunt Morgan with a similar force to strike deep
into Kentucky and wreck havoc on the Louisville and Nashville
BRAGG'S MURFREESBORO HOME. (LOSSING'S CIVIL WAR IN AMERICA)|
Sharing Bragg's conviction, his soldiers raised winter quarters
around Murfreesboro, the seat of Rutherford County. They found the town
a charming place in which to pass an idle winter. Thus far, it had
escaped the ravages of war. Murfreesboro's fine brick residences, clean
white fences, and oak- and elm-shaded streets were a pleasing contrast
to the destruction that already had visited many Southern towns. The
staunchly Confederate townspeople opened their homes to the troops, and
kitchen hearths turned out bread and cakes for the army.
As Christmas approached, Murfreesboro hosted a number of gatherings
that reinvigorated its languishing social life. Unusually clear skies
and mild temperatures helped to promote the festive spirit that pervaded
the normally strife-ridden Army of Tennessee. By Christmas eve the
skies had become overcast, but the temperature still hovered above
normal. That night, officers of the First and Second Louisiana
entertained the single women of Murfreesboro with a lavish ball at the
courthouse. "It was a magnificent affair," remembered a member of
Bragg's escort. Four large "Bs" of cedar and evergreensignifying
Bragg, Beauregard, Buckner, and Breckinridgeadorned the walls.
While their officers danced and drank, the men in ranks passed the
holiday simply, but not necessarily more quietly. Gambling and cock
fights were common, and liquor flowed freely in the camps as well.
At Nashville, where the candles burned deep into the night at
departmental headquarters, the Yuletide bore a more somber aspect. After
weeks of threats from Washington, Rosecrans had agreed to move. He
correctly deduced that Bragg, not expecting an offensive before spring,
had gone into winter quarters around Murfreesboro after sending much of
his cavalry away. As Rosecrans later explained, "In the absence of these
forces, and with adequate supplies in Nashville, the moment was judged
opportune for an advance."
MORGAN'S WEDDING BY JOHN PAUL STRAIN. THIS PAINTING ILLUSTRATES
ONE OF THE MANY SOCIAL EVENTS IN MURFREESBORO AROUND THE HOLIDAYS.
(COURTESY OF NEWMARK PUBLISHING, LOUISVILLE, KY)|
The moment was not only opportune, it was imperative. Burnside had
been repulsed at Fredericksburg, and William T. Sherman, floundering
about in Chickasaw Bayou above Vicksburg, was about to meet a like fate.
With one army routed and the progress of the other checked, the
administration focused all its dwindling hopes for a victory before the
new year on the Army of the Cumberland.
With so much riding on his offensive, Rosecrans needed sound tactics
and good intelligence. His scouts and spies failed him the latter, and
he formed his plans on the incorrect assumption that Bragg would
organize his defense around Stewart's Creek, a narrow, steep-banked
stream that flowed under both the macadamized Murfreesboro Pike
(Nashville Turnpike) and the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad before
joining Stones River 15 miles northwest of Murfreesboro.
Rosecrans presented his gathered lieutenants with the plan that he
and Thomas had fashioned. The army was to move at first light along
three routes toward three separate objectives, that of the right wing
being most distant. McCook would march along the Nolensville Pike to
Triune, 28 miles away, where Rosecrans erroneously placed the majority
of Hardee's corps. Meanwhile, Thomas would march within supporting
distance of McCook's right along the Franklin and Wilson pikes,
threatening Hardee's left as he moved, then turn east onto the Old
Liberty road and march to Nolensville, 13 miles north of Triune.
Rosecrans assigned Crittenden the direct route to Murfreesboro,
instructing him to move along the Murfreesboro Pike as far as La Vergne.
Stanley divided his cavalry into three columns to screen the infantry:
Colonel John Kennett was to precede Crittenden along the Murfreesboro
Pike; Colonel Lewis Zahm's troopers were to ride ahead of Thomas,
dislodge a battalion of Rebel cavalry at Franklin, and then move
parallel to and protect the right flank of McCook; Stanley would retain
command of his two-regiment reserve and screen the movement of the right
wing along the Nolensville Pike.
BRAGG'S MURFREESBORO HEADQUARTERS. (LOSSING'S CIVIL WAR AMERICA)|
Rosecrans had originally scheduled the movement for December 24, only
to postpone it for a lack of forage. However, one unit did move that
day. Brigadier General James Negley's division from the center advanced
eight miles to Brentwood, secured it, then pushed unopposed another
three miles down the Wilson and Franklin pikes before bivouacking.
This activity did not go unnoticed at Murfreesboro. By Christmas
night it was evident that some sort of Federal movement was imminent.
Satisfied with his dispositions, Bragg took no action, and nightfall
found the army aligned as it had been since the first week of December.
Polk's corps and three brigades of Breckinridge's division rested in
winter quarters around Murfreesboro. At his headquarters near
Eagleville, Hardee had with him the division of Pat Cleburne and
Brigadier General Dan Adams's brigade on detached service from
Breckinridge's division. Brigadier General S. A. N. Wood's small brigade
remained at Triune, providing infantry support to the cavalry operating
in the area. Brigadier General George Maney's Tennessee brigade had been
detached from Polk's corps for similar duty along Stewart's Creek, as
was Colonel J. Q. Loomis's brigade near Las Casas. The cavalry was
spread across the entire army front; all approaches were screened to
within ten miles of Nashville. On the left, Brigadier General John
Wharton had picket lines extended southwest across the Old Liberty road
from Nolensville to Franklin. To his right, Wheeler's brigade,
bivouacked along Stewart's Creek astride the Murfreesboro Pike, covered
the direct approaches to Murfreesboro. John Pegram patrolled the army's
right flank northwest of town, screening the approaches from
As Christmas drew to a close, patrols from the three Southern cavalry
brigades sat quietly among the dark cedar glades along the road leading
from Nashville, alert to any indication of movement. They would not have
long to wait.